When federal officials recently balked at a proposal to hire the Nation of Islam to rid 14 federally subsidized apartment buildings in Venice's Oakwood section of drug dealers and gangbangers, residents knew why.
"They won't let the brothers in because they want to keep us oppressed," said Regina Hyman, a tenant organizer. "They want blacks to keep getting shot up."
Some residents of Oakwood have long suspected that developers, real estate speculators and police have allowed crime to fester at the buildings because they want an excuse to tear them down. The roadblocks tenants are encountering in trying to get Louis Farrakhan's black Muslim organization to protect them, they say, only confirm these suspicions.
"There's no doubt that there is a sneaky campaign to get rid of the HUD buildings so land values will go up and the majority of the minorities would be out of here," said Robert Shipp, a minister at New Bethel Baptist Church in Oakwood.
Many Oakwood residents, especially blacks, believe that this so-called campaign is part of a bigger plan to shove poor people out of the neighborhood altogether.
"There's a conspiracy. Rich people want our property to build condos and luxury homes on it. And they're working with the council and the city and the police to get it," said Pearl White, a longtime Oakwood activist and a leading proponent of this theory.
Police and city officials acknowledge that the conspiracy theory has taken firm root in Oakwood, and they say it sometimes makes law enforcement and community improvement efforts significantly tougher.
Oakwood was once the only neighborhood on the Westside where blacks were welcome, and until the 1970s, it was a predominantly black community. Locals point out that when Venice founder Abbot Kinney willed his elegant canal-side home to his black chauffeur, Irving Tabor, Tabor had to move the home to nearby Oakwood.
Covering less than half a square mile and containing about 9,200 residents, Oakwood still has a substantial black population. According to the 1990 census, the two census tracts that make up Oakwood were 50% Latino, 26% Anglo and 22% black.
But Oakwood has also become a chic place to live, attracting artists and celebrities such as Dennis Hopper, who regularly cleans gang graffiti from the walls of his home. It has also become one of the Westside's hottest real estate markets. The reasons: It has a certain tattered vibrancy--and single-family homes just a few blocks from the ocean for less than $300,000.
Supporters of the conspiracy theory are often vague when asked to describe the "they" that is the enemy. But evidence of the plot against them, they say, is obvious. For one thing, "Look at all the new condos springing up," said Louis Carr, a member of the Oakwood Beautification Committee, a community group. "There definitely is a hidden agenda to get the blacks out."
The Nation of Islam dispute, residents say, is simply the latest case in point. Late last year, the group's security agency, NOI, appeared on the verge of receiving a contract from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to patrol 14 Holiday Venice apartment buildings, which are scattered through Oakwood. But then some Jewish organizations and a few Oakwood residents objected, and HUD postponed its decision. Residents of the apartments who originally recruited the Nation of Islam now predict that the contract will eventually go to another firm.
Antoinette Reynolds, another member of the beautification committee, estimates that 75% of the black community shares such thinking--although she does not. "They don't understand the economic change going on," Reynolds said, alluding to the gentrification that is transforming Oakwood.
The Latino community, despite its large numbers, has played little role so far in this or most other neighborhood issues. Maria Daldivia, a Latina who said she is constantly trying to encourage others to participate in community issues, said she is usually told they are too busy working to attend meetings. Others are illegal immigrants, she said, and want to keep a low profile. Another problem, she said, is that while most of the black activists who dominate Oakwood grass-roots politics are women, Latino women rarely join anything without their husbands.
City officials are exasperated by the conspiracy talk.
"There's this perception that City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and the city attorney and police are working with developers to move out poor black people," said Susan Wagner, an aide to Galanter and a 12-year Oakwood resident. "It's ridiculous."
"Anybody with an ounce of intelligence and a fair, open mind could see it's coming from left field," said John Wilbanks, the recently retired captain of the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division.
But others say the theory is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Jim Johnson, director of UCLA's Center for Urban Poverty, said similar conspiracy beliefs are shared by growing numbers of black communities across the country under siege from gentrification.
