The police chief of Coronado Island, Jerry Boyd, has no doubt that there are dangerous forces at work on his orderly, tree-lined streets across the bay from San Diego. They are the Coronado White Boys, the island's first gang, he says, and their message is "Crips, get out of town."
Coronado parents aren't so sure. Yes, some have begun hearing about a new club, the CWBs. And yes, it's been hard to ignore the new teen-age fashion trend: white baseball caps worn askew. But, don't kids always dress funny?
Self-proclaimed CWBs, a bunch of skateboard-riding adolescents with a penchant for video games, say they are the victims of gang hysteria. They have no intention, they say, of doing harm to anyone, especially street gangs. They say they're being harassed by the law, and recently they have won support from the island newspaper.
"Police Chief Jerry Boyd has taken what may have been a student's private joke and made it into something terrifying," an editorial proclaimed two weeks ago in the Coronado Journal. "Minors need to be protected from themselves and outside influences. Let us hope they do not need to be protected from the police."
Local residents, many of whom settled on the six square miles of manicured lawns to escape big-city problems, say the furor surrounding the White Boys is just not Coronado's style. The exclusive community enjoys the lowest crime rate in San Diego County. Its phone book is littered with retired admirals and colonels, and more of its high school students try out for water polo than for football. When school lets out on a sunny day, the fresh faces of local teen-agers look capable of nothing more ominous than under-tipping.
But Boyd says that, although most CWBs are law-abiding boys and girls looking for the social prestige of an in crowd, about eight members are out to protect their beach from outsiders--and to use force if necessary. Lately, Boyd, a tough-talking veteran of the Los Angeles police force, has been warning parents that inner-city gangs may retaliate if they feel threatened by the CWBs.
"They'll go looking for the ones who did them. If they can't find them, they'll go after anyone in a white baseball cap. Or worse yet, at noon, at lunchtime, when there's 150 kids out in the park, they'll open fire," Boyd told 45 parents at a meeting last week. "People say that's sensationalism, but it happens 2 1/2 miles from here every night of the week. It's just a matter of geography."
CWB members who agreed to talk last week said Boyd is grandstanding.
"We're just a group of friends, not a gang," said Jamie Johnson, an articulate 17-year-old who helped found the CWBs. "The first we heard of trying to reclaim the beach was what we read in the paper."
Instead of a negative influence, he said, the group has helped some of its members get off drugs. The CWB name, he said, was a joke, coined as an alternative to what other students called them: Grits, or cigarette smokers.
"White is a neutral color, and we were trying to be neutral," said Aaron Renshaw, a 15-year-old sophomore with a skateboard under his arm, who said the name was never intended to provoke minority gangs. "We have black kids and Mexicans in the group, too."
The controversy began about a month ago, when Boyd says he first heard from his officers that the CWBs were mixing with the 16 out-of-town gangs--"bona fide, righteous gangs"--that frequent the sparkling waters of North Beach. Then, a few Saturdays ago, Boyd said, there was a "push-and-shove confrontation" between the CWBs and the Crips, a black street gang--a confrontation CWBs deny. On several nights afterward, Boyd claims, police identified cars of Crips cruising the beaches.
"We'd ask, 'Hey, there's no party tonight. Why are you over here?' They said, 'We're here looking for the white boys,' " Boyd said.
So Boyd wrote a letter to the Coronado Journal cautioning residents to keep an eye out for gang activity. The Coronado School District responded with both barrels: a gang expert was brought in to address a joint faculty meeting of the middle and high schools; parents of "known" CWBs received phone calls from school administrators; the superintendent of schools sent a letter to parents warning that Coronado gang activity was in the "formative" stage.
Then came the weekly newspaper's edition two weeks ago, which suggested that Boyd was blowing things out of proportion.
In a letter to the editor, Suzanne K. Larsen, Aaron Renshaw's mother, urged her neighbors to "dispel the myth" surrounding the CWBs. Writing on behalf of 12 CWBs, she made what many CWBs say is their first actual challenge: They invited the Coronado Police Department to a friendly game of flag football.
Boyd says that about 15 of his officers have agreed to play in early November. Around the same time, however, Boyd is scheduling a gang symposium for parents and students. In addition to photos of Crips, Bloods, B-Down Boys and other gangs, Boyd plans to exhibit a collection of weapons confiscated in Coronado and to invite a special guest--"a real gang member."
"We're going to open some eyes. We'll have weapons on display. And I promise you, we didn't go across the bridge, seize them and bring them back over here," Boyd said.
Boyd says there are 50 CWBs, while the teen-agers put the number at less than 20.
Judging by attendance at last Tuesday parents' meeting, the public debate has only made some parents more curious--and frightened.
"If I have spray paint on my garage in a symbol, should I be worried?" one woman asked Boyd after hearing about the placas , or graffiti symbols, that gangs often leave behind.
A concerned father wondered if it would help to publish identifying information about the CWBs in community watch newsletters. "Like when you go to Florida, (there are signs) that say, 'This is an alligator. Don't pet it.' "
And another parent asked if the free car-pool lane on the San Diego-Coronado Bay Toll Bridge is to blame for increased gang activity. "I'd go back to paying if it means keeping people like that out of here," she said.
Meanwhile, the CWBs have responded to the outcry by taking off their white hats, and they are considering dropping their name.
"If we break the mold, it's because they're trying to mold us into trendy little people who wear slacks and play tennis," said Brian Wentz, 16. "But we aren't naive. We know gangs have guns."