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Standing Their Ground
updated: May 10, 2014, 4:00 PM

By Alex Kacik

WSD is scrawled in large white capital letters on a fence near Punta Gorda and Salinas streets, crossed out with a black "ES" superimposed. This ongoing public conversation is how the Eastside and Westside gangs flex their muscles. It's also where George Ied was brutally beaten to death in October 2010.

Ied left most of his family behind in Homs, Syria, when he came to America, eventually landing at a job at Mi Fiesta Liquor on Milpas Street. He was walking home from work around 12:55 in the morning when four members of the Eastside gang stopped him on the 1300 block of Punta Gorda Street-only a block away from his house on Salinas Street. They beat him so badly that his friends say they couldn't recognize him. Michael Cardenas, with the help of Ismael Parra, his younger brother Miguel Parra and Steven Santana, punched, kicked and stomped on Ied and left the 37-year-old man unconscious on the street.

George Ied was beaten to death by Eastside gang members in Oct. 2010.
(Alex Kacik)

Ied was on life-support at Cottage Hospital until his brother Fred told the doctors to pull the plug.

"These were not human beings, they were animals," Ied's friend Derek said, who requested his name be changed for fear of retaliation. Derek has lived on the Eastside for 12 years. "George wasn't in a gang, he didn't know these people. Police said he passed by the wrong place at the wrong time. What the hell? We live in Santa Barbara. Nothing like this should ever happen."

Ied's unprovoked killing unnerved Santa Barbara. Coupled with Robert Simpson's murder at Hendry's Beach earlier that year, the two deaths proved that violence was no longer limited to turf feuds. The City of Santa Barbara replied in March 2011 with a proposed gang injunction, a civil lawsuit filed by the city attorney's office and the county district attorney on behalf of the council, which aims to curb gang recruitment and reduce violent crime. After three years, two public hearings, several amendments and many protests, the controversial lawsuit goes to trial today.

While opponents of the gang injunction have made headlines through rallies and public pressure, Mayor Helene Schneider, neighborhood activist Sharon Byrne, residents and business have waged a quiet battle in support of the injunction on the American Riviera.

The city and district attorney's offices are making the case that the Eastside and Westside should be permanently barred from creating a public nuisance, defined in the injunction as "confronting, intimidating and harassing" people. For relief from the nuisance posed by the defendants, the city seeks to restrict their activities and civil liberties in so-called safety zones comprising a wide swath of downtown, beaches and parks. Some of those prohibited behaviors include standing or sitting near gang members, flashing gang signs, committing vandalism and wearing gang attire.

The 30 originally named in the suit that authorities called the "worst of the worst" has been whittled down to 11. There have been 19 removed-including Cardenas and Ismael Parra, currently serving 15 years to life-from the list in the past two weeks, said Ariel Calonne, Santa Barbara's city attorney.

"They no longer present a public nuisance," he said. "To that, there are a variety of reasons. Some have been incarcerated for long periods of time, some are gone, some of them don't have any recent activity that shows they are a nuisance."

Judge Colleen Sterne has a lot to weigh this week: Is it constitutional to limit a person's civil liberties? Does the lawsuit provide due process if someone wants to challenge his/her gang affiliation? Will it help reduce violence and eventually eliminate gangs? While the jury is still out on the injunction, the message is clear from business owners and residents on the Eastside and Westside-they've had enough.

Santa Barbara Westside and Eastside gangs battle for territory on Punta Gorda Street. (Sharon Byrne)

Students, workers and families pour in and out of Mi Fiesta Store on Milpas Street daily to cash checks, buy snacks, restock liquor and grab smokes. But most don't seem to notice the picture of a young gentleman wearing a black hoodie that hangs above the cigarettes. "In memory of our good friend George "1973 - 2010," it reads. Cashier Yousef Altayyeb finds a pack of Camels for his customer, rings him up and then looks up at the picture.

"George had nothing to do with anything," Altayyeb said. "He was just trying to work and get his papers."

Ied stopped by Monsour Alboufi's store the day he died. Alboufi grew up in Homs and was Ied's second cousin. He has worked at Stop & Shop Liquor on the corner of Milpas and Cacique streets for six years, an area where there's too much "homeless, gangs and alcohol," he says. The Syrian native says he won't walk underneath the Cacique overpass after dark.

"You are applying law to people who don't give a s-, they won't follow the rules," Alboufi said. "They have to have their own."

Despite these attention-grabbing incidents, Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez said that violent crime had decreased dramatically over the past several years because of good "boots on the ground" police work. Major gang-related crimes-murder, sexual assault, robbery, arson and grand theft auto-have decreased from 169 in 2011 to 52 in 2013, according to police spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood. Police data shows there were 13 total gang-related incidents in March compared to 528 transient-related crimes.

