The same moment that the congratulatory speeches, thank-yous, and award ceremonies began at Santa Barbara’s newly opened teen center on Friday, March 16, a funeral mass for Luis Angel Linares commenced three blocks away at Our Lady of Sorrows Church. The 15-year-old skateboarder, football player, class clown-and Westside gang associate who had been kicked out of Santa Barbara High School for fighting-had been stabbed to death two days earlier by equally youthful gang members from the other side of town. A Santa Barbara Junior High School student, barely 14 years old, has been accused of delivering the fatal blow with a blade about seven inches long.
The opening of the half-million dollar center-dubbed Twelve35 for its address on Chapala Street-was so heartily celebrated in part because it had been 15 years in the making, through starts and stops as the political will to prevent youth violence has waxed and waned. Now that the knife fights and beatings have spilled out in such dramatic fashion from neighborhoods into a prime retail area-in full view of the body-sculptors at the Spectrum fitness club and the shoppers at Saks Fifth Avenue-it’s fair to say the city’s political will is at an all-time high.
Officers responding to the scene of Linares’s death “chased everything that ran,” said Police Chief Cam Sanchez in a press conference called Thursday morning, after detectives had been up all night interrogating more than 25 teenagers whose families waited outside on the police department steps. A total of eight boys-the eldest 17 years old-were in custody by the following Monday, on charges ranging from criminal conspiracy to assault in the interests of a criminal street gang and for actions up to and including clubbing Linares in the head and kicking him when he was down. (That is not counting the 13-year-old who, upon his release from juvenile hall on unrelated charges, took his mother’s car and a 14-year-old friend on a mission to exact revenge for Linares’s death, though police stopped them before they left the neighborhood. Nor does that figure include the dozen or so gang members picked up over the weekend on weapons charges, or the head-bashing of a 19-year-old Carpinteria resident at a Milpas Street bus stop by three teenagers, or the rumored beating by fellow gang members of Linares’s companions who ran from his side.)
“We cannot do this alone,” Sanchez said. “This is a community problem.” He talked about parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet, about the hundred or so parents who had showed up for a lower Eastside Neighborhood Watch meeting before the killing, and about personal choices on the part of the teens. The next day, the district attorney’s office announced that the boy who stabbed Linares would be charged as an adult, meaning he may be transferred to prison to finish serving an adult-length sentence after spending the remainder of his adolescence in a Juvenile Justice Division (formerly the California Youth Authority) lockup.
The mourners at Linares’s Thursday night service included nearly a hundred teenagers dressed in brand new white T-shirts silkscreened with Linares’s name. They had just alarmed police as well as State Street shoppers by walking in close formation from the Welch-Ryce-Haider Funeral Chapel to the Saks Fifth Avenue parking lot, where Linares had finally lost consciousness. After spending a few minutes gathered around the spot, they walked back up State and then Anacapa to the mortuary and neighboring church, followed by police cruisers and officers on foot. As they walked, an officer barked at the crowd of teens. Then he snapped at a journalist who commented that a slightly older guy had told the rest not to throw gang signs, and she had seen only a couple of girls disobey that order. “You don’t understand,” the officer said. “They were throwing signs while they were walking up State. That’s how the kid got killed. We’re not going to tolerate it.”
Back at the teen center opening, while attendees munched catered hors d’oeuvres and applauded Mayor Marty Blum, former Mayor Harriet Miller, the Youth Council itself, and major funders, some of the more cynical audience members placed bets on whether the gang killing would even be mentioned. Spokespeople for the Youth Council came closest when they emphasized that the center was intended to be a “safe and fun place for all teens.” It is a beautiful building, especially on the inside. With its high ceilings and windows, polished wood floors, and amenities including a fully digital recording studio, it resembles nothing so much as a private club. It was designed from the floor plan on up by teenaged members of the city’s Youth Council, which originally formed as United Youth Empowered in 1992 and asked for a downtown teen center to combat gang violence. Dignitaries stood in line for their turn to enter and look around, in order not to violate the 49-person capacity.
Although the limit on the number of occupants made for a pleasant balance of elbow room and social warmth, Youth Council member Christina Gonzalez expressed her frustration that the city would allow only 49 people in the building at one time. Keven Strasburg. the renovation project manager, explained that a seismic upgrade to allow 200 people to occupy the building at once would cost another $800,000, including not just reinforcement but many more exits so everybody could escape quickly in case the brick walls started collapsing in an earthquake. “It’s an historic building,” he concluded. Politicians apprised of the controversy mused over the possible incorporation of the Moose Lodge across the street or the adjacent Louise Lowry Davis Center, which caters mainly to seniors.
