Peaches Turner remembers last school year when groups of kids would hang out across the street from Gompers Middle and High schools, waiting for students to get out of class. Sometimes fights would break out; other times it was about intimidation. Once a kid wielding a 2-by-4 chased Turner's son home. “Same kids all the time,” she said, “kids that are gang-affiliated who hang out in the neighborhood.”
So Turner and other parents would show up just before school let out and, accompanied by Gompers staff and school security following in a car, they'd make sure the kids got home safely. Turner has two sons attending Gompers, a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old. Her daughter attends UCSD's Preuss School.
This school year's been quiet so far, Turner said. She attributes it to Gompers' new charter-school format. Last year, grades 7 through 9 split off from what used to be a larger secondary school, where seventh through 12th graders shared the same campus. Gompers Secondary had been one of the more troubled schools in the San Diego Unified School District. But a recent report by the county grand jury praised Gompers Charter for huge improvements in student attendance and performance in such a short period of time.
“It used to be: ‘Gompers, oh my God, never go to Gompers,'” Turner said, “but things have changed.”
“It's calming down,” Turner added. “We just want it to calm down a little faster.”
Gompers is located in the Chollas View neighborhood of Southeast San Diego. In August, two drive-by shootings tarnished what would have been a clean homicide record for Chollas View; according to San Diego Police Department crime statistics, between January and July of this year, there were no murders in the area. But on the night of Aug. 6, 17-year-old Michael Daniels was killed in a drive-by shooting at 47th and Guymon streets while he was walking with two friends. Flowers and candles still mark the place where Daniels was shot. A week later, on Aug. 12, 15-year-old Aaron Cooper was shot a couple of blocks away on 45th and G streets. Kevin Rooney, a detective with the San Diego Police Department's homicide unit, said both shootings remain unsolved.
While random acts of violence aren't the norm in Chollas View and its surrounding neighborhoods-despite the stereotype that Southeast San Diego is a dangerous place, North Park, Mira Mesa and Pacific Beach, for example, report much higher rates of violent crime-there have been enough high-profile shootings over the past few years to sustain a certain level of fear. Still unknown is who was responsible for the murder of 49-year-old Gregory Albert on June 18, 2005. A popular guy in the neighborhood who was a mentor and father figure for local kids, Albert was shot while waiting for a friend to pick him up at the corner of 47th and Market streets. He was so well-liked there's been a push to rename Gompers Park after him as a memorial.
On a warm day last week, Turner and Mshinda Nyofu stood at the intersection of 47th and Castana streets, near the overgrown city-owned lot adjacent to Chollas Creek, mapping out the set-up for a Sept. 30 “Day of Peace in the Southeast.” Nyofu timed the event to roughly coincide with the worldwide International Day of Peace happening Sept. 21. He chose 47th Street as the location because he wants the community to recognize it as a safe zone, especially for kids walking to and from school. Next September, Lincoln High School, which sits just a few blocks south of Gompers, will reopen after undergoing a campus overhaul with a student population of 2,700. Cesar Solis, captain of the San Diego Police Department's Southeast Division, said that just as 47th Street connects several communities like Chollas View and Lincoln Heights, it also connects several gang territories. “Some gangs claim that street,” he said; “it's a dividing line.”
“It's a corridor that, for whatever reason, has been subject to so many different acts of violence,” Nyofu noted. “There have been too many instances where kids are accosted and intimidated.”
Nyofu sits on the executive board of Black Men United, a group of local business owners, educators and ministers that formed in 2003 to address gang violence in Southeast San Diego. Offshoot organizations have formed around Black Men United, like the group Overcoming Gangs. Earlier this year, Nyofu, a former school-board candidate who's worked for three City Council members representing District 4, founded his own community-based organization called the Ujima Institute for Civic Responsibility (“ujima” is a Swahili word meaning “collective work and responsibility”). The Sept. 30 event will be Ujima's second; its first was a screening of the documentary exploring the African diaspora, 500 Years Later, followed a by a community forum with the film's director, M.K. Asante.
Nyofu emphasized that his organization's goals are long-term. “We want to focus on solutions,” he said. “It's what happens after that one-day event.”
Some of Nyofu's immediate goals for Ujima include:
* Better security at trolley stops. Turner said school kids who rely on the trolley get approached by gangs; she knows of one child who was so scared after a confrontation he begged his mother to home-school him.
* Nyofu and Turner have met with Vince Riveroll, the director of Gompers Charter School, to talk about holding an assembly to let kids know there's a larger community interested in their well-being. “It's not just family that's concerned about you,” Nyofu wants kids to know. Getting kids to think about being part of a larger community will encourage personal responsibility, he added.
* Ujima wants local businesses to put signs in their windows to let kids know that if they feel threatened, that business is a safe zone they can turn to for help.
* Turner said they'd like to organize carpools and vanpools to transport kids to and from school.
Nyofu also wants to see a cultural shift in how the community responds to crime. Fear can paralyze people, especially if there's a threat of retribution. Someone who gives up information to the police can be labeled a snitch, a dangerous word when a crime might have gang ties.
“We're asking people to put themselves in [victims'] families' shoes,” he said. “If one of their family members was killed, wouldn't they want people to share vital information?”
“That's been one of the challenges, really, in any community where especially kids don't want to be labeled a snitch or an informant,” Capt. Solis said. “We still get information, maybe not as much as we'd like, but people do come forward. Some flat-out are not afraid to give their names, but there are some that are genuinely concerned, and that is an issue and that is a challenge for us.”
Turner said she'd like to see more parents getting involved, too.
“We want parents to come out and really participate,” she said. When asked what might be keeping parents from getting involved, she said she wasn't sure. “Maybe they don't know what they can do.”
Rev. Art Cribbs, pastor of the Christian Fellowship Church in Emerald Hills, is one of the speakers at the Day of Peace event. He said getting adults to understand their role in helping kids stay out of trouble is key to a more stable, safer community.
“Adults really have a lot to do and say about the environment in which children and youth negotiate their daily lives,” Cribbs said. “Children who are engaged in violent behavior are very often children who did not sleep last night, children who didn't eat breakfast this morning and are hungry, children who have been exposed to personal abuse and don't know how to negotiate their feelings. That's not their fault; they're victims. And very often, the people who are responsible for their being tired, hungry, angry, hurt are adults.
“Quality of life makes for peace,” Cribbs said.
Gang commission on track
In June, Mayor Jerry Sanders issued a statement outlining plans for a city Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention. At that point, the mayor said, 120 people had applied to be the commission's executive director, and he expected that position would be filled by the beginning of July. A group of 17 commissioners-appointed by the mayor and City Council-would be approved by the full council in September, and the commission would hold its first meeting shortly after.
But for a mayoral administration that made much ado about plans for such a commission, there's been no word about whether its formation is on track.
Jimmie Slack, chief of staff for City Councilmember Tony Young, who encouraged the commission's creation, said that, indeed, an executive director was hired in July, Lynn Sharpe-Underwood. Sharpe-Underwood's credentials included heading the Salvation Army's Door of Hope, an outreach program for pregnant teens; serving as the business and community liaison for the San Diego Job Corps; and working under former Mayor Maureen O'Connor as a community-relations assistant.
“She's an outstanding person,” Slack said, “and well-respected throughout the community.” Slack said he expects the City Council to approve the gang commission's 17 members by the end of this month or in early October, and that the group's first meeting will happen shortly thereafter.