The HBO America Undercover documentary “Latin Kings: A Street Gang Story” unnerved and saddened me in a way I thought not possible. Emmy award-winning director Jon Alpert followed the life of Antonio “King Tone” Fernandez, former leader (or “Inca”) of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation (or “Latin Kings”).
The Latin Kings were one of New York City’s largest and most violent gangs until King Tone took over in 1996. During his three-year reign (that’s six years in gang years), King Tone attempted to turn the group in a socially-conscious organization instead of a violent street gang. Unfortunately, King Tone became part of penny-anny drug deal and the three-strike law got him. King Tone was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison (10 years for good behavior).
Now, I’m not about to extoll the virtues of street gangs. I heard of the Latin Kings in New York in the mid-80s and they were devastingly destructive. But I want to focus on the leader: Supreme Inca King Tone.
King Tone is a natural-leader. Full of charisma and a genuine love of his Puerto Rican people, folks just gravitate to him. I talked to a uncle of mine who is a police officer in the Bushwick section of New York City. He admitted that during King Tone’s reign, crimes by the Latin Kings diminished substantially. He even saw some of their rallies and was impressed by the behavior of all those in attendance. “King Tone had Martin Luther King-like oratory skills”, says my uncle, “He had my fellow officers and I believing that things were turning around forever.” But looking at the documentary, you see that King Tone was poor. He has to support his girlfriend Myrna and two children. So when I saw the film of him participating in a drug deal, I wasn’t shocked. What shocked me was how fully he owned up to the crime, how he accepted his jail time, and he did it with class and dignity.
Whoa! It is commonly believed that King Tone went to jail to cover for other crimes by Latin Kings. Regardless, this 30-year old Puerto Rican man believed in his cause but was weak in the end. When he went to jail, the Latin Kings degenerated into numerous violent gangs and you know that story. All the while I’m thinking: couldn’t the cops and district attorney use a man like King Tone?
King Tone at least kept almost 7000 young men and woman from violent crime. He had the ear of the Puerto Rican community. Even other gangs respect him. Why couldn’t we be somewhat flexible with King Tone instead of sending him away and watching that community fracture. Couldn’t he have been sat in a room, told that he’s being put on 20 years probation, and given an office at a community center. And if he strayed, life imprisonment? I think King Tone would have gone along with that. And wouldn’t the cops and DA benefit from that? I know the D.A. called him all kinds of names, but the evidence just doesn’t fly. This King Tone was a community leader. One that could have grown into more. But we just see criminal and jail time. And we’re so intelligent about crime?
So right now, King Tone sits in prison, as he says, “reading a book every two days” and being a model prisoner, while New York fights the violent factions of the leaderless Latin Kings. Just seems like a wasted chance.