WATTS: A Season of Struggle In Occupied Territory
By Michael Slate
Revolutionary Worker #938, December 28, 1997
It's the holiday season in Watts. In the Jordan Downs housing projects the Christmas lights, plastic Santas and spray-on winter scenes in apartment windows make the night seem a little less dangerous, life a little more fun. On one wall close to one of the outer edges of the projects someone has spraypainted their own holiday message--a pig's head, a police badge, 1x ("one-time") all crossed out, and the words "oink, oink, oink." Down the street a shopping cart filled with glass bottles, aluminum cans, plastic containers and a pile of broken but repairable appliances has been pushed up against the curb. Strands of tinsel are looped around the cart. A homeless man stands facing a wall, his hands raised and crossed behind his head as the police frisk him and then arrest him for "shopping cart theft."
Two blocks away the football field is soggy from the early winter rains. A little more than a month ago the LAPD executed Darryl "Chubby" Hood on this field. The memorial his friends and neighbors set up on the field is still standing. And one afternoon someone left one of the memorial programs that was handed out to the more than 500 people that packed a tiny church in Compton for Chubby's funeral.
The program told the story of Chubby's life--his first job at age 14 washing diesel trucks, his years as a factory worker, and his last job in a nearby hotel. There were baby pictures of Chubby, 1970s bell bottoms, afros and flowered shirts, wedding pictures and finally pictures of Chubby, his wife and their five children. Then there are letters from Chubby's family and friends--letters talking about the kind of person Chubby was, sending off one last message of love. They are heartbreaking, especially the one from his youngest daughter, Katie, that ends with, "And even though you died you are still in my loving heart. I loved it when you were playing with me and tickling me and I was always laughing and you were too. I loved it when you were riding my bike with me and you would always give me money and I will never forget that time. The End."
This was the "dangerous" man the LAPD executed in front of 300 people, including many children, on November 15. The police murder of Chubby Hood--a man who needed medical attention not death-squad tactics--had a profound effect on the community. And if you start walking through Jordan Downs at one end of the projects and just talk with people you meet on your way, you come out with a deep knowledge of what it means when people talk about the police being an "occupying army" in the ghettos and barrios. Jordan Downs is a place where the police begin harassing children before they are 10 years old, where kids talk about handcuffs instead of superhero press-on tattoos. In JD whole families can be thrown out of their house if a family member--or even a visitor--is convicted of a drug crime. And down here, frame-ups, convictions and jail time are routine.
Tawana, a 35-year-old Black woman, walks hard and fast on the path across the football field. She's muttering to herself about her car breaking down and having to make it to see her parole officer that afternoon. She's decided to abandon the car and is trying to figure out a place to stash the things she kept in the car. Tawana stopped to rest on one of the roots of the Freedom Tree for a moment and we talked. "When I see a cop coming down the street first thing pop in my mind is they coming up on me. I got reason. They got me on parole right now for some syringes that wasn't mine. They wasn't even mine and I don't even use drugs. They found some syringes quite a few feet away from me but still they gave me a case for syringes.
"I was just standing there talking to some people and they came up on me. They handcuffed me and I asked what I was being handcuffed for and they told me it was for syringes. I told them those wasn't mine. I told them those are way over there and I'm way over here.
"But all that don't matter. They say what they want and it's just they word against mine. I went to court for this and I was convicted. Nobody would listen to my story, not even the judge. I had a public defender but this lawyer was just telling me to take the little time they was giving me. Now that was back in 1993 and I'm still going back and forth on this. They put me on probation and then the probation officer violated me. She said I didn't report to her seven times but she seen me the day before I went to the court to see the judge for a progress review. When I went to the court the next day the judge gonna tell me that I didn't report to the probation officer seven times. I said, `What! What kind of shit is this!' They gave me 16 months so I did eight months and three days in the state pen. I had my kids' dad to try to contact my probation officer but she ignored his phone calls. When he did get in touch with her he explained that they got me in custody cuz they say that I didn't report to her for seven times, and she say that the paper work must be messed up. He asked her to come to court and she told him that she ain't got time cuz she got other clients to deal with.
"I got five kids and they dad took care of them while I was in the state pen but I shouldn't have been there. I just got out this September the third. And I got a young baby and all the time I been in prison is time I should've been with him. Look, I shouldn't have even been on probation. It ain't right. But the police, they can just pin things on you cuz it's just your word against they word. And once they say their word, shit, the judge goin by what they say. And it's gonna stick cuz your word don't mean shit to them. They got authority and the badge. And they feel they can do whatever the fuck they want. That's the way they treat everybody and they think they can get away with it. And if don't nobody speak up they gonna get away with this shit. It isn't right!"
