Four-year-old Darren stands near a doorway at Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista, waiting for his grandmother and his 14-year-old sister, Rasheka, to finish their interviews about the ongoing gang war in their nearby Venice neighborhood. Playfully, he waves a stack of Lego-type blocks that he has fashioned into the shape of a gun.
"I like guns 'cause that's what the police have," the little boy says with a smile. Yaa Yaanykoah, his grandmother and legal guardian, sits at the table across from him and shakes her head sadly.
"I can't seem to stop him from making those," she says. "But I don't let him or his 2-year-old brother play with toy guns. It's not good for them, especially now with all the trouble we have around here."
The "trouble" is the most intense gang war raging in Los Angeles: a mushrooming yearlong conflict that involves black and Latino gang members from Venice, Culver City, Mar Vista and Santa Monica and has taken the lives of 17 people, many of them innocent victims. More than 50 others have been wounded by gunfire.
The war hit a new peak last week when two Latino teen-age residents--students at Dorsey High in southwest Los Angeles--were shot and killed near Venice High School in Mar Vista. This week, when Venice High parents and students gathered for a graduation awards program, an assistant principal soberly asked anyone scheduling a graduation party to notify police so they could schedule extra patrols in the neighborhood.
A year's worth of this mind-set has made residents highly resentful not only of gangs, but also of police, who are accused of oppressive tactics, and the news media, who are accused of sensationalizing the violence. The strongest bitterness is found in the Oakwood section of Venice, a square-mile neighborhood made up of federally subsidized apartments and small, wood-frame houses that has been hardest hit by the violence. Among Oakwood's African Americans, there is a growing suspicion that developers will exploit the interracial gang fighting to frighten poor blacks and Latinos into selling their beach-adjacent homes.
The combined force of these stresses seems to be pushing the Oakwood area toward a collective breakdown.
"I'm a total nervous wreck," Yaanykoah says. "I've been sick for three months. I've stopped eating, stopped sleeping, and I'm afraid to let the kids go outside."
"I'm not scared normally, but I feel like I'm living in a foreign war zone," says Ebearl Williams, a campus aide at Mark Twain and a nine-year Oakwood resident. "I feel like people don't care about us or what's going on here because they think it's just blacks and browns fighting."
Roger Melton, a therapist who teaches a course on the psychology of violence and survival at Antioch College in Marina del Rey, says these are signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Constant gang violence creates an urban, guerrilla war setting," says Melton, a Vietnam War combat veteran. "People live like soldiers in constant fear. That makes them go numb. They feel helpless, get depressed or angry."
Michele Williams, a lifelong Oakwood resident who is a tutor at Mark Twain and has organized a new anti-violence group, heard it in the voices of her 9-year-old twin daughters.
The girls are afraid to sleep in their rooms, but after they were baptized recently they told their mother they felt better because now "if they get shot and die, they'll go to heaven," Michele Williams said. "It made (me) feel sad and less than as a parent," she says. "That's when I decided to start working for peace."
As is typical of many wars, the roots of the conflict are unclear.
Lt. John Weaver, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's West Bureau anti-gang unit, says it began as a power struggle between the Shoreline Crips, a black gang based in Oakwood, and Venice 13, a nearby Latino gang, over control of crack cocaine sales. But that analysis is disputed by many Oakwood residents and at least one staff member of Community Youth Gang Services, a county gang-prevention agency.
"It started because a black beat up a Latino, and then it got turned into a gang thing," said the gang worker, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A string of incidents that occurred last week illustrated a frightening level of retaliation. With almost mathematical precision, the attacks alternated between Latino against black, then black against Latino.
Most of Oakwood's younger teen-agers attend Mark Twain Middle School, which lies east of Lincoln Boulevard, the informal dividing line between Mar Vista and Venice. They describe it as an island of calm that gives them temporary shelter from lives of fear.
"I just feel speechless" about the violence at home, says Crystal Griffis, 14. "What I'm feeling, I can't express."
She is also critical of the LAPD. "Why do they take an hour to come when there's shooting?" she asks. "You can't respect them when they won't do their job. We deserve the same service that white folks get."
Julio Garcia, 14, says he was unhappy with his family's recent move from Santa Monica to Oakwood. He says he lies awake at night and listens to the gunshots and helicopters. "I feel scared a lot. I also pray to God to keep us safe, but mostly I just feel hopeless."
Police have complained that they are powerless to make a dent in the gang war unless Oakwood residents are more helpful in tipping them off about suspected criminals. But resentment against the LAPD is strong.
"They treat all male blacks here like gangbangers," Michele Williams says.
Capt. Richard LeGarra, commander of the LAPD's Pacific Division, acknowledges that Oakwood is scared and angry.
"They want the shooting stopped and their children safe. So do we. But what can we do?" he asks. "We're there in force, but people are waiting till our cars pass and using that window of opportunity to shoot. We're very concerned our presence is not a deterrent. But we can't violate people's rights to keep the peace. I also have 25 other square miles to patrol, and we're down in personnel, so we're spread really thin."
These cross-complaints are also a sign of the fatigue of war, says therapist Melton.
"People develop a bunker mentality, get hardened and move to despair or apathy when the situation remains unresolved," he said.