The Broken Trust

Dedication Day has arrived for L.A.’s first official Graffiti Free Zone. The mayor, the city attorney, City Councilwoman Jan Perry and the Newton Division of the LAPD are all sponsoring the event. In terms of luminaries, only the commanding officer of Newton, Captain Thomas Maeweather, actually showed up last Saturday morning.

The Graffiti Free Zone is a 2 12-mile-square area that extends from East Washington Boulevard to Jefferson Boulevard, and from Central Avenue to the Harbor Freeway. If the program works, the zone will be expanded until it covers all of Newton Division. The idea is the brainchild of one of Newton‘s officers, Lieutenant Peter Wittingham, who had heard that boroughs in New York had success with a similar program. “So we decided to try it here as a way of sending a message to the community that we’re their partners,” says Captain Maeweather. “And they have the right to live in a clean neighborhood. So we‘re going to do everything we can to arrest those who are doing the graffiti. Any damage over $400, that’s felony vandalism. That person will go to state prison.”

The ceremony is to take place at Trinity Park at the corner of Trinity and 24th streets, where 8-year-old Antonio Ramirez was shot and killed by gang crossfire one evening last April. The day‘s events are divided into two parts -- one is to begin at 8 a.m., at which time as many as a thousand community volunteers are expected to gather and be dispatched with paint and equipment to various locations via four big yellow buses that are parked on the street around the park’s perimeter. By noon the cleanup and painting should be finished, and the volunteers will return for part two, which is to include music, speeches and a festive outdoor picnic lunch.

A series of brightly colored, tented booths have been set up along the edge of the park‘s basketball courts. There, representatives from the LAPD, the Department of Public Works, the City Attorney’s Office and various gang-intervention agencies will offer literature listing ways that Newton residents can help lower crime in their newly graffiti-free community. “This project is a perfect example of what Chief Bratton is talking about in terms of community and police cooperation,” says Lt. Wittingham.

The first intimation that the event isn‘t going to be a rousing success comes early. Instead of the hundreds of volunteers Maeweather expects, nobody comes at all. Okay, maybe five people show up. But certainly not enough to fill the big yellow buses, which now stand empty and useless.

Fortunately, there was a backup plan. Paid crews from Operation Clean Sweep (the Department of Public Works graffiti-abatement project) plus 143 kids from Clean and Green -- a Conservation Corps--like program that hires lower-income teenagers -- have also been scheduled to help. By 9 a.m. the paid crews and the kids, who are all dressed in shamrock-green T-shirts, are quickly sent out to the zone.

Back at the park, Wittingham tries to give the situation a positive spin. “I think it’s the holidays, and people have worked hard at their jobs all week, and probably want to stay home on Saturday morning,” he says. “But I think they‘ll be here for the picnic.” Wittingham, a tall, Jamaican-born man with a heartbreaker’s good looks and what appears to be a genuinely sincere demeanor, has even brought his own 10-year-old daughter to the event. “I don‘t live here,” he says. “But I think it’s important to consider myself part of this community.”

Noon rolls around. “Lose Yourself,” Eminem‘s hit single from the 8 Mile soundtrack, blares from the loudspeakers that have been set up along with microphones, and rows of white folding chairs to accommodate the still-absent crowds. Nine of Newton Division’s senior lead officers are here along with Maeweather and Wittingham to chat up community members. But they mostly end up talking to one another. By 12:30 p.m., the painting crews have finished and a thousand KFC fried-chicken lunches -- purchased by the city at a cost of $4 per lunch -- have arrived. Yet, even with the offer of free food and music, only about 30 actual residents join the painters and the Clean and Green kids in the lunch queue.

At 12:40, Captain Maeweather strides to a microphone and clears his throat. “I‘m a little disappointed that we didn’t have more residents out there working with the different agencies,” he says, his voice booming through the park. “All I want to say is, we‘ll be here to support you, but we need the involvement of the folks who live here to help us focus our efforts.”

By 1:30, the event is over, and Wittingham is left to decide what to do with the 750 uneaten lunches. As to why the residents didn’t show up, he shrugs. “I just don‘t know,” he says. “We need to break down barriers, I guess.” One of the senior lead officers is more cynical. “It’s apathy,” he says. “Nobody in this community really cares.”

A few blocks away at the All Peoples Christian Church, a churchwoman who did attend the event dismisses the senior lead officer‘s remark as ridiculous. “You know why people don’t go to something hosted by the police? We don‘t want to go, because we feel threatened. There is a lot of fear among our residents, because for years, people have had bad encounters with the police. I mean every single person will tell you that the police did this and this to my cousin, and this and this to my brother. Even my own mother has had bad encounters with the police.” As for apathy, the woman is equally dismissive. “We are a poor community,” she says. “Yet one night every month, our church ladies make food and take it down to Skid Row to feed more than 100 men and women and children. Does that sound like apathy? No,” she says. “Residents didn’t go today because they are scared, and also because people the police are targeting with this new graffiti enforcement are our children.”

The Clean and Green kids, most of whom live in South-Central, concur. “People don‘t trust the police because, in our community, the police officers usually make things worse,” says a 14-year-old named Judah, who says she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. “They put guns to people’s heads. They beat people down. They act like a gang themselves, so how can you trust them?”

“My mom always tells me you can break trust in a minute,” agrees a tall, thin boy. “But building it back up again takes time. The police have broken people‘s trust. Now they got to build it up. And that isn’t going to happen fast.”

“Maybe we need to guide the police,” says Carlos Figueroa, the energetic 25-year-old who is the Clean and Green team supervisor. “The new chief says that the gang members are all terrorists, and we know that‘s crazy. So, maybe we need to guide the police, and show them what we want them to do for us. Hey,” he says, “even I used to be a tagger, back in the day.”

On Monday morning, two days after the event, Captain Maeweather has his own analysis. “I felt really bad,” he says. “But I’m not discouraged. Because I know people are right; we have a long way to go. Some of our officers are still into the cops-and-robbers mindset, and we have to change that. For some of them, service to the community doesn‘t come naturally. But we’re working on that. The message is coming down from my seat that we don‘t want to be known as Shootin’ Newton anymore.” Maeweather pauses.

“Look,” he says finally, “I live in Phillips Ranch. But I grew up in this community. And my mother still lives in the 77th. So this may not be real for all of the officers. But it‘s real for me. And I’m not giving up. We‘ve got to get past the fear and distrust, and work together and create alternatives for the gang members. Otherwise, what have we got? We’ll put the same folks in jail, over and over and over and over and over. We‘ll paint the same buildings over and over and over. And nothing will really change. And I don’t want that.”

Another pause. “So, we have to find a better way, okay? We have to let people know we‘re all in this together: That means the police, the business leaders, the community, the gang members and the rest of the city -- including all those people on the Westside of L.A. who don’t think this is their problem. And if folks didn‘t show up this time,” says Maeweather, “maybe they will next time. Or the time after that.”


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