Standin Up in Nickerson Gardens:
Police Brutality and People's Resistance

by Michael Slate, RW #855

In many parts of the city, Saturday, April 20 seemed like just another slow and easy weekend afternoon. On the Westside of Los Angeles almost 40,000 people passed through a huge book festival--browsing through books and attending poetry readings. Thousands more attended concerts and other cultural events at the Santa Monica Festival.

But in the Pico Union barrio--known as "el Centro-Americano" because of the many proletarians from Central America who live there--and in the Nickerson Gardens projects of Watts, it was a very different scene: there, the people were protesting against police brutality.

In the Pico Union barrio community residents, members of the 4 Winds Student Movement and others held a march against the police beating of an entire Latino family two nights earlier.

And deep down in Watts there was definitely nothing slow or easy about the day. According to reports on the local Saturday night news a "mini-riot" broke out when the police confronted a protest in the Nickerson Garden projects against police brutality. One reporter told how police were greeted by "angry protesters and flying objects" when they arrived to break up the crowd. Another report revealed that the entire LAPD was put on tactical alert that afternoon.

The TV film footage showed riot-geared cops marching down the streets in the projects. But the unmistakable sounds of a large number of people yelling at the police rang out in the background. Judging from these news reports, it seemed like it had been a very bad day for the police and a positive one for the people.

"Today I Make My Stand"

The next day I went down to Nickerson Gardens to talk with people about the protest and the battle against the police. In many ways it was a typical Sunday afternoon. Little kids wearing oversized rollerblades jammed down the sidewalks just barely dodging out of the way of older kids on BMX-style bikes. A group of Black and Latino children, girls and boys, jumped rope using a long rope made of pieces of plastic strung together. People in their Sunday best walked the sidewalks as they came home from church or went to visit friends.

But it wasn't a typical Sunday. I had spent a lot time walking around Nickerson Gardens when the Fuhrman tapes were first made public. In every corner of the projects people had a story to tell about police brutality. People were frustrated and angry, but many of them expressed that this was a problem they had to face and deal with alone. It was different this time. On Saturday the people in the Nickersons had stood up against this oppressive situation. And on Sunday people wanted to talk about it.

Person after person told me how a crowd of people began the protest at an intersection in the projects by blowing whistles and holding up signs in English and Spanish. Some of the signs said: "Alicia Soltero--Rodney King. The Same Thing. No More Police Brutality," "Stop the Mistreatment of Black and Mexican people" and "Justice." One young Black woman explained to me that every time the police drove past the intersection the people blew their whistles as loud as they could and held up all of their signs in front of the cop cars. Another person said that as more people came out of their houses it started to look like everybody in the projects was there. "Black, Mexican, and even white people--all in the streets together." Her friend told me that "everybody was there"--from her mother to her 8-year-old neighbor to the "people from the revolution place down the street"--referring to the house where members of the Watts chapter of the RCYB stay.

When the police came to break up the rally they came with at least 30 squad cars. They blocked off major streets running in and out of Nickerson. Cops in full riot gear charged the people, arresting and beating whoever they caught. A police helicopter blasted out an order for people to go inside their homes or face arrest and then chased after the people who refused to disperse. The chopper flew at rooftop levels and swerved thru the two-story project buildings as it chased the protesters. The description of this chopper chase brought to mind scenes from the Vietnam War where U.S. choppers swooped through Vietnamese peasant villages looking for rebel fighters.

Nickerson residents were anxious to tell how the people refused to back down and how the resistance to this police brutality lasted about an hour and a half with hundreds of people from the projects taking part. Some described a wild scene with the police and their helicopter chasing people down the street as 60 others from the projects ran after the police in hot pursuit.

In the end, nine people were arrested on charges ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. Initially three people who run with the RCYB were held on very high bail. As the RW goes to press one brother is still being held on $100,000 bail.

The system wanted to send a message: they wanted to intimidate people. But most people I spoke with were furious at the police and proud of how the people had stood up against the gestapo tactics of the LAPD. One Black man in his 30s told me how deeply impressed he was when he saw a Mexican youth argue with people who were telling him to leave the area by announcing that "Today I make my stand!"

The People Did Good

An older Black woman coming home with her grandchildren from a church bake sale was one of the first people I spoke with. "My grandbaby told me that the police was out there so I got up and went and looked out the door. The police had a barricade up so that people couldn't go through. The police kept coming up on the people and then they went and pulled down the visors they have on their helmets--the ones they put in front of their face when they use billy clubs and stuff. All I saw is that when people started running the police was running after them and hitting them with their sticks. They caught one of the boys from the protest over there and they beat him up and put him in the car. There was about six or eight of them on him.

