Category Archives: Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Jury Duty and Ray

Late last week, I was put on a jury to decide whether a man with schizophrenia ought to remain in a mental hospital under a conservatorship, one consequence of which is that he would be forced to take his medication.

I was an alternate, meaning my function was to hear the evidence and be there should one of the jurors be unable to continue. It was a short, though slow-moving trial. I fought drowsiness through parts of it, mostly because the courtroom was so quiet and trials often get bogged down in minutiae.court-photo

Listening to three psychiatrists talk about his mental illness was interesting. What struck me were the terms used to describe the symptoms: disorganized thought, delusions of grandeur, inability to perceive reality or form sentences that make sense. “Poverty of thought” was another that intrigued me. So was “lack of insight.” Seems like these terms could describe us all from time to time.

On Monday, the man I’ll call Ray took the witness stand. He didn’t want this conservatorship. In quiet tones and flat affect, he told us he would take his meds if he were released, that he knew he was schizophrenic. He had a shaved head, a Fu Manchu and tiny tattoos of crosses on his temples near his eyes.

We had seen him shambling in and out of the courtroom each day with attendants from the mental hospital, arms not moving by his side, mouth always slightly open under the mustache. We hadn’t yet heard him speak. Now he was talking to us in terms that seemed to make sense.

Then without any change of tone or expression, he began telling us that he was also a NASA engineer. That, though he was 27, he had received a PhD from El Camino Community College in the 1980s. That he was an astronaut, a pilot who flew for Continental Airlines, which his father owned. That he had millions of dollars in the bank, owned an apartment complex, had a twin brother, that police chloroformed him and shaved his eyebrows.

He went on for about 10 minutes, a forlorn figure, lost in the tangle of his mind.

At one point, the bailiff walked over with some tissue for a woman on the jury who was crying.

The prosecutor, not given to expression, kept on asking questions of Ray with an agonized look on his face, wanting us to see the person and the reason we were there – that seeing real mental illness was necessary to do our job.

“This is a sad case,” he said.

I imagined Ray trying to take care of his basic needs – bathing, food. I couldn’t picture it. I imagined him on the street in some confrontation with police who would naturally see him as a menace, unaware of his illness. This collision would end badly — one that, even as he died, he wouldn’t understand. That was easier to see.

As a society, I believe, we have abdicated our responsibility for the mentally ill. Preferring not to pay taxes to do what we should, washing our hands of them. A few blocks from the courthouse are encampments of homeless people, some probably as ill and deluded as Ray. We have left it to police on the streets to be our frontline mental health professionals. Then we complain that officers have performed incorrectly when that combustible situation predictably goes wrong. That’s our fault.

My fellow dozen jurors, after a reasonable amount of debate in a room by themselves, determined that Ray qualified for the conservatorship, keeping him in the hospital, which is what I would have done.

Then, with the judge’s thanks, we all turned in our jurors badges and dispersed into Los Angeles.

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Francis, Mexican bishops, & the New World

Pope Francis had something wonderful to say to the bishops of Mexico yesterday.

“Be vigilant so that your vision will not be darkened by the gloomy mist of worldliness; do not allow yourselves to be corrupted by trivial materialism or by the seductive illusion of underhanded agreements; do not place
your faith in the ‘chariots and horses’ of today’s pharaohs. …”

and

“Do not lose time or energy in secondary things, in gossip or intrigue, in conceited schemes of careerism, in empty plans for superiority, in unproductive groups that seek benefits or common interests. … Do not allow yourselves to be dragged into gossip and slander. … If you want to fight, do it, but as men do. Say it to each other’s faces and after that, like men of God, pray together. If you went too far, ask for forgiveness.”

IMG_9512If there are clerics in this world due for a spiritual tongue-lashing, it’s Mexican bishops.

When I lived there, I was struck by how uninterested most bishops (and there were notable exceptions) seemed in the country’s poor. Many seemed either absorbed with ritual, or with political intrigue and playing golf with the powerful – either oblivious to, or studiously ignoring, the country’s towering wave of poverty, throttled opportunity and energy, and of course, today, violence.

In the most deeply Catholic parts of the country – Oaxaca and Chiapas – it was as if the church hadn’t changed much since the Spaniards brought it over. The priest was viewed as a quasi-deity in many Oaxacan villages. People were not allowed to look at him when he walked their streets – this as recently as the 1970s, from people I’ve spoken to. The religious traditions of those villages – the fiestas that poor peasant farmers had to pay for, miring them in debt for years; the incessant use of alcohol – have served to keep generations of people poor.

