Updated on October 17, 2015
An Urgency for Consistent Interruption
Lennox Tongan United Methodist Church
The interpersonal violence between Sāmoan and Tongan gangs is nothing new in our communities, especially in Southern California. Before the beef between gangs and colors, there seemed to be this unspoken disdain between Sāmoans and Tongans based on race, similar to Mexicans and El Salvadorans. Of course, this is not true for all Sāmoans and Tongans. It seems to have been this way before my generation was born, and even before the birth of my parents’ generation. The disdain has manifested itself into gang culture since our migration to the U.S. The violence between Sāmoan and Tongan gangs has escalated over time and has terrorized our families and our communities.
Carson, CA is a small city in the South Bay area of Los Angeles with a high population of Sāmoan families and Sāmoan gangs. Majority of the gangs are “bloods” but from different sets within Carson, thus building a reputation for Sāmoan gangs in Carson. A few weeks ago on a Tuesday evening in Carson, my cousins and I were shot at simply for being Sāmoan. A car rolled up on us and a passenger from the backseat driver window called out, “Aye where y’all from, cuhz?” His tone was what is referred to as “being banged on” which meant what gang/color are you affiliated with? My cousin put his hands up and said, “We’re from nowhere!” When that response is given, usually the gang-banger is suppose to move on because that meant we’re not gang affiliated. However, this was not the case. Even though my cousin said we were from nowhere, the suspect still pulled out his banger (gun) and dumped (shot) on us. 6 shots later, the car skirted off. We all walked away with our lives, but one of my cousins was hit in the knee. It all happened so fast and from what I can remember, the shooter looked young. Automatically, I assumed the suspect was Tongan because of the existing beef between the gangs. There had recently been drive-by shootings that took place by a rival Tongan gang on more than one occasion. Knowing what I know, I made the assumption.
That was only one incident out of many that took place that week. Word traveled around town quickly of other incidents happening: a big brawl went down up the street from my house; 2 Sāmoan guys were held up at gunpoint coming out of Albertson’s but told the gang-bangers that they were with their mom; some other family members were shot at as well but also walked away without injuries. Sadly, this wasn’t only happening in Carson. Suspects from Carson went to the Tongan United Methodist Church in Lennox, CA (an area surrounding Hawthorne and Inglewood with a high population of Tongan families and Tongan gangs) and hit up the church walls tagging “Barson Samoans – CK.” Bloods replace the letter “C” with a “B” to illustrate their hate for Crip gangs and vise versa. I’m not sure of other violent acts or vandalism that took place in that area, but I know Sāmoan gangs are going over there too causing havoc. There has been rumors going around that some of these instances could be set-ups from other gangs, capitalizing on the existing beef between Sāmoan and Tongan gangs. Nothing has been confirmed on either end who are responsible for these different instances.
These levels of disrespect exemplify how this current generation is the IDGAF generation. There use to be codes and rules gangs lived by in the streets. Now all of that has gone out the window. These emerging gang-bangers are out to make a name for themselves, prove their masculinity and loyalty to their hoods and gangs. There are so many levels of sadness attributed to these situations. It’s sad that I automatically assumed that the shooter was Tongan. It’s sad that the shooter reached a point in his life where he wanted to target and kill Sāmoan people at random. It’s sad that Sāmoan gang members disrespected the Tongan church, knowing how important churches are to our Pacific Islander communities. It’s sad that we don’t feel safe in our own neighborhoods. It’s sad that innocent lives are affected by these gangs’ ignorant and violent behaviors. It’s sad that this behavior is normalized in our communities. It’s sad that the families of the gang members either promote the lifestyle or are in denial about it. It’s sad to hear Sāmoan and Tongan families sobbing over loved ones murdered. Sad to hear Sāmoan and Tongan mothers and fathers whaling at the loss of their sons, brothers and sisters weeping at the loss of their brothers to street violence. Will the violence and vandalism caused by Sāmoan and Tongan gangs ever end?
