Sirens and gunshots are the soundtrack of South Los Angeles, formerly known as South Central. People thought changing the name would change the neighborhood's image, but it hasn't. L.A. is in the midst of a new surge in gang violence that is claiming some very young victims.
Last week, 17-year-old Jamiel Andre Shaw, a high school football star, was walking down the street, talking on his cell phone with his girlfriend, when someone came up to him to ask what gang he was in. When Jamiel didn't answer, he was shot to death.
His mother, an Army sergeant serving her second tour of duty in Iraq, flew back to bury her son.
"She's hurting ... to see her son dead in the streets, it's hard on her," says Jamiel Shaw Sr., the boy's father.
The parents of a 6-year-old African-American boy who was shot in the head when Latino gang members opened up on the family's SUV are experiencing similar pain.
That same week, a 42-year-old Latino man and his 20-year-old son were shot to death outside their home for no apparent reason as well.
It all followed the chaos at a local bus stop, where a Crips gang member opened fire into a crowd of schoolchildren and adults. Eight people were wounded, five of them children. Police say it was a wonder nobody died.
Living in Fear
"This is usual here. I mean, every night you hear fire shots. Every night," says 20-year-old Miguel Lugo, who lives close to the site of the bus stop shooting. He and his neighbors say they live in constant fear.
"We're living with terrorism, just like in Iraq," says Sonia Flores, whose children attend high school in South L.A.
Flores was among the scores of residents who turned out last week for a meeting at a local middle school to urge police to take action. Los Angeles Police Department officials have downplayed race as a motive, but many people disagree, citing tensions between African-Americans and Latinos.
City council member Jan Perry, who represents South L.A., calls it a power struggle between gangs.
"It's about controlling commerce, the flow of money in and out of a community, and while some people may cast it as race, it's a form of manipulation ... I'm gonna tell you it's about money first and money last, and it's always about money," she says.
A Way of Life
How does this affect children who live in South L.A.? Just ask elementary school student Miguel Gonzales.
"It's a bad neighborhood right here. Last time, they shot close to our house," he says.
Only 9, he already knows to take cover in the bathtub or closets far from the front of his house when the bullets start flying.
"When they shoot, we get down, lay down on the ground and put our hands on our head," he says. "They told us in our school."
That stress takes its toll, says Malik Spellman, a former gang member who now works to lead young people out of the gang lifestyle through his group Unity T.W.O.
"Elementary school children are being subjected to this fratricidal strife. These kids are suffering from PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — in which they're having the same type of effects that a child in Vietnam or Iraq or Iran or Israel would have from being in a war," he says.
Adults also have had to adapt to the volatile streets.
"You have to fear for your life when you walk out your door," says Jeffrey Davis, 50, a longtime member of the "Four Tray" Crips street gang.
"You don't know if you got a wrong color on, or you have the wrong skin color. You don't know what that person's going through ... and people cross paths and it's just — communication gets messed up," he says. "We had to be a crew; we had to walk in two, had to walk in three, walk in four in order to survive in this neighborhood."
Many people are reluctant to report crimes, afraid of retaliation or scared they may be turned over to immigration agents.
Even when someone calls 911, officers take hours to respond, Davis and others say.
Police Chief William Bratton says he's counting on community help and intervention to stem gang violence. Slowly, he's also begun to add more officers to his ranks; L.A.'s police academy has just graduated 84 new officers.
But even anti-gang officer Mike Switzer says the violence in South L.A. is endless.
"There's more gang members than there are us," he says.
As the ice cream truck rolls through a working-class black and Latino neighborhood on a recent afternoon, South L.A. doesn't seem so menacing. Nine-year-old Miguel Gonzales knows better. He dreams of the day, he says, "that there won't be no gangsters, no shooting around here. No shooting. No shooting little kids."