Panic at a City Housing Project
In the confused moments after a fire exploded at the Jordan Downs Housing Project in Watts, Juan Zuniga shot a black man outside his home, critically wounding him. Police say that man, Gregory Moore, was not a fleeing arsonist but a neighbor running toward the burning home to help. Zuniga’s panic compounded a tragedy. It must not be allowed to multiply.
The chance of racial tensions worsening will be less if the city’s elected officials as well as community leaders act to calm fears. Now is the time to speak out. Police and fire investigators are still trying to determine precisely what happened Saturday when five in a Latino family were killed in a fire that witnesses said was deliberately set by black men. Given the potential for racial tensions in this terrible incident, it’s important that investigators move forward as quickly and methodically as possible. For the same reason, it’s just as important that black and Latino community leaders--elected officials and the activists who support them--move now to keep Jordan Downs calm.
Like the rest of the south side, Jordan Downs is undergoing a demographic change as Latino families move into neighborhoods that have been largely black for the last two generations. Latinos now make up about one-fifth of the 2,500 people in the city-run housing project. The Zuniga family victimized by Saturday’s fire was part of that trend, having moved into a townhouse there in June.
Neighbors said Zuniga family members had run-ins with drug dealers who terrorize almost everyone in Jordan Downs, and police theorize the arson attack was a result. But no one knows for sure yet.
In the meantime, there is a swirl of unsubstantiated rumors that the attack was racially motivated and stemmed from resentment against Latinos by black residents of Jordan Downs. Those rumors could spill over into the surrounding community unless nipped in the bud. The most effective way to do it is for people trusted in the community to speaking cooling words as the investigation into this passion-provoking incident continues. Minority elected officials and activists who use their standing in the community to advocate specific causes and legislation for their people now must work to help their people keep calm despite the anger and fear of the moment. If things get out of hand, it is the innocent who will suffer the most.