L.A. County Border

Often the more you understand, the less you forgive.
Jilian Becker
Director, Institute for the Study of Terrorism

There may be a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root,
and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.

Henry David Thoreau

I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1987 and immediately fell in love with the place. It was big and exciting and a quirky energy seemed to hang in the air. I was young and there was always something new to do; anything was possible. But nearly a decade later and, after having taken a long look at Los Angeles as a community, I chose as an adult to invest myself professionally and personally elsewhere. I was NOT going to perform my life's work (teaching) in L.A. city schools. My children were NOT going to grow up in Los Angeles. No way in hell this was going to happen! Why?

Well, it all comes down to the nature of what Los Angeles had become at the end of the 20th century. Just since I moved there, L.A. has been vastly transformed by two powerful influences: a protracted and bitter economic recession, and the scourge of crack cocaine. The situation was such that the vast majority of uneducated (or semi-educated) Angelenos had little to offer a potential employer and work had almost disappeared to the extent that large areas of the city were virtual economic wastelands of Third World dimensions. Moreover, crack cocaine had contributed to the explosion of violent street gangs until they were THE power in many areas. The streets of Los Angeles reverberated with the powerful influence of a pervasive culture of violence: there were an estimated 100,000 hardcore gangmembers in L.A. County, and in the year I decided to leave (1995) LA tallied up a record 1,785 homicides - 807 of them gang-related. In the decade I lived in Los Angeles, more than 18,000 human beings died prematurely at the hand of another - violence being the leading cause of death in the city for people under 35.

People murdered for their shoes. People murdered for $5 and some spare change. People murdered for drugs. People murdered for absolutely no reason at all. I lived and worked amidst all this until the magnitude of the tragedy threatened to break my heart - until the stink of the violence began to choke me.

"Man is a Wolf to Man"

Two especially tragic murders prompt me to write this poem.

Once during a parent conference a Mexican father asked me (an American) incredulously, "How can this country let teenagers with guns be the most powerful force on the streets?" I did not know what to tell him. The typical father I met from Oaxaca, Zacatecas, or San Salvador was pro-law and order by nature, and hated trying to raise his family in the middle of a war zone. Although some chicano writer or college professor might see the cholo as a legitimate expression of the Latino American identity, the average Mexican father sees a shaved-head gang member with a gun and respect for nothing and nobody as just as much of an ugly aberration as does his middle-American counterpart. To tell this man about "rights" and the American Civil Liberties Union in the middle of an area utterly without law is to talk nonsense. Sometimes I thought the "progressive" Los Angeles political leadership so embarrassed about what happened in their districts that they were frozen in a state of semi-denial as to reality. Take, for example, the following statement:

"We have kids who are dying, who are totally innocent,
killed as bystanders, for no other reason than they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the only reason they are killed is that there are tons of these guns going out to the open market."

Michael Genelin
Chairman of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles


Was the widespread availability of guns more of a problem than the existence of 100,000 hardcore gangmembers willing to kill you over a misunderstood look or the color of your clothes? The presence of guns was the primary reason that people slaughtered each other like dogs on the L.A. city streets? For Los Angeles to have problems is one thing; to be disingenuous and insincere in responding to them is quite another.

Everywhere in Los Angeles one encounters the same muddleheaded half-truths and half-measures resulting from half-brained thinking. There exists a specious L.A. "false humanitarianism" where certain basic truths about life and personal responsibility lie buried under a veritable mountain of obfuscation and blatant rationalization in an endless stream of meetings, rallies, speeches, news conferences, lectures, talk and more talk, committees and conferences about "diversity" or "multiculturalism," and a hundred other ineffectual actions which are, in the end, just a lot of hot air and noise signifying nothing on the street - and the violence continues unabated. I could not for the life of me find a Los Angeles politician convincing about crime after them having spent so many years thinking about it purely as a civil-rights and civil-liberties issue - as the gangs grew larger and became bolder. Possessing less education and more common sense than the L.A. political elites, the average campesino on the street saw the situation differently, in my experience. When I spoke with them, the average Mexican fathers of my students saw the situation much the same as I did: "Someone do something!"

