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Gang Blues

[whitespace] Pat Clark
George Sakkestad

Crash Course: Pat Clark, founder of Santa Cruz Partners for a Peaceful Community, says the recent attack at Neary Lagoon Cooperative demonstrates that it's time for a dialogue about race relations, hate crimes and youth violence.

Victims' families navigate community denial, gang intimidation and racism following this spring's attack outside Chestnut Street's Neary Lagoon Cooperative

By Mary Spicuzza

A YOUNG BOY AMBLES up to the brightly colored jungle gym sitting just outside Shoshonna Levi's apartment. His hands grasp the yellow and blue plastic tubes of the twisting structure, in one of the many play areas dotting Chestnut Street's Neary Lagoon Cooperative. He grabs onto a monkey bar and swings out of view.

Tears cover Levi's tan cheekbones as she watches the playground through her window, describing the sunny morning this spring when her 8-year-old daughter was chased from the play structure by kids waving sticks and calling her "nigger."

Levi says that in the past she's just tried to be tolerant. But this last incident occured only a few weeks after her 17-year-old son and four friends were attacked leaving the Neary Lagoon complex. Their car was surrounded by a group of men who smashed it with large rocks, sticks and pipes. The assailants, believed to be members of a subset of the Sureños gang known as Brown Pride Santa Cruz, were all Latinos. Three of the five victims were black.

The foursome had driven to Neary Lagoon to pick up Levi's son, who was going to borrow the car from longtime family friend Maureen Littlejohn. As they drove out of the complex, which only has one way in and out, they saw a man in a blue sweatshirt holding a boulder. As he threw it down onto their windshield, more than a dozen males, some teenagers, surrounded the car and joined him.

The car's occupants, trapped inside, were hit with glass splinters as the assailants smashed every window, ripped off the rearview mirrors and bashed in the sunroof. The car had to be towed away on a flatbed truck.

Although several of the victims speak Spanish, they had trouble making out what their attackers were saying. They did recognize trece, or 13, the code number for the Sureños, or "Southerners." Others yelled, "You're on the wrong side of the tracks, nigger."

Street Smart Resources: Community groups to contact for more information on gangs, hate crimes and youth violence.

District Attorney Ron Ruiz, on a police ride-along the night of the attack, arrived at Neary Lagoon in the first squad car. "I saw the young black kids afraid to get out of the car. And the assailants were Mexicans," Ruiz says quietly. "It was a very sad night."

When police arrived at the scene of the crime, they drew their guns on the black victims, ordered them to the ground and searched them for weapons.

Police investigated what "mitigating circumstances" may have triggered the attack. All they could come up was that one of the young men in the car was wearing a red hat, the signature color of Santa Cruz Sureños' main rival, the Norteños, or "Northerners."

Red is also Santa Cruz High's school color. Littlejohn's son, a varsity athlete, received the hat as a gift from his girlfriend after his basketball team won the league championship.

As Levi describes the month since "the incident," as it's known around the neighborhood, her vibrant blue eyes grow weary. She describes daily phone calls to the police, property managers and city officials and a constant fear for her children. Worried that the attack will be forgotten as a one-time, random incident, Levi voices frustration at a pattern of crisis and denial she sees in management's response to gang violence.

As the sun sets, Levi gets up to close the blinds in her window. She tells her daughter to take a bath and sinks back into the corner of her couch after a long day at work.

"I'm afraid," Levi sighs. "I'm afraid for my kids. I'm afraid."

Over the past month, Levi has asked for management's help in finding affordable housing where her family can feel safe, but she's found long waiting lists at every low-income complex in town. Community members have expressed shock over the incident, and about 30 residents have signed a petition asking her to stay.

As she sits in her living room dotted with African wall hangings and thriving plants, she seems very much alone. "When this happened my son asked, 'Are you afraid, Mom?'" She cries. "He told me, 'I've been living like this for six years.'"

Out of the Blue

WE HAD NO PROBLEMS like that before. Then this. It was a bolt out of the blue," Virginia Freeman, president and treasurer of Neary Lagoon's board of directors, told the Santa Cruz County Sentinel (April 19, 1999).

