The Story of the Nickersons 7
Revolutionary Worker #935, December 7, 1997
Los Angeles, October 21. The day before the second National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, all charges were dropped against six of The Nickersons 7.
The seven were arrested April 20, 1996 during a major police assault on a demonstration against police brutality in the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts. The system tried to railroad these resisters into years in jail for daring to stand up against police brutality. But on October 21, the prosecution came to court and asked that all charges be dismissed against the six protesters who were charged with misdemeanors. The surprise motion for dismissal came before the court could hear a major defense motion to dismiss for discriminatory prosecution. This motion threatened to expose the secret police operations and spying behind the April 20 police assault. Since the prosecution asked for the dismissal, charges cannot be re-filed. One more defendant still faces three felony charges. But the dismissal is a big step toward freeing all The Nickersons 7.
After the police attack in Nickerson Gardens, the system continued its assault inside and outside the courtroom. They tried to keep the seven in jail on high bail, they piled on charges, they harassed, arrested and beat defendants outside the courtroom. When charges were dismissed against the one felony defendant this past June 26, the prosecution re-filed the same charges. Throughout 18 months of court hearings, prosecutors and police have tried to cover up the political nature of this prosecution and portray The Nickersons 7 as "criminals." While pretending to cooperate and turn over information to the defense, they have lied, hidden and destroyed crucial evidence. But by the time they came to court on October 21, it was the prosecution that was on the defensive and asking the judge to throw out all charges.
This victory was fought for, and won, by the people. On April 20, 1996 the people of Watts stood strong against police brutality. They are still proud of that. The battle to free The Nickersons 7 has continued in this spirit. The Nickersons 7 Defense Committee and others spread the word all across the U.S. Car caravans, car washes and rallies were held inside The Nickersons. In August 1997, the Art Speaks! concert in Leimert Park brought 500 people together to raise money for The Nickersons 7 and the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. Lawyers, defendants and committee people spoke in high schools, law schools, colleges, and churches in Watts and other communities. This case has been taken up by many in the growing national movement against police brutality. Through these efforts, the truth of the police attack and the attempted political railroad was laid bare.
Alicia Soltero, Rodney King, Same Thing
What happened on April 20, 1996?
Two cops were driving through Nickerson Gardens, like troops in an occupying army. On that day they saw people gathered with signs saying "Alicia Soltero--Rodney King--the Same Thing" and "It's right to fight police brutality." (Alicia Soltero was a Mexican immigrant whose televised beating by Riverside sheriffs sparked widespread protest.) The two cops at The Nickersons called for a supervisor. When an LAPD sergeant showed up, he called for even more cops. As more police arrived they began to attack the demonstrators. People were arrested and brutalized. After three arrests an "order to disperse" was read. As the police rampaged through the projects, rocks and bottles flew in their direction. Over 125 cops attacked the people of Nickerson Gardens that day. Three police helicopters hunted people through the projects. Cops called their work "demonstration suppression," "arresting multiple ringleaders." The LAPD was joined by Housing Authority Police and L.A. County Sheriffs. Police outside the area begged dispatchers to join in the repression. Several protesters were beaten. The LAPD called a tactical alert for the entire city of L.A.
Late that night, cops gathered at Southeast Division to write reports. When they finished their work at 3:00 a.m. the next morning, they had created a completely different version of reality, a pig tale, that they hoped to use to railroad The Nickersons 7.
The police story claims that a Sergeant Vanson accidentally drove into the demonstration, was surrounded by a group of 30 masked men who threw rocks and bottles at his car, hit him in the face with a rock, and tried to pull him out of his vehicle so that he barely escaped with his life. The police say he put out a call for assistance and 125 cops responded. They claim the protesters continued to throw rocks and bottles, forcing the LAPD to declare the protest an "unlawful assembly." According to the police version, only then did they arrest the protesters who had thrown the rocks and bottles and those that didn't disperse. They also claim that one of the protesters who was brutally attacked and beaten by the police had injuries to his face because "he rubbed his own face into the ground."
Behind the Official Story
The battle inside the courtroom was a battle for the truth behind this "official story." The defense team fought to obtain copies of all communications among the cops, including radio transmissions and computer messages. They demanded the names of all cops on the scene, and all potential witnesses. They demanded all police documents, including records and files of the political police. As the evidence began to come out, the defense team relentlessly followed a paper trail that led to even more revelations.
