Samoan and Tongan street gangs have clashed in southwest Los Angeles County for decades; but a pair of recent shootings has brought the violence into sharp focus for the larger Pacific Islander community.
Nearly 250 people, including Tongans and Samoans, joined local law enforcement officials at a Carson Community Center town hall meeting Wednesday night, to vent their frustration over gangs and to brainstorm ways to defuse tensions between their young members.
“The minority of children in our community who are in gangs have affected the entire community,” said Chris Ma'umalanga, co-founder of the Tongan American Youth Foundation. “Now we have to back up and say 'How can we help the situation?'”
Tongan and Samoan leaders started meeting with police after a Sept. 24 shooting outside a Long Beach home injured a Samoan pastor, his wife and another church leader. That attack came days after a Tongan man was fatally shot in Hawthorne.
Police have yet to solve either case, but that hasn’t stopped gang members and non-gang members alike from linking the two, and talking on Facebook and Instagram about an all-out war between Samoan and Tongan gangs.
June Pouesi of the non-profit social service group Office of Samoan Affairs in Carson, said she saw rumors flying fast and loose on social media.
“It was so-and-so did it and they’re from this gang,” Pouesi said. “People would call out certain names. It was just really instigating the situation.”
Ma'umalanga said that online commenters were trying to link rivalries between Samoans and Tongans many generations ago to the present-day.
"It comes down to ignorance of them trying to tie gang issues to tribal issues centuries ago," Ma'umalanga said.
At the Wednesday meeting, attendees broke out for brainstorming sessions on how to better engage young Pacific Islanders being drawn into gang life.
Ideas ranged from inviting young people from both communities to barbeques and sporting events to getting clergy more involved in quelling gang activity.
"Within our congregations, we got to take those blinders off and realize we have gang members in our churches," said faith leader Lauolefiso Ali'ifua.
Capt. Reginald Gautt, commander of the Carson Sheriff Station, was chosen as keynote speaker and told the audience “the reason we’re here today is to dispel the rumors that were going about throughout social media.”
Afterward, Gautt told KPCC that police wanted to discourage people from taking retaliatory measures.
“Certainly we don’t want anybody to run out on a myth and believing they’re protecting themselves and cause harm to another human being or family,” Gautt said.
Sixteen-year-old Samoan-American Benjamin Seiuli of Carson said he was bothered by the conflicts between Samoan and Tongan gang members because "we're all one people." Intermarriage is common between the two communities, and Seiuli said a half-sister of his is part Tongan.
"Samoans and Tongans — we're actually cool," Seiuli said. "The gangs itself are what's causing the big problem out here and it's putting everybody in danger."