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By Frank Gruber
I have a stack -- more than an inch thick -- of mailers I received in the 1998 and 2000 Santa Monica elections.
I will not warrant that I received or saved every bit of campaign literature, but it's interesting -- I just leafed through the whole pile and I found only two references to gang violence, one in each year.
In 1998, two weeks after gang violence erupted in a series of deadly shootings, Richard Bloom released an attack piece on Bob Holbrook based on Holbrook's leaving the city for a vacation after the shootings. Although the piece did not offer much in the way of constructive suggestions, at least Bloom mentioned the violence -- something all the other candidates apparently thought would be in bad taste.
In 2000, Herb Katz published a 30-page booklet, a serious attempt to get beyond postcard politics, that included this one statement about youth violence: "[w]e need to adopt a zero tolerance policy for gangs and gang violence in Santa Monica." Good idea!
But that's it. Oh sure, there are many references in my pile to "public safety." Usually the incumbents (usually from SMRR) tout the decrease in crime in recent years while the challengers try to use "public safety" as code words for attacking the City's homeless policies.
No one, however, tries to win votes by suggesting constructive measures the City might take to keep kids out of gangs.
The lack of political focus replicates itself in policy. The City each year gives money to various well-meaning social service organizations. I don't mean to dismiss the efforts these people make, but judging by what is going on in the streets the results have been meager.
I wonder what would happen if City Council and city staff (at the Council's direction) put into finding ways to intervene in the lives of at-risk youth half the intellectual energy, let alone the time and money, they now put into counting cars at intersections, or enacting building moratoriums, or theorizing about sustainable cities and building codes, or prohibiting monster mansions or second units, or second-guessing architects, or agonizing over parking in all forms, or thinking about whatever else the Council members and their squeakiest wheel constituents want to obsess on.
These issues can be important, but has "how to create more real jobs for youth" ever appeared on a City Council agenda? In recent memory?
And what's the good of being for the living wage if you are against jobs?
But the lack of political and policy focus on youth violence is not surprising given the priorities of Santa Monicans themselves. Fact is, most Santa Monicans are happy. According to the 2001 Santa Monica Resident Survey, the highest percentage of residents who identified an issue as one of the "most important" facing the City was the 22 percent who said there were too many homeless.
Undifferentiated "crime" was cited by only eight percent. There was not even a category for gang or youth violence.
Yet the bullets are flying in what the Santa Monica Daily Press likes to call, strangely and without historical precedent, the "east side," or "East Santa Monica." (Is 17th and Delaware east?)
But labels are important. Describing part of the city as geographically apart, or even identifying one part of it as a separate neighborhood, serves to isolate that area from the consciousness of those who don't live there.
Can a town of only 85,000 people in only eight square miles afford to have the "other?"
Slicing the 10 through Santa Monica created dead ends on a lot of north-south streets. Did the freeway builders know they were creating metaphors as well?
In a certain sense, I can understand why these many years of shootings are not the biggest issue in Santa Monica. In most years here, people with cars kill more people than people with guns.
I also don't want to exaggerate the extent of gang violence. A couple years ago a survey found that a teenager in the suburbs was more likely to die in a car accident than a teenager in the inner city was likely to die from violent crime.
I don't know if that study was verifiable, but we all get the point. We don't have to be reminded that young people of all social classes do reckless and sometimes violent things.
Shooting guns at each other endangers much more than even the shooters and the innocents caught in the cross fire. Whole neighborhoods -- nearly entire cities -- have been abandoned when residents flee random violence.
And there is even more to it. The incomprehensible atavism of gang violence -- deadly violence over what? -- is a challenge to us all, to the moral content of our lives and our society.
Sometimes I hope, perversely, that these shooters are fighting over who can sell drugs on a particular street corner. At least that would show some purpose.
But marginalized kids, brown and black, fighting over "turf?"
We have this image that Santa Monica is a place where we have the luxury to think only of ourselves, whether it's how much rent we pay, who's building what next door, how to make more money, how much time we spend in traffic, or where are we going to park.
We don't have that luxury. We may not be able to make every child a happy and well-educated child and turn them all into happy and productive adults, but we have a moral duty to focus our community efforts on helping those who need the most help, instead of those who don't need much help at all.People who build upscale neighborhoods call dead ends "cul-de-sacs," but there is still no way out.
views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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