By Roberto Lovato
LOS ANGELES 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 Englisha 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 Marketone of the few stores on the twelve-block strip that is Harbor Gatewayan 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.”
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 membersthe 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 arisensome 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 areaethnic 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 hysteriaas did some of their progressive counterparts.
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’etre, an opportunity to redeem itself as an army of good soldiers in a “war” on gangbanger “super-predators” 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.
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.
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 gangsand 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.”
“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 timerecreation 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 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.”
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. 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.
This intensification of the war on gangs comes despite contrary recommendations of countless blue-ribbon panels over the yearsthe 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 scandalthat 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 transition-ing from “suppression policing” to “problem solving policing,” which builds community relationships.
“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.”