Growing Up in the Shadow of Violence

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Growing Up in the Shadow of Violence

Post  TumbleWeed on Sat Apr 12, 2008 1:14 pm

Tough City, Fragile Lives

Growing Up in the Shadow of Violence


By BEN GOAD and LISA O'NEILL HILL / The Press-Enterprise



It's twilight in San Bernardino, a dangerous time in a dangerous place. All over town, youths roam the streets.

Some are looking for fun, some for trouble. Many are just trying to get home safely in one of America's most violent cities, where the murder rate has been as high as 7 times the national average.

Seven children have been shot dead in 2006. Six were attacked after 6 p.m., when few programs are available to keep young people occupied. In Riverside, a larger city, one teenager has been shot and killed since January.

The violence has spurred San Bernardino to open schools for afternoon and evening recreation this summer and extend the hours at community centers and public pools.

Gang officers who cruise the 60-square mile city say that, night after night, they see kids wandering around, adults nowhere in sight.

"It's got to start with the parents," said gang Officer Jason King, patrolling on a Friday evening. Children playing in the street stared as King drove by. "It's too often they don't know where their kids are or what they are doing."

A third of San Bernardino's children live below the poverty line. Many live with a single parent, and often that parent must work nights. These are the kids who cannot afford summer camps or league soccer.

City resources for youth recreation have steadily decreased over the past 20 years. The Parks and Recreation Department has about one-third less staffing than it had in the 1980s, and its share of the city budget is less than half what it once was. Programs have been slashed.

Children in some areas choose between walking miles to recreation centers through crime-heavy neighborhoods -- or not participating at all.

Many stay in their neighborhoods and on the streets shadowed by gangs and drugs. They know people who have been arrested, shot or killed.

"They're taught to give up," said Alex Avila, cultural director for the Central City Lutheran Mission on North G Street. "You are taught that it's probably more likely for you to go to jail than it is for you to go to college."

Few areas of the city are immune from gangs, and any child living in a gang area is at risk, veteran San Bernardino County gangs prosecutor Cheryl Kersey said. "Kids walking through gang areas get jumped, robbed for their lunch money, their jackets, shoes."

The Rudy C. Hernandez Center offers San Bernardino kids a place to gather and play without worrying about gangs or other trouble.

What remedies do you suggest to make San Bernardino a safer place?


Some youth advocates are working to provide after-school options, often volunteering their own time and money. But they know there is no quick fix, that the problem runs deeper than a lack of programs for youth.

Jahtwon Hancock, 16, and Audrey Osborne, 17, know those truths.

The two teens don't know each other, though they have much in common. Both are black, both on the cusp of adulthood. Neither is a stranger to death, or the risks of urban life.

They seek to live positive lives, or at least to live. Each has found sanctuary in a safe place outside of home. And each agreed to tell how they navigate a world that suddenly could turn violent.


Jahtwon: Refuge in basketball

As the smog-filtered sun melts behind the buildings of downtown San Bernardino, Jahtwon is still on the basketball court. He has been there for four hours.

He probably would stay hours longer, but the dusty column of sunlight from the window above the scuffed gym floor is waning. The Rudy C. Hernandez Center will soon close for the night.

Jahtwon is a few years younger than most of the guys, but he is quick and his game is relentless. On-court arguments can escalate to fistfights in a flash, yet Jahtwon is deft at diffusing controversy despite his competitive nature.

After his teammate misses a shot, he is slow getting back, and his man, a guy with tight braids and shorts drooping to his ankles, gets by him for a lay-up.

"I play with kids like you for fun," the guy shouts at Jahtwon.

The next time down the court, the same guy hits a jumper.

"He better get his hands up, or something," he says, knocking shoulders with Jahtwon as he lopes down the court. "He can't handle this."

Jahtwon laughs. "C'mon, let's play," he says. A few minutes later, his team loses the game and the guy is still talking trash as he trots off the court toward the drinking fountain in the hallway. Jahtwon chases him down to tell him, "Good game."

There's time for one more game, a quick one, to 11 points. Jahtwon finds his rhythm and ends up making the game-winning shot.

Aside from his best friend, Mark, Jahtwon knows the other players mostly by their street monikers or their basketball nicknames, not their "government names."

Outside the center, on the tattered edge of San Bernardino's downtown, kids hang out in any patches of shade they can find. Sometimes they shoot dice, practice dance moves or trade verses in freestyle rap. Homeless people often nap in the overgrown grass out back.
Stan Lim / The Press-Enterprise
Jahtwon Hancock, 16, of San Bernardino, right, with his father, Jeff Hancock, center, and friend Mark. Jahtwon's family worries about him when he's not home. To avoid trouble, he switches the route he takes across town.

