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Turmoil and truce in the city

Street Wars Gangs and the Future of Violence Tom Hayden New Press: 430 pp., $25.95

June 13, 2004|Edward Humes | Edward Humes is the author of "School of Dreams" and "No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court."

You might think police and politicians weary of gang violence and endless police crackdowns would welcome efforts by current and former gang members to negotiate truces and rein in the carnage. You might think that, but Tom Hayden says you'd be dead wrong.

The former state legislator and Vietnam-era activist contends that civic and law enforcement leaders in Los Angeles, New York and other major cities have gone to great lengths to sabotage, not support, such promising grass-roots efforts, and at times have harmed the very quest for public safety they claim to pursue.

In his new book "Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence," Hayden all but howls in outrage at such senseless squandering of opportunities to avert bloodshed, the official marginalization of heroic figures such as Father Gregory Boyle -- the "gang priest" whom Hayden calls "a living alternative to the war on gangs" -- and the seeming lack of public concern about the 25,000 young lives claimed by gang violence in America since 1980. He argues that policymakers and the general public bear a large measure of blame for this death toll because of their narrow, 20-year focus on futile attempts to arrest and punish gangs out of existence, ignoring the broken homes, broken schools and joblessness that make gang membership so attractive to some kids.

"If twenty-five thousand white people killed each other in ethnic wars, you can be sure that Americans would pay attention," he writes in a caustic introduction titled "These Dead Don't Count." But gang members generally are not white, they are no one's constituency, and current thinking on combating gang crime remains so entrenched and dogmatic that, as Hayden sees it, any attempt by gang leaders to forge truces or pursue law-abiding activities (jobs, entrepreneurship, sports, education) are viewed either as ruses or threats.

In one of the book's most disturbing passages, Hayden writes of the time a phalanx of Los Angeles Police Department anti-gang officers invaded a peaceful legislative task-force meeting. Hayden, then a state senator, had convened the gathering at a local church to discuss a job-training program to lure kids from gangster life. Officers materialized, blocking doorways and, as soon as the meeting ended, frisked and arrested the gang members and other youths who had been invited by the state of California -- and who had just finished testifying about, among other things, the sort of police harassment that goggle-eyed task-force members were witnessing firsthand. Hayden writes of hustling his star witness out a back door to keep him from jail.

Hayden also tells of facilitating a truce in a deadly shooting war between Santa Monica and Mar Vista gangs. He recounts negotiating safe passage from police for Pee Wee, a gang member critical to the negotiations who had violated his parole by moving to Riverside and failing to report to his parole officer. Hayden writes that Santa Monica's police chief promised to let Pee Wee come to town without fear of arrest -- the only way the parolee would come out of hiding. With Pee Wee's help, Hayden says, a cease-fire was locked into place in his office in Santa Monica, a city that had seen four gang killings in two weeks. A headline in The Times announced, "Gang Truce Could Stop Killing."

The next morning, Santa Monica police officers arrested Pee Wee for parole violations and his wife for harboring a fugitive, which Hayden views as a broken promise. "Were the police and state agents trying to wreck the fragile peace? Send a message that taking risks for peace would get you no leniency?" he writes. "Or, simply, as I suspected, reasserting the image of absolute control in circumstances where the killings were stopped without them? Certainly their word was no good. The peace was destabilized. It would be a long time before another person like Pee Wee would be willing to assist a truce."

Though the anecdote as offered certainly illustrates Hayden's theme, it should be noted that Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. says it never happened. Butts told me that he offered no promise of safe passage to Pee Wee and that he spoke to Hayden only after the arrest, when the state senator called him, sounding "like a wild man," to demand Pee Wee's release. Butts termed Hayden's recollection of events "insane," asserting that vigorous police work rather than gang truces stopped the killing and pointing out that Pee Wee later was arrested and convicted of murder -- a detail Hayden glosses over, portraying him as a victim of a police vendetta.

It's a shame that Hayden downplays the criminality of gang members and paints as harsh a portrait as possible of law enforcement. Such absolutism detracts from his argument for supporting gang peacemakers and his otherwise damning portrait of official reluctance to go beyond the lock-'em-all-up approach and entrenched law-enforcement dogma that a gang must never get official recognition -- even for doing good.

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