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Public Papers - 1990 - May

Remarks to Oakwood Community Members in Los Angeles, California

1990-05-21

Well, it's a beautiful day, and I'm delighted to be here. Thank you, Foster Webster, for inviting me into your home today. I'm pleased to have with me today Director Bill Bennett, who's doing such an outstanding job leading our country's fight against drugs. And of course, another leader in that fight, your own great United States Senator, Pete Wilson. But here in Los Angeles you also have a talented and dedicated chief of police, a man I respect greatly, Daryl Gates, with us here today -- doing a great job and doing it right.

I also want to mention Jim Hahn with us, your city attorney, and your city councilperson Ruth Galenter, here today. Thank you to the community of Oakwood for this welcome and for the extraordinary example of neighborhood unity and dedication which you set for us all. You're truly a Point of Light. Daryl Gates says that's no point of light: this is a beacon of light for the entire country, leading others out of the darkness.

The world which we see now from Mr. Webster's front yard is a good one. Carved on the face of this community is a message of family and future. We see a neighborhood united no longer out of fear but out of strength. This world is one of hope, but the world of this community's memory is not. This vivid world which still haunts many here was a cruel one, one whose inhumanity and hopelessness dominated their lives, where drugs and crime made them prisoners of fear.

And it's from this shattered world that the members of the Oakwood neighborhood crafted a new dream. They wanted to be free in their own homes. So, working with the police, they decided to reclaim their streets, to reclaim their children, to reclaim their future. And they are succeeding.

The first time some neighbors met with the police to discuss what they could do, two police cars were parked outside a resident's home while the officers talked with the people inside. But on the corner across the street, in defiant mockery of the police, drug dealers continued to sell their poison. It was a world of drive-by shootings; of frustrated anger that exploded in gang graffiti, vandalism, armed robberies and, above all, the obsessed tragedy of drug abuse. It was a world held captive to crime; a world without center, without safety, without sense.

But since the community undertook its quest to clean up their streets, police estimate that drug- and gang-related crimes in Oakwood have declined 44 percent. The darkness of drugs, crime, and fear is being banished; and in its place shines the light of honor, respect, and family pride. When the legendary bird called the phoenix was destroyed by fire, it rose again from its own ashes, reborn stronger than ever. Oakwood is a phoenix. It's a magnificent reminder of the power of the human heart.

I want to tell you the story of two boys who grew up here right in these neighborhoods. It's not his name, but let's call the first one Michael. A few years ago, a picture of Michael might have shown him playing baseball down the block -- loving the game, loving the moment. But later would come other pictures -- one of him around the corner from the baseball diamond he loved, selling drugs in its shadow; another of him in gang colors, his gun blazing into the night. Today we see a final picture: His heart hollow, his eyes empty, he drags himself bitterly through the prison he now calls home. He is lost to us now. His life was as brief as the frozen image in that first photograph of innocent youth, when his eyes were looking brightly toward a future he will never see.

Yet in Oakwood, the memory of the emptiness of his lost life will last forever; so will the emptiness left by the devastation of his own neighborhood, shattered by his streetside dealing, rampages of violence, his shootings. For he was Oakwood. His life was the route to take a few years ago when you grew up here with nothing but drugs and crime and hate as your models.

But finally there came a moment when the people of this community could no longer bear what they lived with every day: the wasted lives of those who terrorize and who are terrorized. Michael may never have a second chance, but the Oakwood residents became determined that the rest of their community would have a second chance, a chance to face the sun together.

Let's call the next boy Paul. Last month, when neighbors were holding their candlelight vigil for a drug-free community, a woman noticed a little kid, a little 6-year-old boy at the side, just watching on curiously. ``What's going on?'' he asked. She explained that the vigil celebrated his neighborhood's rebirth. Then she asked him where his parents were. ``I don't have any,'' he answered. It turned out he lived with his grandmother and his uncle, a drug dealer. The boy walked away. The woman thought, Well, that's the sad end of another sad story. But a little while later, as the vigil continued, she saw him again, shyly joining the others. Dressed in his best clothes, he stood in the soft light of a hundred candles, with a candle of his own in one hand, his grandmother's hand in the other.

If Oakwood had continued the way it was going, Paul, too, might have been lost to us, in the tragedy of death or the blank-eyed hopelessness of prison. Instead, he can now grow up playing on a community baseball team coached by the policemen Michael and his gang had spent their young lives taunting. He will help his neighbors paint over the violent graffiti with which Michael's gang had scarred the face of the neighborhood. He will grow up knowing that there is an alternative to drugs and crime, and its name is hope.

That's what we celebrate today. More than this community's freedom from the oppression of crime and despair, we celebrate their hope, their determination, their spirit. In a special way, when the first people decided to take back their community, they lit the first candle of hope. When more and more of their neighbors joined them, their unified spirit shone with a light that banished the darkness of despair.

Thanks to the vision, courage, and wisdom of the residents of Oakwood, we are today witnessing the wonder of a rebirth. It's more than a rebirth of community: it's a rebirth of hope, of life, and of the future. And so, today I am proud to name the Oakwood community the 148th national Point of Light for the inspiration and the example that you are setting for our entire country. Oakwood proves that no community has to accept things as they are. Americans don't have to live in fear. Crime, drugs, hunger, homelessness, and so many other social problems can be driven from every community if every community cares enough to light the candle of hope.

God bless each and every one of you for what you're doing, setting an outstanding example for our great country. And God bless the United States of America. Thank you all.

Note: The President spoke at 12:07 p.m. outside the home of Foster Webster, chairman of the Oakwood Beautification Committee. In his remarks, the President referred to William J. Bennett, Director of National Drug Control Policy.

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