By Frank Gruber
November 9, 2009 -- Another young man was gunned down in Santa Monica -- Richard Juarez, 20. ("Man Fatally Shot in Pico Neighborhood Park," November 5, 2009) He was killed last Tuesday evening after attending an art class at Virginia Avenue Park. These killings happen every year, another one or two, sometimes more. They hang over Santa Monica like the marine layer.
Here's a photo of the impromptu memorial for young Juarez at the park.
|Richard Juarez memorial (Photo by Frank Gruber)
I have a lot of similar pictures on my hard drive.
Yet I rarely hear about gang violence during election campaigns for the Santa Monica City Council. There's little mention in all those mailers, and I've never heard a question about gangs at a debate. Gang violence is just not part of Santa Monica's politics. Perhaps it's too embarrassing.
That doesn't mean that good people don't try to do their best. The police do what they can, the City sponsors and pays for programs of a recreational and continuing education sort, and the School District, with programs like Olympic High School, have done what it can to keep "at-risk" youths in school.
But there's a culture to deal with. Richard Juarez was, I'm told, not a gang member, but according to School Board Member Oscar de la Torre, who runs the Pico Youth and Family Center, people at the center had recently confronted him, because they were concerned he was running with the wrong crowd. Mr. de la Torre told me that he dressed in a gangsta style and had a tattoo on his neck.
Perhaps for these reasons the two shooters singled him out when he was innocently hanging out in the park with friends, including two girls, from the art class. Much speculation is focusing on the fact that a young African-American man was murdered earlier Tuesday in Venice. A common motive for attacks like the one on Richard Juarez is revenge by one gang against anyone who looks like a gang member in the neighborhood from which the avenging gang believes an attack on them came.
One has to ask why gangsta culture is so attractive to a certain subset of young men, even when it's proven to be so dangerous. What could make young people so nihilistic? Is it a kind of depression?
One thing I have admired about the work of Mr. de la Torre's group is that it has sought to appeal to the sense of shame of the gangsters in the Pico Neighborhood, with demonstrations for peace and by individual confrontations. When these gang members take mayhem and violence to Venice or Mar Vista, the mayhem and violence come back to Pico "with a vengeance."
Non-gang members absorb the brunt of that violence; not only the victims like Eddie Lopez in 2006 or Richard Juarez last week, but also their families. Each time there is another murder imagine how the pain must resonate with all the families who have lost sons in years past.
But then shame is not likely the strongest emotion these young men have. That young African-American man, William Charles McKillian Jr., was killed around 3:30 Tuesday afternoon in an alley in Venice. We don't know yet if the two murders were connected, but can you imagine what emotions gripped other young men in Venice who may have felt that the attack on him was an attack on them?
And go back a step; what emotions gripped the man or men who shot William McKillian? Were they avenging something we don't even know about? Were they from Santa Monica?
For at least a decade there have been peace marches after these gang murders and community leaders have sought to make the gangsters aware of the pain they cause, but the violence continues (although we cannot quantify the effect of successful interventions with particular young men).
It's a hard subculture to dislodge and neutralize, as it's part of our urban history. There's been a lot of violence in American history -- everything from the Indian Wars to lynching to gun-toting criminals -- but gangs are a particular phenomenon.
Going back to the Irish and Chinese in the mid-19th century, the Italians and Jews at beginning of the 20th, and African-Americans and Puerto Ricans in the mid-20th, some small percentage of poor rural immigrants to American cities become involved in violent criminal gangs.
The word that comes to mind is atavistic: "relating to or displaying the kind of behavior that seems to be a product of impulses long since suppressed by society's rules."
You would think by now our society would have found ways to deal with these impulses, but it's always been easy to classify gangs as someone else's problem. Santa Monica is not big enough to have "someone else's problem."
But then, I wonder like everyone else what to do.
I hope to see a lot of readers tonight at the Annenberg Community Beach House where I'm giving a reading from my book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal. For information and to RSVP, go to: http://beachculture19.eventbrite.com/
But to show that there's a lot more to do in Santa Monica on any given Monday night than listen to an author read from his book, and if you don't want to hear me, I can recommend an event at the Main Library tonight as well.
It's a panel discussion on how to plan a "sustainable city." The panelists are Santa Monica Planning Commissioner Gwynne Pugh, Dimitris Klapsis, an architect and currently the chair of the Pacific Regional Task Force for LEED for Neighborhood Development, and Santa Monica Planning Director Eileen Fogarty. The discussion takes place in the multi-purpose room of the main library, 601 Santa Monica Blvd., from 6:30 to 8:30.
Also I must happily take note of a new resource that's become available for anyone interested in Santa Monica's history. The earliest years of Santa Monica's longtime local newspaper, The Santa Monica Outlook, from 1875 to 1913, are now available online through the Santa Monica Public Library's website . You can read more about the collection at Local History Online," October 28, 2009 .