Residents of Santa Barbara’s Westside have grown accustomed to wondering whether the late-night “snap-crackle-pop” they often hear is gunshots or merely firecrackers. On Monday at about 9:05 p.m., the Westside air was rent once again by a series of percussive pops — about 10 in all. Given the deadly spray of gunfire that erupted across town the previous night — leaving two teens dead and two more wounded in an incident police have attributed to criminal street gangs — this sonic staccato elicited urgent and immediate attention.
Police investigators — already on edge about a possible escalation of gang tension — received multiple calls from neighbors and dispatched investigators to the intersection of Castillo and Arrellaga streets. There, they determined that bullets had, in fact, been fired. No one, police spokesperson Anthony Wagner reported, had been hurt. He declined to say, however, whether anything had been shot, what the make of the bullets sprayed was, or how many shooters there may have been.
With a gang-related stabbing — life-threatening but nonfatal — having taken place downtown on December 31 near the intersection of Anapamu and De la Vina streets coupled with this past Sunday’s eruption of deadly gunfire at Canada and Liberty, cops are understandably on edge. And they’re hardly the only ones. So too are school district officials, city councilmembers, neighborhood activists, a squadron of social workers, and pretty much anyone who calls the Eastside or Westside their home.
Providing a perverse element of comic relief for the officers investigating Monday night’s gunfire was a driver reportedly so blitzed that he crashed into two police vehicles at the scene of the shooting, rendering them un-drivable. The driver was cited and released.
There would be no comic relief, however, for families and friends of Angel Castillo, 17, and Omar Montiel-Hernandez, 18, both fatally shot Sunday night. Two others were hit in the attack though not fatally; their identities have not been released yet. The Castillo and Montiel-Hernandez families now find themselves forced to bury children who would never figure out who they wanted to become. Burials are not cheap, and both families have orchestrated GoFundMe campaigns to help defray the costs.
What police know, they are not saying, other than that the shooting seemed entirely one-sided. Speculation, accordingly, has run rampant, and rumors likewise.
Gang violence is hardly new to Santa Barbara, but even seasoned observers of South Coast youth violence were taken aback by the uncharacteristic deployment of such lethal firepower. What was behind the shooting? Who was involved? Those working the trenches of youth violence prevention, such as Saul Serrano of the South Coast Task Force on Youth Safety, pick their words with care, fearful they might inadvertently trigger further violence simply by asking the question on everyone’s mind: Is there more yet to come?
Serrano spent much of Monday morning on a Zoom meeting with 30 other service providers whose job it is to deal with at-risk teens. They have their work cut out for them. In the best of times, Serrano said, such intervention requires a delicate personal touch. But with COVID-19 intruding, the conditions are far from ideal. “It’s a crisis on top of another crisis,” Serrano said. “COVID has made it very difficult. We’ve seen a significant gap in services because of the safety protocols required by COVID.”
COVID has clearly exacerbated economic and cultural tensions that fuel youth violence. As Mayor Cathy Murillo noted, low-income parents working two to three jobs now find themselves struggling to stay even partially employed. Kids have no schools to attend in the flesh. Gang members locked up in county jail or in state prison, she added, have been released back to their communities of origin out of an abundance of caution concerning COVID behind bars.
Initially, Murillo suggested, COVID may have helped keep a lid on gang activity. It had been reported, she said, that gang shot-callers in state prisons had called a COVID-inspired truce. Whether true or not, this, she said, trickled down to the streets of Santa Barbara. But nine months of a pandemic with no obvious end in sight have taken their toll.
Jacqueline Inda, a longtime neighborhood activist on the Eastside, reported there’s been an increase in drug abuse, youth violence, car thefts, and robberies on the lower Eastside, whether it shows up in official police statistics or not. “A lot of us feel safe enough to turn a blind eye to what’s going on as long as it’s not happening right in front of our face,” Inda said.
City Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, who represents the Eastside, expressed frustration by the lack of coordination among all the many nonprofits attempting to address the needs of low-income youth. “We have all the resources,” she stated. “It’s time to put all the political BS aside and come together.”
But, she added, it’s not quite that simple. Programs such as the Police Activities League that provided low-income kids with structure have been forced to shut down because of COVID. More affluent families, Gutierrez noted, can host learning pods with paid tutors in their backyards. “Kids in my district don’t have backyards,” she said.
Other community activists have questioned City Hall’s commitment to youth programs, noting that jobs programs that used to find work for 80 teens had dwindled even before the onslaught of COVID to less than 15. Programs designed to provide positive alternatives to gang culture, they’ve complained, typically are funded only so long as gang violence poses an immediate problem.
Gutierrez said City Hall needs to help craft long-term and short-term strategies that send the message that “enough is enough.” The City Attorney, she observed, just filed criminal charges against a homeowner who illegally cut down a tree. Gutierrez supported the lawsuit but added, “You can plant a new tree. You can’t plant new kids once they’ve been shot and killed.”
Gutierrez praised Santa Barbara Unified School Superintendent Hilda Maldonado for reaching out to offer grief counseling services. Monday, it should be noted, marked the first day of the new semester. The school district has opened up its campuses at Cleveland and Franklin elementary schools to offer counseling services to anyone in the community.
In years past, organizations led by former gang members and shot-callers — including the Pro-Youth Coalition, Palabra, and YStrive — would have conducted back-channel communications with the leaders of rival gang factions to keep the violence from spreading. Such efforts are reportedly currently under discussion but not necessarily underway. In the meantime, the police are still investigating and by deadline, no arrests have yet been made.
“I take it very personal,” said Gutierrez. “I just don’t want another young person dead on our streets.”
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