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Youth Center Demands Grassroots Answer to Santa Monica Violence

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Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

June 24, 2013 -- The Pico Youth & Family Center (PYFC) -- which is facing budget cuts from the City Tuesday -- is calling for a grassroots response to the youth violence that errupted in Santa Monica earlier this month.

High school students and activists from Santa Monica and nearby neighborhoods crowded into the front room of the center Thursday for a forum that was as much a brainstorming session on how to address youth violence as it was a call to rally behind the center, which could lose its City grant of more than $300,000 over allegations of mismanagement

“We have to have courageous conversations,” said Oscar de la Torre, the center’s founder and interim director. Standing before a panel that included gang-member-turned-activist Melvin Hayward and former state senator Tom Hayden, de la Torre called for the City to deal with youth violence by dealing with “social conditions.”

Oscas de la Torre speaks on camera at the Pico Youth & Family Center
Oscar de La Torre at The Pico Youth & Family Center. Photos by Jason Islas

Torre – who stood in front of larger-than-life paintings of the faces of Malcolm X and Caesar Chavez and surrounded by scenes of revolution and slogans – drew applause with his next lines.

“On one side of the city, parents are worried about their children going to Yale,” he said. “On the other side of the city, parents are worried about their children going to jail.”

Thursday's forum came just two days after the City announced that, in the wake of three shootings that have left seven Santa Monicans dead and as many injured, it would “shift” its approach toward dealing with youth violence by offering more support for mental health and families.

Young man speaks at the Pico Youth & Family Center
The Pico Youth & Family Center

It also came just days before the City Council decides whether to continue funding the nonprofit when it votes on the City's 2013-2014 budget Tuesday. City staff, which has had a long, contentious -- and at times, openly hostile -- relationship with the center, is recommending reducing funding to a maximum of $225,000. (“Youth Center Leader and Santa Monica Staff Have Long History of Tense Relations,” January 7, 2013)

“In light of the recent series of tragic events in the community, staff feel that this is not the time to reduce youth services or close doors,” staff wrote in its report to the council.

“By providing this funding, the PYFC will serve as a safe place for youth in the form of a drop-in and referral center, while enabling the PYFC Board to pursue its intended transition plan for the Center, including securing ongoing non-city funding,” staff said.

While the panel discussed establishing a youth commission and hosting a monthly community forum, much of the conversation Thursday focused on criticizing the City for its attempts to defund the center over what it alleges has been continual administrative and accounting problems. (“Santa Monica Youth Center Given Final Ultimatum,” May 21, 2013)

“Don't tell us that there's no dot on the 'i' in the report,” said Richard Juarez, his voice rising to a shout as he spoke.

Juarez was just one of many long-time residents of the Pico Neighborhood -- one of Santa Monica's poorest and the bayside city's epicenter for gang violence -- who spoke at te forum.

He is related to two Pico Neighborhood boys who were killed in a 1998 gang war that left four dead and sparked a wave of community protests that led to the founding of the PYFC.

The most recent killings -- the first the beachside city has seen since 2009 -- started on June 7 with a murderous rampage by 23-year-old John Zawahri that left six dead, including the gunman. Two unrelated shootings -- on June 9 and June 11 -- left two critically wounded and one dead. While Zawahri's spree was not gang-related, the other two shootings were.

“It feels like being at the bottom of the hill again,” said Hayden, who held a community forum after the 1998 killings.

Community forum at the Pico Youth & Family Center in Santa Monica
Meeting at the Pico Youth & Family Center in Santa Monica.

Hayden likened the struggle against youth and gang violence to the legend of Sisyphus, an ancient king who was made by the gods to push a boulder up a mountain for all eternity only to have it roll back down each time he reached the top.

“The only thing we can do is keep pushing the rock because pushing the rock makes us stronger,” he said.

Many of the speakers at Thursday's forum -- including de la Torre -- called on the audience to turn out in force at Tuesday's budget vote to speak for the youth center.

“PYFC is our community's best response” to the violence, de la Torre said, because it is “culturally relevant.”

“And yet, our City government, City staff and the City manager are recommending taking funding away,” he said.

Council member Ted Winterer attended Thursday’s forum.

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