Journey to the end of the earth
L.A. Gang Tours provide a look at reality and hope for South Los Angeles
By David Hubbard
Alfred Lomas is on the other side of some tough going. It started 35 years ago at age 12 with his “jump-in” initiation into the Florencia 13, a nearly unavoidable move considering his neighborhood that ensnared him in the world of violence and drugs that forever dogs street gang members.
Lomas rode the highs and lows as a gang operative for years until he realized his life was taking a long spiral downward. The predictable outcome of methamphetamine addiction dropped him squarely at rock bottom, paranoid and withdrawn, broke, alone and sitting in jail. But that was then and this is now.
Five years ago, members of the Dream Center church ministry in South Los Angeles took Lomas off the street and pointed him in a new direction. He says only through their unconditional support was he able to find redemption, recovery and transformation in his life. Since then he has dedicated his every activity to a newfound passion for community advocacy and injunction in areas controlled by gangs.
Persuade and encourage
Lomas says his mission is to persuade and encourage local residents to take ownership of their neighborhoods rife with generational hatred and violence — and L.A. Gang Tours is his principle tool.
Working with Dennis Justice of American Transportation in Long Beach, the chartered coach tours permit outsiders a realistic view of the consequences and challenges stemming from the violent lifestyle and public safety issues associated with inner city gangs.
But before the buses rolled in January, Lomas had to deal with a little situation unfamiliar to most charter tour operators. First he had to negotiate a cease-fire agreement between the Crips, Bloods and Florencia 13, three of the largest and most notorious street gangs in L.A. history. According to Lomas, the gangs have agreed to no shootings or retaliation shootings during the times the buses pass through their neighborhoods.
First trips sold out
Lomas reports the first three monthly trips through gangland sold out at $65 per person, with the schedule now increased to two monthly tours. The money from L.A. Gang Tours goes to create jobs and business opportunities in this area of South L.A. Lomas calls the end of the earth. Here nearly 10 percent of the gang population is responsible for 70 percent of all gang violence.
“L.A. Gang Tours has access to the 5 percent of those with their fingers on the triggers,” says Lomas. “Given our goals to create employment opportunities and hire their youth, the gangs in these established no-gunfire safety zones have agreed to allow us to operate in their areas.”
With the backing of the Los Angeles Chief of Police and an endorsement from the Mayor’s Office, gang intervention workers support L.A. Gang Tours as a means to turn perceptions around and present a realistic view of the widespread pain of gang activity.
“This is not Ghettotainment,” says Lomas. “We are not out to show gangs in action. The sole objective of L.A. Gang Tours is to help quell the violence occurring in these communities due to gang activity. Without the freedom from violence, no other freedoms can exist.”
He says the tours reveal and preserve the true dignity of the residents. “The tours speak to their spirit and will to move forward,” says Lomas. “We are working with rival kids who might never have an opportunity to see each other outside of jail or a gang shooting.”
Safe, educational and enjoyable experience
From the time of day to departure locations, L.A. Gangs Tours takes every precaution to ensure a safe, educational and enjoyable tour experience. The tours forbid passengers to exit the bus or use cameras and recorders of any kind. Passengers must sign a release to acknowledge the fact they are under the sole supervision of a former gang member, as well as the potential to become a victim of a crime during the tour.
Gilbert Altamidrano drives the chartered coach from American Transportation. He learned his trade through the vocational program available to him through the Dream Center Ministry following his 25-year stint behind bars.
“Gilbert came to us asking for a chance,” says Justice. “He said he would be one of our best drivers. As it turns out, he was absolutely right.”
American Transportation contracted with L.A. Gang Tours through mutual church contacts as the concept was beginning to take shape last year.
“I rode along on the first tour and this program just knocked me out,” says Justice. “After 40 years in the charter tour business, all I could say was, ‘Don’t change a thing.’ These tours offer an eye-opening experience.”
Lomas and other former gang members serve as guides on each tour. En route they offer a brief history of L.A. street gangs and highlight their personal experiences: how they got into the gang, how they got out and why many have entered into intervention and prevention.
L.A. Gang Tours takes passengers by the historical sites in gangland that include the heavily graffiti-tagged L.A. River Bed and Skid Row on Olvera Street, home to the largest concentration of homeless population in the U.S., as well as Florence and Normandie, the flash-point intersection of the 1992 rebellion that flared after the acquittal of the officers involved in beating Rodney King. They drive by the site of the infamous 1974 shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army, Patty Hearst’s kidnappers. On board the guides explain the different types of graffiti tags and offer a partial viewing of the documentary, Crips and Bloods: Made in America.
Still the tours have received criticism from those who think they present black and brown youth negatively. Nonetheless, Lomas and his colleagues say the tours send a message to any youth contemplating joining a gang. Their consensus is anything anyone can do to help young people get out of a negative situation is always good.