Echo Park residents debate the looming gang injunction

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It’s hard to ignore the black and blue jerky-style letters scrawled all over curbs and alley walls near to the parallel streets of Mohawk and Waterloo. Garage doors, house gutters, curbs, even palm trees in this area are tagged with "C-Y-S." On some walls, a layer of paint isn’t enough to hide the letters underneath.

“You come out and paint it,” said LAPD Sgt. Victor Arellano. “Then they come and tag it again. How many times you know, do you have to put up with it?”

Sgt. Victor Arellano with LAPD’s Northeast division gang unit drives through narrow alleyways. He says they are painted over every Monday by the city and points to houses where gang members live.

“This area here is basically the Crazys,” Arellano explains. “CYS means Crazys.”

The Los Angeles City Attorney's office announced in June it was requesting a gang injunction – or a so-called “safety zone.” It would include these streets and a total of 3.8 square miles of the Echo Park area, including parts of Silver Lake and Elysian Valley. A judge on Wednesday allowed the city to move forward and set another hearing for October.

The proposed gang injunction is aimed at six rival gangs: Big Top Locos, Crazys, Echo Park, Frogtown, and Head Hunters. It also lists 300 unnamed gang members and 10 associates as "JOHN DOES."

It would prohibit at least two gang members named on the injunction from associating in public, wearing gang colors, or using gang hand signs. If that happens, they could be found in violation of the injunction and fined $1,000 and/or jailed for up to six months.

RELATED: View a map of the proposed injunction area and read the court filing.

It claims that at least four of the six gangs are involved in an on-going feud via “extensive graffiti vandalism, aggravated assaults, attempted murders, and in some cases, murderswith more shootings, attempted murders and murders expected because all of these four feuds are escalating.”

Sgt. Arellano says a gang injunction would be another tool for police to use to prevent violence in the neighborhood. It would give them probable cause to stop  gang members named on the injunction. Right now, police are not allowed to do that.

“Let’s say they’re hanging out, not really doing anything so you may try to do a consensual encounter and talk to them,” Arellano said. “If they don’t want to talk to you, you’ve got to continue driving unless you have probable cause to detain them.”

Most gang injunctions are approved by a court and imposed with little or no opposition. That’s partly because gang injunctions, a civil court order, are by their legal nature difficult to fight in court. Municipalities essentially sue gangs as entities when proposing an injunction and most gangs don’t hire lawyers to represent them in court. But even communities have hardly voiced opposition to gang injunctions.

Except in Echo Park.

Some residents have formed a group they have named: “United We Stand, Together We Stay.” 

“My main concern is that a neighborhood can only exist when you try to be inclusive and you really try to reach the heart of what are the true needs of a neighborhood,” said Echo Park resident Cheng Rey Koo.

She has participated in several meetings held by the group at neighborhood parks and community centers to challenge the city’s gang injunction.

Some of the meetings get very emotional. On one hot July afternoon, a woman who said she lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years recalled living in Echo Park when crime was at its high.

“I remember the bullets flying. I remember the gun to my head,” the woman said. “But I’m still here and I’m not going nowhere!”

It’s one criticism by residents: Why impose a gang injunction now when crime rates have gradually gone down over the years? According to yearly crime statistics kept by the Los Angeles Police Department, the Northeast Division recorded 36 homicides in 2001. In 2011, there were 12 homicides.

L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer inherited the proposed injunction from former city attorney Carmen Trutianch, who filed it in the final days of his administration.

Though Feuer says he doesn’t support gang injunctions by themselves as a crime-fighting tool, he says they are an important ingredient in multi-pronged effort to curb neighborhood violence.

“I think it’s extremely important for us to recognize that throughout our city and certainly in Echo Park the mere reduction in crime doesn’t mean that the neighborhood, as an absolute matter, are as safe as they need to be,” Feuer said.

Rosario Quevedo, who lives across from Echo Park Lake, feels the same. Though she says crime is much tamer than what she remembers in the 80s, she and her sister rarely allow their 20-year old nephew to hang around outside. Quevedo said she’s gotten used to not going out after dark.

“We stay home and we know about the crimes around here but from the news. We don’t see anything,” she said.

Still residents insist the current gang violence and crime is not comparable to the 1980s or mid-90s. Echo Park resident Victoria Arellano has organized conferences with some of the area's rival gangs. She says some have attended the recently held community meetings together, but stay quiet.

Arellano said she got involved when a young man from the Echo Park neighborhood who has tried to leave the gang life came to her with a court summons about the injunction.

“He had just gotten out of jail,” she said. “ His parents moved him away from the area to keep him out of trouble.”

She and others fear that the young man’s story will be the same for the more than 300 unnamed individuals on the proposed injunction. They believe the injunction would break up generations of families, mostly Hispanic.

 “You have families here that are homeowners. Not just one home, but two or three homes,” Arellano said.

According to residents and cops, most of the area gangs are generational with roots as far back as the 30s. Arellano said some families – brothers, cousins, grandfathers and nephews – could be prohibited from such simple activities as walking to the corner store together or hanging out at the park.

“You know 130 days in in jail every time you’re picked up, a $1,000 fine,” Arellano said. “That’s a lot for people in this area that can’t afford it.”

Echo Park has traditionally been home to low-income and middle class Latino residents with a mix various ethnicities, including Chinese residents from nearby Chinatown. Its location is prime with quick highway access north to the San Gabriel Valley or easy routes into downtown, an area that has seen more investment, growth and residential interest.

“If you look at like an L.A. map, this real estate is worth a heck of a lot because it’s central,” Koo said.

Opponents of the gang injunction say the court order is another way to gentrify the Echo Park area and push out older, minority tenants.

Koo said her neighbors change every few years, replaced with higher income residents who are usually white. But some long-time residents say that’s not new. 

“We always had that,” said Echo Park resident Trina Mejia. She thinks the neighborhood has always been a mix of white, Latino, and Chinese residents. She said her neighbors growing up were all white. They lived at the tops of the highest hills in Echo Park where the city views are best. It was quiet and there was space.

“Now there’s just more of them,” Mejia said. “So they say: ‘Forget it, we’ll take this ugly brick building down here.'”

That said Mejia doesn’t support the gang injunction. She admits there are gangs in the neighborhood and sometimes they intimidate people, but she’s worried more about her 10-year old son.

“I don’t want him to go off anywhere because I think they might confuse him, either police or a gang,” she said.  “You know, he’s at that age now.”

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