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City Limits

‘I Can Tell You I’ve Been to More Funerals That Are Gun-Related Than I’ve Been to Graduations’

Scenes from everyday life in the Los Angeles neighborhoods known as "Death Alley."

On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 10, a small crowd of mostly African-American and Latino onlookers gathered on the civilian side of police tape at South Vermont Avenue and West 88th Street in Los Angeles, where one person had been killed and three others wounded by gunfire earlier that day. It was a typical scene for the neighborhood: Bystanders speculated about the number of people dead. A business owner quipped about entry to his shop being blocked. A 60ish man grumbled about the coroner’s tardiness (“He won’t be here till well after dark, I’m sure”) before noting that officers had left the body uncovered and exposed to the sun, the 85-degree heat, and a small flock of hungry seagulls. At one point, a woman arrived on foot and in tears, repeating a grief-stricken, barely audible refrain: “No, it can’t be.” The sounds of her cries were quieter only than the jets overhead bound for LAX.

The intersection is one block south of West Manchester Boulevard, which divides the South L.A. neighborhoods of Westmont and Vermont Knolls; together, those neighborhoods hold the distinction of having the highest homicide rate in L.A. County in the past 12 months: 14 dead in Westmont, 13 in Vermont Knolls. More staggering is the number of homicides in those two neighborhoods since 2000: 363. Add adjacent Vermont Vista and Manchester Square, and that figure climbs to 583 since 2000. It’s no wonder that the L.A. Times last year dubbed the South Vermont corridor “Death Alley.” According to the Times’s Homicide Report, the vast majority of homicides in these regions — and in most of the county — were the result of gunshots, which are an inescapable part of life for residents, whether or not they own a firearm. The homicide numbers only grow as you include more South L.A. neighborhoods.

If you want a gun in this part of the city, you can usually get one, despite California’s strong gun laws. As in years past, says George Tita, a criminology professor at UC Irvine who’s conducted research on black-market firearms sales for the RAND Corporation, “The illegal gun markets remain local. People aren’t going out of state to buy them surreptitiously. In fact, they’re not even going to gun shows and pawn shops. A nontrivial number of guns,” Tita says, come from another family member, “A gift, so to speak.”

The inevitable result is a daily cycle of the threat of gunfire. That reality drives some people who live or work in the South Vermont corridor to arm themselves, and others to reshape their daily routines in ways that most people never have to consider. It sends others to hospitals and morgues.

Here are 10 of those people’s stories, as recorded by The Trace over the past several weeks along the South Vermont corridor.

“My Spin-Duck Move”

 QUINCY “Q” MITCHELL, 51, gang interventionist, former gang member. Mitchell works out of Soledad Enrichment Action Charter High School just off of the South Vermont corridor, where he and a few colleagues try to prevent students from repeating their mistakes. The job is more than just sitting behind a desk: Mitchell does much of his violence-prevention work on the streets, and is by now accustomed to finding himself in the line of fire.

My first time ever shooting a pistol, I had to be about 11. One of the guys in the neighborhood, my friend Charles from Chicago, had a gun and he didn’t know anything about it. He said, “Hey man, you know what this is?” I watched TV: Army movies and stuff. I could identify it as a Colt .45.

In a field up in the neighborhood under this tree we used to always hang under, we shot it into the ground, one shot apiece. I was used to shooting a rifle back then. The Colt, that thing kicked so hard, I was like, “Damn, that’s power!”

I was like, “Wow. I need to get me one of these.”

I would break into somebody’s house just to look for a gun, and I found one. I think it was .357. I had that thing for so long, until a guy stole it from me.

The dope — the crack, in the ’80s — made things more violent. That’s when the guns really came into the neighborhood. The crack put money in people’s hands. Now they could go buy weapons. And when you’ve got people who are buying weapons and you get into it with these people, then you’ve got a war going on.

It gets rough out here, you know. We don’t have no bulletproof vests or nothing like that.

Last year, I was on my way to work and I seen some of the old cats in the neighborhood. I pulled over to holler at them, just to check and see how they doing, see if they needed any resources or anything.

A young man pulled right up.

I heard the hammer hit, but it didn’t go off. But he jacked it again. By that time, I had already went into my spin-duck move. I looked up and I seen one of my partners — after all the shooting stopped, because it probably was about eight or nine shots — I seen him bleeding on the side of his head.

A lot of times the ambulance is not going to come in until the police come, especially when it’s a shooting. They’ll come, but they’ll sit on the perimeter and wait for the police.

We’ve gotten some professional first-responder training. We’re trained to take them to the nearest fire station and hit the alarm because they have all the equipment there to save a life. Otherwise somebody could die within that time frame.

