TALK VS. ACTION: When no quick-and-easy solution is available, it’s tempting — irresistible, actually — for elected officials to look like they’re taking action. So long as their gyrations are confined to blue-ribbon committees that crank out white papers on matters of civic consternation, no real injury is inflicted. But when their grand gestures — however well-intentioned — threaten to encroach on the civil liberties of target populations who happen to be brown-skinned — as Santa Barbara’s proposed gang injunction would — even middle-aged whiteys like myself have cause for alarm. The good news is that for the third summer since the gang injunction was first proposed — astonishingly, without the City Council holding a single public hearing — City Hall’s effort to target the “baddest of the bad” has been caught up in the quicksand of litigation. But better yet is how the Westside Boys & Girls Club —which has been quietly doing the nuts-and-bolts work of providing fun alternatives to young kids most demographically susceptible to the gang scene — is kicking serious ass.
Given that the Westside club — shoe-horned in next to Bohnett Park — has been on financial life support for most of this year, that’s cause for celebration. Earlier this year, it appeared all the member clubs of the United Boys & Girls Club organization were looking at turning out the lights. An emergency fundraising freak-out scared up the $300,000 needed to reactivate lines of credit, but did little to alleviate the structural problems afflicting the Westside club — which serves Santa Barbara’s poorest and most densely packed neighborhoods. Stepping up to help eliminate the Westside’s $100,000 operating deficit is the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, which just announced it would dedicate the proceeds of its annual golf tournament fundraiser that takes place later this summer to the Westside club. Last year’s tournament raised $90,000. The year before that it raised $113,000. I don’t pretend to know how this came to pass, but when Westside director Magda Arroyo’s involved, things have a habit of happening.
That extra $100,000 should allow Arroyo to work miracles, sending more kids camping in the Sierras, on field trips, or to the beach. With daily enrollment jumping from 130 a day to 200, costs have increased. The Chumash money might pay off a $15,000 sewage-repair bill that just popped up, or buy a much-needed new basketball floor. Mindful of the gang-tinged reputation Bohnett Park has in the public mind, Arroyo has already made changes to allay the concerns of some parents and administrators at nearby schools. There’s now a check-in area at the front desk so that club personnel can keep better track of who’s coming and going. There’s a new phone system that makes it easier to page kids and their parents. And there are more structured activities; kids don’t just show up and hang out. Some of it’s serious stuff. The Teen Talk program allows kids to drop written questions — safely and anonymously — into a wooden box (and discuss them in a group setting) that if asked about out loud would require Arroyo to call county social workers. But it’s also about having a good time. There are teen dances: massively successful, routinely attended by hundreds of kids, and thus far with conspicuous lack of incident. Later this summer, there will be a tamale cook-off that promises to pack the club with parents and kids alike. Increasingly, Arroyo is targeting programs for the parents, like Zumba lessons for moms. The strategy is simple: The more parents are involved, the better they’ll get to know each other’s kids, and ultimately, the safer the neighborhood will be. “It’s better than Neighborhood Watch,” Arroyo said. “It’s the neighborhood.”
With the Chumash cash, Arroyo is hoping to get away from traditional “fire-drill” financing. For Arroyo and the Westside Boys & Girls Club, $100,000 is make-or-break money. By contrast, the City of Santa Barbara spent at least half a million bucks just getting the gang injunction to court. And that’s chump change compared the cost of legal hours spent since then sparring with attorneys representing some of the 30 designated baddest apples. Right now, the lawyers are slogging through the quagmire of confidential juvenile records to determine what evidence of past delinquent behavior can be used to make the case against those named. I’d bet $100,000 they won’t be done by September when the case is scheduled for trial. And given that half are already behind bars, why bother? I’m not opposed to gang injunctions as a matter of political theology; Santa Barbara just doesn’t need one. Last month, Police Chief Cam Sanchez announced gang incidents were down 11 percent from the year before. In April, he stated the number of year-to-date gang-on-gang encounters had dropped to 18. That’s compared to 64 the previous year. In the past two years, there have been no gang-related killings. More cops have been assigned to work gang patrol; the number of hours gang cops are in the field has increased, as well; bread-and-butter police work, it appears, has paid off.
The gang injunction emerged after three non–gang members were killed in three separate altercations with gang members. By then, the out-of-town gang czar City Hall had hired with great fanfare and great expense had flopped. Politically, something had to be done, the populace assuaged, sabers rattled. In two of those three killings, however, gang involvement appears to have been coincidental. In one, popular Mesa rat “Bobby I” was stabbed to death at Hendry’s Beach, but only after beating the crap out of a gang punk who called him a “Spenser,” an epithet denoting extreme geeky whiteness. While tragically stupid, Bobby I’s death was caused by the lethal mix of testosterone and alcohol. If the folks at City Hall need to take symbolic action, I’d suggest they ban people from calling one another “Spenser.” It would be as effective as an injunction, but at less cost to the taxpayer and less violence to civil rights. Better yet, the City Council should declare victory, drop the gang injunction, and invest the savings in programs like the Westside Boys & Girls Club.