Inside, neighborhoods and gang affiliations are set aside. The regulars, adults and children, are proud to point out the lack of trouble within the center's walls.

Tyrone Traylor runs the center and controls the staffing, but "Old School" -- 46-year-old Danny Thompson -- serves as male authority figure to many kids. He arrives each day in an older maroon Cadillac and monitors the games in his blue, city-issue knit shirt.

If Thompson is the center's father figure, volunteer Martine Martin is the de-facto mother. A fixture in the bleachers with her signature blue fingernails so long they curve almost back to her wrists, Martin keeps a close watch on the boys and girls who also gather at the gym. She knows who's pregnant with whose baby, who has liquor on their breath, who has been taking drugs.

"This is their third family," Martin said. "They have their home family, their street family and the boys they play ball with."

Kids and young adults come to the center from almost every corner of the city. It's one of two indoor courts in San Bernardino where they can play basketball for free.

"A lot of these kids have to walk through the jungle to get here," Martin said, referring to a particularly rough neighborhood near the center of town.

When an outsider does start a problem, the boys handle it together. If a fight were unavoidable, they will choose someone about the same size to represent the center, she said.

Traylor has decided to keep the gym open until midnight on Fridays. Hundreds of kids have turned out to play in a structured, ongoing basketball tournament. Traylor says the extra hours are his way of participating in Operation Phoenix, the citywide anti-crime program.

All three adults -- Traylor, Thompson and Martin -- make themselves available to the kids. The boys, girls and young adults often hang out in Traylor's office or sidle up to Thompson and Martin on the gym bleachers, telling them about the lack of food in their fridge or their failing grades at school.

But the center closes at 8 p.m. on most nights. Outside, it's everyone for themselves.

Alone after closing time, Jahtwon pushed his "baby," a gold-colored pull-start mini motorcycle, into the heat.

The bike, when it is working, and his helmet help him avoid trouble as he makes the 30-block trek from the center to his home on the northwest side of town. Jahtwon's daily routine is so regular that he changes his route home every night to avoid getting jumped.

When his bike isn't working, he sometimes makes the cross-town journey on foot, he said.
Stan Lim / The Press-Enterprise
Jahtwon plays basketball for several hours each day at the Rudy C. Hernandez Center, a haven for kids in San Bernardino.

"I just stay to myself," he said. "I don't mad-dog people."

He has declined offers to become part of a gang or "put on the hood," and avoids certain colors and takes precautions so he doesn't give the appearance of representing any of the city's myriad gangs.

"I almost always wear black or gray, and my clothes don't be sagging," he said. "I just play basketball, and then I go home. Every day."

Jahtwon's dad, Jeff Hancock, is often still at work when Jahtwon gets home from the court. But his twin sister, Kharisma, his grandma, stepmom and two younger brothers usually are home and relieved to hear him come in.

"We wonder if he has a way to the court and back," Kharisma said on a recent night at the family's home. "I trust that he's being a good boy, but I never know."

She said Jahtwon used to get in trouble a lot when he was younger.

In May, Jahtwon was riding in his dad's car, just a couple of blocks from home, when they were pulled over. The officer searched the car and found a handgun. Then 15, Jahtwon was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm. His dad was not cited, he said.

Though he maintains he found the gun during a family picnic at Lake Perris and was planning to turn it over to his father, he pleaded guilty to the charge and served 32 days in San Bernardino County Juvenile Hall.

"It was bad," he said. "I grew up. You can't take everything as a joke. This is my life."

His stint at juvenile hall caused him to fail some of his classes at Cajon High School, where he should have been completing his sophomore year.

So before he even touches a basketball, he goes to summer school every day, studying world history while other kids his age are hanging out and having fun. And before bed, he does his homework, often with Kharisma checking his work over his shoulder.

Like most of the other guys who play at the center, Jahtwon dreams of a professional basketball career. But, just in case, he plans to pursue a degree that would lead to a job as a massage therapist or physical therapist.

"You can sell drugs and make a lot of money, but you gonna end up dead or you gonna end up in jail," he said. "I'm going to college."
Mark Zaleski / The Press-Enterprise
Audrey Osborne

Audrey: Staying Strong

It's a stifling afternoon at Central City Lutheran Mission, where walls are emblazoned with bright murals that stand out in an otherwise dreary landscape. Signs of poverty and abandonment -- broken windows, discarded beer cans, graffiti -- are difficult to ignore in this neighborhood east of Interstate 215.

The mission is considered a neutral zone, a haven from warring gangs where children gather to do homework, eat snacks and hang with friends. Today the mission is especially busy. Dozens of young people have arrived for a dedication of the newest mural: a 16-foot rendering of Traveil Williams, 16, shot dead in late June.

The temperature hovers at 100 degrees, but Audrey, a tiny, spunky figure in a white tank top and jeans, is full of energy.

