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Salinas football players lead march to fight city's gang image

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When my local youth baseball and softball players march through the streets of Oak Lawn, Ill., it’s to announce, “We’re ready to play!” When the local high school football teams march through the streets of Salinas, Calif., it’s to announce, “We’re not gang members!”

From the (Salinas) Californian:

“One City — Our City” read the sign carried by football players leading a first-ever peace march. Their goal? Show the community that its adolescents are doing great things.

Salinas police officers controlled traffic as they escorted an enthusiastic rally of about 500 people. The 12-mile walk [which went by all the city's high schools] began at 8 a.m. [May 24] from Alisal High School.

“Salinas is not full of kids who want to commit crime or be in gangs,” said Arturo Rodriguez, an Alisal High School football player who said he chose, on a day he could have slept in, to wake up early to take part in the effort.

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And why did the football players feel compelled to have this rally? Because Salinas has gotten a reputation as gang-banger central thanks to a major spike in violent crime over the last four years. Salinas’ per-capita murder rate in two years, from 2006 to 2008, went from 4.74 per 100,000 to 17.42 per 100,000, or seven murders to 25. The rate only went up, to 29 murders, in 2009. Salinas has more murders than just about any large California city, save, say, Oakland.

The city of about 150,000 is in the midst of “Operation Knockout,” a federal, state and local effort of mass arrests (at least 100 so far) that hope to, at least for a little while, calm down the drug- and gang-fueled violence. (Authorities say the violence has its roots in gangs fighting to control Salinas, a port, if you will, into the San Francisco Bay area drug market.)

Salinas’ image has taken such a hit from all the violence, the PONY league from nearby Monterey refused to play games there, for fear of its players’ safety. A little harsh and rash, perhaps, but it gives you an idea of what Salinas is dealing with.

Hopefully the next time the football players lead a parade, it’s not to say, “We’re not gang members!” Just, “We’re ready to play!”

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