Watts Speakout Against Police Brutality

By Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #928, October 19, 1997

In Watts, hanging off the tip of South L.A., the stories of people's lives growl through the veins of the neighborhood. They pop up as signs on cyclone fences guarding vacant lots baked in the sun so long the dirt looks like brick--"Bus Rides to Jail/Visit Your Loved Ones/$45", "Junk Cars Wanted", "Hair Braids/Call Janice" and "Plumber/Plomero, Good Work, Low Prices." Other stories are told in the smoky voices of men selling barbecue on the sidewalk to make ends meet or in the rumble of an out-of-work welder pushing a mountain of cans loaded down on a shopping cart with three working wheels. Happy stories, sad stories, stories of the people's lives--loud laughs on the stoop of a home in the projects, a sob of grief from a pew in a storefront church...and sometimes an angry roar at all the suffering and the hands that bring it down.

On Saturday, September 27, the storytellers in Watts spoke of grief and anger as 85 people gathered at the Watts Labor Community Action Center (WLCAC) for a community Speak Out against police brutality. Sponsored by the Watts Committee Against Police Brutality, the Speak Out was also endorsed by: Sister Somayah "Peaches Moore" Kambui, Sons of Africa Barbershop in Watts, comedian and community activist Charlie Blu, Bone (Athens Park Bloods), Daude Sherrills from B.O.S.S., Michael Torrence (former member of the Black Panther Party and an activist with the Positive Alternative Program), the National Lawyers Guild and community activist Molly Bell.

People came together from the projects and other parts of Watts, from Compton, from the rest of South Central and from East L.A., as well as places like Santa Monica and other parts of West L.A. They came to speak the truth, to bear witness and to take these stories back to their neighborhoods.


Early on in the Speak Out, a short video of DeAndre "Fang" Harrison's funeral was shown. DeAndre was killed by the police in Nickerson Gardens on the opening night of the L.A. Rebellion in 1992. People from the projects pitched in to help pay for his funeral. Someone shot a video of the funeral and gave it to Lela Lewis, DeAndre's grandmother. The final scene of the video brought tears to every eye in the house. As DeAndre's grandfather knelt down at the side of the coffin, he reached out to touch DeAndre's face one last time--and a tortured wail from way down deep in the core of his humanity pushed its way out of his throat.

After the video Lela Lewis stepped up to offer a brief testimony. "I'm a little choked cuz DeAndre would have been 23 years old Saturday. He was killed during the Rodney King struggle, near my house at 112th & Central Avenue. The police must have been hidden over there on the church somewhere. There was rioting over there on Vermont but the police was over here shooting. They shot DeAndre. DeAndre wasn't the only person they shot, but DeAndre had a chance to go to the hospital and so he died at Martin Luther King. Another guy died in the yard. They shot him in the back in the yard and he stayed there in the night til the next day. No police carried him back. Nothing was done about it.

"Every year I'm struggling for justice. DeAndre didn't have to die. He was my grandson and I still love him and I still miss him. The struggle must go on. DeAndre died fighting. If we don't fight, then we have nobody to fight for us. Every day in your life the police is out there messing with somebody, knocking somebody in the head, taking them to jail. They took all the young men out of my neighborhood. There's nobody left. You got vans of police that come up and the next thing you know everybody got their hands up. Then they taking people off to jail. Most of our Black brothers are in jail.... If we don't stand up and fight this, we doomed."


In slavery days the slavemaster kidnaped tens of millions of Africans from their homelands and then shackled and stacked them in slave ships. Today youth are kidnaped from the streets of barrios and ghettos and stacked up in tiers of iron cages inside the penitentiaries. "Guilty Until Proven Innocent" is a powerful art exhibit at the WLCAC that focuses on Geronimo Ji Jaga, Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier. Statistics pepper the exhibit and bring to life how an entire generation has been criminalized. For example, between 1980 and 1990 the U.S. prison population jumped by 500,000 people to 1.6 million.

James Simmons, one of the attorneys for the Nickersons 7, spoke to how the police and the courts conspire to criminalize young people because of the color of their skin. A sister who works with youth investigation teams set up by Refuse & Resist! and the Stolen Lives Project shared taped testimony they had gathered at the city hospital, schools and churches. One of the Nickersons 7 defendants let people know about the information that had been pulled together about the backgrounds of all the cops who were involved in the N7 case--a roster of murder and brutalization.

Ms. Watkins, the president of the WLCAC, said that she didn't come prepared to testify--but after hearing what was going on she felt compelled to offer her own experiences and thoughts: "If you're Black or brown and live in Watts-Willowbrook, you are policed right now by more than 12 police agencies, 24-7. We wonder why minorities, as they call us, fill the jails. When you have 12 law enforcement agencies on you 24-7 you cannot avoid being put in jail.

"I'm stopped in my driveway six months ago, getting out of my car at 10:30 at night. I had a bright light shined in my eyes and I didn't know who it was. `B*tch, put your hands over your head, face down on the car!' It was the sheriffs. They took me out into the middle of the street, to their car, face down on the car. And they body-searched me, two male police with a gun at my head. While my children watched they put their hands in my bra, they put their hands in between my legs. People asked me did I challenge it--you don't challenge the end of a gun. And that's all you see, you don't see the badge numbers, you don't see the license plate numbers. You don't know what their name is. All that you know is that you been violated. And we are violated 24-7."


