In some cities, gangs forge a tenuous peace -- or is it a cover for crime? Efforts to obtain street peace praised, but the police aren't so enthusiastic

October 21, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

Across America, members of some cities' most violent street gangs are forging a tenuous peace. The movement has won them entree to breakfast with the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., a resolution of support from the Cleveland City Council and even funding from the NAACP, whose leader has called it the start of a "real new world order."

But enthusiasm for the peace summit movement is far from unanimous.

Law enforcement officials, who must tally gang-related deaths and shootings every day, are skeptical. One police investigator from Los Angeles, where no fewer than 417 gangs ply the streets, says: "You have to be careful when you're talking truce: Is it to save lives or is it to make a more effective business proposition, to better control a criminal enterprise?"

But community activists and former gang members pushing this platform of peace remain undeterred by such skepticism. This weekend, members of street gangs -- some dressed in three-piece suits, others wearing blue or red bandannas about their heads -- gather in Chicago for the fourth in a series of peace summits this year.

"Those of us who want peace will lay down our weapons and set the example. All we can do is set the example," said Carl Upchurch, director of the Ohio-based Council for Urban Peace and Justice and a founder of the summit movement that sprung up after the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and efforts by two black gangs in Los Angeles to halt the violence between them.

"Even when we do that, we are fighting the uphill battle. There are a lot of problems in urban America," said Mr. Upchurch.

Chicago has a history of gang violence that dates back three decades. It is home to 41 street gangs -- including the feared African-American groups, the Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords, and entrenched Hispanic organizations such as the Latin Kings and Latin Disciples. But Chicago is a city summit organizers point to as an example of what peace can bring.

They contend that a truce among 12 African-American gangs -- called last October after the death of a 7-year-old boy caught in gang cross-fire -- has reduced incidents of violence in two public housing communities in the city.

Police, however, suggest it was less the truce than an increased law enforcement presence in the communities that reduced gang activity there.

While police acknowledge efforts by some grass-roots organizations to stem the violence, spokesman William P. Davis said:

"If some gang organizations chose to declare a cease-fire and stop killing each other over drug turf, that brings the homicide numbers down. But as long as those same organizations continue to derive their income from illegal activity and as long as they continue to sell dope and intimidate the people in the community in which they live, there is no peace."

Similar sentiments have been expressed by law enforcement officials in other cities where summits have occurred. The first one was held in Kansas City in May. Programs followed in Cleveland and St. Paul-Minneapolis.

L Some politicians and civic leaders have embraced the effort.

An excellent idea'

Dan Swope, executive director of

Chicago community organization that works with street gangs, views the truce among the city's African-American gangs as "an excellent idea."

"No truce, whether in Sarajevo or Mogadishu, is absolute. Not everybody is going to adhere to it," he said. "You have got to start somewhere."

Others, however, have eyed the movement warily: Attorney Lewis C. Freeman, the state president of the Minnesota branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the gang summit there "an exercise in futility." Law enforcement officials have questioned the motives of summit participants and noted that in Los Angeles and Chicago, where truces have been called among some black gangs, violence among their Asian and Hispanic counterparts goes on.

"We're all willing to do anything we can to save lives and encourage these people to stop killing each other. That's a given," said Lt. Sergio Robleto, a homicide commander in the Los Angeles Police Department's southern bureau, one of the city's most troubled areas. "When this truce in south Los Angeles was publicized, it involved two sects of a gang. People made a big deal of it because of the extreme violence in the area where this truce took place. For the most part, that truce has held. The rest of the city violence continues much unabated."

Other law enforcement officials contend that a reduction in gang-on-gang violence makes it easier for the gang to do business -- usually selling drugs. Customers are more likely to patronize drug corners if drive-by-shootings and sniper attacks are down, they say.

"Business booms when there is no violence," said Robert W. Dart, former commander of the Chicago Police Department's gang investigation unit.

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