Ricky's about thirty and an independent mechanic - like me, a freelancer. Over the years he's moved past being a person I greet in my daily transit to something between an acquaintance and a friend. He's offered his mechanic services. He asks after Toby (and now two more dogs, Maude and Honey) and reports stray dog sightings because he knows I love animals and always have an eye out for any that might be in distress. He's gone after a few strays himself. In addition to being a mechanic, he sometimes works with a local plumber who also lives around the corner from me, and so he's been in and under my house doing plumbing work. All in all, Ricky and I have developed a familiarity that puts me at ease whenever I see him and reinforces all the good feelings I have about living here.
I bring up Ricky because the city of Inglewood is on a fast track to acquiring a gang injunction. It has been since last summer, and this month the cash-strapped city has approved money to hasten its implementation. The city certainly has gang problems which tend to express themselves in my neighborhood, a "border" area between gangs in Inglewood and L.A. to the east. When I walk, I'm always on the lookout for fresh graffiti that mars not just the tidy brick fences and utility boxes, but the good feelings and civic pride I need to walk at all.
But the idea of using a gang injunction to suppress that graffiti and it perpetrators makes me uneasy in another way. Even the most carefully worded injunction will catch in its crosshairs young men who aren't gang members but who probably know a few - in this part of town, how could they not? What if a gang member is somebody's cousin or brother, and the forbidden association is familial, not criminal? And if non-gang members get swept up in any kind of arrest or charge of injunction violation, however bogus in the end, that initiates a "career" in the criminal justice system that will haunt the young man for life. Everybody I know knows this.
Young black men can least afford to get caught up. The working life Ricky has made for himself is admirable and important to the life of our neighborhood, but it is fragile; it can be disrupted in a moment and replaced by something much less productive. And the bottom line, what makes the injunction solution so troubling, is that these potential criminals that law enforcement targets with injunctions are part of the community. They are us. We are not residents looking to gentrify a place that we recently moved into and want to clean up and make presentable. Things are much more intimate than that. The truth is that all these young men belong here in the same way we do, the dogwalkers and plumbers and plain neighbors. The only real solution to the gang trouble is to acknowledge this and act accordingly.
Which I do every time I see Ricky and his posse - from across 108th, I wave. They brighten and wave back. We continue to honor a pact that seems to me more powerful and more stabilizing than any threat of punishment could ever be.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.
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