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© Anne Knudsen, 1986

interviews

An Interview with Celeste Fremon of Witness LA

by Celeste Fremon
June 12, 2018

Above Photograph: November 11, 1986. More than 110 residents of the Aliso Village Housing Projects call for more police protection against drug traffickers. Father Gregory Boyle, pastor of Mission Dolores, said yesterday's demonstration grew out of Bible study groups he organized at the Aliso and nearby Pico Gardens projects. 

This interview with Celeste Fremon, an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in gangs, law enforcement, criminal justice and education policy, the founding editor of WitnessLA.com, and author of "G-Dog and the Homeboys", was conducted and condensed by frank news

Can you introduce yourself a bit?

The fall of 1990 was the first time I took the drive that would change my life, which is to go to meet this priest I had heard about that was working with gangs in Boyle Heights, he was the pastor of Dolores Mission, which was the largest parish in Southern California. He was having a lot of luck working with street gangs, and it was at the height of the gang crisis in Los Angeles.

1992 was the year of the most homicides in modern Los Angeles history.

This little mile-square area that was then the Pico-Aliso housing projects had, according to the LAPD, the highest level of gang activity in Los Angeles County, and since Los Angeles was at that time the gang capital of the world, that mile-square area was probably the most intense area for gang activity on the planet. It seemed like a really interesting laboratory to see what this gang thing was about. I talked an editor of mine at the Los Angeles Times Magazine into letting me do a story on an alternative school that this priest, Father Greg Boyle, had started.

I realized very quickly that the story was about the kids he was working with and that the guy and the school was just a tiny part of it. I wrote the story for the Times, but I was so fascinated with the depth of the stories I was seeing with the moms and the dads and the sisters and the homeboys and homegirls and the family interaction and the community interaction and the complexity of it that I sort of never left. I developed an unlikely expertise of LA street gangs.

What was being written at that time was portraying these kids who were filling the nightly news as monsters. There was still the myth of the super predator.

We were madly passing, in the state of California, legislation that was getting tougher and tougher with sentencing enhancements. What I was seeing was hurting kids. That was the beginning of how I started reporting on criminal justice and juvenile justice because, once I pulled on that thread, all kinds of other topics came down, and I think finding out what you want to do is as mysterious as falling in love.

Had you met me 30 years ago, you wouldn't have said, "As a white chick, former USC song girl, what you should probably be reporting on is Hispanic street gangs." But I felt at home and this is what I'm meant to be doing, and one topic led to the other, and I've reported a lot on law enforcement and prison policy and all kinds of juvenile issues having to do with the justice system, and most of it here in LA.

Long answer to a short question.

Who is most impacted when a member of the family disappears via incarceration?

In the incarceration mania that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, what we failed to take into account — and what I saw up close because the more I reported in these communities and became friends with moms and sisters, are all of the collateral effects. I came a journalist, and stayed as a mom and auntie and friend.

Right now, of the 2.3 million people in prison in the United States, 52 percent of the state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates are the parents of minor children. To put it another way, according to the Bureau of Justice, 2.3 percent of the US population under 18 have a parent or parents in prison. In addition to all of the shame and stigma that occurs with kids, it has such a profound effect when a family member is removed.

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A guy who might have been low level, selling drugs — that was only part of who he was. He was also the guy who babysat for his sister who was struggling or was there for his mom or had all kinds of other functions in the community and in the family. You see all these people disappear from the community and it had a crippling effect, not just on families, but on the communities themselves, and watching that close up, anecdotally, you could just see the damage that was being done.

I remember I talked to Father Greg where I'd seen most of the people in the community where I was reporting were suffering from a high degree of what appeared to be PTSD. Now, we talk about it as early childhood trauma. People have been rigorously studying it, but at the time, all of these effects of being in a war zone and also having seen family members vanish into prison, the trauma led... There was a study done at Stanford where they went into some of the most intense Los Angeles neighborhoods and tested a bunch of the middle school kids and found that they had a high degree of PTSD — as severe or greater than service people returning at that time from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I even saw symptoms blossoming in me because I'd been in situations where I got shot at accidentally. They weren't aiming at me, but I was in the line of fire. More importantly, I saw kids I got to know be killed and went to a lot of funerals. For most of the people in these communities, it seems like everybody's been through that, and the trauma is very deep from being around a lot of violence and also having family members removed into the prison system. It's only now that we're starting to address that stuff and see the harm that's being done.

How does this adolescent trauma stay with people as they become adults? Are they being equipped with any tools to deal with it?

We're starting to see a little bit of it, but it's largely absent. A high majority of the kids that wind up in our juvenile system are suffering from a high degree of trauma. That affects their attention span. It affects their health. PTSD or early childhood trauma can mimic ADHD.

If nobody acknowledges that, it can have long-term health effects. If it starts to be acknowledged, there's stuff you can do. There's a lot of good work being done finally. We're acknowledging that these things are going on and that kids having a brush with any one of our governmental systems and our county systems, whether it's foster care or the juvenile justice system, are by definition coming in there with a high degree of trauma. If we don't admit that and address it, we're going to have problems and we're not going to be helping these kids.

