Moving to unite blacks and Latinos in a neighborhood plagued by fear

Activists enter turf in Harbor Gateway claimed by a gang linked to a girl’s racist killing.

By Robert J. Lopez
Times Staff Writer

January 7, 2007

As he stood across the street from where a 14-year-old girl was slain in the Harbor Gateway area of Los Angeles, Ruben Villarreal took a chance Saturday.

When community activists came to his home, he agreed to sign up his family for a mentoring program to bring African American and Latino families together.

In many places, residents of the working-class community wouldn’t think twice about such programs. But in this narrow strip of the city, which connects South Los Angeles to the harbor area, Latino gang members have targeted blacks as well as Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants.

“It’s getting worse,” said Villarreal, who has lived in his single-story home near 206th Street and Harvard Boulevard for 30 years. “We have to try something.”

So went the second weekend of community actions in Harbor Gateway, where Latino gang members last month fatally shot Cheryl Green, an African American middle-school student who dreamed of becoming a doctor and delivering babies.

Saturday’s event came one day after police announced the arrest of a second reputed gang member in connection with the racially motivated killing.

Green’s mother, Charlene Lovett, said she hoped the arrest was the beginning of efforts to bring families together, black and Latino. As it stands, African American residents stick to well-defined boundaries out of fear of crossing into turf claimed by the 204th Street gang.

“We should be able to live in peace and not fear that someone is going to attack us because of the color of our skin,” Lovett said.

The mentoring program is sponsored by community activist Najee Ali, director of an organization called Project Islamic Hope. The idea, he said, is to promote understanding and build bridges by arranging for field trips to places such as the African American and Latino cultural museums.

“It’s about unity and working together,” Ali said.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the area, helped lead the group as they knocked on doors. She said she planned to arrange for bus transportation and help acquire tickets for various events.

But the racial divide and challenges of bringing the communities together were evident even before the group canvassed the neighborhood. At a brief news conference, Hahn was joined by several dozen supporters — only three of them Latino. Just one, Leroy Martinez, lived in the neighborhood.

Asked why there weren’t more Latinos present, Martinez summed it up in one word: “Fear.”

Two black-and-white LAPD cruisers from the nearby Harbor Division hovered around the group. But Martinez noted that their presence was only temporary.

“Who is going to protect us from the gang members once they leave?” he asked.

Hahn agreed, saying she has asked the division to provide more patrols and to restore the neighborhood’s lead officer, who is assigned to work with residents to solve problems. The position has been vacant for two months. The councilwoman also said she had asked the city attorney’s office to seek a court injunction that would restrict activities of alleged gang members.

“We have got to come down hard on criminals,” Hahn said.

Shortly before noon, the group neared a small market in the heart of the gang’s territory — long considered off limits to blacks — and ventured inside to buy some snacks. As she left the store, Lovett said she felt a sense of relief.

“It’s a shame that it took six years for me to come here,” she said. “But I’m glad I did it.”

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