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Gang interventionists distribute food, prayer -- and a sense of change
Alfred Lomas stood at the front of a bus. "This," he bellowed, "is not a bus!"
The driver pulled out of the Dream Center, a church ministry where Lomas directs a mobile food bank. Lomas stared into the anxious faces of congregants and do-gooders, his sunglasses hiding dark, deep-set eyes that have seen more than their share of hurt, much of it of his own making.
"This," he said, "is a vehicle of hope!"
The bus lurched and sighed into South Los Angeles. On Slauson Avenue, once a sturdy spine of industry, they passed empty, tin-walled warehouses and an abandoned rail yard. With every pothole, piles of supplies on the bus threatened to tumble -- bags of oranges, boxes of peanut butter, even dog biscuits.
"These children see terrible things," said Lomas, 45, quieter now. "Let's transform the atmosphere. The goal is love."
Each month, Lomas' crew distributes prayer and 80 tons of free food in the city's urban core. A growing number of civic leaders, including police commanders, are watching. It is not so much Lomas' food program that has drawn their attention, but what he does with his free time: building a renewed sense of community in South L.A.
With gang violence down, city officials are looking to secure lasting change in South L.A., in part through a large injunction targeting six gangs in a 13.7-square-mile area straddling the Harbor Freeway. Critical to the success of that campaign is the work of gang interventionists, who act as liaisons between police and gangs -- "like the social workers in the places no one else will go," said Brian Center, executive director of A Better LA, a nonprofit that combats violence in South L.A. and funds 26 interventionists.
Lomas is emblematic of the possibility and the delicacy of that work.
The city is scrambling to "professionalize" the ranks of interventionists, providing new oversight and training in an effort to separate the credible from the pretenders. It's no simple task.
On one side are police, long wary of interventionists, most of whom have only recently left a life of crime. On the other is Lomas, for years a heavy hitter in the Florencia 13 gang -- one of the gangs targeted by the new injunction -- and a man who still compares some police tactics to martial law. It is, somehow, the start of a beautiful friendship, and it's not clear who is more surprised.
The tide turns again
For 80 years, maybe more, ever since there were gangs in South L.A., there have been gang interventionists -- missionaries, civil rights activists, mediators, mentors. But gangs evolved; protectorates gave way to criminal enterprises, fists gave way to automatic weapons and turf became something worth dying for. Intervention became seen as a quaint notion, unworkable in such a war zone.
In recent years, the tide has turned again. By all accounts, it has become clear that law enforcement suppression is vital but imperfect -- and gang crime in L.A. costs taxpayers and victims an estimated $2 billion each year, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research group.
So police commanders have come around and now view interventionists' work in quelling rumors, preventing retaliatory attacks and leading gangsters onto a new path as essential to augmenting modern policing.
"People do change," said Capt. Mark Olvera, commander of the LAPD's Newton Division. Asked to gauge the feeling of his officers, he said: "It's a work in progress. But they're buying into it."
And there are already concrete examples of success.
Each year, police brace for April and May, when some gangs celebrate "birthdays," matching a date with the street that gives them their name.
May 2 and 3 -- 5/2 and 5/3 -- were the "birthdays" of the Five Deuce gang, which takes its name from 52nd Street, and Five Trey, which takes its name from 53rd Street. The gangs were planning public celebrations, and there had been a series of shootings in the neighborhood. The tension on some blocks was palpable. It had the makings of a long weekend.
Newton officers delivered something of a preemptive strike, working with interventionists to open a line of communication with the gangs. The weekend was choreographed to keep rivals from confronting each other; police even persuaded one gang to rent a hall for its celebration in order to steer clear of trouble.
There were no gang-related shootings that weekend.
Two competing camps
Gang intervention is, by definition, a messy line of work. The best interventionists must have credibility in two competing camps -- cops and gangs -- which means they'll never fully earn the trust of either one.
Interest in intervention was reinvigorated by the release of two reports in 2007 and 2008. Connie Rice, the prominent civil rights attorney, delivered the first, a city-funded critique calling for an overhaul of the response to the gang epidemic. Then-City Controller Laura Chick delivered the second, concluding that the city's old programs were scattershot and crippled by red tape.
Last year, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa consolidated the programs and boosted funding for gang intervention and prevention; by Oct. 1, the mayor's Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, known as GRYD, is expected to finish signing new contracts with intervention and prevention agencies worth more than $20 million a year. The office's funding was left virtually untouched in the new budget, despite deep cuts elsewhere.
As the spigot of public money has opened a little wider, "people stepped in seeking a paycheck -- without expertise," said Aquil Basheer, founder of an intervention training firm.
So city officials and civic leaders like Basheer began piecing together their attempt to treat intervention as a full-fledged professional field.
"This is an airplane that is getting built as it is being flown," Rice said.
Some are developing professional standards and a code of ethics. A trade association of sorts has been established, with a board of directors who provide financial audits and evaluations of some programs. There are also new gang intervention "schools."
One is run by Rice's Advancement Project. Another, Basheer's Professional Community Intervention Training Institute, is a 16-week certification class funded largely through a $150,000 gift from A Better LA. Basheer graduated his second class of 50 in May; reflecting the surge of interest in intervention work, he had a waiting list of 150 people for that class.
Similar classes have been attempted in the past, such as a city-funded pilot program in 2000. But the new curricula are seen by police and city officials as more comprehensive.
