Peace March Focuses on Home Front, Not Iraq

Special to The Times

They called it a peace march, but it had nothing to do with Iraq. Led by a black-and-white patrol car with flashing red lights, some 70 mostly African American and Latino demonstrators -- boys with baggy jeans at their hips, girls with long, tight braids, kids with SpongeBob backpacks, pastors in dark suits and others -- marched through housing projects here last week calling for an end to neighborhood violence.

Organized by the Boys & Girls Club of San Francisco, the ragtag demonstration honored one of its own: DeShawn Dawson, a resilient 15-year-old shot Nov. 6. He died two days later at San Francisco General Hospital, where he had had an internship just three months before.

The high school sophomore with excellent grades had been riding a city bus to tutor younger Boys & Girls Club members, as he himself had been tutored.

The charismatic Dawson was the fourth member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco to be killed this year. These youngsters' deaths, all on the streets of San Francisco, inspired club officials to organize the demonstration because, said Rob Connolly, senior vice president of the organization, "We want to raise awareness about the violence against young people."

Here in the Sunnydale neighborhood in the south-central part of the city, violence is becoming increasingly a part of life, authorities and residents say.

"The kids know who the players are, like other kids know who the baseball stars are," said Ingleside Police Station Capt. Kevin Dillon. He blames the violence on "the proliferation of firearms."

People think killings are typically related to drug deals gone wrong, but Dillon said shootings occur for a variety of reasons, some as seemingly innocuous as touching someone else's cell phone or speaking to his girlfriend.

The potential for violence is even deterring police from assigning undercover narcotics officers to the neighborhood, Dillon said, because men armed with AK-47 assault rifles have been known to "shoot into the cars" of people they don't recognize.

Police are having a hard time finding witnesses in Dawson's killing, though the No. 29 bus on which he was riding was packed with students.

Authorities say that is because none of the passengers wants to be seen talking to police for fear of retaliation.

The suspect in Dawson's shooting is a 16-year-old from a rival school who authorities say had been gunning for someone else when his bullet went astray. He is being held on suspicion of murder; his name is being withheld because he is a minor.

For many, last week's demonstration was personal.

Some came to honor 11-year-old Keith Freizer, the son of a school security guard, who was shot to death in January. The boy had accompanied an older brother, a gang member, to buy candy when he was shot in the head and heart. At his father's request, the boy was buried with his Boys & Girls Club T-shirt and his club card, No. 183.

Some came to honor two others from the same Mission district club. One, a 16-year-old boy, had gone to the movies, the beach and to restaurants with the Boys & Girls Club but recently had been drawn into a local gang. He was killed March 18.

One week later, a 21-year-old longtime member was running from someone chasing him in a car when he was killed at the same Mission district intersection.

Kim Mitchell doesn't "want people to forget" his three friends, whose black-and-white images he had pasted on poster board along with captions listing their names and the times, dates and locations of their deaths.

Ten-year-old Quincy Martin said he is tired of being afraid.

"When people on the street get crowded up," he said, "I run home and pray for them."

On the day Dawson was shot, police officers stationed at nearby high schools -- "school resource officers" -- were on their way to an emergency meeting "to talk about some of these issues," Dillon said.

Raised by an aunt because his drug-addicted mother was rarely around, Dawson had a loving extended family, relatives said. Not long ago, he told relatives he was planning a career as a psychologist.

Mostly though, Dawson was remembered last week as outgoing, outspoken, a born leader with a sense of humor and many friends.

As marchers chanted "Stop the violence. Spread peace," they passed from old housing projects to newer ones with names such as Britton Courts and Heritage Homes. Gangs and their subsets from the older housing projects battle gangs from the new ones, police said. At the dividing line, the Little Village Market, teenagers looking somewhat bewildered lined up to watch the parade.

Dawson's death is not believed to have been gang related, but rather the result of a fight among students from rival schools. In another era, Dillon said, the battles would have been resolved with fistfights.

Municipal Railway driver Mike Brown, still in uniform, was marching as a role model. A youth counselor during his off hours, he shook hands with other demonstrators as they passed. Brown said he motivates the children "to stay out of trouble." To the young people, he said, "It's like I'm somebody famous."

After the march ended, as Dillon was back at his station writing an article for a community newspaper about Dawson's death, a 32-year-old parolee was gunned down on his way to the market. The street only three hours before had been filled with the marchers for peace.

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