Battle for Los Angeles

It has 400 gangs, 62,000 gang members, and one enormous headache. Now LA's authorities are getting tough, and the civil-liberties activists are up in arms against new legislation which they claim turns suspects into marked men
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Ruben Gonzalez makes no secret of being a gang member. Tattoos seared across his back identify him as one of the Langdon Street gang, one of the toughest in Los Angeles, which controls the drug trade in the steaming heart of the smog-ridden San Fernando Valley.

A few weeks ago, Ruben (not his real name) got out of prison after a six-month stretch for possession and went looking for a job. This was not out of a simple desire to reform; his parole officer had said that if he didn't find work within a month, he could expect to be locked up again.

But then Ruben discovered that he had been named in an anti-gang injunction - the latest weapon of the city attorney's office - making his Langdon Street affiliation a matter of public notoriety and severely curbing his ability to walk the streets of his North Hills neighbourhood or meet his friends in public.

Such injunctions - court orders that effectively subject groups of named individuals to a kind of martial law within their own neighbourhoods - are growing increasingly popular in gang-ridden city districts across the United States, and nowhere more so than in Los Angeles, with its 400- odd gangs and an estimated 62,000 gang members. They are also chillingly effective, as Ruben rapidly discovered.

He advertised his services as a gardener, but because of the injunction nobody would hire him. He applied for a job on a building site through a company that expressed willingness to hire ex-convicts. The company said it would get back to him after checking his records, but it never did.

And in North Hills, he says, he is in effect a marked man. Whenever the police see him, even if he is obeying the terms of the injunction, they warn him to stay away. A few days ago he was heading towards a gym run by the local United Methodist church, when two officers blocked his path and told him to leave. "They said: `If we see you again we're going to take your ass out of there. You don't belong here'," Ruben recalls.

Another policeman, he claims, stopped him and threatened to arrest him for having stolen the watch that he was wearing. In another incident, he and a friend were thrown to the ground and slapped around by police outside a 7-Eleven store on Sepulveda Boulevard.

All of which poses the question: if, as they claim, the authorities hope gang members can be persuaded to reform, and respect the rule of law, is this really the best way of going about it?

Los Angeles has just passed its 10th injunction - against 35 alleged gang members in the largely African-American Oakwood district, just inland from Venice Beach - and the LA County board of supervisors is considering whether to introduce a blanket ban against loitering in key areas. The city and the police love injunctions because they offer the chance to be seen doing something concrete to keep miscreants off the streets. They are also popular with middle-class voters who are sick of Los Angeles' record of street fighting, drive-by shootings and murderous revolt among its urban poor.

But civil liberties activists are outraged at what they see as an infringement of the basic rights of assembly and freedom of movement. Community groups in the bad neighbourhoods are equally furious, arguing that branding individuals as gang members will alienate them further, and increase local tension.

"They just want to pound us with the police," says Rev Jim Hamilton, the priest at the Methodist Church in North Hills, which provides just about the only recreational and community-service facilities available to young people in the area. "We could turn so many kids' lives around, if only they took our work seriously instead of pushing so hard to criminalise people."

The terms of the injunctions vary, but generally they prevent known gang members from standing, sitting or walking together in public, impose a night-time curfew, and ban them from carrying mobile phones or pagers.

In North Hills, an impoverished area on the unfashionable eastern side of the San Diego Freeway, where immigrants from Central America tend to settle when they first arrive, the injunction imposed at the end of May has left the community in a virtual state of siege, even though most of the 37 people named are already in jail.

"The police come and harass the people selling shoes on the street, and the ice-cream vendors operating out of vans," Rev Hamilton says. "They make random arrests."

Rev Hamilton's social worker colleague, Evelio Franco, tried to intervene recently when, according to his account, police slammed the face of a young ice-cream vendor against the sizzlingly hot bonnet of his van and held it there. When Franco demanded to know what the vendor had done wrong, the police first warned him off and then slapped him in handcuffs.

The authorities have reason to feel frustrated in North Hills, but the area is hardly a model of community policing. Orion Street, the road that leads directly off the freeway, is known as "drive-thru drug boulevard" because doctors, lawyers, estate agents and other customers from the more affluent western San Fernando Valley pick up their dope there before speeding back up the ramp on to the eight-lane highway.

The road is flat and empty, making it easy to spot any approaching police. According to Ruben Gonzalez, the Langdon Street gang leaders don't even do the selling themselves; they merely rent out spots along Orion Street to pushers from outside the area, and take a cut of the profits.

Rev Hamilton and others claim that the police - many of whom are rookies trying to prove themselves to their superiors - are not afraid to plant evidence and invent charges to pick up young people who they feel sure are involved in gang activity, but can never catch in the act. It's an allegation that is made time and time again across Los Angeles; one former prosecutor in the district attorney's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that trumped up charges and police plants were a near- daily occurrence in the drugs cases she handled in impoverished East LA, and so depressed her that she decided to leave.

The picture is somewhat less bleak in Oakwood, home of the Venice Shoreline Crips, which as recently as two years ago was the scene of 13 murders in a bloody confrontation between the African-American Crips and their Latino rivals, the Culver City Boys. The neighbourhood borders on some of the most desirable beach-side property in the city, and has slowly been improving thanks to community efforts and the creation of community centres and a nursery school by the city council.

Crime in Oakwood, once considered the murder capital of the United States, is now largely restricted to drug sales - with black gang members doing the selling but affluent whites doing the buying. Here, the main complaint about the impending injunction is racism. "How come the police come to harass us when they leave the white guys alone? If you're white you can carry rocks of cocaine on you and nothing will happen. If you're black, you know if you step out of line they's gonna bust your ass," says Melvyn Hayward, a long-time social activist in Oakwood, who runs the Vera Davis community centre.

Hayward and others suspect that the injunction is largely aimed at clearing out the black population altogether, so that Oakwood can more easily be gentrified. He is also concerned about a possible branding effect on those who are named in the injunction - in the last two years he has found jobs for several dozen ex-convicts, but is not at all sure that he will be able to maintain that success rate if his proteges are named as gang members.

The situation in Oakwood, meanwhile, has become highly politicised by the involvement of the Nation of Islam, which has paid for two lawyers to try to shoot down the recent injunction. When pushed, Hayward even admitted that the threat of an injunction had been effective in scaring hard-core gang members away from the area. But the Nation of Islam appears to be determined to use the issue against the white establishment in the broadest possible terms.

The white establishment, meanwhile, has its own agenda. It may be no coincidence that the city attorney, Jim Hahn, has ambitions to run for mayor of Los Angeles in 2001. The police department, too, wants to prove its worth, and justify the $12m annual budget that is devoted to anti- gang activities.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the injunctions is that they offer a judicial solution to what is a multifaceted issue, rooted in poverty and social despair. Both Rev Hamilton in North Hills and Melvyn Hayward in Oakwood point out that even a fraction of the money spent on law enforcement, the courts and the prison system could go a long way towards solving the problems, especially in the present economic boom cycle. "Once you are put in the gang straitjacket, it stays on for ever," Hayward says.

"That means you are going to be arrested over and over. And prison just makes people meaner and meaner."