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Many Roots of Hate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Memories of racist terror linger among the African Americans who remain in this small town, even though nearly three years have passed since the last black man was slain in public.

Black residents say they still don’t dare to walk the streets at night. They remember the two men shot point-blank. They remember the young man beaten to death with a baseball bat by a mob in the supermarket parking lot. They remember police tailing children walking home from school to protect them from racist attacks.

The place is not a backwater that eluded the civil rights era. It is in one of America’s most cosmopolitan areas: Los Angeles County.

The racist violence erupted in Hawaiian Gardens, a little-known town amid the robust ethnic communities in the county’s southeastern heel. Bordering Long Beach and Lakewood, the city also abuts Cypress, the Orange County hometown of America’s multiethnic sports idol, Tiger Woods.

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From 1995 through 1997, more than three dozen hate crimes were committed against African Americans in Hawaiian Gardens, a mostly Latino town of only 15,000. Since then, the community has been virtually free of hate crimes, though experts say they are not sure why and fear that the causes of the terror remain.

The assailants in the hate crimes were not neo-Nazis, but members of a generations-old Latino gang.

But officials and academics familiar with the city say its importance is not that it stands out, but that it fits in.

The working-class community is a window on the bigger picture of hate crimes in the region. Racist attacks in Los Angeles are more often like the overlooked Hawaiian Gardens crimes than like Aryan Nations member Buford O. Furrow Jr.'s spectacular alleged rampage last year.

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While politicians and the media have fixated on the threat posed by white supremacists, statistics in Los Angeles County show that violent racist crimes are committed more often by members of traditional street gangs.

“Clearly, we have our . . . white supremacists. They’re out there, but in the main they’re less and less of a factor,” said Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission. In Los Angeles, he said, “gang violence is the point of origin for much of what we call hate crimes.”

Nationally, white supremacist attacks such as the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, and Furrow’s alleged shooting rampage have prompted repeated calls for anti-hate crime legislation. They have also raised concerns about the revival of Nazism, and about the role of mental illness and such newly defined culprits as the Internet in fomenting hatred.

But for Los Angeles gangs, hate crimes are only an occasional diversion from their main targets: rival gang members. The gangs reflect not a resurgent racist movement, but the persistence of old-fashioned criminal accomplices such as poverty, truancy and drug abuse.

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Los Angeles has a higher rate of hate crimes--crimes targeting a victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation or other characteristics-- than the national average. But here, the causes are more complex than a simple backlash against minorities.

To fight hate crimes here, the roots of the gang problem need as much attention as the causes of hatred, said Roberto Lovato, president of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

While Los Angeles gangs are organized by race, they thrive today in persistent pockets of poverty in the city and its suburbs, in the flourishing drug trade and soaring prison populations, gang experts say.

“You don’t get as many reports of hate crimes in Beverly Hills as you do in the places left out of the new economy,” Lovato said. “Maybe we should stop calling them hate crimes and start calling them class crimes or poverty crimes. It’s have-nots attacking other have-nots,” he said.

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In Los Angeles County, more violent hate crimes have been committed by Latinos--the county’s largest racial group--than whites.

According to a study of hate crimes in the county by University of Hawaii professor Karen Umemoto, there were 164 Latino perpetrators of hate crimes in 1997, compared with 119 white offenders. The Latino hate criminals were mostly linked to traditional street gangs, which are not based on supremacist ideology.

Nearly all of the Hawaiian Gardens hate crimes, for instance, were the work of the local gang that has plagued the city for generations. Fights between African American and Latino gangs in places as far apart as Azusa, South-Central Los Angeles, Torrance, Venice and San Pedro have erupted into attacks on residents with no connection to gangs.

Newcomers Hit by Backlash

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A Hawaiian Gardens Latino gang member was shot to death in the late 1980s. Though no one was ever arrested for that shooting, locals blamed the killing on black gang members.

There was little fallout, however, because black gangs had not taken root in the city, which had few African American residents.

That changed as more African Americans moved to the city in the mid-1990s. For many, the attractions seemed plentiful and obvious. Although Hawaiian Gardens had a higher poverty rate than the county as a whole, it offered cheap housing, a multicity school district that includes elite Whitney High School in Cerritos, and a thriving commercial strip along Carson Boulevard.

