These days, Chris Bowers wakes up every morning to a vivid reminder that crossing borders can get you killed in South LA’s Harbor Gateway area. Just outside the fence in front of his rented stucco house on Harvard Boulevard is a silver scooter, an assortment of dried flowers and a dozen candles bearing religious messages written in Spanish and English–a makeshift memorial to Cheryl Green, the 14-year-old whose murder last December by members of the 204th Street Gang sparked accusations of Latino “ethnic cleansing” of African-Americans. “There were two of them,” says Bowers, a 22-year-old college student and high school football coach. “They came up and shot off one shot. They looked confused, and then shot off the rest of the rounds.” Jonathan Fajardo, 18, and Ernesto Alcarez, 20, members of 204th Street, have been charged with gunning down Green as she stood with her scooter talking to friends. Police say they had been seeking a black person to kill.
After greeting a friend who drives by in a beat-up suburban, Bowers, whose dreads and ready smile give him a Marleyesque air, looks south and says, “From 207th down, blacks and Latinos get along; people drink beer together, kids skate and play with other kids. You see black and Latino interracial kids. People kick it together. It’s a real community.”
Then he looks up the street toward the ramshackle Del Amo Market–one of the few stores on the twelve-block strip that is Harbor Gateway–an establishment that 204th Streeters forbid black people to enter. “But over there, that way, no,” he says. “You don’t really see many black people over there.”
Though he gets along with most people on either side of the invisible line and has a Latina girlfriend, Bowers himself must be vigilant of those policing the racial borders up the street. “Even I don’t go to the store,” he says, “’cause I might get shot.”
Bowers and most African-Americans and Latinos living in Harbor Gateway and other poor neighborhoods that are home to LA’s 700 gangs and 40,000 gang members–the largest concentration of gangs in the world–increasingly find themselves trapped as unwilling gladiators in a zero-sum, black-versus-brown game, one broadcast as if it were a sporting event.
In these graffiti-filled, job-emptied neighborhoods, and in the media, receptivity to simplistic race war rhetoric appears to grow in direct proportion to the speed and intensity with which globalization, migration and economic dislocation remake the City of Angels. The rise of Latino power in LA, most recently displayed in the electoral victory of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2005 and last year’s 2 million-strong immigrant rights march downtown, has taken place just as the once-powerful African-American community has watched its numbers and influence rapidly dwindle. (LA’s 428,000 African-Americans now account for less than 11 percent of the city’s population.) In the minds of some African-Americans, Latinos, especially poor immigrants, have replaced white racism as the primary cause of the disappearance of LA’s robust black middle class in once-great black suburbs like Compton, built on a foundation of industrial and government jobs and reflected in the election of black officials like Mayor Tom Bradley. Since the end of the Bradley era, after the ’92 riots announced that everything and nothing had changed in black LA, many explanations for black displacement have arisen–some of which cast the ascendant Latino majority in a role formerly reserved for whites who fought the rise of black power.
“Latinos who happen to be gang members are trying to push African-Americans out of that [Harbor Gateway] area,” says the Rev. Eric Lee, president of the LA office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as he sits at a desk flanked by portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. “This is more dangerous than what the Ku Klux Klan was doing. More dangerous because it’s coming from people in the same socioeconomic situation. The Harbor Gateway killings were based on racial, not gang-on-gang, violence.”