In Venice While Black
Oakwood residents say a lingering gang injunction has become a tool for police harassment
By Gary Walker
Citing increased stop-and-frisks and a massive police response to a post-funeral gathering in a public park, longtime residents of Venice’s historically black Oakwood neighborhood are calling for the end of a 15-year-old gang injunction that residents say has become a catalyst for race- and class-based police harassment.
More than 80 people gathered on Nov. 12 at the Oakwood Recreation Center to discuss the lingering impacts of the 2000 injunction with community activists and police.
Oakwood has seen an increased police presence over the past year, with many locals feeling they’ve been unfairly targeted by police — particularly officers with the LAPD’s specialized Gang and Narcotics Division more so than local beat cops — while walking to and from their homes or the rec center.
Gentrification has hit Oakwood particularly hard, and some black residents feel that they are being unfairly singled out for calls to police by newer residents who are wealthier and predominantly white.
“There was time when we were able to socialize in locations other than the [rec center], and now that particular part of the park is the only place and that’s due in part to hyper-gentrification,” said Stan Muhammad, a gang intervention specialist who organized the town hall.
The Venice injunction bans gang members from congregating near parks, schools and other public facilities. Active gangs in the general vicinity include the Venice Shoreline Crips, Venice 13 and the Culver City Boyz, said LAPD Pacific Division Commander Capt. Nicole Alberca, who spoke during the town hall.
In February 2008, a police gang sweep dubbed “Operation Oakwood” jailed at least 19 alleged Venice Shoreline Crips said to have taken over the rec center for drug sales.
Muhammad, a former Venice gang member who is now with the gang intervention group the Helper Foundation, questioned Deputy City Attorney Arturo Martinez during the meeting about whether his office would support a temporary stay of the injunction in order to address harassment complaints.
Martinez answered that only L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer could order a stay, and department spokesman Rob Wilcox later told The Argonaut that Feuer is not considering one.
Noting that the influx of more affluent residents has many black Oakwood residents feeling no longer welcome in the community where they, their parents and their grandparents were raised, Muhammed said gang-motivated crimes — shootings, murders, retaliatory attacks — have dropped significantly in Oakwood and the gang injunction may no longer be necessary.
Alberca said that gang crime is still a problem.
Though there haven’t been any killings in Oakwood this year, robberies, assaults and other violent crimes have risen throughout the Pacific Division’s boundaries and often involve gang members, she said.
“When you take those in totality, we’re up 60% in gang crime,” Alberca told Muhammad.
Alberca said her station had received 232 calls for service in Oakwood this year, but she did not specify whether this was an increase or the nature of those calls.
Tommie Walker, who represents Oakwood on the Venice Neighborhood Council, implied that newcomers to the neighborhood are generating most of the calls to police.
“The dynamics of the community have changed tremendously. That’s the reason that injunctions are being enforced and people are being targeted. It is because of the concerns of those people who are now living in the community. So let’s be real clear about this,” he asserted to thunderous applause. “What we have to do is rectify the validity of the calls.”
Walker said he was present last year after a long-time community member died and Oakwood residents held a post-funeral ceremony (known as a repast) by gathering at Oakwood Park to honor the deceased. In the middle of the ceremony, several LAPD units arrived at the park, some in full riot gear.
“When I questioned one of the officers about why they were there, he told me that they had received a call that there were over 400 gang members in the park. I sat for eight hours at the other end of the park and I watched the officers harass individuals in the park for smoking,” Walker said.
“People should be able to congregate in a park in this community in a peaceful manner, and they shouldn’t be targeted because they’re different or because of someone else’s perception of who they are. And I know for a fact that’s taken place,” Walker continued.
Some Oakwood residents who identified themselves as ex-gang members say they’re still targeted by police because they haven’t applied to have their names taken off the injunction. Residents also said young people with no gang affiliations are often targeted as well.
Randy Bermudez said his 16-year-old daughter has never been associated with a gang but police have confronted her on multiple occasions.
“She’s just starting out. What could she have done to have police bothering her?” he asked.
Paul Jalmar, who said he hasn’t been involved in gang activity for more than two decades, has a son who attends an after school program at the recreation center.
“But I’m afraid of coming to the park to visit my son because of what’s happening here in Oakwood,” said Jalmar, who works for the Santa Monica Department of Sanitation.
Alberca agreed to meet with any resident or group who has complaints about police and the gang injunction.
Oakwood community activist Naomi Nightingale urged the audience to work with the police but grew emotional when addressing the harassment claims.
“I want to be the last generation of black women who has to tell her black sons and grandsons how to behave around the police,” she said tearfully. “When you have issues, pick up the phone and call too, so that you can be counted. Don’t be invisible and silent.”