A 15-year-old woman is standing in a parking lot waiting for an ice cream truck to come by. As her eyes scan the horizon for the truck she talks about how the police are always coming up on her, calling her stupid and telling her she's got a smart mouth and somebody should slap it out of her. Apparently, being a "smart mouth" in Watts is a serious offense. This young woman told me she was thrown out of one of the local high schools for her "smart mouth" after the school principal insulted this young woman by disrespecting her mother. "The principal told me that my mother wasn't no good and she wasn't doing for me cuz she is on the County. I told her to shut-up, that my momma does the best she can for me. Then I cussed the principal out. The principal expelled me cuz she say there's no room for smart mouths in high school."
Sondra and Victoria are sitting in a car parked in the same lot, listening to the woman's story for awhile before they join in the conversation. Just mentioning the police sets Sondra off. "The police create negative things out here. I have seen kids go to school and try to make something good happen but the police harass them too. And after you been harassed so many times you just like, `Fuck it, I might as well join a gang cuz they harassing me like I was in it.'
"They say the police is here to protect but I feel they do the opposite. They never here to protect us or to stop some boy from being killed. They here to harass.
"The police ain't protecting us, they making it worser for us. And that's why we fighting against the police over here. It ain't that we just dislike the police, the police make us dislike them for what they do. They don't even have to do to me personally, but it's even what I see them do to others that make me dislike them. I won't even call them. They not the law to me. They only come over here when they plan to come here. It's like they all gather up and say `Let's go fuck with the people in Jordan Downs.'
"They use their authority against us. They use it in the wrong way. The authority they got is not to abuse us but that's what they do. They got they gun and they use it against us."
When Sondra went to check on her baby, Victoria told me about a teenager who was shot in the back by police some weeks before the murder of Chubby. "I heard some gunshots in the projects but they came from a whole different direction than where we were standing. And I'm standing on the porch with this guy. We talking--me, him, my girlfriend and four other guys. When I heard the shots I said to people that we better go turn in cuz you know how the police get once they hear gunshots. And the police was just coming in the projects. When I was getting in my car and getting ready to leave, a gang of police was already coming through the projects. When I came back everybody was telling me that my friend got shot by the police. I don't know how he's doing cuz he ain't out. See, they charged him with attempted murder so he can't get out. I figure he should be out cuz they shot him, he didn't shoot at them. And you know, they try to say that they didn't shoot him, that it was one of his homeboys shot him. But everybody saw what happened and they seen the police shoot him. Look, I was with him right before they shot him and I didn't see him with no gun. And I didn't see him pull no gun when the police come in the project. And I didn't see him start shooting at the police. So for him to get shot in the back and charged--that isn't right."
As I spoke with Sondra and Victoria a man in fatigues walked by and then turned to join us when he heard what we were talking about. This brother is an activist in the projects and is involved with a group of people who say they are trying to get political and economic self-determination for Jordan Downs and all of Watts. In many ways what they talk about resembles the community control programs some people tried to implement in the 1960s. These activists are also among the many people in the projects standing up against the police terror. "We got the Watch a Pig program. Immediately when a brother or sister is pulled over, we go outside in military formation and stay within the legal limit of 20 feet. We explain to the people what their rights are and we report things to our own networks of lawyers and other people.
"We also see the police and the FBI trying to infiltrate our community over here. We see them sitting there parked in their cars. We know it's our right to ask them to identify themselves. So we go to them, tap their window and ask them for their ID and what are they doing here cuz people, kids, have been molested. We ask them what they are doing here and what are their duties. Usually they don't tell us, they just leave or we ask them to leave, nicely of course. Chief Parks has told us we need to back off and we told him to back off. Parks sent one of his representatives who said that we were pressing a confrontation. We told him that the confrontation began with the killing of Darryl Hood and that the police initiated the first confrontation. So we told him if there is another confrontation then the police are the ones that started it. So since then, when they see us fatigued-up they start to harass us. They try to catch us at our house. They snatched the barred gate off of my house. They tried to run up in my house without no search warrant. They took my other car I bought the other day. They took my girl and slammed her down on the ground in front of my kids and took my car, all because they know we been organizing in here."
