City attorney uses controversial tool against gang violence, a move critics and gang members say may do more harm than good
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When seven people were shot in the span of 12 hours in June at the Friendship Village and Yerba Buena Plaza East housing complexes in the Western Addition, city and community leaders decided immediate action was necessary to remedy the increasing level of gang violence.
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the area, demanded 24-hour police patrols as a temporary measure. Rev. Regnaldo Woods of Bethel AME had a broader vision get the gangs to call a truce. But City Attorney Dennis Herrera already had his own plan well in the works, a controversial approach that has nonetheless been embraced at City Hall by leaders desperate for solutions to the intractable and escautf8g problem of gun violence.
Herrera and his staff in July announced they were seeking civil gang injunctions in the Western Addition and the Mission District modeled on a similar effort last year against the Oakdale Mob in BayviewHunters Point. He went after alleged members of the Norteña gang in the Mission and targeted three gangs in the Western Addition, all centered on Eddy Street and the public housing complexes that stretch from Gough to Divisadero: Eddy Rock, Chopper City, and Knock Out Posse.
Two Superior Court judges, Patrick Mahoney and Peter Busch, heard arguments for and against the injunctions Sept. 18 and are expected to issue rulings at any time. The injunctions would prevent the alleged gang members they name from associating with one another within a prescribed area, among other restrictions.
The injunctions have pitted Herrera and his allies against Public Defender Jeff Adachi, civil liberties advocates, and some community groups, who have rallied to stop the injunctions and criticize them as a "criminalization of people of color," a charge Herrera stridently rejects and has publicly condemned as "race-baiting."
But beyond the emotional politics of this controversial tactic, there are some practical problems with the injunctions, particularly in the Western Addition, where they may stifle community-based solutions to the problem of gang violence.
"[The injunctions] slowed us down considerably," Woods, a life-long Fillmore resident, told the Guardian. "It's going to impact the movement if it stays as it is. I think there needs to be changes."
Woods and other leaders from Bethel and from his nonprofit, Up from Darkness, met with the gang members a total of 43 times throughout the summer. When word of the injunctions spread, Woods said he had to restart from square one. Rather than bring people together for a dialogue, he had to explain why this was happening, what the injunctions meant, and how the injunctions would affect those included.
Woods planned to hold a summit, which "shot callers" from each of the gangs would attend and at which they would call a truce as well as receive access to employment guidance and mental health services. The summit never happened, but gang violence in the Western Addition nevertheless decreased rapidly in the following months. Northern Police District Capt. Croce Casciato said there hasn't been a gang-related homicide in the district since May.
The American Civil Liberties Union says the injunctions will strip alleged gang members of due-process rights and give police a roving warrant to harass whomever they deem a gang member. Adachi and Kendra Fox-Davis, of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, said their offices have received numerous complaints from youths in the Mission and the Western Addition that police are already using the injunctions to hassle people even before they've been approved.
"There's been a tremendous amount of misinformation about the injunctions," Adachi said. He questions the effectiveness of injunctions and said these give police carte blanche to harass anyone they suspect of being affiliated with gangs. His biggest issue, though, is the fact that the alleged members don't have the necessary resources to contest the label.
Herrera derided the racial implications levied by Adachi, and in an e-mail to us, press secretary Matt Dorsey wrote, "The fact is, the debate over these proposed injunctions most especially the one in the Mission has been characterized by increasingly dishonest and inflammatory rhetoric. This isn't just someone's innocent misunderstanding, either: 'the criminalization of people of color' is wildly misrepresentative, and it's deliberate."
Herrera acknowledges people's concerns, but he stands by his decision.
"I really wish it wasn't necessary that it has come to this point where I say, 'Hey, this is a tool we have to pursue,'" Herrera told us. "But the facts are the facts. We have a gang problem in San Francisco. I think I'd be neglecting my responsibility if I didn't bring another tool to the table to help address the issue."
Woods doesn't raise the same racial concerns that Adachi does, and he isn't too animated about the civil liberties issues. To him, the injunctions are just too broad and counterproductive to the community-based approaches that have the best chance of addressing the problem. He thinks the gang members themselves must help solve the problems they've created.
"It's us getting together every day and doing something positive," said Steve Johnson, a 27-year-old targeted member of Eddy Rock, which claims the Plaza East housing complex as its turf. "It has nothing to do with the injunction. We're trying to get all the different complexes in the Western Addition together."
Paris Moffet, the alleged leader of Eddy Rock, added, "We're the only ones stopping the violence. We needed to. We are going to stop this."
It may come as a surprise that reputed gang members might be helping to stop the violence that was once a part of their daily lives, and several members of Eddy Rock acknowledged they have a long way to go in reshaping their images.
But, they say, they are committed to reforming themselves, and they recently held a barbecue at the complex parking lot to display some of their positive work. In the small community center at Plaza East locally known as the OC, for "Outta Control" Eddy Rock, with the help of Woods and others, has created Open Arms, a nonprofit geared toward educating the younger kids in the complex about staying in school and computer literacy.
Asked about the sudden turnabout by Eddy Rock, Marquez Shaw, a 26-year-old alleged member of the gang, explained that the level of violence at Plaza East had taken its toll on everyone, not just uninvolved residents. "[The violence] affected me, very much so," he said. "There's been more bloodshed here than anywhere else in the community. We're the only ones man enough to do something."
