La Vida Local
by Neal Aronson, Special to SantaCruzWire.com
SANTA CRUZ (May 2010) - For far too long, we as a a society have tolerated gangs, perhaps
because we didn't consider it to be our problem. It was always "those people"
killing each other "over there". We felt sorry for Salinas and Watsonville
and were glad we didn't have their problems. There have been incidents in
Beach Flats and Lower Ocean St., but they felt like isolated events, and it
wasn't our children being attacked. Even though they took place in Santa
Cruz, they weren't happening in our neighborhoods.
Times have changed. In the last year two young men were murdered in
our neighborhoods and a young man, the son of my friend and neighbor,
was wounded while walking his dog on the west side. People are taking
notice and are filled with outrage and fear. How could this happen here? While
we were naively thinking this was someone else's problem, the gangs have
been growing more brazen and are now claiming our streets as their
Some blame the city council. They claim they are too busy banning
smoking on the beaches or weighing in on national politics, and not focusing on
our real problems. But really, what can they do? After the anarchist
vandalism downtown they authorized more money for the police department even
though they don't know where the funds will come from.
The police have been busy investigating the crimes and have had
some success working with area departments making mass arrests. They have
recently teamed up with Federal agencies hoping to gain the upper hand. One of
their more effective tools, neighborhood policing, has been severely hampered
by budget cuts and vacant positions. Even when fully staffed their numbers
are just sufficient for day to day policing and must rely on mutual aid to
deal with extraordinary situations. Their investigations are often hampered
by the lack of witnesses who are willing to speak with the authorities.
So, what do we do? There are no simple solutions. Steve Poizner and
Meg Whitman would have us believe that most of our problems stem from
illegal immigrants. If we send them all home the economy will recover and
our streets will be safe once more. Others believe that we need to
educate young people about the dangerous realities of gang life. If we give them
safe places to hang out and constructive activities they'll make good
Maybe so, but, like many of us, I want to see swift, decisive
action that will stop these guys in their tracks. Education and safe activities
may help in the future, but we have an immediate problem that needs to be
solved without delay.
VIGILANT, NOT VIGILANTE
Ultimately, the responsibility is ours. We must learn to be
vigilant - not vigilante (visions of Charles Bronson in Death Wish). If there are suspicious people cruising through our neighborhoods we need to
alert the police immediately. If our neighborhood park no longer feels safe
let the authorities know. Let's learn to be good witnesses - take down
license numbers, write down descriptions of cars and their occupants, take pictures.
We need to do everything we can safely do to help the police do
their jobs. For their part, the police need to respond immediately to our
calls. Their presence alone will force the would-be perpetrators to move on
before they can cause trouble. And they will know in no uncertain terms that
they are being watched by neighbors willing to take a stand.
I'm not suggesting we practice ethnic profiling by reporting every
car full of Latino youths that cruise our streets. Deputy Chief Martinez
recently stated that gang members can include whites and African Americans,
as well as Hispanics. Justice is supposed to be color-blind and we, in our vigilance, should be, too. We cannot fail to act out of a need to
appear politically correct. Most of us can tell the difference between
someone minding their own business and someone up to no good, regardless
of their race or ethnicity.
If we are wrong, well, please accept our
apology. If we are right it might just save a life. It's worth the risk. Let's not
forget that it was an observant street vendor who alerted police to the
presence of a car bomb in Times Square recently. Had he not been paying
attention or felt his observation wasn't worth reporting, many people could have
been killed or injured.
There is also a place for pragmatic education. We need to be
educated about what to look for, how to recognize potential gangsters, what
information to gather and how to present it to the police. We need to learn what
to look for in our kids, what behaviors and clothing will get them in
trouble. Our kids need to be taught the best way to respond when asked about
their "affiliations". They need to learn from the experts how to react
when confronted by gangsters - what works and what doesn't.
And if they
don't know it already, they need to be taught how serious this is. They
need to be taught to swallow their pride, ignore the rush of adrenaline and testosterone and just walk away. Walk away and call 911.
This is our city and these are our neighborhoods. We need to take responsibility for keeping them safe and livable. We have a right
to demand support from the City and the police, but the responsibility is
ours. The City Council can pass ordinances and approve budgets, and the
police can make arrests, but they are powerless without our help.
Neal Aronson is a resident of Santa Cruz's formerly peaceful west side.
He retired from the Santa Cruz City Fire Department after twenty years
of proudly serving his community. For most of that time he was active in
the firefighter's union, culminating in several years as the union
local's president. He currently spends his time trying to make furniture
and play jazz. As his employee appraisals were known to point out,
"Neal is not afraid to express his opinion".