Some residents agree, saying that there isn't a gang problem in the complex. But even those who haven't had any trouble report a long history of gang members hanging out along the wide tree-lined street leading to Neary Lagoon.

Jaime, a 35-year-old Latino resident, asks that his last name not be used. Sitting inside his small car, its hood propped up as he leans over the steering wheel and checks the wiring, Jaime says his family hasn't had any problems.

"Sometimes on the weekends the guys are hanging out, drinking beer, looking for trouble," Jaime explains. "My family, we just try to avoid them. My older son used to play with the kids here a few years back. Now we pretty much stay in our home, except to drop the kids off at school."

Although everyone agrees that gang members frequent Chestnut Street and the railroad tracks lining the low-income housing project, Levi believes many are in denial about gang members living in the cooperative. "They always tell me, 'They're not our kids. These gangbangers don't live here.' I said, 'You're lying. They do live here.'"

With police still investigating the incident, it's unclear how many of the assailants were residents. Last week, cops identified five gang members living in the complex, but for now have no proof that they were involved in the attack. As for whether the latest incident was isolated, just ask the kids who live there.

Kids growing up in Neary Lagoon
George Sakkestad

Fenced In: Many kids growing up at Neary Lagoon say they avoid 'gang guys' and wearing red--but admit that gangs have long been a presence in their neighborhood.

Children at Play

MIGUEL* TOSSES THE BALL and pounds his fist into his baseball glove. It's Cinco de Mayo, and he and some friends are playing in the middle of Chestnut Street near where the road dead-ends and the forested lagoon begins. As he yells to his friend to hold up the game, his young relatives Evan, Joey, Jesus and Alex swarm curiously around us.

At 11 years old, Miguel is the oldest and does most of the talking.

"This kind of stuff has happened before," he shrugs. "A few weeks before the car, there was a gang fight. People were running all over." He points to the nearby field between Chestnut and Washington streets, which is empty except for a web of rusty railroad tracks weaving past construction equipment.

"They just like to hang out around here," he says, adding that he doesn't think most of the kids live in the complex. His friends add that some do.

"Those guys are looking for problems," 10-year-old Evan adds, propping his elbows on his bike's handlebars. "A lot of the time they just hang out together, but sometimes they fight. There's a different gang, the Westsiders, who come around. Then they fight them."

Eight-year-old Alex shyly slips into the group, hiding his head in his soccer jersey. He peers out and smiles sweetly, adding that the "gang guys" usually hang out on summer nights and weekends.

The kids explain the different subsets of Santa Cruz Sureños who hang out on their street, and their main rivals, the Westsiders, and other Norteños.

When asked if they ever wear red, they all laugh.

"No way," Miguel says. His friends all shake their heads.

Red and black are the Norteños' signature colors. The Norteños tend to be made up of Latinos born in the U.S. and are a more ethnically diverse gang, including white and black members. Most Sureños were born in Mexico. In Santa Cruz, there used to be more white Sureño gang members, but they were edged out in the early '90s.

"It doesn't matter to me," Evan's aunt, 11-year-old Maria, says when asked about gang colors. Showing off her long periwinkle sun dress, she adds, "Blue is my favorite color anyway."

While saying the gang presence doesn't affect her wardrobe, Maria admits that whenever she and her friends have to walk around after dark, they each carry a stick.

"At night, it's really scary if I have to go get the mail or go out to the car if I've forgotten something for school," Evan adds. "They hang out near the mailboxes a lot."

For the first time that afternoon, charming Miguel's eyes widen with fear. "Are you going to put this in the paper?" he asks. "Can I ask you a big, big favor?" Miguel says. "Please don't use my real name. I don't want any trouble."

Red Scare

THERE'S A TALL wooden fence that separates the Neary Lagoon apartments from the railroad-track-crossed field on the other side of Chestnut Street. The side of the fence facing the 95-unit low-income housing complex, which is painted a crisp white and gray and is now surrounded by blooming roses, is immaculate. Like the sidewalks, it's lined with bright purple and yellow flowers. But stepping through one of the holes broken in the fence, one confronts another world. Gold, blue, brown and white graffiti stretch along the wooden planks. Broken bottles covering the surrounding field shimmer in the morning sun.

