The Gang Capital of America

Los Angeles is often referred to as “the Gang Capital of America.” According to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the city is home to over forty five thousand gang members, organized into 450 gangs. “Gangs are a symptom of society”, a representative from an organization that deals with justice in the prison system told us.

Besides incarceration, another way to deal with gangs is to deport them. “In regards to a deportation case, you are your worst enemy,’ an ex gang member told us. Your presence in this country is the evidence that you’re breaking the law. And the natural thing to do, seemingly, in these cases, is to deport the person who is illegally here. The thing is, that many of the people who live illegally in Los Angeles moved here with their families when they were very young. They grew up here and spent their whole lives here, and so when they are deported back to “their home country”, which is often El Salvador, they are complete strangers there. El Salvador is also incredibly dangerous, so that is a horrible place to go, and naturally they do whatever they can to come back. Los Angeles is often called the “land of second chances”. But what do you do with the new generation of gang members, who were born in the states and cannot be deported? Los Angeles tried to incarcerate its way out of the problem.

And so this is where we heard of the “school to prison pipeline.” Where you are born, and where you go to school, can dictate your chances of survival and success in the system. Because of their schools’ proximity to shady neighborhoods and gang activities, the youth are highly likely to become involved in them. “These age group is under siege,” we were told. Furthermore, because misdemeanors in these areas are treated as serious offenses, and because the youth of these areas are likely to be tried as adults, including incarceration without parole, these kids are at a serious risk of ending up in prison – and here we see the school to prison pipeline. These are the hopeless kids, with lives that have no hope. When they join a gang, they give up their problems, and in return they get a network or support, and they are ready to die for that. “Now they have something to do,” an NGO worker told us, “Before they were just children sniffing glue. Now, all they have to do is put a number or a letter on and everyone is terrified of them.”

So what can you do?

We were offered lot of ideas, from ex gang embers themselves, to people that work in NGOs that deal with gangs:

*notice how a lot of these can and do apply to the question of homelessness as well*

  • Define the problem, define the solution.
  • The work is about changing the culture.
  • “Nuestra Lucha, Nuestra Voz” (Nothing about us without us)
  • Focus on development without displacement.
  • Be against gentrification, but for investment, and pay close attention to the difference.
  • Leverage the media, change the words used. For example, instead of saying “offender”, say “incarcerated person”. This brings back the human element.
  • Narrow the gap between policy and implementation, policy makers are so far removed, they have no idea how their work affects other people.
  • If you drop 6 felonies to misdemeanors, you will reduce the prison population by a third (from 20k)
  • Remove the police from first contact.
  • Most of the homeless people and gang members are not your family, but they could be, and so treat them like they are.
  • Validating minorities by giving them a voice and representation.

And last, but not least:

  • Instead of asking, “what’s wrong with you?” ask, “What happened to you?”
  • IMG_2009

Location, location, location

Where you live should not determine how you live.

But it does.

Something that really affected my classmates about Boyle heights was when we were told and shown how the area was (possibly and most likely) intentionally boxed in through major highways, effectively boxing in it’s residents, keeping them, their poverty, and the pollution from progress confined to a box. This might have affected my classmates more because we come from an international school and almost all of us have gypsy blood, but I agree with their indignation. Those borders that are marked with highways and walls are not much different than the fences we put around our livestock.

The phrase “school to prison pipeline” where also repeated a lot. The understanding is, that if you are born into a certain neighborhood and go to the school, that school is not designed to make you succeed. Because of its proximity to shady neighborhoods and gang activities, kids are highly likely to become involved in them. Furthermore, because misdemeanors in these areas are treated as serious offenses, and because the youth of these areas are likely to be tried as adults, these kids are at a serious risk of ending up in prison. And all because of their location.

