One thing I tend to encounter is stories of how we become American.
I met a Lyft driver recently named Aldo. He’s from Guatemala and came here 30 years ago, at 14, escaping civil war.
He doesn’t want anything to do with Guatemala, he told me.
He went back for the first time not long ago, and couldn’t stand it. There’s no rule of law. “Nobody follows the rules,” he said. “You can’t just drive along peacefully like this. You gotta be aware of these other drivers running redlights. Motorcyclists coming up to rob you.”
I’ve heard the greatest stories from Lyft drivers. I met the brother of the champion of Mongolian BMX racing one time. Another was a Vietnamese screenwriter. A third was a Dreamer.
As Aldo and I drove along, he extolled the virtues of the Kia Optima hybrid, how he’d lived peacefully with his family in South Gate for eight years until his landlord married a Colombian woman and she started causing problems.
He told me he’d adopted his wife’s children — she was legally changing her name from Maria de la Luz to Lucy — raised them and they are now grown or growing. That he contracted polio when he was born and walks with crutches.
In Guatemalan, he couldn’t go back to his old neighborhood because he might not be able to leave it. He also couldn’t stand the smells in the outdoor markets.
So he came back from his visit home, and is getting his U.S. citizenship next year. And when he does he’ll change his name to Batman’s alter ego.
“I’m American,” he told me. “Everybody knows him.”
I don’t go in for nostalgia much. The Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, for example, seems a sad place to end up, because it means you and what you created are antiques, dead.
So last night, when I went to the resurrection of The Palomino nightclub (for one night only) in the San Fernando Valley, I was wary.
The Palomino, until its closing in 1995, was part of the roiling, ethnically based music scenes that spawned in Los Angeles in the decades before the Internet and changes in the music industry and club world made such conglomerations rare.
Music is created in a time and a place by people from both and eventually they all pass, and only the records remain, which I figure is good enough.
The excuse for last night was to hold a benefit for a new pop-art museum – Valley Relics. Really, though, it was a chance to remember.
But instead of wallowing in the past, a dozen or more singers showcased the beauty of the music created at The Palomino. True, there were a few too many speeches about how great things were back when. But what I’ll take with me is a raw and simple sweetness, intensity, and longing in the music that I don’t associate with oldies, nostalgia shows.
Three monster backup bands, including one led by guitarist James Intveld, who got his start at The Palomino, were worth paying to see by themselves; his band included the tremendous Marty Rifkin on pedal steel.
Last night, I was finally able to see Rosie Flores, who rocks as hard as anyone. Jim Lauderdale was impeccable and has a voice that, if anything, has improved with age. I first heard him on an anthology album called A Town South of Bakersfield that I found sometime in the early 1990s and was my introduction to LA country.
Most unexpectedly, Gunnar Nelson, of the heartthrob band Nelson, and son of TV-teen-idol-turned-country-act Rick Nelson, showed up to play a Dylan song and two by his late father. He told the story behind his dad’s hit, “Garden Party,” which Rick Nelson wrote after playing a Madison Square Garden oldies show, only now he was playing hippie country music and the crowd hated it. He wrote the song and its chorus (“You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”) in response. Never knew that story. The song took on a power and poignancy I’d never associated with it until his son played it.
(I’ll admit to not knowing until today that Intveld’s brother, Rick, played in Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band and both were killed when the band’s plane crashed in Texas in 1985.)
A slide show on a wall reminded us that the great days of The Palomino were the 1970s and into the 1980s. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Those were great years for music scenes in L.A., and thus for the clubs where they found their legs.
In the late 1970s, legions of white punks in Hollywood created their own scene, complete with clubs but also halls rented for DIY shows. That was followed in the mid-1980s by black kids from Compton creating beats in their garages on SP 1200 drum machines, birthing gangsta rap. Not long after that, the narcocorrido scene emerged in the newly forged Mexican-immigrant enclaves of South Gate, Bell, Huntington Park, Lynwood southeast of L.A., growing from the music of Chalino Sanchez, who was murdered in 1992.
All of these had in common a lot of young folks who were initially ignored by the recording industry and mainstream radio, and who thus learned to make their own records and promote them on their own, selling them in swap meets and outside shows.
