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Equity Advocates Discuss Needs of “Invisible” Cyclists on HuffPost Live

Pedestrians wait to be able to cross Jefferson and continue south on Central along the sidewalk. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Pedestrians and cyclists both take refuge on the sidewalk as they head south on Central Ave. in South Los Angeles. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Last week, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University published a story declaring that “Most Cyclists Are Working-Class Immigrants, Not Hipsters.”

If you spend any time in the streets and/or pay attention to cycling issues, this is something you probably already knew. At least, intuitively. It’s been a little harder to substantiate that claim using data, as the article explains, thanks to the way the Census lumps bicycle commuting to work in with motorcycling and taking taxis. The fact that the poor may also combine multiple modes to get from A to B (and C and D, depending on how many jobs or obligations they have) complicates the data. So does the fact that lower-income residents of color, particularly immigrants, are the people least likely to answer Census or other surveys or have habits that fit well into standardized categories.

The fact that the urban hipster persists as the face of cycling despite being the minority, author Andrew Keatts suggests, means that we aren’t dedicating enough time or resources to understanding and responding to the unique needs of the “invisible” majority — the cyclists that have the fewest resources or options at their disposal.

And then an interesting thing happens. Keatts reaches out to Adonia Lugo, former Equity Initiative Manager at the League of American Bicyclists, Sam Ollinger, who heads up Bike San Diego, the L.A.-based group Multicultural Communities for Mobility (MCM), and Watts-based John Jones III of the East Side Riders Bike Club to ask about specific challenges that keep poorer cyclists from being seen, heard, or able to ride safely. He hears about gangs, fears of gentrification, lack of access to reliable transit at off-peak hours, lack of access to reliable bikes and safety equipment (e.g. lights), and the lack of time to participate in city planning processes, among other things.

But instead of broadening the analysis to think about transportation in a more holistic context that accommodates these issues, he seems to try to fit their needs back into a bike-specific box.

He ends the article by paraphrasing his conversation with Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers, Inc. (tasked with putting together Houston’s bike plan), who he says argues that “there’s a formula out there…for increasing bike safety and multi-modal access that fits what each neighborhood wants. In some places it’s better infrastructure, but in others, it’s finding a balance between safety, education and enforcement.”

But what if there isn’t a bicycle-specific formula out there? Read more…


South L.A. Town Hall Ends in Protests but Residents Hope Dialogue with Mayor Is Just Beginning

Mayor Eric Garcetti tried to pacify activists by discussing his efforts to humanize policing just before the South L.A. Town Hall was finally shut down. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Mayor Eric Garcetti tried to pacify activists by discussing his efforts to humanize policing just before the South L.A. Town Hall was finally shut down. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Really? A helicopter?? I sighed as I heard the aircraft swoop in low and fast outside Holman United Methodist Church Monday night as Mayor Eric Garcetti’s first ever South L.A. Town Hall came to a rather unceremonious close.

It was a little after 8 p.m., and pleas from an exasperated Reverend Kelvin Sauls that those “interested in having a civil conversation…remain here” while the rest left in peace had fallen on deaf ears. When members of the Black Lives Matter movement — who, throughout the meeting, had turned their backs on Garcetti and his staff when they spoke, interrupted speakers, broken into chants of “Black Lives, they matter here!,” and ascended to the stage to take the mic — began shouting Garcetti down in earnest, dialogue was finally rendered impossible.

The next thing we knew, the mayor was being whisked off the stage and out the door, buffered on all sides by city staffers and police. The meeting was effectively over. Adams Blvd. between 5th and Arlington was quickly shut down as protesters surged outside to surround the mayor’s car and the aforementioned helicopter arrived shortly thereafter.

Exchanging glances with some of the South L.A. friends and community advocates in attendance, it appeared we had some of the same questions on our minds:

What were we supposed to make of what just happened? And, just how hysterical was the coverage of the meeting going to be the next day?

As for the latter: pretty hysterical.

