It starts with a question.
Where you from, cuz?
As a friend of gangbangers — people who participate in gang-related activities — and as a resident of Inglewood, Calif., this isn’t Jeffrey Coprich Jr.’s first time hearing this. By now, he knows how to answer.
We don’t bang.
But the hothead in him talks back. This doesn’t sit well with the men in the car who posed the question. They snatch his phone. A fight breaks out.
“I know they had guns in the car,” Coprich Jr. says. “They easily could have pulled it out on me and my friends. I’ve just been lucky enough.”
The scuffle ends without incident, but Coprich Jr. knows it’s not over. Maybe in a normal world, but not in Inglewood.
“Long story short, it’s a small world,” Coprich Jr. says. “You’re going to see the dudes again.”
On his third birthday in 1996, the van carrying him and his family to Las Vegas blows a tire. The vehicle tumbles. His dad is thrown from the driver’s seat, injuring his head on the pavement. His mom is airlifted to the nearest hospital to be treated for severe burns. Coprich Jr. winds up below the dashboard, at his mother’s feet, alive. But his older sister and cousin don’t make it.
Seventeen years later, he thinks of his sister as his saving grace. She’s why the gun was never pulled on him.
“I think my sister was with me,” Coprich Jr. says. “I had an angel there with me. I got my angel behind me all the time.”
In Inglewood, angels are needed. Situated roughly 25 minutes southwest of Los Angeles, it’s the site of 131 documented homicides since 2007, according to the LA Times.
“You’re surrounded by gangs and surrounded by bad news,” says Jeffrey Coprich Sr. “Every other day, there was a shooting or a killing. You just pray everyday it’s not one of yours.”
Coprich Jr. survives, but in a span of just four years, he loses 12 of his closest friends. On July 18 of 2009, Stinson Brown, a friend Coprich Jr. identifies as his brother, is walking a young lady to her car from a party at what is commonly known as the “Jungles” — a series of apartments in the Crenshaw District. There, Brown is approached by gangbangers.
Where you from, cuz?
Brown is shot in the arm and the lower back.
“My dad called me, and I could tell something was wrong. I could hear it in his voice,” Coprich Jr. says. “I was like, ‘What’s wrong, Dad?’ And he told me Stinson was killed. I was in shock. I instantly broke down. I could have been right there with him.”
Prior to the party, he asks his dad if he can go with Brown. But Coprich Sr. doesn’t let him, because he knows the Jungles.
“I think about how fortunate he is to be alive all the time. I think about the places he could have been, the people he could have been with,” Coprich Sr. says. “I would say, ‘No, you’re not going, you’re staying home.’ He could have ended up in jail, a hospital, or he could have ended up dead in a morgue.”
But at the time, Coprich Jr. doesn’t always agree with his dad. According to Coprich Sr., his son always wants to be down in the hood.
As a middle-schooler, Coprich Jr. is approached almost every day. Despite this, he never falls into the trap of gangbanging like so many of his friends.
“He knew what was right and what was wrong,” Coprich Sr. says. “I told him, ‘If you ever go to jail, you will never have to worry about me ever coming to see you.’ I just didn’t tolerate that. He could have easily been a gang member, but he chose a different route.”
His son chalks it up to good fatherhood. Many of Coprich Jr.’s friends don’t have fathers in their lives. So they turn to gang life to find their father figures. If not for his dad, Coprich Jr. insists he’d be gangbanging right now.
“My dad was in my life,” Coprich Jr. says. “It’s as simple as that. My dad pretty much explained to me how important I was as his child, given the fact that we went through so much years back. I was his only reason to be alive.”
In 2008, Coprich Sr. decides he wants something better for his son. He grew up in Watts, 10 miles away from Inglewood. A tragic accident robbed him of his daughter, and at any moment he could be on the cusp of losing his son. So he moves with Coprich Jr. and his current wife to Valencia, where Coprich Jr. doesn’t have to worry about gangbanging when he walks down the block.
“I believe if he would have stayed over there, he would be just like any other statistic that you read about it in your everyday paper,” Coprich Sr. says. “He had to see there was more to life than the hood. I believe deep in his heart, he wanted to escape.”
Now a freshman running back on the Cal football team, Coprich Jr. is nearly 400 miles from Inglewood. But his connection to home remains strong. The Essence K. Coprich Book Club that he founds in honor of his sister offers him a chance to go back to his roots and help those who are going through the same issues he went through.
It’s in Berkeley that he talks about these issues for the first time — about the car crash, the gangbanging, the killings. After years of bottling it up, Coprich Jr. no longer can.
“He was holding it all in up until now — he’s releasing it,” Coprich Sr. says. “He’s telling his story.”
It ends with his escape.