L.A. Story: Who Gains from Framing Gang Attacks as "Ethnic Cleansing"?

Article excerpt

"WE NEED TO GO ON THE OFFENSIVE to put an end to this idea of ethnic cleansing in L.A.," declares Noreen McClendon, executive director of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. "It is not happening."

McClendon--an African American who serves as vice president of operations for the Watts Gang Task Force--is upset about a recent deluge of news stories claiming that Latinos are "ethnically cleansing" their African-American neighbors in southern California. The reports, which McClendon characterizes as dangerously misleading, have circulated widely in print, broadcast, and Web media, generating alarm in civil rights circles and unrestrained glee in those of anti-immigrant activists and white supremacists. In McClendon's view, all this hype obscures some basic realities: "Gangs kill each other. Gangs kill innocent people." The ethnic cleansing label, she says, "is blown so far out of proportion" with the facts on the ground.

Violent competition for control of the southern California drug trade between two prison gangs, the Mexican Mafia and the Black Guerilla Family, has been spilling onto the streets of Los Angeles for more than 15 years. Gangs that once included African-American and Chicano youth are increasingly segregated. In neighborhoods like Harbor Gateway, racist, anti-Black graffiti has become commonplace. Last year's trial of several Chicano gang members on murder and civil rights charges and other police investigations strongly indicate that some Mexican Mafia-connected gang members have crossed the line separating gang rivalry from deliberate, racially motivated crimes against innocent bystanders.

But the reasons for these developments, the scale of the problem and what must be done have been largely lost amidst sensationalist media declarations that a "race war" has broken out in Los Angeles. Although it is now clear that racism has indeed played a role in some gang killings, other non-lethal attacks and the ongoing threats faced by African American residents of certain neighborhoods, the propagation of the ethnic-cleansing frame has badly distorted a story that is sobering enough without the exaggerations.

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Last November, three members of a street gang known as Avenues 43 were sentenced on federal civil rights charges for their roles in the murders of two African-American men, Christopher Bowser and Kenneth Wilson, in separate attacks six years earlier in the Highland Park neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles. (A fourth convicted gang member was sentenced in January.) The victims were not gang members, and prosecutors successfully demonstrated that they had been targeted because of their race as part of an ongoing campaign to intimidate African Americans in the neighborhood. It's the first time that the Justice Department has brought civil rights conspiracy charges against members of a street gang.

The following month, 14-year-old Cheryl Green was killed in a spray of bullets that also wounded three of her friends in the South L.A. neighborhood of Harbor Gateway. Green and her friends, all African Americans, had no gang ties. The LAPD says that attack was also racially motivated and has charged two members of the 204th St. gang with murder and hate crimes violations. Both the Avenues and 204th Street gangs are Chicano, and--in the current climate of heightened concern over African American/Latino conflict inside California prisons, politics, and schools--these heinous crimes have made local and national headlines.

A recent wave of news stories on gangs in Los Angeles--known as the "gang capital of the world"--reveals that 2006 saw a 14-percent increase in gang violence and that racial hate crimes rose by 46 percent in 2005. An L.A. County Human Relations Commission report indicates that African Americans, who represent 9 percent of the county's population, accounted for over half of its hate crime victims in 2005, and that Latinos were the perpetrators in 68 percent of those crimes (156 incidents). …