Right wingers from and The Blaze (neither of which was present at the event), wrote of the mayor being “forced to flee” the event and needing to be “escorted to safety,” giving their following the ammunition needed to declare the protesters to be (in some of the more G-rated comments, at least) jobless “thugs,” “racists,” and “terrorists.”

Local coverage of the event wasn’t a whole lot better, focusing on the “chaos,” the meeting as a “hotbed of civil disobedience,” the “aggression” of speakers, and the actions of activist Jasmine Richards, who jumped on Garcetti’s car, prompting viewers and readers to post many of the same kinds of ugly denouncements found on the right wing websites. Weirdest of all was seeing a Fox11 reporter, who had not been at the meeting the night before and who had absolutely no idea what was behind the protests he claimed had “nearly ambushed” the mayor, stand outside a city administration building the next morning and wonder on air why no protesters had shown up to heckle the mayor as he met with HUD secretary Julian Castro about homelessness.

None of which is surprising, of course, but is disheartening all the same.

As for the former query — what were we supposed to make of what just happened? — the answer was much more complicated.

These were South L.A. residents and advocates. There was nobody I spoke with that did not understand where the anger was coming from. While the core group of protesters may have been small (anywhere between 20 and 50 people), their concerns had the empathy of many in attendance. At least, up to a point.

When Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan African Studies at Cal State L.A. and organizer for Black Lives Matter, had taken the mic toward the end of the meeting and explained why people were turning their backs on the man she called the “back door mayor,” there were nods and murmurs of understanding.

Black Lives Matter had consistently asked the mayor to sit down with them in quarterly town halls to work with them on addressing police brutality, police reform, and community empowerment. Over the summer (just prior to the Police Commission’s ruling on the fatal police shooting of Ezell Ford), they had even staked out Garcetti’s home trying to get him to agree to a meeting, only to have him sneak out his back door on his way back East to do some fundraising. Abdullah told town hall attendees that because all their requests had been ignored — they had not even been formally invited to the event, despite having been the ones that had asked for it — they were resolved not to sit down until they were given seats on the stage (which they eventually did with the help of transportation advocate Damien Goodmon).

“We are appreciative of this space,” she said, “but [Black Lives Matter] created this space.”

It was a claim many of the elders in the community might have disputed. Some I spoke with after the meeting were shaking their heads over the fact that they found themselves confronting so many of the very same issues they had gone up against as activists in their youth, that young men were still dying at the hands of police and there was still no accountability. And Reverend Sauls, an important advocate for the South L.A. community on a wide range of issues since his arrival at Holman in 2012, had been the one to moderate a meeting between the Black Lives Matter advocates and the mayor at Holman this past July.

But her larger point stood: they were being excluded from a process that they felt they had helped set in motion. And hearing the mayor talk about the importance of respectful dialogue and communication was only adding insult to injury. Read more…

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South L.A. Power Fest Illustrates Successful Placemaking Requires Deep Community Roots

"We are only as strong as our weakest link." Alfonso Aguilar tells the youth at Community Coalition. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

“We are only as strong as our weakest link.” Alfonso Aguilar tells the youth at Community Coalition. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

“We are only as strong as our weakest link,” youth leader Alfonso Aguilar tells the youth participating in the South Central Youth Empowered through Action (SCYEA) program at Community Coalition (CoCo).

“So, if you’re feeling weak, step into the center of the circle.”

Much to my surprise, a dozen students ranging from 14 to 18 years old move into a huddle in the middle and immediately link arms. Those left on the outside circle cheer them on and pledge their support before the circle collapses in a massive group hug.

It was an uplifting way to end what had been a long day for them — it was now well after 7 p.m. and the youth had come to CoCo directly after school so they could get a snack, do their homework, and pound the pavement in the surrounding neighborhoods to promote this weekend’s South L.A. Power Fest at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park.

I was there because I had wanted to do the door-knocking outreach with the SCYEA youth.

Much like when Erick Huerta and I assisted CicLAvia with door-knocking in Boyle Heights, I was looking to hear directly from community members about how they saw their neighborhood and their relationship with the public space. I spend enough time in South L.A. to feel like I know the needs and concerns pretty well, but its important to continue to check in and listen, especially as the area grows and changes.

