WAS AGUSTIN CONTRERAS a gang member?
His family and friends say no. Police say it’s “unconfirmed.” And “jack of all Latino legal causes” Luis Carillo says definitely not. But it might not matter much any more.
The 17-year-old Contreras is dead, and a city that seems to have a morbidly self-destructive hunger for a summer of fire immediately saw Contreras’ senseless killing, at Venice High School, as a potential spark.
Contreras was fatally shot in the chest Monday while defending his younger brother, Alejo, against getting jumped for his jewelry in the faculty parking lot after school. The Contreras boys are Latino, from the Mar Vista housing projects. The kids who were beating up on Alejo were black, from the Oakwood area of Venice, according to police and witnesses.
This was enough for the media to sound the now-familiar call of rising “black-brown tension” in L.A.
Enter Najee Ali of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. Ali showed up at Venice High the next morning to assess the situation, and Carillo visited the Contreras family at their cramped, dim apartment later that afternoon, where he declined to say if there was a lawsuit to be filed on the matter. Meanwhile, City Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office put out a call for a town-hall meeting to address “rising racial tension” in the Oakwood, neglecting to mention that the meeting had been scheduled far in advance of the Monday shooting. In fact, according to Rosendahl press deputy Safiya Jones, the meeting had been organized to address tensions between old-school Oakwood African-Americans and new whites.
Ali organized over the weekend the latest of these increasingly more frequent black-brown conferences and roundtables, which was crashed by Minutemen of color. He expressed bewilderment that Venice High School, as he determined during his visit, was not a hotbed of tensions between bloodthirsty youth who see nothing but one another’s skin color. “Surprisingly, that particular school hasn’t been racked by racial violence. Everyone was pretty shocked,” Ali said. He added that he was unable to attend the town hall that night in the Oakwood, but that all these race-relations roundtables are a good sign. “I don’t know if it’s post-Crash L.A., where people are trying to build bridges instead of walls.”
Los Angeles, let’s all please calm down for a second.
While gang violence and racial tension remain a fact of life in our urban condition, and dialogue is always helpful if it makes politicians, activists and media commentators feel good about the sound of their own voices, the city’s recent obsession with “black-brown tension” is starting to feel like a media-fueled, self-generating trend, another L.A. fear factor to notch up along natural catastrophe, terrorism and bird flu. Only, this one is a visceral threat, because if you say it enough — blacks are at war with browns, and that’s the black-and-white of it — it may actually come true.
A tragedy happened at Venice High on Monday, not much more, not much less.
Contreras, an 11th grader with a gift for drawing, was looking for his brother after school on Monday as he did each day because their schedule was to get picked up curbside by an aunt. When he saw that Alejo was getting roughed up by three kids who wanted his chain, Contreras rushed over.
Students recounted that there was a fight, and an instant after someone yelled, “He’s got a gun!” Agustin Contreras was on the ground with a bullet in his chest. Several witnesses said there was no sound of gunfire.
“His head landing on the floor was more like a shot to me, because that’s what got my attention, his head banging on the floor,” said a 17-year-old 11th-grade girl. “Two girls ran towards him and then one of them hugged him and started crying.”
Is there racial beef at Venice High? The girl paused. “The guy wanted [Alejo’s] stuff, wanted his chain, I guess because the other guys, they’re from a gang, Shoreline, and I guess [Agustin] dissed the gang or something, and that’s why they got mad.”
Three L.A. Unified School District police officers said the shooting was gang-related, but stopped short of referring to Contreras as a gang member. The cops stood near the asphalt where Contreras bled, which on Tuesday was covered with fresh graffiti reading “R.I.P. BUGS.” (“Bugs” was Agustin Contreras’ street name.)
“It’s mostly one gang against another gang,” said Sergeant J.R. Lopez.
“In other words, it’s not a racial problem, but a gang problem,” said Officer R. Peak.
But things never being as simple as that, it’s important to note that the gang problem in Venice about a decade ago was a race problem as well. Gang-intervention activists based in the area have been working on it for years.
In the early 1990s, according to detailed L.A. Times stories at the time, the Shoreline Cripps, who are home-based in the Oakwood, and the Culver City Boys, who are from the Mar Vista housing projects, were in a heated economic turf war. The cycle of violence became racial, and resulted in 30 shootings and 13 deaths, some of them of innocents. (One Times story, in December 1993, noted dryly: “Police believe the entire gang feud in Venice started last February when two friends — one Latino and one black — fought over a crack-cocaine pipe.”)
At the Contreras house on Tuesday, administrators from the elementary school across the street arrived to give condolences to the grieving parents, immigrants from Guanajuato. A Housing Authority gardener — an African-American — rode by on a lawn mower and stopped to ask if the family needed anything. The specter of retaliation was real. “We want to do everything by the law, because that revenge thing doesn’t work. They did it, okay, that’s done,” Agustin Contreras’ aunt Gloria Cabrera said in Spanish. “We should give them the message that they shouldn’t make mothers suffer, because they have mothers, too. This time, it was our family.”
Venice High felt as normal as could be expected for a multiracial big-city school a day after a gang shooting. It was ditch day. LAPD cruisers and TV-news vans were parked out front, and extra L.A. Unified police surveyed the courtyards from their bikes. Military recruiters cruised the hallways, and on the lawn outside, brown-skinned punks toted guitars and young reggaeton adherents played with their ring tones. Students gathered around a makeshift altar on a patch of grass, where balloons tied to candles read in black marker: “R.I.P. BUGS.”
Principal Jan Davis, known as a patient, levelheaded character, was seen stepping away from the altar to meet halfway with a few teenage Latino tough guys who were approaching from Venice Boulevard as a unit, dressed in baggy jeans, caps, and large, plain T-shirts.
Davis stood in the middle of the circle of boys and spoke directly to them, eye to eye.