She and her friends dance.

"We're sad, but we're just trying to keep the spirit up," she says.

Audrey's acid-wash jeans are covered with simple tributes to her dead friend, revered at the mission for his dancing skills. "R.I.P. Murdock," on the left leg, refers to Traveil's dance name.

Audrey runs into a mission classroom, a blue and white room where aging ceiling fans beat uselessly at the hot air.

She takes charge, helping a group of girls prepare for the ceremony. They want to wear Traveil's face on their T-shirts. Audrey irons a decal of Traveil onto a pink T-shirt as a group of friends lean in.

"It's not gonna work, y'all," she says, frustrated. "Yes, it is," someone assures her.

"No, it's not. I ironed it, like, 15 times," she replies.

She gingerly peels back the decal. Traveil's face emerges on the shirt.
Mark Zaleski / The Press-Enterprise
Audrey Osborne, 17, of San Bernardino, second from right, Wynae Hill, 12, left, Joesanna Osborne, 13, and Matanya Pruitt, right, read a newspaper produced at the mission. The kids contribute gossip and other items.

Audrey jumps, dances and screams. She slaps hands with her friends.

"Whoo. We did it. We did it," she says in a sing-song voice.

Minutes later, Audrey's mood darkens. She is apprehensive about the dedication. Avila, the cultural director, has asked her to sing "Amazing Grace" before a crowd that includes Traveil's weeping mother.

Audrey sings, her left hand planted on her hip, eyes following the words printed on a program. The crowd joins in.

She soon stops, wipes away a tear and puts her hand over her face.

Later, she downplays the emotion. "I was mad 'cause I didn't know the song," she says.

In this neighborhood, people learn not to get too close. Overt displays of emotion can be seen as a sign of weakness. Everyone, it seems, knows someone who has been killed or shot at.

"The first time, it's a tragedy. The second time, it's a tragedy. The third time, you come to expect it," said Toure Curry, the mission's co-director of youth programs. "You know it's gonna come. You don't tie binds that deep."

Even small children grow up thinking that's just the way it is, Audrey says.

That attitude is not uncommon in poor neighborhoods where residents don't have jobs, don't have after-school programs and feel trapped in a cycle of hopelessness, experts said.

"What happens is kids have become very desensitized to violence because it's so common," said Elsa Valdez, a sociology professor at Cal State San Bernardino and a San Bernardino city school board member. "For these kids, they just take it in stride and just assume that's what life is supposed to be like."

Audrey spends most afternoons at the mission, where she receives a stipend for tutoring younger children. Avila and others see leadership potential in her. She takes charge, has goals -- she wants to go to college and run a business -- and says what she thinks.

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Re: Growing Up in the Shadow of Violence

Post  TumbleWeed on Sat Apr 12, 2008 1:15 pm

Mark Zaleski / The Press-Enterprise
Central City Lutheran Mission provides a safe zone for children like Audrey and 14-year-old Jose Montesdeoca.

"I see these girls around here, they drop out, get pregnant," she said, a necklace with the letter "A" hanging from her neck. "To me, it's better for you to close them and leave them closed and hold on and wait."

Most Tuesday nights, Audrey reads poetry during the mission's Hip Hop Jazz Mass, where young people also sing and perform spontaneous freestyle raps. When it's over --- often not until 10 p.m. or later -- Audrey and her 13-year-old sister, Joesanna, jump into Avila's black Expedition. Avila often gives kids a lift home.

Audrey and her sister live about a block away, sharing a house with their mother, Audrey's twin brother and their godbrother. Audrey has no idea where her father is and says she doesn't care.

"Ain't no need in going to look for someone who has no interest in you in the first place," she said.

Mary Osborne works as a caretaker for the elderly and is looking for a second job. She makes her children breakfast every day and, despite financial struggles, has never allowed them to go hungry or without proper clothing, her daughter says.

Audrey will be a senior in the fall at Arroyo Valley High School. She says she struggles with reading and is nervous about passing the state's high school exit exam.

But Audrey's life is more complicated than worrying about graduating. She tries to stay out of trouble, but people around her -- neighbors, friends, relatives -- have had brushes with the law.

On July 24, San Bernardino police arrested Audrey's brother, godbrother and a close friend, all minors. Audrey says she does not know why the three were arrested. Police do not release information about juvenile arrests. She said she and her brother were inside a friend's house when they saw officers talking to the other two in a car. She and her brother went outside, she said, to find out what was going on.

The confrontation became heated. Audrey said a white officer pushed her and called her a "hood rat."

She thought about asking for an apology. "Just cause I'm black and live in the ghetto don't mean I'm a hood rat," she says.

The encounter further solidified Audrey's negative feelings toward law enforcement, a view shared by many of her friends in a city where police say they respond to about 1,000 calls a day in the summer.

