Its pushing past 10 oclock on Friday night, and smoke from a barrage of fireworks still lingers above the historic grandstand at the Los Angeles County Fair.
The crowds that pack the broadway jostle for the exits and that last, vain dash to the beer stands that these days are supposed to close at 10 sharp. A few lucky guys manage to emerge with that final five-dollar plastic cup full of booze; others stomp, curse and gaze repeatedly at their watches as if it really couldnt be so late.
The cops, perhaps a dozen of Pomonas finest, are lined up across the entrance to the carnival, bathed in the garish lights from the roller coasters and rides. Their eyes dart among the crowd that swirls around them; some let their hands fidget on batons and holsters, others fold their arms defensively in front of them. Collectively they appear to be in a purgatory somewhere between alert and downright edgy.
Then, out of the pulsing crowd of tired moms, sugar-wired kids and beer-addled dads, emerges a pack of homeboys, their shaved heads slick and shining under the colored lights. Eyes narrowed to hard-looking slits and walking at a clip that betrays an ominous sense of purpose, they head straight for the carnival entrance and the police line.
For the cops, the sight of vatos dressed to impress -- or, more accurately, intimidate -- is like a tiger shark emerging from a school of scattering fish. It means trouble.
As the homeboys approach, the officers converge on them almost casually from all sides, perhaps hoping to avoid any commotion as they initiate some street diplomacy thats known in fair jargon as the meet and greet.
In short order, the lawmen extend an invitation (one, as the old saying goes, you cant refuse) to a small, enclosed patio behind the Pomona P.D.s tiny station house at the fair -- one thats safely away from public view. A few moments later, the homies emerge from behind the wood gate, some smiling sheepishly, others with brows furrowed in anger. They disappear quickly into the crowd streaming into the carnival. The cops again fill out their skirmish line and wait for the next catch. It starts all over again.
While perpetual cop critics may sense something odious about police ushering suspected gang members behind the building for a heart-to-heart talk, there seems to be little more going on than some good old-fashioned verbal intimidation. Names are taken, but asses are not kicked -- yet.
Basically, we welcome them to the carnival section of the fair and let them know what the rules are, says Captain Joe Romero, a veteran Pomona officer who has pulled duty at the county fete since the early 1970s. Well get some basic info on them. We may pat them down, advise them that the carnival section is full of families out to enjoy the fair and that we will not allow any mad-dogging (hard stares) or throwing of gang signs or rowdy behavior.
Sometimes the gang members are photographed, but the entire encounter is usually videotaped by police cautious of accusations of harassment and interested in keeping a record of gang members who pass through the fair. County parole officers are also on hand, keeping tabs and looking for violators. After the points are made, the gang members are free to go, presuming there are no warrants or parole violations.
Of course, some may question who exactly gets pulled aside for a discussion and what the criteria are, but the formula seems centered more on common sense than racial profiling.
Were looking for guys who come in wanting to be noticed, says Officer Joe Waltman, a 17-year veteran of the force who works the departments gang detail. The guys we pull aside at the fair are usually walking billboards. Theyre advertising who they are and what gang theyre from.
As he watches people stream in and out of the carnival, Waltman points out who does and who doesnt make the official greeting list.
Wannabes, smalltime, he snorts as a crew of Latino teens decked out in street gear strut by unmolested, chests out in bravado. Waltman seems to sense that they are trying too hard. Theyre a party crew, looking more for girls than a fight.
Some punkers stroll by.
Being a fashion victim is not against the law or necessarily dangerous, he chuckles.
A tightly knit group of well-dressed, stone-faced rancheros cruises through the police line, and Waltman takes note. Now those guys were probably drug dealers. But we shake them down and all wed find are cell phones, pagers and a lot of cash. Theyre here to spend their money and thats about it.
Waltmans radar goes off again moments later as a lone, middle-aged black man emerges from the crowd. Here comes an O.G. from Sin Town [a notorious Pomona Crip set] now, he says. The man spots Waltman, and the two start laughing simultaneously.
Waz up? the man says as he shakes hands and exchanges banter with the cop. Ive been out for a while and Im stayin out this time, he tells Waltman. There is no search or rap about the rules; its more of a catch-up session. As the man finally moves on down the midway, Waltman notes previous encounters with the Crip were less pleasant. We killed his brother in a shootout a few years ago.
By most indications, the Pomona P.D.s meet and greet strategy has played a critical role in reducing the violent brawls that once were a hallmark of the fair. Indeed, slugfests and shankings in the old Fun Zone (now renamed the carnival section) were once so common and brutal that it left what seems to be an indelible stain on an otherwise ever-more-polished event.
Those turbulent times, and the possibility they might somehow return, have shaped a take no chances attitude among the fairs governing managers and security apparatus.
Started primarily as a five-day agricultural event in 1922, the L.A. County Fair has grown into the largest county exposition in North America, sprawled across 487 acres in the shadow of Pomonas upper-crust Ganesha Hills neighborhood. Its 18-day run this year closes Sunday.
The fairs governing association (a Whos Who of old-guard power brokers in the Pomona Valley) has poured millions into improvements at the Fairplex facility.
Fair officials have waged a staggering public-relations campaign to make sure local media stay on message -- an easier feat to accomplish in the local daily newspapers these days, since all of the surrounding regional dailies are now owned by the same publisher, media magnate Dean Singleton. Singletons media chain is now a major sponsor at the fair. In recent years, the Fairplex communications department has cranked out literally hundreds of press releases every fair season to make sure its the Senior Citizen Milk Drinking Contest that makes the papers and broadcast-news spots, not the odd stabbing that still goes down when the moon comes up. In the midst of their Giuliani-style make-over, the flacks seem more edgy than the cops on the beat, in a constant state of fear that their carefully crafted image of a brighter, safer and cleaner L.A. County Fair may be besmirched by a reporter looking past the cotton candy.
It is a fear that the darker past of the fair may somehow rear its head again, despite the nearly 50 officers that the Pomona P.D. dispatches throughout the fairgrounds (a force supplemented by private security guards).
On opening day this year, the death of jockey J.C. Gonzalez, who was trampled to death when his horse went down in the fifth race, made headlines. The 16-year-old girl who was stabbed in the neck during a gang fight in the fairs carnival did not. Nor did the 46-year-old man who was arrested for committing a lewd act with a child in the kiddie-rides section.
And the brawl in the carnival that one cop summed up as some guy getting his face kicked in didnt make the papers either.
The bottom line is, the fair is safer than perhaps it ever has been in the past 30 years, but it can be a dangerous place to have fun.
Still, listening to some of the old-time badge wearers, its hard to imagine a return to the bloody times of years past.
Back in the 1970s, wed arrive at the fair with our helmets on, and wed throw on our sap gloves and get our batons and Mace ready, one older officer recalls. You knew by sundown there were going to be 40 or 50 gang members squaring off in the Fun Zone. It was assholes and elbows nearly every night.
He seems almost wistful as he thinks back.
But the fair eventually cleaned up the carnival, he sighs. And we cleaned up the people.