Especially popular graffiti are "Sur," short for Sureños, and the number 13. The number symbolizes the letter M, the 13th letter of the alphabet. It stands for Mexican Mafia, the hard-core members who rule other Sureños from their prison cells.

Many city folks will say gangs, real gangs, don't exist in Santa Cruz. Or that they're only a Watsonville problem. But Detective Dan Flippo, an eight-year veteran of the Santa Cruz Police Department, says that gang violence is very real throughout the city, not just for one ethnic group or in one neighborhood.

Flippo can rattle off the prison records of Northside Santa Cruz, Westside Santa Cruz, and the West Side Chicos, subsets of the Norteños. Flippo also follows relations among Sureños factions, who were fairly united until three years ago, when an alleged Villa San Carlos Sureño member was indicted for the murder of a Beach Flats member named Edgar Chacon. Chacon, who was found stabbed outside the low-income Villa San Carlos apartments on Soquel Drive, was killed in a fight over a girlfriend, according to Flippo.

Flippo has served as the city's only gang investigator for almost a year. He reports that it's been a pretty quiet spring because all of the city's Sureños subsets--Santa Cruz Eastside, the oldest identified local gang; its younger offshoot, Beach Flats Sureños (BFS); Mara Salvatrucha (MS); and Brown Pride Santa Cruz--are getting along pretty well.

Flippo says the cops keep records on 145 identified gang members in the city of Santa Cruz. There are another 80 unconfirmed and an unknown number of fringe members, wannabes and "associates."

Between fear of retaliation when victims aren't in a gang and gang members' resistance to coming forward when they are victims, Flippo says prosecuting gang crimes isn't easy. "We're asking neighbors to be the eyes and ears of their neighborhoods," Flippo says. "I guess some people would call that a police state. But in some neighborhoods we only react. We end up only dealing with victims and suspects."

Home Improvement

WHEN LEVI ASKS the complex's managers what is going to be done to get gang members out of the cooperative, the answer, for now, is nothing. "It's not illegal to be in a gang," Steve Farmer, the property supervisor for Mercy Services Corporation, says. "We can't evict on rumor or hearsay. We need a conviction."

Levi knows firsthand why evidence that can convict gang members is hard to find. She says that until she put the word out that her son wouldn't identify his attackers, she was followed by suspected gang members as she walked along Chestnut Street. The only victim who has come forward to testify lives out of town.

Farmer says that while he understands victims' fear of retaliation, it makes management action difficult.

"We've had parents come to us complaining that 'We've been harassed because my kid has a red jacket,' " Farmer says. "But they often ask us not to take action, because they don't want to publicly testify. It leaves us between a rock and a hard place."

Farmer says he has $22,000 for security cameras from Mercy's management, and that both Mercy's private security and SCPD officers have upped the frequency of their patrols. He adds that a few families with suspected gang members have been evicted since Neary Lagoon opened, usually as a result of drug charges.

In the summer of 1997, Mercy went to court over the eviction of a family living in Neary Lagoon. Management had received repeated complaints that the family, which was defended by the Legal Aid Society of Santa Cruz County, invited gang members to the house, had drugs and kept large stockpiles of bottles and rocks.

"But residents were fearful of having their names made public," Farmer says. "In court, all we had was hearsay--and we lost the case."

Mary Thuerwachter, executive director of Legal Aid, says her organization has no explicit policy on gangs.

"We look at the merits of an individual case to see if we're going to take it." Thuerwachter says that in the Neary Lagoon case, there wasn't evidence to determine that the children in the family were involved in a gang. "We do not condone [illegal] activity," she stresses.

Board Stiff

RATHER THAN POINT the finger at residents for not coming forward, Neary Lagoon board member Alan Fischer worries that Mercy Services and the resident board of directors haven't created an environment that fosters community involvement.

"We don't have a huge gang problem, as sometimes the media presents," Fischer says. "But if we had more of a cooperative, which is what this is supposed to be, I think it would encourage people to work together."