Thus so many Mexicans, especially so many Mexican Indians from isolated villages in states like Chiapas and Oaxaca, convert to Protestant denominations when they leave their home towns.

Look at Pico-Union and South Central Los Angeles, or the agricultural Valley of San Quintin in Baja California. You will see hundreds of new churches – Pentecostal, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness and more – many of which were formed by Zapotecas, Mixtecs, and Mayans who were once thought to be the bedrock of Mexican Catholicism.

They were easy to control when they hadn’t seen anything of the New World, and were cloistered in the Old.

Away from the limitations, prohibitions, and ecclesiastical arrogance they grew up with, many seem to feel that spiritual reinvention ought to be as much a part of their new lives as the socio-economic conversion they are going through.

Just as global economic competition has entered Mexico in the last few decades, so too is the country facing religious competition. Too often, the church still seemed to behave as if it had a monopoly on souls.

I thought I saw similarities between the church and how Mexican immigrants turned away from  Gigante, the Mexican grocery-store chain that tried to enter the Southern California market a few years back, thinking it could treat these immigrants the same disparaging way the chain had back home.

Mexican bishops and the Pope ought to visit one of my favorite places in Los Angeles: St. Cecilia Catholic Church, at 42nd and Normandie, a vibrant (and full) church, with congregations, and saints, from Oaxaca, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nigeria.

They’d see how Catholicism wins when it opens itself to its parishioners, allows them to own the church and take an active role in it. They’d see how crucial that is to energizing a congregation now working in the New World and used to, but unhappy with, the ways of the Old.

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Filed under Los Angeles, Mexico, Migrants, Religion

Adios Underworld Pioneer Sana Ojeda – I think

Mexican Mafia prison-gang member Peter “Sana” Ojeda, a pioneer in the Southern California underworld, was found guilty by a jury today of a slew of racketeering charges in a federal court in Orange County.Peter Ojeda

In 1992, Ojeda held meetings at Salvador Park in Santa Ana, bringing together warring Latino gangs from across Orange County.

It was a stunning moment that showed the power of the Mexican Mafia in the barrios, sworn mortal enemies stood docilely together as Ojeda, from atop baseball bleachers, told them to stop the feuding and drive-by shootings.

The so-called Peace Treaty spread from there to Latino gangs across Southern California, during which Mexican Mafia (Eme) members banned drive-by shootings.

In the end, though, the peace treaty proved a Trojan Horse. Eme members used the newly discovered obedience of Latino street gangs to set up a vast business model of using thousands of gang members to tax drug dealers in barrios across the Southland, then funnel the proceeds to Eme members and their relatives in prison and on the streets.

The new system, which remains in place today, transformed the region’s Latino street gangs from neighborhood entities into money-making enterprises. Neighborhood gang loyalty disintegrated, as feuding over money, taxation, the favor of Eme members, turned gang members against each other. It also led to mass defections of gang members from the Mafia structure inside California prisons.

Spotty and haphazard though it often is, the Eme’s drug-taxation system amounts to the only region-wide organized crime syndicate Southern California has ever known.

Ojeda was convicted of running the Orange County operation – ordering murders, extortion and more – from his federal jail cell, where he’d been since his arrest on a prior racketeering charge in 2005. He was helped by his girlfriend, Suzie Rodriguez, who was also convicted. Both will be sentenced in May.

Still, it’s hard to imagine this will be the real end of Sana Ojeda. Mafia members, most of whom are doing life in maximum security prisons, routinely run these operations with the help of go-betweens on the street.

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L.A. Murder – Not The Real Story Any More

It would have been easy to miss some stunning news a few days ago.

It came buried in the back pages of a December 30 LA Times article on how crime was rising. Rising across the board! First IMG_7311time since 2003! Yikes!

The real stunning story, though, was this:

The city will register only 280 homicides for all of 2015. That would seem sad, and for 280 victims and their families and friends, it most certainly is – I can say this as a reporter who has covered hundreds of murders in his career. I know how murder can destroy not just one life, but the lives of the surviving family as well.

