On the streets of South-Central Los Angeles, in the storefront churches, at the seedy liquor stores and outside the modest but well-kept bungalows, the name of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms does not ring many bells.
Few residents, from the matronly ladies dressed in their Sunday finest to the street-wise hoods in their low-slung jeans, were even aware that ATF agents had just completed a high-profile crackdown on Los Angeles-based street gangs and their counterparts nationwide.
But the one thing most everyone knew for sure is that the gang problem has become so complex and deeply rooted that the arrest of 174 suspected Bloods and Crips members since Thursday had done little for a solution to the violence that is wreaked in the African-American community each day.
“They can send the entire FBI force down here and it won’t solve the problem,” said the Rev. Robert Taylor, who had just finished Sunday services at Beulah Baptist Church in Watts. “A few hundred more people are in jail this weekend, but the school system has 10,000 or 20,000 more children being groomed for the same thing.”
Ask Eddie Turner Jr., a muscular man with a pink shower cap, a tattooed teardrop and wearing a gold hoop through his left ear. The way he sees things, from atop his bicycle outside the BM Food Mart in Compton, police sweeps are nothing more than a stunt.
“People get killed every day over here,” said the 29-year-old former Crip. “But all of a sudden the police start rushing around and getting down on everyone, harassing them wherever they go. I feel that ain’t right.”
The ATF crackdown, dubbed “Operation Streetsweep,” targeted black gang members wanted on an assortment of weapons and narcotics violations in 11 states. On Thursday and Friday, the operation netted 135 suspects in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. It also triggered several other anti-gang sweeps in Southern California, including a miniature version of “Operation Hammer” by Los Angeles police that resulted in the arrest of 94 over the weekend.
“Everybody’s trying to get in on the act,” said Adrian McThadden, 38, an unemployed computer programmer, who was sitting with friends outside a house on Piru Street in Compton. “Sometimes I think they’re doing it more for themselves than for the problem.”
Nearby, along busy Central Avenue, Lashan Taylor and her three cousins agreed that locking up gangbangers did not do any good.
“When they get out, they just go back to doing the same old thing,” said the 20-year-old hair stylist. “They should put them all in the Coliseum or Sports Arena and let them fight it out until they all beat each other.”
It wasn’t hard to find people who would tell you what the real problems are: broken families, no jobs, poor education and prejudice.
But until some concrete steps are taken to address those deficits, say people like James Williams, don’t expect maneuvers like “Operation Streetsweep” to win any points.
“There’s going to be a war in this town,” said Williams, 50, who spent the day with a dozen friends in front of the W. L. Johnson Hardware store. “You’ve got to be for real if you’re going to stop it.”