As Killings Ebb and Flow, Fear Keeps Its Grip on South L.A.

As Killings Ebb and Flow, Fear Keeps Its Grip on South L.A.
Residents watch the smallest detail, for the wrong word or clothing can spark a gang killing. Heartbreakingly, such care often isn’t enough.
By Jeff Gottlieb and Anthony McCartney
Times Staff Writers

November 25 2002

As Los Angeles’ murder count climbed to 612 for the year, South Los Angeles experienced a bit of a respite over the weekend. But it didn’t matter, the rhythm of life south of the Santa Monica Freeway was long ago altered by gang killings, which ebb and flow but never stop.

Two of the six slain in the city since early Saturday died in South-Central, which has suffered the most in the recent rise in street violence. As police wrapped the area in a quilt of black and whites, the residents of South Los Angeles spoke of another toll with which they are intimately familiar: the one exacted on the smallest details of ordinary life.

Where they go, what they wear, what they say, how loudly they play their car stereo: All are infused with — and circumscribed by — fear of an unexpected bullet. On peaceful looking, palm-lined streets, residents hurry inside when the light fades. They try not to draw attention. This is the way it is and has been for years.

On Western Avenue on Sunday, 41-year-old Cheryl B. said the recent spate of violence is alarming but not surprising. “I believe it’s getting worse, but that’s because of poverty,” she said as she sat in front of a discount gift shop she manages. “A lot of people out here are homeless, jobless, futureless, and that leads to rebelliousness, resistance. You got so many kids out here acting crazy, wanting to flex some muscle. They don’t have respect for life.”

When Cheryl, who was born and raised in South L.A., hears of the latest street killings, she reminds herself of the first commandment of day-to-day living: Don’t leave the house at night “unless mandatory, unless you just can’t prevent it …. I like to stay planted or stationary,” said Cheryl, who asked that her last name not be used.

Way of Life

It’s a way of life — paranoia, fear — that Cheryl B. said wasn’t always part of the South L.A. fabric. “I was here before the gang violence, the red and the blue. This used to be a good town. Now it’s like a lot of people who came from the South or back East, they’re going back home.”

Shopping at the farmers market near Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue, Sufia Giza talked of a recent night, when she was headed to a market to buy bottled water. Gunfire crackled and she did what South Los Angeles residents routinely do when they hear that sound. She dropped to the floor. As quiet returned and she started out the door, her brother asked her incredulously: “What are you doing? When the shooting stops, they’re reloading.”

She stayed inside. “I needed water that night, and I couldn’t get it,” said Giza, 41, who lives near Vernon and Vermont avenues.

Born in Riverside, Giza moved to South Los Angeles several years ago to teach and “do something positive.” She puzzles over why the nation is so preoccupied with international terrorism when there is so much random violence in its cities.

“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t see why we have to go across the sea to fight a war on terrorism when we’re being terrorized here,” said Giza, who is preparing to move to West Africa, partly to fulfill a dream — but also because she wants to live without fear.

Timothy Watkins Sr., president of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, said his Central Avenue center tries to offer a safe haven for children and teenagers. They shuttle kids to the center in vans so they don’t have to walk the streets. They drive older teens to junior college so they don’t have to risk standing at a bus stop. They pack the center’s cupboards with juice, snacks and fruit to lure youngsters off dangerous corners.

But in the end, they cannot shield their charges.

“It was almost midnight and I hear a gun — five shots,” wrote an 11-year-old boy in a school essay that Watkins read from. “The next day I got up to go to school and they had killed my neighbor. His stairs were full of blood.”

As the child left for class in the morning, he saw police remove a white sheet from the corpse. “He was pale. He was my neighbor. He never bothered anybody.”

Watkins said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton is right to tell Angelenos to be angry about the killings.

“Every day someone down here — a child, a child’s parent, a child’s sibling — is losing their life. We should be besides ourselves over it,” Watkins said. “But the propensity and frequency of killings is numbing to the collective psyche of Los Angeles. It’s like it is something that we have just decided to live with.”

As teenage males, Michael Pye and his friend John Wilson abide by stringent codes of conduct and dress — not to be cool, but to avoid being shot.