It seems even more important to listen to the youth from the area — like those CoCo had tasked with doing the outreach as part of their leadership training — who often feel constraints on their mobility in the public space most acutely.

So, I was thrilled when CoCo gave me the OK to tag along with their door-knockers last week.

Doing outreach with Community Coalition youth Raymond and Antoine. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Doing outreach with Community Coalition youth Raymond Davis and Antoine Johnson. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Besides being really cool youth, it was clear that they knew the issues well, cared about engaging neighbors, and were sincere in wanting residents to come out to the event.

As we canvassed an area near Manual Arts High School on 41st St., Raymond Davis (above, left) would announce he was a sophomore there, that he knew the concerns of the community, and that he wanted a place for kids to be able to play where parents wouldn’t have to be fearful for their safety.

The festival would have something for everyone, he would continue, including a job and other resources tent, information on healthcare enrollment, cooking demonstrations, food trucks, music, zumba, and an artivist (artists + activism) tent where local artists will share their work and contributions to social justice.

“I don’t like that park,” one man said, scowling as he turned the event flyer over in his fingers. Read more…

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Reclaiming Public Space for Marginalized Communities: Bikes Don’t Fix Everything, But They Can Help

The next generation of riders takes to the streets of South L.A. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The next generation of riders takes to the streets of South L.A. as part of a Unity ride on Sunday. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The recent tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, and here at home in South L.A. have served to underscore just how hostile the public space can be to people of color, particularly those of lesser means.

For those that live that reality day in and day out in Los Angeles, that is not news.

I’ve documented their frustration with law enforcement officers that would rather harass and arrest than protect and serve in a number of dedicated stories (here, here, here, here). More often, however, concerns about officer misbehavior are interwoven in stories on a wide range of topics simply because they are that much of a constant in the lives of the communities I cover (see here, here, or here).

And while some advocates might question the relevance of such concerns to the Livable Streets movement, I would argue that equal access to streets is a cornerstone of livability. There is no earthly reason that men of color should feel that the act of walking or riding a bicycle down the street is akin to extending an embossed invitation to police to stop, question, and frisk them, hand them bogus tickets (for not having bike lights in the day time, for example), or worse.

A young man is separated from his friends and questioned by Public Safety for skateboarding near USC. (photo courtesy of the young man in question)

A young man is separated from his friends, told to put his hands behind his back and face the fence, and questioned by Public Safety for skateboarding near USC. (Photo courtesy of the young man in question. His face was blurred because he feared retaliation for speaking up.)

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the problem.

Among many other things, the abuses of power by the police are facilitated by the de facto segregation of communities by race and/or class, narratives that criminalize members of marginalized communities, the effective disenfranchisement of those communities, and the years of neglect of the health and well-being of those populations.

The entrenched nature of these problems have forced activists to take matters into their own hands in order to chip away at the structures and narratives that have long been used against them.

In South L.A., for example, social justice non-profit Community Coalition worked to put an end to willful defiance suspensions in schools, just finished its third Freedom School summer program, and will host the third annual South L.A. Powerfest this Sept. 6th. In Boyle Heights, the non-profit visual arts center Self-Help Graphics has cultivated Latino and Chicano consciousness and creativity through its programming for 40 years, and just completed a summer session aimed at empowering youth to express their visions for their communities through art.

Other activists have taken to the streets.

Read more…


South L.A. Park Has Great Potential, but Lacks Sidewalks That Would Make it Accessible to All

No sidewalks in sight. Jackie Tatum Harvard Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

No sidewalks in sight along 62nd St. at Jackie Tatum Harvard Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

When people talk about park access, they usually are referring to whether or not people have a park near their homes.

In the case of the Jackie Tatum Harvard Recreation Center, you have a great park with some great new facilities in South L.A. — a traditionally park-poor area — but it isn’t that easy to access.

The reasons for this are many.

The park, located at 62nd and Denker and has traditionally been a hangout of the Harvard Park Brims (Bloods) sets that run in the area.