Meanwhile, out on Lankersheim in the then-largely white San Fernando Valley, The Palomino attracted huge stars of country music – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Tom T. Hall, Marty Robbins, Kris Kristofferson. But the club was also a magnet for young musicians who came to LA from all over to play country music. Some of the best country music in America was created there.
The Palomino offered what all music scenes must have: A venue for young artists and bands to aspire to, a place to hone, to be heard and discovered. Dwight Yoakam was an opening act there. The club was also a hangout for young actors and stuntmen in the film industry.
So last night was a good night. In the end maybe I was affected by some bit of nostalgia. The night made me yearn for the days when I was going to the Hong Kong Café and watching the Germs, the Plugz and the Go-Gos on the same small stage. (I think I once went to The Palomino – can’t remember any more – but I do know that back then a trip to the 818 was, for me, almost like a trip to another country, so it didn’t happen much.)
Today, from what I can see, the era of the L.A. music scene is largely dead. My take is that the Internet has made music so easy to create that the industry has fragmented into a million little pieces and no sufficiently large critical mass of fans, clubs, and media attention can form around a small group of artists doing daring new stuff. Everything’s so diffuse. Listen to KCRW and you rarely hear the same band – they just cascade by.
I’m sure someone will correct me on this. Maybe I’m not paying as much attention as I used to.
But going out to dive clubs where daring music is played doesn’t seem quite the thing it once was. Without the clubs as centers of community where fans can see musicians and musicians can improve – like, in their day, the Hong Kong Café, El Parral, and The Palomino – it’s hard to imagine that kind of musical effervescence repeated.
Which is not to say new stuff won’t come along – it just may not happen in a community the way it once did.
To understand Ojeda’s importance, it’s important also to understand that the Mexican Mafia is neither Mexican nor was it, for many years, a mafia, strictly speaking. It is a prison gang, controlling Latino gang members in the state prison system. It took its name as a way of inspiring fear in others. Ojeda was part of that formation early on, as well as the spread of the Mafia’s influence across the state prison system.
The Mexican Mafia had no connection (until recent years) to the underworld in Mexico. Its members were, to begin with and for many years, like Ojeda’s, Mexican-American, who spoke only halting Spanish, if any at all, and whose families had been in the United States for generations.
For many years, in fact, the Mexican Mafia only ran prison yards and its influence was barely felt outside those walls.
But in the early 1990s, all that changed. The man who ushered in that change was Peter “Sana” Ojeda, a long-time member of the Mexican Mafia who had grown up in Orange County.
Ojeda, who was then on the streets, organized a meeting of O.C. street gangs at El Salvador Park in Santa Ana, filmed by law enforcement, during which he stood on bleachers dressed in a black-and-white long-sleeve shirt and told them all to stop with the gang killings and the drive-by shootings. He urged them to tax drug dealers in their neighborhoods as a way of funding neighborhood defense.
This stunned many in the Mexican Mafia, and they began to follow his lead, often using emissaries to organize meetings from San Bernardino and Pomona out to Elysian Park in Los Angeles, where one of the biggest meetings was held.
The Peace Treaty, as all this came to be known, sounded great. Gang leaders doing what law enforcement could not. But it evolved into something sinister and lasting: A system whereby gang members would indeed tax drug dealers in their area and funnel the proceeds to Mafia members, many of whom were in prison for life.
This taxation system far outlasted the Peace Treaty and is still in place today across Southern California, described in dozens of federal RICO indictments and in interviews I’ve done with dozens of gang members.
It amounts to the only regional organized crime syndicate that Southern California has ever known.
Taxation transformed Latino street gangs from scruffy neighborhood territorial entities into money-making ventures, though these were often fairly rag-tag. It gave career criminals, doing life terms in prison, access to a labor force — youths on the street who would do their bidding and admired them the way little leaguers look up to major league ball players. The Big Homies, as they were known on the street, could change life in a barrio with only a few words smuggled from prison in microprint on small pieces of paper.
It’s worth noting that their organizations on the streets, too, were often inept, bumbling, hampered by limited communications, by greed, envy, betrayal, rumor and gossip and drug use, as well as the constant return to prison of anointed emissaries of incarcerated Mafia members. One trial I sat in on involved a mafia member trying to organize three gang members to kill a rival, a man who rarely drove but was often walking in his Pomona neighborhood. Dozens and dozens of cellphone calls on how to do this and it still didn’t happen.
