Los Angeles: Nickersons 7 are ALL Free!
Revolutionary Worker #945, February 22, 1998
The Case of the Nickersons 7, February 9, 1998: A Los Angeles judge held a short hearing to announce that all charges against the only remaining defendant were thrown out of court. The courtroom was filled with cheers and wild applause. In this case, the people won and the system lost.
The Nickersons 7 were arrested April 20, 1996, at a protest against police brutality in the Watts housing project of Nickerson Gardens. And ever since, a battle has been waged inside and outside the courtroom.
Refuse & Resist! organized The Nickersons 7 Defense Committee, saying "It's Right to Fight Police Brutality!" A skilled legal team worked collectively to expose police lies and uncover the real story of political police spying and attempted frame-ups. They put together a "rap sheet" on the cops who attacked the demonstration, many of whom were killers and brutalizers of the people. They pursued a paper trail that exposed government documents that the prosecution said did not exist. They fought for the names and identities of witnesses that the cops tried to hide. And as more and more information was brought to light, the defendants and their supporters took it out to churches, civil rights organizations, schools and cultural events. When people heard about the case, many gave their support to The Nickersons 7.
In the course of this protracted campaign, the prosecution was put on the defensive. On June 26, 1997, a judge threw out charges against the one defendant who was charged with felonies--serious charges which could have meant years in prison, and two "strikes" under California's infamous "three strikes" law. The DA's office re-filed the same charges in August. Then on October 21, 1997--the day before the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation--the prosecution dropped charges against the six defendants charged with "failure to disperse" and other misdemeanors.
As the prosecution's case was crumbling, the movement of support for the Nickersons 7 got stronger. On August 31, 1997, 600 people attended an Art Speaks! concert in Leimert Park--organized by poets, comedians, musicians and spoken word artists to support the Nickersons 7 and the National Day of Protest. Artists not only performed at benefits but also mentioned the N7 case in their own shows and urged their audiences to check it out and give support. On stage at Art Speaks!, a member of Culture Clash said he had talked about the N7 case on every stop on their tours. Merchants in South Central L.A. donated prizes for a fundraising drawing. And people sold buttons and pencils that read "Free The Nickersons 7!"
It's Right to Rebel Against Police Brutality
The system had, as Mao said, "picked up a rock to drop it on its own feet." In April, 1996 the world saw the videotape of the "Latino Rodney King": Mexican immigrants Alicia Soltero and Enrique Funes were beaten by Riverside County Sheriffs beside an L.A. freeway while a news helicopter filmed from above. There were immediate, angry demonstrations. Ten thousand people marched through downtown L.A. Students from L.A. caravanned and marched to the Mexican border. At the same time, there was also a rally in support of the cops led by L.A.'s former police chief, Daryl Gates.
The people of Nickerson Gardens raised their own voices in this charged atmosphere. They planned a demonstration and invited activists from the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, who lived next to the projects, to join them. A multi-national crowd carried signs in Spanish and English saying "Alicia Soltero-Rodney King, the same thing" and "Justice."
Rolling through The Nickersons in an LAPD patrol car with his partner, Christopher Hadjuk saw the demonstration. Hadjuk was one of the two dozen cops who took part in the beating of Rodney King in 1991, and was suspended for 15 days for letting the beating go on and for maintaining the code of silence afterwards.
Hadjuk called for more cops and, within an hour, over 120 LAPD, Housing Authority and other cops were rampaging through the projects. They called a tactical alert for the whole city of Los Angeles as police from all over L.A., including Southeast Division, 77th Street and Newton Division came to the area. Three helicopters from the Air Support Division swooped through the projects at tree-top level.
As the police chased down and beat protesters, they yelled at people to get back in their houses. But the police did not have it their way. Hundreds poured into the streets, and many defended themselves. Rocks and bottles flew in the direction of the cops. By the end of the day, nine people were arrested, including a video journalist for the local Channel 5 news.
Nickerson Gardens is one of four large housing projects in the Watts area of South Central LA. They are homes to thousands of Latino and Black people--proletarians who struggle every day to survive. It's an area where most people in L.A. have never set foot. The Nickersons is surrounded by a custom-made iron fence with the top bars curling inward and over into a point, like a prison camp.