What the newcomers did not anticipate was the backlash from a gang determined to keep blacks off its turf. At first, the gang roughed up black teenagers walking home from school. The attacks soon moved to African American homes. Several houses were hit by Molotov cocktails.

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Gang members threatened black residents as they left stores, walked on the streets near their houses or ate at fast-food restaurants. They repeated a simple message: “Get out of our neighborhood,” usually underscored by the most common epithet.

Virgil Henry III, 24, never had a chance to get out of the neighborhood.

He had just stepped off a bus on Carson Boulevard and was walking to his parents’ apartment when at least 10 Latino adults and teenagers chased him. He ran across four lanes of traffic into the parking lot of a busy strip mall.

Drivers, stopped at a traffic light, told police they heard Henry repeatedly shout, “What did I do?” as he ran. He was gaining distance on his attackers until he tripped in the parking lot, just behind a coffee shop. Shoppers saw the mob--which included women and men--stomp and kick Henry, then bash his head with an aluminum baseball bat, police said.

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Radames Gil, a former Hawaiian Gardens police detective, described Henry’s skull as shattered to the point that “it was spider-webbed.”

If Henry, who lived in Van Nuys, was at first puzzled about why he was being attacked, he seemed to have figured it out by the time he lay dying in the parking lot. A witness testified that when she stood over Henry to assist him, he appeared shocked that a white person came to his aid. Looking up at her, he blurted another question: “Why are you helping me?”

Prosecutors gathered enough evidence to pursue charges against only one of the attackers. Carlos Lucero, who was seen striking Henry with the bat, was convicted of murder last year and is serving 16 years to life in prison for the May 1997 killing.

Lucero was not only a gang member, but also the son-in-law of a Mexican Mafia lieutenant, prosecutors said.

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Martin “Mark” Hammonds was the first African American hate murder victim, gunned down one day in October 1996 as he walked on busy Norwalk Boulevard.

Unlike most blacks in town, Hammonds, 27, had grown up in Hawaiian Gardens. He was well known from his days as a football star at Artesia High School.

But his local hero status did not spare his family from violence. Their house--which had been shared by four generations of the family since 1980--and two cars were set ablaze. Hammonds’ grandfather spotted the flames in time to put out the fires but never learned who set them.

The vandalism was followed by Hammonds’ slaying. Rudy Pete Villa, a gang member called “Gizmo,” was convicted in 1998 of the murder.

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Another gang member is awaiting trial in the third of Hawaiian Gardens’ hate murders, which, like Henry’s slaying, occurred in May 1997. Demario Young, a 29-year-old Moreno Valley resident, was shot just after getting out of his van in front of a relative’s apartment building.

Alberto Martinez, known by the gang name “Badger,” was arrested after he shot himself in the leg in a separate incident. Police tests show that Martinez was wounded by the same pistol used to kill Young. In explaining his injury to police, Martinez showed just how open the gang members are to hating anyone. Denying that his wound was self-inflicted, Martinez told police he was shot “by a wetback.”

Racial Mixing Doesn’t Halt Hate

Someone passing through Hawaiian Gardens on a sunny afternoon would probably think the city fits its idyllic name. Although the town of 15,000 is 70% Latino, the businesses on Carson Boulevard form an international showcase. For lunch, one can pick from places serving carne asada, Vietnamese noodle soup or Korean tofu stew.

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The tiny county library branch, which like most things in the city is tucked into a strip mall, stocks books and magazines in English, Spanish and Chinese. When schools let out, children happily walk home in racially mixed groups.

The city’s hate crimes have happened both in spite of and often because of its increasing integration.

In one case recorded by the county Human Relations Commission, a black man was beaten while washing a car. When his attackers found out the car actually belonged to a Latino friend, they beat the Latino man for befriending an African American.

At Way Out Ministries, a Christian recreation center and school whose members have included gang members and their children, teenagers say their easy friendships across racial lines anger the gang.

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One 14-year-old said he defied his two older brothers, both gang members, by inviting black friends to the family’s apartment. His mother stood watch as they played Nintendo. “When my brothers came home, she’d yell and we’d go out the back and jump off the balcony,” he said.