To understand, however, why that number could actually be encouraging news, a remarkable event, you need the context. Here’s some:

Pitched as a 10 percent increase, 280 homicides is actually the city’s third lowest homicide figure since 2000 and part of a drop in crime that has been going on since roughly 2007. In fact, apart from 2013-2014, the city hasn’t had that few homicides since 1967, when L.A.’s population was a third smaller than it is today (roughly 2.4 million people then compared with 3.8 million today).

You’ll remember, perhaps, that in August there was a collective freak-out at the increase in homicides that month. I thought folks should have maintained some calm and context, and dealt with it seriously and professionally, which is what it appears LAPD proceeded to do. The rest of the year saw monthly homicide numbers fall again.

My guess is that in a heavily armed culture, and a very large city, we won’t see homicides dropping to, say, 200 a year. So it’s possible that we’re at about the lowest crime levels a city the size of L.A. can reasonably produce. I’d love to be proved wrong, but barring a deep change in our permissive gun culture or a massive tax increase doubling the size of the LAPD, I’d bet against it.

If those numbers crept up consistently year after year, that would be cause for great concern. But at this point, if crime figures rise 10 percent, or drop by that much, from one year to the next, it’s worth understanding and addressing with calm and context — but not frothing over.

I say this after, again, years as a crime reporter, and fully aware that some areas of the city, and of the region, still have serious problems and that these need attention.

Nor am I saying murder is okay if it’s below a certain number. Just that there are stories we ought also to pay attention to.

The real story is not that crime or homicide rose 10 percent.

The real story is that, while we witness blooms of intercultural savagery around the world, in our region of races, languages, and religions from every corner of the globe, crime has become negligible – a minor part of life and not just for wealthy folks, but, importantly and especially, for working people.

Some notorious headlines notwithstanding – yes, Rodney King, we can all get along and, by and large, in Southern California, we are. In the end, the 2015 homicide figures, as painful as they are for some families, did reflect that.

(Hate crime, btw, is almost nonexistent, certainly compared to the volume and the sheer violence of those crimes in the early and mid-2000s, most of them committed by Latino street gangs against blacks, which you can read more about in a chapter essay that I wrote for this anthology.)

The real story is that this drop in crime began during the country’s Great Recession, and is taking place in a region where poorly paid service jobs have replaced so many good-paying union jobs with solid benefits; where dense apartment complexes have replaced so many single-family homes.

The real story is how many working-class neighborhoods, where murder once stunted life and commerce, are now mercifully at peace, and property values are reflecting that.

And, above all, the real story  is that gang violence has dropped so precipitously. (Remember: L.A. used to have way more than 280 gang-related homicides, in years when total homicides topped a thousand.) And so has gangs’ public behavior that did so much to blight those working-class neighborhoods that could least afford their crap. Gangs no longer have the run of the region.

This morning I was out on a street that was notorious for its gang in the 1990s. I found it quiet, pleasant, unscarred by graffiti. On the contrary, the houses seemed improved, freshly painted – one of many such neighborhoods all across Southern California.

Later, I was in Lincoln Park, talking with Braulio Garcia, a Mexican immigrant who has owned La Guadalupana Market (pictured above) since 1988. Up to about decade ago, he said, gangs were everywhere in Lincoln Park. A few blocks away is a gang mural, apparently from the 1990s, that lists the members of the neighborhood crew, and giving an RIP to a few friends who didn’t make it. Now, Mr. Garcia told me,  he doesn’t see gangs or their graffiti at all.

Certainly lifted my spirits.

So on that note I’ll leave you, while daring to suggest that things are looking up, and hoping, meanwhile, that we have a Happy New Year, one and all.

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Filed under California, Drugs, Gangs, Los Angeles, Southern California

In San Bernardino: A womb provides the perfect cover

So the woman apparently swore allegiance to ISIS on Facebook – that’s what AP and others report – meaning she viewed her womb as nothing more than cover. Staying in the US while deflecting suspicion – what better way than to have a child.

Meanwhile, Republicans are talking terrorism. Democrats talk guns.imgres

Both are right.

As this case unfolds, it seems to have more to do with fanaticism than anything else. The real question is, as this fanaticism spreads, should we be complicit in our own demise?

The ISIS connection, I guess, now doesn’t surprise me. This couple clearly had been planning some attack, given all the ammunition (thousands of rounds) and tools they possessed to make a dozen pipe bombs. So her entry into this country should only be viewed with suspicion.

