Midnight. New Year's Eve. Right on schedule, the cacophony begins. Someone next door has an air horn, but that's not what stiffens my back. It is the familiar popping and booming of what could be firecrackers. But I'm sure it is the sound of firearms--lots of firearms. I don't picture people shooting them. I just picture the guns--guns blazing, guns singing, guns playing. Pop. Pop. Pop. And the sky raining bullets.
I close my eyes, silently wish my sleeping family a happy New Year and think about whether a bullet might come whizzing through one of the plastic skylights. I wonder: Is it a sign of paranoia to think about moving my slumbering daughter's crib away from the windows? I leave her in peace but resent that the thought has even intruded.
In the next day's paper, I learn that our part of the city--Venice--is not where bullets flew thickest. That dubious honor goes to the southern and eastern parts of town. Our LAPD jurisdiction, Pacific Division, didn't even rate a mention in the mayhem roundup.
This is not to say that Venice's reputation for violence is faltering. Last summer, at a back-yard barbecue in Santa Monica, a man who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles and lives there still asked me where I live.
\o7 Venice?\f7 he exclaimed. \o7 Boy, that place is dangerous!\f7
In the past several months, almost every week has brought fresh reports of death and devastation in one Venice neighborhood, the tiny enclave of Oakwood, barely a one-square-mile piece of turf. Oakwood lies just west of Lincoln Boulevard, east of Abbot Kinney and well south of Rose Avenue. It is the site, according to police, of a war between two gangs, one primarily Latino, one primarily African American. But everyone in the neighborhood is victimized.
At last count, the war has claimed 13 lives, and at least 30 people have been shot since October. Some of the victims have apparently been shot simply because of their skin color. The Outlook, a newspaper that covers the Westside, has used the term "race war" to describe the carnage. In the last year, half a dozen homes, occupied by anti-crime activists of the Neighborhood Watch sort have been firebombed. And of course, the violence spills over into surrounding areas.
In October, a 22-year-old man was shot a block away from Venice High School shortly after an interracial brawl on campus. Farther east, in a Mar Vista public housing project, three units occupied by African American families were firebombed in November. Police suspect Latino gang members.
Someone else was shot this fall as he sat in his car on Lincoln, parked near my grocery store, near the pet shop where we buy dog food, near our bank and the local elementary school.
Who is unscathed by violent crime or fear of it anymore? Just when you think that you are not afraid of Los Angeles, or the dark, or the kids--however innocent--in baggy clothes and knit caps, you realize that you are making all kinds of concessions to this monster, this anarchy.
Sometimes, especially if my daughter is in the car, I take a less convenient route home from the freeway, avoiding Lincoln, because people get shot there. I rarely go into my local market anymore. I've considered voting absentee because my polling place is in Oakwood.
In October, Police Chief Willie L. Williams came to a community meeting in Oakwood. I wanted to stop by, but my husband, a probation officer who has spent 25 years working with juveniles, many of them gang members, strongly discouraged me. He felt the potential for violence was just too high because of neighborhood antipathy toward the police. We stayed home. Nothing happened.
It's not just our neighborhood, of course. Every part of the city is consumed by fear of crime. A couple of months ago, I participated in a panel discussion on crime before a crowd of 400 or so women, sponsored by the Women's Conference of the Jewish Federation Council. Gil Garcetti, the L.A. County district attorney, gave the keynote speech, then took a few questions.
"What is your position on gun control," went the first query, "and where can I get a permit to carry a handgun?"
Garcetti laughed in surprise.
He said he was in favor of banning all assault weapons, but he hadn't yet formulated a position on other forms of gun control. As for obtaining a gun permit, he said he would not encourage \o7 anyone \f7 to go out and buy a handgun.
Instead, he suggested a shotgun for home protection.
"A shotgun, frankly, is much safer, in that you don't even have to load it," he said. "Just the cocking of the shotgun--that sound will just send shivers down anyone's back."
In these perverse times, such a suggestion almost has the ring of common sense.
So, happy New Year, Los Angeles. And may your 1994 be safe. Sane seems too much to ask for just now.
\o7 Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays. \f7