The Media Gets it Wrong: L.A. Gang Violence Not "Ethnic Cleansing"
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
"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 L.A. 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. While it is now clear that racism has indeed played a role in some gang killings, other non-lethal attacks, and in 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.
* * *
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, account for over half of its hate crime victims in 2005, and that Latinos were the perpetrators in 68 percent of those crimes (156 incidents). African Americans were the perpetrators in 93, or 76 percent, of bias crimes against Latinos, who make up a much larger share (45 percent) of L.A.'s population. Of the 56 cases of gang-involved racial crimes, the overwhelming majority involved Latino gang members and African American victims. According to LAPD figures, "serious" gang crimes (i.e. homicides, aggravated assaults and robberies) across racial lines rose 11 percent between 2002 and 2006: from 213 to 240 Black-on-Latino attacks (+12.6 percent); and from 247 to 269 Latino-on-Black attacks (+8.9 percent).
Despite this disturbing increase in inter-racial violence, the vast majority of gang crime has been and remains intra-racial -- Latino on Latino and Black on Black -- a fact often lost in the jumble of crime statistics, and media coverage that highlights racial conflict between communities of color. Also, some of the incidents cited as evidence of "ethnic cleansing" -- such as the murders that resulted in convictions of Avenues 43 members on civil rights charges -- took place six or more years ago. Violent gang crimes are actually down from highs 10 years ago, overall crime in Los Angeles has dropped for five straight years and even bias crimes are below mid-'90s and post-911 peaks. Between 2002 and 2005, only one African American was killed by a Latino, a gang member, in a racially motivated incident.
While these crimes statistics raise serious concerns and demonstrate that all is not well in SoCal, they do not support the charge of ethnic cleansing.
In January that phrase, which had previously appeared on gang-watch websites, was suddenly everywhere following the Los Angeles Times ' publication of an editorial by Rutgers Law Professor Tanya K. Hernandez. Referencing the trial of Avenues 43 members, Hernandez pronounced Green's murder "a manifestation of an increasingly common trend: Latino ethnic cleansing of African Americans from multiracial neighborhoods." Rather than explain this bombshell of a conclusion, Hernandez used the Green murder as an opportunity to present her thesis that Latino prejudices against African Americans often have roots in immigrants' countries of origin-a subject on which she has published scholarly articles. This argument deserves consideration, but in presenting it as context for the charge of ethnic cleansing, Hernandez provided ammunition for those who would argue that Latinos, as a generalized whole, are a threat to African Americans and that the danger posed by new (read "illegal") immigrants can be lethal. Ironically, the people actually charged with the Green, Bowser, and Wilson murders were members of Chicano gangs whose L.A. roots go back many decades.
On the heels of the Hernandez editorial and bolstering her charge, the Southern Poverty Law Center, best known for its research on and prosecution of white supremacist organizations, published an exposÃ© under the titles "L.A. Blackout" and "Ethnic Cleansing in L.A." Writing for SPLC's Intelligence Report magazine, journalist Brentin Mock provided a chilling account of the racial boundaries drawn and violently enforced by Avenues 43 in Highland Park, and racial attacks by "Latino gangs" against African Americans in other L.A. neighborhoods. However, the story's main claim is that Latino gangs are waging "a campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' -- racial terror that is directed solely at African Americans." Mock claims that the Mexican Mafia prison gang (La Eme in Spanish) has issued a "green light" or "gang-life fatwah" on Blacks all over Southern California, to be carried out by the numerous gangs under its influence. (A companion story labels the violence a "race war.") The piece concludes with the message that Blacks everywhere in Los Angeles are considered "green light" targets by Latino gangs.
