Making peace on the streets of Los Angeles

By Paul Jeffrey
Response magazine

Kenny Green is cruising through Wilmington when he sees Alberto Chacon. He pulls over and the two greet each other with an elaborate handshake. Mr. Chacon, an 18-year old known by his gang pseudonym of "Mugsy," is just back from a stint in the county jail, and Mr. Green, a gang intervention worker, listens to his tale. Listening is key to Mr. Green's work, and it has earned him respect from the gangs of Wilmington, one of several neighborhoods in the harbor area of south Los Angeles.
"That's my homie there, he's a good man," Mugsy said of Mr. Green. "He connects me with people. He comes to my house and talks to my mom about me. Everybody who's out here knows him and shows him love."

Mr. Chacon is affiliated with a gang called the "East Side Wilmas," and says that while he'd like to distance himself from the gang, it's not easy. "I see my homies with all the money, so I say, ‘Oh, man, I want the fast money, too.' And some people join the gangs to be cool, but it ain't no joke. People get killed out here and stuff. They get shot. You can get out of it if you run away. Or if you're doing good they ain't got no problem with you. So I'm staying low, keeping a low pro," he told Response.
After discussing Mugsy's progress, the two part with Mr. Green promising to call Mugsy's probation officer.

Mr. Green is part of a two-person gang intervention team that keeps gang problems in check in Wilmington. Reflecting the ethnic composition of local gangs, Mr. Green is African-American; his partner, Russell Martinez, is Hispanic. They and five other gang intervention workers are part of a uniquely successful program sponsored by the Toberman Settlement House in San Pedro.

Toberman got its start in 1902 as a project of the Woman's Society for Christian Service, a forerunner of United Methodist Women. Based in several Los Angeles neighborhoods before settling in San Pedro in 1937, it ran recreational programs, day care and ESL classes, and provided emergency food and other services for neighborhood families, including counseling for kids who got into trouble with the law.

At the beginning of the 1980s, as more and more local youth were getting caught up in street gangs, Toberman decided to take its ministry to the streets, beginning a small but unique program at the time. "We had to get out of the office to be where people were at. That meant working nights and weekends, being at the hangouts, trying to mediate the conflicts and disputes that arose," said Howard Uller, who came to Toberman in 1977 and retired this year as the agency's director.
The program grew in the 1980s as Toberman's gang intervention team hammered out periodic peace agreements between local gangs. Yet it wasn't enough.

"Although we could get agreements between San Pedro gangs that would hold, gangs from neighboring cities would come in and shoot at them and they'd go elsewhere to shoot at other gangs," Uller said.

A more regional approach was needed, and by December 1992 Toberman got leaders from a handful of harbor area gangs together in a restaurant after hours.

"It was the first time they'd ever met across a table, guys who'd recently killed members of each other's gang. But after a long discussion we finally brokered a cease fire for Christmas. They decided to do it for their moms, who they said had suffered too much. We all hugged and shook on it," Uller recalled. "And then when we came into work the next morning the phone was ringing off the hook. All the other harbor gangs knew about the meeting, and they all wanted to buy into the peace deal."
The Christmas cease fire held, and peace proved contagious. In early January, another summit was held with more than two dozen gangs represented. The cease fire was extended for several weeks. Crime statistics plummeted.

In the months and years that followed, the 1992 truce has been repeatedly renewed, and remains effective today. Constant vigilance has been necessary, however, and peace has only been maintained by the dedicated work of several organizations the comprise the city-wide Unity Collaborative, in which Toberman, which has continued to receive support from the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries, is the lead agency.

"We've had some breakouts now and then, but nothing significant because the gangs' leaders work with us to get together when problems occur. Flareups are usually caused by one person when they get out of jail and get high on something. People really like the peace, they prefer it, and they want to keep it. They're ready to shoot if they have to, but they'd rather not. They're not so quick to fly off the handle now, they prefer to wait for our workers to come and talk about why things are happening," Uller said.

"We get in their face"

Toberman has two gang-related programs. The first, called Bridges I, works with 10-14 year olds, trying to keep them out of the gangs. It offers an afterschool Homework Club, using retired teachers and other volunteer professionals to tutor kids with academic difficulties.