Another teenager said he was regularly harassed two years ago when he walked home from school with his two closest friends, one black, the other Asian American.

The 15-year-old said gang members once threatened to kill him and his two friends.

ABC Unified School District officials Ted Teach and Harvey Lindo, who oversee the most serious discipline cases for the district, said such threats were bad enough that in 1998 the district arranged special bus service for African American students in Hawaiian Gardens. The Police Department also agreed to run special after-school patrols on the streets that most children used to walk home.

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The district stopped the special bus service after three months. Students no longer used the bus, Teach said, because many parents were driving them home. Teach said students also decided to make a point of walking home in racially mixed groups in defiance of the gang. “They said, ‘No, I’m walking home with my friends, and no one’s going to stop me.’ ”

The Underlying Problems Remain

Hawaiian Gardens has been virtually free of hate crimes for the last two years. Only two were reported in 1998 and none last year, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The drop matches a decline in the rest of the county, which has seen hate crimes fall since 1997, coinciding with an overall decrease in crime.

No one is sure why the city’s hate crimes dwindled. Many believe that the arrest and imprisonment of several gang members has had a big impact in such a small town.

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Others think there are fewer targets. At least seven black families that were hate crime victims moved away, though no one knows whether the city’s black population overall has fallen since the rash of hate crimes began.

The number of African American students in the city’s two elementary schools and junior high has dipped somewhat, from 53 in 1997 to 41 this year. The city’s black population is an estimated 5% of the population, roughly the same as that recorded in the 1990 census.

Many liken Hawaiian Gardens’ situation to being in the eye of a hurricane. Hate crimes may have subsided, they say, but the elements underlying the gang problem remain.

The town is home to dozens of parolees who need job training, said Esperanza Vielma, a staff member at the city’s food bank who is part of a group of residents and officials that meets monthly to discuss race relations.

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Hawaiian Gardens mirrors many Los Angeles County neighborhoods in which large numbers of men have been incarcerated during an era of skyrocketing prison populations. When convicts are released, they often return without skills but filled with racist rage.

According to professor Umemoto, racial fights between gang members in prisons often lead to hate crimes when inmates are released.

Vielma believes that poverty in Hawaiian Gardens is a greater problem than suggested by official figures, which place the city’s median income at $29,510--about 25% below the county average. Just off the city’s adequately kept main streets, “there are a lot of people who live in garages,” Vielma said.

At the food bank, where families with young children who can prove they are a low-income household pick up free staples such as peanut butter, bagels and carrots, the number of clients has been steady despite the booming economy. In a city with 2,700 families, 775 are food bank clients.

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Drug and alcohol addiction among parents as well as youths is also widespread in the community, said the Rev. Barry Bruce, founder of Way Out Ministries. He and his wife, Terryl, have spent 18 years fighting what they see as spiritual poverty linked to addiction. “People here go to a baptism, and when it’s over they all get wasted,” he said with disgust.

Among those who have passed through his youth program was Villa, Hammonds’ killer. Villa was such an attractive child that his picture was used in the ministry’s fund-raising brochures, Bruce said.

Standing on the ministry’s basketball court, Bruce pointed to the fresh-faced little boys leaving for home, proudly carrying pictures they colored that day. “His dad’s a gang member. So’s his,” he said.

Children learn the economics of the drug culture by the time they are teenagers.

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“If you work at McDonald’s, you can make about $400 in a month,” said the 14-year-old whose brothers are gang members. “If you join the gang, you can sell drugs and make $400 in two days.”

When Pearl Hawkins, Hammonds’ mother, talks about her neighborhood, she describes a place torn not just by racial hatred but by overall despair. She says many of her neighbors who are not black have fled town because of the gang violence, or have had family members killed.

Hawkins and her family are not leaving Hawaiian Gardens. They are raising another generation in the city, where they hope the children will not suffer the fate of their elders. Young relatives of both Hammonds and Villa play and pray together in youth programs at Way Out Ministries.

Hawkins said that until he was murdered, her son had always risen above racism. His best friend was Filipino, she said. His godfather was white.

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The last gathering of his friends, she said, “was a melting pot. There were more people there who weren’t black,” she said.

It was his funeral.


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