Saturday, a law enforcement official and a former gang member will be honored in Los Angeles with the Urban Peace Award. It marks the 10-year anniversary of a gang truce in the city. Those who work on the streets say gang violence has not ended.
Gang killings still occur almost daily in Los Angeles. Too often the victims are innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca says the problem is serious. "We have more gangs here than any part of the United States and perhaps even the world, and they're street gangs," he says. "We have 95,000 gangs members in Los Angeles County. Ninety-nine percent are not violent. The one percent that are, however, just devastate neighborhoods."
Those neighborhoods are mostly African American, Hispanic and Asian. Ten years ago, community leaders and former gang members brokered the first of a series of truces, which the Sheriff says have helped to curb the violence.
Sheriff Baca is being presented an Urban Peace Award together with Bo Taylor, a one-time member of the Crips gang who now heads an organization called Ameri-I-Can. The group sends former gang members into prisons to help young prisoners turn their lives around
Mr. Taylor says youngsters in the ghetto face a disparity between the world of their dreams and the world that they are part of, and that is one of the reasons they are attracted to gangs. "When you look at TV, you look at videos, you look at all the celebrities, they've got jewelry, nice cars, girls," he says. "How does a kid from the ghetto get that? He's going to go to the streets and get it. And it may cost him his life to get it. He's going to substitute getting it the hard way by hustling and selling drugs and all that. And if I've got to hurt somebody, it doesn't matter to me because now I'm desensitized to violence. I've been to so many funerals that it just doesn't matter."
The former gang member says his experiences on the street motivated him to look for other options. "Seeing a lot of my friends who got murdered at a young age," says Mr. Taylor. "A lot of them went to jail for long periods of time, back and forth. And I had an opportunity to go into the military at age 18 and come back home. So I got a chance to see the world for what it really is. And I saw poverty and disparity all over."
Mr. Taylor served in the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War. He says, at times, he finds the streets of South Los Angeles scarier.
The Sheriff and the former gang member are working together, reaching out to those in gangs who are serving time in prison. Civil rights lawyer and community activist Connie Rice says the focus on the prisons helps gang-ridden neighborhoods because prison-terms are part of the life of a gang member. "The prisons and the streets have an umbilical cord between them. What happens in the prisons directly affects what happens in our meanest streets anywhere in this country," she says. "In the prison is where the drug trade is done, you have a lot of the leaders of these gangs, and if you can reach them while they're captive and you can get them to change the way they think about themselves and the way they think about their role and their leadership, it's amazing the changes that you can bring about in the community."
Sheriff Baca says the gang truce of 10 years ago has kept the violence from growing, but that's nothing to be proud of. Gang violence still claims from too many victims, from those caught in the crossfire to youngsters diverted from their studies, who fail to develop to their full potential.
He says the problem of gang violence has many causes, from a breakdown of the family to easy access to cheap guns. He says the problem requires a range of solutions, including inner-city programs to keep youngsters out of gangs.
Sheriff Baca, Mr. Taylor and other recipients of the Urban Peace Awards will receive a plaque in the shape of a bird reaching back toward an egg. The symbol is drawn from the folklore of Ashanti people of West Africa. The sculpture, made of guns that have been melted down, conveys the belief that it is never too late to reach back into your past and change yourself.