I would sometimes in a pensive moment think about the streets around downtown Los Angeles and compare them to those where I grew up. What would have happened on the block during my childhood if a drug dealer had appeared on the corner and the police could not, or would not, take care of the situation? What would Mr. Barich down at the end of the street, or Mr. Duerr beyond him - or even my own father, do in such an unlikely situation? Knowing these men well, I knew exactly what they would have done: they would have taken care of the situation one way or another - if the State had not gotten rid of the drug dealer, the residents themselves would have done it. It would indeed be difficult to imagine a gang taking over those streets, and if they had tried there would have been a bloodbath.

I would then think about my present situation. Sitting in my Pico-Union classroom, I would look out at the Mexican and Central American immigrant fathers in the audience during "Back to School Night." These were, GANGSTERS in the vast majority, hard working family men whom over time I had gotten to know. I would think to myself the same thought yet again that had occurred to me in frustration over and over: "Why cannot the good people on both the immigrant Latino and the mainstream American side work together to clean up this mess?" Both ethnic groups more or less shared the same family values and work ethic - and even in the worst Angeleno neighborhood there were more decent people trying to make their way in the world than opportunistic predators. And it was their children and my students who were growing up in physical danger amidst all this chaos and violence! As the adult males in the community, is it not our responsibility to provide moral guidance for the youth - especially the young men? And in cases where we are unable to persuade young people towards a positive path, we cannot let them destroy the whole community!

Think of the gang member with the gun and the tattoos on his neck selling death on the corner. Think of that gangster who stuck a gun in that newly arrived GANGSTERS! immigrant's face the other day and laughed uproariously while the poor man urinated in his pants. "ĦEs mi vida loca!" - the crazy life of the L.A. gangster - "Disrespect me in my 'hood, and me and my homies we'll fuck you up!!" Surely we men could all organize, and with the greater adult strength of purpose and discipline get rid of this gangster and his buddies in the nearby park that surely will come running with guns when he calls for help. At least some of the Central American men in my classroom would have had military training and/or combat experience. I myself had law enforcement training and could shoot straight enough. All we need is the will to organize, to hold fast to the goal with the knowledge that it is the future for which we are fighting, and we can change things! If not, we will live and work in this shithole in fear of these guys forever! I know what the majority of these men would have told me: "I don't want any problems with nobody!" Terrorized and just trying to survive, I despaired that the poor Latino immigrants who populated the neighborhoods around downtown would ever band together to take back the streets. It is a situation fraught with risk, to say the least. However, to do nothing is often worse than making a difficult decision and living with it.

I could see clearly that if things were ever to change it would be the residents themselves that would have to change them. You can't ask the State or its agents (ie: the police, social welfare agencies) or any other actor with only a secondary interest to clean things up for you - especially in a life-or-death fight with a violent street gang that fears nobody and will kill you (or try to kill you, at the very least) if you cross them. You have to do it yourself. I, along with many others, worked hard to help those who would let us help them help themselves to progress onward in the world. However, in my opinion, this is only one side of the equation. It is a sad but true fact that in this world there exists violent and depraved individuals with whom the only profitable discourse may be had over the barrel of a gun. The neighborhoods around downtown Los Angeles were filled with such characters. Without in one way or another dealing with this hardcore element, the disaster story of LA would never change dramatically, in my opinion.