Then, within a few years of returning from Saudi Arabia (home of Wahabi fanatics and the oil that we are addicted to), they’re married, with an infant daughter and, after much late-night work, they choose a holiday party of county employees a few weeks before Christmas to go off, kill people and leave their daughter an orphan.

All of that reeked with something more sophisticated than the typical insane killer a la Tucson or Aurora.

But the guy was a U.S. citizen, mild-mannered, county employee, from a family of at least one decorated US Navy sailor. How many of those are there in our country? Millions.

The question is: How easy are we making it for terrorists to do their job when someone can buy these kinds of assault weapons? That someone bought them for them is no surprise. This kind of straw purchase takes place at Arizona gun shows all the time. L.A. street gangs get their weapons this way, too.

Why is that an easy thing to do? That should not be easy – I see no reason why it should be legal in most cases at all. These guns are designed for the simple mowing down of people. Nothing else. Why don’t we know where each of those guns is and who owns them?

Senate Republicans just voted en masse against a bill that would have prevented the sale of arms to people on the FBI’s terrorism watchlist. That seems irresponsible. Particularly as they don’t appear to have any other solution to this problem, other than the mass arming of every American, a fanatical idea itself, it seems to me.

That is their final solution: A garrison state outside every holiday party and keeping the world out of the country.

Given Paris, Colorado Springs, South Carolina and now this, we are confronting something that combines classic political fanaticism with run-of-the-mill insanity. Mixing one more than the other, depending on the imgres-2case.

Dostoevsky had some things so say about that in his novel, The Devils, also known as The Possessed – an 1872 novel increasingly relevant to our times. It’s the denial of the individual, of one’s own existence, doubts, intellect, love and connection to others — all that prostrate before some perceived higher cause. At the same time, it’s an attempt to shred, destroy community, the public coming together of human beings.

Southern California has seen this before. The best example I’m aware of is in our street gangs, where nothing short of a brainwashing occurs in kids in their teens, teaching them that their 12-square-block area, their clica, is worth you dying or going to prison for. Hence, they dominated parks and street corners and didn’t pay too much attention to where their bullets flew. Saw that many times.

Heroin addicts display these brainwashed characteristics in devotion to their dope, I’ve noticed.

We saw it, too, in Colorado Springs or South Carolina, where loonies were killing for what they perceived was some higher cause. Even the Tucson guy, who was out of his mind, had some higher calling in mind, even if he couldn’t articulate it in a way any of us could understand.

In San Bernardino, the fanaticism is especially pronounced, of course. Even a womb was employed in its furtherance.imgres-1

The guy now seems a toady in comparison with the blind devotion of this woman he married – though we can only take that verb with a grain of salt.

What gives greatest pause is the couple’s target. Unlike the targets of previous killings, it’s unclear what a holiday party of county employees has to do with the larger goals of ISIS. Unless, of course, it’s simply to kill the way Americans live, the openness with which we conduct everyday life.

Any target is fine – place or human. That seems the clear conclusion here: sowing fear, shredding community, isolating us from each other.

Question is, then: Given that keeping that attitude out is almost impossible, are we going to be complicit in our demise?

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Filed under California, Los Angeles, Uncategorized

A Victim List in San Bernardino

A list of victims in San Bernardino reads like the wondrous cross-section of America that makes this country such a beacon to the rest of the world, so threatening to fanatics (foreign and domestic), and which is under attack by these now daily shootings everywhere.

They were Vietnamese, Latino, white, black, Jewish, Christian, gay, straight. One guy dressed as Santa Claus every year; another guy trained autistic kids to work in the cafe in the center where this happened and volunteered for the Renaissance Faire every year.

“Faire teaches us that everyone’s ideas are valid,” one man who knew him told the LA Times. “It gives us a greater understanding of each other and the world in general.”

Quite. The antidote to fanaticism is the Renaissance Faire. I buy that.

Which makes it hard, painful to watch the details of who these people were come out.

Meanwhile, this story continues to mess with our conceptions, including my own.

I’ve covered several of these and I always expect the shooters to be white American men, because so many of them have been.

This time … a mild-mannered US-born killer of Pakistani extraction, living in SoCal suburbia, perhaps radicalized by a trip to Saudi Arabia (What a surprise! When do we wean ourselves from the oil this country controls?). There, he got engaged and somehow got his woman into the country, where she was next seen shooting it out with cops Bonnie and Clyde style after killing and wounding people at a holiday party.