"It's not paranoia. It makes sense," Johnson insisted. "Maybe nobody's sitting in a back room over whiskey. But a number of forces and policies have created a situation that is forcing poor people to fight against the giants. To them, it looks like a conspiracy."
Despite segregation, the Oakwood of the 1950s was a happy place to grow up, recalls John Q. Tabor Jr., Irving Tabor's nephew. People left their screen doors open and a network of honorary aunts and grandmothers looked out for the kids.
"About the only gang we had in Venice was called the Venice Ants, and all we'd do is jump up on the back of the pickup owned by Junior Muff's grandfather and raid the weenie barbecues on the beach," Tabor said.
But by the '70s, gangbanging and drug dealing had become rampant. At one point, The Times described Oakwood as the murder capital of the country. Locals named it "Ghost-town," after the drug addicts who wandered the streets at night looking for a fix and after the emaciated young prostitutes willing to turn a trick in exchange for drugs. Dealers flagged down customers--many of them in fancy cars from more affluent Westside neighborhoods--in broad daylight. Gangsters assaulted policemen and trashed their patrol cars.
"Police were afraid to go into Oakwood to patrol. They'd just stay out," recalled Wilbanks, the retired LAPD captain.
Activist White recalled how after a night of shooting she would cruise the streets in an old station wagon to pick up the bodies and take them to the hospital, because ambulance crews wouldn't venture into Oakwood.
Today dealers, bangers, prostitutes and pipeheads still hang out on certain street corners, although according to the new Pacific Division chief, Capt. Jan Carlson, they are far fewer in number.
Census figures tell a story of rapid change. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of blacks in Oakwood declined 24%, while the Anglo population rose 21% and the Latino population rose 13%. And whites now outnumber blacks.
Land values have jumped so much that some of the children of the people once forced by segregation to settle in Oakwood can't afford to live there.
Even longtime residents complain they are unable to get loans from banks to fix up their properties or help pay their mortgages.
"It's very frustrating realizing that an area where I have roots will be taken away and we'll be pushed into other living conditions like rats," said Sheila Stephens, Pearl White's daughter. "It seems like a conspiratorial effort on the part of rich whites, developers and police."
Anger and the sense of a conspiracy only increased when, at the peak of the real estate boom in the late '80s, police initiated a belated crackdown on crime. In 1989 the Pacific Division created a special task force of 24 officers and two sergeants to patrol Oakwood.
"They didn't care about black boys dying until the developers started coming in," White said.
Wilbanks said that when he put together the task force he did so with two objectives: to reduce crime and to improve what he calls a horrible relationship between the polarized community and police.
He also set up the Oakwood Beautification Committee. "Once word went out," Wilbanks recalled, "white people started calling and wanting to get involved. That hurt us--the whites and the developers just supported this whole conspiracy theory."
One of those who called Wilbanks was Jack Hoffman, a real estate broker who moved into the neighborhood full of good intentions about what he and other business leaders could do to aid the community.
But when he visited White and another longtime Oakwood activist, Flora Chavez, to offer them help, they wanted little to do with him.
Just a few weeks ago, in fact, Chavez rejected Hoffman's offer to arrange for the donation to poor residents of leftover food from the Venice Farmers Market.
"I'm in real trouble if I work with the Jack Hoffmans of the world," said Chavez, director of a small nonprofit organization dedicated to serving Oakwood's poor. "They're all mixed up in real estate. We don't want to take any food from the enemy."
Eventually members of the Oakwood Beautification Committee were forced to ask police officers not to show up at the group's meetings. The presence of the officers, member Phil Raider recalled, was fueling community suspicions that the committee was simply an arm of the police. Black members of the group report that they were called "Uncle Tom." Resentment increased when beautification committee members were honored by President Bush during a visit to Oakwood in 1990.
Many members, including Hoffman, finally dropped out.