As HPB territory is surrounded on all four sides by Crip sets, it has historically been somewhat embattled. Long-time residents all have stories of how active the area and, in particular, the park used to be, both as a place for gang members to party and where daytime shootings were not out of the ordinary.

While things have gotten better of late, gang members can still limit park access; they apparently even temporarily chased out workers putting in the new skate park there just a few years ago. And, the fact that it is a known gang hangout endangers non-gang members, too. In 2012, Patrick Carruthers, a beloved nineteen-year-old park volunteer with a learning disability was shot in the back and killed in a middle-of-the-day walk-up while listening to music on a picnic bench.

Some attempts to manage the problem have been made with the (overdue) installation of cameras around the park last year that are monitored by the LAPD’s 77th Division. But, budget cuts have hurt the ability of parks in lower-income neighborhoods like this one to fill staff positions and offer classes to the community that might help keep youth engaged in healthy activities and out of trouble. And, because many in the area struggle financially, the park lacks the ability to charge fees for programs to cover some of their costs the way one in a wealthier community might be able to do.

No sidewalk here, either. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

No sidewalk here, either. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The other access issues should be more easily (and are long overdue to be) fixed.

While it may have nice tennis courts, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, an awesome water slide and aquatic center, several playing fields, beach volleyball pits, a playground for kids, and even horseshoe toss pits, if you’re disabled, pushing kids in a stroller, or just want to take a stroll around the park, you’re out of luck.

Somehow, the park has gone all this time without having sidewalks on three sides. Read more…


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…


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…


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…


“Invest in Us!” say South L.A. Youth in Response to Questions about How to Curb Violence at Town Hall with Garcetti

Mayor Eric Garcetti asks participants in the town hall on gun violence for suggestions of messages he could record the crowd saying in unison. He wanted to take the recordings with him to show President Obama when he met him at the airport. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

When asked by his group’s facilitator whether he believed the youth in South L.A. had opportunities — opportunities to grow, succeed, try new things, advance their education, you name it — one young man said he was convinced that the answer was a resounding “no.”

It wasn’t just that opportunities weren’t there, the dapper teen from Crenshaw High School (below, at right) told the youth, facilitators, and representatives from the mayor’s office who had gathered to hear South L.A. youth perspectives on how to address the problem of gun violence in their communities. It was that the environment he was raised in did not prepare youth to make the most of the few opportunities that were available to them.

Speaking of a youth leadership conference he had attended in Sacramento, he said he was struck by how different he and his South L.A. peers were in their approach to thinking about their futures from other youth.

A young man from Crenshaw speaks about his desire to see South L.A. youth dream as big as youth from more privileged communities. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The other students — the majority of whom were from well-to-do communities around California — had all traveled so much and were so open-minded, he said, that they “[were] not aspiring to work anywhere. They were aspiring to innovate.”

He’d never seen anything like it.

“They were like TV people — I didn’t know they existed.”

South L.A. youth needed to have some of those same opportunities to travel, to see new things and ways of life, and to expand their horizons, he concluded. They also needed to believe that the sky was the limit for them if there was any hope of things changing for the community.

It was, perhaps, not the response that the mayor’s team expected to hear from participants when they decided to put together a “Youth-Led Town Hall” to address the issues underlying the frustrations expressed by the community in the wake of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. But it was actually par for the course among this group of activists.

While there was some discussion of gun violence and gun control, the majority of the 100-plus youth present believed that mitigating such violence in their communities required tangible and sustained investments in dealing with the root causes of violence and investing in youth, education, and intervention work.

“I don’t think gun violence is the problem,”  said a young man summarizing his group’s ideas. “I think anger is the problem.”

In his experience, happy people didn’t go around shooting each other. Read more…


A Tale of Two Communities: New Security Measures at USC Intensify Profiling of Lower-Income Youth of Color

This is what stopping teens can look like. Mikey, Jonathan and George/Jorge were frisked for weapons on Ave. 50 and York Blvd. in Highland Park last spring. They were stopped while waiting for friends. Note: the photo is not from South L.A., as many of the youth I spoke with wished to remain anonymous.  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“What you got on you?” the 15 year-old girl says the cops pulled up alongside her asked as she walked along Vermont one night.

