Monday, November 21, 2005

A little overeaction?

Gangs, poverty and racial divide could make LA another Paris
Fri Nov 18,12:26 PM ET

Luis has never heard about riots that shook Los Angeles in the past. Nor is he aware of the violence that rocked cities in France for three weeks.

He has been a member of a gang since age 13 because even then he believed that illegal Mexican immigrants don't have a future here, and that "made people angry."

"I arrived in Los Angeles when I was only 10 because my mother had decided to follow the American Dream," he said.

"She left my father back in Mexico, in Chihuahua state, and brought me here because she thought I would have here a better future," recalls Luis, who is now 30.

But in Los Angeles, he found himself in a Hispanic barrio in an eastern part of the city, which is home to the worst city gangs. Children made fun of him at school because he spoke no English.

To be accepted, he began selling drugs. He also joined The Mafia Crew (TMC), one of the most violent gangs in the second largest US city, which prides itself on being one of the most multi-ethnic and multi-cultural in the world.

Since then, he has been in prison four times for drugs and arms possession and conspiracy to commit murder. He now says he wants to change his life, but without proper documents and with a rap sheet like his, he realizes that his chances of getting a job are not very good.

"It is difficult to break up with a gang because nobody accepts you and nobody wants to give you a job," says Luis. "Police don't believe you and in many cases you just return to the gang."

He says he has discussed this impasse with other gang members on many occasions.

"We all have the same rage," he admitted. "Particularly those who have come from Mexico and don't have immigration papers."

Diego Vigil, a sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, believes the city could have the same kind of riots that shook France for three weeks. He insists they could be even worse.

"This already happened in 1992," he recalls. "The parallel already exists. And the ethnic and racial gap has since widened rather than narrowed."

The 1992 riots erupted here after an all-white jury acquitted four white police officers, who brutally beat black motorist Rodney King, a scene that was caught on videotape.

The riots, which went down in history as one of the worst episodes of violence on US soil since the US Civil War, left 54 dead and more than 2,000 injured.

But as the size of metropolitan Los Angeles grows and reaches 9.9 million people, half of them Latino, unemployment, poverty and the housing crisis have also grown. Government services have shrunk and schools have gotten worse.

According to the US Census Bureau, the poverty index in Los Angeles County has reached 16 percent, the highest in California. Unemployment stands at 4.5 percent.

"Can Los Angeles become a hotbed of violence similar to France?" asks Ernesto Cienfuegos, a member of the separatist group "The Voice of Aztlan," which wants to create an independent Hispanic state in the US southwest called "the Northern Republic."

His answer is "yes."

"Here in Los Angeles," wrote Cienfuegos on the group's Web site, "we see ominous signs of a possible social explosion that will eclipse even riots in France."

However, Jason Lee, an official with the Los Angeles Police Department, says illegal immigration is not a determining factor in gang violence.

He said he knows many illegal immigrants who have jobs and no need to join gangs.

According to the LAPD, a total of more than 65,500 youngsters belonged to 407 gangs that operated in the streets of Los Angeles in late 1990s.

This year, these gangs were responsible for 419 murders, 764 assaults and 12,000 acts of theft.

Police officer Frank Flores says the gangs just have to be defeated.

"I grew up near them, in constant fear," he says. "And that's the reason I became a police officer -- to defeat them."

From Yahoo!

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