Life on the List
Anthony Blockman escaped the gang injunction in Oakwood, but others trying to stay straight aren’t so lucky
By Gary Walker
At the height of the Los Angeles gang wars in the 1990s, prosecutors sought to stop violence before it started by imposing restraining orders that allowed police to arrest suspected gang members for congregating in public or violating curfews.
While many have praised gang injunctions as a powerful crime suppression tool, not all of those whose names wound up on these lists were gang members. Nonetheless, the stigma would follow them for years.
Even today, former gang members who have not been active for decades are still feeling the pinch, as getting taken off the city’s list of active gang members is a nearly impossible task.
Anthony Blockman, who grew up in Venice’s Oakwood neighborhood — where injunctions against the Venice 13 and Venice Shoreline Crips street gangs still stand — is one of the very few who has made it off the list.
Blockman, now 35, has held down a steady construction job for 10 years. But it took more than 18 months of legal wrangling by a pro bono attorney with the Urban Peace Institute and a heavy push by the Venice nonprofit the H.E.L.P.E.R. Foundation (formerly
Venice 2000) to make it happen this past November.
“Honestly, at first I had a little doubt because it was taking so long,” Blockman recalled last month during a break at a construction site in Venice.
The city’s recent settlement of a class action lawsuit about gang injunctions, however, could open the door for other ex-
gang members to get off the list and join Blockman in moving on with their lives.
‘A Positive Approach’
On March 16, the Los Angeles City Council voted to settle a class action lawsuit claiming that continued enforcement of the city’s 40-plus active gang injunctions violated due process rights, as other court rulings had found language defining curfew restrictions to be overly broad and unconstitutionally vague.
The 2011 lawsuit came after Christian Rodriguez, then a teenager living at the Mar Vista Gardens public housing complex, was arrested for violating the curfew of the Culver City Boyz gang injunction there — even though Rodriguez was not a member of the gang.
In lieu of paying damages directly to people living under gang injunctions, the city agreed to contribute a minimum of $1,125,000 each of the next four years to nonprofit organizations that offer tattoo removal, vocational training, life skills counseling and employment services to help current and former members leave gang life behind for good.
“This settlement creates an innovative pathway for individuals served with gang injunctions to gain the job skills they need to turn their lives around,” Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, who had advised the council in favor of the settlement, said in a statement. “It provides a positive approach with the potential to reduce gang violence and improve public safety.”
The settlement also includes dropping enforcement of curfew provisions that had already been deemed overly vague by a 2007 California Appeals Court ruling — phrases such as “obey all laws” and “being in the presence of” drugs and alcohol, said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for Feuer.
“The details are still being worked out, but members of the class action lawsuit will be notified of an opportunity to have [a federal magistrate] decide whether they should remain subject to the injunctions,” Wilcox said.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Rodriguez remains listed on the Culver City Boyz gang injunction even though police know he was never a gang member, said Olu Orange, his attorney.
Getting Rodriguez off the list “might take another lawsuit,” he said.
Although Rodriguez had earned a scholarship to West Los Angeles College, he couldn’t take all of his required classes because the injunction’s curfew requirement prevented him from taking classes at night.
“There are also certain jobs that he couldn’t take because of the curfew,” Orange said.
Rodriguez, who declined to comment for this story, now works as an emergency medical technician but had to move out of state to get a job.
“It’s very important for folks to be able to be removed from the gang injunctions. It’s a useless tool in crime fighting,” Orange asserted. “There is no correlation between gang injunctions and crime reduction. It’s wholly incorrect and unfair.”
Josh Green, an attorney who volunteered to help Blockman get out from under the Oakwood gang injunction, said getting off the list can be daunting process.
“Most people never have a hearing before an injunction goes into place,” Green said. “I have clients who are on gang injunctions but have never been arrested in their entire life.”
A Generational Trap
Blockman credits faith in God, the H.E.L.P.E.R. Foundation and Frank Murphy — a Venice developer willing to employ him despite his past — for helping him follow the straight but sometimes bumpy line to reintegrating into society after his release from prison.
Making his way out of gang life but still under the injunction, Blockman served 10 months in jail for violating an injunction curfew in 2002 while getting a ride home from work from a family member.
“Those 10 months hurt so bad because I was trying to do what was right. I stepped out of the box to try and do something different,” he said.
Blockman has family members who were involved with gangs for generations in Oakwood. As a teenager, police began watching him when they learned of his familial associations, he said.
“I couldn’t escape where I was raised, so I had to deal with what was going on in the community. Before I was 18, I experienced a whole lot of harassment,” he recalled.
Back in November—around the time Blockman’s name was removed from the Venice Shoreline Crips injunction — the H.E.L.P.E.R. Foundation and the L.A. City Attorney’s Office held a town hall at the Oakwood Recreation Center to discuss what many in the neighborhood described as a pattern of police harassment and arrests for alleged gang curfew violations, even against some men who are not named in gang injunctions.
H.E.L.P.E.R. Foundation cofounder Ansar “Stan” Muhammad, a former Oakwood-area gang member, said his organization will be applying for funding available under the new settlement agreement.
After all, these are the very activities the foundation has been doing for years.
Originally called Venice 2000, the gang intervention group has been working to help locals transition out of gang life through employment and life skills training since 1990. Over the past 25 years, it’s also been involved in maintaining gang truces and working with police on initiatives to combat gang violence in Venice as well as Mar Vista Gardens.
“A lot of guys who have not been active in any type of negative lifestyle for years are still on the list, and that’s wrong,” said Muhammad, who has called for a moratorium on gang injunctions. “This [settlement agreement] should give law enforcement the idea that they need to dig deeper into this matter involving gang injunctions.”
Orange said the lawsuit and subsequent legal settlement should serve as a cautionary tale for cities with gang injunctions in place.
“The lessons should be not to paint people with a broad brush and for city officials to take a serious look at policies to see if they are working,” he said.
Muhammad said community support is also essential — in particular, business owners being willing to employ former gang members who have since chosen a better path— but often in short supply.
“We need more Frank Murphys,” he said.
‘The Right People in My Path’
After his release from prison, Blockman often found himself working as a landscaper or mover in some of the same areas he had been an active gang member.
He describes it as an almost surreal sensation at first.
“It was a different experience being in those same places — in Watts, Culver City or Santa Monica —except this time
I was working instead of gang-banging,” Blockman said.
Blockman is planning to marry his childhood sweetheart this year, and gang life seems like a lifetime away.
“It’s been a process. My walk with God has been a vital part of this. I can easily look back on my past and see what I’ve been through to where I am today. He put the right people in my path, like Mr. Murphy and especially the H.E.L.P.E.R. Foundation. I’m very grateful to them,” he said.