Bundled up in her boyfriend’s jacket to stave off the chilly air, she didn’t realize that they were actually talking to her until she heard one grumble, “Fucking Mexican!” and repeat the question.

Now she found herself both amused and pissed — not only were they messing with her, she’s Salvadoran.

“I was like, ‘Dayum, for real??’” she laughed as she recounted the incident to me over a plate of fries at a little restaurant not too far from where she had been stopped.

She was just going to the market, she told them. She didn’t have anything on her.

“Well, you just look [like you’re] bad,” she says the cops told her before pulling away.

“Geeeez-us,” I groaned, cradling my head in my hands.

I had spent the last month and a half moving up and down the streets around USC, speaking with lower-income black and brown male youth (aged 14 – 25) about the encounters they have had with officers from the LAPD and USC’s Department of Public Safety (DPS). Every single one of the approximately 50 youth I had randomly approached for an interview told me multiple stories about getting harassed, insulted, stopped, and sometimes even frisked and handcuffed by both DPS and the LAPD.

But I hadn’t expected to hear a story from her.

She’s tiny – maybe 4’10” tall on a good day – and she’s been working hard to stay out of trouble. In fact, she had recently moved up to the USC area to get away from the craziness and drama of the streets in Watts, where she had lived for the last several years. There, she was stressed from having to constantly watch her back. Her new neighborhood seemed so peaceful in contrast.

“You realize there’s a Harpys clique just up the street, right?” I laughed, pointing over my shoulder.


She had never even heard of that gang. The only trouble she had had was with the cops. But it didn’t faze her, she said, waving me off dismissively. That kind of thing is normal.

Rites of Passage in the ‘Hood


“Happens all the time.”

“It’s like a rite of passage.”

All across Los Angeles, these are ways that a lot of youth of color from lower-income communities describe being stopped, questioned, searched, or, on occasion, falsely accused of misdoing and arrested or even brutalized by the police. Such incidents are so prevalent, in fact, that I’ve had to postpone meeting up with people that wanted to tell me their stories about enduring harassment in order to finish this article. The list of friends, acquaintances, and random people I’ve encountered that regularly experience this kind of discrimination is actually that long.

Most strikingly, although all describe hating how disempowering, humiliating, and even traumatic it can be, and that it feels like the police prefer sweating them to keeping them safe, they tend not to think of getting stopped as anything out of the ordinary.

It sucks, they tell me, but it comes with growing up in the ‘hood.

Until recently, many of the residents – young and old — in the neighborhoods around USC might have felt no differently. They were used to being scrutinized by both the LAPD and DPS, monitored by some of the now 72 cameras USC has set up on and around campus (watched 20 hours a day by LAPD and round the clock by USC), and observed by the more than 30 security ambassadors positioned on campus and throughout adjacent neighborhoods.

“We know [LAPD and DPS] are going to slow down [their cars] when they see a group of us standing out here like this,” an older black gentleman said of himself and his friends as they chatted in front of his home under the watchful gaze of cameras posted up on Normandie Ave.

“They always do.”

His friends nodded solemnly.

Since the implementation of new security measures around USC following two shootings in the area last year, however, things have apparently become more intense than “normal” for some. In particular, the stepping up of DPS patrols on and around campus combined with the arrival of 30 officers to the Southwest Division to conduct high visibility patrols and “more frequent parole checks on local gang members” (the $750,000 worth of personnel costs which were paid for by USC) have put everybody on notice.

Neighbors (and, most recently USC students of color, apparently) really began to feel the shift in tone with the beginning of the fall semester, when the new measures went into full effect.

The reason? Despite DPS’ use of “video patrol” techniques and the LAPD’s use of cutting-edge computer-generated models to aid in predictive policing, the methodologies behind the identification of suspicious behavior or candidates for “parole checks” appear decidedly unsophisticated.

And aggressive.

Black and Latino youth report that officers from both the LAPD and DPS regularly pull up alongside them and verbally accost them with a barrage of questions. Read more…