Prev: Scanscape Up: Contents Next: The Half-Moons of Repression


3. Free Fire Zone

Beyond the scanscape of the fortified core is the halo of barrios and ghettos that surround Downtown Los Angeles. In Burgess's original Chicago-inspired schema this was the "zone in transition": the boarding house and tenement streets, intermixed with old industry and transportation infrastructure, that sheltered new immigrant families and single male laborers. Los Angeles's inner ring of freeway-sliced Latino neighborhoods still recapitulate these classical functions. Here in Boyle and Lincoln Heights, Central-Vernon and MacArthur Park are the ports of entry for the region's poorest immigrants, as well as the low-wage labor reservoir for Downtown's hotels and garment sweatshops. Residential densities, just as in the Burgess diagram, are the highest in the city. (According to the 1990 Census one district of MacArthur Park is nearly 30% denser than Midtown Manhattan!)

Finally, just as in Chicago in 1927, this tenement zone ("where an inordinately large number of children are crowded into a small area") remains the classic breeding ground of teenage street gangs (over one-hundred according to L.A. school district intelligence). But while "Gangland" in 1920s Chicago was theorized as essentially interstitial to the social organization of the city -- "as better residential districts recede before the encroachments of business and industry, the gang develops as one manifestation of the economic, moral, and cultural frontier which marks the interstice" -- a gang map of Los Angeles today is coextensive with the geography of social class. Tribalized teenage violence now spills out of the inner ring into the older suburban zones; the Boyz are now in the 'Hood where Ozzie and Harriet used to live.

For all that, however, the inner ring remains the most dangerous sector of the city. Ramparts Division of the LAPD, which patrols just west of Downtown, regularly investigates more homicides than any other neighborhood police jurisdiction in the nation. Nearby MacArthur Park, once the jewel in the crown of L.A.'s park system, is now a free-fire zone where crack dealers and street gangs settle their scores with shotguns and uzis. Thirty people were murdered there in 1990. By their own admission, the overwhelmed inner-city detachments of the LAPD are unable to keep track of all the bodies on the street, much less deal with common burglaries, car thefts or gang-organized protection rackets. Lacking the resources or political clout of more affluent neighborhoods, the desperate population of the inner ring is left to its own devices. As a last resort they have turned to Messieurs Smith & Wesson, whose name follows "protected by..." on many a porch.

Slumlords, meanwhile, are mounting their own private reign of terror against drug-dealers and petty criminals. Faced with new laws authorizing the seizure of drug-infested properties, they are hiring goon squads and armed mercenaries to "exterminate" crime in their tenements. The L.A. Times recently described the swashbuckling adventures of one such crew in the Pico-Union, Venice and Panorama City (San Fernando Valley) areas.

Led by a six-foot-three 280-pound "soldier of fortune" named David Roybal, this security squad is renown amongst landlords for its efficient brutality. Suspected drug-dealers and their customers, as well as mere deadbeats and other landlord irritants, are physically driven from buildings at gunpoint. Those who resist or even complain are beaten without mercy. In a Panorama City raid a few years ago, the Times notes, "Roybal and his crew collared so many residents and squatters for drugs that they converted a recreation room into a holding tank and handcuffed arrestees to a blood-spattered wall." The LAPD knew about this private jail but dismissed residents' complaints "because it serves the greater good."

Roybal and his gang closely resemble the so-called matadors, or hired gunslingers, who patrol Brazilian urban neighborhoods and frequently, while the police deliberately turn their backs, execute persistent criminals, even street urchins. Their common coda is that "they get the job done [when] all else has failed." As one of Roybal's most aggressive competitors explains:

Somebody's got to rule and when we're there, we rule. When somebody says something smart, we body-slam him, right on the floor with all of his friends looking. We handcuff them and kick them and when the paramedics come and they're on the stretcher, we say: `Hey, sue me.'

Apart from these rent-a-thugs, the Inner City also spawns a vast cottage industry that manufactures bars and grates for home protection. Indeed most of the bungalows in the inner ring now tend to resemble cages in a zoo. As in a George Romero movie, working-class families must now lock themselves in every night from the zombified city outside. One inadvertent consequence has been the terrifying frequency with which fires immolate entire families trapped helpless in their barred homes.

The prison cell house has many resonances in the landscape of the inner city. Before the Spring uprising most liquor stores, borrowing from the precedent of pawnshops, had completely caged in the area behind the counter, with firearms discretely hidden at strategic locations. Even local greasy spoons were beginning to exchange hamburgers for money through bullet-proof acrylic turnstiles. Windowless concrete-block buildings, with rough surfaces exposed to deter graffiti, have spread across the streetscape like acne during the last decade. Now insurance companies may make such riot-proof bunkers virtually obligatory in the rebuilding of many districts.

Local intermediate and secondary schools, meanwhile, have become even more indistinguishable from jails. As per capita education spending has plummeted in Los Angeles, scarce resources have been absorbed in fortifying school grounds and hiring armed security police. Teenagers complain bitterly about overcrowded classrooms and demoralized teachers on decaying campuses that have become little more than daytime detention centers for an abandoned generation. The schoolyard, meanwhile, has become a killing field. Just as their parents once learned to cower under desks in the case of an atomic bomb attack, so students today are "taught to drop at a teacher's signal in case of ... a driveby shooting -- and stay there until they receive an all-clear signal."

Federally subsidized and public housing projects, for their part, are coming to resemble the infamous "strategic hamlets" that were used to incarcerate the rural population of Vietnam. Although no L.A. housing project is yet as technologically sophisticated as Chicago's CabriniGreen, where retinal scans (c.f., the opening sequence of Blade Runner) are used to check i.d.s, police exercise increasing control over freedom of movement. Like peasants in a rebel countryside, public housing residents of every age are stopped and searched at will, and their homes broken into without court warrants. In one particularly galling incident, just a few weeks before the Spring 1992 riots, the LAPD arrested more than fifty people in the course of a surprise raid upon Watts' Imperial Courts project.

In a city with the nation's worst housing shortage, project residents, fearful of eviction, are increasingly reluctant to claim any of their constitutional protections against unlawful search or seizure. Meanwhile national guidelines approved by Housing Secretary Jack Kemp (and almost certain to be continued in the Clinton administration) allow housing authorities to evict families of alleged drug-dealers or felons. This opens the door to a policy of collective punishment as practiced, for example, by the Israelis against Palestinian communities on the West Bank.


Prev: Scanscape Up: Contents Next: The Half-Moons of Repression