The Rev. Jeff Carr, director of the mayor's gang reduction programs, said the city will combine the best of those programs into an "academy" this fall. Intervention workers who wish to receive a "license" from the city will complete 105 hours of training. The city's GRYD agencies already employ nine outreach workers, case managers and supervisors in each of 12 gang-ridden zones; they earn a minimum of $30,000 annually and receive health insurance benefits.
Carr has also adopted standards for contracted gang intervention agencies. All, for instance, must adopt drug-testing programs and must submit their employees to criminal background checks.
There are many hurdles and unanswered questions ahead.
Leaving interventionists to operate as free agents can end badly. Days ago, Alex Sanchez, well-known founder of the local arm of the anti-gang group Homies Unidos, was indicted on racketeering charges in a federal gang crackdown. One noisy arrest like that undermines the quiet work of scores of interventionists.
However, officials also know that if they regulate too much, they risk scaring off the interventionists who are closest to gangs or, worse, causing the community to view interventionists as nothing more than co-opted proxies for the police.
As a result, nothing about the effort to professionalize interventionists is simple. Even the issue of drug testing is not cut-and-dried. Everyone agrees that interventionists should not use hard drugs. "But pot is ubiquitous in these places," Rice said. Should there be an exception for marijuana? "Let's be honest about what the enterprise is," she said. "Let's not apply convent rules to a brothel."
Finally, a new mission
In the summer of 1976, Alfred Lomas became a member of Florencia 13 the same way everyone does: He was "jumped in," beaten by his peers for 13 seconds. "I did well," he said. He was 12 years old.
Lomas tried to go straight -- he put in three years in the Marines -- but it never took. Born into poverty and raised in a tough stretch of Huntington Park, it seemed he was made for the life.
In 1985, he tried crack and was hooked immediately. He became a contractor for the gangs. Often using his military training, he oversaw technical aspects of the gang world: moving drugs surreptitiously, using counter-surveillance to learn if a dealer was being watched by the police.
"I had a trade. It was very desirable," he said. "Success was measured in life and death. That's a rush, man. A rush."
Crack didn't do him in. Methamphetamine did. About eight years ago, Florencia became one of the first gangs in South L.A. to deal meth; it had been more of a rural drug. Lomas became a full-bore addict, paranoid and withdrawn.
Four years ago, he was released after a short jail stay. Wandering downtown L.A., broke and alone, he met volunteers from the nonprofit Dream Center, who persuaded him to move into the church's dorm near Echo Park Lake. There, he kicked his addiction and found a new mission.
"I had never experienced unconditional love," he said. "I always figured there was a catch. And you know what? There wasn't. That's what I'm passionate about now: spreading the message that there is another way, that there are people who do things without an agenda."
These days, Lomas spends most of his off hours in gang-infested areas of South L.A. that are the focus of the new gang injunction. The area has virtually none of the youth centers or community task forces common even to other troubled areas such as Watts or Compton. "It's the end of the Earth," Lomas said.
Some of his efforts are simple community-building; he is working, for instance, to establish a youth boxing gym near Slauson Avenue. He has also visited with South L.A. clergy members in recent weeks to persuade them to preach the importance of local residents' taking ownership of their neighborhoods. But mostly, Lomas just visits with people who live in areas controlled by gangs -- places, he says, "of generational violence and generational hatred." He has helped two traditional rival gangs, Florencia and 18th Street, reach an "understanding" -- no one calls it a "truce," underscoring the delicate nature of the work -- that has sharply reduced violence between the two over the last year.
Largely because of his church outreach, he is able to work with impunity in both Latino and African American gang territory, which is unusual and particularly valuable. His is a familiar and welcome face in some unlikely areas, such as the Pueblo del Rio public housing community, which is controlled largely by the Pueblo Bishops, an African American gang with a long-standing "beef" against Latino gangs.
"At first, you could cut the tension with a knife," he said. "But you're feeding somebody's mom, somebody's sister. You develop a lot of favor."
Some days, he talks with gangsters about the benefits of job creation; other days, he introduces rivals to show them that they have more in common than they believe.
"Ya'll are the only ones who care," Domonique Butler, 21, told Lomas the other day at Pueblo del Rio, after his crew had prayed with her and given her food. Butler said she was pregnant and had recently relapsed into a crack habit.
Lomas does not like the term "gang interventionist," preferring "community interventionist." Whatever he wants to call himself, "he is the real deal," said the LAPD's Olvera. Lomas is also, said Center of A Better LA, an illustration of the challenges ahead, because while the city is scrambling to formalize gang intervention and prevention, he is practicing it -- off the books, unfettered, unfunded.
Police want to enforce the injunction -- which can mean arresting gang members for appearing together in public, even if no other crime is committed -- without panicking or angering the community. For that, the LAPD needs a voice with credibility on the streets. It has brought in a handful of civic activists to act as ambassadors of sorts, including Lomas.
One recent day, Newton commanders invited Lomas to a briefing at the station. Lomas' tattoos, including flames that lick his neck and block-letter "Fs" on his arms -- for Florencia -- contrasted sharply with the Explorer trophies lining the walls.
"We are opening our hand to you," Olvera told him. "We want people to understand that we work for the community."
Lomas agreed to help, despite his misgivings about the injunction. He would start, he said, by visiting with four "matriarchs" at Pueblo del Rio -- influential older women who can calm the community's anxieties.
"But you're walking a tightrope," Lomas told the officers. "We all are."
Then he shook hands with the officers and walked out of the station, into the streets that raised him, ruined him and gave him another chance.