In Brazil’s favelas, murder is the leading cause of death for 10-year-olds. In these urban hyper-barrios, police patrol in helicopter gunships. Any delusion of crime prevention gave way to containment and suppression long ago. At night, black children hide from both rogue cops and gang members; the rich venture from their fortress homes nearby only in armored vehicles or private planes. In the midst of Rio de Janeiro’s splendor, favelas are at a tipping point -- on the way to joining Mogadishu as wholly failed “feral” cities, engulfed by gangs, black markets, rapacious crime and dysfunction.
Could Los Angeles be headed down this road? No, not anytime soon, at least for the vast majority of the city. But the hot spots of underclass Los Angeles are well on the way. If ignored, they will metastasize, and eventually pose a real danger to the larger region.
L.A.'s hot zones are tiny, intensely dangerous areas where nothing works, where law has broken down and mainstream institutions simply fail. Places where mail carriers and meter readers balk when the bullets fly. Where paramedics and firefighters are hesitant to enter because of the crossfire. Where police officers go in only heavily reinforced or with helicopters; in the LAPD’s South Bureau there was an 80% increase in sniper fire on police in 2004, according to a report by LAPD Chief William Bratton.
These zones are often found in and near public housing projects, although the worst privately owned slums -- like the gang-ridden apartment complex at 69th and Main that was recently ordered evacuated by the city -- mirror the conditions.
In Jordan Downs, for instance, one of three gang-dominated housing projects in Watts, the predominantly African American Grape Street Crips routinely beat Latinos (among others), engage in regular home-invasion robberies and have been known to murder residents who dare report their activities. When the LAPD set up a police kiosk in Jordan to quell rising crime, the gangs blew it up; the LAPD left and did not return for more than a decade. In the Ramona Gardens housing project, the last three black families didn’t survive long enough to suffer the perpetual abuse that residents of Jordan have endured: Latino gangsters firebombed them out of their units.
Schools near these complexes boast 70% dropout rates, violence-related lockdowns and children with post-traumatic stress disorder levels as high as those seen in civil wars. The neighborhoods host hundreds of prison-brutalized men wed to cults of destruction and the hyper-masculinity of the powerless. Ex-cons who try to change must defy a dehumanizing dragnet that draws 70% of them back into prison. All face relentless search-and-destroy policing. With job prospects virtually nonexistent and few other exit ramps from the prison-parole hamster wheel, escape is rare.
Years ago I asked gang members what happened to kids who “just said no” to the Bloods or V-18s. They brought me a videotape other gang members had made for a 14-year-old boy who had refused to join them. The tape showed gang members raping his 13-year-old sister. The boy joined the gang so that its members wouldn’t return to kill her.
Is there no one in this city to protect these children? A city that leaves its children to predators is on the road to Mogadishu.
But what is to be done? Though violence and gangs pose a terrible menace to residents and cops, it is deadly error to confuse them with the root cause. They are merely the toxic byproducts of malignant poverty and deprivation that we apparently do not have the will to end.
Until recently, our leaders either ignored this uglier L.A. -- the City Council, for example, focused last year not on Jordan or Ramona but on forcing the LAPD to waste time responding to thousands of false home alarms in middle-class neighborhoods -- or enacted small and isolated test programs. That’s the equivalent of flossing when a root canal is needed instead.
Lately, a few L.A. leaders appear to have recognized that smarter solutions are way overdue. Councilman Martin Ludlow has proposed an urban affairs department to coordinate and elevate the city’s scattershot programs into more sophisticated and aggressive gang intervention strategies. Bratton and county Sheriff Lee Baca are calling for more cops -- but they also agree that cops must switch to problem-solving policing, and they champion restoration of the $1 billion a year in prevention funds lost since Proposition 13 passed in 1978. Equally critical, Rob Reiner led voters to back universal preschool, and all-day kindergarten is now on the drawing board.
On a more controversial track, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo has stepped up the use of collective neighborhood strategies like injunctions and mass evictions. Last week, a judge ordered the eviction of all the tenants from a complex that gang members had used as a headquarters for 20 years.
Though eviction of the innocent is rarely defensible, the instinct to check virulent violence with vigorous remedies is right. Eviction, if it is done, must be a last resort, and it must include full compensation, including money for relocation to an available apartment in the same neighborhood for all evictees.
But these smarter strategies, however welcome, will not be enough. L.A.'s danger zones require radical vision, scaled-up remedies, sustained and strategic investment, and a level of leadership and will that currently do not exist. In the end, remedies that attack symptoms but leave root causes intact do nothing but create future blowback.
We must build a city where gangs can’t get near a single kid under 16 and where any gang member who wants out can exit la vida loca -- and live. Then let’s get really radical and actually end the malignant poverty that drives the violent dysfunction. Choose this road or join Rio’s trajectory toward Mogadishu.