white guy in street clothes had to be an undercover cop, hence a man with a gun and a license to kill. Such were not attacked, Donaldson observed.
Returning to the story told by Lonnie Hayes, what was the threatened young man supposed to do? Lonnie did not answer that directly, but rather offered another story of challenge, to which he proposed two possible responses. “If you decide to take him out, you have to do it right, because if you fuck up, he’ll kill you. You come up on him real fast with your head down and your hands in your pockets. Or you get your crew. That’s why you need a crew. That’s how you act when you live around here, and that is why so many brothers are in jail.”90
In general, these kinds of challenges lead to “beef.” East New York was often described as a tense, hostile atmosphere, in which people always had beef with each other. It is therefore critically important to investigate this term. In fact, one police officer we interviewed, aware that this report would go to Congress, suggested that, if Congress wanted to understand East New York, they should focus on beef.91
Beef is a term for interpersonal problems that are at a boiling point. Beef can start over any apparent mistreatment, including a wrong look, a disrespectful action, or a move into personal space. Handling beef was all-important as it contributed to the establishment of reputation, as suggested by Lonnie Hayes. Some aspects of beef had characterized rough Brooklyn neighborhoods for many generations: the critical difference in East New York, in 1991–1992, was that easy access to weapons meant that it was easy for the common thug to settle scores in a manner once reserved for major gangsters.
“Having beef,” and responses required to that state, were truly a matter of life and death for Brooklyn teenagers at that time. We may infer that, for Jason and Khalil, their respective beefs had the weight of the world attached to them: they must have because they were so desperate to resolve the situations in which they found themselves.
Two major rules in the vocabulary of violence can be discerned. First, a challenge had to be answered. There was really no getting around that fact. One young man told us, “I know it’s a cliché and all, but where I come from there is no such thing as turn the other cheek. You gotta settle it right there and then. They’ll come back with their friends. You have to assert yourself.”92 One interviewee told us his brothers would beat him all the time to make him tough.93
The corollary to rule one was that avoiding confrontation or resolving it with subtle maneuvers was possible, even advisable. An interviewee