This is also important because where you are born affects your access to goods and services. In this image (source), you can see the unequal use of water in neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, many of the poorer neighborhoods we visited use less water than the rest of Los Angeles, while the expense neighborhoods use water at a rate that is far above what is called for in the local rations:Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 3.50.29 PM

This significant because as you know, Los Angeles is unsurprisingly one of the most drought stricken places in the United States:

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 5.31.05 PM

This is especially unfair because of the lack of social mobility. Those that are born into poverty, under the current system which rewards those that are better off, and penalizes and criminalizes those that are not, stay in poverty. As hard as you try to better yourself, to move out of your current situation, nothing happens. And the louder you cry from the injustice, the more yo are regarded as unstable, or told to be quiet. And we are sorted into these social groups randomly, based off of where you were born.

Another image that affected all of us was a sign in one of the youth justice organizations we visited: “The code of the streets: two ways to leave, in handcuffs or in body bags.”

Street for Sale: Skid Row and the Law

Skid Row, which in effect is an IMG_2029“open asylum” and a “containment zone” (somehow both of those seemingly contradictory terms apply) is a fifty square block section by the Los Angeles downtown. The neighborhood has been going through cycles of people who live on the streets there, beginning with the tent city that rose up there since it was the end of the railroad (which at the time, were mostly white). Now, the neighborhood is transitioning from a predominantly African American population to one that is more Latino, as white people move back through gentrification. On any given night, there are 4 to 6 thousand homeless people on Skid Row. It’s called “the hard school of knocks.”

“We live there because that is what we know”, we were told. “Skid row is my home. I have no bills and no responsibilities.” Skid row is a community, and has services nearby. “We live here because that is what we can afford. I could ill a man and have a bed for the rest of my life, but who wants to do that? No, I’ll stay here.”

Skid row’s porta-potties were removed, because if crime and prostitution; they have barely any trashcans,o it’s not surprise the streets are dirty. The streets are swept every once in a while, when the city has to look presentable for a big event, – and the people are swept right up along with the trash – and thrown into jail for tiny misdemeanors, like jaywalking, or for having the ash from your cigarette fall to the ground.

In the first month that the Safer Cities initiative was passed, there were 750 arrests (IN ONE MONTH) in a fifteen square block area. The initiative was based on a policy that aimed to address petty crime, which hypothetically would in turn address bigger crime – sort of like “trickle up” crime. Police cars patrolled those fifteen square blocks like sharks.

We no longer have asylums for the mentally ill, we no longer hospitalize them, – instead, we criminalize them. Jails are now the largest mental ill institutions, and housing the mentally ill in jail is inhumane. Even if you do not have a condition as you go to jail, you are very likely to develop one while there. Crime there goes on reported, you can’t film it on your hone like you can outside of jail. Last year alone, LA County paid out $40 million in misconduct – and that is just for the cases that were reported and could be proven.

One of the problems addressed is the role of the police, and their relationship with the people they serve. Cops have a quote to fill, and so aIMG_2027re drivig around thinking <<ticket, ticket, ticket>> when they should be thinking of ways to address the problem. There is a line between your relationship with law enforcement and your relationship with the community. Law enforcement should come from the community.

Skid Row is supposed to be dangerous and scary, but as we walked through it, I felt comfortable, more comfortable than in many of the clean offices we had been to granted, we were there during broad daylight). We crossed the street, and a man called out, “You want some street? I got street for sale.”

The power of words and definitions

IMG_1956People who live in Los Angeles, like in all places, have a lot of nicknames. We heard people called “shelter resistant” and “career criminals.” We heard about the “school to prison pipeline.” We heard the Unites States called “La Oosa”, and the “Land of Milk and Honey”, and Los Angeles called the “Land of Second Chances”. As protesters march, they call out “Nothing about us without us!” and as they leave, they chant, “We’ll be back”. Loca
l NGO’s talked about ‘mission drift”, and called the 90’s “the decade of death.” A homeless person tells us, “dog parks downtown have more amenities than our parks.” “Gentrification”, we were told, is the continuation of Colonization. “When Starbucks comes, you know you lost”, they add.

