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THE NEXT LOS ANGELES / TURNING IDEAS INTO ACTION : Public Safety : Can we agree on down-to-earth steps to ensure that community-based policing actually will work? : Solutions : Organize GRAFFITI PAINT-OUTS

July 17, 1994

FROM: Chris Rios, 23, a member of the Barrio Van Nuys gang who has been participating in gang truce meetings since October. Rios was first arrested at age 11 and has spent most of his life in trouble with the law, including a conviction for attempted murder. He was shot and seriously wounded two years ago while trying to steal a car.

At the heart of community-based policing is a feeling of safety, and feeling safe begins with everyone getting out and getting involved--including gang members.

But for Rios, community-based policing initially meant more hassles. As police ventured into his neighborhood, Rios--his head shaved, his pants baggy--found himself being stopped more frequently for questioning.

Then, last October, Rios began attending peace treaty meetings aimed at Latino gangs in the east San Fernando Valley, organized by Williams (Blinky) Rodriguez, who runs a boxing gym in Van Nuys. At first Rios was motivated by curiosity, along with the desire to protect his turf if a gang war happened to erupt afterward. Later, some of what he heard started to make sense.

"At first I was so negative, I said, 'This is not going to last. . . . Before this is over, I'm going to end up killing five of my enemies.' Then I started thinking that if we unite our race together, people will start thinking we can do something. It will open people's minds that we are not the lost race."

Rodriguez first raised the idea of organizing paint-outs during one of the treaty meetings. His reasoning was that it would give gang members something constructive to do and that if they toiled to erase graffiti, they would be less likely to replace it.

Rios thought it sounded silly, but as time went on he became a convert.

"I saw that it was a quality-of-life issue and a pride issue and a beautification issue, a lot of things," he said. "Graffiti terrorizes people."

Not all of Rios' fellow gang members received his transformation eagerly; some called him a rat for talking to police. And he has no illusions that covering up graffiti in itself can stem violence, although he does think it makes people less fearful about leaving their homes, which in turn makes the neighborhood safer.

After nearly a month of planning, Rios and about 30 of his homeboys gathered on a Van Nuys street corner one Saturday in May. They were met there by several police officers carrying paint and brushes--Rios says proudly that he felt respected by the officers because they left their uniforms home.

Four hours and many gallons of paint later, a badly scribbled 10-square-block area was graffiti-free. Residents of many of the vandalized houses and apartments picked up brushes and joined in the effort, working side by side with the vandals.

"Elderly people came out to see what we were doing," Rios said. "Some of them I've never seen come out at all. . . . It made me feel good."


REALITY CHECK: Better than 50-50

The greatest challenge would be motivating gang members to become involved in their neighborhoods in this constructive way.

Since the paint-out, Rios said he has been approached by leaders of several other San Fernando Valley gangs who are interested in cleaning up their own neighborhoods, but spreading the word beyond his contacts probably would require the assistance of gang counselors and community outreach workers.

Cost would be minimal if the gangs agreed, because the only real expense would be buying paint. And it could take effect immediately.


"I said I'd die for my neighborhood, why not take care of it? We know who's who, let's not write it on the wall."

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