On his dead-end street of Section 8 apartments and slumping clapboard bungalows, Christopher Bowser cut an audacious figure for a young black man who had just arrived on the turf of a Latino gang with a record of killing going back half a century.
Whenever Bowser left the Highland Park apartment he shared with his mother, he cruised the streets with a boombox thundering rap music, acting as if "the neighborhood was his neighborhood," in the words of one gang member.
The Avenues 43, who rule the weedy, narrow southern handle of Highland Park between Mt. Washington and the Pasadena Freeway, hated him. According to police and prosecutors, they beat him repeatedly. They called him \o7mayate\f7, a Spanish obscenity for blacks. They tried to run him down with a car. They robbed him and threatened to kill him if he didn't leave.
Despite the attacks, Bowser stayed and played his rap for five tough years -- until Dec. 11, 2000, when he was shot three times in the head while standing at a bus stop. Police pulled up as the last sigh of air escaped from his lungs.
Bowser's slaying at the age of 28 and the killing of two other black men in Highland Park between 1995 and 2000 are grist for the federal hate crime trial of five Avenues members that is wrapping up this week in a downtown federal courtroom. The prosecutors allege that the Avenues launched a campaign of violence to force black people out of Highland Park in the 1990s.
This is not a case, they say, of a Latino gang fighting a rival black gang over turf, crimes typically prosecuted in state court and categorized under the everyday rubric of gang violence. The victims were targeted simply because they were black, they contend.
This is the first high-profile case in which the Justice Department has prosecuted a gang of color as a hate group, using laws traditionally employed to go after white supremacist groups like skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan, several federal officials said. The attorney general sent Bobbi Bernstein, a deputy chief of the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division in Washington, to help local Assistant U.S. Atty. Alex Bustamante argue the case.
In essence, they are trying to prove that the gang's activity amounted to a conspiracy to violate the victims' rights to live and walk the public streets of Highland Park.
Deputy Federal Public Defender Reuven Cohen, representing one of the defendants, said the Bush administration is attempting to "sell a fiction to the people of Los Angeles."
Cohen said the killings and assaults at issue were tragic, but not hate crimes. He argued that two frustrated detectives who did not have enough evidence to try a suspect in state court concocted the notion of a racial conspiracy so they could seek a conviction in federal court.
Prosecutors, in his account, are overlooking the nuance and complexity of race relations on the rough streets of Los Angeles.
"The evidence that you will hear will no doubt reveal that in Los Angeles, there is a sad, but very real, tension between gangs," Cohen said in his opening statement. "There is tension between and among Latino gangs. And there is tension between Latino and African American gangs.
"That tension includes the use of racial epithets. It includes the use of threats. And it includes the use of force."
Whatever the gang's motivation, testimony about their actions has been chilling. Two Avenues 43 members -- a clique of the larger Avenues gang -- told of riding in a stolen van with four cohorts when they came upon a black man parking his Cadillac. According to testimony, one of the defendants, his head and chest tattooed with skulls, blithely blurted to his homies, "Hey, wanna kill a nigger?"
The man, Kenneth Wilson, 38, who was visiting a friend, was shot to death as his car slowly rolled down the street.
Prosecutors allege that the gang targeted African Americans indiscriminately: Members shot a 15-year-old boy riding a bike; pistol-whipped a jogger; knocked a woman off a bike and beat her in the head; beat a man at a payphone with a metal club; and drew the outlines of human bodies and scrawled a racial slur in chalk on a family's driveway.
And they allegedly kicked in the door to a man's apartment and fatally shot him in the head while he slept.
Officials are just beginning to get a sense of the prevalence of hate violence by street gangs. Although most gang members attack people of their own race, the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations' latest human rights report said there were 41 recorded cases of interracial gang-related hate crime in 2004. The real number would be much higher but most victims are afraid to go to police, the commission said.
"In the overwhelming number of these cases, Latino gang members spontaneously attacked African American victims who had no gang affiliation," the commission wrote.