Watts: Under the Shadow of the Enforcers

Resistance in the War Zone

By Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #1027, October 24, 1999

Watts is one part of Los Angeles that never lets you forget the city came up out of the desert. In the late summer and early fall daytime Watts is hot. There aren't too many places to hide from the heat. The houses are low to the ground and don't cast much of a shadow. Trees are few and far between. Summertime grass is brown and brittle. The dirt is hardpacked, dry and cracked. The streets get so hot they start to feel like griddles left on the flame too long. Stray dogs lay around in packs, not even enough energy to search for food. A rooster sits under the back end of a truck, head cocked, guarding the alley.

Nickerson Gardens is one of the projects in the heart of Watts. It is the biggest project west of the Mississippi. The Nickersons has a rep all over L.A. It's hard and poor--and everybody has a story to tell. It had been a while since I walked the Nickersons, talking to people about their lives and their run-ins with the police. The ArtSpeaks concert--on the national day of art to stop the execution of Mumia--was held just four blocks away from the Nickersons this year and I saw a lot of people at the concert I hadn't seen for months.

The Nickersons reputation always included stories of police brutality and, over the years, stories of resistance to this brutality were also told. But people told me that things seemed to be changing some. Some people still call the Nickersons a war zone--but in a good sense. The police are still running wild. But the people's resistance is making things more two-sided.

As I walked into the Nickersons I noticed all these posters still up, advertising ArtSpeaks and showing the face of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Other posters stapled to the trees in the projects called on people to join the Watts Committee Against Police Brutality on the October 22 National Day of Protest march against police brutality. Kids I knew from the Watts Drum Corps told me how excited they were that members of the band Ozomatli were coming down to march with the drum corps again this year. Another poster taped onto a dumpster in a parking lot called on people to resist "First Strike Evictions"--where people are getting evicted from their homes if someone in their house gets arrested for drugs.

Even in the afternoon heat, the streets of the Nickersons were bristling. All you have to do is mention the recent exposure of the LAPD Rampart CRASH unit and people have dozens of stories to tell about personal experience with these corrupt and murderous cops. (See "The Rampart CRASH Unit: Blood on the Hands of the LAPD," RW 1024 or www.mcs.net/~rwor)

I turned a corner and came upon two women sitting on their stoop, cooling off with a beer and using a taped-up garden hose to squirt the kids on the front sidewalk. We talked about what's going on in the projects.

Chanice started the story. "You know what really gets me? We can just be ordinary people out here with our kids and the police gonna come up and bother us. They just disrespecting us all the time. One time they was chasing my kids' father and they hit him with their car to stop him. They was raiding a house that he was supposed to have been in, but he was outside. Then they took him to jail and he never did get out.

"When all this stuff come out about the police up there in Ramparts, I said it's about time. Somebody need to investigate all the filth in the police. You know, when they be raiding all these houses down here, I don't believe they turning in all that money they say they find or all those drugs they say they find. They keep that shit for themselves. You know they do the brothers real bad when they pull them raids. They slam them down into the ground and have them face down on the ground. They do them wrong. You see the police after they do them raids yelling `We love L.A.' or `We love Watts.' They all amped up for this."

Maxine had just come home from work. She was reading a note from her son when we began to talk. "They came after my son and pulled him out the door of my house. We was in the house waiting on this movie to come on. I was home all day so I know exactly where my child was. The police said that some little incident had happened on the other side of Wilmington and that he fit the description. I said how could you come and knock on my door and say that my son fit the description when you can just look around out here and see that there are a lot of Black men out here that favor my son.

"They told me I had to step back because I was intruding on an investigation. They took my son out the house with no clothes on just about because he was getting ready to take a bath. The police told me that I could stay at home. I told them I'd be at the police station when they get there. When we got to the police station they held my son for a long time and they were trying to convince me that he was the one they were looking for. And I kept telling him that my son doesn't fit the description, he never had a afro or any of that big hair. He always kept his hair cut. Then they told me that I was one of those kinds of mommas that thinks they know all about their children. And I said that's exactly right. I know exactly about my children. Then they told me to take him and get out the station. After that, though, every time my son came out the house they was on him, telling him to hit the street. This was some kind of harassment.

"The police started to come to meetings in the projects to hear how we feel about them and what they do. So I let them have it about all that I see them do here--stopping young men all the time, slamming them down on the ground and making them lay face down on their nasty sidewalk. And then they just drive off when they can't find anything--no apology, no nothing. I see them taking pictures of these young guys in here too. They don't have no respect for nobody. And we are seeing this, our eyes are opening up more and more about the police.

"You know people doing things against them too. Now when the police come around I see some people coming out and yelling at them, blowing whistles and all that. I got myself a camera and started taking pictures of the cops and I tell them, `You taking pictures of us so I'm taking pictures of you. This way we can know who you are if anything happen to this person you got stopped here.' We finally doing something to help ourselves.

"Somebody hung a police dummy up in the wires and everybody was talking about it. I also seen that somebody did a chain up across the street back there with some sign against police brutality hanging on it. People are tired of the police and they are doing things against them and telling people to wake up cuz this is happening to us. This is really happening to us.

