IT'S like a scene from ``West Side Story'' -- only real. At the high school parking lot, the ``Rebels'' and the ``Insanity Boys'' are slugging it out, knives drawn and blades swinging. A crowd has gathered, no police.
Into the heart of the fracas drives an ivory-colored Dodge Colt -- disgorging 5-foot, 2-inch Marianne Diaz without so much as a gun, club, or police badge. She wedges herself between two fighters while her partner does the same.
The pair identify and isolate the gang leaders, get them to call off their respective members. The crowd is dispersed and sent to classes while the leaders are detained and grievances heard and mediated to a compromise. No one is hurt. No one is jailed.
For Ms. Diaz, a five-year member of the Los Angeles County Community Youth Gang Services, it's just another day in the barrio.
Diaz is leader of one of 14 special nonpolice units that daily and nightly patrol Los Angeles, often called the ``mother city of gangs'' because of its notoriety for chronic gang violence. Some Los Angeles neighborhoods ``qualify as a war zone,'' says Wes McBride, a 13-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's special gang unit, called ``Operation Safestreets.'' In the last year, in an area of 1.5 million people, there have been 13,000 reported gang-related incidents and 200 deaths. A previous year tallied 351 deaths. ``There's no [other] community in the country which loses that [many people] to gang violence,'' Mr. McBride says.
Unlike many local police, sheriffs, sheriff's deputies, and security guards who also try desperately to contain violence, Diaz wields a highly effective secret weapon: respect.
``She has a rapport with this gang community we've never been able to establish,'' says a City of Hawthorne policeman, Sgt. Roy McNally. ``It's a matter of who she is, where she's been, and [of] putting herself on the line for what she believes in.''
Diaz earns respect through her understanding, knowledge, commitment, and sacrifice. It is also born of her skill as a communicator -- smooth or rough, cool or hot, as the situation demands -- honed through years of daily contact with dozens of black, white, Hispanic, and racially mixed street gangs.
``She's a miracle in progress,'' says another police officer, Michael Heffner. He recounts stories of the many times Diaz and her unit have prevented violent retaliations after members of rival gangs have been killed. ``Right at the time of highest tension around here, she somehow manages to keep the lid from blowing off,'' he says.
Diaz is most reluctant to be singled out from among her many dedicated colleagues at Los Angeles County Community Youth Gang Services. Yet her background makes her especially qualified for her role. She was born and raised in this barrio. She knows its citizens, its law enforcers, its codes of conduct, its languages and rhythms. Armed with painful memories of her seven-year affiliation with a gang known as Los Compadres Varrio, she has dedicated her life to preventing gang violence, diverting youth from its ugly ranks, and recruiting others to her cause. In the cycle of intended or random killings and organized retaliations, her aim is to save lives, to bring peace.
``If a cop, probation officer, or judge tells them [gang members] about the wrong things they're doing, they just snap back and say, `Yeah, that's easy for you to say, you've never been there,' '' says Diaz. Having ``been there'' -- stabbed, beaten, shot at, even imprisoned briefly -- she uses her own history as the most effective tool in advising others.
Diaz herself was a ``shooter'' -- a gun-wielding member who took part in ``drive-bys,'' a technique in which an opposing gang's home or territory is sprayed randomly or intentionally with bullets. She served three years for attempted murder when two of those bullets found human targets. ``What was so senseless about it all is that none of it was personal. I was taught to hate other gangs no matter what.'' Understanding the peer pressures that led her to such hatred, and her own mental process in eventually growing away from it, she works daily to prevent impressionable youths from entering the cycle.
``The obvious tools are emotional appeals: `You want your kid to call someone else daddy?' or `You already lost one brother, you want to leave your momma without any children?' '' she says. She shows them pictures of those that have been maimed or stabbed, and cites testimony from those in prison who have wasted years of their lives. ``Many of these kids don't know they don't have to join. It helps them to hear it from somebody who did.''
Ms. Diaz once spent two weeks being trained in crisis prevention as part of a county-sponsored program. She says it taught her many techniques to use in hostage situations -- how not to provoke assailants, how to keep crowds under control, how to remain cool in times of crisis. But she points out that no situation fits a textbook, and her ability to put those techniques into practice is the result of years on the streets. ``Our past gives us lots of credibility,'' she says of herself and members of her unit who were previous gang members. ``We lived through all this, and they know we could've died many times.''
