By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
School is out for most of the kids of Langdon Street. Some flank their mothers as they push listing shopping carts down the block to the store on the corner. They pass the 6-foot, black iron fence that surrounds the church and community center where mobs of other children chase a soccer ball on sparse patches of grass. Nearby stands an empty gym, where one neighborhood boy, about 12 years old, is shooting a basketball by himself. He’s one of Evelio Franco’s pet projects.
"Where’s your brother?" asks Franco, a community organizer who’s been working in the area for five years — new enough to have to keep earning trust.
"I don’t know."
"He’s with the guys, right?" Franco asks, and the silent response is enough of an answer. "Stay out of trouble."
Franco slaps the kid on his back and walks away. "He’s a good kid. Smart. But I still worry. His brother just got his tattoos the other day."
Evelio Franco and his painstaking, personal-touch style of social work is one version of a solution in this crime-racked working-class neighborhood of North Hills that straddles the 405 freeway in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. Another is the one imposed in late May at the request of City Attorney James Hahn: a gang injunction that imposes strict prohibitions on the behavior and association of 31 named members of the Langdon Street gang, which has dominated community life for years.
But while Franco is making friends and contacts, the injunction has encountered strong and growing resistance. Community groups are organizing residents to challenge the injunction when it comes up for review in September. And last week, the Orange County district office of the League of United Latin American Citizens issued a statement denouncing the Langdon Street injunction. "We are encouraging positive programs for the community rather than oppressive actions," said Manuel Marroquin, the organization’s deputy director. "Gang injunctions simply do not produce positive results."
The Rev. Jim Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Sepulveda, says the crackdown has alienated local youth and is making his job harder. "It just seems to undermine everything we were doing," Hamilton said in an interview. "We were pulling the community together."
Doris CastAneda recalls her confusion when she first heard the term "gang injunction." It was just another strange phrase in a questionnaire distributed by the city. Little did she know two years later she’d be spending so much of her time fighting to get rid of one in her hometown.
It was in the fall of 1997 that the city’s nuisance-abatement program sent a small team of representatives out into the neighborhood to conduct a door-to-door survey asking people who live and work there — mostly natives of Central America — "What are the three most urgent problems in your neighborhood?" About 250 people responded, most selecting drug activity, gangs and crime. Many were reported too afraid to answer at all.
Castaneda remembers those days, and now calls the survey "a complete lie." Through a translator, she says the survey asked residents if they wanted to get rid of drugs and crime, and interpreted their affirmative answers as support for a gang injunction. Castaneda says if those same residents knew what they were endorsing, they would have opposed the injunction.
The mother of eight — one of her sons is listed on the injunction — Castaneda was already working on the gang problem. She had formed Familias Unitas, a neighborhood group of about 30 residents, a year before to help rehabilitate the neighborhood. When they learned of the city attorney’s decision, Castaneda says, the group approached Connie Rodriguez, a former Head Start schoolteacher at Langdon Street who had also taught at Blythe Street, where an injunction had been in place since 1993.
Rodriguez was an early and ardent critic of the gang injunctions. She points to a 1997 study of Blythe Street conducted by the ACLU, which found that crime actually increased with the injunction in place.
Beyond simple measures of crime, Rodriguez is concerned with the impact the Langdon Street injunction will have on personal freedoms.
"You have 31 named gang members here. The majority of them are in jail right now, and of the remainder, half of those aren’t even gang members," Rodriguez says. "So based on maybe seven or eight alleged gang members, the city attorney, James Hahn, is proposing to hold the community under siege."
Officials dismiss such opposition. They argue that people who warn about an impending police state don’t understand how the injunction works, or are overreacting in their defense of gang-connected relatives. Marty Vranicar, an assistant city attorney and supervisor of the gang unit, says the injunction is needed to allow other social services to operate.
"We feel the tool, properly used, provides enough of a suppressive effect such that the other resources that are needed in the community can be brought to bear on some of the social problems that have caused the problem to begin with," Vranicar says.
For community organizers like Evilo Franco, that sort of work was being done years before the injunction.