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STANDING UP TO STREET GANGS

From Pilgrimage to Protest

July 19, 2002

The 300 walkers who braved the baking heat of the northeast San Fernando Valley last week to take a stand against gang violence evoked both a pilgrimage and a protest march. Pilgrims appeal for a miracle. Protesters demand social change. Halting gang violence may well require both.

The marchers carried seven coffins, each representing a life lost in their corner of the Valley in May alone. One stood for a Panorama City 3-year-old who, hit by cross fire, died in his father's arms. The coffins were meant to make real otherwise disembodied statistics that show gang killings surging citywide. In the first six months of 2002, gangbangers accounted for more than half the city's 341 homicides.

The increase comes after a drop in homicides in the 1990s that crime researchers attribute to a booming economy, tougher prison sentences and the waning of the crack epidemic. Experts speculate that killings are up again because of the greater number of inmates who have completed their sentences and are returning to the streets, the stalled economy and a population bulge of crime-prone adolescents.

If this cycle of violence seems as intractable as the poverty, poor schools, lack of jobs and other social ills that fuel gangs, that hasn't stopped the marchers, not in Pacoima. Not in South-Central Los Angeles either, where 40 moms, all of whom had buried sons or daughters, marched on Mother's Day. And not in Boyle Heights, where dozens of men, women and children walk every Friday evening to reclaim their streets.

Pilgrims on the medieval road to Santiago, Spain, walked to save themselves or loved ones from disease. In modern times, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez also called their marches pilgrimages. They walked--from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, from Delano, Calif., to Sacramento--to demand an end to racism, to spotlight the plight of migrant workers.

In her book "Wanderlust: A History of Walking," social critic Rebecca Solnit wrote of King's 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march: "They have found in this walk a way to make their history rather than suffer it, to measure their strength and test their freedom." From AIDS walkathons to the Million Mom March in Washington for gun control, walkers still follow the path of pilgrimage and protest.

Save for fitness buffs, the stereotypical Angeleno walks nowhere. That's not true in the city's poorer areas. People walk to bus stops and markets. And ordinary people walk, as they did last week, to proclaim their right to safely stroll their own neighborhoods.

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