Racial Conflicts at Center of L.A. Gang Trial

Members of the Avenues gang are accused of hate crimes, conspiring to rid the city's Highland Park neighborhood of African Americans. Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones fills Michele Norris in on the trial.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In Los Angeles, members of another notorious street gang are on trial. That's not uncommon, not in L.A., where street gangs have long been a problem in the city. What is unusual is the prosecutions strategy, their using hate crime laws and a civil rights-era statute to prosecute members of the notorious Avenue street gang.

Prosecutors say the Latino gang tried to drive blacks out of their neighborhood with a six-year campaign of threats, assaults and murder. Sam Quinones has been covering the trial for The Los Angeles Times. He says four of the Avenues' gangsters are standing trial, while a fifth is still a fugitive.

Mr. SAM QUINONES (Reporter, The Los Angeles Times): They are alleged - I guess members of the Avenue 43 street gang, which is part of a much larger group of gang cliques known as the Avenues. It's in the section of Los Angeles known as Highland Park, just off the 110 Freeway north of downtown.

The Avenues is kind of what they call in gang lexicon a kind of multi-generational Latino street gang, many Latino street gangs in Los Angeles are; they go back to where grandfathers may have belonged to the gang.

And they've been around for quite a long time; they have numerous members, police estimate between 500-700.

NORRIS: This case centers on the 1999 killing of Kenneth Wilson, a black man who was murdered while looking for a parking spot there in Highland Park. Could you tell us about that case?

QUINONES: It really deals with an attitude that is alleged by the prosecution that the Avenue 43 street gang had towards black, which was a policy almost, their alleging, of eradicating blacks from their area. Kenneth Wilson was really staying with a friend - he didn't live in the area - he was staying with a friend after going to a club that night, he was looking for a parking space.

They spotted him, they'd been out carousing painting on walls, and they just happen to spot him trying to park his car. And inwards of one of the gang members allegedly, according to the testimony, he said do you want to kill a nigger, and the other guys decided that they did, according to the testimony.

And, so that's what they did, three of them piled out of the van and just walked up to his car and began firing and he was killed. He had nothing to do with any gang, he wasn't from the area, and I don't believe they'd ever had any contact with him before that moment.

NORRIS: What else was going on in the neighborhood, beyond this one killing?

QUINONES: There's allegations that the gang had beat up people who were black, just spotting them on street, not knowing them at all. There was a kind of mini riot that took place at a nearby park that the gang considers theirs. The indictment alleges that also there was numerous racial epithets, racist graffiti.

So it's kind of like this long plan to get rid of blacks in the Highland Park area, who are very recent residents to that area.

NORRIS: Where is Highland Park?

QUINONES: Highland Park is just north of downtown a few miles. For a long time it was just a Latino barrio, like many around Los Angeles, and things stayed that way for many years. Like many things with gang violence, it ebbs and flows according to who's out on the street. And I think in the case of Highland Park it's cut quite a (unintelligible) significantly. And I think significantly since the fellows who are the focus of this trial have been off the street. There is also a significant amount of gentrification going on so the gang itself doesn't have the members that it used to have. And I think the violence there has decreased dramatically.

NORRIS: Is the intent here to do what police there in Los Angeles have been trying to achieve for years, essentially to break up the Avenues gang for once and for all?

QUINONES: My own feeling is the intent to send a message to the Mexican Mafia prison gang that this kind of thing is not going to be tolerated. Because at the roots of this case are really two things that happened in the mid '90s. One is black residents of Los Angeles began moving out of the traditional black enclaves, which are Compton, South Central, Inglewood, Lynwood - they began moving to other parts of Southern California.

At the same time what happened was the Mexican Mafia prison gang, this was purely coincidental, began to extend its power out of the prisons to control these local street gangs. They were intending to get the gangs to tax the drug dealers in their areas and send the money to members of the Mexican Mafia. But as part of that, they said we want you to get rid of the competition in that area, and the main competition were often black gangs.

And it became kind of a policy, according to numerous law enforcement people I've spoken with, that the Mexican Mafia ordered Latino street gangs to begin to attack blacks, and that's what you began seeing in the mid-90s, and it continues sporadically today.

NORRIS: Sam Quinones, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. QUINONES: No problem. Thank you.

NORRIS: Sam Quinones is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

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