The Smog of Race War in LA

The Smog of Race War in LA

Battles between the city’s black and Latino gangs are the outcome of a dismal racial and economic situation.


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.”

Lee refers approvingly to one of the more controversial pieces about the Green killing, a January op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Tanya Hernandez, a law professor at Rutgers University. Hernandez’s commentary links the murder to anti-black racism imported by immigrants from Latin America. Her claim that the murder is “a manifestation of an increasingly common trend: Latino ethnic cleansing of African Americans from multiracial neighborhoods” has become a clarion call for many local African-American leaders and has been widely circulated through African-American websites, blogs and newspapers.

Minutemen and anti-immigrant websites like VDare seized on this narrative for their own purposes, denouncing the racism of the Green murder with claims like, “Many Hispanic gang-bangers are illegal aliens. Increasingly, Hispanic gang members kill random blacks to drive them out of the area–ethnic cleansing.” (Black Minuteman Ted Hayes has announced a March 25 rally in downtown LA to “stop ethnic cleansing of US black citizens by illegal aliens.”) Conservative think tanks such as David Horowitz’s Freedom Center then intellectualized the hysteria–as did some of their progressive counterparts. A front-page story in the Intelligence Report, a publication of the anti-racist Southern Poverty Law Center, sounded the alarm that blacks were becoming a besieged minority amid LA’s ethnic strife. The article described a “sort of gang-life fatwah” that “amounts to a standing authorization for Latino gang members to prove their mettle by terrorizing or even murdering any blacks sighted in a neighborhood claimed by a gang loyal to the Mexican Mafia.”

Some of these narratives may not have intended to exacerbate racial tensions, but lobbing terms like “ethnic cleansing” into LA’s racial landscape has proven neither accurate nor useful. Their intensity may have helped provoke interracial fights in public schools in the wake of Green’s murder (human relations officials were deployed to quell conflicts), and they have certainly eclipsed discussion of the less spectacular drivers of racial tension and the rapid growth in gangs.

Rather than deal with gangs and racial tensions comprehensively, as an expression of overcrowded schools, unemployment and the utter failure of urban development policies in pre- and post-riot South LA, the preferred approach here has been “suppression.” Most resources for addressing gang violence go not to drug prevention, counseling and job development but toward surveillance, armed sweeps, mass arrests for minor offenses and the criminalization of everything perceived as gang-related, from graffiti to tattoos. This punitive approach is reinforced by gang injunctions and laws facilitating increased incarceration. Gangs and racial tensions provide the LAPD with a raison d’être, an opportunity to redeem itself as an army of good soldiers in a “war” on gangbanger “superpredators” dividing and terrorizing communities.

Police Chief William Bratton marched into his new job in 2002 calling for a “war on gangs” and gang “terrorists.” After drawing fire from community groups, Bratton tamped down his language, but his policies have been impervious to important insights like those offered in a just-released evaluation of the city’s antigang efforts, funded by the City Council. Led by eminent civil rights attorney Connie Rice of the Advancement Project, the study examined the role of twelve city departments, from police to social services, and concluded, “After a quarter century of a multi-billion-dollar war on gangs [$80 billion, according to Rice], there are six times as many gangs and at least double the number of gang members in the region.” The report calls for a major overhaul of gang policy that balances suppression with a more comprehensive program that includes appointment of a “gang czar” and unprecedented funding increases for cash-starved prevention and intervention programs.

Bratton has seized on recent racial incidents as an excuse to resurrect his gangs-as-terrorists frame and legitimize the LAPD’s militaristic suppression strategies. Following a February 7 keynote address at an international conference on gangs, he announced a “new” gang strategy. But it seemed strangely familiar: “abatement” of the 204th Street Gang and creation of a “most wanted” gang member list. Bratton rallied his audience of law-enforcement leaders by declaring that “the capabilities and abilities of the gangbangers and gangs is every bit as destructive to democracy and our way of life as the global and national terrorism that we’re experiencing.”

When applied to black-Latino relations, the hyperbolic talk of “ethnic cleansing” and “terrorism” sounds a dissonant chord among the actual residents of Harbor Gateway, like Green’s mother, Charlene Lovett. Sitting in the kitchen of her apartment, in front of a large picture of a smiling Cheryl and a colorful sign with the word Friendship atop dozens of signatures of her daughter’s Latino, Samoan and African-American friends, Lovett says that truth has become another casualty, singling out one CNN story for its agonizing inaccuracy. “It enrages me to see how the reporter made it into a ‘gang on gang’ story, that Latinos are striving to be better than black people in the area. That didn’t have anything to do with what actually happened. My daughter was not part of any gang.” After pausing to regain her composure, Lovett adds, “If anyone is targeting black people it’s the gangs, not all Latinos. We get along, but you don’t see them reporting that.” Since losing her daughter, Lovett has attended peace rallies with Latinas like Beatriz Villa, who only days before the Green murder lost her brother-in-law, Arturo Ponce, to what witnesses say was a black gunman who yelled an anti-Mexican epithet.