"Some kids come to us with a GPA of 0.1," said Pilar Ruddell, a Chilean who heads the program. "But here they find computers, field trips, and people who care about them and their families. And it works. When their grades start to improve, so does their self-esteem, and then they do better at everything."

Bridges II is the intervention program that puts Kenny Green and Russell Martinez on the streets of Wilmington. The two spend their days and nights on patrol, sometimes together, sometimes separately, mediating conflicts before they turn violent.

In the course of one morning in Wilmington, besides talking with kids like Mugsy, Mr. Green spoke with school counselors, police officers, and the manager of a McDonald's (whose parking lot is often the scene of tense inter-gang drama), dropped by a neighborhood recreation center, and consulted with the local manager of the state employment office about where to find felon-friendly employers. Parents and street walkers hailed him on the street, either offering intelligence on some brewing trouble or asking for help with a troubled teen. Mr. Green stopped by a local museum which had been hit by gang graffiti. "Just by looking at the graffiti, Kenny can identify the taggers and go talk with them and tell them they've got to respect the park. It works pretty well," said Michael Sanborn, curator and director of the Civil War-era Banning Residence Museum in Wilmington.

Avalon Boulevard runs north and south through the heart of Wilmington, dividing the city into separate gang territories. There's the West Side Wilmas and the East Side Wilmas, for example, and they have separate colors, tattoos, and hand signs, and a gang member only ventures to the other side of Avalon at his or her own peril.

During one recent afternoon as school classes got out for the day, Mr. Martinez got a tip from a school security guard and raced to Avalon in time to insert himself into the middle of a parking lot where two groups of students–one black and one brown–were on the verge of attacking each other. Mr. Martinez held out his arms to push one group back from the other. A neighborhood resident joined him, and they held the two groups at bay until the police arrived and accelerated the crowd's dispersal.

"If there's a problem or a threat of violence, we get involved and get in their face so it won't get worse," said Mr. Green.

Toberman's seven gang intervention workers (one of whom is a woman) all used to be gang members themselves. According to James Davis, Toberman's program director, such a background gives the workers a "license to operate" in the dangerous and complicated urban terrain.

"My people are from the streets. When you're raised in a gang environment, you learn the rules and regulations of the street. The gangs have their own rules. And because we're from that environment and we honor the rules, we can operate. They trust us. Without that trust, we couldn't accomplish anything," Davis told Response.

"I ride the streets day and night with no fear of them. I got a license to operate out there. When they recognize that you're trying to help them and not hurt them, you get a better response. Our workers give them respect and get respect in return," he said.

The relationship of the Bridges II workers to the police can also prove difficult. In the beginning, Davis said, the police would lurk outside late-night gang summits at Toberman and then arrest people as they left. Today things are better, and the program has "a working rapport" with Harbor Division police officers. The trouble starts, according to Davis, when officers from other Los Angeles police divisions are sent into the harbor area. "For them, gangs are the enemy and they don't care about what we do," he said.

Program staff are clear about not confusing their role with that of the police.

"If we start being stoolies for the police we will lose our license to operate with the gangs. We make it clear when we get started that we're not going to go out there and squeal on anybody. We're not going to set up anybody on the streets. Our job is to keep things calm and settled. It's the job of the police to investigate crime, not ours. Our job is mediating between gangs and keeping the peace," Davis said. "There are guys that want to look at us as snitches but they know from our background that we're not. I wouldn't hire a snitch. A snitch would get us all killed."

Gang intervention workers have been killed in other parts of Los Angeles, usually, Davis says, because they didn't have the trust of gang members.

Given the dangerous work, long hours, and low pay, it's obvious that Toberman's gang staff isn't in it for the money.

"I can work as a longshoreman on the docks and make a lot more money. But I love the job," said Mr. Martinez. "I came from a single-parent home; my dad was gone. I sold some dope and made a lot of money, but it was the devil's money. I did some horrible stuff. But there was an ex-con who used to help me fix my car and he talked straight with me and saved me from the streets. A lot of the reason I'm out here is that someone pulled my shirt tail when I was young."

