Angels call for tougher penalties for rioters after street protest

The behavior of hundreds of people who, from the San Fernando Valley to south-central Los Angeles, and from the east to the west of the city, have taken over the streets to perform dangerous stunts with cars in the early hours of the morning, does not cease and it is predicted that the chaos and violence will increase.

Creating a space in the city or county of Los Angeles for these individuals to release their adrenaline, and not just a ticket or fine but new laws that punish criminal behavior with jail time are suggestions from those who know firsthand the ravages of living, working and having businesses in marginalized areas.

“Street shooting has become popular because of the thrill and spectacle,” said Najee Ali, an African-American activist and director of Islamic Project HOPE.

“They are all interconnected, but we need leadership to create a safe space for young people, so that no one gets hurt or damages the streets of the city,” he added.

Joseph Park shows graffiti left on walls after a street takeover.
Credit: Jorge Luis Macias | Impremedia

In the latest serious incident, early Saturday morning, June 29, two vehicles were set on fire by vandals at the intersection of 18th and Main streets, less than a mile from downtown Los Angeles.

According to an LAPD spokesman, the vehicle burning was deliberate.

The acts of vandalism by taking over streets and illegal races occurred after drivers of at least 50 cars skidded, “burned” tires and painted graffiti. Traces of the damage are still at the scene.

Although police responded, no one was arrested. No vehicles were seized.

“It’s worrying,” Charlie Lee, owner of Main Display & Fixtures, a custom cabinet and shelving business located just a few meters away from where the illegal street takeover occurred, told La Opinión.

Lee said that although illegal street takeovers occur at night and that his business is insured, he has merchandise valued at more than half a million dollars in inventory that could be caught in the flames when cars are set on fire.

Vandalism in businesses after a street occupation.
Credit: Jorge Luis Macias | Impremedia

“This incident was very unfortunate,” said Najee Ali. “People work very hard to have individuals damage their property, so city leaders need to create another alternative for all those who want to engage in this type of activity to turn to.”

Street occupation increases

In the first months of 2024, the number of illegal races and street takeovers in Los Angeles increased by 50%.

According to new data from the LAPD, more than 176 incidents were reported between January and March, and authorities are still struggling to find an effective solution to prevent such acts that are creating chaos and violence.

“For many years I was paying for the painting of my business,” said Joseph Park, owner of ABC Sewing Machine Co., a sewing machine and parts company that is constantly defaced by suspected gang members involved in street takeovers.

“Every week I had to buy five gallons of paint,” Park said.

Because of the acts of vandalism and theft, as well as the graffiti, Park installed barbed wire in his business similar to that found in maximum security prisons to scare away criminals.

Nowadays, every time young people take to the streets and paint graffiti, the city takes care of removing it with new paint.

“It’s a big deal,” Park said. “Ten years ago there was a shooting because someone was trying to stop someone from spraying paint on buildings. It was sad because he was shot for trying to stop someone from causing harm.”

According to Joseph Park, stopping graffiti, homelessness and illegal street takeovers would require “stricter punishment for lawbreakers and new, stricter laws that actually enforce all the laws that already exist. That would be very helpful.”

“If they get jail time for destroying city property by taking over streets or any other crime, they won’t do it anymore,” he said.

Dangers to public safety

In an interdepartmental letter with members of the Police Commission, and in consultation with the office of Los Angeles District Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto, LAPD Chief Dominic Choi released a compilation of several existing state and local laws related to street racing, takeovers and sideshows.

“Street takeovers and vehicle displays are dangerous and unauthorized events in which unruly crowds and vehicles maliciously block and “take over” public streets and intersections to perform reckless vehicular stunts and other disorderly behavior, causing noise pollution, traffic obstructions, property damage, physical injury, and even death,” the letter states.

He added that such dangers, which are very serious for public safety, promote a reckless culture of lawlessness and invite other auxiliary criminal activities, including vandalism, violence, looting, possession of firearms and public use of alcohol and illicit drugs.

“These events create a climate of fear and intimidation in the community, while overwhelming already stretched public safety resources,” Choi says, arguing that while street takeovers occur anywhere, the hardest hit victims tend to be those voters who predominantly reside in low-income neighborhoods.

Insignificant fines

Dominic Choi’s paper acknowledges that existing laws only investigate speeding and reckless driving as misdemeanors “with a negligible fine.”

These laws do not provide for increased penalties when these crimes are committed as part of a street protest.

Furthermore, the LAPD chief notes that existing laws allow these crimes to be eligible for pre-conviction diversion, completely avoiding any significant deterrent effect.

Finally, he argues that the lack of deterrence and accountability to recognize the gravity of “these maliciously reckless gatherings only emboldens the street takeover culture through the use of social media, while voters, victims and grieving families are left frustrated by the lack of justice and such actions.”

Legal remedies

In this manner, primary enforcement by the LAPD Street Racing Task Force will combat street takeovers and illegal races for reckless driving, speed contests, and speed competitions that cause serious bodily injury.

In addition, there will be penalties for displaying speed or complicity; reckless driving causing serious bodily injury; aiding and abetting speed contests and creating barricades or obstacles for speed contests or displays.

Some of these laws were applied on February 7 to Eric Romero Quintana, 20, who has more than 70,000 followers on social media and who was accused of organizing and coordinating the races and illegal street takeovers.

Romero, a Paramount resident, was arrested and booked by officers from the City of Paramount Street Racing Task Force along with officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LAS) at the Paramount Station.

Romero Quintana faces charges including conspiracy to organize street protests.

Increase in incidents expected

A spokesperson for Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass told La Opinión that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) and the California Highway Patrol (CHP) have formed a task force to aggressively confront the problem of street takeovers and prosecute participants.

“At this time, LAPD, LASD and CHP are preparing for an increase in these events based on previous trends during the summer in years past, including social media monitoring that allows LAPD to stay on top of pre-planned events.”

The spokesman added that the Los Angeles City Council is considering increasing funding to cover public safety concerns within the city limits. Some of the funding earmarked for traffic safety has also been earmarked for curbing illegal street takeovers.

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