Arturo Ybarra, director of South LA-based Watts Century Latino Organization (WCLO), points out another misapprehension. “I’ve been there talking with those gangs [in Harbor Gateway],” he says. “They’re not immigrants. They’re not Mexicans. Most of the members are not even the children or the children of children of immigrants. They’re mostly a Chicano gang. It’s absurd how people start making the connection between the [Green] killing and saying that immigrants are stealing jobs and want to kill African-Americans.”

Facts on the sidewalk tell an even more granular story. African-Americans in certain neighborhoods have become the targets of some gangs. But the Green and Ponce murders turn out to be isolated incidents in a county of 10 million. Police reports and county records indicate that between 2002 and 2005 only one African-American was killed by a Latino in what authorities identified as a racially motivated incident. (There was also the attempted murder of some Latinos by African-Americans.) There were no racially motivated murders at all in 2004 or 2005. That Southern Poverty Law Center article detailing the “racist terror campaign” afflicting black residents of LA’s Highland Park actually centers on a crime that took place in 2000.

Lost in it all is a sad but fundamental fact of life in poor Los Angeles: Most violent crimes, most murders, most attempted murders, most gang killings are intraracial. In one of the most comprehensive studies of LA homicides to date, University of California, Irvine, researcher George Tita tracked 500 killings that occurred between 1999 and 2004 in the 77th Precinct, which covers an area north of Harbor Gateway and Watts and is one of most violent precincts in the county. He found that 94 percent of African-Americans were killed by other African-Americans and 77 percent of Latinos there were killed by other Latinos. Tita says there is a recent “uptick” in racially motivated killings, “but it makes absolutely no sense to ignore all the other homicides because of these rare events.”

Analyzing this violence through the lens of racism is useful as long as it doesn’t blot out another crucial factor: the economic strip-mining of greater LA. Most of the bloodletting takes place in a dead sea of empty lots created by the deindustrialization of South LA, which lost 70,000 jobs between the Watts and Rodney King riots, years that also saw the explosion of gangs–and gang suppression units. Though the Harbor Gateway murder took place in the shadows of the steel cranes looming over the harbor’s gargantuan ports, people prefer to talk about bullets and blood instead of jobs and globalization. The ports generate half a million jobs, but few young people in South LA can get them. One Harbor Gateway resident told me that his neighbors view the port as a “gated community,” where “you have to know somebody to get in.”

Instead, many of the young African-Americans and Latinos swept up by the LAPD (450,000 minors have been arrested over the past ten years) will likely only see the port from jail cells, like those of the gigantic new Harbor police station being constructed across the street. In this area surrounded by miles of streets bereft of parks and social service organizations, the jail is what passes for community development.

“Gangs grow in low-income areas where there’s no support for family and community,” says Alex Sanchez, a former gang member who now directs Homies Unidos, a gang-violence-prevention project that works with youth in South LA. “Most gangs come from disenfranchised communities, and these communities have lacked resources they need for a long time–recreation centers, parks, entertainment, an educational system, good housing, good-paying jobs. Some parents have two or three jobs and can’t give attention to their kids. Gangs fulfill the need for respect, attention, being taken into account, camaraderia.”

Sanchez, who has helped broker gang truces and has received numerous awards for promoting racial harmony between blacks and Latinos, is walking, talking and protesting testimony to the fact that, under the right conditions and with sufficient resources, there are alternatives to gang life and the racial tensions it fosters. But he too has run up against the LAPD’s great wall of suppression. In 1999 and 2000, LAPD antigang units surveilled, raided, arrested under false pretenses and beat up Sanchez and other members of Homies Unidos. These attacks were later detailed in reports about the Rampart scandal, which exposed to the world how LA’s generously funded antigang units perpetrated the very extortion and violence they were supposed to suppress. These units fomented racial strife, too, by routinely picking up gang members from one neighborhood and dropping them off in territory controlled by another.

Sanchez argues that this combination of suppression, sensational media coverage and sentencing laws that make it easy to jail minors is what fuels racial tensions. “Suppression means more overcrowding in the jails and more gang tensions,” he says. “Then if a young person watches the media, where they’re bombarded by messages about racial conflict, they’re going to see issues between gangs as issues of blacks and Latinos.”

