On Valentine's Day evening, my councilman arrived to our monthly block club meeting to deliver a message that was distinctly love-less: people, be afraid. Be very afraid.
That's not the only thing he came to say, of course. There were the usual reports about the Inglewood city budget (bad, but after some bloody cuts, technically getting less bad), street sweeping, the date of the next district town hall meeting, the impending death of horse racing at Hollywood Park, and so forth. Councilman Franklin had in tow a young black man, a recent college grad who was shadowing him because he's interested in going into politics and wants to see how it's done at the grass roots. There was pleased applause for the young man--through the fog of now, our future suddenly came into focus. You only need a bit of silver lining to keep a sky of black clouds at bay.
That triumph lasted a moment. The young man sat down. The councilman went on to give us a police update, which is the core of all block clubs' existence, though I keep telling myself I'm in this club thing for social activism. (I may be right one day, but not now. Haven't been for years.) The update essentially was this: an Inglewood gang and an L.A. gang to the east, the Rolling '60s, are locked in a kind of border skirmish that's mostly playing out in fierce tagging wars in and around Crenshaw Boulevard and 108th Street. Nobody's been killed but the climate is tense; the tagging has sometimes infiltrated residential streets and has virtually taken over certain alleys. The councilman's advice to us as residents was to be "super" careful. Take nothing for granted, he said. You women who think you can take walks at 11 in the morning and think you're safe because it's daylight, think again. If you must walk, take a buddy. Dogs are good to have (he nodded in my direction) but may not be enough. Walking at night would be downright foolhardy.
Listening to this, I got indignant. I walk all the time, with dogs, and can't fathom the thought of staying home. I work at home and need to get out on a regular basis. I found myself getting angry in all directions--angry at the warnings not to be comfortable in my own neighborhood, angry at the councilman for confirming that we so-called middle class, family-values folk still live in a racially unstable environment, angry at my fellow block club members for sitting there and nodding and failing to offer any comment about the whole damnable situation, for being all too willing to keep their heads low and go on to the next agenda item.
I glanced at the young political hopeful who sat behind Franklin to see his reaction--after all, he was black and male and about as old as a lot of these taggers. What did he think of this? Was he disturbed, empathetic, conflicted? I could tell nothing; his expression was totally impassive. I understood why--a politician in training has to be a kind of empty vessel--but I couldn't help but think that impassiveness is exactly what I've seen in some of the harder young men around here. The young men who I try and make eye contact with and nod hello to on my daily walks. Some say nothing, some nod back, and still others, after looking more than a little startled, say hello, as if being momentarily roused out of a narcotic sleep.
That "hello" feels like my greatest achievement of the day, the best stand I could possibly take to defend my turf. Our turf. Call me idealistic, but I'm convinced that the way to fight scary urban elements like tagging is not to stay home. It's to write a big public message--metaphorically, mind you--of your own.
The above photo, taken in a different part of the L.A. region and altered for this post, is by Kevin Dean/www.betaart.com. The original photo can be seen on Flickr, where it was used and altered under a Creative Commons License.