In times of escalating gang violence and racial tension here in Santa Barbara, many feel that the solution to this problem lies at its source. That is why speakers from the Simon Wisenthal Museum of Tolerance came to speak about hate crimes at the Los Prietos Boys Camp today. Approximately 100 boys from the camp listened intently to the stories of Tim Zaal, a former neo-Nazi and speaker for the Museum, and Matthew Boger, the museum’s director, once a homeless teen who had been kicked out of his house by his mother for being a homosexual.
Dressed in crisply-ironed trousers and spit-shined combat boots, the campers marched in smartly, followed by their honor guard bearing the national, state and camp colors. After the pledge of allegiance, the program began with Zaal telling his story. He related his relatively normal upbringing in a Los Angeles suburb during the late 1960s and early 1970s, saying that the gradual introduction of minorities into the neighborhood changed things, including comments by friends and family about the changing demographic. “I didn’t become racist overnight,” he said. “I lived in one of those neighborhoods where everything was perfect. At some point, that image of perfection was threatened by incoming diversity–mostly Hispanic. I remember my dad saying things like, ‘The property values are going down. The neighborhood isn’t what it used to be.'” Eventually, his family moved to a different, more affluent suburb that was closer to the “perfect” ideal they had earlier in the old neighborhood. Zaal said how his brother, the rebel in the family and someone to whom he looked up, kept hanging out in the old neighborhood and running around with the “wrong crowd.” “He had tatoos and drove a loud motorcycle and had long hair,” he said. “He worried a lot of the neighbors [in the new neighborhood].”
Unable to ignore the pervasive negative commentary he was hearing about minorities, Zaal’s opinion was cemented the day his brother, who he was sure was involved in some sort of drug activity, was shot in the heart by an African American man. “From that day forward, whenever I thought of an African American, I thought of that gunman,” he said. “I didn’t think of him as one guy, I thought they were responsible.” While Zaal’s brother survived, his hatred for minorities continued grow, and it meshed all too well with the rising punk rock scene of the late 1970s. “It wasn’t like the punk rockers running around today with all of the vegetarians and peace punk and all that. We were carnivorous and we were violent.” Violent they were. Zaal told of how they used to put razor blades in their shoes and get into fights at concerts. Charged up on the thrill of violence, Zaal and his friends used to drive around after shows “handing out slaps,” or looking for people to beat up. “It was after one of these shows that we kept circling a certain hotdog stand, and it got really violent. I kicked some guy in the head and left him for dead.”
Boger’s story was quite different. Having grown up in a Bay Area suburb, he was one of seven children born to a convent teacher who married a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. His father continued riding with the Hell’s Angels, leading to a divorce with his mother in which she assumed custody of all seven children. “I was different from my brothers,” he said. “I was that skinny, quiet kid that got his ass kicked a lot. I didn’t know what made me different.” When he was 12 years old, Boger visited San Francisco’s Castro District for the first time. “I felt like a complete person and was finally able to identify that I was gay. I also knew that I couldn’t tell my family.” A full year passed before Boger could summon up the courage to call a family meeting to tell his parents that he was gay. His father never talked to him again. His mother packed a bag with some clothes and kicked him out of the house. “At 13 years old, I was living on the streets in San Francisco,” he said. “I had been living in the streets for about six months when I was picked up by the police for being out after curfew. The police officer called my mother and had her on speaker phone. When he asked my mother what she wanted to do, I heard her say, ‘I don’t care. I don’t want him. You can do what you want with him.’ The policeman looked at me and said, ‘I’m really sorry. Good luck out there.'”
It was then that Boger decided to move to Los Angeles, where, living in a park, a loose-knit community of individuals like himself scratched out a meager existence. He was repeatedly victimized. “Every night, we would all meet at this hot dog stand, just to make sure everyone was still alive. One night, someone in a big gang of guys yelled, ‘All fags die!’ I stared running, but i didn’t make it. I fell down and they started kicking me. They had razor blades in their boots. One even hit me in the forehead and cut my face open.” Boger survived the attack, but lived his life in fear. It wasn’t until the 1998 hate-based killing of Matthew Shepherd–a gay college student at the University of Wyoming–that he decided to stand up and be heard. “The only difference between him and me was that he was dead and didn’t have a voice.” Although he never had an opportunity to advance past the seventh grade, Boger’s dedication to activism landed him an internship with the Museum of Tolerance, where he eventually became the director.
Working for the Museum, Boger was put in touch with Zaal, who had by then had children, and come to the realization that the hatred he had been involved in was detrimental to his kids. The two sat together at a restaurant, sharing past experiences, when they realized that Zaal was the one who had split open Boger’s face with a deftly aimed blow from a razor-tipped combat boot. “At that point, I just shut down,” Boger said. He only knew the past was past when Zaal formally apologized to him in front of a group of people. Now, the two tour together regularly, spreading their experience-laden message of tolerance. “He’s like the big brother I never had,” said Boger. “Forgiving him was a big part of me being able to forgive my mother when I went to her funeral [a couple of years ago].”
The main message that the unlikely duo had for Los Prietos campers–many of whom have been involved in gang-related interracial violence–was to look past differences and see people as human beings. “I think it takes a very big man to forgive someone like me,” said Zaal in reference to his attack of Boger 26 years ago. Zaal also encouraged the teens to get out of the social circles that had landed them at Los Prietos and keep away. “Just like a dope fiend or an alcoholic, you need to stay away from people who are [engaged in that behavior].”
The Los Prietos Boys Camp has been in operation for over 60 years as a place where boys between the ages of 14 and 18 who are beginning to take the wrong path in life can go for a very structured program of high school classes, physical exercise and job training programs. Younger boys who are what camp staff call “less sophisticated” (have perpetrated less crimes) don the brown uniforms of the Los Prietos Boys Academy–a 120 day course. Older, more experienced boys with a more complicated criminal record are dressed in the blue uniforms of the Los Prietos Boys Camp, which is 180 days. According to Nancy Taylor–a probation supervisor at the camp–some boys’ stays may be longer or shorter depending upon behavior, with some boys getting out in as few as 90 days, and some staying for over a year. Because the camp is situated on National Forest property, those convicted of violent crimes are not allowed to attend.
A group of the older boys discussed their thoughts on gangs and the messages given by Boger and Zaal. “I joined a gang and used to fight people for no reason and beat them up just because of their skin color,” said 18-year-old Ivan Arteaga. “In camp, I’ve changed my ways and don’t want my family to get hurt because of my actions.” Juan Arevalos, 18, was placed into the Los Prietos Boys Camp for drug use and probation violations. His advice for how to stop gang violence: “Reach out to kids.”
The programs available at Los Prietos, designd to keep the boys busy at all times, include forestry programs and other job training opportunities. “The goal is to plug [the campers] into jobs and get them into school because while they’re here, they thrive on structure,” said Taylor. “After they get out, the more they can stay busy, the better the chance for success. We try to get a lot of our kids into [military] recruiting offices, but because of the nature of some of their crimes, it can be difficult.”
This year, on May 14, 21 of the boys from the camp will be graduating from high school. “We’re very excited about it,” said Taylor.