Looking at LA county probation, which is the largest juvenile probation system in the country, they're trying to train staff in trauma. This is like a day-long training. That's not enough.

We still don't have everybody who's working with kids in probation trained, which is insane.

This is an agency where it's being talked about and the supervisors are all on board. The probation commission is all on board, and it's hysterical trying to get this done.

The staff hasn't even been trained, and there are a lot of staff members that are not treating kids as kids who are traumatized.

Thinking of you last night, I was talking to my friend about a then-young man I met, during the early-to-mid-'90s when I was reporting in Pico Aliso in Boyle Heights. He's not a young man anymore. He's been in prison for 17 years. He just got out and he called me because he remembered I'd been sort of an auntie way back when and felt I was a person he could trust and could talk to.

Turns out he spent 10 years in solitary confinement absolutely for no reason, under completely torturous circumstances. For so many years, we thought this would never change, and now in the state of California, we're starting to understand that the use of solitary really, no kidding, is torture, and that we do great damage.

We're keeping people in conditions where they could go maybe 10 years without even touching a single finger of another human being.

At least it's actually changing. For so many years, it was very, very difficult to get public policy to change. But it's changing now.

How has gang culture shifted since the 90s in Los Angeles?

The gang culture is very different. Still a high percentage of homicides in Los Angeles according to Chief Charlie Beck. They are still gang-related, but our homicides are way down and the gang culture is very different. There are so many other ways people are looking to do rehabilitation, and it's not gang-centered. It's re-entry centered. The gang problem is still a problem, but there are a lot more problems.

So many of the communities, and the moms, and the fathers, and the men are feeling that they are the solutions to their community problems, and they're feeling, to use that horrible word, empowered to start organizations and programs to fix their own communities.

There are a lot of remarkable people who are doing work that come out of the communities themselves, rather than people coming in from the outside to be the helping entities.

Like the Fatherhood Project, saying, "Yeah, we helped to break our communities, and now we're the ones that need to come in and help heal them."

The Youth Justice Coalition, they've got policymakers scared to death because you don't want to get in their way. They're relentless, thank heaven, and they're kids who have seen that they can help change policy. When I first began reporting, there were groups of mothers that had found their voices, but that's expanded many, many, many times over. That's a big cultural change.

Are you optimistic about what this next generation is facing? Do you think this generation coming up will see less incarceration and less violence?

I think that's the direction everything is turning, and oddly enough, there seemed to be a breakthrough around 2007, 2008.

When the economy fell apart, I think lawmakers and people who hadn't been interested before kind of went, "Huh. We're really spending that much money on prisons? That doesn't seem good. We're cutting a lot out of our schools. Let's see about that."

I don't think that made all the difference, but the rest of the populous went, "Oh. Maybe we need to cut back on some of this nonsense."

But, yes, I'm much more optimistic because there's real reform coming out of the communities, and policymakers are listening and a lot of them are doing their own part to lead the charge. I'm much more optimistic when I watch kids like those at the Youth Justice Coalition. I was at a meeting recently, and one of the people on this board was a young woman from YJC, and she was just formidable. I don't know what her background was, but most of their kids have come out of a very at-risk situation and many of them have been locked up themselves.

They're becoming activists and organizers, and their blooming is really an inspiring thing to watch. There's still a lot of work to be done. I'm still amazed that so many people don't feel an urgency to make changes, particularly when it comes to the county's kids who wind up brushing up against these systems.

Until we all get to the point where we see all of these kids as belonging to all of us and precious, then we're not there. It's a remarkable generation of kids.

I think it's a very interesting generation.

Because I've followed the same people for such a long period of time, often since they were teenagers to people in their 40s, I see some of the people I knew and cared about get killed or get locked up for a very long time, but I've seen so many who, according to the cultural views of that time, people wanted to cross off. They were wonderful kids who were struggling with some really incredible burdens and were up to no good and were very, very at risk and very involved with gangs.

Now they're good moms and good dads and responsible working people. They were able to redirect the arc of their lives toward a very positive future with tremendous burdens affecting them while they did it. They're the best of victory stories. I don't know how I would have done with the kind of childhood and adolescence that they had, that were not of their choosing.

It's been both humbling and joy-bringing to have the privilege of knowing people over time who have really gone through the steps of trauma and have come out the other side to something really good and healthy. They're great miracle stories.

What do you feel most urgent about?

Any of the things affecting kids is really urgent. When I hear from policymakers and people in some of these big agencies that affect kids say,

"Well, change takes time," I'll say, "Okay. So this generation or a half generation is okay to sacrifice? So we're good with that, right?" And dead silence.

That's how I feel. We have to feel that urgent. All of these kids are ours. We belong to each other. Are we willing to sacrifice a generation of kids in certain communities? Is that okay with us? If it's not, then we need to move heaven and earth to get to them. It's that urgent. It makes me nuts.

Somebody who worked for one of the supervisors a couple of years ago said, "It sounds like you're really upset about this."

I said, "Yeah." She said, "Well, yeah, but juvenile probation has always been that way. Why are you so upset?" I went, "They're children!" We can't ever be complacent. Most anybody I know, if they met the kids being adversely affected by the policies we have, if they just met personal kids and got to know them, they would be absolutely aghast.