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In Gangs’ Territory, a Weary Hope

Times Staff Writers

Nobody needs to tell Stephanie Johnson about the human cost of gang warfare in Los Angeles. Bound up somewhere in the police logs of victims is the name of her firstborn son.

Aaron Heard was 19 and not associated with any gang when he was gunned down in July 1992, the first person to be killed after a much-touted truce that was hailed as the beginning of the end of gang warfare in the city. Heard was standing in front of his grandmother’s South L.A. home. Gang members mistook him for a rival.

Now, more than 10 years later, his mother fears for the safety of her younger son, Jonathan, who is 16 and a forward on the Dorsey High School basketball team.

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“Something needs to be done,” she said Wednesday.

The day before, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton had become the latest in a line of city leaders to declare war on gangs. Bratton promised to dismantle the Bloods, the Crips and other gangs in much the same way that law enforcement picked apart the five families of the Mafia in New York City, where he formerly served as police commissioner.

That’s fine, said Johnson. “I hope it works.”

But like many people in Los Angeles, especially in neighborhoods where gangs are a part of everyday life, she sees the need for much more. Police alone can’t solve the problem, she said.

“I talk to parents about taking control, taking back the households,” said Johnson, who works at the Blazers, an after-school program on 48th Street near the Harbor Freeway, five blocks from where her son was killed.

“So many parents are busy, they’re working. Their children don’t have chores. They come in, they just eat and sleep. Kids have to have responsibilities.”

Bratton’s declaration has evoked a range of responses, from hope to fear to hollow laughter. If there was a consensus view Wednesday, it was one of weary skepticism and a feeling that Bratton’s Mafia comparison was way off the mark.

“He needs to pack his bags and go back East,” said Matthew “Studder Box” Brown, who lives in South-Central Los Angeles and is a longtime community activist who works with gangs. “He doesn’t know Los Angeles and doesn’t know L.A.'s gangs.... The Mafia is like a money-making enterprise. In Los Angeles, the gangs are like tribes.”

Father Greg Boyle, an Eastside priest, said, “If gang violence is anything, it’s disorganized crime.”

Whatever the violence is, it is seemingly continuous. The latest reminder came Wednesday afternoon, when shooting erupted at an alleged gang member’s funeral.

Several young men, alleged gang associates of the deceased, were walking to a funeral home at 95th Street and Vermont Avenue, police said, and were approached by a rival. The mourners gave chase, firing several shots at the man. They missed him, but struck his 22-year-old sister in the eye with a shotgun pellet. They fled in a black limousine.

By the time police found the car several blocks away, the men were gone.

Gangs have been part of the Los Angeles streetscape since before World War II. The early gangs left behind no large body count, but that began to change in the late 1960s as they acquired guns in greater numbers and expanded illegal drug sales.

By the mid-1980s, police estimate, there were 400 gangs and 45,000 members in the city. By the early 1990s, the gang population had risen to an estimated 100,000. Gangs were claiming hundreds of victims a year.

Every modern L.A. police chief has waged war on the gangs, none with great success. Along the way, some have alienated broad swaths of the city with gang sweeps that were perceived as indiscriminate, particularly those aimed at African American gangs in South L.A.

“When they crack down on the gangs, people who haven’t been doing anything pay the price,” said Keith Humdy, a retail clerk who lives in a shelter near 83rd Street and Western Avenue, near where 17-year-old Ernest Miller was killed Nov. 19.

“If you really want to crack down, you have to bring people together,” Humdy added. “If you really want something positive to happen, you have to educate everyone. Otherwise, it seems that everyone just runs amok.”

In remarks this week, Bratton has stressed the need for the police and community to work together. He has asked people throughout the city -- not just in the gang-plagued neighborhoods -- to be outraged by the growing carnage.

The LAPD believes gangs are responsible for about half of the city’s more than 600 homicides so far this year.

On Wednesday, he used the courtyard of the 77th Community Police Station in South-Central to swear in two new deputy chiefs and reiterate his promise. “People of this neighborhood deserve more from us,” Bratton said, “and they will get it.”

To some people, tired and fearful, Bratton’s words are a balm.

“I’m 100% in favor of them cracking down,” said the Rev. Leonard Jackson, an associate minister at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Adams. “It’s a shame that 99% of our population is living in fear within our own community.

“People are crying out, ‘Enough is enough. We are living in fear. We are prisoners in our community.’ But it has to be understood that the police are not going to do this alone,” he said.

But standing in front of the Sunset Boulevard office in Hollywood where she works, Toni Bowman, 26, said she has little faith in pronouncements such as Bratton’s.

“I live in South Los Angeles, in the spot where they’re doing all the killings, and I don’t see enough police cars on the street,” said Bowman, an office administrator for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “All that politics, all that talk -- they just need to get out there.”

Bowman added that police need to build trust so people will feel comfortable coming to them with information. As a young black woman, she said, she has been pulled over by police because of her race.

“It’s kind of hard for them to separate out who they’re looking for,” she said. “There’s gangbangers out there who look ... like ordinary people.”

Few people have a closer view of L.A. gangs than Father Boyle, whose Jobs for a Future program seeks to employ gang members and divert them from violence.

“The problem with declaring war on gangs is you end up waging it,” Boyle said Wednesday.

He said similar police tactics in the past have demonized young people and caused police officers to overstep their bounds.

Danny Hernandez, founder of the Inner City Games, based at the Hollenbeck Youth Center, said that cracking down on gang members with a muscular police presence must be accompanied by programs aimed at preventing youths from joining gangs in the first place.

“What the mayor and the chief proposed might be a part of it, but they’ve got to keep totally focused, that there’s not a silver bullet,” Hernandez said.

“The energy needed to solve this gang problem is going to have to come from the entire city.”

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Times staff writers Jessica Garrison, Megan Garvey, Matea Gold, Karima A. Haynes, Nita Lelyveld and Kenneth Reich contributed to this report.


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