Mr. Martinez, who still sports several gang tattoos, including a giant "WILMAS" across his stomach, says that much of his job boils down to listening.

"These kids need someone to listen to them. They're not bad kids. Some of them are pretty smart. But they get caught up. They want to belong, they want to find love. And the streets will love them, but at a cost," he said.

"The four block mentality"

The Toberman staff often take kids to sporting events or other field trips that expose them to life beyond just their neighborhood, that helps them to overcome what Mr. Martinez terms the "flour block mentality."

"If we had more positive options for kids, we wouldn't need so many police and jails. I took some kids deep sea fishing, and it was the first time many of them had seen the ocean, even though they live only a few blocks away from it," said Mr. Green.

Some who work with teens in the harbor area don't even like the G-word.

"We're not talking about a gang, but simply who they hang with. Everyone else has made them a gang. It's their neighborhood, and they hang together with others who come from the same neighborhood. They're doing the same thing any other group of kids in another neighborhood would do, except we label them a gang, we make them a gang. I don't even like to use phrase gang members. I call them youth at risk. The kids are just doing what they've seen, what they know how to do," said Connie Calderon, director of the Wilmington Teen Center.

"Being in a gang is one way of expressing love for the neighborhood, of standing up for your neighborhood. The gang becomes the family. It's protection. If someone asks you where you're from, and you're on the wrong side of the street, they'll beat the shit out of you. So for self defense you form a gang. It gets you respect. It gets you status," Mr. Uller said.

It also turns deadly in a heartbeat. Kevin Dove, a 15 year old member of the Ghost Town Bloods in Wilmington, wasn't at home on Thanksgiving Day in 2004. But his mother was, and she was killed in a drive-by shooting that was meant for him.

"The gang is what keeps me protected. My family don't. They say they got my back, but when it comes down to it they don't. So it's just me, myself and I. I stand up for myself, and my home boys protect me," he told Response.

Asked what the future held for him, Mr. Dove responded, "I'll either go to jail or bang out [die violently]. That's it," he said.

Mr. Davis said such hopelessness is typical of kids who see no other viable options, who confuse their neighborhood with the whole universe.

"I'm proud of where I came from, but I left behind that stupidity a long time ago," Mr. Davis said. "We'd be there all night holding down a street corner, saying, ‘This is ours.' But that doesn't mean shit. We were willing to go out there and give our lives to protect something we didn't own. My parents would say I didn't have the sense to come out of the rain, but we'd be out there rain or whatever protecting the turf of which we had no ownership. How dumb is that?"

Mr. Davis said they try to help young people envision a different future. "We try to show these kids some of the mistakes we made growing up. We're trying to be an example of something positive, something with positive results," he said.

Churches could also provide positive examples for at-risk youth, but Mr. Davis said many instead make matters worse.

"Churches are part of the problem in that they keep our communities divided. A Latino church there, a black one here, a white one over there. When do they get together? They don't. They keep the community divided," Mr. Davis said.

"At least the United Methodist Church tries to cater to the whole community, and we're part of that effort. Some churches want to complain about the things happening on their streets, but they're not going to do anything about it, they're not going to put their money where their mouth is. They're afraid of the streets, they're not going to take a chance by going out there. That leaves just a few fools like us to deal with it."

Sidebar: UMW taking the side of the poor

Responding to the challenges of street gangs is just one of several issues in that the San Pedro-based Toberman Settlement House has taken on.

Another pressing issue for the harbor area is the revitalization of the downtown and the construction of a promenade along the waterfront. According to Toberman Settlement House Director Howard Uller, many in the community are worried that most of the new jobs being created will not pay enough for families to survive.

"Are we going to get living wage jobs, or are people going to be stuck in minimum wage service sector jobs? To address that issue, we've been involved in helping the community organize and form coalitions with the labor movement and with faith communities," Uller said.

United Methodist Women from area churches form one of the fiercest allies for the community's poor, he reported.

"You watch the UMW leadership and how they'll get behind this. I wouldn't want to be on the other side of the dias when the UMW and the poor mothers from the community and the Toberman leadership begin advocating and demanding that no business will be allowed an operating permit that refuses to pay a decent living wage," said Uller.