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Los Angeles Gangs's Rumbles of Reform

By Marshall IngwersonStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1981

Los Angeles

His eyes are everywhere but on the stranger he's talking to. He talks quietly, answers in few words or none -- until under his breath he says, as if it were something to be ready for, an event: "Here comes Jay."

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Jay Jimenez, this young gang member explains, is respected. At 21, Jay wears six bullet wounds and a tapestry of tattoos commemorating Jesus, la vida locam (the crazy life), and the Cypress Park Boys -- his neighborhood gang.

He's no Mohandas Gandhi. But where Jay goes, other gang members are likely to follow. And he's tired of shooting and getting shot at. He's talking peace these days -- and high school equivalency exams and jobs.

Society -- that is, the Los Angeles county government -- may have finally connected with Jay Jimenez.

The point is to stop the gangs' forays that riddle the barrio with gunfire out of a twisted, petty pride.

How much gang violence has increased in the last few years is controversial. The Los Angeles Police Department recorded 192 gang-related murders last year in the city alone, up from 115 the year before. The whole county logged 351. So far this year the county shows a 46 percent increase over the same period last year.

Some call this growth rate exaggerated, suspecting shifts in how murders are classified as gang-related. But gang violence is clearly growing more violent, more lethal, more impersonal.

The air on a quiet evening in El Sereno, a hilly neighborhood in Los Angeles, is tainted with memories of recent violence. An unmarked police car cruises at a walking pace by a white house with a porch. Seven or eight red embers glow there in the dark. One can just make out the faint outlines of white T-shirts in the background.

The people in the car and those on the porch watch each other. Warm night, chilly silence. A few nights before, another car drove by and someone in the back seat shot two girls sitting on this porch. These El Sereno gang members, or "homeboys," gathered in the shadow watch everything very closely.

The officer at the wheel cruising through El Sereno can name names in better light, and he has pretty good idea of who the vatos locosm are -- the "crazy guys" -- who shoot at rival gang members, into their houses, into their cars. Roughtly half the time they kill a random bystander. This cop will bust them any chance he gets.

The homeboys on the porch watch the patrol car and see in the policeman just another member of a different gang, one who singles them out, harasses them, shines his searchlight at them as they talk, and backs up his colleagues right or wrong -- "just like we do." Sometimes they throw rocks and bottles at this passing intruder in their neighborhood.

The chasm between the porch and the cruiser runs deep enough that men 20 years beyond their own gang days, and working to stop the violence themselves, still call the police "just another gang."

At the same time, there has for years been a constellation of agencies, groups, funds, adn jurisdictions that have scoffed at and ignored one another, despite a common interest in stopping the violence. Now some first, probing lines are being tosses to pull these different groups together. The most embattled gap lies between the police, who are concerned with beating down violent crime, and the community groups trying to ease the problems that lead to it.

Gang violence centers in the barrio. Here, where doors and windows are left open in the evening to cool the house and the kids gather outside, gang pride is the sour counterpart of strong neighborhood feeling. The vitality here shows, even if the overcrowding doesn't. It shows in the yards full of roses, geraniums, yucca, palms, and in small, well-cut lawns. Chicken-scratch poverty with badly flaking house paint mixes with fresh and brightly colored little Mediterraneanstyle haciendas.

Chicano communities are not only some of the most tightly knit and proud in this country, they are also some of the most well-insulated and cut-off from mainstream America, according to Joan W. Moore, a sociologist considered an expert on Chicano gangs.