As the violence spread in Los Angeles last week, more than 50 present and former gang members took to the graffiti-spattered streets of the eastern San Fernando Valley.
They didn't go out to shoot and loot. These gang bangers, part of a program that tries to steer troubled youths away from violence and into community activism, formed a protective line around several stores in poor neighborhoods of Pacoima, according to local leaders and police.
The only evidence of destruction that could be seen this week along Van Nuys Boulevard, where they set up their line of defense Wednesday and Thursday nights last week, was several broken windows in a single shop. That happened after the impromptu guard force was sent home by police, said those who participated.
Shopkeeper John Chung, 42, the owner of John's Liquor, expressed his appreciation to the young men outside his store Wednesday night. "I'm really thankful to the community and all the guys who watched my store," Chung said, surrounded by a crowd of young men, some wearing the dark caps and net jerseys that are often associated with street violence.
"Word of mouth was they were going to try to hit this liquor store," said Ruben Ledesma, 21, an ex-gang member who helped guard the store. He said he and the rest of the impromptu guards wanted to protect Chung because "he runs a good business."
"He never disrespects us when we're in the store," added Bobbie Marshall, 39, a muscular black man who runs a weightlifting program for the gang members.
Members of this unusual security force are former and active members of the Project Boys, one of the oldest and largest Latino gangs in the Valley, with an estimated 300 members. Over the years, its members have committed a variety of crimes, including robbery and murder, said detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department.
In fact, complaints about the gang's continuing criminal involvement grew so heated last year in the public housing units at San Fernando Gardens that Rep. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City) established an outreach program for the gang members. Called the Wednesday Night Regulars and spearheaded by Berman aide Rose Castaneda, the organization has been volunteering its services for civic projects such as painting schools and visiting disabled veterans. On Saturday, they are scheduled to deliver Mother's Day gifts to homeless women at the Valley Shelter in North Hollywood.
Castaneda, 44, said the program is aimed at helping gang members develop respect for themselves and for their community. Berman aide Fred Flores said that while some participants are active gang members, he insisted that none of them are involved in ongoing criminal activity.
Officer Stephany Payne of the Police Department's Foothill Division said she has been working with the group and, with her partner Glen Younger, happened to be at their meeting that Wednesday afternoon when the King case verdicts came down. "I told them, 'If there's any rioting in Foothill, don't get involved. It's very important to maintain the peace.' "
She expressed satisfaction when she learned that they had gone out after the meeting and guarded buildings.
"Thank God they listened," she said.
Payne said their activities may have been crucial to preventing damage, adding that John's Liquor "would have been a good target." She said several other Asian-owned stores in the East Valley were attacked.
"Rumor has it the same group was trying to do John's Liquor."
Ledesma said his group chose a couple of local stores to protect that are important to the poor people in the surrounding area. Besides John's Liquor at 13101 Van Nuys Blvd., they stood guard outside Tresierras Market across the street. Marshall said that when they went out in the street Wednesday night, there were cars going up and down the street with people hanging out shouting, "No justice, no peace."
"We told the people it wasn't worth it" to commit violence, he said.
Ledesma said the presence of his group would have discouraged any attacks because "people don't want to mess with gangs out here."
Chung, the vice president of the Korean-American Grocers Assn. in Los Angeles, said he was unaware that the gang members had come to help because he closed early that Wednesday. He also said he thinks the violence that hit South Los Angeles so hard did not strike the Valley with the same force "because the community is more together." However, there were several arson fires and rioting at the Foothill police station.
Ledesma said his group stayed on the street Wednesday night for "quite awhile," until police drove by and ordered them to go home. He said the group also put out a fire in a tree near Whiteman Airport.
Bill Humphry, the detective in charge of the Valley's Gang Task Force for the Los Angeles Police Department, was skeptical of the gang's altruism. "This gang has been involved in murder, street robberies, rapes, kidnapings. These are not your Boy Scouts of America.
"If this happened, it's commendable, but you wonder if these guys were doing it for their own selves" because their families use the stores involved.
Aides to Berman, however, insisted that the Wednesday Night Regulars are turning their lives around and that their actions during the riot prove how far they have come. "This is the first step in becoming their own person," Flores said.
Castaneda was so proud of the job they did that she devoted much of this Wednesday's meeting at the Pacoima Recreation Center to praising them and going over their feelings about the riots. About 40 people attended, many of them young boys with tattoos and wearing jeans that dragged on the floor when they walked.
"I want to thank each and every one of you for not reacting last week. Not only did you not get involved in the madness," Castaneda told the group, "but you protected your community."
Asked to explain their reactions to the rioting, members of the group said they didn't want the trouble in South Los Angeles to be replicated in their community. "We all live here," Ledesma said. He said that if local stores were burned out, residents would have to drive long distances for food.
"A lot of people don't have cars," he said.
A reminder of how fresh their conversion still is came when Ledesma offered his thanks to Marshall and Miguel Rios, another adviser to the group. "I feel like if it wasn't for people like Bobby and Miguel, " he said, "we might have burned a few stores down."