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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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What Does the “Failure” of the Ban on Fast-Food Restaurants in South L.A. to Curb Obesity Really Tell Us?

Young men play basketball during the Summer Night Lights program at the Jordan Downs rec center. It's one of the few opportunities for young men to be out late at night. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Young men play basketball during the Summer Night Lights program at the Jordan Downs rec center. The program provides one of the few opportunities for young men in the housing development to be out safely late at night. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“Yea, everything [is] OK…I hope all is well with you. I’m upset right now & crying because I’m starving. Have no food.”

I stared at the message on my phone. I had just checked in with 19-year-old South L.A. resident Shanique* to see how she was. I had interviewed her earlier in the summer and we had stayed in touch. Her family struggled quite a bit after the loss of her stepfather to a drive-by, the loss of her pre-teen brother to a walk-up (shooting), and being terrorized into silence by her brother’s killers, who lived nearby. Her mother’s disability — incurred years earlier on the job as a postal worker — coupled with a recent cancer diagnosis made it impossible for her to work.

And Shanique’s own promising progress in school had been halted by the trauma of a rape perpetrated against her in her own home at age 14 by the friend of a cousin. When her grades began to drop, instead of being offered extra help and counseling at her high school, she had been asked to leave. She was also shunned by her cousin’s family and friends and intimidated into dropping charges.

She was now struggling her way through a continuation school and working part-time at a grocery store. She was eager to find more work to help support her mother, as her hours were constantly being cut or adjusted, but this was made more difficult by a felony conviction. When Shanique’s best friend had called her on the day before her 18th birthday to ask if she could pick her and another friend up, she neglected to tell Shanique that they had just attempted to break into a home. Although the police could see from the surveillance footage that Shanique had not been anywhere in the vicinity of the incident, she says, the public defender told her flat-out that he was busy with murders and didn’t have time to prepare such a trivial case.

“They could have at least charged me as a juvenile!” she had fumed to me at the time.

Instead, she was stuck with three years’ probation, $5000 in court fees, and a felony strike that would have made it practically impossible for them to qualify for affordable housing when their rent suddenly jumped from $500 to $1600 (when, according to Shanique, the daughter of their landlord decided she wanted access to the property).

The combination of all these things meant that money often ran out well before the end of the month.

But I guess I still hadn’t expected things to be so dire.

Panicked, I immediately dialed her number.

The phone rang.

And rang.

Finally, she picked up.

Too upset to talk, she hung up almost immediately.

She texted me that she would probably go to the rec center about a mile from her house to see if she could get food from the Summer Night Lights program there — they usually grilled hotdogs for the community. She’d done it before, she said. She’d be OK.

* * *

Shanique came to mind as I read the 7-page study on the failure of the 2008 ban on the opening of new, stand-alone fast food restaurants in South L.A. to curb obesity there and the subsequent myriad stories and think-pieces dedicated to questioning the value of the ban, pointing out that obesity appears to have risen between 2007 and 2011 (from 63% to 75% of the population), decrying the nanny state and paternalism, and wondering what made a ban seem like a good idea in the first place.

Shanique, you see, despite suffering from hunger on a pretty regular basis, is obese.

Read more…

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“I’m a Cycle-Path”: Los Ryderz’ Founder Joins other South L.A. Superheroes at Visions and Voices Panel Thursday

Founder of Los Ryderz, Javier "J.P." Partida (far left) stands in front of an Earth Day mural with some of the youth from the club after a ride focused on healthy food options. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Founder of Los Ryderz, Javier “J.P.” Partida (far left) stands in front of an Earth Day mural with some of the youth from the club after a ride focused on healthy food options hosted by Community Services Unlimited. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“If it weren’t for J.P. …”

Ask any of the youth from the Los Ryderz Bike Club how they feel about the club and that is usually one of the first things to come out of their mouths.

“…Who knows what I’d be doin’.”

“…I don’t know where I’d be.”

“…He’s like a second father – the father I never had. I call him ‘Dad.’”

They’re talking about the club’s founder and president, Javier “J.P.” Partida, a long-time resident of Watts whose cool and occasionally gruff exterior masks an enormous and very generous heart.

Partida will be joining other South L.A. superheroes Neelam Sharma (from Community Services Unlimited), Ben Caldwell (of the KAOS Network in Leimert Park), and Karen Mack (of arts organization L.A. Commons) to talk about the joys and the challenges of bringing food justice, urban agriculture, community arts, and recreation to South L.A. this Thursday night as part of the Visions and Voices series at USC. (Event information here.)

Javier "J.P." Partida speaks about the history of the Watts Towers and what they means to the community at the exploratory ride for a South L.A. CicLAvia. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

J.P. Partida speaks about the history of the Watts Towers and what they mean to the community at the exploratory ride for a South L.A. CicLAvia. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

I had first met Partida in 2012, at the CicLAvia South L.A. Exploration Ride through Watts led by the East Side Riders (above).

Seeing how the community responded to seeing 60+ cyclists riding through his neighborhood had inspired him to think about getting youth from the community on bikes, he said when he called me a few months later. Could I come down to Watts to talk with him about launching a youth-centric club?

Oh. Hell. Yes.

Watts is packed with young people who have nowhere to go.

There are no bowling alleys, movie theaters, arcades, or safe spots in the public space where kids can just hang out and have fun with their friends. And even though the majority of the youth are not involved in gangs, the intensity of gang activity in the area constricts their movement. Parents may not even allow kids to hang out in their own front yards, wait at bus stops they feel are too exposed, or walk too far in any direction on their own. The kids that can afford their own bikes are often afraid (or not allowed) to ride alone or stray too far from home for fear of getting jacked while riding, or worse.

Given his own upbringing in that environment and the informal mentoring he was already doing with the kids that came through YO! Watts, Partida felt he couldn’t get a bike club off the ground fast enough. At our first meeting, he laid out a million ideas for events, logo designs, group gatherings, and even a co-op – and he wanted it all to happen right away.

“Just get the kids out on bikes,” I remember telling him at the time. “Start with that. The rest will fall into place.”

That turned out to be very true. At first. Read more…

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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…