`Frontline' probe of fear and force in gang violence never gets to problem's root

Over a year ago, the PBS series ``Frontline'' traveled to Los Angeles to look in on a story that was making national headlines. Seventy-two-year-old James Hawkins Sr. and his family had turned their home and grocery store in the Watts section of the city into an armed camp. Hawkins's son, James Jr., had shot and killed a gang member from a project across the street. James Hawkins Jr. said that the young man's own gun had gone off in a struggle during a robbery attempt.

The gang from the Nickerson Gardens project across Imperial Highway was having none of that. They came, armed and shooting across the street, and the Hawkins family returned fire. Nor was the situation expected to ease. In fact, two of the Hawkins's businesses were soon firebombed.

``You do not kill a blood and expect to have no retaliation,'' one gang expert, himself a former member, testified. ``They are going to come back. That's the bottom line. . . . It's just a matter of time before they catch one of them slipping. . . . They gonna bury him.''

By the time ``Frontline'' arrived on the scene, Mr. Hawkins's picture was plastered across the front page of the Los Angeles Times. He was depicted in the media generally as a hero. And the program attempted to pick up the story and follow it as it unfolded, in the streets and in the courts where, among other things, James Hawkins Jr. was charged with murder in connection with the shooting that started the whole affair.

The resulting episode, ``Warning From Gangland,'' which just aired again last week as ``Shootout on Imperial Highway, Part I'' treated the story very much as a local television station might have, as ``good vid,'' with lots of shoot-'em-up stuff, and stories about gangs that would be fascinating, in a terrifying kind of way, for middle-class white America, which wouldn't have much firsthand knowledge of the subject.

The distinct impression was that we were sitting on the law-and-order side of that highway looking at a no-man's land into which police go only in groups of five and six. The program's brief forays into the community for interviews did little to lessen this impression.

Now, ``Frontline'' has produced Shootout on Imperial Highway, Part II (PBS, Tueday, Jan. 29, 9-10 p.m.) . Here, we talk at length with gang members and their attorneys, one of whom was a former gang member. We go inside the ghetto again for further interviews. We also gain further evidence that the story may not be as one-sided as it might appear. And we follow the court process to its conclusion.

But do we follow it to its origins?

The episode opens with the questions: Who are these people? Why do they join gangs? And, indeed, we do meet children and adults who begin to sketch for us the terror and pressure of growing up in a place like Nickerson Gardens. The picture they give is simple and graphic, best summed up in the words of one young boy who stands shyly before the camera and says, ``Yeah, I'm afraid. I'm afraid. I'm afraid.''

With rare exceptions, the only thing that draws the attenton of the national media to a community like Watts is riots or gang violence. This program is no different. It presents violent confrontation as the razor's edge between the black-Hispanic-Asian ghetto and white America. That's what brought the program here. This, they are saying, is the ``frontline'' within Watts itself.

We can only wonder if they are wrong, if perhaps the real frontline might not be in the kitchens and playgrounds and schools where life is played out here. It would have been nice had ``Frontline'' brought us to Watts to see how a family tries to hold its values and its survival together, how one kid struggles to get an education. Maybe, in the process, we might have discovered some of the elements in the social soup that breeds gangs.

But that doesn't seem to be what they were after.

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