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Getting Past the Anger in Cypress Park

GEORGE RAMOS

September 25, 1995|GEORGE RAMOS

Well, the damn gangster cholos did it again. This time, they killed a 3-year-old girl on a dead-end street dubbed by the punks themselves as the street of assassins. These guys are real brave.

I can't believe that these murderers are so stupid as to fire on an innocent and unsuspecting family that made a wrong turn and wound up in their territory. But they did, killing Stephanie Kuhen and wounding her 2-year-old brother, Joseph. In the process, they have angered not only the good people of L.A. but also a nation. Even President Clinton felt compelled to condemn the senseless murder of little Stephanie Kuhen.

The anger over gang-related homicides--likely to surpass 700 in L.A. County for the fifth time in the last six years--is very real. There's talk of creating a gang "czar" with substantial resources to fight the punks. Some want to call in the Army. The mayor asked Clinton for more federal bucks. One newspaper columnist in town went so far as to write that if fighting gangs "means cracking some heads and stepping all over the civil liberties of some gangbangers, so be it. They've shown nothing but contempt for our civil liberties. The hell with theirs."

I don't think throwing out the Constitution is the answer. If we step all over the rules, we become as lawless as the punks we seek to control.

*

If we are ever going to win the fight against the gangs, Cypress Park is just as good a place to start as any. The national attention that the shooting focused on the blue-collar Northeast community at the foot of Mt. Washington can help to galvanize the long-suffering residents into taking action.

Before that can happen, however, the residents need to get rid of the anger they've got.

They're angry about Cypress Park's new status in urban lore as the home of assassins who kill little kids. They're mad about the inattention from City Hall and the local councilman, Mike Hernandez, to their gang problems. Hernandez, they argued, did nothing after six young Cypress Park men were wounded in a single gang-related shooting earlier this year. They're also mad at the news media for the unflattering coverage. They're upset with The Times for publishing the photos of the two youngsters, who are white, on the front page.

"You never do that for brown kids," I heard over and over. In countless talks, they ignored my explanation of the paper's use of the photos (Times Managing Editor George Cotliar decided to display the kids' pictures prominently several hours before learning the youngsters were white) with a dismissive wave of a hand.

Sometimes, Cypress Park's defensiveness even extended to where people call home. "Where do \o7 you \f7 live?" I was repeatedly asked. If I don't live in Cypress Park, they seemed to be suggesting, then I should leave it alone and deal with my own neighborhood's struggle with gangs.

At a community meeting Saturday at the Cypress Park Branch Library, Hernandez used that technique when Richard Guerrero, a former longtime resident who now lives in Glendale, criticized the councilman. "Where I live isn't the issue," he answered Hernandez. "What we have to do to fight the gangs is the issue."

Hernandez is also mad. At the Saturday gathering that drew more than 120 people, he said his office has helped to secure more than $500,000 to turn an abandoned fire station on Figueroa into a place the locals can all use, and another $300,000 to expand the library. Both issues are sore points with many in Cypress Park, who want more and better city facilities. Hernandez, however, didn't sway them.

But the angry mood softened when Cal State Northridge administrator Ramon Muniz, another Cypress Park resident, spoke up. He had done the same thing at another volatile community meeting a few days earlier, and his words prompted long applause.

"It's good to put pressure on politicians," Muniz said, "but what have we done for ourselves? That could have been my niece who got shot. It could have been your niece. If we don't organize, we won't accomplish anything. We need to be proactive, not reactive. I'm a proud resident of Cypress Park. We're good people, but the good people have to come together.

"What are we going to do?"

*

At the end of Saturday's meeting, the angry voices didn't seem so upset with Hernandez when the councilman asked, "Who here is from Cypress Park?" Nearly two-thirds of the crowd stood up.

Next, he asked, "Who here \o7 cares\f7 about Cypress Park?"

All of us then stood up.

The challenge to all of us was clear enough. In a way, we all live in Cypress Park. Now, what are we going to do about it?

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