Sunday, March 29, 2009

Above: Saturday barbecue attracts scores, Devon Hamilton cuts a customer's hair, LaWanda Hawkins, founder of Justice for Murdered children and Devon's father-in-law, Michael Martinez, take out time for a hug at the rally....

Two Separate Shootings at a San Pedro Barber Shop and Small Church Has the Long Time Shop Owner Contemplating Closing Down; the Trouble is His Customers Refuse to Let Him Leave Soulful Shears, a Community Watering Hole Where Hispanic and African American Customers Get Haircuts Side By Side

By Diana L. Chapman

Photos By: Jens Peerman, publisher of Coast Gopher, an online Harbor Area Newspaper: Http://

With just another quick buzz of a shaver , Devon Hamilton swirled the chair and whipped up another customer 's cut in what seemed less than five minutes. At the same time, loyal customers streamed in begging him to stay open.

Clip, clip, …zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz .

Amongst the buzzing noise of shavers and client's chatter, Soulful Shears, which sits smack in the heart of a small shopping front on Bandini, near 1st streets, is abuzz with worry. For 13 years, the shop symbolized a safe haven where clients swapped tales, large and small, and discussed, yes, women, when the opposite sex wasn't around.

That safe feeling evaporated with two non-fatal shootings last month. At 36, Devon , an African –American, considered shutting his shop and saying: “I’m out of here.” He believes the shootings were racially motivated and fears not only for himself, but his three young daughters and the scores of his customer’s children, who frequently drop by to visit to talk and get haircuts.

Local residents, however, with the help of organizations, launched a barbecue/rally this past Saturday to show the community has this attitude: “Don’t let them chase you away.” All day long, a stream of Hispanics and African Americans came in droves to support the barber, buying ribs, hot dogs and chicken – and often donating more money than was asked for.

Spirits were running high and jokes were exchanged at the barbecue, held at the Top Value parking lot across the street. The constant flow of people coming all day made the volunteers happy. While it was suppose to end at 4 p.m., the food ran low by 2 p.m., explained LaWanda Hawkins, who founded justice for Murdered Children.

“God is just awesome,” LaWanda said while cleaning up after the barbecue. “We made over $600 and we thought we were going only to make $200. It was just word of mouth and people kept coming."

The money will go to repairs from the shootings and to purchase vests for volunteers to start escorting children to school safely.

The barber and his parents-in-law said –despite the rally – they still fear for the children who come to the shop. On Saturday, only one officer showed up; Lomita Sheriff's Deputy John Huerta, who was born and raised in San Pedro, attended the rally to make sure everyone was safe, said Mary Lou Martinez, Devon’s-mother-in-law. He got out of his car, wandered around and spoke to the children, she said.

“This place (the barber shop) is like a community center and people come here to socialize,” said Mary Lou, who showed she was clearly agitated with the lack of response from the Los Angeles Police Department. “This is an area that should be patrolled. LAPD needs to get involved. It's their jurisdiction. I’ll give the deputy thanks for coming by to support us.”

Without a doubt, Mary Lou believes the shootings are racially motivated – and while some say it’s gang related, she argues this: “If it’s gang-related, it’s race related.”

As for Devon, he said, when the Los Angeles police discussed the shootings with him, they indicated that he needed to stop giving gang members haircuts. Devon’s question was how would he do that? All walks-of-life end up in his shop, from blue collar workers to doctors. Longshoreman, students, teachers and all police officers come for quick buzzes.

And while he knows some customers are gang members, it’s likely he’d cause more trouble by denying them service. More importantly, his large, multi-racial family -- which does include in-some gang members -- don't even know they are hitting a relative's shop, his mother-in-law revealed.

One innocent party – or believed to not be the target – is the small church right next to the barber shop, the Iglesia Manantial de Vida. Pastor Arturo Vargas believes that the church door was accidentally shot and that Soulful Shears was the true target.

The barber shop has been extremely respectful of his church and “we help each other,” explained the pastor, while inside the dimly lit chapel where his young daughter rapped on drums.

“They are responsible, good neighbors,” the pastor said, whose flock participated in the barbecue. “I believe they were after maybe one of his (Devon’s) customers. I see a lot of Hispanics that go there to get their hair done. Thank God we don’t have services on Tuesday (when the second shooting occurred). We feel we are under God’s protection, but my concern is for the women and children.”

The church paid $250 to replace the glass door’s entrance to the chapel.

Due to the weekend, Los Angeles police could not be reached for comment about the incidents.
In the meantime, others are trying to redirect the shootings from being considered racial – and call them solely gang activities.

Gloria Lockhart, executive director of Toberman, a well-known social agency that helps the poor and works to dilute gang activity, said: “We think it's gang related. That’s how we feel. It’s various sets of gangs. We launched this (rally) to symbolize unity in the community."

Tyris Hatchett, who works Toberman’s gang unit, explained that currently this issue should not be labeled until more information is gathered.

“You have to evaluate the situation,” said Tyris, as he barbecued along with several other volunteers. “It’s a lot of knuckle heads doing things just to be doing it. Since it’s getting to be summertime, we are trying to bring folks together so there won’t be any retaliation."

Warren Chapel church member, Daniel Johnson, who volunteered and was passing out plates of food, offered this up: whatever prompted the shootings doesn’t matter as much as this: “We want no more shootings, no more fighting or any more of that.”

Inside of the barber shop seemed like any typical Saturday. It was mobbed with customers. Parents dragged their kids along with them – and bustled in and out. While mostly men come for haircuts, women also have their hair done there. Stories are told so often that Devon said: “It’s kind of like Vegas, what’s said in here stays in here.”

The first shooting in February was 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Devon said he was cutting the hair of a 60-year-old man, a regular customer, when suddenly three shots rang out. Bullets went flying through the door where the man was sitting, grazed his hand, and the other two bullets struck a back wall and a back door. “We just ducked for cover,” the barber said, adding they couldn’t find the third bullet.

That episode was terrifying enough, especially since Bandini Street Elementary School sits just a block away and nearly the entire neighborhood knows how many kids revolve in and out the barber’s doors.

The second shooting, also in February, happened on a Thursday night, Devon said. There were about ten customers in his shop, with at least four youngsters, when bullets riddled through a window of one of his customer’s cars -- parked out front – and then shattered the door of the church right next door. But Devon believes – as does the pastor – that the bullets were meant for his shop.

The woman, who was sitting in her car and works at San Pedro High, the barber said, was not injured. Her grandchildren were inside Soulful Shears.

“This just doesn’t make sense,” said Devon, shaking his head. “All I can think about is it’s racial. We’ve had a town hall meeting at a church and some people were saying it was gangs. To me, those two almost go hand in hand.”

It’s clear Devon has rules to come to his shop. Prominently posted are these conditions: no smoking, no drinking alcohol, no drugs of any kind “in or around the shop,” no fighting, no cursing – and – to watch the conversation when children are present.

For the moment despite the shootings, Devon will continue to use his shears.

The community support has convinced him to stay at least for now. Toberman, the Boys and Girls Club, Justice for Murdered Children and the Warren Chapel put together the rally in response to the community’s desire to convince the barber to not close.

“He’s going to stay,” said his adamant father-in-law, Michael Martinez, who lives up the street from the shop and who was born and raised in San Pedro.

Devon’s not exactly sure, but wants to remain. “I talked to some older gang members and they think it’s younger knuckle heads. The second shooting left me really discouraged and I’m worried about the safety of my customers.”