Keeping a Holiday Gang Truce

I don't remember any of these holiday truces actually working, but like those classic holiday movies they seem to make us all feel good for the moment, even if they are works of fiction.

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The holiday season was full of traditions. Christmas classics such as "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," and "It's A Wonderful Life" appeared on television. We saw the annual parades and football games. Coverage from New York's Times Square was at the center of New Year's Eve parties.

I've noticed another story that occurs every year—the holiday gang truce. Some well-meaning reporter will warm our sentimental hearts with a tale of a gang cease fire in honor of the holiday season. The 5 o'clock news features images of young street thugs shaking hands and being praised by local ministers and politicians for bringing peace to some ghetto or barrio.

The other required players in this made-for-TV story are "former" gang members, now called gang "workers," and a Father Flanagan or street minister type. The news narrative often promises a temporary end of gang violence based on the honoring of the sacred season by these gang members.

I've seen this scenario play out every holiday season for four decades. I don't remember any of these holiday truces actually working, but like those classic holiday movies they seem to make us all feel good for the moment, even if they are works of fiction.

The holidays put added pressure on reporters to give us a positive human interest story. Like the torch carried by the ghost of Christmas present, their magic touch turns these mean-spirited, vengeance-driven thugs into honorable gentlemen.

The gang members too usually benefit from this positive press coverage. There is a greater tolerance generally of gang members by the community because of this coverage. "Maybe these gangsters are humans after all," people think. However, as a working cop in these heavy gang areas I remember that this holiday season traditionally was the time that most of the hospital emergency rooms were the busiest with gang victims.

Don't be fooled. To honor a truce, there must first be participants who can act in an honorable way. It requires individuals who have respect for the rules of war, and an acceptable code of conduct, but this is not the description of most gang members. Street gangs are made up of many undisciplined individuals. It only takes one gang thug to break the truce.

While the news reporter and the uninvolved public are busy celebrating the peace, the peace must be kept by someone. Gang cops sacrifice their family holiday time to give citizens in these war-torn areas some peace. Holiday truces only work if someone works to keep the peace.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So unless something is changed, the return to the previous situation of continued gang war will result. There must be an intervention by an influential party to apply pressure on the gangs to keep the truce. The truce must be even more closely monitored when tensions increase. Keeping the peace is hard and dangerous work.

Being a Christian, I'm not against the attempts at holiday cease fires or truces. I'm just against the empty feel-good media rerun of failed policies to sell papers or bump TV ratings.

In the 1980s, East Los Angeles was in a period of some of the worst gang violence in many decades. The local street gangs were killing each other at a record rate. This was especially true among the 20 some rival Maravilla gangs. And the worst and most bitter vendetta was between the Arizona Maravilla and the neighboring Lote Maravilla gang.

Ironically, both gangs had their origins in the post World War II Maravilla government housing projects, but by the 1970's most members lived just outside the projects in neighboring low-income ELA housing tracts. The rival gang barrios of Arizona and Lote Maravilla were so closely related that the children attended the same grammar schools, park playgrounds, and churches. Gang members often had relatives in the rival gang, and they all shared the same turf when they were buried.

This familiarity only bred contempt. This close relationship fueled the bitter gang rivalry and even though some of their homes had backyards that adjoined their rival's backyards, firefights often broke out on the public streets when gang members recognized each other. These former grammar school classmates stepped up the violence by one-upping one brutal murder with another. Neither gang would back down.

The local parish priest found himself burying these young men from both sides. He watched families torn apart by the death, or by the trial and prison sentence dished out to the gang shooters. Finally, the parish priest organized a meeting of the parents from these two gang areas in an effort to educate and activate the ELA families.

Most of those who attended were as puzzled and frustrated by the actions of these gang members as the priest and police. Most of those who responded were Latina women who were immersed in the Latino gang culture. Most of them were mothers, who had difficulty understanding their own at-risk children. They might have been uncomfortable with the way their young men dressed, drank or hung out, but none of them wanted to think that their sons could be part of the gang madness. It must be the sons of the mothers from the other neighborhood, they imagined.

Over the next few weeks, the group adopted the working name, "The Concerned Mothers of East Los Angeles." The good priest facilitated an awakening of the group to the hard facts. They talked about who should be responsible. And as ugly as it might seem, they actually had to actively do something about the problem of violence.

These brave women became close friends. They began calling each other on the telephone and warning others of suspicious gang-like activity. Whenever one of them heard rumors of a possible gang drive-by in one of the neighborhoods, mothers from both the victim and the suspect gangs would form "prayer chains." Before the shooting could occur and for hours into the night, the concerned mothers would slowly walk in single file around the targeted neighborhoods reciting the Rosary or some other group prayers.

The street gang members who might have considered shooting at rivals there were detoured by the presence of the parish priest and the praying ELA mothers. The gang code of conduct glorified violent gang vendettas and in acting out these killings there was little thought about the safety of any witnesses or collateral victims. However, killing some mother in the act of marching and praying for peace, especially when the woman might be your homeboy's mother or even your own, was just not acceptable.

On those cold winter nights during that holiday season in the gang barrios, ELA residents turned on their holiday lights, played Christmas carols, and trimmed their decorated trees that were visible in the living room windows. They could do this because outside a procession of concerned mothers, veiled and some carrying candles, walked slowly around the blocks praying for peace in their community. These wonderful women were willing to march with mothers of rival gang members, placing themselves between their own neighborhood boys and the homes of gang rivals.

The concerned mothers organization's name was later hijacked by individuals motivated to stop the building of a state prison in this community. Recently, I've heard that the organization has become an environmental advocacy group.

While some might consider these newer goals important to the community, the Concerned Mothers of ELA that I knew were angels willing to risk their lives to keep the holiday truce. These women were peace keepers respected by the community, the police, and the gang members. God bless them all.

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