Those who argue against the injunction point to these numbers to prove that more punitive measures aren't needed.

"Lately there has been a slow down, big time," Derek said. "But you have to keep working on it to eliminate them completely. The moment you let off, they'll come back."

But enforcement is only part of the equation, he added.

"It starts with education," he said. "Whatever it takes to help these young kids and show them what's important. You need to show them the right way, what life is like with college and a degree."

Salvador Hernandez raised three kids on the 400 block of De La Vina Street, a Westside neighborhood that's been scarred by violence. Chava, as his friends call him, walked with his children everywhere and never let them out of his sight.

Six-foot-tall iron fences guard homes that taggers use as personal canvases. The corner of De La Vina and Gutierrez streets has seen shootings and fatal stabbings, including the murder of 22-year-old Baldemor Leal in 2009. An alleyway behind Brinkerhoff Ave. overshadowed by the lavish Sevilla condos is a popular site for drug deals. Brownie's Market & Deli is a known hot spot that's watched by an ominous security camera perched on its roof. Historic Victorian houses are quaint covers for gang members who share the neighborhood with families and retirees.

"It's scary," Hernandez said. "When you live here, you look at it differently."

But the neighborhood is changing, thanks to infrastructure additions, more vigilant neighbors and more frequent patrolling, says Byrne, a Westside resident and neighborhood activist. Mayor Schneider pushed for streetlights, the city condemned and bulldozed a notorious gang house to make way for the Haley Street Bridge, the neighborhood marched and organized street cleanups. The community also transformed the often-vandalized wall of the auto shop into a mural that reads "A Slice of Paradise."

While walking through her neighborhood on a Wednesday morning, Byrne spots a dad carrying his daughter on his shoulders near Brownies.

"That's what we want," she said. "I've seen people take the long way around Brownie's because you had homies sitting there mad-dogging. They intimidate and cause pain and suffering. Not being able to congregate here is a small price for all the ways they've hurt the neighborhood."

Although there's been about three years of peace, aside from the Kelly Hunt stabbing last year, "East Side Krazies" or "West Side Locos" tags still spring up throughout the hood, Byrne says. The battle for territory eventually reaches a boiling point and erupts.

"Sometimes you feel powerless to stop it," she said. "You don't know when the next one is coming." The neighborhood has tried to take the power back by calling the cops more often, talking to unfamiliar faces, planting flowers and organizing.

"You can't depend solely on law enforcement," Byrne says. "You need infrastructure to make it safer and the community needs to keep an eye out. The whole reason gangs work is because no one is watching. But people are taking ownership of this block, which is what causes change."

Westside residents paint over graffiti in the alley behind Brinkerhoff Street.
(Alex Kacik)

Erwin Rainak has helped keep watch. He's ran the auto repair shop near the corner of De La Vina and Gutierrez streets for 33 years. Rainak says he supports the gang injunction if it will result in less violence and prevent young people from joining gangs.

"If you don't do things that are acceptable, you should get kicked out, especially if they are the worst ones," he said. "Sometimes it seems like gangsters have more rights than law-abiding citizens." While Byrne agrees that the intent of the injunction is good and supports it, she cautions that it needs to be updated continuously.

"We need to do whatever we can to stop gang recruitment," she said. The problem is ranks change and the injunction needs to adapt with it, Byrne added.

Those who oppose the gang injunction say it will increase racism and profiling and further polarize the community. They argue that the money spent on planning and enforcing the gang injunction would be better spent on youth mentoring programs and tutoring.

"Isolation is what breeds this," said Byrne, adding that kids internalize negative criticism. "The peer pressure is so consuming that teachers, parents and counselors are just like flies buzzing around your head. The allure of acceptance and glory takes over, everything else is not as important."

That isolation is what the community should be targeting through youth programs rather than spending an estimated $641,866 in staff time on the injunction, groups like PODER (People Organizing for the Defense and Equal Rights of Santa Barbara Youth) argue. The injunction's opposition also thinks the lawsuit gives law enforcement too much power by granting the ability to enjoin any individual, if they can prove to the judge that he or she is in a gang and threatens public safety.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a similar gang injunction in the City of Orange in November. It ruled that the injunction violated the Constitution and said that its scope was extraordinarily broad, encroached on the plaintiffs' civil liberties and failed to give individuals due process to dispute their gang membership. In order to opt out of the Santa Barbara injunction, individuals must have clean records, prove they haven't participated in any gang activity for three years after the injunction takes effect and maintain a job for a year prior to the request.

Excerpt provided by Mission & State. Read the rest of the article at MissionAndState.org


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