For Safe Parks, Put Gangs on the Peace Path
Editorial Page, January 20, 1992
When I was a teen-ager in East Los Angeles, gangs were a part of my everyday life, just as they are a part of the landscape in neighborhoods throughout Southern California today.The situation is worse now than then; more than 700 gang homicides in 1991 are proof enough. Even then, though, gang violence touched the lives of many in my community.My memories have been brought into sharp focus since I decided last month to be the plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit to invalidate an ordinance that bars alleged gang members from Las Palmas Park in the city of San Fernando.
The lawsuit ushered in the latest phase of this controversy, which began last summer when Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner selected San Fernando’s park problem as a focus for his political ambitions. The day the suit was filed, the city of Pomona enacted a Reiner-promoted clone of the ordinance.
A Los Angeles City Council committee is considering a similar measure. Last week, the Board of Supervisors ordered a study of how the concept might be applied countywide.
Such ordinances simultaneously do violence to the Constitution and create the illusion of action when they actually accomplish very little. They are based on the cynical premise that gang violence can be eliminated by legislating it out of sight.
Families have a right to visit our parks without being attacked by gangs. Children have a right to play in safety. These rights are as sacrosanct as any spelled out in our Constitution.But ordinances like those that bar whole categories of people from parks don’t, in the long term, make our public spaces safer. They condemn young people of color to arrest or harassment on the basis of how they dress or wear their hair. Some of them will be gang members; many will not.
These ordinances only lull us into a false sense of security and do little of substance to stem the violence in our communities.
My experience is that, while there are hardened criminals in gangs, they are a very small proportion of the people broad-brushed as gang members. Many of the young people who associate with gangs do so because the communities in which they grow up offer few alternatives and almost no way out.
If there were one solution for the complex of problems that manifests itself as gang violence, it would be jobs — some-thing that holds out the promise of hope and a future.
Unfortunately, in today’s economic climate, such talk is easy to dismiss as utopian. But there are other measures that could be taken to stem this useless violence. That is why, when we decided to file the lawsuit over Las Palmas Park, we incorporated some practical, constitutionally acceptable, short-term steps that would address legitimate community fears. Among our proposals:
- Establishment of a two-officer police substation at the park, a prototype for community policing in San Fernando.
- More-effective gang intervention programs and a serious attempt at using mediation to defuse the conflict between the gangs at war over the park.
- Better coordination between the police and the probation department.
- And, as simple as it may seem, increasing park lighting and replacing burned-out lights.
These are serious proposals for action that would go further to stop gang violence than Reiner’s quick-fix, election year ordinances. However, even these proposals are short-term.
As our cities and counties debate this issue, reasonable people will differ as to the best approach. But they must recognize that we’re in a crisis that involves a lot more than safe parks. The violence in Las Palmas Park and in the parks and streets throughout Los Angeles County will continue as long as we accept half-hearted, do-nothing solutions — as long as we commit another generation of our young people to a hopeless future with little to do but self-destruct.