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Community Violence Project

This page will serve as the home for a series of articles written about the effects of pervasive community violence on the health and well-being of both individuals and the community of Watts as a whole. The series, produced as part of a Health Journalism Fellowship with the California Endowment and the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC, hopes to help shed light on how and why it is both such a challenge for even the most resilient of residents to transcend their circumstances and so difficult for young men to keep their distance from gangs or the “fast life.” The series begins with a look at how community violence – various forms of violence that play out in both public and private spaces and that impact people’s sense of well-being, safety, security, mobility, and capacity to cope – can have more far-reaching consequences than the one-off mass shootings we tend to focus on. The next two look at how youth navigate living in a stressful environment — either by joining gangs or staying as removed from them as possible — and the high costs of both those decisions. The fourth examines how these struggles are compounded by economic challenges, what kinds of informal activities kids engage in to get by and why, and how easily a single negative work experience or encounter with law enforcement can completely upend their futures. The last two look at current initiatives underway in Watts. One explores, among other things, the LAPD’s work with HACLA and the Advancement Project on a Community Safety Partnership. The other will look at community-based solutions like Los Ryderz bike club, and why simple approaches that help youth redefine their relationship to the public space and their community can sometimes be the most powerful.

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Location, Location, Location: Contested Public Space Means Moving Watts School Could Deny Some Education

Carlos Penate speaks to the crowd of INSPIRE students about what the school means to him. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Carlos Penate speaks to the crowd of INSPIRE students about what the school means to him at a rally yesterday. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“They say they care about our safety, but they’re putting us in harm’s way!”

It is a refrain I’ve heard several times over the last month from students of INSPIRE Research Academy, a state-subsidized continuation school based at YO! Watts that offers 17-24-year-olds a free education and a rare second chance to get their high school diplomas.

The students are referring to Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s bid to take over the city-owned YO! Watts building (housing the offices and staff of YO! Watts and INSPIRE), and possibly the old library on the same lot (currently utilized as a rec center, classroom, all-purpose community room, and storage area for the bike program’s bicycles) and Firehouse 65 (a building attached to YO! Watts that is structurally sound but which has been boarded up for the last several years).*

His offices are currently located next door, in the Chase Bank Building, where the city pays $126,000 in rent.** The potential sale of that building and the desire of the councilmember to lay the foundation for the re-creation of the Watts Civic Center, find a home for Operation Progress, and offer the community more services from a city-owned building where rent would be minimal are all behind the decision to relocate.

The rec center (old library) is at left. The YO! Watts building is at center, left (the right portion of the building is a boarded up firehouse). At right is the Chase Bank Bldg., where the councilman's current office is located. (Google maps)

The rec center (old library) is at top, left. The YO! Watts building is at center, left (the right portion of the building is a boarded up firehouse). At right, is the Chase Bank Bldg., where the councilmember’s office is currently located. (Google maps)

However, a move into the YO! Watts complex would necessitate the displacement of all or part of INSPIRE, and possibly that of the Youth Opportunities program that has offered at-risk teens and young adults a vocational, educational, career, and social support system in the form of job readiness training, GED/college/SAT preparation, paid internships, occupational skills training, tutoring, life-skills training, and mentoring at that site for over a decade.

Perhaps cognizant of what a blow this might be in an area with tremendous need but precious few resources for older teens, both Buscaino and his Deputy Chief of Staff, Jacob Haik, suggested to Fox 11 in April that a move would offer the school the much-needed opportunity to grow and flourish.

Citing “keep[ing] student safety as a primary concern” and “provid[ing] them with a solid, safe learning environment” as being among their priorities, they claimed that the school had outgrown its facilities when enrollment jumped from 25 to 200 in just two years.

And, despite efforts by INSPIRE staff to set the record straight about enrollment – it has never exceeded 150 and currently stands at 121 – Buscaino’s office has continued to make the case that the buildings are overcrowded, that students packed into the basement set of offices and computer center in YO! Watts constitute a fire hazard, that the YO! Watts building may not even be up to code, and that the current set-up in the rec center – where heavy draperies are all that mark the partitions between class “rooms” – constitute a less-than-ideal learning environment.

While it is true that the school’s facilities are far from ideal on paper, current students, INSPIRE staff, and those speaking off the record from YO! Watts (who have been told not to speak on the matter by the city) question the extent to which youth welfare is a genuine concern of the the councilmember’s office and whether any solutions they offer will be truly attuned to the youths’ needs.

This is due, in part, to the condescension with which they believe they have been treated. Read more…

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To Be or Not To Be a Gang-Banger: Is That Really The Question?

