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L.A. Has to Gang Up on Violence

November 24, 2002|Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The surge in killings -- mostly in South Los Angeles -- has prompted some to call the city the murder capital of the nation. That may be premature, but the violence has stirred anguish and anger among residents, who implore police and city officials to do something, and fast, to stop the violence. City officials have fingered gangs as the culprits, but now they need to act.

At last count there were more than 20 identifiable gangs in South Los Angeles. City officials have tried to put more gang members behind bars through gang injunctions. But that often takes months.

Even with injunctions, gang activity is likely to worsen. The flood of ex-felons being released from prisons will almost certainly beef up their numbers. The disbanding of the LAPD's anti-gang CRASH unit didn't help. Despite the allegations of abuse, corruption and the indictments of several officers in the unit, many credit it with having kept a lid on violence.

Although more arrests, prosecutions, injunctions and stiffer prison sentences for gang members are crucial to blunting some of the carnage, they aren't enough. California already locks up far more "three strikes" offenders than all the other states with a similar law do, in total.

Many of those who shoot up their neighborhoods hardly flinch at the prospect of doing a long stretch in prison. There are troubling reasons why they have no fear of jail, death or being reviled as cowards, predators and urban terrorists. Many actual or wannabe gang members believe that their lives are devalued, fostering a disrespect for the law, and they displace aggression onto others.

Many of them, mostly young black and Latino males, have become especially adept at acting out their frustrations at white society's denial of their "manhood." The accessibility of drugs, guns and the influence of misogynist, violence-laced rap songs also reinforce the deep feeling among many youth that life is cheap and easy to take, with minimal consequences for their actions as long as their victims are other young blacks or Latinos.

The other powerful ingredient in the deadly mix of black and Latino violence is the drug plague. Drug trafficking not only provides illicit profits but also makes the gunplay more widespread. Gang members use their arsenals to fend off attacks, protect their profits from predators and settle scores with rivals. Often innocent victims are caught in shootouts, further fortifying the conviction of suburban whites that South-Central L.A. is a depraved war zone.

Enraged citizens want the LAPD to mobilize even bigger armies of police on the streets and to launch search-and-destroy missions against gang targets. Yet LAPD officials are waging their own battle not only to get more officers but also to keep the ones they have; scratching for every penny to build new buildings and to upgrade old facilities; and implementing reforms under a federal consent decree.

There's no magic formula for stopping the violence. However, there are some immediate actions that Mayor James K. Hahn and the City Council can take. They must beef up foot and bicycle patrols in those areas that have been hit hardest. They must increase funds for violence prevention and gang intervention programs. They must call an emergency summit of educators, health professionals, drug counselors and gang intervention activists to devise and provide the crucial resources for more job and skills training, education, drug treatment and prevention programs for at-risk youth.

These measures won't end all the violence, but they will help to reduce it by dealing with the roots of the problem.


Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press, 1998). E-mail:

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