News outlets from National Public Radio to England's Observer newspaper have picked up the ethnic cleansing frame. Even reporters who have avoided phrases like "race war" and "ethnic cleansing" have left Hernandez and Mock's characterizations largely unchallenged. The Hernandez and Mock stories reached broad progressive audiences by means of alternative media websites such as BlackCommentator and AlterNet, respectively. One notable critique, by Roberto Lovato in The Nation magazine, was also republished up by AlterNet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some local African American community activists, concerned that law enforcement has been slow to respond to the dynamic of racial attacks, began using the term "ethnic cleansing" to protest the situation in Harbor Gateway, the neighborhood where Cheryl Green was killed.
* * *
Racially motivated violence directed by some Chicano gangs against African Americans is an alarming development that warrants both sober investigation and determined community action. However, some violence prevention organizers in L.A.'s African American community reject the ethnic cleansing charge as wrongheaded and even outrageous.
Aqeela Sherrills, a former Crip who has been a leader in gang intervention efforts in L.A. and all over the United States for the past 16 years, insists, "There is no green light on African Americans." Sherrills helped broker a famous truce between L.A.'s Crips and Bloods in 1992 and understands the dynamics of gang violence better than most. He says the Mexican Mafia is run by "businessmen -- some of the smartest people around," and would find no advantage in a generalized conflict with African Americans.
Noreen McClendon, at Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, questions the labeling of some high-profile crimes as racially motivated. She believes the murder of 14-year-old Cheryl Green -- which prompted the LA Times' "ethnic cleansing" editorial -- was revenge for the killing of Arturo Mercado, 34, the previous week, allegedly by an African American gang. Police have not solved that murder. Sherrills, too, believes Green's death was "a random act, a conflict between a few 204th St. gang members and a local Black gang." "Innocent people get caught in the crossfire," he says. The "race war" image, he concludes, "is driven by law enforcement and the media."
Sheilagh Polk, the media relations manager at the Community Coalition, a South Los Angeles agency dedicated to addressing the socioeconomic conditions that lead to violence, is concerned about incidents of racially motivated violence against African Americans but fears the media hype could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. She notes that news media "have played a significant role in escalating gang violence" in the past. McClendon echoes this concern, saying, "When you have Fox news broadcasting about racial violence inside prisons, that creates pressure outside to retaliate."
Pressed on the question of whether African Americans throughout L.A. and southern California might be under threat of violence from Latino gangs, Sherrills argues, "Gangs put out green lights on specific people or neighborhoods. If there were a green light [on all African Americans], there would be a lot more dead Black people and dead Latinos out there."
Indeed, "ethnic cleansing" conjures the massacres of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs (recently declared "genocide" by the International Court of Justice), the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda, and Sunni attacks on Shiites in present-day Iraq. It indicates a policy of forcible removal of whole communities and is sometimes a prelude to mass murder. However dangerous Highland Park, Harbor Gateway, and other L.A. neighborhoods have become for their African American (and other) residents, the charge of ethnic cleansing is inaccurate and unproductive. Rather, it distorts our understanding of the scale and nature of the actual problem and cheapens the meaning of the language we use to describe modern-day mass ethnic violence. Moreover, the misuse of the term "ethnic cleansing" to describe the ongoing situation in parts of Los Angeles has played to the benefit of reactionary groups and movements unconcerned with racial justice.
* * *
Tony Rafael is the pen name of perhaps the most persistent purveyor of the ethnic cleansing frame. Described in the Southern Poverty Law Center story as "a respected writer" who conceals his identity to avoid gang reprisals, "Rafael" is a key source for its assertion that the Mexican Mafia has put out a "green light" for hits on all African Americans. Rafael operates a gang-focused blog site, In the Hat, where he has been making the ethnic cleansing charge against Latino gangs for the last several years. His liberal-baiting book reviews can be found on infamous rightwing culture warrior David Horowitz's Web magazine Frontpagemag. (Horowitz is a key figure in campaigns against affirmative action and campus multiculturalism.) In one such screed, Rafael tars liberals (e.g., John Kerry supporters) as approving of Holocaust denial theories that are, in point of fact, popular with the far right. His forthcoming book on the Mexican Mafia is from Encounter Books-publisher of Victor Davis Hanson's anti-immigrant tract, Mexifornia -- whose catalog features such conservative stars as Horowitz, Ward Connerly, Thomas Sowell, and William Kristol. While the Mexican Mafia may indeed be ratcheting up racially motivated violence in some neighborhoods, Intelligence Report readers deserve to know that Rafael's analysis may be colored by his apparent rightwing leanings.
