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An Outsider Takes On L.A.'s Gang Problem

May 25, 2003|Janet Clayton | Janet Clayton is editor of the editorial pages. This interview has been condensed.

When the Rev. Eugene Rivers blew into Los Angeles from Boston recently, the welcome wagon wasn't exactly waiting for him. Rivers, head of the National TenPoint Leadership Foundation, had been invited by Bishop Charles Blake, a longtime friend and mentor, and Police Chief William J. Bratton, who had worked with Rivers in Boston, to lend a hand in stopping the orgy of gang killings in Los Angeles.

The city certainly needs some help. A recent one-month tally from the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau tells the tale: 226 shootings, 89 people wounded by gunshots, 18 homicides. Last weekend alone, 10 people were shot to death in the city, most of them in South Los Angeles.

The fact that Rivers, a preacher from 3,000 miles away, had been invited in part by Bratton, the relatively new police chief, irritated some local African American leaders. Most, in deference to Blake, made polite excuses for why they didn't attend an organizing meeting with Rivers at Blake's West Angeles Church of God in Christ on Crenshaw Boulevard. One politician, the soon-to-retire Councilman Nate Holden, complained openly about the lack of protocol, saying that he and other local black leaders hadn't been properly notified of the meeting.

Rivers, who has made the White House guest lists of presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, has seen it all before and loses no sleep over the thin skins and thick egos. A graying man of 53, with oversized glasses and a deliberately streetwise, syncopated speaking style, Rivers has a healthy ego, frequently speaking of himself in the third person. Rivers said Rivers came to Los Angeles and will keep coming back every month, not for "ring-kissing" of politicians but to organize the local "faith community" to go head to head with gangs. Leaders from churches small and large will receive training from Rivers and his team on how to use their positions with their congregations to help identify and reach out to local gang leaders and "father" them.

He's had notable success in Boston, where, in 1992, he and other ministers led the charge against gangs after a crime that shocked Boston into action. During the funeral of a 20-year-old killed by gunfire, a young man attending the service was attacked and stabbed repeatedly by gang members who chased him through the church in front of horrified mourners. That led to the formation of the TenPoint Foundation, which works with clergy and police to pry kids from the grip of gangs. The group was credited with a sharp reduction in gang deaths in Boston.

Whether that success, in a smaller, politically hierarchical and racially bifurcated city, can translate to the sprawling, multicultural, endlessly layered political structure in Los Angeles is another matter. One thing is certain: Rivers, like his pal Bratton, won't hesitate to use the blunt rhetoric needed to shake L.A. out of its complacent, shrugging acceptance of the daily murders of young people on its streets.

Question: How is this going to work in the L.A. model? There are Latino gangs and black gangs, with geographic and cultural differences here.

Answer: We're starting with the black churches because that's what we know. We're not going to be foolish or utopian, so we're not going to get tricked with, "Why aren't you doing everything?" Well, we're not doing everything because we're not stupid. We're going to start with what we know and we're going to build incrementally so this is not smoke. We're going to start with the black churches. We're going to focus on black gangs. We will begin here, but it doesn't end here. We're going to be building bridges to the Latino community and the Latino religious community. We're going to start with the black community because there's enough problems and drama there to keep you busy for a while and to test how this is adapted to an L.A. context.

To talk about gangs in L.A., you'd better talk about Southern California, because it's regional stuff and it is so intimately connected to the prison system, with this seamless set of connections going from O.G.s [original gangsters] that are 65 years old, whose great-grandchildren are now being incorporated into the Bloods and the Crips. What you're manufacturing here goes across the country. That's right. You go to a middle school in Boston and they know about the Bloods and the Crips, so whatever happens here is coming. It's coming to Washington and it's coming to Boston and it's going to rural America.


Q. If skinheads were killing black young men the way black men are killing other black men, wouldn't Los Angeles react differently?

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