L.A. gets tough on gangs

The Baltimore Sun

LOS ANGELES -- It took political officials nearly a month to respond to the slaying of Cheryl Green. Since then, the 14-year-old African-American girl has become the face of brown-on-black violence in this city.

The FBI has joined the Los Angeles Police Department in cracking down on gangs. The police department, breaking with tradition, has publicly named the city's worst 11 gangs.

And a city-sponsored report has called for an anti-gang "Marshall Plan," a reference to the post-World War II tactic of making massive investments to win the peace in former enemy territory.

The racially motivated shooting of the eighth-grader, which occurred Dec. 23 in daylight as she chatted with friends, was one of 269 gang-related homicides citywide last year.

Outside the African-American community, widespread outrage that a child could be killed because of her race was muffled by the cacophony of the holiday season.

"She was my baby," Charlene Lovett said recently of the youngest of her four children. "She wasn't raised to see colors. I couldn't understand how everyone wouldn't be horrified by this."

African-American activists came to her aid, holding rallies to call attention to similar attacks in South Los Angeles neighborhoods where Latinos have supplanted African-Americans as the dominant group.

Hate crimes rose 34 percent in 2005 in Los Angeles, the latest year for which statistics are available, and African-Americans were the main target.

Overall crime is down in the city for the fifth straight year, but gang crime rose 14 percent last year.

On Jan. 18, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa held a news conference near where the teenager was killed to announce a plan to "dismantle" the Latino gang blamed for the girl's slaying. He was joined by Police Chief William Bratton and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

By then, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had delivered his second inaugural address, which he began by boasting that "people from all over the world live in harmony" in California.

In an interview with The Sacramento Bee two weeks later, the governor conceded "we have a big gang problem." But he said Green's death did not represent a larger problem in California.

"No matter which country you go to, you always have some instances like that," he said. "You know, the Russian Mafia or some kind of gang violence in some country.

"Or if it is soccer fans going crazy and trying to kill each other on the soccer field. ... You know, there's crazy things all over the world."

Members of the California Legislative Black Caucus responded to Schwarzenegger's comments with dismay.

The governor, said Democratic state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, needs "to raise his IQ about the problem."

"This is an urgent matter, and it needs to be addressed," Ridley-Thomas said, adding the Senate Public Safety Committee on which he sits would take up the issue.

Assemblywoman Karen Bass of Los Angeles said that during town hall meetings she held in black communities around the state she collected "anecdotal" evidence that brown-on-black crime is on the rise elsewhere.

"We know that every time there is a study about hate crime, that African-Americans are the No. 1 figure," she said when the caucus recently released its "State of California" report. "I think it's absolutely important that we address that."

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles told the caucus that racial violence is escalating in other cities and will require a unified response.

"We've got to put our heads together and work hard to eliminate what we're seeing in places like Oakland, San Diego, Fresno, Santa Ana and Los Angeles, where we see far too much brown-on-black crime," Nunez said. "We have to put an end to that."

Green was killed in a hail of bullets while standing near her scooter in the Harbor Gateway area of Los Angeles, east of Torrance.

She was with a group of friends when they were approached by two men. Witnesses and police said that without a word, one suspect pulled a gun and opened fire, killing Green and wounding three others.

Investigators classified the incident as a hate crime. They concluded that members of a predominantly Latino street gang killed her as part of their effort to intimidate black residents in the area.

Five days later, the body of a 21-year-old white man, who police said witnessed the slaying, was dumped on a street in nearby Carson. Investigators said he was stabbed 80 times, and his throat was cut.

Ernesto Alcarez, 20, was arrested Dec. 21 in connection with Green's death. Jonathan Fajardo, 18, the alleged gunman, was arrested on Jan. 4.

Both are charged with special circumstances murder, attempted murder and hate crimes. They can face the death penalty if convicted.

Fajardo is also among five suspects charged with the slaying of the witness.

Najee Ali, an African-American activist, said Green's death is a manifestation of a problem that has been growing for years.

"Los Angeles is experiencing an ethnic cleansing of African-Americans who have no ties to gangs whatsoever," he said. "There have been several other murders in neighborhoods of Los Angeles where blacks are being pushed out by Latino gang members."

Last year, four members of a Latino gang were convicted in federal court of killing a black man in the northeast Los Angeles community of Highland Park, as part of a plot to terrorize African-Americans.

Lovett recalls that when she was going to high school in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, violence between Latinos and blacks was rare.

"We got along like brothers and sisters," she said. "That's why what happened to Cheryl is such a shock to me."

The day after the killing of her daughter, Lovett, looked across the street from her apartment and was shaken by what she saw.

There, on a garage door, in freshly painted graffiti were the initials "NK" - short for the "N-word" and "kill" - and the name of the gang blamed for her daughter's killing.

Lovett has since moved to another neighborhood, but she has taken her pain and fear with her.

Political officials, she warned, should wake up to the terror that African-Americans are facing in many communities.

"If the governor believes we're living in harmony, he should stand in my shoes," she said.

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