"I see a lot of police brutality down here in Nickersons. Just like the other day, these Mexican guys who live right here in this house was working on their car. The police came and thought the car was stolen because the hubcaps was off and they was changing speakers in the car. So the police come from everywhere, handcuffed them all, put them up against the cars and did everything to them. The police just say the stuff was stolen.

"You just don't do people like that. But the police do it all the time. They always taking all the boys up in here and throwing them up against the walls and stuff and saying they drug dealers. And when I saw that thing in Riverside on the news, when the police was beating on that woman with the stick and all, I said to myself this kind of thing doesn't have to happen. And it is wrong for them to do them kind of things to people just because they not `legal.'

"I won't fault anyone for hitting the police back. I would hit them back too if it was me. You know, you got to defend yourself. The people in the projects were for that protest. They was all hooraying and yelling at the police. I feel the police started it all. They came with all their gear on like they was ready to start a riot. And then they wanted to shoot people. When the police was coming up and pushing people back and starting to hit them with the sticks and stuff, they had their hands on their guns like they would have shot them. If they would have shot them then there would have been a war up in here. The police really wanted to shoot somebody, cuz all the time they was running behind the people the police had their hands on their guns. I was watching them.

"I want to tell the people that was arrested that I'm sorry they was arrested but what they did was good. It was good for the area and for everybody."

Coming Alive

The Mexican family sat on kitchen chairs, upturned milk crates and the stoop in front of the apartment door. The younger kids were eating. A few teenagers were polishing the hubcaps off of one of the cars belonging to an older friend. A man in his early 20s came out of the house to talk with me about the protest. He explained that his family originally came from Mexico but they had been living in the Nickersons for 15 years. He and a couple of his brothers had already done stretches of jail time for the crime of having brown skin and "looking like somebody who did a robbery."

The brother's face came alive when he talked about the rally and the resistance against the police. He pointed to a corner down the street from his house and began his story. "I saw the rally when it first started out. They was right over there on the corner blowing the whistles and all. The police was driving by and then stopping and the people was showing their signs and all. Somebody said some eggs landed on the police cars and the police got mad and called for back-up forces.

"It looked like about 30 patrol cars came in and a helicopter too. They was chasing all the people, even people not holding signs or blowing whistles. They arrested one guy from a TV station with his camera and they arrested another guy who came out of his house with a camera. They was out here chasing everybody for about an hour and a half and they was out here telling us all to go in our house. Why we gonna go in our house, we standing on our porch. We ain't gonna do that just cuz they want us to do it.

"I was in jail but my mom saw what the police did when they beat that woman last year, the revolutionary and put her in a wheel chair." He was referring to the time the police attacked the RCYB and broke Sasha's leg--when the brigade was out in the projects talking to people about how the power structure was using the LA4 trial to discredit the L.A. rebellion.

"My mom got mad then, she didn't like it. That's how I felt when I saw what happened here yesterday. I was mad. I was ready to get in that too. It just wasn't right what the police did. I think all Blacks and Latinos should get together and we'll see if the police can handle it. They can't handle it. We got to keep on standing up for ourself. Don't let them come in and push you around. When I was out here yesterday and the Latinos and Blacks was all together, I felt alright. I'm proud of it and I hope we can be like this all the time."

Police Pay-Back and Neighborhood Pride

In the hours after the protest, the police came down on the people in the neighborhood with collective punishment. People told me stories of friends who were arrested on the afternoon of the protest for no reason other than they were in the projects and an easy target. This reminded me of how the Israeli army goes into the West Bank and punishes the family of Palestinian resisters by blowing up their house or harassing everybody in the village when some of the soldiers are hit by stones. So naturally there was controversy in the neighborhood. But most everybody who talked to the RW thought that the protest was right. And they described police going through the neighborhood--looking to pay back the residents for daring to stand up and demand that they be treated like human beings.

A couple hours after the rally, one Black woman was clear over on the other side of the projects walking home from the store with a bag of groceries when the police attacked her and arrested her for supposedly supplying eggs that were thrown at cop cars. As the police cuffed the woman and put her in the car she shouted out for everyone to hear, "Fuck Tha Police!" Charges of "felony shopping?!?" flashed through my mind.