We’re going out there just because we care, and we want to change it. We were part of it, we helped create it, but we want to fix it. If I have to get shot to fix it, so be it.

Charles, the guy who showed me that first gun, he was murdered. I think it was ’86, ’87. Gunned down.

“No, I Didn’t Run. They Weren’t Aiming at Me.”

JOSE GALLEGOS, 28, youth leader at Youth Justice Coalition, former gang member. The Youth Justice Coalition works with policymakers and law enforcement leaders to try to reform the juvenile justice system and keep children out of jails and prisons. The facility where Gallegos helps manage after-school activities and programs is in an industrial neighborhood not far from the busy intersection of Florence and Crenshaw, in the western part of South L.A. A former gang member, Gallegos knows the unwritten rules of a community rife with gun violence all too well. The kids he works with know them, too. 

The first time I saw a gun? I don’t know … I was probably like 13 years old. I was buying some ice cream from an ice-cream truck. Some dudes pull up, and they call somebody out the window. Soon as the guy sticks his head out, the other guys start shooting.

No, I didn’t run. They weren’t aiming at me. I was just shocked.

I just recently moved to Westmont because that’s where my mom lives. And my brother was living there until he got killed.

November 24, 2014. He was waiting for the bus early in the a.m. That’s all I’m going to say, because there’s an investigation under way.

After he passed, that’s why I moved in, you know, to keep my mom company, make sure she stays positive, and not depressed and just out of her mind.

It’s just, it’s chaos right now. It’s just hot over here, you know. I don’t go outside. I don’t walk; I don’t catch the bus unless I really, really have to. It’s especially dangerous to me because of my appearance. The tattoos, you know. The tats attract a certain kind of attention. I won’t even hang in the front yard. I smoke cigarettes, but I go in my backyard to do it. Not the front porch. I find a spot where I’m protected and people can’t see me.

I’m not going to lie. The trauma from my brother’s situation, it makes me paranoid.

If it happened to him, you know — I’m not saying he was Superman or nothing — but I never thought it would happen to him the way that it did. I feel like, if I see a group of guys rolling up, they’re going to pull out a gun and shoot.

Gun control. It’s hard, right? But it can be done. It’s always about the youth. You got to, because that’s who’s carrying these guns.

I can’t say exactly how many people I’ve known who’ve been shot. But I can tell you I’ve been to more funerals that are gun-related than I’ve been to graduations.

“Continuous, Ongoing Bad Behavior”

ALICIA PAUGH, mid to late 20s. The Trace met Paugh while she was standing outside one of South Vermont’s many motels. Flanked by four suitcases and an overstuffed tote bag, she was waiting for a ride.

I’m in the hotel situation because my mom recently passed away, in December. I was in a real bad state of depression for a while. I’m just now getting on my feet.

I was staying nearby, in Gardena, but this is cheaper. A lot of activity when I walked to the store. A lot of gangs. It’s just really dangerous — continuous, ongoing bad behavior around here. I heard gunshots. Throughout the whole night, at least six or seven, periodically through the night.

I’m from Orange County. What a difference. I was in this motel for one day, and I’m outta here. I have my bags packed, on the curb, waiting for my friend to pick me up.

“You Hear That Little Repetition”

DARRELL TAVE, 53, gang interventionist with RACE (Reclaiming America’s Communities through Empowerment), former gang member. Helen Keller Park, in the West Athens neighborhood just south of Westmont, has hosted its share of shootings and violence. Its small administrative offices are home to RACE, which calls itself an “intervention and prevention” provider. For Tave, the park is a big shift from the California state prisons where he spent 32 years of his life on murder charges before being released seven months ago.

My first real gun experience was on New Year’s, sometime in the early ’70s. The older group — it wasn’t my parents — they had all the little kids in the back room, and one at a time, they called us out to shoot the gun. They’d hold our wrist so the gun would shoot straight up.

By that New Year’s when I shot the gun, I could recognize the difference between backfires and firecrackers and gunshots. You know, the rapid sounds, or the pauses. Pop, pop, pop. You hear that little repetition, that’s shooting. Then a pause. Sometimes you might hear a bigger sound. Boom! So then you know it’s a little shootout or whatever.

As a youngster, at 15, I was a full gang member. I went to Youth Authority for shooting somebody, taking somebody’s life. It was retaliation. Once another neighborhood starts shooting at you and you realize you don’t have no guns, now you got to sit back and talk about getting guns.

We was all youngsters, and believing in one thing, thinking that’s our truth.