Police brutality is an everyday thing for the people in Watts, and they're tired of it. They're tired of stories of older people dragged out of the house in the middle of the night in their pajamas, of the raids and the special task forces. They're tired of seeing young people taken away from them and locked up for longer and longer sentences in the dungeons and torture chambers of California. When the police attacked their demonstration, the news broke through on every local TV channel and in the pages of USA Today. In 1996, when the plans were well in motion for the first National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, October 22, the voices of the proletariat were raised in protest.
The system continued the attack in the courtroom. Prosecutors singled out seven of the demonstrators and held them on trumped-up charges of "assault," "failure to disperse" and "resisting arrest." One of the seven was targeted for the heaviest charges: accused of two felonies and held on $150,000 bail. This felony defendant was brutally beaten when he was arrested. The cops later wrote that he "rubbed his own face" on the ground, and that's how he was injured.
It was urgent that the battle to free The Nickersons 7 begin immediately. Within two weeks, all the defendants were released on bail, in some cases after winning bail reductions. The prosecution continued to pile on charges, and the seven faced a total of over 50 years in jail and huge fines. One young defendant who runs with the RCYB was arrested and beaten twice more in the months after April 20.
For many, the case of The Nickersons 7 became an important part of the growing national movement against police brutality. There were rallies and meetings. People passed out leaflets and went to court hearings. And as the court hearings got underway, the prosecution could not carry out its dirty work in the dark.
Police Lies and Fabrications
The night of April 20, the cops at Southeast Division stayed up late to write their reports. And what they came up with was a pig tale: a fabricated version of events that they hoped to use to railroad The Nickersons 7 on phony "criminal" charges.
The police version conflicted with the physical evidence that was available. Their story began with a police sergeant, one Sgt. Vanson, driving up to the demonstration and being attacked without provocation, barely escaping with his life. But the fact is, there were no injuries to Sgt. Vanson and no damage to the car he was in. And his call for back-up was a lower level "come when you can" radio call, which showed he was in no danger. This is only one example of the trouble the police had keeping their stories straight.
The prosecution also had a lot to cover up. They kept Christopher Hadjuk's name from the defense for a year. They refused to turn over the names of the eighth and ninth persons arrested, including the video journalist. They tried to hide evidence of political police spying, although some limited information was turned over to the defense. The Anti-Terrorist Division (ATD), a secret police division of the LAPD, admitted it had conducted surveillance on the felony defendant for at least five years. This in itself shows how seriously the system wanted to railroad this brother. Over the last two decades, dozens of cases have been dismissed because the police refused to turn over information from the ATD. Other records showed that copies of reports were sent to the ATD.
There are a lot of innocent people in prison who have been railroaded in this exact same way. As one of the lawyers pointed out, having the truth on your side is never enough to win. You need the collective struggle of the people. And from the very beginning, the legal team did not accept that this was going to be another railroad--just like the people of Nickerson Gardens did not accept the police telling them they couldn't demonstrate. Through 20 months of hearings and motions, the defense team showed that the prosecution and the police were lying about missing documents, hiding witnesses, covering up police spying and trying to hide what actually happened on April 20, 1996.
In June, 1997 the police turned over records of Mobile Digital Terminal communications (MDTs) to the defense in the felony case. These are messages sent to and from computers in police cars. MDTs became infamous after the Rodney King beating, when it was discovered that Lawrence Powell had used racist language, referring to Black people as "gorillas in the mist," before beating Rodney King. The LAPD first claimed they had already given the MDTs to the defense. Then they claimed they were "just numbers," and then claimed that to retrieve them would be too difficult. But in court proceedings involving the six misdemeanor defendants, the LAPD turned over a few MDTs, proving that these claims were lies. After reading the MDTs, it was clear that they were covering up crucial evidence.
The MDTs showed cops begging to go to the protest against police brutality. When two officers finally got the OK to go, they were told to "have fun." In other cops' reports they refer to their activity as "demonstration suppression," and "arrest multiple protesters." On another MDT, a cop says that they "went in and arrested all the ringleaders."
Railroad Falls Apart
Following this incident, the defense in the felony case made a motion to dismiss. The motion was based on the prosecution's refusal to turn over court-ordered documents and names of witnesses. The judge ruled that this refusal to comply had denied the defendant a right to a fair trial, and threw out all charges on June 26. This was a tremendous victory for the people, and a sign that the railroad of The Nickersons 7 was beginning to fall apart. The authorities re-filed the same charges in August. They were serious about targeting this young activist.