“So what keeps you motivated?” we ask. “It aint over yet.” is the reply

The definition of violence is a force or action that injures, harms, or destroys. An NGO that specialized in torture and trauma gave us this definition of the purpose of torture: to dismantle a person (physically, mentally, and emotionally) and take away their trust in themselves and other people. This definition especially had a big effect on me, because it reveals the purpose of torture, something I don’t think about, probably because of fear of looking too deep within myself and my experiences. But definitions are very important:

Definitions also have the power to direct or limit an NGO’s reach. As seen in the example of the Torture Immigration place we visited, they had to clearly define “torture” and related terms, to draw a line in the san between those that qualify for their help, and those that don’t, based off of available funding. And words are important because that is the way we frame things.

For example, when someone goes to jail, the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony changes peoples lives forever. The word “victim” does not often match the reality, or what people expect to see. When looking at mental illness, tIMG_1953here is such a stigma associated with it. The people who have it don’t want to self identify that way because they might end up in a situation worse that what they are already in; NGO’s my have trouble finding funding for their cause. After all, as a person from one of the organizations we visited told us, “there are those that are easy to help, and those that are not.” If an NGO needs to meet a bottom line and show numbers of success, its much easier to boost numbers by avoiding the more, shall we say, difficult cases. “I’m scared to death that I a much sicker than I thought,” is a phrase we can all relate too.

For Perspective

Notable Stats, Geography and Population Breakdown:

Los Angeles County is the most populated county in the US, and if counted as a state alone, it is more populated than 41 of our 50 states. The city of Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States by population, after New York City. 3.9 million people live in Los Angeles, which is just over a tenth of the total people that live in California (38.4 million people), and over 1.2% of the total US population (318.9 million people); If you took 1000 random people in the US, 12 of them would live in Los Angeles County. And that is just by population.

Geographically, Los Angeles is enormous. For reference of size of the city of Los Angeles, here is a to-scale map of all the cities that fit into the Los Angeles Boundaries:

8 cities fit into LA





Unfortunately, geographic size does not help the housing situation. There are 2,419.6 people per square mile in Los Angeles, compared to the 239.1 people per square mile in the rest of California. Housing is scarce, especially section 8 housing: there was a new housing complex built in Boyle Heights, and in it’s fist week, they received over 8,000 applications – for a complex that has only 140 units. Not only that, but many of these units are built and designed with the intention of repurposing them into lofts. As we walked through the rapidly gentrified downtown Los Angeles, we saw many, many sigs up for “trendy lofts” for sale. And there is no one to blame, even, because this is how it works in a capitalism driven society. Everyone’s making the choice that seems the smartest, not thinking of the consequences.

What are the alternatives?

In Skid Row alone, which is just fifty blocks, there are eleven thousand homeless men, women, and children on the street on any given night. Of those eleven thousand, two thirds struggle with drugs and mental illness.

There are also between nineteen to twenty-two thousand people in the Los Angeles Jail system. California has unlimited solitary confinement, which means someone can spend their life that way. Even if you’re not in a situation that extreme, Los Angeles jail and the legal system is not kind: In the last year alone, Los Angeles paid our 40 million for misconduct.


Who are they?

So who are they?

Who are the homeless? Who are the people who are affected by gentrification?

Los Angeles has one of the highest levels of income equality in the nation and according to the Los Angeles Times, this is due in part to a relatively strong local economy. Los Angeles is home to 6 of the 2014 Fortune 500 companies, (energy company Occidental Petroleum, healthcare provider Health Net, metals distributor Reliance Steel & Aluminum, engineering firm AECOM, real estate group CBRE Group and builder Tutor Perini) which is contrasted against the 25 thousand homeless people in the city (and 52 thousand in the county). The average age of he homeless is 40; an estimated 20% are physically disabled, and about 25% are mentally ill, although these numbers might be wrong, based off of the fact that many of the homeless may be reluctant to report disability. Poverty and income disparity has had a disproportionate effect on People of color: half of the homeless are African American, and a third are Latino (compared to the general population, in which only a tenth are African American, and nearly half are Latino). About 18% of the homeless are veterans.

As part of our group research, we talked with a few people who self identified as homeless, people who are often called “shelter resistant” or “career criminals”. One of them told us, “I live on the street because that is what I know.” Another added, “I could kill a man and get a bed for the rest of my life. But who wants to do that?”

