Inside Orange County’s most hardened youth gangs, today’s first countywide gang violence summit is warranting little more than a shrug of young shoulders.
But on Monday, the collective yawn in the ‘hood stood in contrast to a booming business at the summit box office, where homeowners associations, hotel executives, real estate groups, educators, police officials and parents were lining up to participate in the one-day conference.
In a matter of two days, the roster of summiteers has nearly doubled to include about 1,000 delegates. On Monday alone, deputy probation officer Bill Collins said, the county received about 300 telephone calls from residents seeking to reserve seats for the event at Anaheim’s Inn at the Park Hotel.
“It is unbelievable and nearly overwhelming,” said Collins, who attributed the sudden surge to a growing “mood in the community to do something.”
Nevertheless, these determined faces of community and government are not the least bit familiar to most gang members. And the lofty goal of reducing gang activity runs counter to years of booming growth.
“I think they are wasting their time,” said Wimpy, a 17-year-old baggy-panted gang member from Westminster. “It’s too late. What can they do? Nothing. Are they going to arrest us all?”
From the streets of Buena Park, the outlook is not much different.
“I just don’t know what they can do,” said 18-year-old Enrique. “I guess no one knows.”
For the delegates expected to converge at the Inn at the Park Hotel today, the teen-agers’ comments reflect how far officials must stretch a dwindling pool of resources to reach a generation of troubled gang members in Orange County, about 17,000 at last count.
The task of reversing a “tide of neglect” has become all the more complex, because many of those caught up in the current plague of gang violence simply refuse to change their ways.
“If I die,” said 15-year-old Francisco of Huntington Beach, “I don’t want to die with a schedule, all organized. I don’t want to get up at a certain time, go to a certain job. I just want to have fun.”
In many ways, Francisco’s philosophy has become a lightning rod for change in communities throughout Orange County, from long-suffering cities like Santa Ana, where the number of gang-related killings has already shattered all-time records, to a relatively new battleground in South County, where a popular high school student’s death has produced a chorus of outrage.
“The best that we can hope for is that when we leave Anaheim Tuesday, the work will go on,” said David Hartl, a USC professor who has helped organize the summit. “This cannot be the end of this effort. This is just the first collective step to push back that tide of neglect.”
The first task for summit leaders would appear to be a simple one, but it is one that has eluded officials for years in their attempts to devise anti-gang strategies that work: Tuesday’s meeting may just be the first time that many of the county’s premier anti-gang leaders get together in the same room to compare notes on the problem.
For years, officials said, neighborhoods have been waging their own personal struggles against encroaching gang violence with little knowledge of what resources exist just outside their geographic boundaries.
A soup-to-nuts directory of available programs and counseling services was published by the county last winter, but the book alone, however valuable for those seeking help, should only be considered a confirmation of the growing problem in Orange County, authorities said.
Just since 1990, gang-related deaths have more than doubled, from 28 to at least 60 so far this year. The increase is all the more alarming when compared with state Department of Justice statistics which show that Orange County’s rate of gang killing is rapidly approaching levels reported in Los Angeles County just five years ago.
Membership in gangs is also up dramatically, 35% since 1991.
For most summit delegates, the daunting numbers are symptomatic of a myriad of social troubles: rising unemployment, family break-ups, the accessibility of weapons and things as basic as poor parenting skills.
“I’m telling you that a major factor in the things we are seeing occur out in the streets is . . . a breakdown in traditional family roles,” said Colleene Hodges, the county’s supervising probation officer. “The respect for those structures is gone. . . . We have a generation of kids running amok.”
Hodges’ words are a strong dose of reality about what a one-day conference can accomplish in the face of such a multifaceted problem. At this point in the local gang wars, the profiles of kids like Wimpy, Enrique and Francisco are just too familiar for officials to believe that a turnaround can occur overnight.
“I expect that a lot more people will get educated about how widespread the problem really is,” said Albert Gonzalez, a former gang member and now truant officer in the Placentia-Yorba Linda School District. “But my experience with these kinds of meetings is that not a whole lot comes out of it. What I would like to see are real solutions, not just punitive measures. There has to be some hope.”
Antonio Espinosa, assistant principal at Santa Ana’s Valley High School, said: “The gang problem did not develop overnight, so it’s going to take awhile to correct the situation.”
In Garden Grove, where gangs have long been entrenched, local school district official Ron Forsyth’s expectations for the summit are equally tempered.
“What we’ve had is people in some parts of the county saying it’s the problem of another part of the county,” Forsyth said. “What I’d like to get out of this (summit) is a total community focus on gangs.”
USC’s Hartl, who will lead a range of summit discussions among community leaders and gang members who are struggling to extricate themselves, is more optimistic than most but also acknowledges that a one-day meeting will not produce the “magic bullet.”
During most of his youth, Hartl said he spent much time working with his father at a home for delinquent boys. In that period, there were celebrations for those--including some of the most hardened--who found the strength for transformation. Painfully, there were also those who could not be saved.
Hartl said expectations should not be much different in Orange County’s battle with gangs.
The bad news is that there is little fear out in the streets these days.
Sixteen-year-old Javier of Westminster owns a handgun he bought for $100, but only uses “when I have to.” His parents know he’s gang member, but there is little they can do about it, he said.
“What can they say? I know it bothers them, but I’ll do whatever I want. I wouldn’t get out (of my gang). I know I can’t. You get so used to doing things, it’s hard to get out.”
* READERS SPEAK: TimesLink callers offer advice on solving gang problem. A26
Special Report: Troubled Turf
Sunday: The countywide growth of gangs and its toll.
Monday: Street talk about living in the line of fire.
Today: Leaders, residents, gang members seek answers.
Wednesday: Coverage of Orange County’s first anti-gang summit.
Thursday: What works in fighting back against gangs.