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Compton Block Clubs Find Strength in Numbers as They Wage Battle Against Neighborhood Gangs, Drug Dealers

February 14, 1988|TERRY SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

On North Burris Avenue in Compton, curb-side drug deals take place in broad daylight. Gang members harass passers-by. Graffiti defaces the walls between houses and empty beer bottles and fast-food bags litter the road.

Disorganized and afraid, some residents say they have begun carrying weapons to protect their families.

"I have to carry a knife, which is something I have never done in my life," said one resident, who asked not to be identified. He said his frustration grows deeper each time the drug dealers pressure his children.

"One day they are going to make us do something," he vowed.

On North Sloan Avenue, a block east of Burris, such a day came in May, 1985. A gun battle erupted between warring gangs, leaving three youths dead in the street.

"I decided right then I was going to organize a block club," said Ethel Miree, 53, a Sloan Avenue resident.

Now, police and city officials agree that Miree's 32-member group of active, interested and outraged residents has substantially improved life along that northeast Compton street. Sloan Avenue is relatively free of litter and graffiti, as well as the loitering that usually characterizes illicit drug trading.

"We were just like (Burris) over here," Miree recalled. "But we were persistent in that we were not going to allow drugs to be sold on our street."

Block clubs, ranging in size from 10 members to more than 100, have become a front-line force in Compton's longtime battle against crime. More than 200 clubs have been organized in recent years and at least 50 have had an impact, especially on gang and drug activities, city officials say.

"What you are seeing is common in any inner-city area," said Cmdr. Tom Armstrong of the Compton Police Department. "One block has joined together and is clean. The next (block), things are out of hand.

"We can't be everywhere, so responsible people are going to have to take an active role in running their community," Armstrong continued. "If we go down the street and the (dealers) are just standing in their front yards, we can't do anything unless somebody is willing to say those people are committing a crime."

Community activists say that type of individual involvement is becoming more widespread as the city's murder rate--one of the highest in Los Angeles County--continues to soar.

"People are getting tired of the gangs and the violence and the writing on the walls," said Royce Esters, chairman of the city's Standing Committee on Crime. "They are asking themselves 'What are we going to do here?' "

One Burris Avenue resident, who also asked not to be named, said recently that she has tried for two years to organize her neighbors, but without success.

"Most of them are scared," the woman said. "A lot of them are older people and the (Spanish-speaking) people don't feel like they have a right to complain."

The woman said she bought her house because she was unable to afford one in a better neighborhood. The worst part, she said, was having to send her teen-age daughter to live with her grandparents at a safer location.

Even if she had the money to move, the woman said, there is no guarantee she would be able to sell her house on Burris.

"The neighbor next door tried to sell his house, but he couldn't," she said. "The druggies would bother the potential buyers, so they would just leave."

From the woman's front window one recent morning, nine young men could be seen congregating on the lawn of a nearby house, drinking malt liquor and listening to rap music blaring from a boom-box tape player. The woman said they were gang members out for a routine day of dealing drugs.

Cars would occasionally stop in the street. One of the youths would walk out, pass a plastic sandwich bag containing a white substance to one of the occupants, then take back a handful of cash.

A Police Department spokesman said no statistics are kept on crime by street, so there is no way to tell if Burris or Sloan have any more or any less trouble than other neighborhoods in the city.

But city officials say they believe Burris has it worse than Sloan, and the difference is that Miree's block club has thrown a spotlight on people who were causing the problems.

"Somebody has to be willing to stick their neck out," said Phyllis Frierson, who is the block club liaison for the city. "That is what it is going to take if you want to control gangs."

Councilman Maxcy D. Filer says residents should confront the drug dealers. "I am not suggesting that they be vigilantes," Filer cautioned. "But they need to do like Martin Luther King Jr. did with segregation and picket the drug houses. Some people say they don't want to put themselves out there on the line, but he put himself out there."

Dealer Forced Out

Daniel Biddels, who helped organize the Northeast Kay-Van Ness Block Club, says his group did just that last year, forcing out a suspected rock cocaine dealer.

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