A tattoo warns against crossing...  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Tattoos — symbols of the struggle of his earlier years — warn you against crossing a former gang member. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

*This story features interviews with a number of youth. Some are named. Others requested they remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the information divulged. This story is the second in a six-part series on the impact of community violence and potential ways forward. The first, “Death and All His Friends,” can be found here.

AS WE CONCLUDE our conversation, he takes a deep breath, adjusts his belt, and asks – this time, I think, as a person and not a police officer – if I really believed kids in Watts didn’t have much choice about whether or not to get involved with gangs.

I have a sudden desire to pull out all my hair.

We had just spent the last forty-five minutes trading observations on the variety of factors that impact the safety, security, and mobility of kids in the area, all while seated next to a playground that – despite being situated in a housing development teeming with young children – is almost always empty, even on the most beautiful of summer afternoons.

“That’s a tough question to answer,” I say slowly. He grew up not too far from here and I do not want to diminish the effort that I know he must have made to leave his own hardscrabble background behind. “Technically, they do have a choice…”

But, as he was well aware, I tell him, it isn’t easy.

Ticking off a list of everything we had just discussed – the drive-bys, violence in schools and the public space, various forms of abuse in the home, grooming by gang-bangers, profiling by law enforcement, intense poverty, trauma, and a lack of exposure to positive environments and role models – I suggest it’s an awful lot to expect an eight- or ten-year-old to transcend.

Even for those who realize they do want something else for themselves, once they’ve started down a certain path, desisting, or walking away from gang life, can be extremely challenging.

Especially if they are still young.

Most can’t afford to move or find trying to navigate the politics of a new neighborhood to not be worth the risk. Staying where they are can be just as hazardous – they no longer have protection from former rivals who don’t know or don’t care that they’re out or from former homies that feel disrespected and want to settle scores.

Without a strong support system, job, and/or educational program they can lean on, they’re in danger of getting sucked back in. Or worse.

“The odds,” I say to the officer, throwing my hands wide, “are not in their favor.”

I Was Just a Kid. I Didn’t Know What Was Happening.”

“Middle school is when everything changed,” says Delfino, a shy but friendly and thoughtful young man finishing his high school degree at a continuation school in Watts.

From the very first day, he says, he was acutely aware that there were a lot of gang members at his school (which held grades 5 through 9) because they enjoyed picking on him.

“They would always ask me, ‘Where you from?’”

He pauses.

“I didn’t know the meaning of that,” he laughs, as if he still can’t believe he had once been so innocent.

I can’t believe it, either.

He had grown up around 92nd St., an area where gang activity is prevalent and his solid build should have made him a prime recruit.

The kid who was harassing him apparently also thought Delfino was bluffing because he got annoyed and asked, “You wanna catch my fade?” (take a beating) Read more…

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Death and All His Friends Cast Long Shadows When They Make Regular Appearances in the Public Space

Sherika Simms holds the last photo taken of her brother, Maurio Proctor, outside one of their childhood apartments in Jordan Downs. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“I went crazy,” Sherika Simms says quietly of the realization that she would be unable to help her brother.

Twenty-two-year-old Maurio Proctor, two years her junior but more like her twin – the boy that had followed her everywhere she went as a child and wanted to do everything she did – had been gunned down in front of her and all she could do was watch his killers drive away.

When the Impala had first rolled through Jordan Downs around 1 p.m. that afternoon, they hadn’t thought much about it.

“We were mourning the loss of someone we grew up with…” she tells me. “We’re not thinking we’re in harm’s way.”

That ”someone” was 25-year-old Branden “B.L.” Bullard – a major player in the East Side Grape Street Watts (Crip) gang based in Jordan Downs. Twelve hours earlier a shooter(s) – presumably from the rival East Coast Crips – had sprayed a party where people from several neighborhoods had gathered, wounding seven and killing Bullard.

He had been something of a larger-than-life figure for having survived a shot to the face 3 years prior in retaliation for the wounding of a Bounty Hunter (Bloods from Nickerson Gardens). That 2005 event sparked six weeks of tit-for-tat carnage that left nine dead, twenty-six wounded, and the whole of Watts paralyzed as the battle played out in the public space.

Although the incident that finally killed Bullard in the wee hours of Sunday, January 27, 2008, may have been sparked by a fight between women, the damage had been done. As dawn broke, warning shots were already being fired in areas frequented by Grape Street’s rivals.

Perhaps because Grape Street hadn’t landed a kill, the community did not expect a retaliatory attack.

Whatever the reason, when the Impala made a U-turn and came slowly back around, nobody bothered to look up, Sherika says.

Until all hell broke loose. Read more…