By Hugo Garcia
The intersections near MacArthur Park were congested as commuters traveled to downtown offices from the Westside of the Los Angeles.
The morning sunrise made its way through the window of my bedroom in our second-floor apartment. As the alarm clock went off, I hit the snooze. Then I heard a loud Bang! on my door downstairs. Was somebody trying to break in my house? This early in the morning?
I peered through the window, then rolled out bed, threw myself on the rug and ran to another window in my room to get a clearer view of the scene unfolding downstairs.
About twenty army-green helmets clustered together, surrounding my doorsteps, guns drawn. Fifteen yards from my door in each direction stood a sheriff agent, helmet and vest on, pointing a sniper rifle right at me as I looked down from my window. Across the street plainclothes agents spoke through their portable radios.
Then I heard the loud knocking down of my front door and the officers call out my name.
“We’ve got an arrest warrant!” one of the officers shouted. They forced their way in. I was sure they awoke the entire neighborhood.
My heart pumped fast. My mind raced. My stomach churned.
I threw my Nikes on and rushed to the back door next to the second bedroom. I’m not going out like a sucker. In a few seconds the unit will be all over this dump of an apartment like hound dogs that haven’t been fed for weeks. I look out the back window. Two officers were right outside. I could almost swear I hear the helicopter right above the building. What have I gotten myself into?
I realized it’s no use. Then the questions began, What could they possibly think I committed? Robberies? Burglaries? On second thought, Maybe they want my dad? Or my brother? He moved out months ago! This only happens in the movies. This is how Henry Hill felt when they raided his family in Goodfellas. Maybe they want drugs?!! Are there any drugs in my room? I can’t remember.
Suddenly my mother broke my train of thought, she hurried to the doorway in the living room that gave way downstairs. From the doorway she turned back with a preoccupied look, and whispered, “Oh baby.”
In my mother’s eyes I saw agony.
One morning, when I was five, in a different apartment I woke up to my mother sobbing in her bed. My older brother’s room was a mess, everything had been tossed around, like a tornado had hit. My brother wasn’t there. I learned later that policemen had stormed into our dwelling and had taken my brother while I slept. The tornado hadn’t interfered with my sleep that morning. I didn’t see my brother again until I was ten years old. Even after, the reason for his incarceration was never discussed.
My mother made her way down the steps.
“Don’t do anything foolish, baby. God’s going to take care of this,” she said. The officers shouted orders.
As she opened the door, I paced the living room. They shouted my name again.
“STEP INTO THE HALLWAY WITH YOUR HANDS UP!”
Petrified, I stared at the red laser dots floating around the doorway leading to the steps. This wasn’t a nightmare and any stupid mistake would be my last. The sheriffs made it very clear that they were “ready to shoot!”
I stepped into the doorway.
“Put your hands on your head! – Turn around and face the other way! – One step at a time – Make your way downstairs!”
I just thought of mom, and it hurt to feel like the greatest disappointment. I didn’t deserve to be her son.
Three agents grasped me and cuffed me. The squad stormed upstairs, and a policewoman interviewed my mother. Neighbors watched from their doorways. Rubberneckers stared as they drove to their morning shifts.
“Suspect’s in custody, the location has been clear – bring vehicle over,” ordered the cop who identified himself as Sgt. Kyle.
“Ten four,” another officer replied over the walkie-talkie, within seconds, a caravan of fifteen patrol cars emerged from side streets and parked in front of the apartment complex.
Still in my sleepwear and Nikes on, I was escorted to one of the unmarked police cars. I watched my mother, teary-eyed, wave good-bye. The sheriffs carried out boxes filled with my belongings. I kept wondering whether there were any stashed drugs in the apartment. They carried out my laptop and PC. Also, they brought down posters that I had framed on my wall — posters that I had stripped from metro buses, that displayed a one-eight-hundred number, urging commuters to report any tagger activity that they witnessed. These were the posters that hung from my wall; no high school diplomas, no sport trophies, and certainly no recognitions.
