Street Peace and Community Development

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled a plan to curtail gang violence at his State of the City address on April 18, held in the auditorium of a new school, East Valley Senior High in North Hollywood. The place was packed—with media, council members, other politicians, police officers, activists, leaders of the community, and more. I was invited to sit in on his address.

I was also invited to an earlier briefing by the Mayor’s staff on his plan called “City of Los Angeles Gang Reduction Strategy.” I have much to say about this plan, some of which I voiced during the briefing. I’ve also been asked to take part in the Community Engagement Advisory Committee of the Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development, City of Los Angeles (the ad hoc committee is chaired by City Councilman Tony Cardenas).

At our first meeting the next day in City Hall, I was able to bring out more specifics about what I think a city plan for gang violence reduction should consist of. One good thing is the make up of the Community Engagement Advisory Committee—amazing leaders in gang intervention, research, and street peace were present, including Bo Taylor, Alex Sanchez, Tom Hayden, Fidel Rodriguez, and others. We went to work right away—not necessarily to attack the Mayor’s plan (although we had our misgivings), but to provide insight, perspective, and generations of street knowledge that we felt we are capable of doing. We all agree—we want to significantly curtail the violence taking a toll on our youth, our families, and communities.

I won’t get into the particulars of our points since we still working on them. I will say that our main concerns consisted of insuring that community-driven prevention and intervention become the main driving force of the plan and not suppression. Up until now, law enforcement efforts have led most gang violence reduction work in the city. While we need police to enforce the law—they must be a vital component of any street peace initiative—they should be part of a whole package, not the leading aspect.

Much of the Mayor’s plan is good and badly needed. I applaud his efforts to be comprehensive, to focus funding on prevention/intervention, and inclusive. Yet even the language in the plan is problematic. While issues of rhetoric and wording seem to be without substance, the fact is words carry content. I would love to see a plan called “Street Peace and Community Development Initiative.” It’s best to be about something, not just against something. It’s also important not to couch what we do with military terminology—like Gang Reduction Strategy.

I've worked with gang and nongang youth for more than 30 years. I've helped mentor many youth out of the destructive aspects of violence, drugs, and suicide. However, I'm not "anti-gang." If I were, I'd never be able to get near the young people I most want to reach. Our language should be positive and inclusive, not negative and divisive.

That’s just to start. I think we in the Community Engagement Advisory Committee can contribute amazing ideas, imagination, and resources to a city-wide street peace initiative. I hope we will be taken seriously as we work to broaden, enhance, and make more effective the Mayor’s plan.

Community is made up of shared agreements. We need to truly dialogue with representatives of all the community to make this plan truly work. We all want peace and public safety. It’s a matter of how we go there—just hacking at the branches, or going deep into the roots of why gangs, violence, and crime exists.

The city is rife with poverty, high rents and housing costs, bad police-community relations, ineffective schools, and more. These are some of the real sources of gangs and community fracturing.

Suppression tactics—including “gang injunctions,” “gang enhancements,” and targeted policing of the poorest most vulnerable communities—tend to squeeze many people out of these communities, including those who can best bring peace and safety to the community.

Unfortunately, this “squeezing” has also led to the spread of LA-based gangs (while LA is still known as the “gang capital” of the country). Presently, LA-based gangs are all over the US (I do talks across the country, and I’ve seen how this has become the biggest “gang” issue facing other states today). LA-based gangs have also been exported to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and even Cambodia and Armenia, due to aggressive deportation policies concerning gang youth over the past 15 years.

Whatever plan we do, we need to keep our communities intact; in fact, they need to be provided adequate economic/social/cultural resources to be stronger.

When we go to war against gangs, we tend to make the problems worse. I’ve seen this happen whenever we go to war against anything—in the 1960s, the War on Poverty only ended up with more poverty; in the 1980s the War on Drugs has only led to more drugs (and to drugs we never had before, like Crack); and now the War on Terror seems to have made our lives more unsafe (with more terror worldwide being recorded than ever before).

It’s the same with our War on Gangs. My contention remains—we cannot stop gang warfare with more warfare.

My hope is that the city, including Mayor’s Villaraigosa’s office, will listen to us and take into account what we bring to the table—generations of actual work in helping make positive changes among youth, gangs, and communities. I welcome the challenge to help make this contentious and fearful city one united with real economic and social justice, hope, change, and peace.

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