Another young Black woman was slammed face down in the dirt in front of her apartment and then arrested because the police saw a youth they were chasing bump into this sister and they accused her of having something that the youth passed off to her.

One brother who was playing with his Rottweiler puppy told me that the police were "working the projects like a motherfucker since the rally and the battle." He said that they were doing a lot of drive-by stare-downs and the people "stared right back at their asses."

A short while later and a few blocks away, I watched as a young Black man drove his car very slowly into a parking lot, close to where the rally began the day before. He was followed into the lot by a cop car with three cops in it. The cops blocked his car in a parking space and while two of them stood watch--all the time with their hands on their guns--the third cop questioned the young man, took his car keys and checked his license and registration--all for supposedly not wearing a seat belt. The cops began to get nervous as everyone in the lot watched their every move. Word began to spread that the only reason the young man was being harassed was because of what happened the day before. And while anger at the police harassment grew, many people began to laugh at one cop--trying his hardest to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger--whereas people said that this same cop was almost in tears the day before as bottles and other flying objects rained down on him.

After a while the cops let the young man go and slowly backed out of the parking lot. A group of Black youth who had watched the whole thing were leaning against a fence at the far end of the lot. They wanted to talk about the police and the battle. "When I saw that on the news I was like `Damn, man--people is getting wild.' It was good, real good. People was not gonna bow down. The police can't come in here and try to take over. We ain't gonna let that happen."

As we spoke the youth waved to another youth coming across the field in a wheelchair. "My brother over there got shot by a cop. Him and his friend was walking to a football game. He was 17 and playing football for one of the high school teams. The police came up and said they thought that him and his friend had guns. But that brother didn't have nothing on him but a stick. When they yelled freeze his friend start to run and the cops start to shooting. They shot that brother five times. He just kept saying that he didn't have nothing on him. This was a year ago and just a little ways from here.

"When I hear about people fighting back against the cops I think it's cool. That's what we need to do. If we don't fight back they gonna just keep on us.

Stand Up for Our Rights

The three young Black women were standing on the bleachers at one end of the sports field in the projects. They were talking in conspiratorial whispers and every now and then they would crack up in laughter. They were shy about talking at first but once it was clear that I was on the side of the people, one of the women began to speak. "When the police come into the projects they go around harassing people for no reason and arresting them for no reason. People just be minding they own business and police come here and they really be causing the commotion that goes on in the projects most of the time.

"So yesterday I saw all these people standing on the corner protesting the police. And the police thought that they had the right to do anything they wanted to do. And they wanted to start beating on people and chasing people around the projects. But there was a lot of people out there yesterday.

"It was like it was damn near the whole projects out there, mostly Black but some Mexicans too. And the police kept going down the street and telling people to go in the houses. And they was telling the people who was standing near the street to go in their house so that the police can go down the street without being harassed. We didn't think that was right so we didn't go in. People didn't listen to the police.

"The police started chasing anybody that was holding a sign and then they went after anybody who was on that corner. They would chase them down, handcuff them and beat them up til they was tired or they thought they done had enough. You know that helicopter they had was almost landing on us. It came down to about five feet off the ground. It almost landed on these kids here. You could reach up and grab ahold of it. The police didn't care. They felt they had the right to do anything so they was gonna do whatever they wanted to do.

The sister had no time for anyone who tried to say that the people went too far when they stood up to the police attack. "That whole thing yesterday was right. People trying to stand up for they rights and the police trying to take them away. This is not the '30s and the '40s when people didn't have rights. This is the '90s and we got rights and we gonna stand up for them. The police is trying to take these rights away from us and this is not gonna happen. A lot of people in the projects feel like this. And all them people that was out here yesterday, they was against the police."

As the sister spoke her friends chimed in with their own comments--sometimes funny and sometimes angry. At a certain point though the other two young women grew quiet as the sister talked about how she hoped other people outside the projects would understand what was going on and support the people in Nickerson Gardens.

"They always talking all bad about the projects. They telling people if they come down here they will get shot and all that. But it's not like that. They always trying to downgrade the projects but we ain't going for that. I think it is important for everybody to know how other people are getting treated in different parts of the world including down here in the projects. It's not right how people here get treated and everybody should be against that cuz it's just not right. I want to see all these people in West L.A., Beverly Hills and everywhere get involved in the fight against the police. There shouldn't be no police the way they treat people. It don't make no sense what they doing."

