The mother wailed over her young son's coffin.
The father stood silent in anguish.
And nearby, a dozen youngsters, from toddlers to teen-agers, seemed oblivious to the tragedy. They wore the gang clothes their dead homeboy once wore. They looked stone-faced and defiant, ready to follow the path that had marked their friend for murder.
The scene was heartbreaking and chilling. It was also make-believe. But real or not, the skit on the stage of Wilmington Junior High School last Saturday was faithful to 13 funerals that already have taken place this year in the Harbor area. Funerals that followed gang killings. Killings that continue.
Hoping to curb gang violence by educating parents and children, businessmen and community leaders, a coalition of local agencies sponsored a daylong seminar on gangs, drugs and graffiti that drew 100 people to the junior high school. The event, the first of three in the South Bay, was sponsored by the Community Reclamation Project, a federally funded anti-gang effort in Lomita; along with Los Angeles police; Community Youth Gang Services, and other area agencies and churches.
Its aim, according to CRP's Executive Director Natalie Salazar, was simple enough: make everyone understand gangs and where they can lead. "We feel that by educating the community, we can get it more involved in coming up with solutions," she said.
And by dramatizing the funeral and showing photographs of gang violence, Salazar added, the organizers hope to steer young people away from gangs, and parents toward action. "We want to make it shocking enough to have an impact because we find that people don't get involved unless you show it affects them," Salazar said.
"Death is not beautiful," Los Angeles Police Detective Ira Beaty said during a slide show of photographs that opened the program. The slides, one after another, showed people beaten and killed by guns, knives, clubs, even run down by cars--part of the gang toll that so far this year has claimed 13 lives in the Harbor area, five more than during the same period in 1989.
Sometimes, Beaty said, the victims of the violence are gang members like the young man accidently killed by a blast from a friend's shotgun as they fled another gang, or the Harbor City teen-ager gunned down after he shot at a rival.
But many times, the violence strikes beyond the gang circle, Beaty said, showing more slides. One showed a San Pedro man with a buck knife in his temple, the victim of a robbery. Another slide showed the mangled body of a young Wilmington man repeatedly run over by a car at Harbor Regional Park in revenge for a gang slaying elsewhere.
The killing in the park, Beaty said, was particularly significant because the victim had long before quit his gang. At the time of his murder, he was married, had children, was settled into a job, was even going to church, Beaty said. But he remained a target of other gangs because, among other things, his arms still carried the tattoos of his former gang.
"The guy hadn't been involved in gangs for two years, but they snatched him up anyway," Beaty said.
After watching the slide show, one former gang member said he could not shake the images of young victims. "It made me realize I could have easily been one of the dead bodies on those slides," said Kevin, 27, a tall, soft-spoken Harbor-area resident who asked that his last name not be used.
At the age 15, Kevin said, he helped found a gang that today has almost 300 members. Two years ago, he quit the gang when his son was born.
In between, Kevin said, he spent almost five years in prison and lost so many of his friends or family that he quit going to funerals after No. 15. And that was five years ago.
Now, Kevin said, he was at the seminar because its message was important. That message, repeated throughout the day, was that gang violence is growing, more people are dying, and that community education and action must replace fear if the madness is to end.
"When are we going to have an agenda against gangs? When are we going to say we've had enough of the violence?" asked Tony Borbon, director of anti-gang programs for Community Service Programs Inc., a nonprofit agency in Orange County.
"Ten years ago, we would not have had a conference like this," Borbon said of the seminar, to be repeated Oct. 13 in Harbor City and Nov. 3 in Carson.
"We've come a long way," he said. "But we have to go farther."
Toward that end, the seminar offered workshops by counselors and Los Angeles police on information ranging from how gang members dress themselves--even their tiny children--to what crack cocaine looks like. And time and again, counselors and police told the crowd, which included a score of wanna-be gang members, how gangs kill, both each other and innocents.
The stories rang true to former gang members like Kevin. "I've lost friends and family. And I've lost peace of mind because once you're in, you're in forever," he said, somberly. "You never feel as safe anymore."
The same fear was expressed by gang members' families.
"It scares me every day I walk down the street," said Shirley Wright of Wilmington, whose two sons are in gangs. Several times, she said, she's been shot at by members of rival gangs. And twice the bullets narrowly missed her grandchildren, once when one of them was only 2 months old.
"I want it to stop," she said of the violence claiming innocents and gang members alike. "I'm tired of holding these kids while they're bleeding to death," she said. "I had one die in my arms."
Like others attending the seminar, Wright insisted that the violence will not end until communities like Wilmington band together, family by family, block by block, to learn about gangs and how to break their grip.
"It won't stop until we take back our families and take back our streets," Wright said.
Added Dee Wigginton, president of Mothers Against Gangs: "If we can work together, we can bring back some peace to the community."
But until then, the speakers said, the violence and tears will continue.
"The true victims of all the senseless gang violence are the surviving relatives: the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, the brothers," said Beaty of the Police Department.
John Chavez knows that's true. "This (seminar) is kind of opening up some painful memories for myself as a kid growing up in East L.A.," said Chavez, 26, who helped organize the event as an employee of its financial sponsor, Falcon Disposal Service Inc.
A former gang member stabbed seven times by the age of 15, Chavez recalled how after one stabbing he could hear his mother's voice as he lay near death in a hospital emergency room. "I was almost in a coma, but I could hear her crying (that) it was her fault," Chavez said, his voice breaking. "It wasn't."
Chavez told that story to the seminar's participants at lunch. And afterward he continued talking about his days as a gang member, at one point lifting up his T-shirt to show his scars to John Gramenz, 16, of Harbor City.
"Check it out," he told Gramenz.
Later, the teen-ager said the seminar had been informative and sometimes moving. "I liked the play," he said, taking a drag on a cigarette.
But the event, he said, was not the type that his gang member friends would be affected by, let alone attend. "Gang members don't show their feelings. They have a heart, but they don't show it around their homeboys," he said.
Not even at funerals.
"It's got to stop," said Chris Luna, who played the grieving mother in the skit about a funeral.
While on stage, Luna said, she cried as she thought about the funerals she had attended. And afterward, when the play was over, she was prepared to cry again during a visit to the home of Kevin Price.
Just that afternoon, they had buried Price, 18. One week earlier, he had become the 13th person killed this year by Harbor area gangs.