Derek Thomas stands at the fringes of the press conference, listening. Reporters and TV and radio crews are swarming about South L.A. activist Najee Ali, gang-intervention workers and members of the Brown Berets as they sign a symbolic “peace treaty” between blacks and Latinos in Harbor Gateway, a sliver of a neighborhood that has become synonymous with racial gang violence after the December murder of 14-year-old Cheryl Green, killed in broad daylight on 206th Street just because she was black.
As much as he’d like to, Thomas isn’t buying it. There are no gangbangers from 204th Street present at the treaty signing, which to Thomas and other people just means that the gang accused of killing Green and terrorizing other African-Americans in the neighborhood isn’t going to stop once the media glare goes away.
Tall, caramel-skinned, with clear green eyes, Thomas speaks in the crisp vernacular of the Southside. “We don’t know who they was, if they had any OGs there,” he says. “So we don’t know how serious to take it, cuz otherwise they would’ve showed they face, and we would’ve seen ’em and say, ‘Okay, at least they trying to come to an agreement, and leave all this stuff alone, show they face.’ We didn’t see no faces, so it’s still like, we don’t know what to do.”
It’s hard to come away from Ali’s press conference convinced that “black-brown tensions” in Los Angeles will dissipate any time soon. Ali, standing with Green’s mourning mother, Charlene Lovett, does his passionate best to portray the neighborhood as reborn from tragedy and strife, but tension hangs in the air nevertheless. None of this is new, of course, but the renewed focus on Harbor Gateway has resulted in a creeping sense that the old divisions in the neighborhood are always close to re-erupting. Up the block in front of the run-down Del Amo Market, LAPD cruisers are parked facing south, with officers in dark sunglasses leaning over their open doors. People who appeared to be recent immigrants hover across the street, and a few tough-looking guys, both black and brown, stop by to watch for a bit before moving on.
Does Thomas ever come to this store?
“Not at all,” he says flatly. “Came down here when I was a young boy, and they told me not to come back, and from then I ain’t never come back.”
Thomas wears a blue baseball cap, a long Ecko T-shirt and baggy jeans. Tattoos of East Asian characters are visible on his forearms. A little girl called Paris, whom he identifies as his niece, scampers between his legs.
“I was, like, 12 at the time. The school buses drop us off on 205th and 209th. So I got off on 205th, came to the store. One of the guys was like, ‘What are you doing over here?’ ‘Just going to the store.’ And then he was like, ‘You better get out of here.’ . . . And he pointed to the hill, like, ‘Go home.’ Cuz I lived over there. So I walked home and never came here since then.”
Without prodding, Thomas adds: “Then I turned 13 and I witnessed a killing, from one of them, killing my friend. I was on a bike, up there, on 209th. I was 13, that was eight years ago, exactly eight years ago.”
The reporters crowding around Thomas are momentarily silent, dulled by the cold truth of his words. Thomas’ eyes are steely. There is a fresh scar under his left eye. He tells us he once got in a fistfight with Ernesto Alcarez, one of the 204th Street gang members accused of killing Cheryl Green. Thomas says it happened right on these streets, back when he was 17, during his last year in high school. He says he won.
“One day I came home from school in Hawthorne and got into it with him.”
So you beat him up?
“Because he approached us. There was, like, five of them that approached me and my friends. I mean they was intentionally [trying] to beat us up and do stuff to us. Luckily I got the first hit in and got away. We ran away, and that was it.”
Thomas says Alcarez was spitting hate at him before they scrapped. “He was like, ‘204 Street, I don’t give a fuck about blacks.’ ” He never ran into Alcarez again until he saw the name on TV, when Alcarez was arrested in connection with the Green killing.
Did you ever get down with a gang? I ask.
“Oh, no. Some of my friends, they bang and stuff like that, but I don’t,” Thomas says. “I mean, they might think cuz I got tattoos and stuff, but I’m never down with a gang.”
He says he knew Cheryl, watched her grow up near his mom’s house on 207th Street. His high school was 70 percent Latino, he says. “I had a lot of Latino friends, they played on my basketball team, football team, I had a lot of respect for them. But I know when I get over here, I just gotta watch my back. I was never the racist, you know, I’m mixed — black and white and Indian. They look at me like, ‘It don’t matter you’re mixed, how you dressed, whatever, you’re a target.’”
Less than two days after the signing of the “peace treaty” before all those news cameras, and even after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LAPD Chief William Bratton, Sheriff Lee Baca and FBI Director Robert Mueller III appear at that same point to declare a “strategic dismantling” of the 204th Street gang, there is another racial attack in Harbor Gateway. At 2 a.m. on Saturday in front of an apartment building at 225th and Harvard, an African-American father is shot. Witnesses say the gunman was Latino.