In our communities, this is nothing new. Many of us are tired of it! Tired of living in fear, tired of losing our Sāmoan and Tongan men to incarceration or death. Preventive measures have been taken before, but there hasn’t been any follow up. As a community advocate who works to Empower Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC), being shot at by an individual whom I fight and advocate for, I feel a sense of urgency to take action. I can’t sit back idly and let this keep happening and not try to do something about it. I know I can’t do it on my own. I know it won’t happen overnight. It may never happen in my lifetime, but I, we, have to try something. Many of us Sāmoan and Tongan community advocates who are from these neighborhoods are banding together to have dialogue around this issue, formulate solutions, and carry out action. One thing we know for certain as a collective is that we must interrupt the gang influence that is surrounding our youth. We need to interrupt the gang influence and gang mindset consistently by creating after-school programs for our youth in these areas that can be led by Pacific Islander mentors in college. They can help the youth with their homework, help them learn content, teach them to study, teach them their culture as well as other cultures, cultural values, language, etc. We need to create media that combats gang ideologies and offers different ways of thinking about their situations or surroundings. This needs to be consistent in order to interrupt the possibilities of our youth continuing the cycle of gang violence, specifically Sāmoan and Tongan gang violence. Pacific Islanders are one of the smallest ethnic groups in the U.S. who are one of the most underserved, uneducated, poor and under-resourced communities. We can do so much more working together instead of working apart. WAKE UP BROTHERS & SISTERS! WE MUST UNITE AND BUILD A BETTER COMMUNITY FOR OUR FUTURE GENERATIONS TO COME. STAY WOKE! – DannyBoy Naha-Ve’evalu
Tongan and Samoan community advocates having dialogue about gang violence. (L-R: Chris Vaimili, Simote Tuifua, DannyBoy Naha-Ve’evalu)
Much like what DannyBoy has said, the feud between Tongan and Samoan gangs has been a part of our narrative as first and second generations born and raised in Los Angeles. Looking back on my childhood, I believe it was one of the reasons why my parents intentionally raised my siblings and I in a diverse neighborhood that barely had any Tongans or Samoans. They wanted to make sure we focused on our education and I think they thought we would be easily distracted if we were raised in an area that was largely populated with Islanders. At the same time, it did take away from us being able to explore our cultural identity and figure out what it meant to be Tongan or Pacific Islander in America. However, we did find some comfort and solidarity with our friends who were in a similar context as us, and those were our Samoan friends. There were not many Islanders in our neighborhoods or our schools, but the ones who were around made it easy for us to stick together.
My experience growing up with Samoans was a very friendly and peaceful one. Some of my maternal ancestors are Samoan, so it wasn’t an issue in my family for us not to get along with Samoans. My relationships with my Samoan friends exuded a Tongan value known as fe’ofo’ofani, which means to have a mutual loving or harmonious relationship with one another. My parents instilled this value in me at a very young age, and taught me that it was important to not only apply it to my relationships with other Tongans, but with everyone including those who aren’t Tongan. Although I was aware of the unspoken disdain between our two races, it did not hinder my friendships with Samoans. As I got older, I found it interesting when I met Samoans who were influenced to dislike Tongans or not affiliate themselves with us. And I think it was interesting for them as well to learn that not all Tongans are like the ones in the gangs that have claimed our identity. With those newfound friendships, there was a necessary breakthrough and a shift of thinking about coexisting through fe’ofo’ofani, without violence and hatred towards each other.
A room full of Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander scholars, young and old generations, learning from and teaching each other about our communities’ growth.
I have always been dedicated to fostering these peaceful and meaningful relationships amongst Tongans, Samoans, and all Islanders. However, it has been challenging, especially with the recent gang violence that continues to perpetuate itself in our communities. It goes against everything our cultures embody, which at the core of it, is love and respect for each other. I feel for all the lives impacted by this back and forth beef between the Tongan and Samoan gangs. I feel for the Lennox Tongan United Methodist Church, who has suffered enough trauma as a result of gang shootings, killings, and tagging on church property. I feel for DannyBoy and his cousins that got shot at in their own neighborhood. This isn’t the first time it has happened, and not sure if it’ll be the last either, but like my brother said earlier, I cannot sit back any longer before the next young man gets killed or another church gets tagged on.
It makes the work we do at APIOPA a lot harder because of the fear that has driven our own community to resort to violence. I’m not sure how much power these gangs realize they have. I understand that some accept that lifestyle, but we as community advocates, as Tongans and Samoans uniting as one, will do our best to create solutions for our future generations. I know as EPIC and APIOPA, we cannot do our work without addressing issues such as gang violence in our communities. We need to teach our kids how to love and not hate; to get to know each other beyond the fear and gang colors that separate us; to remember our cultural values and preserve them as our ancestors did with each other. We need to listen to our kids and validate their feelings and experiences they may be struggling with. We need to provide a safe space for them where they feel empowered to be vocal about anything. If we don’t, we push them away and they start seeking a sense of belonging somewhere else, like gangs.
I am sick and tired of seeing our young men being claimed by gang violence and incarceration. I am hurt when I see parents bury their own son as a result of gang violence. I am fed up with our community leaders waiting for something to happen to address the problem, when it should already be a consistent part of implementing programs for our youth. We need to remember our parents and grandparents migration stories and why they came here in the first place. We need to ask ourselves if we are doing the best we can as a community. I’ve learned how much we can accomplish if we work together, and the possibilities are endless. We cannot do this alone, especially if we know our community best, we are then able to create effective solutions collectively. I am committed to disrupting the internalized oppression of gang violence between Tongans and Samoans, so that the future of our young generation has a chance to reach their full potential in accomplishing goals they want to achieve. I understand that our pledge may not put a complete stop to gangs and what they do, but it is a step worth taking if we have a role in shaping young men who choose to be liberated from this cycle of violence. – Sina Uipi