The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

Ritual Column

By Frank J. Gruber

Three weeks ago I was writing about my frying pans -- the news in Santa Monica was that slow. I said that history had come to a halt. I took some time off. Now with another young man -- 20-year-old Miguel Martin -- murdered on Pico Boulevard, what am I supposed to write -- that everyone loved my latkes?

But history does seem stuck. In a rut. For 25 years or so, young men have been killing other young men (and children) in Santa Monica. People always remark how much Santa Monica has changed, but you know about the more things changing.

Our post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment civilization is supposed to be characterized by rationality, but here in Santa Monica when confronted with mindless violence, what we see are rituals. The candles and the photos at the murder site. The grim statements by public officials -- Chief of Police, City Manager, Mayor. The even grimmer statements by community activists who say no one cares. The car wash to raise money for the family. The marches and the vigils.

Not to mention the tried and true ancient rituals -- the masses and the funeral.

And there are the news articles, the interviews with bereft loved ones, and the column. Yeah, include me. Writing a column after a gang murder is ritual for me now, too. I've been doing it for six years; for six years I've been writing that gang violence -- not homelessness, not traffic, not parking, not development -- is Santa Monica's biggest problem.

Maybe I'm guilty of special pleading. I am the father of an 11th-grader at Samo who has olive skin, and it's more than annoying, given the popular conceptions of Santa Monica as leafy suburb or sleepy beach town, to have to tell him not to wear a hooded sweatshirt and to be careful when he's on Pico or crossing Lincoln Boulevard at night coming home from visiting friends.

Rituals serve many functions, but they don't solve social problems, at least not by themselves. Yet I am not so cynical that I can't admit that recently some of the response to gang killing has gone beyond ritual.

Over the past two years the City of Santa Monica, with help from our State Senator, Sheila Kuehl, has turned much more of its attention to gang violence. The City Council declared two years ago that ending gang violence was the City's highest priority, and the City and Senator Kuehl sponsored a series of conferences in attempt to formulate a comprehensive strategy against gangs.

You could call these efforts ritual, too, but they considerably exceeded previous rhetorical responses to violence in their scope and in the concreteness of the proposals that emerged from them. Various stakeholders in the community, both public and private, have committed themselves to various efforts both to head off gang activity and deal with the roots of the alienation that gangs represent.

But these efforts haven't solved the problem either. Not that any actions could on the short term, but the murder of fifteen-year-old Samohi 10th-grader Eddie Lopez was the most shocking event of 2006, and after that there were intermittent non-fatal shootings all year leading up to Miguel Martin's murder two weeks ago.

It has always seemed to me that there are three dimensions to solving gang violence -- crime control, social and economic development, and community ethos.

Crime control -- i.e., police work -- is the most obvious solution to crime, but also the most limited. It is essential to catch murderers, not only to mete out justice, but also to forestall gangs from taking their own revenge. But it is folly to believe that with the vast numbers of potential gang killers in the region, the police can prevent gang murders. Not only that, but police always have to walk a fine tactical line between catching criminals and alienating law-abiding residents.

Social and economic development, which includes education, is the long-term solution -- but I emphasize "long-term." Street gangs are an old story in American cities, and since the Irish arrived in the 1840s poor young immigrants have formed them. Usually, by the second generation, gangs are not a big factor among the young (although we are all aware how in some circumstances street gangs evolved into organized crime).

Most of the "solutions" proposed at the City's anti-gang conferences involve social and economic development. While the schools and the City's social service providers can and should target children who are at risk of falling into gangs, if they miss even a few, gangs will continue to recruit enough new members to continue the violence.

School Board Member Oscar de la Torre, who founded the Pico Youth and Family Center and who knows the gang scene, has said that in all of Santa Monica there are only a handful -- perhaps half a dozen -- violent gang members. These are typically young men with layers of issues -- alcohol and drug addiction, lack of education, criminal records, unemployability -- that are difficult for social service providers to penetrate. It only takes a few of them, however, to both wreak havoc and attract violence.

The third dimension to solving gang violence is for the community within which the gangs operate to create an ethos that does not tolerate gangs. This is not easy to do within a bigger popular culture that celebrates violence, money, and even criminality itself. It is also not easy for immigrant or impoverished communities to reject their own.

However, it is essential. There are gang members in Santa Monica who are doing something -- something that is never reported on within Santa Monica or disclosed by the police -- that attracts gangsters from outside who come into Santa Monica and shoot at young Latino and black men. (Whether the victims are gang members is not the issue.) Santa Monica police, educators, businesses, social service providers, clergy, politicians etc., can do little or nothing to stop this.

It's up to the community itself not to tolerate gangs and the gang life.

What I'm talking about was summed up by a statement Miguel Martin's half-sister, Marlyn Martin, made to Lookout reporter Olin Erickson at a vigil for Miguel: "There's a lot of opportunities out there and I think there's a lot of guys who just go around and hang out, and I think they should just try to become better people."

Gang members by their nature are not going to respond to admonitions from those they distrust -- only from those they love.


The Santa Monica Public Library and the City of Santa Monica's Environmental Programs Division are sponsoring four "Green Prizes for Sustainable Literature." The purpose is to encourage and commend authors, illustrators, and publishers who produce quality books for adults and young people that make significant contributions to, support the ideas of, and broaden public awareness of sustainability. Entries are due April 30. For details, here's the link:

The agenda for the City Council meeting Tuesday evening is one of those impossible documents that make me wonder if the Council just does, or tries to do, too much. On the Council's plate that night are the following major items, all of which deserve serious deliberation and any one of which could easily consume hours of meeting time:

(i) an update on homeless services and a study session on the evaluation of the City's continuum of care and strategic five-year plan for the homeless;

(ii) an appeal of a Planning Commission approval;

(iii) first reading of a controversial ordinance that would exempt certain affordable apartment buildings from development review;

(iv) a discussion of the financial forecast for the next five years and budget priorities for the next fiscal year; and

(v) last but not least, a staff proposal to build a "temporary" municipal office building -- that might stand for 20 years -- between City Hall and the Public Safety Building.

History has started up again with a vengeance.

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