When Audrey and her friends were robbed of a cell phone in a Latino neighborhood, she said she never thought to call the police. She didn't have five hours to wait for people she says are more prone to harass than help.

Police say they sometimes are treated with disdain and disrespect but acknowledge that many officers do not understand residents' feelings of oppression.

Audrey says she knew that she, as a black female, should not have been in the area where she was robbed, turf controlled by a Latino gang. But regardless of where she is, she says, the threat of violence is always there.

"I shouldn't have to think about what possibly might happen in my neighborhood. I should be able to go where I please, do what I please, wear what I please," Audrey said. "But it's not like that."
Stan Lim / The Press-Enterprise
William Brightmon, 15, left, Jahtwon and Mark Chambliss, 17, watch a basketball game at the Hernandez Center. Jahtwon plays several games a day.

Elusive Remedies

No one believes change will be easy or quick. For now, kids like Audrey and Jahtwon cope the best they can.

Not far from where Traveil was gunned down, a group of children lingers at a park in a housing complex on East Orange Street. It's after 6 p.m. and the after-school program they attend for four hours every day has just closed.

One girl said her family is thinking about moving back to Georgia because the violence has become intolerable.

"A lot of them say they are scared and their parents won't let them outside," said Anthony Revis, program supervisor for Top Flight, the after-school program in the heart of a complex called Waterman Gardens.

Some people are looking for answers from Mayor Pat Morris, who ran for election on an anti-crime platform and promised more social programs.

Kids from Central City Lutheran Mission were among the young people who campaigned for Morris for two months, Avila said. They walked middle-class neighborhoods, planting "Morris" signs on lawns. Some of the teenagers knew Morris from his years as a juvenile court judge and believed in him, Avila said.

"We're all smiling. Everything is Kool-Aid," Avila said, describing walking door-to-door. "He gets in office and there's a dilemma. And it was like, hey what's up with our dogs? I know I didn't walk out there for nothing, every Saturday and Sunday, in the cold, in the rain to get this guy in office and he ain't responding. So that's where we've been at. And we're waiting for his response and I think he's gonna respond.

"Right now, we have to have some type of hope, because he's new and he needs some help," he said.

Morris said the city is trying to provide kids with recreation opportunities and job training. But budget limitations make progress difficult. Upon taking office, Morris was shocked to learn that the city's Parks and Recreation Department had no master plan.

"Over the last many years, we methodically cut our investment in parks and recreation," he said.

Only about 4 percent of the city's budget is devoted to the department, which funds all the city's recreation sites, pools and its five community centers. In the 1980s, Parks and Recreation got about 10 percent of the budget, he said.

Morris said he knows basketball courts, evening dances for youths, drum lines and high-steppers clubs can make a serious difference in the lives of teens. But he knows that many if not most kids cannot afford privately run activities and sports.

Morris hopes extending the hours of recreation centers and schools will help keep children safer and reduce crime citywide. His anti-crime effort, Operation Phoenix, first targeted a neighborhood at the center of town and has been expanded to the whole city. It aims to make San Bernardino safer through intervention and crime-prevention programs and adding more police officers.

"It's taken us 20 years to get into this quandary," Morris said. "It's going to take us a good many years to walk out of this abyss of crime."
Mark Zaleski / The Press-Enterprise
Nain Leon, 13, lives in Waterman Gardens. He says the sounds of gunfire and police helicopters are common. "I don't go out much," he says.

'It's Really Crazy'

When a teen gets killed in San Bernardino, friends know what to do.

They erect a shrine, with religious candles and slang-infused messages written in chalk. They hold a car wash to help pay for funeral expenses. They go online to update the victim's MySpace account, replacing playful notes and banter with remembrances and somber tributes.

When Traveil Williams was killed in an argument about a cell phone on June 24, all of these things happened.

Audrey carried his name on her jeans. An RIP message to Traveil was scrawled on the basketball used by Jahtwon and the rest of the guys at the Hernandez Center.

"It's really crazy in San Bernardino," said Marlene Cervantes, a 16-year-old taking summer school classes at San Bernardino High School. Cervantes walks to school and back alone and sticks to busy streets. She wears a black hooded sweatshirt despite the blazing heat and listens to music. "Everyone knows to walk fast and stay to themselves," she said. "I don't get out much. I'm always stuck in the house."

Back at Waterman Gardens, Nain Leon, 13, says the sound of gunfire and police helicopters is a daily occurrence.

"I don't go out much 'cause there are a lot of shootings," said Nain, whose family is from Mexico and has lived in the complex for about six years.

At most, he'll walk to a nearby store with friends to get something to drink, then return home to shower or watch a movie. He said the violence is prompting his family to look for somewhere else to live.

"It scares us, but we're used to it."

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