I came out at 19 even more hardened, because I was in there fighting all these hard-core dudes, and I eventually became one of them dudes. I wasn’t finished gangbanging. It was more like, “I can’t wait to see y’all when I get free.”

A gun can be a lifesaver and peacemaker, in a sense, because if people know you and they know you’re willing to shoot, they’re going to leave you alone. They’re thinking, “These fools must got heart. These fools wouldn’t be here if they wasn’t strapped.” And then we walk around with confidence, like, “Yeah, we strapped. Only way you going to see this gun is when it’s going to be fired.”

Normal society, they wouldn’t comprehend it, man.

“I Hate It Over Here”

TARIK WILLIS, 18, recent high school graduateThe Trace spoke with Willis at the crime scene at South Vermont Avenue and West 88th Street, among the small crowd waiting for the coroner to finally arrive. The victim’s body was visible from where we stood.

There’s too many guns. It’s not only here. But it is more common over here.

I’ve been threatened before. Someone tried to rob me for my phone. I was like, “I can’t give it to you; my mom bought this for me.” I said I’d leave them the phone if they spared my life. I lost all my air — breath — and was like, “Please … ”

I was 16. That’s normal around here. At least that’s what people say.

“It Was Sort of a Rude Awakening”

MICHAEL EALEY, 53, pastor, recreation-service supervisor. Ealey shares office space with CASE at Helen Keller Park, where he works as a supervisor for The County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. Growing up, he played sports in the park, an alternative to some of the dead-end or deadly options available to South L.A. children.

My family had some guns, you know, and you thought to yourself, if you ever needed it, you knew somebody had it. And I was glad I was never put in the position to really need a gun.

We did a lot of fighting. We would play football together, and trash talking after the game led to fighting.

I had to be about 13, 14 years old. Someone came to me about doing a drive-by on one of the guys that we knew from elementary school who’d joined a rival gang.

I didn’t realize it at first. Then I saw the guns and I was like, “What are you pulling the guns out for? Why not just fight?” I said gunplay was out. And then they mentioned the name of the person they were going after, and I was like, “He’s in jail anyway. Why would you shoot up his house?”

Maybe I was too rational for it.

I threw my first baseball here at Helen Keller Park in 1966. So I’ve been around a while, watched the neighborhood evolve. I lived in another part of the city for many years, the Pasadena and Altadena areas, and coming back to Helen Keller was sort of a rude awakening: that the gangs still existed, and things were still happening here that I thought had died out over the years. You know, every neighborhood has its peaks, where it’s really high with gang violence, and then it’ll cool off. But this park stayed pretty consistent all the way through. There’s more consciousness now, but there’s still guns and shootings.

Three years ago, we had a basketball league going. We took a two-week break, and in the midst of that two-week break, somebody came by the park, stuck their hand out the window as if it was a gun, kind of fronted to the guys in the park, and they took offense. They all jumped in their cars, rode around, shot up the neighborhood.

I lost my whole team: 25 to life.

“To Me, It’s Normal”

SHERRELL NEWSOME, 28, longtime Westmont residentNewsome was also among the bystanders at the shooting on South Vermont and West 88th on June 10. She’d been walking home, only to come across police tape that blocked her route.

I’ve lived here almost 29 years, most of my life. It’s pretty much an everyday thing. Not every day, but at least once a month.

Just within this year, at least 10 people that I know. To me, it’s normal.

Wearing the wrong color, domestic violence, just walking down the street. One of my cousins passed not too long ago. He got shot in the head over around Normandie and 111th.

If I’m in Torrance, I have to think about the racial stuff, people trying to strangle me, kidnap me, throwing stuff at me. But here in this neighborhood, I just worry about getting shot or something bad happening.

But most likely getting shot.

“You Have to Be Careful Around Here”

KEVIN CEDENO, 18, recent high school graduateCedeno is a friend of Tarik Willis’s. He spoke to The Trace at the same crime scene at South Vermont and West 88th.

I came to this country 10 years ago, but I’ve only lived in South L.A. for two years. I don’t live in this neighborhood. I live close, in Avalon, but I come to the park in this neighborhood over on Hoover to play soccer. You have to be careful around here. There’s a lot of robberies. A lot of killing. A lot of people carrying guns.

I’m scared when I walk at night because you don’t know when somebody’s going to come for your bag or what.

I have a lot of family here, but an uncle of mine who lives in Texas, he doesn’t want to come here. It’s not calm enough for him. A lot of violence.

I would go to someplace safe if I could.

“Just Like Passing the Cigarette Around”

KEVIN “TWIN” ORANGE, 52, youth gang interventionist, former gang memberLike Quincy Mitchell, Orange is employed by a SEA Charter School in the Westmont area, where he works with kids, fields phone calls about shootings, and attempts to control intergang rumors.

