Forging Ties in a `War Zone'

Los Angeles struggles to restore civility one person at a time

FRANK and Lorna Hawkins's small, neat home in Lynwood has two front doors. One is wood, the other is fashioned from heavy steel grating secured with a dead-bolt lock. The windows are protected by iron bars.

Every house in the Hawkinses' neighborhood is secured the same way.

Less than six miles away, in more affluent Los Angeles neighborhoods, small signs on the lawns of expensive houses indicate that each house is protected by a private security agency.

In a city where imagemaking is an art form, personal safety has become a creed written in steel and security alarms.

"Right now the City of Los Angeles is considered a war zone throughout the world," says Los Angeles mayoral candidate Richard Riordan. "People here don't feel comfortable and safe in their environment."

Wracked by riots, murderous gang warfare, troubled schools, earthquakes, a seven-year drought just over, a surging ethnic population, and a severely faltering economy, Los Angeles is struggling to stop the free-fall into more insecurity. The state Justice Department reports that 382,000 handguns were bought in California in 1992.

"If L.A. is to have a future," says Mike Davis, a writer on Los Angeles issues and a teacher at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, "all kinds of people need to make linkages to the inner city. We need to know that this city is full of hard-working, concerned people of all races."

Without linkages between ethnic groups and communities, as well as political and social remedies, Mr. Davis suggests a worst-case scenario could happen. "The low-intensity civil war and fragmented youth violence we have now," he said, "could become organized political violence."

Davis concludes that the "real violence in the city is the exploding level of poverty." He says that a "refusal to make public investments in the remediation of underlying social conditions means that [people] are forced instead to make increasing private investments in physical security."

What has contributed heavily to interest in physical security are the all too familiar violent shootings throughout Los Angeles County.

Since 1985, 23 police officers have been killed on duty, the most in the nation. And with 16 murders and 45 woundings in California schools between 1986 and 1990, the state leads the nation in school violence. Gang-related deaths

The most troubling statistic of all is the 800 gang-related deaths in Los Angeles last year, many of them drive-by shootings. The Los Angeles County district attorney estimates there are 150,000 gang members in the county. Another 30,000 are estimated to be members of "posses" or "tribes," which are beginning to mimic gangs and violent "taggers," the groups responsible for graffiti.

The impact of gangs on Los Angeles communities is far-reaching and touches the lives of children and families who don't associate with gangs. For Frank and Lorna Hawkins, the dilemma of how to deal with gangs became a tragedy. Both of their sons were shot and killed on Los Angeles streets. Neither son was a gang member. One was killed in a drive-by shooting three years ago, the other shot in the back as he fled from a gang last April.

"You better believe everybody knows a gang member," Mrs. Hawkins says. "The neighborhood is full of them; you have to be friends with them because you don't want to be enemies."

To direct her outrage and sorrow into positive effort, Mrs. Hawkins went to the local office of Continental Cablevision three years ago and asked to talk about her experience. She launched a half-hour community program now shown once a month, and a nonprofit support group called "Drive-By Agony," which "assists those who have lost loved ones." On April 24 the group will sponsor a peace march.

"To the newspapers, my son's death was just another kid shot," she says, "but I wanted to do something to make a difference. The program allows survivors to come and talk, to grieve, to feel like they are worth something. We talk about witness protection, how to stop the violence, how to be careful on the streets. God has sustained me; he's here keeping this thing together."

For Jennifer Essen, a writer and community activist from La Canada, Calif., the question of safety in Los Angeles is answered with outreach and friendship.

Through contact with a friend, Mrs. Essen had been helping with activities at the Greenmeadows recreation park in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. When one of the park aides at the pre-school there told her that the black and Latino children "had never seen a white child except on TV," Essen brought her three-year-old son to play.

"He didn't exactly cause a sensation," she says laughing, "but he quickly became a normal part of the preschool." Even though two windows in her car were broken in the parking lot recently, Essen says, "It is a good atmosphere in the park. If you say anarchy is going to govern the situation, then we've all lost." She says the gangs leave the park alone because they know "good things are happening for kids there."

In response to the larger issues of fear in Los Angeles, Essen says: "I love this city, and I refuse to be a prisoner in my community. I refuse to stay home and be afraid because then nothing will happen to bring about change."

In a city south of Los Angeles, Susan Brown (not her real name), a 15-year-old high school student, was shot in the head one night last year by an unknown assailant while standing in front of a house after a party. Not a gang member, Susan explains why she thinks gangs are unavoidable.

"A lot of kids look on being in a gang as good," she says. "You can have friends in gangs and not hang out with them. If you have gang members in your classes, and you don't say hi, and you're scared, or keep to yourself, they think you're too good, and will automatically not like you."

Fully recovered now, Susan says the reason for the shooting was a neighborhood war, a group of young people from one neighborhood visible in a rival neighborhood. Susan's mother had at first opposed her going to the party and said she could not spend the night at the house. "I was in the wrong place," Susan says now.

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