Summer Eruption of Gang Woes Feared
Now that the school year is ending, authorities in Highland Park and Eagle Rock fear that youth gang violence will escalate. Last winter, four youths were killed and there were several drive-by shootings in those neighborhoods.
“Summer is usually a peak period for gang activity,” said Los Angeles Police Lt. Richard J. Dyer, who headed a gang task force formed in April to combat the problem.
The task force was disbanded recently after making 270 gang-related arrests in the area, Dyer said.
There are at least five youth gangs operating in the area.
The roving bands of youths often battle on street corners and use graffiti to mark their territory. During the task force crackdown, gang graffiti even appeared on police cars that were parked in front of the station, police said.
Hoping to head off the problem, politicians, clergymen, businessmen and police in Northeast Los Angeles are planning community forums and more youth activities.
Some Resent Plans
However, some area residents say they resent those plans because, in the words of a woman whose brother was shot during recent gang violence, they are sponsored by “well-meaning liberals who know nothing about our problems.”
That resentment was evident at a recent gang symposium sponsored by the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce. The meeting ended in a fracas after several members of the audience accused city officials of using the gang problem for political purposes.
Sponsors of the May 27 meeting at Franklin High School had expected about 150 people to attend but more than 400 showed up. Speakers included Los Angeles City councilmen Joel Wachs and Richard Alatorre, whose districts cover the area, as well as school board member Larry Gonzalez and Capt. Noel Cunningham of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Northeast Division.
“I hope that tonight is a beginning of that kind of joint effort on the part of everyone to solve this problem,” Wachs said at the beginning of the evening. Then two LAPD detectives began explaining which gangs are located in the area, how they came to be gangs and what kinds of crimes they commit.
Offers Slide Presentation
The first sign that all would not go smoothly came when Sgt. Joe Suarez, an LAPD detective, showed slides depicting how Latino gang members dress.
Saying “they’re not altar boys, folks,” Suarez made jokes about the gang members.
Although most of the audience laughed, several Latinos began shouting angrily. Suddenly a tall, dark-haired man stood up and began waving his hands in the air.
“You tell jokes and make fun of us and my people are still dying in the streets,” the man, Jose Carmona, said. “You don’t want to solve the problem, you people are just trying to look like you’re doing something.”
In an interview, Suarez said he did not mean to offend anyone but that he could understand why the people were upset when others were laughing at his slides.
“No one likes to be the brunt of a joke,” he said.
Other outbursts followed. Most speakers charged that the meetings would accomplish nothing and that youth programs are what is really needed. Cunningham eventually had to call for order.
The last part of the meeting was a question-and-answer session with representatives from the Los Angeles County probation department, district attorney’s office and sheriff’s office, among others. They immediately came under fire, with questioners claiming that government officials and others were only talking about the gang problem, but had come up with no concrete solutions.
At that point, Carmona again began shouting. Other members of the audience hollered for him to shut up. Carmona, a social studies teacher who grew up in Highland Park, headed an anti-gang program at Luther Burbank Junior High School. He told Gonzalez that the canceling of his and other school anti-gang classes a few years ago gave rise to the current problems.
Gonzalez replied that “the solving of this devastating problem does not rest on our backs. We all share this.”
Carmona’s class was canceled in 1983 after he and school administrators could not agree on its format. The teacher had received special school-district financing to free him for part of the day to work with gang leaders on campus and in the community. Carmona now works at Robert Louis Stevenson Junior High School.
Handcuffed by Police
As Carmona continued to shout, a policemen handcuffed him and pulled him out of the meeting after a brief skirmish.
Undaunted by the sometimes angry tone of the meeting, Harnsberger, chamber president, said in an interview later that she plans to continue holding such events.
“What’s good for the community is good for business,” Harnsberger said. “Someone has to coordinate all this energy and bring people together who are willing to do something about the gang problem.”
Harnsberger said she will meet with community representatives within the next two weeks to decide when the next symposium will be and how it will be handled.
The meetings will not be gang-buster sessions, cautions Harnsberger, but merely a means of bringing people together to understand the gang problem.
“I now know that there are black gangs, white gangs and Asian gangs. We need to make people more aware of what is going on and how they can tackle this problem,” said Harnsberger, a real estate businesswoman.
‘We Rely on Government’
“Too often we rely on government to do things for us. It’s time businesses took an active role in solving community problems,” she said.
Among Harnsberger’s supporters is Joann Teslik, a Highland Park chiropractor and chamber member.
“We need to convey to these children the hope that we will have a community to work in, that it is to their benefit to stop destroying this community,” Teslik said.
Some Northeast Los Angeles residents that have experienced gang violence say they are tired of such meetings and activities that do not include them in the planning.
“These people, they mean well but they don’t know what it is like for us who are living in areas where people are shooting all the time. They haven’t been to the funerals of someone who was shot down in the street,” said Raedine K. Chacon, 20, of Highland Park.
Chacon’s brother, Andres, was fatally shot in December. Raedine Chacon said her brother and a friend got into an argument with some gang members and a gun battle ensued. Her brother knew gang members but did not belong to a gang, she said.
Others Hold Doubts
Even some members of the chamber have their doubts about the group’s newly charted course.
Paul Bodine, president of the chamber in the late 1950s, complained at a recent chamber luncheon that the symposiums are a waste of time.
“All these meetings are just for people who are going to sit around and do nothing. The politicians are just in for the publicity,” Bodine said.
Aside from the chamber’s activities, others are also taking an interest in the gang problem. The Christian Challenge Center in Highland Park will be open until 9 p.m. on Monday through Thursday so that youths from 12 to 19 years old can use the game room and gymnasium. Also, several field trips are planned on Fridays.
“We have been in the middle of a gang war in recent months,” said center director Jerry W. Westholder. “The police force seemed to have clamped down, but all hell could break loose this summer. We’re hoping to avoid that by providing activities for the kids.”
Looking for Appropriate Site
Another group of businessmen is searching for a site to house a boxing club for youths. A $9,000 grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee has been earmarked for the club, which is sponsored by the Northeast Division.
Joseph C. Somoza, owner of a beer distributing company in the area, said the group, called Businesses for Law Enforcement in the Northeast Division, is tired of seeing youths kill each other.
“We’re concerned about these gang wars. We’re hoping this is one way to keep the kids off the street,” Somoza said.
Some Northeast Los Angeles residents describe the streets as unsafe and say the answer is not more police or more meetings.
“They need more job programs and activities. In order to help the community you have to help the kids first,” said Rebecca Moralez, a 32-year-old mother of two teen-agers. “Things are so bad, I make my children come in before 9 o’clock.”
“We’re going to be keeping our eyes open, but this is not just a police problem, it’s a community problem,” Lt. Dyer said.