In some parts of the city cul de sacs and quiet streets are perfect for bike riding. These are times you can always remember. The freedom and joy of pedaling like crazy to reach unbelievable speeds, then gliding into a turn, leaning way down and seeming to defy gravity and the outer edges of balance. In Jordan Downs riding a bike is a punishable offense. The police claim that members of the Grape Street Crips are planning to ambush them and they claim that gang members ride bikes. So, anyone riding a bike is a target. Kids as young as 10 and 11 are constantly chased, trapped and given a $45 ticket for not wearing a helmet or not having reflector lights on their bikes. For many families in the projects $45 to pay off a ticket is an impossible burden. Pile up enough unpaid tickets and the cops have another angle to come at you.
Of course, if you're young in Watts almost everything you do is a crime. A trip to the local shopping center and some loud laughing and joking can easily become an arrest for "disturbing the peace in a shopping center." By the time young boys become teenagers it is not uncommon for them to have been stopped and jacked up by the police 60 or 70 times in their lives already.
Three high school students walked through the projects with a step that seemed to be an instant away from breaking out in a run. They stopped to talk about their experience with the police but their eyes kept moving, searching for the police coming out of hidden corners. Raymond spoke for the group. "Fuck the police! Man, down here they don't do nothing but fuck with us. They always fucking with us. They gonna come up on you whenever they want, jump out they car, pull they gun out on you, check your pockets for no reason then just jump back in they car and take off.
"Every time you see the police you got to run. When they got you they throw you all over they car, they slam you on the ground and put they knee in your back. They know the hood to they car is hot--they been running it so long. They make you put your hands up on that hot hood and then sometimes they push your face down onto the hood. Sometimes they handcuff you and then when you got no way to protect yourself they go and slam your face down on the car.
"I was 8 the first time they stopped me. I was with my daddy and we was driving and they stopped him and made him get down on the hood of the car. Then they made me put my hands on the hood. I been stopped about 65 times and I'm only 14 now. I got stopped the other day and they stopped me. I was coming home from school and they say I looked like a 211 suspect--a robbery suspect. They jacked me up on the car and put the handcuffs on for awhile and then they let me go. My homeboy was just riding his bike when the sheriffs came up on him. They stopped him and took all the stuff from his pockets and then just took off with it.
"They do whatever they want to us down here. If we hanging out at night then they come by and shine they light in our face. They drive around the block and when they come back, if we still there they jump out they cars. And if you try to run they pull they gun out and yell `Don't move or I'll shoot your fucking ass.' Even if you don't got no weapon they try to shoot you. And it been worse since they killed that man over here. Shit gotten bad cuz they made up a lie saying that Grape Street gonna shoot at the police. So the police getting even more trigger happy and shooting at us. My brother was just shot by the police. They stopping us for anything now. They always fucking with us and if we make a wrong move they gonna shoot us. They pulling they guns out on us all the time."
A Season of Struggle
The sun began to set and I started walking back towards my car--thinking about the thick old rope that ties oppressed people all over the world together. I thought of how much the scene in Jordan Downs and Watts reminded me of the Palestinian people living under the guns of the Israeli army or the Azanian youth I met in the townships under the apartheid regime in South Africa. And I thought over all the struggle against police brutality that has begun to bubble up in Watts over the last couple of years. There's the story of the Nickersons 7 in the Nickerson Gardens project--arrested in April 1996 when the LAPD swept into the projects to break up a protest against the beating of immigrants by the Riverside sheriffs. Then on October 22, the Watts Committee Against Police Brutality brought a busload of people to the downtown demonstration on the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality. And in the wake of Chubby's murder the people of Jordan Downs projects have demonstrated against the police--and others from all over Watts have been quick to stand and fight with them.
I was still deep in thought when a woman I had met a couple weeks earlier in the projects yelled over to me. She wanted to know if I had seen the Watts Committee Against Police Brutality in the Watts Christmas Parade a week earlier. She told me how excited she was to see the committee contingent marching with a banner that read "Justice for Chubby, Charge the Murdering Cops." The drum corps organized for the October 22 demonstration marched loud and proud. Everyone in the contingent wore sandwich board signs with "Stolen Lives Project" over pictures of people from Watts who have been killed by police. And everywhere the contingent passed, people cheered loud and long and some even jumped right into the parade to walk along with the contingent. All along the parade route supporters of the Committee gave out index cards folded in half with the name of someone from Watts or nearby neighborhoods who was killed by the police and the story of their murder. A black ribbon with the person's name was safety pinned to the card along with a candy cane. Everyone who saw the cards dug deep for a donation to get one--a true holiday gift from the hearts of the people. And who could think of a more fitting way to mark the holiday season in occupied territory.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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