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Bennett Street Trembles

June 03, 2003

"Not the little one," said the mail carrier, stopped short by stricken faces and a bullet-pocked driveway as he made his rounds Saturday. "Not the little one."

If only his disbelief could undo what happened the night before. Two gunmen believed to be gang members jumped out of a dark Jeep Cherokee and started firing into a gathering of family and friends on Compton's West Bennett Street, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Three-year-old Denzel Sanderson, nicknamed "Munchie" for his love of treats, fell dead beneath his bike.

Denzel was the beloved mascot of a neighborhood its residents described as unusually tight-knit. A car club called Just Dip'n made neighbors into friends who, when not hopping their low-riders, traded stories around a pool table outside Denzel's uncle's house. Denzel lived with his family in a house behind the home of his uncle and five cousins. His family has lived on Bennett Street for more than 15 years.

Aunts, uncles and unrelated adults kept an eye on the preschooler in the Just Dip'n jersey as he tested his training wheels up and down sidewalks. The neighborhood offered the kind of intergenerational ties that help kids resist the peer pressure to join a gang.

Bennett Street was nonetheless the setting for three senseless shootings in the last six weeks, its normal quiet the victim of feuding gangs from outside the neighborhood, deputies say. Such violence has turned other neighborhoods into ghost towns of empty frontyards and shuttered houses, where kids play inside and no one knows who lives next door. Bennett Street isn't like that -- or wasn't.

Finding the suspects is the deputies' responsibility and will test a newly formed partnership between the county Sheriff's Department and police departments in Los Angeles and surrounding cities.

Keeping the "village" intact in the face of Denzel's death and the wounding of his mother and three others will test the neighborhood. The heartbreak will be magnified if the shooters also kill the sense of community that is the antidote to future gang violence.

The grief-stricken folks on West Bennett shouldn't face this challenge alone. Scores of Compton residents already joined them Sunday to rally against violence. Every resident of the county who has loved a toddler needs to add another voice, to speak up until "Not the little one" becomes "No more little ones."

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