Racism A Factor In L.A. Gang Violence

Andrew Glazer, AP, August 12, 2006

Los Angeles—Alejandro “Bird” Martinez and a crew of fellow gangbangers were joyriding in a stolen van when they came upon a black man parking his car—and decided to kill him.

Three of them riddled Kenneth Kurry Wilson and his Cadillac with bullets from a .357-caliber revolver and a 9 mm semiautomatic and blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun.

This month, Martinez and three other members of the Avenues, a Hispanic gang entrenched in one Los Angeles neighborhood, were convicted of federal hate crimes usually tagged on white supremacists.

Although the slaying was seven years ago, the verdict this month was one in a series of reminders that racially motivated black and Hispanic gang violence is still a Los Angeles reality.

While some police, academics and even gang members insist racism isn’t a factor in the violence, a pair of headline-grabbing killings—of a Hispanic teen by a black assailant described by witnesses as yelling a gang name as he fled and a drive-by shooting by a pair of black gunmen who killed three Hispanics—suggest otherwise.

“If it’s not race motivated, if it’s not gang motivated, then what the hell is the motivation?” asked South Los Angeles activist Taylor Mayfield after the June 30 drive-by.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca cited tensions between black and Hispanic gangs as he redeployed deputies to the Compton area, where four people were killed in 20 gang shootings during one July weekend. And the federal prosecutor who oversaw the Avenues gang case announced plans to prosecute other gangs involved in race-based violence.

The June 30 slayings prompted black and Hispanic leaders to hold an emergency discussion of how prevent a bloody back and forth.

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There have been few studies of Los Angeles’ black-Hispanic gang violence. One was completed by University of California, Irvine, professor George Tita, who reviewed the nearly 500 homicides committed from 1999 to 2004 in one violent South Los Angeles police district and found almost all were black-on-black or Hispanic-on-Hispanic.

“The rare events are more newsworthy,” he said of gang killings between Hispanics and blacks.

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Complicating the current equation are gang members returning from prison, where joining a race-based gang is a means of survival. A war between Hispanic and black prison gangs set off a series of prison riots across California this year in which two people were killed and more than 100 were injured.

“The whole racial thing leaks out into the real world,” said Joseph Holguin, 28, who grew up in an East Los Angeles public housing complex as a member of the Primera Flats gang.

In the Avenues case, an informant told the FBI the gang had received an order from the Mexican Mafia prison gang to kill all blacks on sight in their predominantly Hispanic Highland Park neighborhood. Leading up to Wilson’s murder, members of the Avenues terrorized other blacks, shooting a 15-year-old boy on a bicycle, pistol-whipping a jogger and drawing outlines of human bodies in a black family’s driveway.

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Los Angeles gang feuds were historically black-on-black, but that changed in the 1990s when Hispanic immigrants moved to Compton and South Los Angeles homes that middle-class blacks were leaving.

The area was 80 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic in 1980, according to an analysis by University of California, Santa Cruz, professor Manuel Pastor. By 2000, it was 60 percent Hispanic, 40 percent black.

Resentment simmered between the recently arrived Hispanics and black holdouts.

“They would try to jump me for not being black,” said Mario Bonilla, a 22-year-old Mexican immigrant who spent much of his childhood looking over his shoulder. “They resent us.”

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