Gang violence in the ghettos and barrios of Los Angeles has steadily fallen off for four years running. But shootings this fall on the city's south side pushed the gang problem once again to the forefront of community concern.
On Oct. 12 five people were killed in a gangland drive-by shooting on 54th Street in a decaying, mostly black, residential neighborhood.
Six other killings occurred in the following week, and six local street gangs thought they were under fire from rivals.
But they weren't, says Kelly Presley of Community Youth Gang Services Project (CYGSP) a city- and county-funded network of street workers which tries to thwart gang violence.
The project's operatives, many former gang members, put out word that the murders were related to the drug trade, not traditional gang rivalries, and that no one's turf was under attack.
The network then identified 23 gang members who were potential targets for further attacks and helped them to lie low or leave town for a couple weeks.
Idle teen-agers joining gangs is an old problem in the ghetto streets of south-central Los Angeles, just as it is in the Mexican-American barrio to the east. But overall, the violence has eased since 1980, when there were 351 gang-related murders in Los Angeles County. Police project that the number of gang-related killings this year will be just under half that figure.
Most such killings are part of a weary cycle of turf wars and revenge exacted gang-on-gang and neighborhood-on-neighborhood. Often, innocent people are hurt in the drive-by shootings, in which assailants fire from cars and speed away.
But police sources say there appears to be a new factor behind the most recent spurt of gang-related shootings.
In the past 15 months to two years young gang members have become increasingly involved in a cocaine traffic run by adults, often former gang members with prison records.
Beyond that, there is little solid information about gang involvement in drug trafficking.
Whatever its source, the kind of violence that broke out in October makes people in some areas of south-central Los Angeles feel under siege and grow concerned that gangs are taking over their neighborhoods.
The response by the city was the same this fall as it was in 1980. Mayor Tom Bradley formed a task force on how to arrest and prosecute gang offenders more efficiently.
In 1981 the police, probation department, city attorney's office, and county sheriff all began special programs for cracking down on gang activity, helping each other identify hard-core gang members, and streamlining procedures for getting them off the streets.
By most accounts, it has worked.
Also in 1981, the CYGSP started running its network of listening posts and mediators. No one knows how much credit should fall to this project for preventing violence. Prevented violence leaves no trail. CYGSP has its detractors, but its funding continues.
Among young blacks, gangs are loose associations of groups of neighborhood friends. A member of a ''Crip'' gang might wear a blue handkerchief or shoelaces , call his compatriots ''Cuz,'' and for a greeting ask, ''What's it going to C like?'' Those who identify with the other major tribe, the ''Blood'' gangs, wear red and call each other ''Blood.'' Mostly, since they have nothing to do, they ''hang out.''
''Some brothers get money in their pocket; some get thrills out of it, and protection,'' says a 17-year-old member of Rolling Thirties Crips. ''There're some weeks and some days when there's just nothing to do but just hang out.''
''They don't have recruitment problems,'' says Carl Kendrick of Sey Yes, a sort of intelligence and intervention program for keeping gang violence away from school campuses. ''We have all the recruitment problems.''
At Denker Recreation Center, a battered, graffiti-covered gymnasium with meeting rooms in south-central Los Angeles, Fred Williams has little stock in the crackdown approach of the police or the get-to-know-the-gang approach of CYGSP. Both agencies, in his view, perpetuate the gang mentality by focusing their attention on gang members.
''These little punks out here, they like being called a gang,'' he says.
Mr. Williams, a broad-chested former half-miler, was a member of the Rolling Thirties Crips himself in the 1970s. He has gang shootings and a jail term in his past. Seven years ago, at 19, he started a youth outreach program at Denker to provide summer jobs and projects for local youths.
The teens in the area, he says, desperately need something to do - and some direction from contact with leadership figures.
At Denker, he points out, they have a basketball court with badly warped floorboards, missing planks, but no balls of any kind. They have three carom tables, two caroms, and no cue sticks.
Still, the center is full of teen-agers, wrestling around and vying for Williams's attention.
Ironically, the city recently installed an expensive floor safe to keep cash in. Vandals promptly tore it out of the floor, assuming there must be something in it. There wasn't.
''Just one Ping-Pong table,'' Williams says, ''could make all the difference around here.''
Malcolm Klein is skeptical that recreation can do much to cut down gang activity. A professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, Dr. Klein says that for 15- to 17-year-old gang members, ''the gang offers them too much, and we can't counteract it.'' What
the gang offers, he explains, is basic companionship, and the status that comes with membership, with belonging.
What eventually will bring a young man out of the gang world, Dr. Klein says, is developing some kind of an attachment - to a job, a training program, a comfortable family life, or a girl friend.
In every major American city, he notes, gang activity follows cycles.
When neighborhood concern reaches a high pitch and gang members themselves are frightened into staying home, then violence falls off. ''And each cycle,'' he adds, ''is capped with a task force.''
Says the young member of Rolling Thirties Crips, who wanted his name withheld: ''You try to push your brothers and sisters on to something else. When they come down to the corner, you say, ''Go on, get out of here.''