In 2003, an FBI-led task force known as Operation Fly Trap attempted to dismantle a significant drug network in two Bloods-controlled, African American neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The operation would soon be considered an enormous success, noted for the precision with which the task force targeted and removed gang members otherwise entrenched in larger communities. In Operation Fly Trap, Susan A. Phillips questions both the success of this operation and the methods used to conduct it. Based on in-depth ethnographic research with Fly Trap participants, Phillips’s work brings together police narratives, crime statistics, gang cultural histories, and extensive public policy analysis to examine the relationship between state persecution and the genesis of violent social systems.
Crucial to Phillips’s contribution is the presentation of the voices and perspectives of both the people living in impoverished communities and the agents that police them. Phillips positions law enforcement surveillance and suppression as a critical point of contact between citizen and state. She tracks the bureaucratic workings of police and FBI agencies and the language, ideologies, and methods that prevail within them, and shows how gangs have adapted, seeking out new locations, learning to operate without hierarchies, and moving their activities more deeply underground. Additionally, she shows how the targeted efforts of task forces such as Fly Trap wreak sweeping, sustained damage on family members and the community at large. Balancing her roles as even-handed reporter and public scholar, Phillips presents multiple flaws within the US criminal justice system and builds a powerful argument that many law enforcement policies in fact nurture, rather than prevent, violence in American society.
Susan A. Phillips is assistant professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She is the author of Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A., also published by the University of Chicago Press.
“I thoroughly enjoyed reading Operation Fly Trap. The dramatis personae are treated as human beings, and the reader gets a chance to look at them in the flesh: loving, betrayed, strung out, anxious, and more. The book marries the real conditions of poverty, racism, and war with the day-to-day lives of victims and offenders. This is first-class ethnography.”
-John Hagedorn, University of Illinois at Chicago
“In this fascinating and powerfully compelling book, ethnographer Susan A. Phillips goes behind the lines in the war on drugs to explore its everyday effects. Through remarkably frank, honest, and self-reflective testimonies, both police officers and their targets reveal the enormous disorder created by policies designed to promote order. Operation Fly Trap humanizes and personalizes the social disintegration unwittingly promoted by drug criminalization and mass incarceration, revealing in vivid and memorable detail how aggressive policing and punitive sentencing unwittingly produce the very problems they purport to prevent.”
-George Lipsitz, author of How Racism Takes Place
“Susan A. Phillips’ book should be required reading for every proponent of the wars on drugs and gangs who may be entertaining second thoughts at what they have wrought. She illuminates evidence that the wars may be self-justifying and self-perpetuating. The blunt questions are whether turning under-valued human beings into ‘high-value targets’ for police and prosecutors only creates a vacuum to be filled by vengeance, and whether demonizing only assures the further rise of demons.”
-Tom Hayden, author of The Long Sixties