Don’t wear blue and red, said Pye, 17, as he and Wilson, 15, stopped on their way to a Sunday morning service at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, in the Crenshaw area. Wear black or gray; neutral colors that will not attract attention. “Don’t wear loud colors, no yellow. If you do, make sure you are going to a place with a lot of security or people,” Pye said, adding that jewelry or attention-grabbing sneakers are also no-nos.

Once out the door, know where you are going, they instructed. Avoid side streets, stick to main thoroughfares and don’t look tough. “You can’t look too hard [at anyone]. Don’t mad-dog anyone,” Wilson said.

Rules of Survival

If, despite all those precautions, someone approaches you, pick your words carefully. “Certain slang can get you in trouble,” Pye said. The same rules apply to music. Certain songs in certain parts of town invite trouble. Don’t crank up your car stereo so much it drowns out somebody else’s. They may take it as the ultimate offense, a sign of disrespect.

Pye and Wilson resent having to live this way, but they know that if they don’t, they could die. “It’s not fair,” Pye said. “But there’s never anybody who steps up and does anything about it.”

The ravages of gang violence observe no borders. In Athens, just a few blocks from South-Central, the Rev. M. Andrew Robinson-Gaither of the Faith United Methodist Church scans the block when he pulls up to his house after dark. “When I come home late at night, I don’t get out of my car until there are no vehicles moving on the street,” he said.

People in the neighborhood talk about the man who was killed at the bus stop or the guy fatally shot while sitting on his lawnmower. They pass on a rumor that there are more weapons on the street because gangbangers raided a train filled with guns in Watts.

Walking down Hobart Boulevard, Robinson-Gaither stops at Mary Wilson’s house. Like nearly all the homes in the neighborhood, it is well-kept, with a tidy frontyard. Except for the bars on the windows of every house, this could be a middle-class neighborhood almost anywhere in Southern California.

Two months ago, Wilson’s 14-year-old son was riding his bike outside the house when five gangbangers drove past in a car and shot him in the head. He died a few hours later. It was a case of mistaken identity, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies told her.

Wilson had just asked her daughter to call in her brother, since the day was turning to night. “I don’t allow my kids out out after dark,” said Wilson, a beautician. “I told them nighttime is when evil comes out.”

Next thing she knew, bullets were flying into her house and Leonard Dean Gilmore Jr. was dying on the sidewalk.

“He was a baby,” she said, holding back tears. “He was into cartoons. Even though it’s been two months that my son is gone, my heart is still in pain. It’s still fresh in my heart as a mother.”

Many in the community, which is patrolled by the county Sheriff’s Department, complain about the lack of deputies in the neighborhood. But residents are ambivalent about deputies. They want more of them on the street to curb gang activity, but they are wary because of the way officers have treated blacks in the past.

Robinson-Gaither said the LAPD’s crackdown on gangs is misdirected. “I’m projecting you will see massive violations of civil rights, which will alienate people,” he said. “That’s what you saw in New York, but in New York, the politicians turned their head because the crime rate was going down.”

As Sgt. Shannon Allan began her noon-to-midnight shift Saturday in the 77th Street Division, she worried that “It’s going to be hot tonight.”

But the expected carnage never came, perhaps because 15 extra officers on loan were crisscrossing the 77th in unmarked cars. So Allan spent most of her shift doing the small things.

Six Killings

When she spotted officers questioning several suspects near a liquor store, she stopped to see if she could help. Ten people had been traveling in two cars. When officers searched one vehicle, they found two handguns and arrests were made. “This definitely saved somebody’s life tonight,” a satisfied Allen said.

The city’s homicide count rose to 612 over the weekend as six more people were killed, three by gang members. Two fatalities were in South-Central, the rest were scattered from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro.

The toll is the highest since 1996, when there were 707 homicides. The city’s record was in 1992, when 1,092 people were killed, or three a day. The low of 419 was recorded four years ago.

“It’s the same old, same old,” Syelester Jackson, 44, of South Los Angeles said of the recent murder spike. Asked if Bratton’s proposal to add 3,000 officers to the LAPD would make a difference, he replied, “How about 3,000 more schools?”

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