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Regional Report

SAN FERNANDO : Boxing Program Rolls With the Punches

November 17, 1994|TIM MAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rudy Campa, 52, dances lightly side-to-side in the shadows, dressed in sweat shirt, dark pants and white sneakers. His partner is Ernie Rodriguez, 16, a former member of the Sanfers, a gang based in San Fernando.

Campa, a reformed drug addict, convict and gang member himself, weaves and bobs, then comes at Rodriguez, his hands--enveloped by worn leather mitts--held before him. Rodriguez, wearing a pair of boxing gloves, does not back off. He connects with a combination of swift punches to Campa's mitts.

Their figures--that of an older, wiry man and a younger, lithe pupil--cast weird shadows beneath the light bulb on the wall behind the headquarters for the youth organization called Salud on Celis Street.

They are connecting. And that is the point of it all.

The city of San Fernando in September banned Campa's group of about 50 youth boxers--both male and female--from the corner of the tennis court in Las Palmas Park, where the group trained, saying the group stirred up trouble and caused fights there. It was after their exile, the youths say, that the police began harassing them.

Some of the teens, who are mostly Latino, thought about quitting the program, which provided them access to a positive, active peer group, and considered going back to whatever it was they did before--hang out at the mall, cruise, try to find beer, avoid homework. Avoid home.

But two months later, the group is still together, better organized, larger, and, its leaders say, wiser after its run-ins with the city and with the police. And the group has a new name: the Las Palmas Youth Group--chosen to remind members of their struggle.

Boxing continues on a reduced level, with teens training on their own and shadow-boxing with Campa in the back of the building on Celis Street. And, supervised by Augie Maldonado, an anti-alcohol activist who received a $72,000 grant from the San Fernando Valley Partnership in January to run youth programs for high-risk teens, the group meets weekly. Their next activity is a yard work cleanup day for senior citizens in San Fernando.

It is the organization of the events--and the struggle, the give-and-take with the city and the police force--that provide the most valuable lessons for the teens, Maldonado says, and the teens agree.

"We had a good thing going in the park," said Laura Urib, 14, one of Campa's boxers. "But it's even better now. We thought we'd all separate. But this is something unique. With the problems we had with the police, it's different. We stayed together. We tried to do something about the problem, and we're more determined to prove we can make something good happen."

Their enthusiasm and drive to succeed have earned them a reputation that extends beyond the boundaries of San Fernando. Youth organizations like the Blythe Street Youth Leadership group from Panorama City and students from the Phoenix Academy, a residential drug treatment center and school in Lake View Terrace, have dropped in for lessons in boxing, leadership and civics. Campa, who said that starting the youth boxing program was a dream he held on to during his 32 years in a California state prison, agrees. "They thought they were closing the door on us, but we just opened up a whole new one."

The troubles in Las Palmas Park began on Aug. 13, when two teens began fighting during a banquet there. Campa intervened, telling the boys to put on boxing gloves if they wanted to pound out their differences. The boys obliged, boxed for about three minutes and then shook hands.

But city officials objected to Campa's way of handling the problem, and protested the lack of headgear and mouthpieces.

After another fight in the park during a baseball game, the City Council on Sept. 12 decided to ban the group from the park.

That's when several alleged incidents of police harassment began, teens said. Police Chief Dominick Rivetti confirmed that the department is investigating the allegations, but declined to further comment.

After the Sept. 12 council meeting, a group of about 10 of Campa's youths who attended the meeting said they were roughed up by several members of the San Fernando Police Department.

"We were walking down San Fernando Road toward the mall," said Ronnie Campa, 20, who was with the group that evening. "A police car pulled up behind us and a cop started yelling at us: 'What are you guys, stupid?' He was mad because we crossed when the light was red." Two more squad cars then arrived, Campa said.

Campa said one of the officers asked Robert Vasquez, 14, whether the light was green when the group walked through the intersection.

"Bobby told the cop: 'I think the light was yellow,' " Campa said. "Some of us laughed. The cop slapped Robert in the face a couple of times and tried to grab his ear, but missed. So he pushed him against the car and twisted his arm behind his back. He's just a little kid."

Rodriguez, also with the group that evening, said he told the officers: "What you're doing isn't right."

"There were issues raised during that meeting that are being checked out," Rivetti said. "I don't release the conclusions of department investigations. But I can tell you the allegations had nothing to do with racial discrimination."

The teens say that since their meeting with police, there have been fewer problems, and the group views that as a victory: "They expected us to say something back to them, to like do something bad because the way they treated us. But Rudy and Augie, they say, 'Just be polite and show them respect,' " Rodriguez said, "It's not easy, but that's what we did. Even though they don't show us any respect."

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