But their attempted political railroad of The Nickersons 7 suffered another serious blow when the prosecutor in the misdemeanor case of the other six defendants came to court on October 21, 1997. The day was scheduled for a hearing on discriminatory prosecution including involvement of the political police. Forty cops were subpoenaed, and experts from the ACLU and others were ready to testify. The hearing threatened to expose the ongoing political police operations against anti-police brutality activists. But instead of the scheduled hearing, prosecutors made a motion to dismiss all charges. The deputy City Attorney said they had no reasonable belief that any jury would convict the defendants on the evidence they had. They would have to ask the jury to believe that each cop was telling the truth in part of his or her testimony, and lying in the rest. In the face of this major blow to their whole persecution of The Nickersons 7, the District Attorney continued to pursue the felony defendant.
On January 22 a hearing was held on a second defense motion to dismiss the felony case which incorporated all these developments. The courtroom was packed with over 30 supporters. They represented hundreds of others who had heard of the case of The Nickersons 7 and shown their support in many ways. There were people from a Unitarian church in Anaheim, members of Food Not Bombs, Refuse & Resist!, and the president of the Black Law Students Association from a local law school. A contingent came from Nickerson Gardens. There were youth and people from the '60s generation.
A confident defense team took on a defensive prosecutor. The defense lawyer in this case made it clear that if the case ever made it to trial it would be the police who would be put on trial for their brutal attack on the demonstrators, and not the defendant. At one point the DA said he was ready to go to the preliminary hearing, ignoring the fact that they still had not turned over the evidence they were ordered to. He said he would call one witness, Officer Vanson, who others claim was attacked at the demonstration. But Officer Vanson has been on "stress leave" and under psychiatric care since July 1996. After this, the DA was reduced to complaining that people in the audience were "snickering." The judge, who was the same judge who dismissed the case in June, said she would give her ruling February 9.
After the January 22 hearing, before the charges were dismissed on the remaining one defendant, a victory celebration was held in honor of The Nickersons 7. The Luna Sol Cafe in Pico-Union was packed with more than 80 people the night of January 31. There were people of all ages and nationalities and a feeling of joy and community were in the air. Live music was provided by The Robies, a group that drove from Tempe, Arizona to perform. There was open mike poetry from some artists who had just heard about the case, and others who had been down with it from the beginning. Door prizes were donated by a local coffee house. There were messages from the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA), Families Against California's Three Strikes (FACTS) and Refuse & Resist! There were also messages from families of victims of police murder.
Victory for the People
On February 9 the courtroom was filled with supporters, including a woman who, after getting a leaflet, walked several miles from Nickerson Gardens to the courthouse. The judge made a motion to dismiss "in the interests of justice." Her motion was based on the long period of time that the prosecution delayed turning over evidence, on the amount of evidence that the prosecution failed to preserve, and the still-missing witnesses. The dismissal was made under a section of the California Penal code that can only be used by judges and prosecutors. This would make it very difficult for the DA's office to appeal this dismissal. The ruling was greeted with long and loud cheering and applause.
The last 20 months have seen dramatic developments in the struggle against police brutality. There was the first National Day of Protest, October 22, 1996, and the second National Day of Protest in 1997--with a march in L.A. of 800 people, over twice as big as the first. The Watts Committee Against Police Brutality and others from Watts have been active in many protests. A bus was chartered to bring people from Watts on October 22, 1997. There was also a speak-out against police brutality held in South Central in early October. The October 22nd Coalition and the Stolen Lives Project got a big reception when they marched in the Watts Christmas parade.
The Nickersons 7 Defense Committee said, "They wanted to deliver a message, that nobody has your back, and if you dare to stand up against police brutality you will pay a very high price. But the battle to Free the N7 has delivered a different message--that when the people on the bottom stand up to fight police brutality, people from all walks of life can and will stand with them. It is this growing support that forced the authorities to decide they had more to lose than gain by continuing this prosecution. People need to be vigilant against police efforts to get revenge for this defeat. But the people need to celebrate and learn from this victory!"
It's Right to Fight Police Brutality!
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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