But Herrera said the recent relative quiet in the area doesn't make up for more than five years of chaos. "Has there been a lull? Yeah," he said. "But earlier in the summer there were some brazen shootings. June isn't that long ago."
Woods acknowledged that the members shouldn't be given a free pass, considering their troubled past. "They're not angels," he said. "But let's try to help them before they go to prison. That way you might save the old lady's life. You might save a youngster's life. If they had something to do, they wouldn't do the shootings."
At the Aug. 14 Eddy Rock barbecue, about 50 or so people from the Plaza East complex snacked on ribs, chicken, hot links, and spaghetti. Two beat officers from the Northern Station stood in the distance and oversaw an impromptu football game between juveniles and alleged gang members.
A clipping of a newspaper article hangs on the wall in the community center; it's about how director Spike Lee is urging inner-city youths to make films about their experience growing up with violence and to use the Internet to broadcast them to others.
Given a camera, Shaw has done just that. During a recent visit to Plaza East, he was using iMovie to edit a video that he planned to post on YouTube. On the video, an older black man says, "Now it's time to look at what's going on, not what's happened in the past."
Nas's "I Know I Can" plays on Hannibal Thompson's video as he flatly explains how the area is deprived of proper resources and lacks preventative measures. Thompson, a 20-year-old named in one of the injunctions as a member of Eddy Rock, says six of his friends have been murdered since 2005 three of them less than a block away, at Eddy and Laguna, where cameras affixed to streetlights are meant to deter criminal activity. He said increased police presence and the work of Woods have led to the decrease in violence, something he embraces.
"The best thing that ever happened to this community was the 24-hour police patrol. That's way better than the injunction," he said. "They should have done that years ago."
Casciato doesn't doubt that Eddy Rock, which has terrorized residents for years, might have turned the corner. But he calls the injunctions one additional tool to fight the long-term battle against gang violence. Casciato said it was too soon to tell how an injunction would affect regular police procedure. Like others in the community, though, he emphasized the effectiveness of outreach work.
"There has been a great collaborative effort on the community's part," Casciato said. On gang members reforming themselves, he said, "I'm sure they did. Success is going to come from within, not from the outside. All our efforts are for naught if there's no buy-in."
Under the current terms of the injunctions, the aforementioned barbecue would be prohibited, since it involved literally the whole gang. The targeted individuals could freely associate with one another inside the community center but would need to go in and out separately, which critics say is not a realistic scenario. If targeted members violate the injunctions, they can be charged with misdemeanors and put in jail for up to five days.
The injunction tactic "undermines antiviolence efforts of community advocates and organizations working in the Western Addition, like Woods, by effectively preventing the individuals most in need of support services from participating in them," Fox-Davis wrote in an e-mail.
Herrera and his deputies submitted more than 4,000 pages of evidence, including expert declarations from the gang task force, which detailed the reign of terror of the three gangs. He said they've been careful to name only shot callers in the injunctions and to carefully detail the case against them.
Fox-Davis and other critics contend the Western Addition injunction is too broad, unlike the first one in Oakdale, which only covered four square blocks. A total of 15 blocks are designated as the "safety zone" in the Western Addition, stretching from Eddy and Gough in the east to Eddy and Webster in the west, bordered by Turk and Ellis to the north and south, for Eddy Rock.
For Chopper City and KOP which had in the past aligned themselves against Eddy Rock the safety zone is a six-block area north of Turk to Ellis, between Divisadero and Steiner, which includes the Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King housing complexes. In Bayview, only one of 22 targeted members lived in the housing complex, whereas a total of seven of 19 identified members of Eddy Rock live within that purposed safety zone, according to the City Attorney's Office.
"The restrictions that are proposed in this injunction go far beyond what is necessary to address the nuisance the city attorney claims is being caused by gang violence," Fox-Davis said.
But Herrera says the "nuisance" amounts to communities being terrorized by violence and his office would be remiss to not address the problem. A total of 11 homicides in three years have been linked to the three Western Addition gangs, according to court documents.
"I've never been one to say we should be dissuading communities from being involved and trying find solutions and making contributions to solving the problem. To me it's not mutually exclusive. It's not an either-or proposition. I think it's important that we get the community to be a vital stakeholder in trying to stem the tide of violence," Herrera said. "But there has to be accountability."
To quell critics' concerns, Herrera said his office has included numerous safeguards, including training cops to properly enforce the injunctions. Targeted members also have a "buyout option," meaning if they can prove that they are no longer involved in gang activity, they can appeal to have their names removed from the list.
Herrera points to the perceived success of the injunction in Bayview as proof that the tactic is effective in restoring calm and peace to neighborhoods once plagued with murder. Herrera also notes that the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution almost unanimously that supported injunctions by the city attorney.
Mirkarimi, however, said his support of the current injunctions being sought was "tentative at best" and said he considered them "an act of desperation." He too said community work and traditional police enforcement like the 24-hour patrols are better ways of addressing the root causes of gang violence.
The alleged members of Eddy Rock agree.
"We just need something to do," said Maurice Carter, 32. "We did the crime, we did the time. Now we just want a second chance."