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Overflow Crowd Takes on Gang Violence

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

February 28 -- Tackling the gang problem in the Pico Neighborhood will take a multi-faceted approach, as well as winning the confidence of the area's youth, some of whom remained skeptical after a four-hour community summit Saturday.

Sponsored by the City and State Senator Sheila Kuehl, the Community Workshop on Gang Violence drew an overflow crowd of more than 300 residents, civic leaders, teachers, police and social services providers to John Adams Middle School.

"Everyone of us has to take responsibility to end gang violence," Mayor Pam O'Connor told the crowd, adding that the purpose of the interactive workshop was to "build consensus on key strategies" and then return in two weeks to craft a "Santa Monica action plan."

"We don't want to waste your time with a lot of boring speeches," said Kuehl, who is an advocate for juvenile justice reform. "You are the people who have the information and the experience to share."

After watching a short video of the Pico neighborhood, the participants broke into small groups to brainstorm before reporting back to the assembly and a panel of experts.

By the end of the meeting, several common themes and recommendations had emerged. They included bettering the coordination between agencies, enhancing educational programs, transforming community policing, harnessing the power of gangs and involving the business community.

Somewhat different issues were raised by the Hispanic and youth groups. Society puts too much blame on the parents, who often have to work several jobs to make ends meet, the Hispanic group concluded, adding that there is lack of "quality" and "culturally relevant" child care.

The group also felt there is a perception among Latinos that society wants to punish their community and that its youth often feel neither at home with the culture of their parents nor that of mainstream America.

The youth group echoed some of those concerns, but focused on relations with police. "Police, we feel, are very judgmental about how they feel toward youth," said Evita, a SAMOHI student representing the group.

"We're not criminals and we don't want to be treated like criminals," added Natalie Meza, also a SAMOHI student. "We know cops want respect. We want respect as well."

The small group settings provided unique insights into how the different stakeholders viewed the gang problem and its possible solutions.

In one of the groups, a resident suggested a community clean-up program for the Pico neighborhood, while another said that business leaders need to get involved as mentors and role models for youth, but added that the most important examples for kids are their parents.

A teacher complained that the educational system puts too much emphasis on "testing, testing, testing," when what her kids need most is someone who will listen to and mentor them, something she and her coworkers can no longer find time to do, she said.

A long-time African American resident said that to understand problems in the Pico neighborhood, you have to understand how that community was fractured by the 10 Freeway in the early 1960s.

A woman probation officer spoke about her success in turning around at-risk youth through the arts.

The experts also took a crack at suggesting solutions to the gang problem, which contributed to the loss of 22 young lives on Pico streets between 1989 and 1998.

Former State Senator Tom Hayden -- the author of “Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence” and one of the five expert panelists at the meeting -- called for more jobs.

"The community has to demand that there's some kind of jobs" for at-risk youth, said Hayden, who added that job programs created to hire ex-gang members have not kept their promise.

Hayden also blasted the correctional system. "Something is wrong with a correctional system that needs to be corrected by a judge's order," he said.

You don't arrest and incarcerate people "in a way that humiliates them, and then turn them out into the streets as someone else's problem," he added.

RAND behavioral scientist John MacDonald cautioned against expecting programs to solve a problem the community must tackle together.

"Clearly there are a lot of programs," said MacDonald, but he noted that there is "clearly not enough information how to integrate them."

As for new programs, "Those cost money,” he said. “I don't know how many people want to open their wallets or raise their taxes.”

Although MacDonald believes there are good programs that deserve funding, "programs come and go," he warned, adding that the key to solving the problem is "community cohesiveness."

Another panelist, Leah Aldridge of the Los Angeles Commission of Assaults Against Women, suggested approaching the problem more in terms of what we want to see rather than what we want to get rid of.

"Yes we want to stop violence," Aldridge said. "But we also want to develop our youth's self-esteem."

During the meeting, about a dozen young men wearing football jerseys and baggy pants hung out outside the hall, standing on lunch benches as they talked.

"The cops have to get to know the families, where they're coming from, instead of just locking up their kids for no reason," said twenty-three year old Fernando Lomeli, who lives in the Pico neighborhood.

"If you want to keep them out of trouble, you got to give those kids some jobs and opportunities," he added, saying that juvenile offenders should get a second chance.

Nearby, nineteen-year-old Michael "Menace" Espindola had just hooked up with his friends.

"I just arrived, but I know what it's about,” Espindola said. “It's about trying to kick the Mexicans out of Santa Monica. They're trying to get a gang injunction."

Around the corner, seventeen-year old Christian Powell -- a small, quiet black kid from the Pico neighborhood -- did a back-flip in front of four Latino girls sitting on the steps of a bungalow.

''Where I live there's not that much of a problem," said Powell, who thinks that gangs are "a waste of time.

"But when you hit the small streets, then there's a lot of problems," he said, and so he avoids some places in his neighborhood.

"We came because we're interested and want to help," one of the girls on the steps said.

"I hope that everything that was said here, we can see action," said SAMOHI student Erika Nani.

Her friend Ruth Campos added, "We want to see action and not just words."

Class and race are at the root of the gang problem, said Oscar de la Torre, executive director of the PicoYouth and Family Center, who was standing nearby.

"If you're in a position of power and don't want to do anything about it, what does that say about us?" said de la Torre, who is a member of the School Board. "Would twenty-nine homicides since 1989 be tolerated North of Montana?

"We have a commission on the elderly, on the status of women. Why don't we have a youth commission?" he asked.

Walking to his car after the meeting, one of the panelists, gang expert Blinky Rodriguez, warned against losing focus.

"I hate to see the issue move away from the gangs into all the other social issues," Rodriguez said, indicating that he has seen that happen before.

Rodriguez called for programs run by former gang members "who can effectively go in and out of the community day in and day out.

"I think the importance (of the day's workshop) will be in the follow up," he said.

A follow-up workshop will be held at John Adams Middle School on March 12 from 9:00 a.m. to Noon. For more information call (310) 458-8301 or visit www.StopGangViolence.smgov.net

Related stories:
PART I: A World Apart
PART II: On the Front Lines
PART III: Youth and Street Violence

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