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The Gangs of Long Beach : Signs Are Obvious: Graffiti, Poverty, Drugs, Turf Wars, Murders

December 01, 1985|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

Jose (Dreamer) Gonzales was trapped on enemy turf. The Halloween night brawl between two rival Long Beach street gangs had run its brutal course, but Gonzales was stranded when his friends piled into their beat-up cars and screeched away.

Frantically trying to escape, Gonzales scampered down an alley. It was a mistake; half a dozen toughs from the rival gang cornered the 20-year-old. They swarmed over him, landing blows with fists, two-by-fours and a shovel.

Paramedics found Gonzales sprawled on the pavement, a bloody heap of clothing and flesh. He was taken to St. Mary Medical Center where doctors found Gonzales had suffered massive brain damage. They connected him to life-support equipment and waited.

Within the antiseptic white walls of the hospital, a surreal vigil unfolded. As Gonzales lingered between life and death, dozens of his fellow gang members gathered at the medical center, paying homage to their friend. Even a few foes from the rival gang joined in the deathwatch, standing by to witness the outcome of their handiwork.

On Nov. 2, two days after the vicious beating, Gonzales' battered body gave up the fight. The sobs of his mother and new wife marked the moment--Dreamer was dead. \f7 Out in the barrios, in the ghettos, in the checkerboard of ramshackle neighborhoods that are a haven for street gangs in Long Beach, the killings go on at an unprecedented pace.

The death of Jose Gonzales was only the latest. So far this year, there have been 15 gang-related homicides in Long Beach, more than triple the four recorded for all of 1984 and well ahead of the previous peak of nine in 1983. One of every four homicides in Long Beach this year has been linked to gang activity.

Such grim statistics, however, do not tell the whole tale. As many residents see it, those numbers are merely a tangible sign of a deeply troubling trend--Long Beach has a problem with street gangs and it is getting worse.

Alongside the forest of gleaming office towers that have sprouted in the city's rejuvenated downtown lie neighborhoods rife with gang crime. The signs are hard to miss.

Gang graffiti blanket the walls of homes and businesses. Many residents, fearful of random violence often kindled by gangs, avoid certain streets in daylight, let alone after dark. On some blocks, drugs being peddled or purchased by gang members do as brisk a sale as groceries at the corner market.

Compounding the situation, some residents maintain, is an attitude of indifference shared by those in a position to do something about gangs--elected officials, school administrators, police. Sensitive about protecting Long Beach's carefully cultivated image as an "International City" of commerce and culture, many civic leaders have all but ignored the gang problem, these residents charge. (See related story).

"All you have to do is look around," said Jennifer Thompson, a central Long Beach resident who acts as an unpaid street-corner counselor for gang members. "We're having gang murders, we're having burglaries done by gang members, there's graffiti everywhere. The city needs to admit we have a problem. Until they do, we're not going to have to worry about nuclear war--we have gang war."

But many civic leaders see it differently. While most acknowledge that some sections of Long Beach are troubled by street gangs, they insist that the problem pales when compared with the toll gang activity has taken on larger urban areas such as Los Angeles.

More importantly, many officials contend that action has been taken to thwart gangs and that further efforts are under way to counter the gang-related crime wrenching portions of the community.

"I think the problem can be dealt with in Long Beach," said Councilman James Wilson, whose 6th District is home turf for several street gangs. "Right now, the gang activity is small enough to be managed. But given time, and if it isn't checked, I think it could become a bad situation. The gangs are out there. The potential is out there."

There was never much doubt that Curt Richardson would join a gang. Most everyone in the boy's central-city neighborhood seemed to be "jumping in," so at the age of 11, Curt did the same.

First came the standard initiation ritual. Curt had to walk through a gantlet of a dozen gang members, who summarily beat the boy up. "It's to let 'em know," Curt said, "that you're down"--tough enough to be one of them.

Now 17, Curt has run with a gang for more than a third of his life. A baby-faced youth, he has had problems at school, mostly for fighting in class. He has been arrested three times, most recently in October after he allegedly sold marijuana to an undercover police officer.

Curt's mother, Barbara Bealey, is at wit's end. She has raised Curt on a monthly welfare check, mostly without a man in the house. A small woman, Bealey has the stooped look of one who carries a world of problems on her shoulders.

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