It is not as though there is nothing better for teenagers to do besides fight. At the same time the fatal rumble was happening, and about a block away at the Carrillo Recreation Center, more than two dozen teenagers were working out a scene in a play they are writing, which is to be presented in early May at Center Stage Theater in the Paseo Nuevo. The play is the annual project of City@Peace-now in its 11th year-an organization originally founded by community mediator Nancy Davis in an effort to prevent violence by giving teenagers something meaningful to do. The scene they were working on was about gang fighting. That same evening, hours after the tragedy on State Street, another group of teenagers attended the regularly scheduled meeting for Shape of Voice, a two-year-old quarterly publication intended to give its teenage writers and illustrators an opportunity to speak the truth as they see it about their lives in Santa Barbara.
These are just a few of the pieces in the mosaic of mentored activities, sports, martial arts, hip-hop dance, and remedial academic classes offered for free or a nominal fee throughout the city through the schools, after-school programs, the United Boys and Girls Clubs, the City Parks and Recreation Department, the Police Activities League, La Casa de la Raza, and other agencies. Twelve35 is one of the rare gems in this mosaic, one of the most beautiful things about it being that it is a permanent addition, bound to receive operating funds year after year.
With these and more activities at their fingertips, it defies easy explanation that so many Santa Barbara teenagers should be falling through the cracks. But whatever it is that pushes and pulls young people into gang activity-despair, a need for belonging, excitement, respect-it is clear that creating a smorgasbord of wholesome activities is not enough. In fact, Linares enjoyed skateboarding and football. Besides this, he had family and friends who cared about him and who did not want him to fight with gangs-but he did. One problem is that families themselves don’t know where to find help raising their adolescent children.
Many of Santa Barbara’s most effective mentoring programs are evanescent, appearing and disappearing over the course of three years, which is the typical length of a start-up grant. One of the most astonishing examples is the rise and fall of the Pro-Youth Coalition. Born after a spate of gang killings in the early and mid-1990s, this was a coordinated and seemingly effective effort by numerous local agencies and nonprofits. Gang related killings screeched to a halt during the time the program was in effect–with one exception–and other gang-related incidents and arrests also plunged by more than half, according to Santa Barbara Police Department Capt. Jeree Johnson, quoted in the coalition’s meeting minutes in 1999, most of those that did take place involved out of town gangsters. Law enforcement initiatives, including bicycle patrols in the neighborhoods, as well as an effort to take gang leaders off the streets by prosecuting and sentencing them to the maximum extent of the law, were implemented during the same period. (In that era, the ’90s the gang-bang leaders were older teens or young adults.)
The Pro-Youth Coalition’s funding completely dried up in 2001, in part because the violence had stopped. During its first three years, a startup project is supposed to cultivate more permanent funding sources, in particular local government funding. But competition for that funding is fierce. “These programs are just as important as the police and fire departments,” said Frank Banales, director of Zona Seca, a decades-old alcohol and drug abuse recovery agency which served as the administering agency for the budding Pro-Youth Coalition. “Just because crime is low you don’t reduce the police department,” he said.
For programs focusing on the teens and younger children who are most inclined to get into trouble, funds have been particularly scarce, one reason being that program directors target most likely to demonstrate the program’s success statistically so that they can get more funding. This tends to leave out the high-maintenance kids. For example, among the programs that since then have been born and have died is a video production project for which the equipment now sits mostly unused. The participants lost the use of the room where they were meeting when three beer cans were found in the parking lot. Its facilitator, funded full-time for one year, is not only looking for a new place to hold the classes, but he is working for free because the project was not re-funded.
Davis’s City@Peace theater group is one of the city’s longest-lived programs for at-risk teens. She is hardly smug, though. On the contrary, she struggles to keep her program alive and is frustrated that what she considers other excellent programming regularly falls out for lack of consistent funding.
Despite it all, Davis believes that Santa Barbara’s gang problems are fully solvable. She is not alone. A dozen or more nonprofit workers gathered at La Casa de La Raza on March 19 to plan a larger town hall meeting scheduled to take place two days later. Emotions ran high at some points, with one participant comparing Santa Barbara’s economic structure to a “plantation.” And they talked about trying again to pressure City Hall and the county supervisors for consistent, sustained funding to help fill in the gaps in the mosaic.