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Anger at Forum’s No-Show Has Upside

Times Staff Writer

In what many attendees took as an inexcusable snub, an invited Housing Authority official failed to show up at a community forum Saturday in Watts.

But the no-show wasn’t a total loss for Arturo Ybarra, the forum’s organizer. For Ybarra, the grumbling audience brought to mind a lesson learned from 14 years of grass-roots organizing: a little bit of discontent can go a long way.

As president of the Watts/Century Latino Organization, Ybarra is dedicated to building political involvement in a part of the city where Latinos’ numbers far outweigh their political presence.

By putting local residents face to face with government officials, Ybarra hopes to prod political neophytes into expecting, and eventually demanding, accountability from those officials.

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“It’s part of a general catharsis we’re trying to spark,” Ybarra said. “We want to motivate them to feel comfortable voicing their concerns, but it’s also a place for them to become organized.”

Standing before a crowd of about 30 adults in a small auditorium at San Miguel Catholic School, Ybarra launched into a roving discussion of politics.

Despite frequent requests for audience participation, the crowd was quiet.

Jesus Vasquez, the school’s principal, said the show of passivity typified the reluctance of some Latinos, particularly recent immigrants, to get involved in politics without prompting.

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“Sometimes it’s difficult to get people involved unless they’ve been pushed or challenged a little bit,” Vasquez said.

That push apparently came a few minutes later when Ybarra announced that Don Smith, executive director of the Housing Authority, had failed to show, and he didn’t know why. Many of the attendees were residents of the Nickerson Gardens housing project, and their disappointment was palpable.

Instead, Ybarra introduced representatives of the Los Angeles Police Department, who were met with scattered applause and several raised hands.

Is there a policy, one woman wanted to know, to vacate housing units where there are drugs or weapons?

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Why don’t the police come, asked another, to break up all of the dogfights and the gambling?

A shortage of staff in the city attorney’s office can make evictions difficult, LAPD Officer George Chavez explained. He added that dogfights weren’t a high priority for officers, but urged people to call anyway because police would come when possible.

More hands shot up, the questions becoming louder, more insistent. Alberto Rivera, a frequent forum participant, complained about loud radios.

Told that there was little police could do, Rivera, 45, riffled through a sheaf of papers.

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“Don’t tell me that,” he said, triumphantly producing a page detailing police responsibility for enforcing noise regulations, copied just for the occasion.

“We welcome it,” Sgt. Ietia Eston said of the criticism. “If people are passionate about an issue, you know they’re serious about it.”


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