More than 1,000 religious and grass-roots activists rallied Tuesday for one of the most ambitious--and expensive--proposals ever to take aim at gang violence in Los Angeles, but they got a dose of political reality when Mayor Tom Bradley said the city has no money to help.
The "Hope in Youth" campaign, led by Cardinal Roger Mahony, is seeking nearly $290 million over the next five years for a far-reaching attack on the social and economic ills that have fueled the rise of street gangs. At least $85 million of that is expected to come from depleted government coffers.
Although backers of the campaign concede that they face an uphill battle, they insist that political pressure can force leaders to change priorities and make money available, as they do in emergencies caused by natural disasters.
"We look to our political leadership to respond fully and boldly to this crisis," Mahony told the crowd, which packed into Phillips Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on East 43rd Street. "Token responses--half measures--simply will be unacceptable."
But Bradley, who was asked to place $2.5 million for the plan in next year's city budget, went to the podium and conceded that the request was impossible to fulfill.
"I am not going to lie to you," the mayor said. "The money isn't there."
A friendly but terse exchange ensued, with one of the organizers, the Rev. William R. Johnson, pressuring Bradley to commit the money anyway.
"An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure," said Johnson as the crowd egged him on. "We are saying, Mr. Mayor, we want this to be your ounce of prevention."
Bradley, cheerful but firm, said he is already struggling to cut $183 million--a projected deficit that is expected to continue growing.
"I don't think it is fair of you to ask that I give you the 2 1/2 million dollars when you know it is not there," he said.
Finally, realizing that the mayor was not going to give in, Johnson asked that Bradley simply use his political clout to help find the money. The mayor agreed and was led to the front of the stage, where he signed his name on a chart detailing the proposed budget of the campaign.
Although it ended with smiles, the short debate highlighted the hurdles organizers face as they seek government funding to help squelch the violence that claimed 771 lives in Los Angeles County last year.
Bradley's support--along with that of U.S. Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente)--was little more than a symbolic gesture. Moreover, there were no commitments from the financially pinched county, the state or private business--all of which will be asked to kick in many more millions.
"Generally, you don't get a decisive victory on the first day," said Larry Foundation, an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community action group that is helping lead the campaign. "But I think it also shows we can move people to commit."
Tuesday's meeting was the first major test of the Hope in Youth campaign, which was announced last month and hailed as an unprecedented attempt to channel the resources of eight major religious denominations toward a solution for the gang problem.
The bilingual event--part political rally, part prayer service--began with an uplifting song called "It's Gonna Change" and ended with the audience filling out pledge cards, which did not request money but included the vow to "pray daily for the success of this campaign."
Behind the podium was a large map of the county with a pink dot placed at the site of each of last year's gang killings. A placard nearby noted that the cost of incarcerating one person is about $32,000 a year.
"It is time now for action," said Bishop E. Lynn Brown, a leader in the Christian Methodist Episcopal denomination, in a rousing speech that brought the crowd to its feet. "We can sit no longer. . . . It is time to stand up and fight for the lives of our children."
The campaign revolves around the creation of 160 family outreach teams, which would annually assist 10,000 families whose children are involved in gangs or are at risk. The paid workers, 480 altogether, would provide parent training and help the youths with school, jobs and recreational opportunities. The price tag for the teams is about $20 million a year; organizers hope $16 million will come from tax dollars and $4 million from corporate sources.
That element of the plan would be bolstered by the proposed creation of 80 primary centers--small neighborhood schools that would focus on children between kindergarten and second grade. The idea is to keep the youngsters from being bused, reduce crowding and increase parent involvement. The cost: $180 million, which would probably have to come from bond issues requiring voter approval.
The final element of the plan is the development of a new "constituency for youth"--the political muscle that is expected to persuade elected officials to support the rest of the proposal. Religious leaders say they will fund that effort by raising $2.5 million from their congregations by 1997.