Taylor died of cancer Monday in San Diego, according to his brother, Le-Chein.
Taylor was a consummate mediator, whose years as a Crip gave him credibility and insight into problems that had divided the community and law enforcement into warring camps.
When the Los Angeles County jails were roiled by race riots five years ago, Taylor quickly assembled the gang leaders responsible for the violence and persuaded them to call off the fighting that left dozens injured.
“It was an unprecedented program in county jails,” Sheriff Lee Baca said Tuesday, because it relied on the counsel of a man who had once been firmly on the other side of the law.
The classes were demanding, Baca said, but “Bo knew how to change lives for the better. He did it very well.”
His organization received major funding from A Better L.A., a group founded by USC football coach Pete Carroll to empower communities to address urban violence.
Taylor took Carroll to some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods to help him understand the origins of gang problems.
“We floundered around until we met Bo,” Carroll said Tuesday. “He gave us inroads. He showed that only people with the community in their soul were the ones who could be effective.”
Taylor was born in Memphis, Tenn., on Jan. 20, 1966, and moved to Los Angeles when he was about 5. When he was 14, he became a Crip.
He graduated from Los Angeles High School and at 18 joined the Navy. After four years, he was honorably discharged and returned to the city but drifted back into criminal life when he could not find a job. Involved in drug trafficking, he recalled being shot at seven times in one month in the same phone booth.
After repeatedly dodging death, he had a spiritual awakening and decided to change course. He figured he had attended 200 funerals of victims of street violence and, as he told National Public Radio last year, he “couldn’t cry no more.”
He formed Unity One to talk to warring sets of gang members and persuade them to lay down their guns. Sometimes, he did more than talk, physically throwing himself between rival gang members reaching for their guns.
His overall approach was humanistic. “I don’t even like to stereotype and say ‘gang members.’ I say they’re disenfranchised youth,” he told NPR. “They don’t really have all the tools to make the right decisions that’s necessary in today’s society, and they don’t fully understand the system.”
Gang members listened because he had a “license to operate,” earned in his past life on the path they still walked. “Bo would tell his personal story of being a former gang member who would not let gang life trap him into a sense of hopelessness and despair,” said Najee Ali, an activist who has worked to reduce crimes between blacks and Latinos. “And he talked about working hard and not making excuses.”
Connie Rice, a civil rights activist and attorney, once described Taylor as the Dr. Phil of gang intervention, but he proved to be as adept at navigating the corridors of officialdom as he was wise to the streets.
“He was extraordinary,” said Rice, who knew Taylor for 17 years.
“You don’t find many in the gang-intervention world who can be effective in the street, effective in the courtroom, effective at City Hall and effective in the prisons. . . . He could calm everyone down and make us work together.”
He was one of the first voices and perhaps the most influential from the gang intervention side to advocate cooperating with law enforcement to quell the tide of street killings, a position that raised eyebrows among other gang interventionists.
“He helped bridge that divide by setting the example of partnership,” Ali said, “a new paradigm of leadership where now it is commonplace for us to meet with Sheriff Baca, Chief Bratton and other members of law enforcement. That is one of the most important things about his legacy.”
In 2007, Taylor began hosting a midnight-to-2 a.m. call-in show on what was then KRBV-FM (100.3), which became a popular forum to discuss the causes and consequences of gang activity.
The callers included gang members, police officers and victims of gang violence. It was described as part therapy session and part community hotline. It ended when the station adopted a new format.
Eight months ago he was diagnosed with a rare cancer that attacks the tissues of the mouth. It spread to his neck and head, but he insisted on fighting it in his own way, resisting traditional medicine to seek treatment in Tijuana. He died en route to a clinic there.
A funeral service for Taylor, who is survived by four children, will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at City of Refuge Church, 14527 S. San Pedro St. in Gardena. Memorial donations may be sent to Unity One Foundation Inc., 3990 S. Menlo Ave., Los Angeles 90037.