Carlos de la Cruz has been fighting police brutality and murder all over the L.A. area. Carlos told the Speak Out how he became active after his nephew, Richard Beatty, was murdered by cops in 1995: "At that time there was a lot of shooting going on. I went to other victims' houses and told them why don't we unite and really get together and protest all this killing that's going on. Now there are about 26 families involved. The interesting part about this is that as I talk to the families, it's similar stories of how the police cover up and falsify evidence."

Carlos also pointed to the role of the mass media in covering up police brutality: "The media works with the government and the police. When they killed my nephew this was the front-page article--"Suspect Killed in Shootout." There were a lot of witnesses at the place my nephew had been killed. There were a lot of people who had seen how the cops had killed my nephew--shot him three times in the front and shot him two more times, and how the cop was laughing while he was doing it, like it was entertainment. When I talked to the witnesses they told me that the cop had killed my nephew in cold blood. I even asked if my nephew had a gun, and they all said no. But this is how the media lies--"Suspect Killed in Shootout".... It's not just this newspaper, but all the media does the cover up, from top to bottom."


A representative of the Watts Committee Against Police Brutality explained that some people couldn't make the Speak Out and others didn't come because they were very concerned about police retaliation. These people sent in written testimony instead. Statements came from people all over Watts, including an 80-year-old man whose house in Nickerson Gardens was raided in pre-dawn hours and the mother of a young man in the Jordan Downs projects who has been in jail since April 1996 on trumped-up charges of murder.

In a powerful written statement, Josie Gay recalled how the cops called her "b*tch" and all kinds of racist names, savagely beat her and arrested her--for the "crime" of going to the police station when her son was arrested. She was told by a police lieutenant that this "unfortunate" incident wouldn't have happened if she had just quietly let the cops take her son to jail.

Of the many testimonies delivered in person, some were from veteran activists. Sister Somayah (Peaches Moore) Kambui is an original member of the Black Panther Party and currently active around the issues of sickle cell anemia and Project Hemp. Somayah was inside the BPP office on Central Avenue when the police launched an eight-hour-long armed assault against the Panthers in the early 1970's. She spoke about both her own and her children's experiences with the police. And she added the name of Yusef Bilal, a Muslim murdered by the police during a traffic stop, to the Stolen Lives Project. Akinsanya Kambron, also a former Panther, said he was stopped 87 times in two years and was beaten eight times, including three times when he was beaten unconscious. Like many others, Akinsanya called for resistance against police terror. A representative of the Black Riders Liberation Party, a new party based on the teachings of George Jackson, spoke on his experiences with the police and the need to resist.

Lucas Martinez, a spokesperson for Libros Revolución, testified about how the police target and kill revolutionary activists. Lucas was in the Pico Aliso projects with Revolutionary Communist Party member Damián García on April 22, 1980--the day Damián was assassinated under the direction of the LAPD. "We were in the Pico Aliso projects taking out our literature to the people there. A lot of people there knew we were out there organizing for May 1. Then a bunch of people we didn't know appeared. They said to us, `You hate the government, I am the government. Your flag is red, mine is the red, white and blue.' That's when the fight started. Next Damián was on the ground bleeding. He was stabbed three times. As these unknown people were leaving they were heard to say `Don't worry, the police aren't going to come.' All during that day we had been harassed by the Housing Authority cops. Right before we were attacked they disappeared. Five minutes after Damián García was stabbed some 50 cops arrived. They came with shotguns and got on top of the roofs. They clubbed people who came out of their homes to see what was going on. We learned later that there was one undercover who was at Damián's side. Damián is dead, but his death shows the cowardliness of the police force and the system."

Others who stood up to testify weren't activists. Their loved ones had been murdered by the police or beaten senseless and jailed on lies and trumped-up charges. One young man testified how his brother was stopped for a traffic violation while riding his bike, beaten bloody and then pepper-sprayed as he lay under the knees and clubs of a gang of police. A pregnant woman and her friend said they were also pepper sprayed for questioning the police. A 50-year-old Black woman stepped up to tell the people how the police beat her mercilessly 25 years ago in the Jordan Downs projects while her children stood behind a locked door and listened to her screams and moans of pain.

A young Black woman who sat quietly by herself through the Speak Out stepped up to tell her story. She was a little shy and the pain of her story was still very raw. The sister walked to the microphone, looked out at the crowd and said, "My brother was murdered by the police just last April." Then she broke down in loud sobs of grief and pain. People from the audience rushed to embrace and comfort her. She signed her brother's name into the Stolen Lives Project--Dwight Stiggons, 18 years old.

Later, the sister told me what happened to her brother. Dwight was stopped by a West Covina cop for jaywalking. "The cop shot him in the back. Then the cop searched my brother and found a bible in his pocket and some loose Oreo cookies. The people in the area saw it all. This happened at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The police contacted us 30 hours later. When they did, they said that they hadn't found out that he did a burglary or anything YET and were still looking into it. That's what they told me when I said, `Why did you kill him?' They tried to say that he looked like he was reaching for his gun and that he had his hands in his pockets, and his waistband was bumpy because his pants were sagging. And that's why they shot him. They told the newspapers that my brother looked like a transient and that's why they went after him. We just got the autopsy report a month ago. He was shot once in the back and it came through his navel."

Molly Bell, who cohosted the Speak Out with Odell Ferris, closed things out by urging people to march on October 22. "On October 22 it's going to be a wave. That's how it's going to be, all across the United States. We gonna rock the world October 22. Start telling your friends. October 22, the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality. We gonna turn it out. We are going to turn it out! So whenever you get the chance--like they always say when you turn up your music--Pump it up! Pump it up on that day!"

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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