"There was so much frustration on both sides," Hoffman said. "I got tired of the battling."
Wilbanks took other measures to ease community tensions. He cracked down on officers, instructing them not to issue the "chicken---- tickets" that, in the past, had alienated residents. He encouraged residents to call him with any complaints. And he transferred officers who didn't take to what he admits was a "social experiment" of sorts--an effort to provide community-based policing before the concept became popular.
Over the next three years, crime dropped 58%, according to police.
But, as Wilbanks himself acknowledges, police continue to be regarded with hostility.
This was clear last Saturday afternoon at the corner of 5th Avenue and Broadway--a few years ago the second-busiest drug-trafficking center in the city.
"Nutbone," a 22-year-old gang member listening to a NWA rap song called "F--- tha Police" and scanning each passing car, said he was expecting brisk activity: Welfare checks had just been issued.
A block away, someone whistled. Moments later, a lookout on a battered bike rode up and warned that "four (obscenity) dudes in a blue car are coming," then pedaled off. In seconds, an unmarked car containing four officers cruised by.
"They're always hassling us, jacking us up, beating us up," Nutbone complained.
On the same corner, Joyce, 41, a self-described drug dealer dressed in a short red dress and holding a glass of brandy, complained that the neighborhood was changing. "When I was growing up," she said, "there's wasn't no killing each other. We lived in harmony."
Asked what had changed, she lunged to the ground and started sniffing imaginary cocaine.
"White man got us just where they want," she said. "Killing each other off."
Police dismiss such complaints as the ramblings of criminals. Community leaders don't.
"The KKKs don't have to take blacks and hang them anymore, because young people are gunning themselves down," said Shipp, the Baptist minister.
"There is a power higher than us bringing all the drugs in here and keeping us killing each other off," agreed Melvyn Hayward, a counselor with Didi Hersch Mental Health Center.
Neighborhood activist White said she believes a new city abatement program aimed at evicting drug dealers from run-down properties is nothing more than a tool of gentrification.
Several elderly women whose homes were overrun by drug-dealing relatives have recently been evicted, she complained. "The city should have helped them stay in their own homes instead of running them off," White said.
City officials contend that in Oakwood, a tight-knit community in which a small number of families have lived off crime for two or even three generations, it is easier to blame malevolent and abstract outside forces than one's relatives.
"People are being victimized by their own children. But there's a lot of pointing of fingers, a lot of denial," Wagner, Galanter's aide, said. "It's a lot easier to fix blame than to fix the problem."
Residents argue that to fix the problem they need more help and more places to send their kids than prison. Jobs are scarce, there are few recreation programs for youth in Oakwood, and it takes months to get into local drug rehabilitation programs.
Hayward's 18-year-old son is a gang member and a drug dealer. "I'm not trying to make excuses for him," Hayward said. "But they have no jobs, no agencies, nothing to do for these kids."
Some Oakwood residents say this talk of a conspiracy to subjugate them and take over their land gives the community an easy excuse for apathy.
"It may be true, but it's a cop-out. We have to take back control," said Antoinette Reynolds.
Reynolds, a member of the Oakwood Beautification Committee, speaks from experience: She is recovering from substance abuse and raising a 4-year-old by herself.
Instead of blaming, she said, residents have to start fighting back.
That means continuing the struggle for the right of the community to win a contract for the Nation of Islam, she said. But it also means fighting scores of personal battles.
Every night before bed, she says, she tells her son that as a young black boy he must be prepared to overcome some tremendous obstacles.
But, she tells him, "If you fight, they can't hold you back. You can still make it."
A segregated black neighborhood for much of the century, Oakwood has become more diverse in the last 30 years. Most of the Latino influx occurred in the 1970s. The pace of gentrification picked up in the 1980s, during which Anglos became more numerous than blacks.
Population 1980 1990 8,996 9,216
Racial-Ethnic 1980 1990 Breakdown Latino 45% 50% Black 30% 22% Anglo 23% 26% Asian 1% 1%