A New Sense of Unity

You can see the changing face of Watts on every street in the neighborhood. Just about every storefront shop or church is some combination of Latino and Black culture. Just outside the Nickersons there's a market called the Louisiana Country Market--many of the Black people in L.A. have their roots in Louisiana and Texas. This store advertises that it sells Louisiana Hot Links, Barbecue and Greens as well as Carneceria, Pollos Vivos and Pescado.

Inside the Nickersons at least one-third of the residents are Latino. While the system tries hard to pit the Black and Latino people against one another, their daily life experience nudges them in another direction. Last year, on the anniversary of the 1992 L.A. Rebellion, Black and Latino residents of the projects organized a Unity Picnic.

The Riverside beatings seemed to trigger a new level in this search for unity. We saw this at the April 6 rally when thousands of Latinos gathered to protest the Riverside beatings. A group of Black people from Watts--who were organizing a gang truce march--leafletted the demonstration and created a positive sensation. One of the Black brothers told the RW, "We're happy to be here. We're not doing this for the Latino community. We're doing this because we recognize that we have a common interest...We're here to encourage the unification of the urban communities, period, because we recognize that we have a common enemy--a common enemy that is destroying and dividing all of us....When we define the enemy, we're talking about those that are controlling our community and sucking our community dry, which leads us to value things like a little $10 rock, or to stick up the next man for five dollars because we're trying to survive. I think it's a travesty for us to live in a country where we can walk by a two-year-old kid who's homeless and sleeping on a cardboard box. So we need to become more involved in the real issues, instead of placing emphasis on this propaganda that's being placed before us to make us chase this fantasy dream. We're living the American nightmare."

Saturday's rally against police brutality--where the people made the connection between the brutality in Nickerson with the Riverside County immigrant beatings--struck a deep chord with immigrant proletarians from Mexico in the projects.

On Sunday afternoon a 25-year-old Latina sat with her mother on the stoop of her apartment in the Nickersons. Her mother began the discussion about the rally and the battle. "We had seen this kind of thing before. Right here they beat up three people and one of them was a woman they put in a wheelchair. We saw how they were hitting her and wounding her. Yesterday we thought it was going to be the same thing. Yesterday we were asking ourselves why are the police doing this to us, how can they just beat us? We thought it was wrong for the police to start hitting people."

The daughter interrupted her mother here. She wanted to talk about other matters. "I think the police were a little scared. But they took eight people away. I saw them take one Black man and beat him up very bad right over here. The man was holding a sign or banner and confronted the police and then they beat him and arrested him. But the people didn't want to be taken and so there was a struggle when the police started to take people.

"I think it is important for Blacks and Latinos to be together against the police--not because they are Black but because we are the same. They treat us the same, they treat us like dogs. They shouldn't treat us this way. We have hearts. They have no right to do this."

In the last 24 hours the young woman had done a lot of thinking. She talked about how she didn't really know much about Black people but she admired them for being willing to quickly jump out and fight against the police. She also spoke about her own fears and hesitations--as though she was looking for the courage to become a resister herself. "Some Black people were born here, but sometimes we don't have any papers or anybody to back us up. Yesterday so many people came out when the police attacked. The police kept telling people to go home but the people just kept supporting the people who were being beaten. It really choked me up--it is important to know that there is somebody there to support you. Even if sometimes Black people think that we come here to take their jobs--we're not here to take anybody's jobs. We come here to prosper and to see what's out here. If something else happens then we have to come and support it. And if people are struggling together with immigrants we have to support it."


It was turning into twilight as I left the two Latinas. I was walking down the street, taking in the sights and thinking about some of the changes that I could see as I walked the projects talking with people. The level of defiance among the people was high, but there was more. People were proud of their actions and knew that they had done something very significant. I recalled the words of one sister who took part in the rally and the streetfight against the police: "We made history!" And many people are anxious to get on with it.

As I neared the end of the projects a man across the street yelled out to me. He was helping his friend water-sand a car to prepare it for some major spot painting. The brother had seen me in the neighborhood and he had seen the paper around. He explained that he only saw the rally after the police arrived, but he wanted to let me know that he supported Saturday's action. "I think it's alright to have somebody stand up for their rights like that cuz the police do a lot of things and just get away with it. Nothing gets done about it. I think it's all right to have Latinos and Blacks and all the different groups of people standing up for their rights. I don't want to see people getting treated like dogs. I've thought that something must be done about all this police brutality. And to the sisters and brothers out there on Saturday and all the ones that got arrested I say 'Job Well Done! Keep on Fighting!' "