“I’ll have my partner come speak to you in a second to state you your rights and formally charge you with your arrest warrant.”
“That’s fine,” I said, feigning disdain for authority.
I looked at my apartment for the last time. How beautiful does my street look now that I face much uncertainty. Funny how things seem different under nerve-racking circumstances. I chased my thoughts away. I’d always thought of this place I called home as a dump. It had gone through so much misery through the years, more drug use, alcoholism, domestic violence, and guilt than any teenager could bear.
That misery laid a path for me to the streets and I knew it had everything to do with the raid that morning.
I recalled my attempts at trying to assimilate to my social environment at school. Home and family were ideas that I didn’t want to be identified with. So I tried identifying with my immediate friends at school. My peers all had issues at home and they had joined a tagging crew called The Rejected Crew. This name the crew would tag on private properties across the city. It was the name that we felt represented our place in society. Although my interest was not graffiti, I was enthralled with the sense of brotherhood I attained from the crew. We looked out for each other during fights with other crews and often times experimented with liquor and cigarettes. This certainty and reassurance I received from my brotherhood was what I had read in The Outsiders and what my home had failed to provide. I joined their missions. Sometimes I would be a photographer; other times I’d look out for landlords while crew members tagged. I became apathetic about school and my older peers had already become involved in burglaries and drug dealing.
The next few days are one big blur. I was charged with numerous counts of vandalism, each ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 dollars worth of damage to private property. The investigators knew that I was just a scapegoat for graffiti damages caused collectively by several people. The investigators understood that I knew it too, so they put their cards on the table and asked me to give up names of people that I was in cahoots with. When you grow up in the bleaker side of town you learn early on that you shouldn’t give up other people. I refused to cooperate.
By the end of the week, I traveled among the hard core, those who told their war stories of drugs, murders, and power in the county jail bus. One of the younger inmates was boasting how active his neighborhood was. He told of an incident that had occurred two weeks prior, he spotted a rival gang member inside an arcade in the corner of a disputed neighborhood block. As soon as he recognized him he became heated and ran home on a back street to get a shotgun he had just acquired from an arm dealer. He had to rummage through his mom’s clothes looking for what he called a “coat like the one Sherlock Holmes wears.” He used the trench coat to disguise the shotgun. He described how he had a hard time rushing back to the arcade because the gun was too long. Before reaching the main street he heard three gunshots and commotion nearby. He heard sirens wailing and the helicopter above. He fled back home but he struggled with the shotgun, so he decided to dump it in an alley. He later heard that his close friend got to their rival first and shot him three times and was caught when the police searched the area.
Suddenly, his boastful manner of this crude reality made me want to puke and I knew then that I didn’t belong in that circle of people who remained frozen in a time when they are teenagers and never quite grow. His stories will involve himself as a teenager even when he’s in his 40’s.
In shackles, I waited an entire day in the holding tank, which is a large holding cell where inmates wait to be seen in court. Finally the court bailiff called me in. But instead of directing me towards the courtroom, he escorted me to the release-processing center.
“What’s going on officer?” I asked.
“Don’t ask any questions, buddy, unless you want to go back,” he replied.
My heart raced. I’ll shut up, I thought to myself.
Eventually, a stern, yet beautiful, female sheriff explained to me that the District Attorney had rejected my case. My heart almost jumped out.
“Do you have any idea why?”
She gently smirked. “Lack of evidence it seems.”
I went home and everything in the neighborhood felt the same. Neighbors continued their day-to-day activities. Street vendors kept on their routes, and children played. For a moment, my life had stopped in time. Yet life kept going for everyone else. It reminded me of the defiant youth I met inside the walls, and how they knowingly went in there to serve 25-to-life prison sentences. Is any of it worth it? Their world gets stuck in time, yet society keeps moving.
It made me reconsider my philosophy. Although, the easy way out for a youth facing adversity is to give in to the social norm and succumb to delinquency, it takes real courage to change for the better and therefore I did.
Hugo Garcia is a Ralph Bunche Scholar Honor student at Los Angeles City College, completing his second year of undergraduate studies.
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