The Town We Live In

Driving down the street, there is a man with a smooth swagger wearing a stylish zoot suit leaning against a low-ride car. On the other side of the street, a mysterious woman donning a fedora smirks and looks confident in her own skin. It’s not a flashback from the 1940’s  but a hip mural that can be seen on driving north on Lemon Street when entering Fullerton from Anaheim.

A close look to the left and right when passing under a small bridge reveals spirit of the nearby neighborhood. Five words are elegantly painted on a wall connected to the bridge – “The Town I Live In”

Lori*, a resident of the neighborhood near the murals in Fullerton, said she has lived here most of her life. The murals have been there for as long as she can remember.

“They wanted to take them down recently,” she said. “But I want them up, I like the artwork.”

On one part of the mural, it’s tagged with graffiti that reads “Fullerton Tokers Town,” a name law enforcement associates with gang activity.

Lori said she doesn’t like the graffiti defacing the mural and the image it gives the neighborhood.

She said she doesn’t associate with the gang but she knows the members are around the neighborhood. She doesn’t worry too much about her grandkids, ages 3 and 5, at this time getting involved with the gang but she does get concerned as they get older, she said.

Many youths don’t know what they have got themselves mixed into until they get in trouble, she said.

On the night of Feb. 13, over a dozen youths allegedly attacked Majesty Christian Fellowship Pastor Willie Holmes while he was driving with his family.

The Los Angeles Times reported that according to Holmes, “youths shouted ‘FTT’ — short for Fullerton Tokers Town, a local Latino gang — and ran in front of the car.” The article went on to report that Holmes said he drove around them and headed to the church, where he and his passengers ran from the car and hid inside. According to the article, the attackers followed on foot and smashed the windows of the pastor’s car and the church office.

Police responding to a 911 call detained two of the suspects shortly after the incident, according to the Times, and a third was apprehended based on information from the first two suspects.  All three are described as Latino males ranging age 15 to 17. They are now in custody at Orange County Juvenile Hall.

Although the incident occurred between the Latino youths and Holmes’ family, who are African-American, the Orange County Register reported the police said the attacks weren’t racially motivated.

Since then, the Rev. Holmes has led two peace marches leading members of his church through the community.

The well-publicized gang attack involving the pastor only brings to light the problem with gangs in Fullerton, especially among youth.

In Feb. 2008, 15-year-old Fullerton resident Taureq Cephus was shot and killed at a bus stop in a scuffle with a gang member. Only a month prior, 16-year-old Edgar Cabrera, also a Fullerton resident, was shot in an Anaheim neighborhood and died at a local hospital, which was also considered a gang related incident.

Fullerton apartment manager and prominent local Green Party activist Sandy Stiassni said the effort on teenagers’ part to act tough and belong to a gang as a response to treatment from society.

“I think their efforts to be more distinct, to act more adult, or ‘out there’ reflects their keen desire for respect,” Stiassni said. “They live in a society which has disrespected them economically, racially, and ethnically.”

Stiassni, who is an apartment manager in the surrounding areas of the neighborhood, wrote an open letter to different media outlets about what he has found to possibly be the motivation behind the alleged attacks. Gustavo Arellano, known for his “Ask a Mexican” column in OC Weekly, posted Stiassni’s letter on his blog on the publication’s website.

In the letter, he described an interaction he had with two unnamed FTT youths who have heard a different side of the story than what was being reported. They told Stiassni that the pastor’s son, Willie Jr., provoked the youth hanging out on the street with some “choice words.”

Stiassni found that the youths involved felt “disrespected” for reasons no one knows yet. He also wrote in his letter that according to the youths he spoke to, the ones responsible for the attack didn’t know they were attacking the church, because Majesty Christian Fellowship is located in an industrial building.

Stiassni said the actions the youths took were reprehensible and regrettable, but if we know why they took those actions, we can have a better grasp on the situation.

“Once we can better understand what peoples’ intentions are, the more we can understand their actions,” Stiassni said. “There’s too much focus on character flaws of the youth and not specifically on their intentions.”

He said it would be better not to focus so much on the label “gangs” but it should be that violence itself is a threat and it should be addressed wherever it’s found.

“Violence is a threat for all humanity,” he said. “It should be dismantled regardless of the circumstance.”

Stiassni said he thinks young people in gangs have a primary goal of being understood.

He said adults in their households are working multiple jobs so perhaps their parents have not had the opportunity to be role models or mentors. They could lack resources to seek other alternatives, according to Stiassni.

Rev. Holmes said he refuses to testify against the three jailed youths during his sermon on March 4.

They are a product of the environment and he wants to do everything he can to reverse the mess created by the incident on Feb. 13, he said.

“We’re not fighting black on brown, we’re fighting economically,” Holmes said in his sermon. “It’s higher class against lower class.”

Fullerton Mayor pro tem Pam Keller said she recognized poverty has to do with youth getting involved in gangs.

“Young kids in a small crowded house in a poor neighborhood look at the gang leaders and see that they are the one with the nice cars, the cool clothes and the hot girls,” she said “Meanwhile they don’t have the latest shoes, their clothes are practically rags, and their parents can’t even afford to do fun things with them like go to Disneyland.”

Keller said kids think how they want what those gang leaders have and they go about the gangster way of getting those things, because that’s what they know.

She said they also have a strong urge to belong.

“Most people do want to belong somewhere, that does not make what gangs do good or right,” she said. “As a community, we should want them to find ways to belong positively.”

As a former teacher, Keller said she has taught kindergartners who have gone on to be among the notorious gang members in Fullerton. She has seen how children have gone off track because of lack of positive application of their natural skills.

“Young gang leaders do have those leadership skills, they have to in order to survive in the gang” she said. “If we could give them the opportunity to harness that energy, we can teach them how to use those skills to do good for the community.”

Keller said that people on the individual level are able to make a change by being open to the diversity of the Fullerton community.

“People of different races and socioeconomic levels need to get to know each other on a personal level by getting involved in the community,” she said.

An event like Faces of Fullerton held in April strives to bring together people of different backgrounds, Keller said.

“An older Caucasian couple arrived and sat with a Latino family,” Keller said “They later told me they had a wonderful time and would have never met them otherwise had they not gone to the event.”

She said events like those, among others, promote the kind of environment that improves the gang situation in the city.

“People need to go outside of their boundaries,” she said. “They need to come together and spend time with people they’d normally be uncomfortable spending time with.”

* Name changed for privacy reasons

Amber Stephens