The poor of Los Angeles have long carried the burden of progress, for example in the air quality of their neighborhoods, and their limited access to food, water, and services), but rarely see the benefits of progress. We saw a good example of this in Boyle Heights. A lot of buildings and housing in Boyle Heights were destroyed to make space available for a new Metro Line. The Metro then changed it’s mind, leaving the lots empty, which in turn is bad for the city as it’s unused land that gathers trash and lowers the value of the neighborhood, The Metro built a line through the neighborhood anyway, a few blocks away from it’s original proposed line. One the day that we visited Boyle heights, we took the metro line to Mariachi square. We did not see a single other person in the station or getting off this stop. Even though public transportation is supposed to serve all people, and is generally considered to be the transportation for the poor, in reality, those that are poorer, such as many of those living in Boyle Heights, cannot afford to take advantage of those services. So city management and metro can say “look, we’ve created a line especially for Boyle Heights” – when the reality is that they have created a lot of empty lots, and a line that goes through Boyle Heights, but is not for the people that live there.

As another homeless person said to us, “many people look at us and say, ‘Look at these people, why can’t they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, like I did?’ and we say, ‘what if we were born without boots?’ “

P.S. Looking at this is a startling image of the uninsured in the United States, it’s easy to see why we focused on Los Angeles:

Finding americas uninsured

Stories Shared, Experiences Revealed

After returning to Monterey from Los Angeles, a certain weight and heavyness fell over me, I had started to bring back all the knowledge and information I had acquired while in L.A to my home setting of Monterey. The harder I tried to ignore the feelings of guilt and how I lived in such luxury , the more it pricked at my conciense, Monterey being one of those places within the state where the rich poor divide is pretty stark and the use and plunder for activities like the Pebble Beach golf Course at the expense of many other individuals acquiring basic necessities like water or even food. I wanted to share how exactly I felt about the very broken and messed up system I had come to know while in L.A which I also realized each and every one of us were a part of, and that hurt more.

A couple of weeek after we returned we were to have a presentation with the Immersive learning group that went to Mindanao, Phillipines to share our experiences and learnings with the rest of our peers and Professors at the Middlebury Institute. The opportunity to actually put into reality what I had been obsessing over for the past couple of weeks sounded exhilirating , almost therapeutic, and to share it with all my group mates and another group that had travelled s11134287_10153761457007506_1802047878_ntudying much of the same issues was a welcome chance. When I was younger I was very into the theatre and the power of play acting and method acting to empathize about situations that are harder to understand. I was very blessed during the presentation preparation to be given the chance to use my past experience within this sphere of role playing to express what I had learned and understood while in L.A. I wrote a play with the help of my peers that tried to do justice to the lessons and the experiences we had been through and three topics stood out for us, gang violence, homelessness and mental disability. Through three short and powerful skits we put forward our vision of what L.A was like to us, what the everyday average Joe goes through and how those difficulties relate to the larger themes playing throughout L.A. Like one of the larger themes we connected to gang violence within our role playing context was police and law enforcement brutality.This issue to us, explained largely what the racial minorities and a lot of the populations that have difficulties with gang violence deal with and why they look at the law enforcement with such mistrust and reservation. We also played into the importance of education and how the lack of a strong and stringent education system within the areas where racial minorites and low income families reside is a very dire issue that must be addressed to ensure a more integrated and content immigant and overall population.

The possibility to act out and play into the ideas and themes we had witnessed in L.A was more of a blessing than words can do justice. The most beautiful part to me was that the parts played in the role play about the L.A experience were played by persons from the Mindanao trip and the L.A trip, the idea that we could relate to these individuals who werent even there to take in the everyday the way we had were still able to grasp what we were trying to impart, and that is worth to me more than I imagined. That was my biggest notion of understanding, sharing the experiences we had and went through were as important if not more important that going through the experiences in the first place, and for that I and eternally thankful to this course but more importantly the City of Angels.

