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Increase the Peace

By Frank Gruber

At the heart of writing a column is egoism; in this case, my egoism: the conviction that my opinions are worth my writing and someone else's reading.

Columnists hide their egoism behind individualized pretensions or fictional constructs of objectivity. Mike Royko positioned himself as a theatergoer watching Mayor Daley strut and fret his hour upon the stage; Paul Krugman coolly dispenses facts and figures; Steve Lopez plays the Average Joe.

As a small-timer I borrow this and that technique from the masters, but occasionally, under the influence of emotions like anger or disgust, I violate the code. I.e., enough rage and given the opportunity, I can't resist saying "I told you so."

After the latest shootings Saturday night left two young Santa Monicans dead, sorry, but I am ready to quote myself.

In my December 6, 2000 column, my seventh, I suggested there were issues in Santa Monica more important than traffic congestion. ("WHAT I SAY: Who Do We Think We Are") I asked readers to consider "that out of an incomprehensible combination of despair and anger, some of our teenagers and young adults feel compelled, from time to time, to shoot each other.

"The most recent shooting occurred in the wee hours of November 11 (2000), when, as reported in The Lookout, two men were shot in an alley near the 2000 block of 20th Street. In July, another young man was shot in a driveway about three blocks away.

"Is it surprising that in the 90404 zipcode, where these shootings occurred, 37 percent of children and young adults aged 15 to 24 live in poverty?

"Two years ago during a spate of shootings there was much wringing of hands and other anguish that we needed to do more to help our young people -- like help them find good jobs. During one evening vigil I, along with several members of City Council, and City Council candidates, heard Tom Hayden make an inspired speech saying exactly that."

Two hundred twenty-two columns later I am happy to report that recently, after another shooting, the City Council concluded that the City's highest priority this year would be confronting gang violence.

On February 26 the City, jointly with State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, convened a community workshop to study the issue. ("Overflow Crowd Takes on Gang Violence," February 28, 2005) The crowd of 400 overflowed the room; as Harry Cohn said, give the people what they want.

Overflow crowd at gang workshop. (Photos by Frank Gruber)

One of the speakers was Tom Hayden -- the same Tom Hayden who made that inspiring speech in 1998. This is how he concluded his remarks:

"[I]n my experience with gang members or homies or inmates, the themes are remarkably like traumatized war veterans anywhere. But, you have to remember they've been in wars since they were single digit in age or since they were teenagers.

"They've been in continual violent trauma and they've been ashamed about it by others and there are no veterans' homes. There's nowhere really to go.

"You have to understand it this way, and in a book on Viet Nam veterans, some words leaped out at me recently that I just want to close with, because they describe so accurately what young people caught up in violence go through. It's called The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien:

"'They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. They carried shameful memories; they carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide. And, in many respects, this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down.

" It required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations; they carried their greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing; they killed and died because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place. Nothing positive, no dreams of glory, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment; they were too frightened to be cowards.'"

Let's hope this speech by Mr. Hayden will have more impact on the conscience and consciousness of Santa Monica than the one he gave six years ago.

As it happened, Mr. Hayden was one of only a few people at the workshop who spoke directly about the "homies" who are violent and whose violence incites violence from homies in other neighborhoods -- Mar Vista, Culver City, etc. While the workshop was short on statistics, it is generally understood that the number of violent gang members is small compared to the havoc they cause.

Both on the dais, among Mr. Hayden and four other experts, and in the reports from the "breakout groups" in which members of the public expressed themselves, most of the discussion at the workshop concerned more general social problems that plague the communities from which gangs and violent gang members emerged than how to deal with violent individuals.

People spoke about schools, police, social services, libraries, recreation, infrastructure, families and parenting, respect, dignity, graffiti, mentoring, criminalization of youth, nonviolence as a culture, jobs, business investment, and more (except for drugs, which strangely but perhaps significantly in Santa Monica, never came up), and had good ideas about all these topics.

Panelists address gang violence.

Nonetheless, I was left with the feeling that we could spend, as we should, ten years improving our efforts in these areas (some of which, especially in the schools, are already considerable), improve the lives of many people, and yet half a dozen young men would still be shooting at each other.

Mr. Hayden had no illusions. He focused on the shooters. He began his remarks by telling the workshop that gang violence is preventable. He reminded us that when they came to America, the Irish, the Italians and the Jews all had gangs. (In fact, it's hard to think of any ethnically or racially distinct rural population that moved to American cities that did not spawn violent gangs.)

After the meeting, I asked Mr. Hayden why he thought violence among the Irish, the Italians and the Jews for the large part disappeared. He told me that young Irish, Italian and Jewish men, even if unskilled, could find good jobs in an industrial economy. They could support families and have respect for themselves.

In his remarks, Mr. Hayden identified three things that were necessary to end gang violence and create what he called "a peace process:" (i) rehabilitation, inside and outside communities, juvenile institutions, and prisons and not by "people who are trying to instill their version of the Protestant ethic;" (ii) jobs, and (iii) the reform of police-community relations.

What Mr. Hayden says makes a lot of sense to me, but I wonder if the political culture in comfortable and overwhelmingly Anglo places like Santa Monica can accommodate his ideas.

Are we willing to spend the energy, money, will power, patience, etc., necessary to rehabilitate the lost and atavistic? Are we even willing to talk to them?

Are we willing to make jobs and economic development a priority? I wonder: six years after that other inspiring speech by Mr. Hayden, our dominant political organization, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, opposes the expansion of Santa Monica Place, which will create lots of jobs, because of traffic. (And let's not forget the saga of the Lantana expansion.)

I believe we (and the police, for that matter) are willing to try for better community policing, but how can we hire police who will live within the community, for true community policing, if there are no houses or condos for them to buy in which to raise their families?

This Saturday, the City and Sen. Kuehl will hold a follow-up meeting, and we will start to find out who cares and who doesn't. Try to attend.

Readers can find a transcript of the most important parts of the plenary sessions of the Feb. 26 workshop, video streaming, and an introductory film the City put together about the gang problem, at this link

One can also pre-register for the March 12 follow-up workshop at the same link.

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