Police officers came to my 14-year-old son's Los Feliz-area junior high recently to break up warfare between the KP and the LP. "KP is Korean Power!" he explains excitedly, hipping Mom and Dad to the dynamics of gang activity. "LP is Latin Power. AP is Armenian Power." We learn the difference between taggers (graffiti artists) and saggers (who wear their baggies low off the backbone). We listen quietly, fear motivating our questions. We want to know what's going on. For all our sakes.
Our children are killing our children, and there's no such place as safe. Not anymore. Not home, watching TV in the dark or asleep in bed. Not the back yard, the park, the beach. Not the bus stop or the hospital. Not even the school ground or the classroom.
"It hurts when you hear about what's goin' on," says Ron Mokwena. Misha McK of Orange, N.J., nods. The two actors and cultural activists who founded Save Our Youth Arts & Education Organization met in London in 1979. On their 1986 arrival in Los Angeles, Ron discovered confusion, apathy and a brewing uneasiness. "There was something about to happen," he recalls. One evening two brothers were shot while taking out the garbage. That incident, and his deep discontent, inspired Ron to start the group in early 1991. A veteran of the 1976 Soweto youth uprisings, Ron's been in exile since age 13, forced out of South Africa, "where children have no voice, no future."
I ask Ron and Misha what the 100 or so young people they work with say about the increase in violence on L.A. campuses. "Protection against gangs," Ron says, "that's the big thing that comes up. The educational system has not provided a sense of security. The kids are dumped at school by their parents. The teachers, glorified baby-sitters, just want to get paid. The kids have lost their sense of self. They need something they can carry with them constantly, something to give them a sense of security and of self--a gun."
Building self-esteem--without guns--is pivotal to Save Our Youth's success. Family values are important, but when the family \o7 and \f7 the system fail, Ron and Misha believe artists (he's acted in "A Different World" and "Sarafina!" and she in "Me & Mrs. C") should redirect and re-educate. "Mindless work keeps 'em dumb, deaf and blind," Ron says. "We get them the \o7 right \f7 kinds of jobs," Misha adds. "They're too young and tender to be flipping hamburgers and stacking flower pots. Those jobs feed the desire to gangbang, to think about material things." Through private funding, she says, "we hire them to rap for terminally ill kids, to do chores for the sick and dying, to get \o7 involved. \f7 They have to work with their elders to respect their elders. When you value life, you can't waste life!"
When I arrive at the couple's Pasadena address on Colorado Boulevard, three clean-cut, earringed 15-year-olds in plaid shirts and baggies are studying the flyers and articles in the windows. The kids are hungry for this, so hungry that several of them have joined the 32-member cast of "Graffiti Blues." The rap opera was performed for President and First Lady Clinton during his inauguration, and the film goes into production this summer.
Ron and Misha believe celebrity status is an effective tool when making a positive impression on today's teens. Good enough. But I'm thoroughly cynical about the current media exploitation of gangsta glam, the kind expressed in this anonymous street rhyme:
\o7 Call me Terminator
Call me Robocop
I jes pull dah triggah
Watch dah bodies drop\f7
"These cartoons teach the kids bang-bang, you're dead," Misha laughs at the ugly irony. "But the people always get back up."
Among the innocent dead who won't be getting up are 11-year-old David Polion, 13-year-old Tanya Cadle, 13-year-old Adrian Ferrusca, 16-year-old Demetrius Rice, 17-year-old Alfred Clark, 17-year-old Michael Shean Ensley, 18-year-old Salmon Paul Daniels, to name a few. The list is frighteningly long and growing.
But so are the ranks of Save Our Youth. Twenty-one-year-old Nadari is optimistic: "We're gonna get the message through that youth are our future." And 15-year-old Mike is determined: "We got some funky rhymes to open your eyes . . . to stomp this."