And his brother was a decorated US Navy vet.

Still my question is: Who has a daughter six months before and decides then that today is just a great day to leave her an orphan? And why/how would you come to that conclusion?

And then why would you think that killing people you work with, who just months before had thrown you a baby shower, is the answer to your torments? If terrorism is your goal, how does taking out a holiday party in San Bernardino, far in every way from power, fulfill it?

Clearly he wasn’t insane, in the way that the South Carolina guy or Tucson or Aurora guys probably were. They were obviously planning something for a long time, with that much ammunition and weaponry on hand – all with an infant in the house. 12 pipe bombs, thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Of course, religious fanaticism is one of the few things that will deny the parenting instinct. So maybe that’s it. Saw a similar kind of fanaticism in Colorado Springs last week.

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Pope Francis, Community and Heroin

I’m speaking at Notre Dame University today, the day that Pope Francis gave his beautiful talk to Congress.

What struck me about his speech was not just what he said, for we’ve heard some of that before, though it never gets old. But what struck me most was the way he said it: softly, slowly, building each idea logically on the last.

We live in an era of bombast. It is everywhere. It’s not just Donald Trump, who personifies it, in my opinion. It’s loud-mouthed, poorly spoken athletes on ESPN. It’s crank screechers on 24-hour news and talk raIMG_3652dio. Reality show bimbos. It’s the babble of unimportant breaking news that takes up so much space on newspaper websites. The constant yammer on Facebook about stuff that is really personal and ought to be kept that way. We never get a minute to ourselves, it seems.

Of course, our national politics is infected with it. Congress appears incapable of doing anything but taking one extreme or the other. Talking points – that’s an interesting concept. “Talk to us about X…” is another – just open your mouth and start talking, implying that thought doesn’t need to occur first.

Thus it was so therapeutic to walk along the quiet paths of the school’s campus and listen to Pope Francis use terms like “cooperation,” “union,” “community.” It was sweet to hear him talk about the monk Thomas Merton.

These themes – or the lack of them in our civic life – are integrally wrapped up in why we have so much heroin abuse in America today.

I believe we’ve spent decades destroying community, mocking and clawing at the girdings of government that provide the public assets and infrastructure that we took for granted and that make communal public life possible. We exalted the private sector, and accepted the free market as some infallible God and thus allowed, encouraged even, jobs to go overseas.

We seemed to fear the public sphere. Parents hover over kids. Alarmed at some menace out in public, they accompany their kids everywhere they go. It all seems connected to a fear of pain, an idea that we can avoid pain, avoid danger.  As a country, meanwhile, we have acted as if consumption and the accumulation of stuff was the path to happiness.

We’ve built into our suburbs an isolation that we called prosperity. Added to that mix was the expansion of technology that connects us to the world but separates us from our next-door neighbor.

We wound up dangerously separate from each other – whether in poverty or in affluence.

Kids no longer play in the street. Parks are under-used.

Why then do we wonder that heroin is everywhere?

Heroin turns every addict into narcissistic, self-absorbed, solitary hyper-consumers. A life that finds opiates turns away from family and community and devotes itself entirely to self-gratification by buying and consuming one product – the drug that most makes being alone not just all right, but preferable. It is the final expression of values we have fostered for 35 years.

I believe more strongly than ever that the antidote to heroin is community – doing things with neighbors in public in a way that once came quite naturally.

That’s why I also loved Pope Francis’s speech. He seemed to be touching on the stuff that troubles us as a country most deeply  – and for which heroin is just the latest, though perhaps most potent, symptom.

And he did so quietly, softly – which I hope meant that people heard him more clearly.

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Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, Global Economy, Los Angeles

LA crime stats – Without Context We Are Lost

IMG_9334The latest homicide figures in Los Angeles have set off a shriek-a-thon that is weird and seems to me fed by 24-hour-news culture, which is dangerous because it is utterly devoid of context.

I believe in police accountability, smart deployment of officers and using Big Data to analyze crime trends and respond to them. I also believe it is important to hold elected officials accountable on how city resources are used and deployed.

But as citizens, we too have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable. We are duty-bound to get a grip, seek context, not start shrieking for shrieking’s sake.

By using only rates of increase, those who talk about this latest “surge” in crime are avoiding context.

