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The Scars of Graffiti

August 09, 2004

The mission of Homeboy Industries, the gang-rehabilitation program run by Father Gregory J. Boyle, is summed up by its motto: "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." The Jesuit priest tries to turn around the lives of Eastside gang members not by sending them to jail but by putting them to work. So it was all the more shattering when in the last six weeks two Homeboy graffiti-cleanup workers were fatally shot on the job.

Contrary to early reports, Los Angeles Police Department investigators believe that both men were targeted because of previous gang associations and not because they were painting over graffiti or working for Homeboy. Nonetheless, Boyle decided Friday to shut down the graffiti-cleanup business out of concern for the safety of his workers. The nonprofit organization will continue employing former gang members in its silk-screen and bakery operations and to do job referrals and counseling.

It was the right decision, a reflection of some painful realities.

Boyle Heights, where Homeboy is based, has the highest concentration of gangs in a city that is often called the country's gang capital. Erstwhile enemies work side by side at Homeboy, often forging friendships. But Boyle harbors no illusions about how hard it is for former gang members to walk away from their old lives. Outside the neutral turf of his office, former homies, not to mention old rivals, are on every street corner. It was comforting to hear that the two Homeboy workers probably were not killed because of their work, but Boyle is right to worry that being out in the neighborhood painting over graffiti could make young men already at risk more visible -- and vulnerable.

The irony, of course, is that Homeboy's cleanup crews helped to improve Boyle Heights and other Eastside neighborhoods, not just by offering an alternative to gangs but by removing the spray-painted scrawls that scar and demoralize so much of Los Angeles. Quickly painting over graffiti helps prevent violence by removing the opportunity for other gangs to cross out a rival's tag for their own, inviting retaliation.

The city's public works department, which pays for graffiti cleanup, will have to contract with another community group to work the Eastside. In the meantime, cleanup crews from all over Los Angeles plan to converge on Boyle Heights, both as a salute to the fallen Homeboy workers and as a message to taggers that they won't have free rein. This grand show of solidarity should be taken on the road to every graffiti-scarred neighborhood in the city.

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