The defense found through tapes of radio communications that Sergeant Vanson was not the first officer on the scene. The tapes showed that cops in another car reported seeing the demonstration and asked Sgt. Vanson to meet them before he even drove into the protest. For over a year, the prosecution denied any knowledge of this first car. When they were finally forced to, they turned over the name of the first cop on the scene: Christopher Hadjuk. It soon became clear why his identify had been kept from the defense. Hadjuk was suspended for 15 days in 1991 for his involvement in the beating of Rodney King. He testified for LAPD officers Stacy Koon and Lawrence Powell at their first trial in Simi Valley. Hadjuk is the first cop who saw signs saying "Alicia Soltero--Rodney King--the Same Thing."
Sergeant Vanson's medical records and LAPD records of property damage also contradicted the police story. There was no record of repairs made to the car, and Sgt. Vanson did not mention being hit in the face with a rock to the doctor who examined him later that day. Though he claimed he was surrounded and barely escaped with his life, his "call for help" was not the most urgent "officer needs help" call. It only required officers to come when they could, obeying all traffic laws with no sirens or lights. Sgt. Vanson's own report for his activities that day barely mentioned the demonstration and said nothing about being attacked. But someone someplace made a decision. Within 30 minutes of Sergeant Vanson's radio call, an army of 125 cops was in Nickerson Gardens.
The criminal charges against The Nickersons 7 changed numerous times. Charges added and dropped and then added again. One protester who was originally charged with failure to disperse had new charges added every time he appeared in court. At one point, he was facing seven counts. A year after the demonstration, two other defendants who are long-time residents of The Nickersons were charged with assault with a deadly weapon (a bottle) on an "unidentified" police officer. The defense team argued that since it was impossible to assault an unknown cop, this was further evidence that these charges were political. Three months later, the prosecution picked a cop as the alleged "victim" of both defendants, although police reports claim she was hit with only one rock. These same police reports stated that the officer was hit by a rock but no officer saw who threw it. So the police and prosecution were accusing two people of throwing the same rock, which they had originally said was a bottle, while their own records said nobody saw who threw it. These phony assault charges were later dropped for "lack of evidence."
The LAPD attempted to hide the identity of two other people arrested at the demonstration who were potential witnesses for the defense. A Black woman was arrested for allegedly "interfering" during the arrest of another protester. Despite the fact that the cops admit she was taken into custody, the LAPD claims to have no record of her whatsoever. According to the LAPD's own rules and procedures, there should be several different records of her arrest. The police say they have no Field Identification card (FI) for her, which is LAPD policy for anyone arrested. Her name does not appear in the Detention Tank Log. In fact, someone may have tampered with the Detention Tank Log for those arrested at the time of the protest. One of The Nickersons 7 defendants is listed as being detained at two different times, for two different offenses. The defense has never been able to determine whether this document was tampered with to hide the identity of the unidentified Black woman. All of this shows that the LAPD may have deliberately destroyed evidence.
A news cameraman for local Channel 5 was arrested while filming the protest. It also took almost a year to obtain his name and address. The cops also claim he was "interfering" with the arrest of a protester. However, the small clip of film aired on the evening news shows that this cameraman was more than 25 feet from the protester. It also shows a cop coming up to the camera, putting his hand over the lens and telling him to turn it off. After he was arrested, the LAPD took the tape and watched it before giving it back.
"More Than Meets the Eye"
As the defense team forced more and more evidence into the open, the prosecution tried to get its case together. In August prosecutors from the City Attorney's office did a series of interviews with all their potential police witnesses. The interviews showed even more evidence of LAPD lies and tampering with evidence. An LAPD sergeant was asked about the unidentified Black woman and the missing Channel 5 film and responded, "Is there a cover-up?... I've been with the LAPD 17 years and there's a lot that goes on that's more than meets the eye."
There were other important revelations in an interview conducted during the same period with Sgt. Landrum. The police claim that after a legal "order to disperse" was read by Sgt. Landrum, enough time was given for protesters to disperse. The police then arrested people for "failure to disperse." This was repeated in every police report of the arrests. But Sgt. Landrum said that when he arrived at the demonstration, three protesters, all of whom were later charged with "failure to disperse," had already been arrested. The timing of the "order to disperse" was crucial to the prosecution's case. In the light of Sgt. Landrum's admission, there was no legal justification for the first three arrests, all for "failure to disperse." One of the first protesters arrested was holding a sign and was swarmed by numerous cops and brutally beaten with billy clubs, kicked and punched and then arrested for "failure to disperse" and "resisting arrest." Another protester was charged with "battery on a police officer" when she allegedly came to the assistance of this protester and ran into a cop in the process. The Deputy City Attorney admitted it would be difficult to explain to a jury the charge of battery on a police officer without bringing in the illegal arrest and beating of the first protester.