Robin Toma, executive director of the LA County Human Relations Commission, has also witnessed the way police and prison policy can stir LA’s caldron of racial hatred. “I was in Harbor Gateway when there were racial tensions in 1997,” Toma recalls. At that time African-Americans, including black gangs, were moved by housing authorities from nearby San Pedro into mostly Latino Harbor Gateway. Police responded with arrest dragnets and a “surge” strategy reminiscent of the Iraq War. “We had limited social investment from city leaders,” Toma says. “Many kids were picked up and thrown in jail, and now they’re older and angrier and coming onto the streets. Their biases spill into the schools. Addressing social problems with incarceration and policing that focuses solely on suppression is a proven failure.”

Antonio Villaraigosa, LA’s first Latino mayor in more than a century, indicated early on that he would take a different approach, signaled by his first high-profile event as mayor-elect: a visit to a school where more than a hundred black and Latino students clashed in May 2005. Unlike his predecessors, the mayor has been vocal about expanding the discussion of gangs and racism to include socioeconomic forces and has voiced interest in a comprehensive “prevention, intervention and suppression” strategy. In March he proposed a budget increase for youth employment programs that would add 7,500 jobs to the 2,500 now provided. Still, the political and financial heart of his antigang strategy has been a continuation of all-cops-all-the-time, an approach that has endeared him to the same white suburbanites who have voted to cut billions in funding for schools and inner-city social services.

Villaraigosa fought for and got funding for 1,000 more police officers last year, some of whom will be dedicated to gang suppression. We want to “make violent street gangs public enemy number one,” he said at a press conference following the Green murder. This intensification of the war on gangs comes despite contrary recommendations of countless blue-ribbon panels over the years–the McCone Commission following the Watts riots, the Christopher Commission following the Rodney King beating, the Webster Commission following the riots of 1992, the reform recommendations following the Rampart scandal–that have all urged an end to the practices documented most recently in a 2006 report on police reform: “erroneous arrests…coercive interview tactics, evidence suppression or planting by officers, alarmingly flawed investigations and police perjury.” The Rampart scandal report echoed recommendations that have been made for decades, most notably transitioning from “suppression policing” to “problem solving policing,” which builds community relationships.

Given the nonstop PR campaign to soften the noirishly tough image of the LAPD, Villaraigosa’s prioritization of suppression has the effect of reinforcing the worst aspects of an institution that is notoriously resistant to change. If Villaraigosa doesn’t act rapidly on calls to break City Hall’s addiction to suppression, the question will arise as to whether he can make a difference for South LA’s poor African-Americans and Latinos.

“Having a lot of Latino elected officials in Los Angeles doesn’t mean we get the attention Latinos need down here,” says Arturo Ybarra from the WCLO office in one of the weed-infested lots still littering post-riot South LA. “We’re still abandoned because of a lack of political leadership.”

As one of the few visible Latino leaders in South LA, Ybarra, an immigrant from Mexico, organizes events like an African-American-Latino Cinco de Mayo parade. (The holiday may be one reason school hate crimes spike to their highest levels each May, according to the County Human Relations Commission.) He says he feels a deep responsibility to voice what others prefer to remain silent about. “The whole area is majority Latino immigrants, and most of the people elected to office are black officials,” he says. “Most of the infrastructure in South LA–the senior centers, the youth centers, childcare–are led and managed by African-Americans. Some are doing excellent work with Latinos–and some are not.”

Asked how he thinks the city can meet its racial and gang challenges, Ybarra points to programs like conflict resolution, job training and diversity awareness that helped him and other Watts residents overcome racial tensions in Nickerson Gardens and other historically black housing projects. “We need to deal with racial issues,” Ybarra says. “We need to deal with the effects of violence. But we also need to deal with the economic roots, the urgent need for jobs, training, building cultural understanding and programs for reintegration into society after prison.”

But the approach favored by Ybarra may be too expensive for a city that, in 2005, spent $25.8 million on gang prevention and intervention programs and $56 million on gang suppression–not including more than $1 billion spent on policing, by far the largest line item in the city budget. The study of gang policies Rice produced for the City Council estimates that to develop a basic prevention and intervention network in one cluster of high schools reaching 22,323 people, the city would have to spend $56 million per year. Rice estimates that it would therefore cost upward of $1.3 billion a year to create the employment, education and violence prevention programs needed to reach the 300,000 young Angelenos the report says are at risk of joining gangs.

But given the report’s estimate that in 2006 gangs cost the city more than $2 billion in damage to victims and property, Rice argues that LA can ill afford not to spend on its youth. To move beyond what Bratton likes to call the “war on gangs,” she says, “Los Angeles needs a Marshall Plan to end gang violence.”

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