What Steinbeck might say to a Salinas haunted by gangs.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
The most recent spate of violence in Salinas has left a trail of blood.
Gang violence took the lives of two men Friday night in a week that saw nine shootings in three days, the apparent aftermath of yet another dispute between the Norteños and Sureños who have been terrorizing the troubled town for years.
The incidents, if that’s an adequate word to describe the scope of the carnage, left troubled families to deal with their fear and grief, children cowering behind their parents, and innocent civilians worried whether they too might become victims in somebody else’s war.
Salinas cops, who have recently seen their ranks diminished as a result of the ongoing budget cuts, were left to try to pick up the pieces, and the bodies, with help from other law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff’s department and the other inter-agency task forces that have been working overtime to get a handle on this problem.
As usual, they are calling on the community for help.
Hopefully, they’re getting the cooperation they need to identify the perpetrators and protect the innocents who deserve safe streets, freedom from drive-bys and the sense that they are living in a society that will afford them protection.
But let’s not delude ourselves.
The anti-gang efforts of Operation Ceasefire, and a much more concerted approach by law enforcement and community leaders to address this problem, has resulted in fewer homicides – notwithstanding the shocking events of this week – than in the past. Even given last week’s shootings, the number is dramatically lower: five gang-related killings so far this year, compared to 25 in 2009.
But one death is too many. The violence that has taken this community by storm is not likely to end soon.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the relative lull, cautiously congratulating the local law enforcement agencies and responsible community members for their hard work in trying to stop the bullets from flying.
PROGRESS, HOWEVER MODEST, IS STILL WORTH STRIVING FOR.
It’s a truism of the newspaper business that as soon as you say something is happening, the opposite occurs. If you run a series about the dangers of drought, you can bet that the skies will begin to open and the long-awaited rain will fall.
The death on the streets of Salinas is far more serious than weather predictions, and the problem is way past glib prognostications. Playing the blame game with local politicians, police officers or community members who are doing their best seems equally unproductive. The blame for the deaths rests where it should, with the gangbangers – sadly many of them teenagers – who are killing each other and endangering the lives, livelihoods and peace of mind of countless others.
It’s cold comfort under the circumstances, but nevertheless seems like a startling irony that this week marks the 30th anniversary of the annual Steinbeck Festival at the National Steinbeck Center.
The organizers of the festival have put together a series of remarkable panels and events about the literary legacy of Salinas’ iconic son (Weekly staffers cover some of the events in this issue, with more information available at www.steinbeckfestival.org).
But it is tempting to think what the author would have made of what is happening in his home town now.
It’s likely that he’d be as unhappy, angry and unsettled as the rest of us.
Perhaps the speech he gave when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 offers a clue. “Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal physical fear, so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about. Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.”
In words that seem no less relevant today, Steinbeck went on to hold out hope.
“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed,” he said. “He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement… I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”
Well, these days perfectibility seems like a stretch. But progress, however modest, is still worth striving for. Maybe the master’s words can help us find our way. Meanwhile, they provide food for thought between the funerals for dead kids.