On the Raymond Avenue Tragedy
USC and the nearby West Adams neighborhood where the double murder took place April 11 are still in shock. Police are hunting the cold-blooded killer in a widening manhunt, and a new wave of fear is settling into the neighborhood after two decades of reductions in local crime. As president of the Van Buren Place Community Restoration Association, the block club for the area where the murders happened, I want to express the most profound sympathy from all of our neighbors to the parents of Ying Wu, who lived among us, and of her male friend Ming Qu.
I met Ying Wu only once, in the home where she rented a room, four doors away from mine, and remember her as lovely and laughing. She had come from distant Hunan in China's interior to study electrical engineering at USC. She was living with a nurturing couple and their daughter who are among my closest friends and in whose home I have spent many happy hours. On the day we met I had visited to watch Sergio Leone's spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West, with the homeowner, my friend David. As it was ending Ying Wu and her roommate came home. We were introduced and shared momentary pleasantries, they sampled the snacks I had brought and went up to their room. Yesterday the wanton violence of our celluloid afternoon became real and she was struck down at the age of twenty-three while talking in the rain in her boyfriend's car. She was shot in the chest; he in the face. Trying to save her, Ming Qu, mortally wounded, made his way from the car, up the walk to the house. He banged on the door to summon help, breaking two small glass panes before falling unconscious. He died on the way to the hospital, also twenty-three. Under China's one-child policy they were both only children.
A killer on the loose is a threat. Fear is also a threat. The killer will be caught, or will flee elsewhere. The fear can linger and paralyze a community, giving the forces of evil a victory they should not have won and did not deserve. A single bloody event can deliver a body blow to even the safest neighborhood. I attended graduate school and then held a staff job at UCLA from 1983 to 2005 and was in Westwood every day. There could hardly be a safer or more upscale community. Anchored by the university, Westwood is bounded by some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country: Brentwood on the west, Bel-Air on the north, Century City and Beverly Hills on the east, West Los Angeles on the southwest. It was a thriving commercial center of vibrant restaurants and boutique stores. Then on a single day in January 1988 rival gang members who had drifted into town for a few hours got into a shootout in which Karen Toshima was killed - and Westwood turned into a ghost town.
More than half the stores went out of business. Empty storefronts and sparsely traveled sidewalks lasted more than a decade. There were still vacancies when I left UCLA in 2005, seventeen years later. This was the work of a single bullet. Westwood, once the rival of Old Town Pasadena, Melrose Avenue, and the Santa Monica Promenade, never again came close to those venues. Our West Adams neighborhood is far more fragile. It has seen more than one killing, though usually of gang members. It is not upscale, despite its wealth of turn-of-the-twentieth-century architect-designed homes. The majority of the residents are low-income Latinos and African Americans. There are gangs, not as once-in-a-lifetime transgressors but as a regular part of the scenery. So above all we need to stay sober and not panic over a single event, but look at where we are at.
Of course the students are frightened, as they should be in any community with a killer running free. The police, both LAPD and USC's Public Safety Department, have redoubled patrols and are hunting him. The police routinely warn students about petty theft, street robberies, and theft of their bicycles or car break-ins. That for years has been the main risks of the area. The advice is to not talk on the cell phone while walking, don't wear white iPod ear buds on the street, lock valuables in the car trunk, lock up your bicycle. Yesterday's violence should have us add: don't linger in automobiles after dark. Park and go directly to your indoor destination. That said, it is untrue that violent crime is common in this neighborhood. Without question there is too much panic mongering right now. I was disappointed when my Facebook friend, the well-known leftist journalist Marc Cooper, an associate professor at USC and director of the university's Annenberg Digital News, posted to his Facebook page:
"I have thought of renting a small place near campus to stay over some nights as I live 60-80 minutes away in Calabasas but... but...it's not really THAT attractive. An air mattress in my office might be a better choice."
My wife Jennifer and I have lived in this community for twenty-four years, since March 1988, and the idea that it is so unsafe that it would be preferable to sleep on an air mattress on an office floor than live out among us residents is frankly appalling and exactly the kind of panic-mongering that can do great damage.
As to the real state of affairs: If one were to read Agatha Christie and then respond as Marc does, every English village would be depopulated. It is true that South Los Angeles has more than its share of the city's killings - 40%. But these have been on a sharp downward slope for twenty years and are now lower than in the mid-1960s, despite a huge increase in population. There were 1,092 murders in Los Angeles in 1992. In 2011 there were 298. And of those the great majority were gang on gang killings or domestic violence. I can only speak from personal experience of a small part of the city, but that includes the block where the two killings took place yesterday, and is a major part of the neighborhood where USC students rent rooms in private homes west of Vermont Avenue. For the stretch between the 10 Freeway on the north, Jefferson on the south, Vermont Avenue on the east, and Normandie Avenue on the west, to the best of my knowledge the two killings yesterday are the first where the victims were not gang members or drug dealers since 1988.
We lived here during the worst of the gang war years, 1988 to 1992. There were numerous killings back then. In 1988 I know of two innocent victims in my neighborhood. After that, the killings were gang on gang, and these went into dramatic decline after 1992, and that is a long time ago. We didn't flee then, nor did our many good neighbors. Even UCLA in its cocoon of wealthy white neighborhoods is not violence free. In October 2009 Damon Thompson, a student in a chemistry lab, stabbed a woman fellow student five times and slashed her throat, almost killing her. He was arrested for premeditated attempted murder. That September two students were stabbed, one in the stomach, at a UCLA fraternity party near the campus. Four people were arrested and charged with attempted murder.
Community members have worked with USC for years to calm exaggerated student fears of the surrounding neighborhood. As crime, especially violent crime, has abated over the years, real progress has been made in strengthening ties between USC's administration, faculty, and students and the broader community in which the university exists. The events of yesterday are an atrocity and a tragedy. They are also an aberration from the usually calm daily life of our community and should not become the grounds for student flight to some far away refuge. Those of us who live out here in the neighborhood plan to stay.