Azusa hopes indictments close books on era of racial hatred, violence against blacks
Residents and community leaders hope that a sweeping indictment that accused a Latino gang of targeting black residents of Azusa will once and for all end the racial violence in the city.
Authorities announced Tuesday that a federal grand jury had indicted 51 people allegedly associated with the Azusa 13 gang in what prosecutors described as "terrorizing" blacks in the San Gabriel Valley city of more than 48,000.
Logan H. Westbrooks, a founding member of the city's Human Relations Commission and pastor of Faith Temple Church of God in Christ, moved his church to Azusa in 2000, at the height of the hate crimes. The church relocated to Los Angeles a few years ago, in part because of parishioners' fears of the gang violence.
"There was a sense of fear, even of going out at night for night services," he said.
Congregation members told stories of being harassed and called racial epithets. Some were afraid to report incidents to police lest the gang take revenge. Since then, Westbrooks said, those issues have subsided considerably. He called the indictment a "godsend."
"Some felt as if no one cared," about the violence and threats, he said. "And now this has happened -- someone does care."
Azusa Mayor Joe Rocha said he has seen first-hand the damage Azusa 13 had done to the community over the years, but the city took the hate crime issue on head on and the foothills suburb is a different place today than the one portrayed in the indictment.
“We were once classified as the hate crime capital of the region," he said. "Today we are a place of peace and tranquility. These type of crimes are rare now -- single digits for a few years.”
Rocha said at the height of the crimes, the city set up a human relations commission and held a rally intended to unite those of all races: Hands Across Azusa. “We had people of all colors come out to the meetings,” the mayor said.
“The school district, city council and kids themselves all took up the issue,” said Rocha, who has served a combined 13 years on the council as member and mayor. “As a teacher and now mayor I emphasize how we are alike and not to judge a person by their container. Look at the quality of the person,” he said.
Rocha said when two young kids were hit by a car recently, the local car club, Azusa Canyon Car Club, arranged a massive fund-raiser for the family. “The people who came were a rainbow of colors,” he said. “That kind of event unites a community.”
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-- Abby Sewell in Azusa and Richard Winton
Photo: An alleged Azusa 13 associate is taken into custody Tuesday after the indictments. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times