But Mafia taxation changed a lot about Southern California street life.
For a decade, Latino street gangs became the leading race-hate criminals in Southern California, a culture that grew from orders by many members of the Mexican Mafia that gangs should now rid their areas of black street gang/drug sales competition. As they were interpreted on the street, far from direct Mafia control, those orders often became directed at any black person, and thus in some neighborhoods campaigns were waged to get all black families to leave, which included murder, firebombings, assaults, racist graffiti and more.
Taxation made Mexican Mafia members equal in many communities to the town mayor or city council, at least with when it came to their ability to affect life in those areas. Now with the obedience of thousands of gang members on the street, many of whom were too young to have ever laid eyes on the incarcerated men they were obeying, Mafia members could, and did, ignite crime waves from maximum-security cells merely through letters smuggled from prison or via liaisons who transmitted their orders to the street. They drained city budgets, mangled lives, and forced young gang members to commit crimes that landed them in prison for life. I’ve interviewed several young men in such situations.
Ojeda was a contemporary of the pioneers of the Mexican Mafia (he’s far lower left in this photo). Among them was Joe Morgan (standing above him in the photo), whose story is also fascinating. Morgan was a Serbian-American who grew up in Boyle Heights/East LA and became culturally Mexican-American, and helped found the Mexican Mafia. Morgan died many years ago.
Ojeda was the last surviving member of that generation of the Mexican Mafia, made a member in 1972 in Tehachapi. Here’s a photo of him from those years (top right).
Throughout his life, but especially following the Salvador Park meeting, he would remain a household name in the Southern California Latino street-gang world. Meanwhile, he was in and out of prison.
In 2016, he was convicted a final time of conspiracy, largely on the basis of testimony from a former protégé, and sent to prison for 15 years, which most people figured was a life sentence.
But his control over Santa Ana and much of Orange County Latino street gang life seemed to me mostly unquestioned. So, too, his reputation as the Godfather of Orange County.
In 2011, I went to the graduation of the Citizens Academy at LAPD. This is a 10-week academy the department offers to the community to familiarize citizens with how officers do their jobs.
This one was for the LGBTQ community, at the department’s training facility at Elysian Park. Entering, I passed a bust of former Chief Darryl Gates. I took a seat and watched the graduation. The valedictorian was a transgender woman, a student at Cal State Northridge. As she spoke, I was struck by the moment. It was an amazing thing, given all the department had been under the man whose statue stood a couple dozen yards away.
I remembered that moment when I heard the news that another L.A. police chief, Charlie Beck, had announced his retirement last week.
The tenure of any chief is complicated, especially in a complicated city like L.A., and crime ebbs and flows from year to year. But it’s important, at moments like these, I think, to reflect on the larger picture.
The LA Times noted Beck was leaving amid “a stubborn uptick in crime” – four years of crime rising. But truth is, that’s only when you’re marking time as having begun in the last few years. And that’s a very short-sighted view, pampered by the new reality, which is this: Crime in L.A. has fallen dramatically, in some cases to levels not seen since the 1960s.
We’re now in the eighth year of fewer than 300 killings. As of mid-December, Los Angeles had registered 271 killings in 2017. For 1967, when the city’s population was a quarter smaller, the city registered 281.
That’s a stunning feat. Even more so because it takes place in a city with a maelstrom of languages, cultures – from Nigeria and Bangladesh to Korea and Mexico – and neighborhoods, not to mention gaping economic differences, rising homelessness and more.
Crucial in all this and equally stunning: Gangs have largely stopped the public behavior that did so much to crush working-class neighborhoods. Families in those neighborhoods don’t face the risk to their children they once did. Business owners no longer have massive graffiti to paint over every month.
Homeowners in black and Latino neighborhoods are now able to unlock the value of their homes – in both sales and home-equity loans – in a way that was impossible a decade ago. Gangs, after all, were always the best rent control.
