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The State

As Killings Ebb and Flow, Fear Keeps Its Grip on South L.A.

Residents watch the smallest detail, for the wrong word or clothing can spark a gang killing. Heartbreakingly, such care often isn't enough.

November 25, 2002|Jeff Gottlieb and Anthony McCartney | Times Staff Writers

As Los Angeles' murder count climbed to 612 for the year, South Los Angeles experienced a bit of a respite over the weekend. But it didn't matter, the rhythm of life south of the Santa Monica Freeway was long ago altered by gang killings, which ebb and flow but never stop.

Two of the six slain in the city since early Saturday died in South-Central, which has suffered the most in the recent rise in street violence. As police wrapped the area in a quilt of black and whites, the residents of South Los Angeles spoke of another toll with which they are intimately familiar: the one exacted on the smallest details of ordinary life.

Where they go, what they wear, what they say, how loudly they play their car stereo: All are infused with -- and circumscribed by -- fear of an unexpected bullet. On peaceful looking, palm-lined streets, residents hurry inside when the light fades. They try not to draw attention. This is the way it is and has been for years.

On Western Avenue on Sunday, 41-year-old Cheryl B. said the recent spate of violence is alarming but not surprising. "I believe it's getting worse, but that's because of poverty," she said as she sat in front of a discount gift shop she manages. "A lot of people out here are homeless, jobless, futureless, and that leads to rebelliousness, resistance. You got so many kids out here acting crazy, wanting to flex some muscle. They don't have respect for life."

When Cheryl, who was born and raised in South L.A., hears of the latest street killings, she reminds herself of the first commandment of day-to-day living: Don't leave the house at night "unless mandatory, unless you just can't prevent it .... I like to stay planted or stationary," said Cheryl, who asked that her last name not be used.


Way of Life

It's a way of life -- paranoia, fear -- that Cheryl B. said wasn't always part of the South L.A. fabric. "I was here before the gang violence, the red and the blue. This used to be a good town. Now it's like a lot of people who came from the South or back East, they're going back home."

Shopping at the farmers market near Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue, Sufia Giza talked of a recent night, when she was headed to a market to buy bottled water. Gunfire crackled and she did what South Los Angeles residents routinely do when they hear that sound. She dropped to the floor. As quiet returned and she started out the door, her brother asked her incredulously: "What are you doing? When the shooting stops, they're reloading."

She stayed inside. "I needed water that night, and I couldn't get it," said Giza, 41, who lives near Vernon and Vermont avenues.

Born in Riverside, Giza moved to South Los Angeles several years ago to teach and "do something positive." She puzzles over why the nation is so preoccupied with international terrorism when there is so much random violence in its cities.

"As far as I'm concerned, I don't see why we have to go across the sea to fight a war on terrorism when we're being terrorized here," said Giza, who is preparing to move to West Africa, partly to fulfill a dream -- but also because she wants to live without fear.

Timothy Watkins Sr., president of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, said his Central Avenue center tries to offer a safe haven for children and teenagers. They shuttle kids to the center in vans so they don't have to walk the streets. They drive older teens to junior college so they don't have to risk standing at a bus stop. They pack the center's cupboards with juice, snacks and fruit to lure youngsters off dangerous corners.

But in the end, they cannot shield their charges.

"It was almost midnight and I hear a gun -- five shots," wrote an 11-year-old boy in a school essay that Watkins read from. "The next day I got up to go to school and they had killed my neighbor. His stairs were full of blood."

As the child left for class in the morning, he saw police remove a white sheet from the corpse. "He was pale. He was my neighbor. He never bothered anybody."

Watkins said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton is right to tell Angelenos to be angry about the killings.

"Every day someone down here -- a child, a child's parent, a child's sibling -- is losing their life. We should be besides ourselves over it," Watkins said. "But the propensity and frequency of killings is numbing to the collective psyche of Los Angeles. It's like it is something that we have just decided to live with."

As teenage males, Michael Pye and his friend John Wilson abide by stringent codes of conduct and dress -- not to be cool, but to avoid being shot.

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