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STANDING UP TO STREET GANGS

The Terrorists Among Us

March 27, 2003

Compared with rallies against the war in Iraq, the gathering Wednesday in front of the mid-city First Presbyterian Church on West Boulevard was pitifully small. About 50 men and women had come to protest the death of 13-year-old Joseph Arthur Swift, killed in a war that is all too real to residents of neighborhoods terrorized by criminal street gangs and just about invisible to everybody else.

Joey, as he was known to his family, died Sunday across the street from the church. It was the sunny middle of the day, and he had just left his Bible study class. Witnesses say a car with tinted windows passed, spitting bullets at pedestrians on either side.

"They talk about Osama bin Laden," said Joey's grandfather, William Arbuckle. "There are Osama bin Ladens in my neighborhood. There are Osama bin Ladens in East Los Angeles. There are Osama bin Ladens in Whittier and Compton."

Joey's mother, Lorri Arbuckle, told those at the rally that her boy had died in her arms saying he loved her, saying he would be OK. "Children are supposed to be able to go to church and be safe," she said. It sounded like a plea.

Police believe that the shooters were gang members, and Wednesday they promised protection -- including relocation -- to witnesses afraid to speak up. When it was his turn, community activist Najee Ali of Project Islamic Hope urged witnesses to "break this black code of silence." "I have one message to these gang members," he said. "The murder of Joseph Swift is an act of war against this community."

As with any antiwar demonstration, this one had its tensions and divisions. One speaker worried that talk of terrorists and war would compel police to rush out and arrest every African American man they see in certain neighborhoods, although the vast majority, like Joey, are just trying to live and learn, work and play, like most boys and young men in Pacific Palisades, Eagle Rock and Valencia. They spoke of the need for jobs to deter crime and urged members of the news media to "bring your corporations, not just your cameras." But mostly they pleaded for attention to the violence that, despite a promising downturn citywide, plagues too many of Los Angeles' poorer neighborhoods.

About 10,000 people have turned out for 22 major demonstrations against the war in Iraq in the last week alone, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. Imagine that kind of turnout in opposition to the war against Los Angeles' Joey Swifts.

Joey's aunt, Loreal Arbuckle, somehow found the strength to talk at the rally. Afterward, her voice barely audible, she said: "I can't feel anything.... I was there when he was born, and you're telling me I have to bury him? ... I can't accept it."

Nor should the rest of Los Angeles.

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