Over 300 people gathered at John Adams Middle School last Saturday to grapple with the issue of gang violence.
Prompted by a gang-related drive-by shooting last September across the street from the Edison Language Academy’s playground, the community workshop was sponsored by the City of Santa Monica and State Senator Sheila Kuehl.
Mayor Pam O’Connor opened the workshop by saying that “everyone of us has to feel a personal sense of responsibility if we’re going to succeed to get our at-risk kids successfully out of the line of fire and into productive adulthood. The end goal [today] is to build a consensus of key strategies than can make a positive impact on the course of a young person’s life.”
O’Connor concluded her remarks by calling for the creation of an “action plan” to be implemented over the next two years.
“This is an important issue not only for the City of Santa Monica but for the whole state,” Kuehl said, and then noted the diversity of the workshop participants, who ranged from students and parents to Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Santa Monica College officials and teachers to business people and representatives from non-profits and the Santa Monica Police Department to county probation and law enforcement officers. “That’s what it takes to stop gang violence, a whole community working together,” Kuehl said.
A video on youth in the Pico Neighborhood, “What’s Going On?” was then screened, after which people were invited to take part in one of six discussion groups.
Strategies discussed included mentoring by ex-gang members and others, educational programs, parental support of youth and community support of parents, addressing problems of racism and classism, transforming community policing, using the power of gangs in positive ways, coordinating a variety of different programs, improving communication and actively involving the business community.
Those strategies will be the basis for the development of an action plan at a follow-up workshop in two weeks.
Spanish-speaking participants and young people gave the entire group more insight into the complexity of the issue by summarizing their discussions. The Spanish speakers spoke of the larger community’s habit of blaming parents for the behavior of their children, which “doesn’t take into account the socio-economic conditions that immigrant families, poor families and marginalized families are experiencing.”
They also pointed out that racism leads to a lack of opportunities for youth which in turn leads to “youth that are discriminated against, who don’t identify with society they are living in or their society of origin. They become marginalized in both.”
Spanish speakers also observed that many people in their community are depressed and their depression is “misinterpreted as violence and negativity.”
In addition, they said, some Latinos believe that “society wants to punish the Spanish-speaking, Latino and immigrant community, which are necessarily the same, rather than helping them.”
Another issue raised by them was “the dehumization of their youth,” lack of culturally relevant childcare and a lack of knowledge of what resources are available.
Finally, the Spanish speakers were concerned that there was a “lack of diversity in…teachers so [their young people] couldn’t see their own community reflected back at them.”
The young people who spoke had complaints, too, alleging that the “police are judgmental and criminalize us.” One Santa Monica High School student stated, “We’re not criminals and we don’t want to be treated as criminals. We know the police want respect and we want respect as well.”
Some young people also objected to the way history is taught, as it doesn’t connect them to their history and treats minorities as if they “weren’t there.”
Young people also called for more counselors whom they can relate to and who understand them, field trips to colleges, more cultural events, art programs and better advertising for youth oriented programs.
A panel of five experts then commented on the feasibility of the strategies developed by the group and made some suggestions of their own.
Gang expert William “Blinky” Rodriguez, Executive Director of Communities in Schools in Greater Los Angeles/San Fernando Valley, said that Santa Monica “needs ex-gang members to go out to engage the community…[and people] who understand what is relevant in the community, the dynamics of the gang and the culture of the gang who can begin to create relationships.”
Former State Senator Tom Hayden, whose most recent book is Street Wars: Gangs and the Future Violence, said, “I am here to tell you gang violence is preventable. What we are facing today is a new round. There are essentially three things that are necessary to end gang violence, what I call a peace process. The first is rehabilitation by people who respect the downtrodden.” The second is jobs and the third is reforming police/community relations.
He went on to say that “We shouldn’t disproportionately arrest some people breaking laws in some communities, but not elsewhere. We should not arrest people in a manner that further humiliates them and not incarcerate people in a manner that further humiliates them and then turn them back on the street and think it’s someone else’s problem.”
The Associate Director of Youth Violence Prevention, Policy and Training at the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, Leah Aldridge, told the group a two year plan was insufficient.It should be, she said, “10 year initiative… to see if your strategy works.”
RAND behavioral scientist John McDonald said, “Poverty does not explain gang violence. There are a number of good studies out there that show conclusively neighborhood cohesiveness is the most important factor in preventing youth violence. If you’re living in a community and even if it’s poor, if your residents are willing to look out for each other, willing to acknowledge something is going wrong, willing to report not just to police but to parents problems they see, violence will be low in those types of communities. It’s trying to find the mechanisms where residents can do that. Willingness to talk to each other, to discuss problems with your neighbor is going to be more important than any social program.”
McDonald also said that young street leader programs have been tried in the past “but failed miserably. I think it’s important to involve ex-gang members in outreach, clearly. But, using existing gang members and giving them money and resources to make good is a little bit of a pie in the sky philosophy.”
Gang violence educator and management consultant Bill Martinez encouraged the utilization of the gang structure “as a positive component of this community” and “a vehicle for social change. There’s a lot guys with a lot of time and no direction” who can become resources. He also stressed “we’re not talking anti-gang, we’re talking anti-violence…because gang members are made they are not born. It’s up to our society to give them options and an understanding of what is right and wrong. One of the problems is, like it or not, we’re up against a lot of pressure on our youth that are bombarded constantly by why it’s better to do the wrong thing. I’m talking about things like MTV.” He went on to say, “Adolescents don’t think the way adults do, so peer mentors” are very important.
O’Connor closed the workshop by stating, “it’s about empowering you. It’s about moving away from the sub-culture of violence. What it really means is creating a community that has as its cornerstone, power and respect.”
The follow-up workshop at which the “Santa Monica Community Action Plan” will be developed will be held at John Adams Middle School on March 12 from 9 a.m. to noon.