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STANDING UP TO STREET GANGS

The Battlefield at Home

March 20, 2003

While the world wrangled over Iraq, the war in Los Angeles County claimed another casualty. Lee Denmon III and two friends were walking up the driveway to his parents' Inglewood home last week when another young man drove up. Denmon, spotting the gun, tried to run. A bullet stopped him.

Middle-of-the-day murders are shockingly common in a county where Navy surgeons come to practice combat medicine before shipping out to Iraq. Police, who arrested a teenager in the shooting later that day, say the suspect is a member of one of the criminal street gangs that have turned too many county neighborhoods into battlefields. He apparently mistook Denmon, a popular, 23-year-old high school basketball coach, for a rival.

Denmon was a Texas A&M basketball star who came home to coach freshmen at Inglewood's Morningside High, his old school. In the antiseptic language of war, he would be considered "collateral damage." The college diploma and most-valuable-player trophies that adorn his parents' walls and mantle were supposed to save him from the street. Now they evoke pride mixed with unfathomable grief.

In the last year, city and county leaders have shown a new resolve to end the wars being waged in some of the region's poorer neighborhoods. Mayor James K. Hahn, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca have made stopping gang violence a priority. They have brought together an alliance of municipal, county, state and federal police agencies, prosecutors and probation officers to look for solutions. But they have also made clear that this is not something that cops alone can solve.

Bratton in particular has called on regular folks fortunate enough to live outside the battle zones to open their eyes to what is going on in neighboring communities and take on the responsibility of becoming peacemakers. The Los Angeles Police Department has invited the Rev. Eugene Rivers, who a decade ago helped organize preachers to combat violence in Boston, to Los Angeles next month to talk to religious leaders. The people of Los Angeles should not let this sort of initiative get lost as the city's attention to terrorism and war heightens.

At Morningside High, the freshman basketball players called Denmon "Coach Lee." He praised their fast breaks and forgave their airballs. But more than anything, he was someone they could look up to. Los Angeles needs an army of Lee Denmons to keep its kids shooting only hoops as they aim at higher goals.

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