Ciao L.A

After spending a whirlwind week in Los Angeles , visiting a number of organizations that performed work within the city helping the most sidelined and minority populations . I had come into Los Angeles with my own biases and reservations about truly understanding and immersively experience the conflict of homelssness and poverty that was rampant throughout the city. But thats not all I saw, there was more, there was the glamour and the glitz that was the city which was the center of the Media movement of the Western hemisphere if not the entire world. And that was one of my biggest take aways, how this city of wealth and renown had many a skeleton in their closet, which included a population of homeless that were tried to be hidden away or the mentally handicapped who are thrown to the wayside because they do not fit into the cookie cutter ideal of mainstream society.

My week spent in LA, was more than just the class and the NGO’s we visited, for me it was a deeper experience in coming to terms with where I come from and what I look like and my own reservations towards issues like poverty, homelessness and gentrification.Before I left to L.A, I had very little regard or even empathy towards the homeless situation and population in America, I thought, coming from India where I had seen poverty on a much more extreme level that these populations could not compare, and moreover I could not recognize how badly the poverty and homelessness affected these individuals. I particularly had issues with the welfare system heling these individuals at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and how this was helping their situation rather than encouraging more of the same. After spending a week in Los Angeles, I could not be more wrong about the situation of poverty and the conflict of homelessness in the area. I did not understand the differences between the poverty in my own home country of India and in the United States until I spent extended time within the area. 11164145_10153761456877506_1744618395_n (1)The idea that many of these individuals in the L.A area are veterans who served their country and now suffering from PTSD are forgotten and layed to waste on the curb, or the lack of help given to the mentally disabled who because of how expensive the medication they require and the services they need are, turn to recreational and harder drugs to ease their pains. These are the realities of those who live on the streets of L.A that no documentary or film or article can do justice to, these are the realities I only began to understand once it was time to leave. My personal understanding and recognition of the race dynamics in play in the Los Angeles area was one I hadnt felt almost anywhere else let alone where I am from, here it was like the community of persons of colour were one large family. While visiting the many NGO’s and other areas of L.A where we were observing these very conflicts of homelessness and poverty, I noticed how many of the times when a person of colour was giving us a presentation, or helping us understand the dynamics at play in that particular area or even just giving us a history of the art movement in L.A, I was made the focal point of many of these conversations. I believe this was because I was one of two persons of colour in our group, the other being our Professor. The idea that I was made more of a focal point of conversation just because of the colour of my skin told me a story of how far the racial minorities have been pushed out and how much they are at ease only with other people of colour.

Los Angeles, opened my eyes not only to the larger issues of gentrification, homelessness and poverty within the American setting but also within myself the idea and understanding of what race means. We were very fortunate to visit L.A at a time this country is going through much change on the racial and poverty fronts and on amny a level watching the populations of L.A come out and fight for what they deserve. In a time when coloured persons are being killed by law enforcement, and the rich poor divide only gets deeper, L.A stands out as maybe a haven where the people there have had enough, now we need to join this crusade, all of us, so that true change can be achieved.

The colours on the wall

Growing up in India graffiti and art on the walls was something I grew up around and grew up detesting. I had many reservations against the idea of people “defacing” and destroying public property that was shared by everyone. In India I grew up in a upper middle class neighborhood where the ideal set was that public property had to be respected and nobody was allowed to express themselves on it. I never understood at that young age , that these were the spaces for us, the public to make with it what we could.

After coming to the United States I began growing an appreciation for the art that people called graffiti usually but was more, it was mural art. Art that expressed the voices of the populations that were supressed, who could not talk about their problems, or just had nobody to listen to them. The art movement in Los Angeles is rich and varied and has a long and detailed history, but had a brief stop when the Power that would be thought that it would blemish the “true beauty” of the city. There was a ban on mural art on walls and public spaces in Los Angeles for 10 years until 2013 when it was lifted. The government put this ban in the first place to curb the use of advertising for products under the guise of art, and when the ban was lifted the one thing that still remained was consumer greedy corporations. While in Los Angeles we passed by countless pieces of art which were beautiful and very intricate but sold not a message of the artists choosing but a side of the Big Consumer America chose for them. Skid Row Too ManyWhat struck me the most is that within a city so large and “glitzy” the contant and never ending greed of these corporations to take more from the body they are already sucking dry. The city of Los Angeles is filled with the latest in consumer commodities of various brands and makes and varying ridiculous price tags, and these are already making of the economy of this city a large and very lucrative industry. The stealing of the green and public spaces is to me the last straw, where they are taking something as pure as expression through art and polluting it with their greed and necessity for more wealth. The power of art inspite of these many obstacles, like capitalism and the system in place, is seen in the lower income neighborhoods where the populations of L.A that are “hidden away” reside. These are the populations of Los Angeles, that the government try to sideline and keep away from the true possibilities available to them. Skid Row has some of the most powerful and deep setting mural art and telling the stories of how far pushed away the homeless and the racial minorities have been pushed and shoved.

