That other red/blue divide

Caille Millner
SF Chronicle
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

GANGS are dead. Long live gangs.

Where you live in California determines which of those statements you believe right now. Not because either of them is false — simply because the amount of media attention, public outrage and funding for gang abatement and prevention programs is as cyclical as the moon. That moon is waxing in Southern California and waning in Northern California, which is good news for Northern California’s gangs and politicians. Whether or not it’s good for public safety is another matter.

It appears 2007 is the year of the gangs in Southern California, especially Los Angeles. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton have declared war on them, just as then-Police Chief Daryl Gates did throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Their latest plan calls for 200 extra officers to target 11 specific gangs, a new South Los Angeles gang homicide bureau and an LAPD gang coordinator. They’re getting help at the federal level: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced a comprehensive bill to establish new crimes, tougher penalties and provide more than $1 billion over five years for gang enforcement and prevention programs.

They’re also getting help at the street level: Gangs are on everyone’s mind in Los Angeles. Last month, members of a Latino gang in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood shot and killed a 14-year-old African American girl who rode her scooter too close to what they considered Latinos-only territory. The despicable crime has launched new city studies, plans, public outcry and an avalanche of stories in the Los Angeles Times. It has whipped the entire city into a froth unseen since … well, since 1995, when Stephanie Kuhen’s family turned onto the wrong street in northeast Los Angeles and gang members shot and killed the 3-year-old girl.

“It’s strange,” said Alex Alonso, owner of “Los Angeles is actually on a down cycle, believe it or not, from a gang perspective. In 2002, there were 372 gang-related murders in the city of L.A. Last year, there were 266. But it takes an unusual event to make people go crazy.”

By “go crazy,” Alonso meant public furor and police crackdowns, which create friction and also work, sometimes, for a little while.

But not long enough.

“It’s a very, very difficult thing to police,” said Joseph McNamara, San Jose’s former police chief. “You have to have an alternative to gang membership, because they offer a sense of belonging, a sense of security and a sense of esteem. Those are basic human values that we all look to organizations for.”

But I have to applaud Los Angeles for focusing on the issue again, regardless of motive, regardless of the city’s chance for success. I wish I could say the same thing about Northern California’s attitude toward a problem that has continues to carry on, quietly, in our midst. Sure, the word “gang” gets thrown around here from time to time — often in conjunction with a murder in the Bayview neighborhood that the San Francisco Police Department can’t solve, or in a phrase to describe the untraveled places we drive past on Highway 580. But it has been years since the cities and towns of Northern California talked about the issue of gangs with urgency.

Why? It’s not because gangs haven’t gone away. They’re not quite as obvious as they were back in the 1990s, for sure — growing up in San Jose, I remember when the school districts joined together to prohibit students from wearing red or blue, not that those of us who were unprotected losers such as me had worn either of those colors for years, anyway. But the kids who had decided, whether out of loyalty or out of necessity, that this was the life they were going to lead, have just gotten smarter since then. Many of them have gone to jail and sharpened their skills. In the meantime, the gangs have grown leaner and meaner. If we don’t talk about them anymore, it’s because they want it that way.

“Gangs are more of a problem in Northern California today than they have been traditionally,” said Allwyn Brown, a sergeant for the Richmond Police Department. “Every law and rule we’ve made up, they’ve found a way to get around it. The ones who are involved in serious criminal activity have moved under the radar and gotten careful about how many members they have and how they do their business. And the next generation coming up is in thrall to a popular culture that glorifies the gang lifestyle. So there you go.”

Gangs are dead. Long live gangs.

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