Across America, members of some cities' most violent street gangs are forging a tenuous peace. The movement has won them entree to breakfast with the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., a resolution of support from the Cleveland City Council and even funding from the NAACP, whose leader has called it the start of a "real new world order."
But enthusiasm for the peace summit movement is far from unanimous.
Law enforcement officials, who must tally gang-related deaths and shootings every day, are skeptical. One police investigator from Los Angeles, where no fewer than 417 gangs ply the streets, says: "You have to be careful when you're talking truce: Is it to save lives or is it to make a more effective business proposition, to better control a criminal enterprise?"
But community activists and former gang members pushing this platform of peace remain undeterred by such skepticism. This weekend, members of street gangs -- some dressed in three-piece suits, others wearing blue or red bandannas about their heads -- gather in Chicago for the fourth in a series of peace summits this year.
"Those of us who want peace will lay down our weapons and set the example. All we can do is set the example," said Carl Upchurch, director of the Ohio-based Council for Urban Peace and Justice and a founder of the summit movement that sprung up after the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and efforts by two black gangs in Los Angeles to halt the violence between them.
"Even when we do that, we are fighting the uphill battle. There are a lot of problems in urban America," said Mr. Upchurch.
Chicago has a history of gang violence that dates back three decades. It is home to 41 street gangs -- including the feared African-American groups, the Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords, and entrenched Hispanic organizations such as the Latin Kings and Latin Disciples. But Chicago is a city summit organizers point to as an example of what peace can bring.
They contend that a truce among 12 African-American gangs -- called last October after the death of a 7-year-old boy caught in gang cross-fire -- has reduced incidents of violence in two public housing communities in the city.
Police, however, suggest it was less the truce than an increased law enforcement presence in the communities that reduced gang activity there.
While police acknowledge efforts by some grass-roots organizations to stem the violence, spokesman William P. Davis said:
"If some gang organizations chose to declare a cease-fire and stop killing each other over drug turf, that brings the homicide numbers down. But as long as those same organizations continue to derive their income from illegal activity and as long as they continue to sell dope and intimidate the people in the community in which they live, there is no peace."
Similar sentiments have been expressed by law enforcement officials in other cities where summits have occurred. The first one was held in Kansas City in May. Programs followed in Cleveland and St. Paul-Minneapolis.
L Some politicians and civic leaders have embraced the effort.
'An excellent idea'
Dan Swope, executive director of a Chicago community organization that works with street gangs, views the truce among the city's African-American gangs as "an excellent idea."
"No truce, whether in Sarajevo or Mogadishu, is absolute. Not everybody is going to adhere to it," he said. "You have got to start somewhere."
Others, however, have eyed the movement warily: Attorney Lewis C. Freeman, the state president of the Minnesota branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the gang summit there "an exercise in futility." Law enforcement officials have questioned the motives of summit participants and noted that in Los Angeles and Chicago, where truces have been called among some black gangs, violence among their Asian and Hispanic counterparts goes on.
"We're all willing to do anything we can to save lives and encourage these people to stop killing each other. That's a given," said Lt. Sergio Robleto, a homicide commander in the Los Angeles Police Department's southern bureau, one of the city's most troubled areas. "When this truce in south Los Angeles was publicized, it involved two sects of a gang. People made a big deal of it because of the extreme violence in the area where this truce took place. For the most part that truce has held. The rest of the city violence continues much unabated."
Other law enforcement officials contend that a reduction in gang-on-gang violence makes it easier for the gang to do business -- usually selling drugs. "Business booms when there is no violence," said Robert W. Dart, former commander of the Chicago Police Department's gang investigation unit.
From Boston to San Jose, Calif., gang-related crime is widespread. Police in as many as 157 jurisdictions have reported gang activity to the National Gang Assessment Survey at the University of West Virginia.
(In Maryland, there is little evidence of street gangs that resemble those of such organizations as the Bloods and Crips of Los Angeles. Instead, groups with no structure or leadership form as a drug-selling enterprise, according to state police investigators.)
The national gang survey of 1992 reports 4,881 gangs -- from loosely knit groups of "taggers" or graffiti-writers to Chicago street gangs that operate as organized crime syndicates -- with an estimated 249,324 members. Gang-related killings totaled 974, but there were 19,586 other violent incidents reported as well, according to the survey.
"Anyone who tells you they can control gang violence is full of baloney. They can influence it but . . . nobody controls the gang problem that easy," said Irving Spergel, a University of Chicago professor who has studied gangs there.
Other academics question whether summits stem gang-related violence or solidify a gang's hold in a community.
"When we have a peace accord, as was the case in St. Louis, when the mayor meets with gang members, he gives them added credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of both their gang and nongang peers," said Scott H. Decker, a criminologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.
While police in Los Angeles and Chicago report a slight decline in gang-related violence in certain areas, they don't attribute it to the truces there. Police in Kansas City and Cleveland say they have experienced no significant difference in gang-related crime their cities.
"It's a matter of economics," said Officer Timothy Prill of the Minneapolis police department's gang unit. "When crime pays, gangs are essentially the same. They're in it for the money. Why should a guy flip hamburgers for $4 an hour when he can stand on the street as a shortie and sell dope? In five minutes, he makes $25."
Some community leaders, however, say the summits in their cities have helped.
"Gang-related violence in the schools is down 38 percent. We think that's a direct result of the overall efforts being taken here by the mayor of Cleveland," said Arnold Pinkney, a businessman who is co-chairman of the city's Black on Black Crime Committee.
Earl B. King, whose No Dope Express Foundation is helping sponsor the Chicago summit, said the peace movement's organizers know that ending the violence between gangs is a beginning to a process that must include economic development, job creation and spiritual renewal.
In Kansas City, the movement's organizers called for a domestic job corps for 500,000 poor youths, repeal of anti-gang laws and a national review of some 15,000 police brutality cases.
The gangs, which refer to themselves as "nations," are trying to improve their image with efforts to register voters, organize rallies against school budget cuts and sponsor a farmers market with produce from black southern cooperatives. The Gangster Disciples want to be known as Growth and Development. The Vice Lords? The Visions of Lords of Peace. The Black Disciples? The Bold Disciples for Peace. Theirs is both an economic and political agenda.
They have gathered community activists, gang counselors and church leaders to their closed-door summits. The NAACP is the national sponsor of the Chicago summit, said Bob Storman, a summit spokesman, and the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., executive director ofthe NAACP, is scheduled to speak, as he did in Kansas City and Cleveland.
"The purpose of the summits is to end gang violence, anything but glorify it," said Dr. Chavis. "What better way but to get gang members themselves to put down their weapons? We have helped save lives over the last six months."