One particular mural stuck out to me more clearly, in Skid Row told me a story on my first day in L.A that I hadnt truly been able to grasp until much later. When walking into the neighbourhood known as Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, there is a mural on the wall which reads Skid Row , City Limit, Population: Too Many. And thats all it said, with so few words clearly painted the bleek and dowtrodden picture that was a reality to those that resided in this area. It painted the truth of how broken the entire system is, and how far capitalism has pushed us to forget how to care for our fellow man before ourselves. The epitome of greed that has been fostered has winners and losers, and these were the those “losers” , and they were so because the powers that would be deemed them unfit to be part of society. The power of art will prevail and send their message as long as there is an audience to know its importance, we must remember that our greed is not the be all and end all, there are priorities higher than that, causes larger and more importantly fellow humans more important.

Epistamology of Knowledge

The power of information and knowledge is something that really struck me while in Los Angeles. After coming back I had to go and get my documents renewed and I went through the hurdles, but it was much easier for me to complete the task because I was priviledged to have an education and can read and write in English. When I came to this country for the first time, myself an immigrant from India, it was to go to school in Minnesota for my undergraduate degree. I was blessed to be a green card holder so my immigration status was not particularly an issue, but acquiring a basic drivers license without an idea how the american system works, was a huge obstacle. I had so many troubles to deal with, and nobody would anser my questions and even worse having no transport in a cold state like Minnesota is no ride in the park. In Los Angeles the large section of the immigrant population do not have that same priviledge and to acquire anything from medical insuarance to a basic drivers license have to move mountains, and that is if they can acquire the documents needed in the end.

The education system for many immigrants who come into Los Angeles is a difficulty to deal with, the public school system is broken and not equipped to handle bilingual and multilingual students who do not speak english. The immigrant population which is concentrated in a few areas of Los Angeles, like Boyle Heights, Pico Union and East los Angeles have bigger and better funded police stations than schools, Boyle Heights being the best example. The thought that crossed my mind recently while thinking back about it makes me shudder, the idea that the government is sidelining certain populations just because of the colour of their skin and their Immigration status, legal or otherwise. The irony is that these are the men and women that keep Los Angeles running, but always the most ignored and sidelined, the Latin American and South American population being the majority. Many of these immigrants came over the border as refugees from violent wars and coups in their countries and America was their way out of a tortured existence or worse death. The system in place to receive refugees from countries so close is very badly managed. There are however NGO’s which deal with the problem of the uninformed immigrant in the United States.LIFT is one of those organizations, which do an amazing job with the education and providing of information and basic services to the legal and otherwise populations of Los Angeles’ immigrant family. What struck me most about this organization is not just the great work they do with providing of information to the immigrant populations but also the outreach work they do to influential and wealthy persons in the Los Angeles society to educate them on the importance and necessity of making policy towards bettering the cause of the immigrant and not 1% population of the L.A area. They conduct a role play exercise every year where they invite their influential and wealty contacts within the area and reverse role their situations where they have to play immigrants or just Americans who do not speak English, and come from a lower income background and have to acquire medical services or documentation to allow them to be a productive member of society.

Reversing the roles on these the 1% of the Los Angeles population to me is the most important task that is carried out by this organization because it creates empathy. When one goes through the true hardship that these populations of Los Angeles go through just because they do not speak the language or sometimes more insidiously are not the right skin tone, a certain understanding and a bond of sort is created. And that is but the first step in ensuring the betterment of this dire situation of ignored and abused human rights.