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Rally shines spotlight on racial tensions

The theme was working together, but blacks and Latinos in Harbor Gateway continue to blame each other for a spasm of violence.

January 14, 2007|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

The rally Saturday in a Harbor Gateway neighborhood riven by tensions between a Latino street gang and black residents was like many before it.

The event, on a cold and sun-splashed afternoon, drew the public officials -- politicians, police, firefighters, the L.A County Human Relations Commission -- who usually attend these kinds of rallies.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa invoked the name of Martin Luther King Jr. as he urged neighbors to "come together ... to hold one another's hand, literally and figuratively."

Councilwoman Janice Hahn promised the area would get more police patrols, better street lighting and an injunction against the 204th Street gang.

But Rashaun Williams and Nashara Sims might be forgiven for wondering what effect the rally would have.

"I want to know how long this is going to last," Williams said of the attention to her neighborhood. She stood on a curb at 206th Street and Harvard Boulevard as speakers addressed some 250 people.

Also present were the Watts Gang Task Force, Victory Outreach Church, the city's LA Bridges anti-gang program, Teen Challenge International, even the Anointed Oldies, a Christian auto club.

This 12-square-block, working-class area east of Torrance is the latest in the region attracting attention for the violence between Latino street gangs and blacks, which residents say has occurred in spasms over the last decade.

"I want to know why it took so long for people to realize what's going on here," said Sims.

On Dec. 15, one of Sims' friends, 14-year-old Cheryl Green, was gunned down as she stood with friends on 206th Street, half a block from where the rally was held. Two 204th Street members are charged with murder and a hate crime in the death of Green, who was black.

Since then, black residents have held several marches in the neighborhood, saying they are being besieged by a gang with a policy of ridding the area of African Americans.

This upset Latino residents, who said they had suffered abuses at the hands of blacks.

They noted that Arturo Ponce, 34, was gunned down outside his apartment on 205th Street the night of Dec. 5. Ponce, a cook, was known as hard-working and with no gang affiliation.

Some people attending the rally said that they saw the shooting and that the gunman was black and yelled out an epithet against Mexicans. The witnesses conceded that the gunman was masked, hooded and hiding in the dark behind a hedge.

No arrests have been made in Ponce's killing. Some residents complained that his slaying did not attract the same attention as others.

"They killed a Latino, an African American shot him five times, and I didn't see no marches for that," said 18-year-old Juan Rueda, watching the rally.

So while many neighbors applauded the rally's intent, there were many reasons to be skeptical.

Ponce's sister-in-law, Beatriz Villa, went to the rally, but quickly returned home. "I'm afraid to walk on the street," she said.

Yet in the crowd stood Los Angeles Police Lt. Andrea Grossman, who managed an undaunted optimism.

Twelve years ago, she led a campaign to eradicate Latino-black violence just then beginning to erupt here. The campaign was largely successful for a while, but when ardor and resources faded, violence returned.

This time, Grossman said she was cheered by the array of groups supporting a change for Harbor Gateway.

The mayor, LAPD brass, Hahn -- all were behind the movement, she said.

And amid the crowd, she saw enough locals to feel that a change could come again.

"How do we sustain it is the question," she said. "But if we can solve it here, we can be a model for the whole country."

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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