Tony Rafael sees the Mexican Mafia's alleged ethnic cleansing policy as an extension of its leaders' pride in their Aztec ancestry. In an interview published by SPLC, Rafael explains, "[T]here are no black people in the Aztec culture ... They see themselves as a race unto themselves, and there's really not too much room for anybody else." Some Chicano activists refer to the southwestern U.S. as AztlÃ¡n, the Aztec homeland. Rafael's characterization resonates with a popular racist Reconquista conspiracy theory, peddled by the Minuteman Project and other anti-immigrant groups, which holds that Mexico is infiltrating its citizens into the Southwest with the goal of reclaiming territory conquered by the United States in 1848.
Predictably, white supremacist and other anti-immigrant forces have exploited the "race war" and "ethnic cleansing" frames for their own purposes. In late March, African American Minuteman Ted Hayes led a "civil rights march to stop ethnic cleansing of U.S. black citizens by illegal aliens" on the anniversary of a massive 2006 immigrant rights march. Hayes told some 200 supporters assembled before City Hall that, 40 years after winning civil rights legislation, "Here we are again in the streets of America fighting, marching for our civil rights -- this time not from the racists down South but from people who are foreigners illegally within the borders of the United States of America."
Such anti-immigrant rhetoric overlaps with problematic post-911 notions of national security, in which Latino immigration has been recharacterized as a terrorism threat. When asked who benefits from this framing, Noreen McClendon answers, "Follow the money." She's referring to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's efforts to maintain and expand federal funding for local law enforcement, which these days flows from a national security spigot. In February, L.A. played host to an international conference on gangs and, that same month, announced both a most-wanted list of 11 gangs and plans for another crackdown of the kind that has helped make the LAPD notorious for racial profiling and corruption. Capt. Ray Peavy, who heads L.A. County's Homicide Bureau, recently told the L.A. Times that the solution to gang violence is "the same thing you do about cockroaches or insects; you get someone in there to do whatever they can do to get rid of those creatures."
* * *
Oversimplifying the gang problem as one of criminals and terrorists is another rightwing frame that encourages militaristic responses. Diverging from the martial plans being drawn up by law enforcement agencies, in January Advancement Project codirector and civil rights attorney Connie Rice released a major city-funded report on L.A. gangs, calling for a $1 billion "Marshall Plan," with emphasis on school-based gang intervention and job programs. Rice appropriately reframes gang crime as an issue that requires more than just increased policing and more aggressive prosecutions. Unless viable economic and social opportunities are created in communities devastated by joblessness and structural racism, additional policing will simply swell already overcrowded prisons, themselves schools for criminality.
We mustn't turn a blind eye to the bigoted motivations of some Latino gang members who commit violent acts against African Americans. But neither can we allow rightwing interpretations of those dynamics to substitute for a deeper analysis that can give rise to responses that elevate racial and economic justice as their core objectives. The available evidence doesn't support the "ethnic cleansing" claimed by "Tony Rafael" and others. There's much more at stake here than semantics. Tragedies unfolding in L.A. neighborhoods are being hijacked by Minutemen and other rightwing forces. Let us not leave their framing of the issues unchallenged or, worse, become their unwitting messengers. The Right's "solutions" can only aggravate racial strife and increase the suffering of African American and Latino residents of Los Angeles -- and beyond.
Tarso LuÃs Ramos is Director of Research at Political Research Associates, an independent, nonprofit, progressive research center for activists defending democracy, building equality, and challenging bigotry and oppression promoted by sectors of the Political Right.