And here it is: The city has had 185 homicides in eight-plus months – an average of about 24 a month. It’s unlikely to maintain that pace, as August almost always registers the highest numbers of homicides and adds briefly to the statistical average. But even if it does, the city will still tally fewer or roughly equal to the number of homicides of any year this century.

In fact, the LA homicide figures this year will almost certainly be below any yearly figure since the 1960s.

That is not to say that LAPD doesn’t need to readjust its force deployment. I’m not a police commander, but if one month shows that kind of increase (41 homicides in August), stands to reason it would require a reassessment.

Nor do I say this to play down what it means to have homicides in one’s neighborhood. I’ve covered more homicides than almost any reporter I know, and I understand more deeply than most, I believe, what they do to a family, and to a neighborhood, to a city. So I do not say this to make light of what’s happened in parts of L.A.

But we too have a duty, a responsibility, to remain sane, to appreciate the stunningly positive story of what has happened to crime in Southern California (and gangs above all), to not start shrieking over every little statistical increase.

And above all, to use context. Context. As a journalist, I can say that without it you are lost.

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The Good, the Bad and the #100Days100Nights

Twitter is abuzz with word from South Central Los Angeles that either 1) a gang, angered at the shooting of a member is planning on killing a hundred people in a hundred days or 2) that two gangs have a bet to see which can kill the most people first.

I don’t know if either story is right. I suspect no one else does, either.

There certainly have been serious spates of shootings in areas in which these gangs operate.

But to me, this seems the downside to an otherwise very positive development in our SoCal gang world. Street gangs have moved off the street. This is a radical development, for our street gangs grew from the streets, took their names from streets, developed reputations based on how well they “defended” street they deemed “theirs.”IMG_9366

Now, in neighborhood after neighborhood, corner after corner, they are absent. Cudahy, Hawaiian Gardens, Highland Park, Compton – ancient gang towns or neighborhoods. Not any more, it seems from traveling their streets. To be sure, the phenomenon is less well felt in the black neighborhoods of South Central. But even there it’s nothing like it ever was at its worst, or even a few years after its worst.

Doesn’t mean gangs don’t feud. Doesn’t mean they’re not up to no good. It just means they aren’t as public, aren’t as much out on the street, in the parks, on the street corners – which is good, for  it allows those neighborhoods some room to breathe. That’s why property values in many of these neighborhoods are rising. Northeast LA is one very good example of that.

IMG_1780On the flipside, those who remain bonafide members, or maybe more likely those who aren’t, spend time prattling on, threatening others and boasting on social media – Facebook is full of them; so is Twitter. But going on social media requires a whole lot less dedication to the gang cause than staking out territory at a park or liquor store where your rivals know where to find you.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that gangs on social media is a benign thing.

Take the #100days100nights hashtag. Could be there’s truth to this hashtag. Could be there isn’t. Could be that people believe there is and act accordingly, by staying away from the areas where these gangs operate (Imperial to Florence, around Western). But it grows from the new space that gangs here have occupied, which is the virtual space. From there, the supposition is, it has spilled out onto the streets.

Whatever the truths, it bears mention that myths and misunderstandings have long fueled gang life in L.A. The Mexican Mafia, in an attempt to stop drive-by shootings, which it viewed as harmful to its drug business, said a member’s child had been killed in a drive-by. Latino gangs took that seriously.

IMG_0569Among the Florencia 13 gang (one of the largest Latino gangs in SoCal) rumor circulated that blacks had hijacked a load of dope that belonged to the Mexican Mafia member from Florencia.

True? Who knows?

But Florencia then went on a multi-year campaign (2004-07 more or less) to shoot black men – crimes well documented in a federal trial a few years later.

So this hashtag is part of a tradition, just amplified by the power of, and lack of accountability inherent in, social media.

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Filed under Gangs, Los Angeles, Southern California

Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside

Six percent of Americans are black men. Forty percent of homicide victims are black men, most by far killed by other black men, though many of the cases remain unsolved.

This kind of impunity is the result not of too much policing but of far too little. Too often police in places like South L.A.FullSizeRender are swamped, given the caseload and resources at their disposal. They can make little of each murder case, which, once unsolved, strengthens the culture of impunity and of witness silence, and encourages more murder.

That is the analysis of  my colleague at the L.A. Times, Jill Leovy, in her great new book, Ghettoside, based on years of her reporting and research in South Los Angeles.

