September 10, 2009 – 3:20 pm

“Tough on crime” gang injunctions just funnel teens into jail. But writer Luis J. Rodriguez, a former gang member, knows firsthand how a little care and attention can make a true difference.

Forty years ago, I was a gang member and a tagger, an aerosol graffiti artist. No doubt this was vandalism - my canvases were the walls of businesses, homes, schools, any public place.

I was just the sort of kid City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is targeting with his proposed civil injunction against taggers, a court order that would allow taggers to be arrested for merely hanging out together, an act that for most of us would be legal.

Now I am a homeowner, co-founder of a thriving cultural center and bookstore, a writer/poet with 14 published books and a gang intervention expert. I am a father, grandfather and law-abiding citizen. I invite you to listen to my story and judge whether the city attorney’s injunction is right for Los Angeles.

At age 16, in 1970, I was a high school dropout and drug user. I had met a youth worker at the community center that served my East L.A.-area neighborhood. He saw something in me I couldn’t see: an artist, a leader, a contributing member of the community. He offered me a deal - if I returned to school, he’d help me get training and work as a muralist.

Who knows why I finally agreed - for two years, I had told this guy to drop dead. But he never gave up on me. I learned mural painting at the old Goez Art Gallery on 1st Street. I had a mentor in Alicia Venegas. The youth worker persuaded the principal of the high school to let me come back, even though I had been kicked out for fighting when I was 15. I graduated. Then, from 1972 to 1973, I painted murals at the youth center, a local library branch and several businesses, the latter with 13 other gang members.

And yes, I was still in the gang, but now I had something more; I had found footing on new ground where seeds of change could take root. It wasn’t easy. Between ages 15 and 18, I was arrested for rioting and attempted murder. I reached a crossroads at 18, when I faced a six-year prison sentence for resisting arrest and assaulting police officers.

The gang called to me, as did the heroin in my veins, but so did a radical healing path. I began heroin withdrawal in jail. I would go on to remove myself at great risk from gang warfare. But first I had to face the judgment of the court.

Fortunately for me, I lived in a different time than today. A plea deal was in front of the judge. He received letters of support from my community. He got reports about how I had finally obtained my high school diploma and about the murals I had painted. I had one foot in “the life” and another in transcendent possibilities. This judge somehow knew I could be pushed in one direction or another. He chose to keep me out of the state prison system, to allow me to walk out a free man with time served for a lesser offense.

He didn’t just give me a second chance - more like a fourth or fifth chance.

The onus, however, was on me to stay out. I made a personal vow - I would not return to jail for any criminal act. That was 1973. I’ve kept that vow.

My story probably couldn’t happen today. Injunctions and other “tough on crime” laws would force the system and the judge to put me away, maybe to this day.

Like most Angelenos, I don’t want any more vandalism, violence or drug wars. But I know this: In hard times, we need more imagination, more healing, more innovation, more grace. Another injunction is simply the wrong way to go.

At the same time, since 1973, the poorest L.A. communities have seen cuts in funding and resources for community centers, arts education, sports programs and cultural spaces. There are miles and miles of Los Angeles territory where you will not find a community bookstore, art gallery or decent recreation center. East L.A.’s murals are being destroyed, or they’re left to fade in the sun.

The one option that keeps getting funding, however, is the worst one: In 1973, there were 15 prisons housing about 15,000 inmates in California. Today, there are 33 prisons with close to 153,000 prisoners. Los Angeles now has more than 40 different kinds of court-ordered gang injunctions - about wearing certain clothes, being in certain parks. Do we really need one more way to incarcerate youngsters for doing something that for the rest of us isn’t even a crime? We have so many ways to send young people to prison, and very few to keep them out. And we still have a terrible gang problem.

Like most Angelenos, I don’t want any more vandalism, violence or drug wars. But I know this: In hard times, we need more imagination, more healing, more innovation, more grace. Another injunction is simply the wrong way to go.

At Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in Sylmar, which I created with my wife, Trini, and others, we’re bringing arts education and expression back to our neighborhoods because we know it can keep young people out of trouble. We’ve helped pay for two dozen former taggers to paint a mural of jungle animals in front of an elementary school. We’ve started programs in painting, Aztec dance, writing, theater and music for all ages. We host music, poetry and dance performances, and we bring in two to three schools a month, with the goal of putting a book in the hands of as many young people as possible.

All the research tells us that getting troubled kids involved in the arts is far less expensive and has longer-lasting positive results than punishing the art out of them. “Tough on crime” doesn’t impress me - I know it’s tougher to care. Even LAPD Police Chief William Bratton has said we can’t arrest our way out of this crisis.

Somebody cared for me about 40 years ago. Somebody stepped into my life with skills, knowledge, humanity and lots of prayers. It worked.

City Attorney Trutanich, you don’t have to take my word for this. It shouldn’t be hard to find out how a helping hand instead of another injunction can work for thousands of young people who can also transform their lives, given the proper framework and mentoring many of us are willing to provide.

Let’s work together to keep young people out of prison instead of pushing more and more of them behind bars. Community regeneration can be a reality for all our neighborhoods - not through injunctions, but injections of hope.

Note: Luis J. Rodriguez is the author of “Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.” and is working with other artists and arts advocates to establish a comprehensive arts policy for Los Angeles. He is a contributing editor at Rock & Rap Confidential. The above article appeared in the Los Angeles Times and circulated by RRC.


  2. An inspiring story about the one who ‘GOT AWAY’ and turned around the lives of many others. You sir, take a bow.

    By Baz on Oct 6, 2010

  3. Have to agree with Baz, an outstanding story.

    By Angela on Oct 23, 2010

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