Every day, I go to work in a war zone. Though I'm not in the front lines of the war on terror, I like to believe that what I do makes a difference. I'm not unaware of the danger of snipers' bullets or ambushes by thugs, but I guess I'm naive enough to believe that the goodness of my intentions will always protect me. I'm not in Fallouja; I'm a substitute teacher in South Los Angeles.
If my analogy to the war in Iraq seems exaggerated, listen to what civil rights lawyer Connie Rice has to say about the situation in South L.A.: "We are on the way to a point of no return and ... L.A. is on the road to Fallouja." Her words should be taken as seriously as those of her cousin, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.
In 2002, there were 658 homicides in Los Angeles. New York's celebrated police commissioner, William Bratton, was brought in to clean up the mess, and in 2003 the murder rate fell by 23%. Gangsters -- or "domestic terrorists" as Bratton calls them -- are always adapting, however, and we have seen a 4% rise in murders so far this year. The tactics of gang members are becoming increasingly more frightening. "We are now seeing the ambushing of cops by gangsters, and we should be panicking," Rice says.
In fact, many of us are panicking. In the last year, I've been involved in three lockdowns at separate elementary schools. The scenario always is the same: Shots are fired, sirens blare and helicopters hover overhead.
The majority of the community members abide by the law and are forced to put their lives on hold while police officers attempt to locate the suspects. Scotty Stevens, once a Marine and now an officer in the Southeast gang unit, says "the community is caught in the middle of a battle between good and evil."
Whenever I mention where I work to people over on the other side of town, where I live, I get the same response. They ask, "What are you doing down there?" It is a question I ask of my country when I see the charred bodies of American civilian workers hanging from a bridge in Fallouja or decapitated heads of hostages on websites. Sometimes it is much easier to retreat to the comfort of our sofa and "Friends" reruns than it is to muster the resolve to support the troops in the line of fire.
The same can be said for the LAPD's fight against gangs. The cops in South Los Angeles seem to be as displeased with the lack of support they get from folks in Brentwood and Beverly Hills as they are with the Crips and Bloods. A Los Angeles cop interviewed on television said most people didn't want to know what was going on in the rough parts of town. The consensus among the gang unit members profiled on the program was that until they are given the resources and support to win, they are just maintaining control over the chaos.
A Los Angeles police officer reminds us that gang members "at some point were all kids, but when they joined the gangs they gave up their childhood." Perhaps the most moving images coming out of Iraq today are those of soldiers taking pictures with smiling Iraqi children. All is not hopeless in the world today, especially when you consider the potential of the next generation.