Walla Walla suffered its first homicide of the year with a gang-related drive-by shooting on Tuesday night. Also, it was the first gunshot death in the city as far back as anyone can remember, which makes it ipso facto the first for us residents. When 20-year-old Julio Cessar Martinez was rolled into the emergency department at St. Mary’s Hospital, I can only imagine how the trauma team responded. They’re much more likely to come across a farm machinery accident, drug overdose, car crash victim, or domestic violence survivor than this. Presumably, this is a foreign moment to Walla Wallans, who are bent on creating a wine economy to draw in the nouveau rich from the West Side. As the economy sluggishly picks up speed, still in the shadow of the 2008 credit collapse, downtown is springing up all kinds of new shops and eateries to cater not to local folks so much as the weekenders who need a break from their hectic lives at Amazon, Yahoo, and Microsoft.
This violence is unheard of. Or is it?
Gangs have operated in Walla Walla for some time now. Two gangs are prevalent here, the 18th Street Crew and the Florencia 13s. What is a gang without a rival gang, after all?
As the dust settled for the community, some details have eked out, many notably not via the local newspaper, the Union-Bulletin. This shooting was revenge. Revenge, however, is a response. It necessarily involves an earlier action.
Well, just last March five people were injured at a birthday party, a violent mix of shooting and stabbing victims that the police on the scene called “a war zone.” The shooting victim, in critical condition, was airlifted to Portland, Oregon, more than 225 miles away. Walla Walla was not equipped to handle him. This makes Walla Walla feel much more like the side of a deserted snowcapped mountain than a city vying for “best small town in America” status. And while I see many more patrol cars on these streets than I can remember seeing even a year ago, I’m not sure this sets us up for success.
Walla Walla’s other main conduit of criminal activity, apart from the gangs, are meth addicts. By and large, we pretend they also don’t exist. These are systemic issues in town, but they are relegated, time and again, to bad individuals simply making poor choices. And so there is little, if any, public discussion about encouraging drug rehabilitation services, programs to provide alternatives to entering gangs, and getting honest about our community and its tensions. It doesn’t serve anyone to turn people away when they want to recover from addiction. And it doesn’t aid Latino youth—who are watching their parents struggle as their livelihoods are limited from a bad economy and terrible growing season—who need better visions for their future and a material means to get there.
Walla Walla High School (WaHi to the townies here) boasts an 89 percent graduation rate, but this fails to take into account that the troubled students get moved over to Lincoln Alternative High School, where the drop out rate is 13 percent and the on-time graduation rate is 44 percent. Students struggling to get through high school may need more than we’re giving them. How is it that young men and women think the best option for them is to join a gang? At what age are we okay with a child selling herself or himself short?
There are plenty of friendly, positive-minded people here in Walla Walla, and if anything, it’s a place that knows how to do a lot with a little. Even our congressional representative only comes into town a couple of times a year. As places go, Wallyworld is on the margins, in the boondocks, nestled in a part of the state that had its glory more than 100 years ago. We are no longer the state capitol, even as there remain many beautiful homes from 1901, meticulously cared for by their owners. That legacy of attention needs to continue to all of the community, not just the landowners or people who can procure a hill of cabernet vines.
By all accounts, tensions between the rival gangs are at an all-time high after Martinez’s death. Walla Walla, so protective of its image, is not ready for more bullets and bodies.