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July 26-August 2, 2006

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Chief Howard Skerry

Scary Situation: Santa Cruz Chief of Police Howard Skerry speaks at Monday's meeting to address community violence.

No Cure for the Uncommon Crime?

Santa Cruz community leaders search for local answers to a national dilemma

By Laura Mattingly

A recent cluster of high-profile crimes in Santa Cruz leaves many local organizations and individuals searching for ways to clamp down on violence. Some stress the necessity of increased law enforcement. Others are networking ways to increase communication among the various factions of Santa Cruz residents.

But some believe the recent violent events, most of which were gang-affiliated, may have sprung from roots too deep for any amount of local action to remedy.

On July 16, Larry Allen Burrow was shot and killed, and his uncle injured, in the Beach Flats area. On July 10 two teenagers were injured in a Beach Flats drive-by shooting. On July 8, houses in the West Cliff area received a spray of bullets, a van with a woman inside caught fire as a result of arson in the same area, and four people were injured in a brawl near the Boardwalk.

According to Santa Cruz Police Sgt. Zach Friend, many of the people involved in these incidents weren't from Santa Cruz.

"You have people coming from out of town," says Friend. "You have Norteños coming from, say, Palo Alto, for example, clashing with Sureños from King City or something, that happen to culminate, of all things, in our community because people are coming here for the weekend for the beach."

According to City Councilmember Ryan Coonerty, the resort town of Santa Cruz hosts 4 million tourists seasonally.

The Norteños and Sureños are prison-based gangs formed in the 1970s that now have far-reaching allegiances spreading outside California into various other cities in the United States and into Mexico.

Friend characterizes the murder of Burrow as gang-related, because whether or not Burrow himself had gang affiliations, he was perceived as having such, leading to the attack.

Police have yet to determine whether Antonio Hernandez, the suspect in custody for the murder, has gang affiliations himself.

Other recent events, Friend reports, may have relations to Santa Cruz's West Side gang.

According to Friend, statistically Santa Cruz's overall rate of aggravated assaults has dropped significantly from last year, so the nature of the recent crimes, rather than their volume, is what has gotten the public's attention.

"As soon as people start using, such as in the West Side incidents, high-power assault rifles, and on these latest two shootings, that happened down at the beach area, people were shooting people at very close range, it's just unacceptable, so it doesn't matter whether it's a crime spike or not," says Friend.

The Police Department and others emphasize the need for increased communication between the community and law enforcement, and the need for increased numbers of police officers. Efforts are being made by the Police Department, Santa Cruz Neighbors and the City Council to facilitate these changes.

The City Council, according to Coonerty, has fast-tracked police hiring within the last 18 months in order to address a lowered count of acting officers, while also expanding gang education in the school district.

But City Councilmember Michael Rotkin questions the overall effectiveness of these small-scale, local efforts.

"The solutions to the gang problem are unfortunately long-term, and expensive, and difficult. It's not impossible, and I would have to say it's an issue of national priorities rather than 'Gosh, what could we possibly do?' because the solutions are obvious," says Rotkin. "And what you do is, you don't spend all your national recourses having a war in Iraq, what you do is you give a kid some education and hope for the future, and a sense that there's something worth living for and applying themselves to, and creating an educational system providing some real vocational alternatives for kids who aren't on their way to college necessarily. ... so those are some big-picture kinds of items."

Nane Alejandrez, executive director of Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos, an organization dedicated to facilitating grassroots solutions to violence, also emphasizes that reliance on law enforcement, or even reliance on local organizations such as his own, to cure Santa Cruz of violence is an act of grossly wishful thinking.

"Organizations really do not have resources to have people [to staff] the streets," says Alejandrez, "not only ourselves, but youth organizations. So a lot of us are just getting by and providing the services we do. We run a program in juvenile hall. We do have some stuff going on in probation. We have Kids' Club in the Beach Flats. We do try to reach young people. But there's a core of young people between the ages of 17 to 25, 26-27 years old, that there are not many services for."

In his outreach work with the people of Santa Cruz, Alejandrez is confronted again and again with the longstanding, far-reaching and acute problems that result from the city's top-heavy economy.

"Most of the young people in juvenile hall, we ask them what would keep them out, and they say, 'A good job, a job that makes me feel like I'm bringing something to the table, that I'm providing for my family,'" says Alejandrez.

According to Rotkin the unaddressed question of employment for young adults is a nationwide problem.

"Right now at Santa Cruz High, about 50 percent of the kids there are not going to go to college. What are they being offered in the way of vocational training? There's nothing, or close to nothing. It's true of all the other high schools as well. In Germany and Japan they have huge programs to prepare people for meaningful lives making decent livings in growing technical fields and so forth, and in the United States we don't do that," says Rotkin. "There are just lots of people being dumped out on the street every day and it's part of the crime problem and part of the gang problem."

Police Sgt. Friend along with many other community members has expressed sentiments of shock and disbelief at the nature of the recent high-profile crimes.

"It almost seems incomprehensible that somebody could just take a gun and start shooting at people's houses, or that they could be driving through a community and shoot two people standing at a street corner," says Friend.

But sociology professor at UCSC Craig Reinerman cautions startled residents not to react with gut-driven fear, but to take time to consider the social context in which violence usually occurs.

"Gangs are a phenomenon that is widely misunderstood. It's not just a bunch of mean people getting together, figuring out how to do mean and vicious things to each other," says Reinerman. "Who are these people? Well, they seem mostly to be Chicano/Mexicano/Latino gangs. They are drawn almost entirely from working class and poor people."

"Gang phenomena are generally about the maldistribution of dignity in a society. There are large chunks of the population who are systematically denied the ability to lead a dignified life, and they experience life as a death of their dignity by a thousand cuts: the way you're looked at, the way you're spoken to, the way you're regarded by authorities, the kind of jobs that are available to you or no jobs at all ... all of these things are regarded as a series of assaults on one's dignity," says Reinerman.

Alejandrez, when relating with his neighbors, speaks to the importance of family, spirituality and identity when forming a healthy community without violence. Barrios Unidos embraces alternatives to incarceration in dealing with violence, not excusing perpetrators, but seeing them also as victims of harsh social conditions.

One area Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos now focuses attention on is in transitioning people on parole back into general society, knowing that the many who've entered the system once are more likely to enter it again.

"Those that have been in the system, we try to give them support, but it takes a lot more than that to bring a young person out. It's almost like a soldier when he goes to war. You get that PTS [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. I'm a Vietnam vet so I know about that. And people getting out of prison feel that way. And the community is not ready to receive them. There's nothing in place to support them," says Alejandrez.

The Santa Cruz Police Department and Santa Cruz Neighbors hosted a community forum of Monday to discuss the city's recent experience with traumatic events.

And Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos is organizing a march as a call to individuals and organizations in the community to be visibly pro-active.

"I think right now in Santa Cruz we're in a wave where people both within the Latino community and outside of it are really feeling like they need to speak up," says Rotkin, "and as a result I think we'll see that maybe there may be some response that's already happening that may be real, but nobody should have the illusion that that's going to fix the problem, that that's going to keep the number of actual deaths and attempted murders and stuff down."

Though well aware of the reality of Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos' limited recourses, Alejandrez still hopes the organization will set an example and act as a mentor for the rest of the community.

"We've learned from our leader, Cesar Chavez, that when the community was in stress, they used to bring the people out, and bring the children out, and show that you're not afraid," says Alejandrez. "Show that we are united and that we can come together."

The march is tentatively planned for Saturday, July 29. Contact Liz Ayala for more information at 831.457.8208.

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