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Our Gangs, Our Terrorists

January 05, 2002

Polls show the U.S. public stands firmly behind the war on terrorism, but who will stand with Julia Zepeda? It didn't take an international terrorist to upend her life, just a trio of home-grown ones.

Zepeda's daughter died the day after Christmas as she waited in a pickup truck with a friend outside a Hawthorne apartment while the driver went inside to retrieve a gift. Neighbors saw two young men chasing another and heard shots--an all-too-common sound. Police believe Leslie Zepeda was caught in gang cross-fire. She was 11 years old.

Eleven years old. A Times photograph captured the toll of this domestic war. There stood the family Christmas tree, unwrapped toys--a doll, a Santa, a daypack--not yet put away. There sat Julia Zepeda on the edge of the couch, hands clasped, head bowed, face sculpted by sorrow.

Who will stand with Sharon Johnson? Her 18-year-old son, Andre Morgan, was walking to a friend's house in Inglewood after basketball practice when he was shot multiple times by a gunman, who then got into a car that had been waiting. Morgan was not mixed up with gangs. He was an honors student and a basketball player who had his eye on playing for UCLA. He died a week before he was to take his SATs. Inglewood City Councilwoman Judy Dunlap said that in 2001 a killing occurred in Inglewood every eight days.

Every eight days. In Central Los Angeles, gang members stopped Esteban Ortiz, 21, as he walked down East Manchester Avenue and demanded to know which gang he was from. It didn't matter that he didn't belong to any gang. They attacked him, and when his 19-year-old brother, Arturo, and their 18-year-old friend Jesus Silva ran to his aid, the gang members opened fire. Estaban was wounded, his brother and friend killed. It was 11 days shy of Christmas, and Esteban and Arturo's mother, Bertha Sanchez, hasn't stopped crying. Who will stand with her?

It took an act of international terrorism on U.S. soil to make many Americans feel vulnerable for the first time in their lives. For residents of some of Southern California's poorer neighborhoods, it just takes getting up in the morning. When will the rest of us say this cannot stand?

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