Fischer says that the nine-member board hasn't been successful in encouraging resident communication because it often just follows management's directives. He called a special board meeting on Aug. 31, 1998, about problems with how the cooperative is run. According to the minutes of the meeting, board president Virginia Freeman declined to attend because she didn't wish to participate.

The minutes also show that during that meeting, board member Jesus Becerril voiced concern that management canceled an after-school program run by Barrios Unidos without first consulting the board.

Steve Farmer responds that the program was too small for the number of children enrolled and that Mercy was able to hire a full-time resident services coordinator, Angelica Villaseñor, to work with youth at both Neary Lagoon and the new Sycamore Commons.

Sitting in the community room at Neary, Villaseñor says that the community is bustling with activities, including after-school programs, a women's leadership program, community celebrations, parenting workshops and now diversity training sessions. She worries that the media have presented Neary Lagoon as a housing project overrun by gangs.

Shoshonna Levi Shadow of Doubt: Shoshonna Levi wants Neary Lagoon management to act now and create a community where she and her family can feel safe.

George Sakkestad

Wake-Up Call

LEVI BELIEVES THAT the racial overtones of the attack on her son are symptomatic of not only a gang presence but also problems stemming from a lack of diversity in the cooperative. The complex is 80 percent Latino, 18 percent white and less than 2 percent African American. Levi's son is the only black teenager living there.

"Everybody wants to be liberal and not touch this issue. They say you can't say anything that would not be promoting the movement forward of Latinos," Littlejohn, a longtime friend of Levi's, says. "Hell, no, that's not what we're saying. What we are saying is that they have created a situation that is going to be isolating and negative in the long run on these families."

Both Littlejohn and Levi, who are white, have raised biracial African American children in Santa Cruz.

Farmer admits that the struggling Santa Cruz Community Housing Corporation, which developed and operated Neary Lagoon until it merged with the private, nonprofit Mercy Charities Housing California in the summer of 1995, set up the cooperative very differently than Mercy would today.

"For the Neary Lagoon project, federal HUD funding required us to focus on Mexican-Americans," Farmer says, adding that Beach Flats was canvassed to recruit residents. "I had concerns looking at it back in 1991. Low-income housing should not be only one culture. Diversity is healthy. Low-income housing is not about building little ghettoes where people feel isolated."

Pat Clark, who founded Santa Cruz Partners for a Peaceful Community, hopes this latest incident will serve as a wake-up call for the need to address diversity, as well as gangs, youth and hate crimes in Santa Cruz. "We, the adult community, ignore the warning signs," says Clark, who is black. "But the young kids are trying to say that this is part of their reality."

He worries that the issue will be labeled a brown-black problem, rather than a communitywide issue of hate crimes committed by alienated youth. Rather than pursuing the attack as a hate crime, police are calling it vandalism.

After the Littleton killings, outrage has been turned against such cultural influences as music, films and the Internet. But when a crime is gang-involved, the blame is often shifted to people of color. And it's been called a "territorial conflict," implying that the victims were also involved in gangs.

"If it happens to one group, it will happen to you," Clark says. "Wake-up bells are ringing all the time. There is hate in our progressive little community. Wake up, Santa Cruz."

Safety Dance

BEYOND COPING with being victims of a violent crime, Shoshonna Levi and Maureen Littlejohn say their families' actions have been held up to public scrutiny. Littlejohn reports constant questioning about what her son did to provoke the attack--especially why he was wearing a red hat. She says she's fed up with questions about whether her son is a gang member.

Her son, a varsity athlete at Santa Cruz High who's already taken classes at Stanford and UCLA, just won a scholarship to spend this summer doing research at Roswell Park Cancer Center in New York.

"People say that my son should have known better," Littlejohn says. "Well, I'm sorry. Just because he's black doesn't mean he has a Ph.D. in gang consciousness."

"They say there's a lot worse gang problems, and that police have cleaned up worse communities than this," Levi adds. "Well, this may be no big deal to you. But this has devastated our lives."

* The names of all minors in this story have been changed.
The Public Forum on Hate Violence Prevention and Response in Santa Cruz County takes place from 7 to 9pm on Wednesday, May 19 at Louden Nelson Community Center, 301 Center St.

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From the May 19-26, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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