Rick Coca, Los Angeles Daily News, August 6, 2007
[Nickson] Gilles, an African-American from Florida, was shot in the neck, shoulder and left eye Sept. 3 after the Pierce Brahmas’ first game of the season. It was just one of many attacks against blacks that landed Canoga Park Alabama on L.A.’s list of most dangerous gangs.
The Latino gang hasn’t hidden the fact that it targets African-Americans in this community, which just two years ago earned the prestigious All-AmericaCity designation, largely due to its racial diversity.
The city’s gang list and another that branded Gilles’ accused assailant, Fernando Araujo, one of the city’s most wanted gangsters offer little solace to Gilles, who has undergone three eye surgeries and hasn’t played football since he was shot.
Since July 2006 there have been 12 shootings targeting Canoga Park blacks. Following two recent attacks, police have stepped up warnings to African-Americans to be wary of Canoga Park Alabama.
Some blacks in the community, as well as educators working with African-American students, said they have felt the wrath of the gang’s racist campaign of violence firsthand. But other blacks paint a more idyllic picture of Canoga Park, one that helped it become the first Los Angeles community to win the All-America honor in the award’s 58-year history.
Once a predominately white community, today Canoga Park is about 50 percent Latino, 28 percent white, 15 percent Asian and 4 percent black, according to a 2005 American Community Survey listed in a California State University, Northridge, report.
Although police can’t pinpoint why “CPA” has focused on blacks, one possibility is street culture emulating prison life, where black and Latino inmates have repeatedly clashed as they align themselves along racial lines.
With the last two attacks on blacks in and around Lanark Park separated by mere days and feet, police want African-Americans to be on alert for any trouble.
The most recent shooting occurred about 10:40 p.m. on June 13 when a 23-year-old African-American man drove into the parking lot of Lanark Park.
His attackers, believed to be several Latino males who remain at large, walked up to the car, asked where he was from—a common gang challenge—shouted racial slurs and shot him in the chest and shoulder.
Despite recent criticism of the city’s anti-gang efforts in the Valley, which has seen about a 15 percent increase in gang crime so far this year, Smart said a gang injunction and suppression efforts have been effective—until recently.
After CPA, with about 400 active members, was put on the city’s most-dangerous gangs list, the additional manpower from the department’s violent crime task force and other agencies led to dozens of arrests and helped bring the gang’s attacks under control for a while, Smart said.
“We did go five months without any reported shootings because of all the suppression and energy we’ve poured into there,” he said. “We created what we thought was a safe community, and now it has reared its ugly head again.”
Clashes near campus
Karen Cano is principal of the Coutin School, a small alternative education center in Canoga Park serving elementary through high school students with behavior or academic problems.
She said CPA has increasingly become a problem as mostly young, teenage members challenge her black students and others through the school’s fence. Now, she doesn’t let her black students walk outside campus.
“We’re in a constant battle,” Cano said. “We’ve had fights. . . They come up to the fence, flash their gang signs.”
Cano said the CPA members said to the black students in the group: “‘You n———better watch yourselves,”’ Cano said.
Following the brawl, Cano received a phone call from the father of an injured CPA member.
He repeated the gang’s warning: “‘You better watch your n———,”’ Cano—a white woman who grew up in Canoga Park—said the man told her. “It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I just don’t know who thinks that way anymore. I guess they do.”
Cano said the situation is exacerbated by the fact that many of her students come from troubled backgrounds themselves.
She has tried to reason with the CPA members, even suggesting they attend her school, to no avail. She’s hoping more attention recently promised by LAPD gang unit officers materializes into a police presence that she and her staff say has been grossly inadequate.
With some staff members describing the current environment as “a war zone,” Cano said there is a sense of urgency to resolve the tension.
Pain and grief
Brown-on-black violence in Canoga Park is an obvious concern, but it is rarer than intra-race shootings. Lela Jones knows this firsthand.
Her son, Torrey, 23, an African-American, was shot to death outside her Canoga Park apartment complex in 2003 by a young black man who police say was probably a gang member.
His death is a reminder that the majority of L.A’s gang-related homicides are black-on-black and brown-on-brown assaults.