THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: It’s time to punish those involved in street takeovers

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

It is getting to be an annoying habit. And each time it raises my anger and frustration to an even higher fever pitch. 

The habit is street takeovers. I have witnessed them, commented on them and demanded action to stop them. The latest street takeover outrage happened on 18th and Main streets near downtown Los Angeles on June 29.

This one was much different and much more alarming. Hundreds showed up to engage in the usual dangerous street antics. 

They had a free run of the streets for a fleeting period. There were no police in the vicinity during that period. There were no arrests or auto impounds. 

The difference this time was not just the usual peril it posed to spectators and participants. This time cars exploded into flames that threatened to engulf nearby buildings. 

The takeover mania had escalated to a level of danger that should have heightened alarm among law enforcement and city and county officials. Street takeovers now presented the proverbial clear and present danger.

There are two crucial questions that many residents, city officials and those in law enforcement continue to ask. The first is why street takeovers not only happen but seemingly have gotten bigger, bolder and a direct slap at and challenge to law enforcement than in the past? The second is what can be done about them?

First, just who are the individuals who gather gleefully at a street takeover scene to watch, egg on and participate? There has been no detailed profile of the typical street takeover participant or their motive for participating. 

From my observation, they are mostly young, comprised of all ethnicities and genders, and treat the street takeover as part thrill, part happening, part sense of momentary empowerment and almost certainly part defiance of authority.

But it is the thrill seeking taken to the extreme that is most troubling. It is almost as if the participants and watchers expect an accident, injury or — in extreme cases — death. Social media has made it simple for individuals to gather at a designated street corner at a designated time once the word goes out.

In the street takeovers I directly observed, I was struck by how fast the crowd gathered at the location and how fast they dispersed the moment police arrived.

What was even more alarming in the street takeover near downtown L.A. in June was that there were no reports of arrests or auto impounds. These are at best minimal deterrents to busting up the takeovers, at least for that moment.

I and other activists have publicly called for the creation and deployment of a specially trained task force between the Los Angeles Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to provide an instant response to a takeover. 

The task force would employ a combination of intelligence information to quickly arrive at and then surround the scene. Then quickly follow with targeted impounds and arrests. 

This type of response and action sends the strong message that law enforcement has a workable tactic to combat a takeover.

Street takeovers are certainly not new. Young people and car enthusiasts have had a long tradition in Los Angeles of commandeering a street and showcasing their souped-up vehicles in showboat promenades and speed racing, stunts and reckless driving displays.

In times past, public officials and law enforcement bowed to the popular craze and tried to provide designated open space areas and lots away from residential neighborhoods for the show boaters and participants. 

There was mixed success with this tactic. This of course for many paled in comparison to taking over a street and the subsequent sense of defiance and faux empowerment that comes with it.

The one other factor that helps to understand why street takeovers have cropped up to be the new sport of thrill seeking is the cultural dynamic. Once a deviant act is embraced by in this case bored, alienated and rootless young persons, it takes on a dynamic of its own and becomes embedded in the subculture. That ensures that hundreds of people will quickly embrace the call to show up at a location for the action.

There have been numerous efforts by state legislators to enact measures to combat takeovers. They include tougher sentences for those arrested, the permanent impounding of vehicles, stiff fines, imploring community residents to promptly report a street takeover and reconfiguring street corners with barriers and speed prevention bumps. These measures have had varying degrees of success particularly in areas outside of South L.A.

That success has proven to be a double-edged sword. It has made South L.A. even more vulnerable and a target for street takeovers. The feeling among many is that law enforcement will be more lax and slower to respond there. 

That is the exact reason law enforcement in tandem with the community should respond even faster to the first sign of a takeover gathering.

A swift, tough, proactive early warning crackdown is the best answer to those who think city streets are a soft target for wreaking their dangerous, and offensive brand of vehicle and community mayhem. The takeover on Main Street was an outrage and a message for officials and law enforcement to take over the takeovers.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “President Trump’s America” (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. 

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