But what if the violence were to touch someone very close to me? What would I have done if some half-wasted gangster with one foot already in the grave had hurt precious little Roxana or Ivett (students of mine)? If someone had taken the life of brilliant Maria, with so much going for her in the future? I really don't know what I would have done. I knew the neighborhoods. I knew how to use a gun. My civic obligation clearly would have been to leave retribution to the law and the uncertainties of the criminal justice system. But in much of Los Angeles the law by itself meant next to nothing - it was a piece of paper written by a stranger for the benefit of someone else in some other place; it protected hardly at all, and punished only occasionally and haphazardly. If I were to await justice from the criminal courts, I might wait forever. I don't know if I could have let it go at that. I just don't know. In retrospect, I am glad to have never been put in that position. I am so glad not to have been in such a position.


As a school teacher in Los Angeles, I spent years trying to show young people through my example and actions the possible good in life. Day-in and day-out I spoke with and listened to children, laughed with and sought to correct them - all in the hope that they might grow up straight and true. This I considered nothing less than a central expression of my masculinity. However, it was only one side of myself, and I had done "other" things before I became a teacher. But what would ambushing and killing some gangster in a dark corner solve? He more than likely has younger brothers and/or cousins - maybe even children of his own - who were going to grow up and take his place as future gangsters. More importantly, it would do nothing to un-do the damage already done to those I loved. It might even have seriously compromised my own future. In the end, it would have solved nothing. And I knew those gangmembers and they rarely changed. If they didn't change, someone else would more than likely in turn cut short their life. There are all kinds of justice in this world.

And what if the local community were able to start a grass roots mini-revolution and win back control of the city streets? Even in such a case what would these people have to offer legitimate employers in terms of job skills? They mostly can offer only unskilled labor in an economy where such employment has more or less vanished from the United States. They had only the sweat of their brows and the strength of their backs in a age when brainpower ruled the day. The LA school system was by and large NOT full of future rocket scientists or brain surgeons (or software engineers or Information Age specialists for that matter). I used to work in those schools and I know! Los Angeles was all too often masses of uneducated (or semi-educated) poor people fighting each other for scraps around small enclaves of extreme wealth. It was companies and businesses which had long since left for more hospitable climes with others damn unlikedly to want to relocate to a combat zone. It was inferior and overwhelmed public schools contrasted with expensive and exclusive private schools. It was gunfights and murder made so common that it often hardly even captured the attention of the general public.

After getting a good look at Los Angeles for more than a decade, there was no way I was going to live my life and raise my family in such a place. You gotta be kidding me! I believed in the traditional American concept of the middle-class: be not filthy rich, nor be desperately poor. The middle-class in Los Angeles was largely non-existent - or it was people from the suburbs commuting to work and then escaping back home at nightfall. It was not my concept of the ideal community, to say the least.

I empathized with writer Jimmy Breslin who on the slaying of a young man by gang members in New York City claimed:

"Dies the victim, dies the city. Nobody flees New York because of accounting malpractice. People run from murder and fire. Those who remain express their fear in words of anger."

"To the Person Who Knows Who Killed Gregory Bowens"
by Jocelyn Y. Stewart



I left Los Angeles with both a deep sadness in my heart for the Godforsaken place and a seething contempt for it in my head. It was never my desire to contemn Los Angeles, but I found the status quo so bitterly unsatisfactory on a number of different levels. Instead of beating my head futilely against the wall forever, I simply went someplace else. However, the nearly ten years I lived there were for better or for worse a huge influence on my life.

The Killing Fields of Los Angeles:
Violence, Chaos, Danger, Disorder, and Wastage

Some discussions....

Be like Christ and serve these people...
"Be a doer and not a watcher."
From an L.A. resident for life...
"Los Angeles is the Capital of the Third World!"
Out of prison and trying to make a good life...
From the trenches...
"It can help a lot of people get a head start that live over there.
Welll at least the ones who wanna change."
Altruism and Reality
"I find myself speechless, despondent, and sad that there are humans living in such conditions. . .
not ravaged by the hand of disease or time, but the hand of man."
La Vida Loca
"I am a 18th Street member. I was arrested 29 times last year.
I am not proud of it but i am not of ashamed of it ether."