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CITY TIMES COVER STORY : Gang members are not the only ones who benefit from the truce between rival Bloods and Crips factions. : It's a Women Thing, Too : 1. Mothers who no longer spend sleepless nights waiting for their sons to come home. : 2. Young women who no longer see their children's fathers gunned down before their babies take their first steps. : 3. Teen-age girls who are no longer the targets of rival gangsters, or the victims of stray bullets.

June 05, 1994|LUCILLE RENWICK

Niaela Smith lightly touches the fingernail-sized scar from the bullet that grazed her right temple, a permanent reminder of the violence that has plagued the housing projects of Watts.

Smith was riding in a car driven by a gang member when a rival gangster drove up alongside and started shooting. But that's part of life in the projects, Smith said.

"Whether you hung with gangs or not, you always had to watch your back, because even if somebody wasn't trying to get you, you could end up taking a bullet meant for someone else, by accident," said Smith, 23.

At least, that's the way it was before Bloods and Crips factions in Watts laid down their AK-47s and 9-millimeter pistols in 1992 and pledged an end to wanton killings, some say.

"I love the peace treaty," said Smith, whose two younger brothers are Grape Street Crips. "The first thing that went through my mind was that there wouldn't be any more killing. The peace treaty slowed down a whole lot of killing."

For years, during the bloody feud that loomed between Bloods and Crips in the Watts projects, women had been among the targets and victims of rival gangsters, or the bystanders who ended up taking a stray bullet. They have also been the ones to worry that their sons, brothers or boyfriends would be the next casualties of urban warfare.

Though the killings haven't ceased completely, the 2-year-old truce has eased some women's minds. And they pray that the uneasy peace will continue.

"I think what the young men are trying to do (with the truce) is to give us back our community, our families," said Theresa Allison, founder of Mothers ROC (Reclaiming Our Children), a support group that helps parents of arrested and incarcerated young men.

Mothers who spent sleepless nights waiting for word that their sons had been killed now open their homes to truce meetings. Young women who feared their children's fathers would be gunned down before the babies took their first steps see a brighter future. And teen-age girls who cruised with their homeboys welcome peace.

"I think everyone plays a role in this truce. It's not just men and can't be just men, because these boys have mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends. They have children," Allison said. "We all have a stake in this truce staying together."

Women didn't participate in the series of truce meetings held before the civil unrest two years ago. Nor were they clamoring before reporters and television cameras soon after, pushing for a piece of the American Dream--economic opportunity and political clout.

For the most part, they stayed in the background, supporting the transformation and efforts of the men who hammered out the peace treaty and joining them in celebrating the end of more than a decade of bloody rivalry at truce parties and picnics.

Smith was one of the party-goers. It wasn't too long before those parties that she and her mother, Deborah, were kept awake almost nightly by the crackle of gunfire outside their Jordan Downs apartment. With every round of shots, they feared that Fred Smith--Niaela's brother and Deborah's son--would be lying dead in some street.

Deborah Smith talks rather matter-of-factly about her son's gang involvement, like someone who has accepted the inevitable. (Another son, Fred's twin brother Charles, is also a Grape Street Crip and is in jail.)

But there are still twinges of a mother's pain in her voice as she recounts watching Fred get beaten up during his "courting" into the Crips sect and the sleepless nights that added more gray hairs to her head.

"Every time it got late I would wonder if he was ever coming home," Smith said. "He knew I didn't approve of it, but there wasn't nothing I could do to hold him back."

Fred Smith, 22, whose street name is "Scorpio," joined the Grape Street Crips at age 11 and spent several years committing drive-bys, robberies and other crimes. He has spent eight of the past nine years in and out of jail. Now on parole and ready to start a job, he is making some changes that please his mother.

"I think he's got more sense now," she said, watching her son, in purple jeans and matching short-sleeved shirt, joke with his friends and flash a boyish, dimpled smile at his mother.

"I can say, since '92, I've rested a lot easier," she said. "That doesn't mean everything is perfect, but this part has settled down a bit and that makes it a bit better."

Emma Williams is skeptical that things are better. She admits that the killings have subsided since the truce, but the violence continues, she said. It is apparent in the quarter-inch hole from a bullet shot through the windshield of her son Saffarr's cream-colored Monte Carlo in February.

"There was a time when someone was getting shot and killed and people were going to funerals every week," she said. "I was so scared one time I was fixing to pack up and move."

"But that was back in the day" before the truce, Niaela Smith interrupted. "You've got to admit that things are different now."

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