April 17, 2003
The War at Home
Four Angelenos were killed on the last day of the battle for Baghdad. Three were young men, each one of them killed with a bullet to the head on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. The fourth to die was an 8-year-old girl, hit by a bullet meant for a gang member.
Before the war with Iraq was hailed as a war of liberation, our leaders described it as a war that would make America safe. And while our victory in Baghdad might indeed make us more secure in the long term, for now, our streets are killing fields.
From March 20-April 6, as war in Iraq raged, at least 14 people died as a result of homicides here in Los Angeles, including five in one weekend in South Central Los Angeles. Needless to say, the murderers weren't Islamic terrorists or Iraqi Republican Guards.
"Today, on a beautiful 85-degree day, we had three assassinations," said Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton of April 9. "Three black men walked up and assassinated three other black men. The fourth man missed, and his bullet hit a girl in a schoolyard."
Bratton was speaking at the Latino Jewish Roundtable organized by the Anti-Defamation League and held at the Los Angeles Police Academy. It was strangely like a war briefing on Iraq. Bratton, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Jewish and Latino leaders all gathered to address the daily casualties, the state of the battle, the need for more troops and resources.
But there was almost no media at this briefing, and the four murders Bratton spoke of didn't make the Los Angeles Times the next day, or the day after. Gang problem? What gang problem?
The homicide rate in Los Angeles has doubled in each of the last five years. Last year, there were 350 gang-related homicides and countless more shooting victims (the department hasn't begun keeping statistics on the wounded, the maimed and the terrified). The gang members are largely poor and black or Latino. The neighborhoods they victimize are South Central, East Los Angeles and the fringes of the San Fernando Valley. But to think that we can ignore a battlefield because it's a freeway overpass away from us is not only cruel and immoral, but shortsighted. When those shootings spill over into our neighborhoods, as happened in Westwood in 1988, the effects on our own sense of safety and local economies are devastating.
Why are there no Jewish gangs? Of course, there used to be. In New York City at the turn of the century, murderous crews controlled immigrant neighborhoods through violence and the threat of violence. Then as now, it is a minority of a minority that creates gang culture. And it is a combination of law enforcement, education, social intervention and economic opportunity that obliterates it.
"It is no coincidence that the majority of gang violence happens in the poorest part of the city," said Santa Monica School Board member Oscar de la Torre.
And it is no mystery how to reduce the killing.
In the early 1990s, the City of New York's Safe Street Fund, raised by a surcharge on the sales tax, financed a gang initiative that included after-school programs, criminal justice system improvements and increased law enforcement. The result? In Bratton's 27-month term as police commissioner in New York City, violent felonies fell by a third and homicides were cut in half. "What do we do to get the paying public to set up a special taxing fund to deal with gang problems in L.A. County?" Bratton said.
For Bratton and Baca, the real tragedy is not that there are no life-saving solutions, just that we, the taxpayers, don't want to pay for them.
"We can do this," Bratton said. "It's been done. We have the cure but we can't use it."
I asked Baca how much, bottom line, he's looking for. The answer, he said, is $250 million-$300 million. That's a lot of money, but according to the National Priorities Project, City of Los Angeles taxpayers will end up shelling out $834.8 million to pay for the war in Iraq. Baca's price tag for rescuing hundreds of young men from certain death, for keeping neighborhoods free from domestic terror, for turning thousands of lives around -- for ensuring the safety and productivity of our entire city -- seems like a bargain.
"Look," Baca said, "I'm a Republican. I don't want to raise taxes. But if this is what it's going to take, we need to do it."
L.A. Jews are stewards of enough power and money to make a difference in this effort, and it would be inhumane for our community not to rally behind these two men. At great political cost, Mayor James Hahn has brought on a police chief who has a plan and a track record.
Baca has also proven he has ability to take bold steps, to approach gang suppression not solely as an issue of incarceration, but as a social cancer. In the past, we could finger-point at our leadership. Now we need to look in the mirror.
Last year, 436 Israelis were brutally murdered in terror attacks. The tragedy has devastated a country of 6 million, and the Jewish community here has responded with an outpouring of money and activism. Last year, 350 of our neighbors were brutally murdered in Los Angeles, a city of 3.7 million. We must muster a response at least as passionate and generous for our neighbors as we have for our brethren.
"This problem is not going to get cleaned up if those of us who live in good neighborhoods don't stop saying, 'It's not my problem,'" Baca said. And he's right.
To offer your support, e-mail Sheriff Lee Baca at firstname.lastname@example.org .