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City of Many Victims, Truths

By Frank J. Gruber

"Santa Monica is very accommodating." -- My 85-year-old father on learning, to his surprise, that Santa Monica had a municipal cemetery.

Congratulations to publisher, and now editor, Michael Rosenthal, of The Mirror, and the weekly's staff, on the paper's new look and perhaps its new outlook. For me, as a great consumer of news, it is wonderful that The Lookout has competitors such as the Mirror and the Daily Press.

It may seem outré to comment on how other news outlets run their business, but in a small town as well as a big city, what happens with the news is important. The changing of the guard at the Mirror -- Mr. Rosenthal has replaced the founding editor, Peggy Clifford -- is news worth commenting on.

Ms. Clifford had a caustic view of Santa Monica government. It's hard to think of a City policy since the 80's -- when the City perpetrated the Ur-crime of trying to make the Pier more fun -- that she liked. In fact, she wasn't too keen on anyone who thought they had a better idea for Santa Monica's future than simply letting it decay into cozy decrepitude.

The Mirror, under Ms. Clifford's hand, provided an interesting commentary on the change in American political culture over the years since people became so darn distrustful. In olden times local papers were upbeat -- boosters, if you will -- when it came to local news. They reflected the views of the local business and social elites that, after all, read the paper and, one way or another, paid the bills.

But those were the bad old days. Who today cares about good news? Today we have the journalism of victimhood, to go along with the politics of victimhood. Just as politicians find it easier to campaign by amplifying disgruntled voters' complaints, rather than by appealing to voters' better instincts, the Mirror under Ms. Clifford found the victim -- and the villain -- in every story.

The victim/villain dialectic is good for narrative structure, but in a place like Santa Monica, one of the most livable cities in the world, what worked for 19th century French novelists is less compelling.

Simply put, there are too many victims. Victims of traffic and parking, victims of too many tourists and too many Starbucks, victims of having to endure homeless people and three-story apartment buildings, etc., but at a certain point it gets hard to find sufficient evil to justify the vehemence of the cry for justice.

And wouldn't you know it; Santa Monicans know they have a good thing going. I've been known to criticize City Hall myself, and everyone in it, but I don't kid myself. Is it possible that the well-educated and sophisticated voters of Santa Monica don't elect the council members they want? That they've been fooled? That, in fact, they're not getting exactly the government they want, law of unintended consequences aside?

Instead, isn't it obvious that everyone in City Hall, from council members on down, is terrified of being yelled at by some self-obsessed fool of a resident? And because of that terror they are obsessed with making Santa Monicans happy, from cradle to -- literally as my father learned -- grave?

Santa Monicans, at least those who count, are spoiled, but ultimately, inevitably, there comes the day of reckoning: the day when the journalism of victimhood and the politics of victimhood come head to head with a real victim.

A victim like Eddie Lopez.

Then you have to wonder; what has this City been doing for the past 25 years? I'll tell you what: spending tens of thousands of staff hours and tens of millions of dollars on intractable problems like traffic or parking -- or combating developers who want to build multi-family housing -- when that other "intractable" problem -- children and young men killing each other -- is just (go ahead -- shrug your shoulders) intractable.

We put two traffic service officers at Fourth and Colorado when traffic heats up. What about a community service officer at 20th and Kansas when the graffiti wars heat up?

What did I learn at the Community Forum on Gang Violence on Saturday?

I learned that there are many people speaking many truths, some of whom, and which, seem to contradict each other.

Intellectually and politically Police Chief James Butts and School Board member Oscar De La Torre, who is also Executive Director of the City-funded Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC) were at the poles of the discussion. It would not, however, do either man justice to characterize the debate as one between more policing and more social services.

Chief Butts presented a masterful report summarizing the statistics that underlie the reality of gang violence in Santa Monica. As he told the City Council last week, Santa Monica gang members, however few they are, bring violence back into the community by antagonizing larger gangs outside the city. (see story)

Speaking as a member of the public, because his PYFC was not a recognized "Action Partner," Mr. De La Torre spoke with equal eloquence about the social inequities and psychological injuries that underlie the gang life.(see story)

Chief Butts said that gangs are places that children "flee to." Later in the meeting, a comment from a woman from the Alternatives to Violence Project who works with the California Youth Authority echoed this; she said that for most kids she saw, "choosing the gang life was the best choice they had."

As if they were trying to explain this, Maria Loya and Ana Maria Jara, of the Pico Neighborhood Association, emphasized the difficulties single women had "raising men."

Irma Caranza, also of PNA, identified herself as such a single mom, and said her job was not made any easier by police and other authorities who assumed her 13-year-old son, walking home from school, was up to no good. She wanted the police to ask her son "how are you doing" instead of "what are you doing?"

Chief Butts made the point that, as with any other addiction, the gang members who get out are those who want out, and that they could only reach that moment -- have their "epiphany" in Chief Butts' words -- after a life-altering event, such as an act of violence, or a jail term.

Jaime Cruz, who now teaches at Santa Monica College and Cal State Dominguez Hills, but who escaped the gang life in Santa Monica, also talked about getting out. He emphasized the importance of mentors who "looked at people as people." He wouldn't have survived, he said, if not for people who had believed in him and who had accepted him. He said it was important to keep "tossing ropes" -- and not just one -- to kids at risk.

Mr. De La Torre said that gang violence was a product of repression: slavery and colonialism. He said that among gang members, "self-hate is real." He blamed the City historically for not caring about Pico Neighborhood violence as much as the City would have cared if, for instance, an equal number of young men had been murdered north of Montana.

Although I heard many different perspectives at the forum, I didn't disagree with much that I heard.

In fact, I happen to like and respect both Chief Butts and Mr. De La Torre. It's plain to me that they agree much more than they disagree. Both, for instance, see prevention as key. As perhaps the two most important people in Santa Monica in dealing with gangs, they must get together and resolve their differences, because to me, their differences are trivial compared to the enormity of the problem.

The issue for me is shame. There are two communities here that need to be shamed into action. One is the majority society with the power and the money. We have been shamed into action, finally, and now we have to keep it up. We have to show those residents suffering from gang violence that their problems are as important to the City as the problems of those residents who don't.

Then there is the community in which the gang members live. Parents and grandparents, wives and girlfriends, priests and community leaders, have to shame them into better behavior. No more excuses, they have to say; past repression or not, poverty or not, disrespect or not, your conduct is killing us. No more glory, no more rationalizing. What you are doing is wrong.

Gang violence is not just a shame. It's shameful.

Next Sunday, the Santa Monica Bay Area Human Relations Council will conduct a further Community Dialogue on related issues. The topic will be "Civic Participation: Rights, Respect and Responsibilities." Date & Time: Sunday, Mar. 26, 2:00 - 5:00. Location: Calvary Baptist Church, 1502 20th Street, Santa Monica. For additional information, email

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