In several neighborhoods, it’s now fashionable to put up wood-slat fences. They look great, but when I saw the first one I thought it would be a matter of minutes before it was tagged in some way. I’ve seen those same fences unmarred for months now, years in a couple cases. Those wood-slat fences mark a major change of street culture for Los Angeles.
Gangs still exist in L.A. and are involved in criminal activity – though I believe they are far smaller in number than before. But their activity is no longer the public stuff — the drive-by shootings, car jackings, taking over a park or apartment complex etc – that so used to blight and create life-threatening danger in the places they called their territory.
A lot went into all these changes and it’s not all due to Beck or even to LAPD alone.
But the new department is one of the most transformed institutions in California civic life in the last 25 years, as that Citizens Academy graduation made clear. Spend time in any LAPD station watching the officers come and go and you’ll see this very clearly. I think it’s foolish, and short-sighted, to believe that that transformation had nothing to do with the current safe conditions in Los Angeles today.
Any department faces conflict, drama, willful personalities, and rogue officers. It’s a rough job and we ask police officers to be our marital counselors, mental health professionals, our surrogate fathers and mothers, and a whole lot more, as well as our crime fighters.
All that’s the day-to-day.
But when a chief announces his retirement, there are more important facts – and a longer view – to consider.
Couple weeks ago, I spent a morning in federal court in Los Angeles to learn a little more about drug underworld ingenuity.
Federal agents had busted an enterprise known as Manny’s Delivery Service, an organization that they alleged distributed heroin across the San Fernando Valley to customers who’d call in and place their orders.
Manny was the street name of the lead defendant, Sigifrido Gurrola Barrientos (see photo).
These guys reportedly used Uber to transport the proceeds – $129,000 in one instance, according to the indictment. (Read the press release here.)
They seemed to replicate the system that was perfected and taken nationwide by the folks from Xalisco, Nayarit, which I wrote about in my book, Dreamland.
As it turns out, according to defense attorneys, Manny’s was allegedly run by fellows from the Mexican states of Puebla and Guanajuato, which are not states I’ve associated with drug trafficking. Not sure where Mr. Gurrola Barrientos is from. But it’s not surprising the business model would be used by others. There’s no trademark or copyright in the underworld.
I was intrigued by the case as well because I’m fascinated by all the ingenuity displayed in that vast, profit-motivated culture of drug trafficking, particularly from Mexico.
In the 1990s, American medicine began to claim that opiate painkillers could be prescribed virtually indiscriminately, with little risk of addiction to patients. The result over the next two decades was a huge increase in our national supply of painkillers.
That happened without anyone realizing that our heroin market had also shifted during those years. Most of our heroin now came not from the Far East (Turkey, Burma, Afghanistan) but from Latin America – Colombia and, today especially, from Mexico. It got here cheaper and more potent than the Far East stuff.
Truth is, though, most Mexican traffickers for years cared little for heroin, which they viewed as decidedly scuzzy and back-alley and with a relatively small market of tapped-out users in the United States. So they focused more on cocaine and meth, and pot, of course.
Then we began creating scads of new opiate addicts with this expansion of indiscriminate prescribing of narcotic painkillers.
That, in turn, awoke an underworld version of Fedex, and unleashed the powerful and ingeniously creative forces of the Mexican drug-trafficking culture, then largely dormant when it came to heroin. By the way, that’s not to say, necessarily, cartels. Just a widespread culture of drug trafficking, particularly in certain regions of Mexico.
There’s a reason why heroin exists. It’s not because it has much medicinal use. Or, better put, the painkilling benefits it does possess can be provided by other drugs at far less risk of addiction. Heroin exists because it’s a great drug if you’re a trafficker. It’s easy to make and is very condensed. It’s easy to cut – making it profitable to traffic even in small quantities. So small-scale heroin trafficking is a big part of the story of how it gets here from Mexico.
Also, heroin is one of the few drugs that makes sense to sell retail – as it creates customers who must buy your product every day, Christmas included, and usually several times a day.
Thus applying basic business-school principles to heroin vending – principles of marketing, customer service, etc – just naturally occurs to folks.
Hence Manny’s Delivery Service. And a bunch more like them.
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.
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.
“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. …”
“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.”
If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 case.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 radio. 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.
The 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.
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.
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.”
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.
On 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.
Among 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.
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. 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.”