I’m only a little way into the book, having purchased it only last night. But this already seems like some of the most original, clear, observation-driven thinking on crime that I’ve read in years – and brave as well given the current discourse over policing in the black community.

Here’s some of what she writes:

“…where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. … African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides. Specifically, black America has not benefited from what Max Weber called a state monopoly on violence – the government’s exclusive right to exercise legitimate force. … Slavery, Jim Crow, and conditions across much of black America for generations after worked against the formation of such a monopoly. Since personal violence inevitably flares where the state’s monopoly is absent, this situation results in the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.”

Reading on. Can’t wait for more.

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Filed under Books, California, Los Angeles, Writing

LAT Op-Ed: Parks, Gang Free, Returned to Owners

An opinion piece of mine is out in the LA Times — this one about the radical changes at Southern California parks.

Parks, by and large, are now free of gang presence. They are, generally speaking, places where families can play and relax without the fear that not so many years ago kept them away.

As I say in the piece, this mostly benefits working-class families who couldn’t use gang-infested parks near where they lived years ago.

This marks a real revolution, I think. Dominating parks was part of how gangs emerged and grew strong in Southern California.

Hope you like the piece.

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South Gate Rising – my N.Y. Times column

I came to South Gate for the first time in 1997 and 1998 to write about Chalino Sanchez, the slain narcocorrido singer whose career began at El Parral, a narco-music club in the town.

In 2000, I returned as South Gate was pioneering the outrageous and crummy PRI-style politics that stained the newly Latino cities southeast of L.A. for the following decade. I left the town a few weeks later gravely concerned that the implications of the emergence of a Latino majority would mean the same kind of insane, mutant politics would spread to all of Southern California.

So I’m very happy to be able to write the column that appears in today’s New York Times about South Gate and the changes that I perceive in the southeast cities – some more than others, but all connected to a general acceptance by Mexican immigrants of their future and place in this country.

The Saga of South Gate, btw, became a chapter in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream. The political culture that emerged there over four municipal election cycles was based, as I say in my NYT column, on preposterous, looney campaign fliers that were nonetheless believed by many voters in that town.

I’ve included below a slideshow of some of those fliers for the historical record and to give an idea of how wacky things got. These are mostly from the 2001 municipal election in which Albert Robles and his cronies won a council majority. For the full story, check out the chapter in my book.

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Filed under California, Los Angeles, Mexico, Migrants, Southern California

As a legend passes, a Walmart in Compton?

A legendary Compton indoor swap meet is closing this week, and vendors say they believe it will be replaced by a Walmart.

Snapseed Compton Fashion Center Dresses BWThe Compton Fashion Center, 2100 N. Long Beach Blvd., closes Thursday after 32 years, during which time it revolutionized immigrant business formation in Southern California.

In a tersely worded December 1 letter to vendors, some of whom had been in the CFC since it opened, the owner, Soo Lee, told them they had 30 days to get out.  That deadline was later extended another two weeks – leaving this Thursday as the day when the lights go out.

Shortly before Christmas, the center put up large signs announcing a “Close Out Sale” – and thanking customers for years of patronage – that vendors had not agreed to. Vendors say this left them with little time or opportunity reduce inventory and find a new location.

Of several CFC merchants I spoke with, all said they believe the space will be occupied by a Walmart, though the owner, Soo Lee, has said nothing about his plans for the enormous space. So this may be rumor as much as anything.

Walmart did not confirm a new store at the Compton swap meet. But the company didn’t quite deny one in the future, either. Here’s the statement a spokeswoman emailed me:

“While we are always looking for ways to better serve our Compton customers, we don’t have any new projects to announce.”

Okay. Still leaves the question of what will go into the center that was making the owner push the vendors out so abruptly after so many years in business.

Walmart last summer put a store in the new azalea Shopping Center in South Gate, four milIMG_1919es away, and traffic was so heavy the store wasn’t able to keep its shelves stocked for the first few weeks, according to a shopping center spokeswoman.

Of course, Walmart has also had problems locating inner-city stores in Southern California. Inglewood famously turned away the giant retailer, fearing it would lay waste to numerous mom-and-pop merchants.

“If Walmart comes, all the merchants on Long Beach Boulevard and around here will be wiped out,” said Kirk Kim, owner of Cycadelic Records, which has rented space near a swap meet entrance since CFC opened.

Compton Fashion Center opened in the space of what had been a Sears in 1983. It was the first large Korean-owned indoor swap meet in Southern California.

