The #100days100nights campaign may be fake, but the fear in parts of South Los Angeles is very real.
“I've been in prison, and I've never been as nervous as I am right now,” a middle-aged man in a baseball cap admitted to the crowd gathered for a community meeting Wednesday night — one he'd almost been too afraid to attend.
A summer spike in gang violence is nothing new in this neighborhood near Manchester and Vermont: Days are hot, tempers are short and troubles tend to brew among aimless young men with nothing constructive to do.
But a recent flurry of gang shootings has unsettled residents. And social media posts that seem to promise 100 gang killings in 100 days have turned the temperature up.
Police officials and gang intervention workers are trying to debunk the missives, confident they are nothing more than pranks, odes to dead gangbangers or cyberposturing.
“The idea of ‘100 days' is to intimidate,” Ben “Taco” Owens told the meeting of the Southern California Cease Fire Committee. “It's a mental game, like psychological warfare.”
If so, the terrorists may be winning.
In a community where so many families have been touched by violence, it's easy to believe that anyone can be a target.
Residents have heard rumors of children being fired upon. When a young man was shot dead two weeks ago, photos of his body sprawled on a sidewalk were posted on Instagram. A peace march last weekend had barely ended when a 47-year-old man was killed nearby.
“A lot of us thought we had moved past some of this stuff,” said James Harris, 52, one of dozens of former gang members trying to mediate. “To be revisiting it now, it's kind of disheartening.”
Social lives have stalled, children are kept inside, birthday parties have been canceled and family reunions called off. Nonprofits in the area have warned employees to be extra careful in certain neighborhoods. Some residents are avoiding big gatherings and busy parks.
“We are afraid,” said a woman named Faye who has three sons; the youngest is about to start college.
“I've lived here for 16 years, I love my house. … But I would like to leave,” she told the crowd. “I raised kids and grandkids here. Now, when they come to visit, it's not safe for them to walk from their car to my house.
“We have to go out by the thousands and take our community back.”
We declared war on gangs a generation ago. If street gangs were invading armies, that declaration might be easier to enforce.
The Cease Fire Committee has been meeting once a week for 10 years in a South Los Angeles church. The names of groups involved suggest the scope of the problem: Girls N Gangs, Project Cry No More, Parents of Murdered Children.
Official crime stats don't suggest a homicide epidemic. But seven shootings in the area last weekend left one man dead and 11 people wounded. Police blame a long-running feud between neighborhood gangs. Gang veterans suspect our fascination with social media whets youngsters' appetite for notoriety.
“It goes back to the kid killed in the carwash for [wearing] red shoes,” said Harris, referring to a shooting in May. “When that made the national news, everybody wanted to make the news.”
The anguished folks at Wednesday's meeting were wrestling with a dilemma: They hate the sin but can't afford to hate the sinners.
These gangbangers are their grandsons, their nieces, the neighbor boys who used to cut their lawns, the young fathers they see on the sidelines at football games in the park.
And there's plenty of blame to go around. Their schools are bad, their fathers are absent, their mothers curse too much. They've grown up around so much violence, they're accustomed to it. They have no jobs, no money, no skills, no voice; their only power courses through the barrel of a gun.
“They're disconnected from everything,” Harris told me. “They're not listening to gang leaders or community activists.”
That hasn't stopped people from trying.
A group of local pastors plan to man the streets this weekend; they'll stand with candles at night on corners where shootings are apt to occur. But other ministers are so fed up, they're closing the church doors; they won't host funerals for victims of gang violence because they don't want their sanctuaries shot up.
Several OGs — original gangsters — stopped by the meeting with advice.
Donald Archie, 61, a contemporary of Crips co-founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams, promoted tough love. “Families have to get more involved and not be afraid to put their foot down,” he said. “If we can't control them … well, all I can say to you people is God, God, God.”
Melvin Farmer, 58, with 30 years of prison in his past, offered to broker a dialogue with young gang leaders. “Marching is not going to stop this,” he warned. “These guys are not going to turn their guns in for concert tickets.”
Some people at the meeting were angry to see so few city officials — and so many TV news cameras. “Innocent people are dying on the street,” one man said. “This is Third World country stuff, and nobody gives a damn.”
They don't want their community stereotyped or the violence sensationalized. They want to steer young gang members toward a different way of life, but the odds are long and the options frustratingly scant.
The man killed last weekend — just blocks from the funeral of another gang member — had worked for a gang prevention program at nearby Algin Sutton Park.
Summer Night Lights has helped transform the sprawling park from gang outpost to community asset. It was crowded when I stopped by Thursday night. Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson was paying a visit. Mayor Eric Garcetti had been there the night before. But few locals noticed the politicians. They were too busy having fun.
There were soccer matches and basketball games, a reading circle for children and a loteria table for parents. Music was blasting and a talent show was about to get underway. And teenagers who might have been tempted to join gangs were instead working as youth squad leaders: grilling hamburgers, organizing games and keeping rambunctious little kids from getting into trouble.
Park coordinator Marie Thomas said spirits were high but the turnout this week has been low. “We usually get 400 to 500 people on a typical summer night,” she said. But since the death of Anthony Cudger last Saturday, hundreds of regulars have stayed away.
But they'll be back, Thomas said: “This is a part of life in this community. You lose a lot of people you're close to because of gangs.”