I had an older brother. He was about 15, and I was about 12. He was in a gang and he’d have his friends over, his so-called homeboys. I’d see them, you know, just out there in the backyard, passing guns around. It was nothing. I had a twin brother also, and we went back there. I didn’t think nothing of it.

This is where they was at in life, you know what I mean, so no telling why they had the guns going back and forth. Just like passing the cigarette around.

In elementary school, these are the guys the kids are talking about. Being that close to them gives you the power. You looked up to them like, “Man, I can’t believe that they’re actually in my backyard. I’m somebody because they at my house and I know them and they know me.”

Back then, around ’72, ’74, you didn’t hear gunfire a lot.

Once some people were sitting on our porch, and some guys came to the corner and started shooting. They shot our house up. That was the first time I ever was involved in something like that. Then I seen the reaction of my brother, and his homeboys, how they went in a mode.

You’re not thinking about consequences. You want payback.

When our generation got up there — we’re talking about the early to mid-’80s now — we started changing that whole concept, you know, where Crips could shoot other Crips, and that’s where we sort of took it to another direction. That’s when the gun violence really escalated.

I was at Vermont and 108th. I was a Hoover Crip.

A car drove up and started shooting.

Eight times. My arms, my legs, in the back. When I got up, I saw that somebody had torn a shirt and tied my wound up because I got hit in my main arteries.

I’ve lost numerous of friends; lost my twin brother and my little cousin six years ago. We were at a candlelight vigil to honor one of my friends that got killed a week prior. Assailant comes up in the crowd, shooting my brother and my cousin and another guy. My brother and my cousin passed away. At a candlelight vigil. Imagine that.

“Of Course I Get the Questions All the Time”

BRENT PAGE, 30, aerospace-industry lobbyist, member of the West Park Terrace Neighborhood Council. A father of two daughters, Page moved to South L.A. from the New Orleans area in 2008. Unlike many in the neighborhood, he can afford to live in a safer area, but has chosen to put down roots about a mile from the South Vermont corridor.

When I first moved to South L.A. I was living in the Hyde Park area in Crenshaw and Florence, and my first week there was a roadblock because something had happened. So you see police, yellow tape and everything. I was in the house and the helicopter was so close that the light shined in the window.

To think about kids growing up in South L.A.: It’s like soldiers going off to war and then coming back. There’s a certain type of paranoia. You hear gunshots. You may have seen a murder take place. And so when you’re dealing in a paranoia type of situation, of course you’re going to have a high number of guns that may be readily available in a neighborhood.

Your access to any type of weapon in the streets, I mean, it’s just like going to get a hamburger from Jack in the Box.

You might not necessarily gangbang, but you may just happen to be walking in the wrong spot, or you just may be a target for that day.

I’ll give you an example. When I’m at a red light I’m constantly — I’m looking around, I’m on guard, I’m on alert.

Say I’m at a barbecue and I’m outside, out front with a friend, and if we see an unfamiliar car, everybody gets quiet. So we’re having a conversation and you see a car coming, and you’ve never seen that car before on that street. Everybody’s conversation stops.

Walking around, it’s the same thing. Typically you’re not going to go into unfamiliar territory. I wouldn’t just go walk in a different area where I don’t know anybody.

You have to know exactly where you’re going. If you’re driving slowly around a neighborhood you don’t know, that could be a matter of life or death.

That’s what I signed up for.

I’m actually a homeowner in the area. And of course I get the questions all the time: “You could afford to live anywhere you want in the city of Los Angeles. Why did you choose this neighborhood?”

I consider it an investment in the community.

People talk about problems that plague the community, but there’s never any discussion about solutions. We go to these seminars, we go to these conferences, and everybody’s talking about what’s wrong in South Los Angeles. They say, “There’s a high rate of gun violence. There’s a high gang-murder rate.” If you don’t invest, you’re going to keep saying that.

Community policing: When you have police on foot, maybe on bike, talking to the residents, walking, showing them that, “Hey, I’m not just a big bad bully in a police car that’s going to roll up on you and shine a light on you just for the hell of it” — actually walking and being a part of the community goes a long way, and we’ve seen it work in cities like Newark, New Jersey, where there was a high crime rate, but the investment in community policing paid off. The murder rate dropped.

Invest in people, and you will have a greater reward.

Please invest in this area. At the end of the day, the people who live here are human beings.

[Photo: South Vermont Ave. near Manchester Ave. in South Central Los Angeles, Calif. Ted Soqui/Corbis/APImages]