January 21, 2007
DON'T BE fooled by its name: The 204th Street gang, two of whose members have been arrested in connection with last month's racially motivated slaying of 14-year-old Cheryl Green, is what you could call a commuter gang.
Of its 100 documented members, only about 20 live in the 12-block sliver of the Harbor Gateway district they claim as their own. Neither of the two men who agreed to speak for the gang — 32-year-old Jonathan O'Gorman (yes, his father is Irish) and 22-year-old Noe Torres (no, his father isn't) — live in the neighborhood. On Wednesday, the two men arrived on their "turf" in a work truck with the name of a large air-conditioning company painted on it.
What, you ask, are two grown men who have decent jobs and don't live in the area doing gangbanging? "It's kind of weird, huh?" Torres said. But minutes later, in response to similar questions, O'Gorman grabbed my notebook out of my hand and walked away. "Just because you move out doesn't mean you have to move on," he said, after cooling down and handing back my notes.
For several days last week I skulked around the working-class neighborhood, talking to as many people as I could. What I found is that most residents — of any background — try to keep their heads down, go about their business and get along with their neighbors.
During the day, you'll find mothers pushing strollers and children playing in frontyards. You'll see men fixing or cleaning their cars. Many, like 54-year-old Fausto Lopez, a maintenance man who's only been in this country a year, will tell you they have little idea of what's going on. "It's about the gangs," he said in Spanish.
Even some victims of 204th Street's intimidation told me that they get along with most of their Mexican neighbors. Rochaun Keyes, who has lived on 206th Street for three years and has had her house tagged with the words "nigger killer," makes a distinction between gang members and the rest of her Latino neighbors. She's hoping the police can take care of the problem because, unlike her black neighbor who fled the area out of fear of her safety, she doesn't intend to leave.
The same goes for Melinda Sims, who moved in next to her sister six weeks ago. Sims' front window and her side wall were spray-painted with the words "NK All Day." Her beef, she says, is not with all Mexicans but only the gangbangers who are tagging her house.
The 204th Street gang emerged in the early 1990s when a group of members split from the Tortilla Flats gang, whose boundaries lie in unincorporated county territory to the east. In addition to targeting blacks, 204th's members are still active rivals of T-Flats and Eastside Torrance, another predominantly Latino gang that operates several blocks to the south.
It's hard to overestimate how narrow and parochial gang identities can be. In the wake of incidents such as the Green slaying, we talk collectively about relations between large population groups — Latinos and blacks — or about the racial tensions among neighbors. But, at its core, what we seem to be dealing with is a pathological need on the part of hateful young men (and the women who love them) to define themselves by their enemies.
The LAPD calls 204th Street an "emotional gang." Unlike many bigger gangs, 204th's members are not driven by greed; drug dealing — methamphetamine and marijuana — is relatively minor, and the overall crime rate in the neighborhood is actually not that high. Officer Daniel Robbins, the Harbor Division gang cop who works the area, says that particularly for older members who grew up here and return on weekends to party, the gang is about clinging to "glory days." "This is like a high school football player returning to the stadium on Friday night under the lights," he said. And the alumni don't like what new residents have done to the playing field.
The neighborhood's infusion of blacks, a few of whom are members of gangs in other areas, has effectively cut into 204th's territory. But it's the much larger influx of recent immigrants from Mexico that has really changed the face of the neighborhood. Although they still claim 12 square blocks, 204th members generally don't parade openly south of 206th Street anymore, and they limit their visits to nighttime tagging raids.
Although it's easy for 204th members to identify rival Latino gangbangers — whom they may know from school or juvenile detention — they don't know who the black gangsters are. So their fear and hatred becomes generalized to all blacks, and their street warfare shifts from targeted hits on individuals from rival gangs to indiscriminate acts of violence against members of an entire racial group.
That's the definition of terrorism. All for a little glory.
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