RECENT dragnets by the Los Angeles Police Department have filled local jails with youthful gang members and drug dealers. The situation in the city, with hundreds of people killed in gang violence over the past year, clearly dictated tough action. At the least, the arrests affirm that legitimate authority has not been totally eclipsed. At the same time, the dramatic law enforcement effort in Los Angeles silhouettes a basic question: Where do all these violent young drug-dealing gang members come from?
Youth gangs in the United States are nothing new. For some urban youngsters, they seem to fill a gap left by disintegrating family and community life. In that sense, they spring up for the same reasons lots of organizations do - common interests, a desire to belong, a need to associate with peers.
What is new, however, is the wealth of today's gangs, fed by the sale of lethal cocaine derivatives like crack. The cash buys weaponry beyond anything the switchblade-toting teen-agers in ``West Side Story'' ever dreamed of. Infused with added glory from ample money and guns, gangs can more than ever seem the quickest way out of poverty and powerlessness. Other options, such as a solid education and a good job, may appear impossibly distant to kids weaned on street life.
Yet such options must be made more attainable. Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D) of California has just filed legislation to make a modest amount of federal money, $10 million, available to channel job counseling, social services, and education to juveniles likely to become gang members. That's a good start.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation in Greenwich, Conn., is launching a program to promote employment opportunities for poor youths in five midsize US cities, some with strong histories of gang activity. That program will establish one-on-one relationships between individual kids and adults who will serve as guides to the world of work and education.
Head Start, the federally backed pre-school program, has long shown that low-income youngsters are more likely to stay in school if given a good, early base.
These endeavors and ideas - mixing private and public resources - need to proliferate. Kids have to know that a different, better future is possible.
Helping build that future shouldn't be a matter of ideological debate. Good schools, employment opportunities, cultural enrichment, and recreation - these are things that should be open to every child. Government may be a big player or a bit player in bringing this about. Commitment at the local level, with schools, churches, and businesses pitching in, is what's crucial.
Police efforts to curb youth gangs have to go forward. But so do programs that hold the hope of building constructive futures for inner-city children. The former without the latter can't possibly win the war against gangs.