South Los Angeles: Social Justice and Geography

Opening the Sunday Edition of Los Angeles Times is a leisurely ceremony I partake in on occasional Sunday mornings. The Times often chooses pieces for their Sunday covers that are of immediate interest to Angelenos, and gang-violence in South Central seems to find its way on to the cover every few weeks or so. The classic photograph of the mother looking longingly into the distance as officers storm into her house to arrest her young son is not uncommon. This morning’s paper features two cover photographs: a large, slightly blurred night shot of two officers leading away a boy in baggy jeans and a hooded sweatshirt juxtaposed above a smaller photograph of a mother, her hands up to her face with pain her eyes, staring into the distance. “You are the parent here,” reads the caption under her devastated face. “Street sweep” is the image of her son being taken away.

The article, With Crime in Decline, a Fragile Sense of Hope, continues with a two-page spread complete with photographs of women in mourning, young children in graveyards, police searching young men for tattoos, and a celebratory shot of the “new” mix of Latino and Black youth which “reflect the demographic shift of South L.A.” There is also a map that tells us where specifically the Gang Injunctions Zones are in South L.A.

South L.A.

The ways South Los Angeles has been depicted in both image and words for the past two decades never ceases to amaze me. South L.A. continues to be an issue that must be “addressed” much as violence and terrorism is handled abroad. But L.A. is our home. These neighborhoods are a ten- to twenty-minute drive from “our L.A.” Ever since moving to L.A. I have made a conscious effort to erase my image of South L.A. as a movie, rap-song, or new piece about a fictional place on the other side of the world where kids got shot while going out to buy a quart of milk in the middle of the afternoon. It is, however, still difficult to distinguish illusions from reality.

The realities of living in South L.A., and the ways Angelenos confront and mediate the struggles of these communities, is not an issue of foreign policy, and it is very frustrating to see that the myths of South L.A. continue to be forged into reality by those who would call Los Angeles their home. South L.A. can be a very dangerous place to live, but it is equally dangerous to section these neighborhoods off, condemning them to always be the sterotype of Boyz N’ the Hood.

Scott Gold begins his article by taking us into the home of a middle-aged mother who allows her teenage children to keep loaded shotguns alongside textbooks of algebra and literature in their rooms. “This is a dangerous weapon,” the police tell the distraught mother, “in a room where four children sleep. You are the parent here!” Irresponsible parenting, it seems, is an issue plaguing the adolescents of South L.A. “The boys’ lives were at risk.  The gun was for defense,” the mother replies, “this is South Central,” the mother replies.

Where we live defines who we are. Thus the decades old problem of social justice and geography in South Los Angeles emerges once again.

Identifying solutions for the social epidemic know as “South Central” has plagued policy officers, city officials, researchers, and community members for years. Gang Injunctions were introduced as a way to give the LAPD more liberty with their powers. Such injunctions, as are discussed in Gold’s article, enable officers to arrest men gathering in groups on street corners or loitering in local parks under the auspices of suspected gang activity. According to their statistics, the LAPD has found these injunctions to work. Homicides are decreasing and some community members reportedly feel safer with the increased police presence. The backlash of these injunctions, however, is an outcry that they are a gross violation of civil liberties, threatening to transform neighborhoods into big-brother police states. Groups advocating against the effectiveness of these injunctions note that while the LAPD may indeed be picking up gang members, they are, at the same time, also picking up kids who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Such threat only contributes to an atmosphere of fear. The short-sightedness of the LAPD reflects our inability to understand that a culture, real or imagined, of violence in “South Central” is perpetuated by the actions of citizens and of law enforcement. The LAPD cruises the streets hollering, harassing, and brandishing their weapons just as much as gang members do. The only difference is that law enforcement is using these actions to promote peace instead of hostility. Their actions, however, create just as much fear, hostility, and bitterness.

The LAPD is not a gang; however, there are remarkable similarities between the social and political structures of police forces and that of street gangs. Those who work on the streets of South L.A., both cop and criminal, are mutually influenced by the culture of mistrust and violence that surround them. Both groups are looking for a sense of control and power, and they use similar means to reach those ends. Wearing baggy jeans, being Black, and walking down a street in South L.A. does not make you a gang member, but that has not stopped the LAPD from stopping Yusef Omowale, the director of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research. Injunctions are introduced as a way of creating peace but, as Omawale observes, “under injunctions you are being criminalized because of the circumstances you find yourself in.” Luckily, living in South L.A. has not yet been made a crime.

Yes, it is terrifying to know that there are kids who keep loaded shotguns in their bedrooms next to their literature textbooks, and yes it is unnerving to see first graders doing the “crip walk” on the playground. But it is equally unnerving and terrifying to know that a police officer has the right to pull out his gun and arrest you for talking to a friend of yours on the street or for looking-like a gang member. There must be a way that communities and law enforcement agents can work together to fight against geography and social injustice without perpetuating it.

Redevelopment, including mixed-income housing and much needed community centers  providing social programs, is one way that the city and the community are attempting to bring change to these communities. The LAPD, as well, reports that they have “evolved” away from the menacing reputation that they built in the eighties and nineties. They encourage their officers, “don’t arrest everyone because you can. Arrest them because it’s the right thing to do.” This is, no doubt, the right direction to be going. But is it enough? And is any of this really working?

Freeing South L.A. from its geography and social stereotypes takes an effort on that part of all Angelenos. L.A. needs to find a way to integrate these neighborhoods into the city, preventing them from being isolated problems. The roots of this reform are found in refining civic institutions such as public education, social programs, public transit, and city culture. But it has has its beginnings with us fighting against these neighborhoods and treating South L.A. like a virus that we must quarantine. As our president told us in his speech last week in Cario, we need to find out similarities and build peace based upon those common principles. Mothers from Sherman Oaks and Westwood want their children to be just as safe and prosperous as mothers from South L.A. do. All people should be free to walk the streets of their neighborhoods without worry of gunfire from gangs or police. We should take what we know about building strong and safe communities and share it with each other. Walk each other’s streets, learn our neighbors names and customs. Help them address their problems by contributing our presence and compassion and making South L.A. part of Los Angeles again.


~ by Em on June 7, 2009.

2 Responses to “South Los Angeles: Social Justice and Geography”

  1. nice post…there are some interesting studies about gang injunctions that extend some of the themes from the post/article. This one, by a former UCLA law professor, Jeff Grogger, shows that injunctions don’t have an overall effect on crime rates; they are good at relocating crime to different areas of the city.

    Here is a link to his website:

  2. Does this mean that eventually there will be a gang injunction over the entire LA metro area? I guess we’re not too far off from the 2019, big-brother, police-state of Blade Runner. What about injunctions on thought? The thought police are comin’ to get us…

    Thanks for the link!

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