With that, in a region then becoming a magnet for immigrants from across the world, the indoor swap meet idea took off. Swap meets became a safe place for immigrants, speaking little English and without much capital, to wedge into a cranny of the American Dream.

Compton Fashion Center, in particular, drew people from all over with, in its heyday, 300 vendors selling jewelry, Photo Jan 12, 1 18 21 PMmakeup, music, cellphones, groceries and clothe.

“The holy grail of the hood,” one Yelp customer called it.

At Cycadelic Records in the 1980s, Kirk Kim’s father, the late Wan Joon Kim, and mother, Boo Ja  — Korean immigrants who spoke little English – became the first to sell and promote the gangster rap then emerging from Compton garages. The couple, known as Pops and Mama, sold the first records by NWA frontman Eazy E, and dozens of other rappers that grew to chronicle the city’s crack-and-gang nightmare, as West Coast gangster rap became an international phenomenon. His shop and the center have been in numerous rap music videos.

But a lot has changed since then. National retailers have discovered the hood. Whether the indoor swap meet is slowly fading away is an open question.

Kirk Kirk believe the CFC owners have been keeping vendors out with an eye to attracting to a big-box retailer. Whatever the case, he said, foot traffic has dropped along with the number of vendors.

Last week, the center was slowly emptying. Stalls sat abandoned. Owners were boxing product and sweeping the floors.

“It’s sad. These folks are like my family,” he said. “I see these people more than I see my sister.”

Photos: Kirk Kim; t-shirts and dresses in booths at Compton Fashion Center.

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Filed under Business, California, Los Angeles, Migrants, Southern California

Miracle on Drew Street

Today I drove through the Drew Street neighborhood and found an L.A. miracle.

Fabrizio Uzan had purchased a triplex out of foreclosure. When I met him, he was redoing the IMG_1929downstairs unit with new refrigerator and stove, new toilet and bathroom sink and shower, new floors and paint.

His property is at the corner of Drew and Estara – one of the most dangerous gang corners in all of Los Angeles a few years ago.

Uzan lives in Hollywood but thought the area had turned around and bought the property. He is upgrading the unit with a thought to charging $1500 for the one-bedroom, up from $925.

He told me he’s in no hurry to rent it. Rather, he wants a quality tenant. Under the old owner, the previous occupants had squeezed two families into the unit. Those days are over, he hopes.

“Good people won’t pay high rent for a shitty place,” he said. Indeed.

Uzan’s investment in this property marks a stunning moment in the history of Los Angeles, I believe.

From my count, Uzan is one of about eight or ten property owners – new and old, residents and landlords – who appear to be investing in fixing up their units/houses on the once-notorious street. Investing in real estate on Drew was lunacy a few years ago. Not any more, apparently.

There’s still some gang graffiti to be seen in the area. But that doesn’t seem to daunt many urbanIMG_1930 pioneers here. The gunfire and late-night insanity of the round-the-clock drug dealing are gone. No more screeching tires startling people from their sleep at night.

This is one street, and a tiny one at that. But I see the corner of Drew/Estara as a barometer of L.A., one that measures important changes to working-class neighborhoods where gangs dominated (and some still do) across the city.

Which is why I wrote about it in my story that Pacific Standard Magazine put on its cover and called “The End of Gangs.”

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Is This How Gangs End?

I’m very proud of my cover story in the January’s edition of Pacific Standard Magazine about the decline of gang violence and gang presence in Southern California.gangs-illo

I’ve been watching this phenomenon quietly unfold for several years. It amounts to a revolution in criminal behavior in the region that essentially invented the modern street gang, then exported it to much of America.

It’s not necessarily to say that, literally, all gangs have stopped existing, though some have. Rather, it’s to say that their behavior is so much more underground, low-profile, so quiet, that it amounts to about the same thing for many working-class neighborhoods that were besieged by these guys for so long. Some are still active but none is as active as gangs were a decade or two ago.

These were truly street gangs, meaning they took their power, identity and reputation from their streets and how well they “defended” them.

Areas like Drew Street, mentioned in the piece, are now seeing a resurgence that was denied them for many years due to the stifling presence of their local gangs.

Anyway, I hope you like the piece. Daily Beast selected it as one of the Best Longreads of the Week – so that was nice….Let me know what you think, please.

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Filed under California, Gangs, Los Angeles, Southern California