During the October 21 court hearing where the prosecutor asked that all charges be dismissed, she laid out some of these contradictions as to why there was "not a reasonable likelihood to obtain a conviction." A key part of this was Sgt. Landrum's statements. But there were many more contradictions:
One protester's charges included failure to disperse, assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer and wearing a mask while in the commission of a crime. However, the cop who was supposedly his "victim" contradicted the lies of other cops. He stated that he didn't see this protester run, but other cops stated they saw him run. This same cop stated that this protester threw his mask (a bandanna) on the ground, but the bandanna was in the defendant's possession when he was taken into custody. The prosecutor admitted that she would now have to tell a jury to believe some parts of the testimony of various cops, and not to believe other parts because they conflicted with other cops' stories.
The protester who at one time was charged with seven counts was ultimately charged only with failure to disperse and wearing a mask. But video footage from the TV show "LAPD: Life on the Beat" showed that he was arrested some distance from the demonstration when a police car came up on him, nearly running him over. He then ran, was tackled and arrested. The prosecution admitted that it appeared that this defendant was attempting to disperse when he was arrested for "failure to disperse." Video footage later shows an officer asking a group of fellow police "who can write?" and "who knows what he did?" There is no response.
A Highly Political Case
In addition to the lies that were uncovered by the protracted defense effort, there is also the question of secrets. The way in which the police attack developed points to forces at work other than a few cops on the street. Sgt. Landrum, after talking to two patrol officers, issues a non-emergency, low priority call for back up. Within 30 minutes, there are 60 police cars in Nickerson Gardens.
From the beginning, the defense team has argued that the police launched a massive police attack on the demonstration because it was targeting police brutality, because it was held in the projects where people face police brutality 24-7, and because they believed it included supporters of the RCP and RCYB. In the case of the one defendant charged with felonies, the police actually turned over evidence from the political police squad known as the Anti-Terrorist Division (ATD). This in itself shows how serious the system was about locking up The Nickersons 7. The LAPD has allowed or asked for the dismissal of dozens of cases to avoid releasing information about the operations of ATD.
The information revealed showed that the ATD has conducted political surveillance of activists in Nickerson Gardens. A sergeant's report also mentioned hearing about plans for the April 20, 1996 demonstration from informants within the projects. Although the charges against the misdemeanor defendants were dismissed before the defense uncovered even more about police spying, much has been revealed in this case about political police operations. Future articles in the RW will analyze these important revelations.
What all these lies and secrets show is what the people have known all along. Those arrested were singled out not for "criminal" acts they committed, but for their political stand at a demonstration against police brutality. After they singled people out as "ringleaders" and "agitators," the cops got together and fabricated a story to justify their attack. This is just a more concentrated form of the way the system is trying to enforce police-state conditions in the ghettos and barrios of this country. The system wanted to send a message that if you dare stand up to police brutality, they will put you in jail. But a different message got sent back: "It's Right to Fight Police Brutality!" and when you do, people will have your back.
Mao Tsetung said, "The enemy picks up a rock only to drop it on his own foot." The Nickersons 7 has been a big rock that the people forced them to drop on their own feet. In the face of a growing movement against police brutality and to free the Nickersons 7, the state was forced to back off this prosecution because they had more to lose than to gain by continuing at this time. But prosecutors are still going forward in the case of the one remaining defendant, who is charged with three serious felonies and faces two strikes under California's infamous "three-strikes" law. His next court appearance is January 22. Cops have attacked and beaten one of The Nickersons 7 on two separate occasions. While this victory is celebrated, people need to be vigilant, and push ahead with the struggle to end police brutality, repression and the criminalization of a generation.
FREE ALL THE NICKERSONS 7!
IT'S RIGHT TO FIGHT POLICE BRUTALITY!
For more information about the battle to Free the Nickersons 7 contact
The Nickersons 7 Defense Committee c/o Refuse & Resist!,
6253 Hollywood Blvd. #910, Los Angeles, CA 90028
or call (213) 962-8084.
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