``Much of gang life violence is fueled by misinformation, rumor, which we counteract with fact whenever possible,'' she says. As she makes her five-day-a-week rounds, stopping at schools, street corners, parks, and favorite gang hangouts, Ms. Diaz and her staff have developed an information network that is the envy of local law-enforcement agencies. In no way an informant, spy, or counterspy, Diaz uses her connections to help avert disasters.
For example: A gang member, she says, was beaten up because of a drug deal gone sour, then returned to his territory too embarrassed to admit who his real attackers were. ``He blamed the rival gang, retaliations began in earnest, and the rivals had no idea why,'' she says. ``Through people we knew who saw the original attack, we were able to at least advise the other gang what was coming down,'' she says.
Her crew is also well positioned to be shuttle diplomats between warring factions who won't talk to each other. ``We don't carry messages back and forth,'' says Diaz's partner, Rahsan Coming, ``but if we know one gang is really hot to strike, we can let others know not to hang out where they might get hurt.'' Adds Diaz: ``And we can get the police to dispatch extra units there ahead of time.''
When talking to youngsters, Diaz and her crew use a variety of techniques devised to lower barriers rather than raise them. ``Some of the obvious things are, don't lie to them, don't promise them anything you can't deliver, don't talk down to them, and don't judge them,'' she says.
But few of the above techniques would carry any weight with gang members, Diaz points out, if it weren't for the all-important element of trust. That has been developed in a variety of ways, including at times corroborating the story of gang members if she knows they have been wrongfully detained by authorities.
Ms. Diaz is forthcoming about her personal concern for individuals.
``When some gang member calls me at four in the morning to come rescue him from a hostile neighborhood, I tell him I must like him more than his homeboys [other gang members] to do something like that.''
Once an angry park owner complained to Diaz of gang graffiti in his park bathroom. Diaz began to paint it over herself to avert the arrest of the gang members she knew had done it. ``When you do something like that, they know you are not out here to set them up, that you really care about them,'' she says.
``She's cool, she lets us know what's going on,'' says a 14-year-old member of the gang known as Li'l Watts. ``I know she's out here 'cause she doesn't want to visit my funeral.'' ``She's like a local newspaper of gangs,'' says another. ``Nobody knows what's coming down better.''
On one recent patrol, two young women from the Hawthorne 13 gang approached Diaz for help in organizing a fund-raising car wash. A gang member had been killed two days earlier, and gang members wanted help in talking to gas-station owners to find a location. ``We also show up at funerals,'' says Diaz. ``It not only shows your concern for them off the job, but it is a good time for leverage in convincing them which road they should go down.''
One of Diaz's most useful tools is that of providing alternatives to violence. In mediating the above-mentioned confrontation between the Rebels and the Insanity Boys, Diaz came up with the idea of a football game that would not only release tension but set up a framework where each gang could earn the other's respect.
Football games became so successful that a league was started, and seven gangs participated in five games each. Many formal ``truces'' have resulted.
Ms. Diaz has long participated in panel discussions and presentations at elementary and junior high schools. Many of these include Officer Heffner, a policeman who once arrested her regularly.
Heffner says the presentations help in many ways: They alert parents to warning signs that their children are interested in gangs, correct misconceptions about gang behavior, and, through Diaz as an example, show people that dramatic turnarounds are possible. ``Many parents come to these panels with hatred toward gangs and leave instead with concern, saying, `What can we do?' '' says Diaz.
Right now a lack of funds keeps her team limited to 14 units. And she laments of the system of courts, jails, and probation programs that only add to the problem. ``A gang member is tougher when he gets out [of jail] than when he went in,'' she says. Gang behavior is reinforced inside a prison because the gangs segregate just as on the outside, she adds.
Outsiders must understand the gang mentality that says that going to jail heightens prestige, she says. ``When I got out of prison, I could've been king of the hill in my gang.'' Instead, through friends who directed her to Community Youth Gang Services, Ms. Diaz got back on the right track. ``Society needs to see these people as I do, not as the scum of the earth, who aren't worth caring about, but rather as troubled kids that just need a guiding hand,'' she says. Do you know a peacemaker?
If you know an individual, anywhere in the world, who is actively involved in reducing violent confrontation between people, we invite you to tell us. Selected individuals will be contacted by the Monitor for future peacemaker profiles.
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