"Sometimes I look at this place and it's almost like a concentration camp. The police think they can come in here and do what they want to do. People get ill of this kind of stuff and the cops don't care. They laugh at all the stuff they do to us in here, like it's a game or it's funny. But it's a serious thing.

Resistance Smiles

When people talk about resisting police brutality, a whole change comes over them. Their eyes light up, they laugh easy and fast. Their body language changes and helps tell the story. There are activists organizing people in the projects to fight police brutality. The Watts chapter of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade put out their own leaflet talking about the situation in Watts and calling on people to wear black on October 22 and join the march downtown. And there are many, many people taking this struggle up on their own, with their friends and with the activists.

Little kids came up and told me how whenever they see the police bothering people they rush up and demand the badge numbers and they write down the car numbers so they can tell people which cops were on the scene. Some shorties have even taken to writing down stories of what they see the police doing--including one story about the cops starting to beat on a woman in the projects and then having to back down when a whole group of kids started yelling at them to stop beating her.

Some people are watching the police. Some people are doing grafitti, and some are hiding young men running from the police. And some are going up in the face of the police every time they see them doing wrong. But everywhere you turn you hear proud stories of people fighting back.

A sister who has kept track of these stories filled me in. "A lot of resistance is going on in the projects, in small ways and in big ways. People have been run over by the police. One of the Nickersons 7 has been choked by the police and people was running out of their houses saying don't choke him. [Nickersons 7 is a now famous case in the projects of seven people arrested during a 1996 protest against police brutality.]

"Another time a white woman cop hit a guy on his bicycle and when she hit him he flew up onto her windshield and fell down. She got out of her car and asked him why he hit her car. He was badly injured so they took him to the hospital and they arrested him and later dropped the charges. They took the cop who hit him out of the area quick cuz the people was all up on her. People was threatening to tear her up. People was coming out of the houses and was all angry. There was a lot of anger in the neighborhood. I had heard that the kids were throwing rocks at the police behind this.

"One night one kid was riding his bike home and the police grabbed him from his bike in mid air, throwed him to the ground and started stomping him and kicking him. A lot of people came out of their houses hollering at the police and getting in their face about it. The police made the boy get on his knees. They had beat him in the place where he had been shot years ago and he got sick off of this. He's 18. One woman came out the house with a foam cup and stomped on it and yelled at the police that they did this boy just like this cup. And she was hollering about how the cops are no good.

"There was another incident where a Latino man was being choked and beaten by the police and a Black man came out to help him so the police started to beat him. All this was happening in the summer--all these incidents been happening one after another. Then they been doing a series of raids too.

"People are getting angrier and angrier and standing up against the police. About a week ago the police was getting ready to shoot a boy in the back. It was about 11:30 in the morning when kids coming home to lunch. The cops had raided a house and chased this boy out the house. He was in his bare feet. A girl came out with him and they roughed her up and threw her down. They cocked the trigger on the boy. They was fixing to shoot him and that's when a lot of the sisters came out and started hollering at the cops. People jumped in the middle and demanded that the cops not shoot him. Then they put their guns down and arrested him but didn't kill him. He was just about 17 years old.

"Then another time the police had chased and arrested some teenagers, and a lot of sisters and teenagers were up in the face of the cops for arresting these kids. People were calling them pigs and telling them to get out the neighborhood. Then people started taking pictures of the cops and other people yelled out that these are the dirty ones.

"There are a lot of cops in the projects who been messing with people a long time. One notorious cop is named Rico--he a short cop with a marine haircut and he's out there just brutalizing people all the time. He makes a specialty of going after kids, threatening to kill them and all. People hate him. And people were calling out the names of other dirty cops out there. People kept getting in their face, getting their badge numbers and yelling for cops to say their names and spell their names--taking pictures of them.

"And so the police saw all these people out there and all this stuff going on so they start getting nervous and they start trying to cover up their badges. The cops told people they got to stand back and people told them they weren't going nowhere and that they had a right to stand within 20 feet of the cops and refused to move. Then the cops started to get up out of there. But people kept after them, yelling at them, taking their pictures. Then the cops started coming back at people with billy clubs. Turns out some kids was hitting them with rocks and bottles when they tried to leave. But people stood their ground when the cops came back and so the cops left."

The Piggy Piņata

Sometimes the people's resistance captures imaginations and gives birth to smiles and laughs for a long time afterwards. This is especially so when the cops come off like fools and dummies. One woman told me: "I loved it when I came out my house the other day and I walked around the corner and then I saw this shadow. But it was a shadow coming from something that was bobbing way up in the wires. I kept thinking it was like a piņata, but why would someone hang that way up high like that. That would be too high for kids to hit it and break it.

"When I walked around the corner and looked up I just broke out laughing. There was a dummy of a cop with a sign on it saying `LAPD Liars, Murderers'. People was out there laughing and all. The cops was really angry and they had the Fire Department out there too. The cops were going around asking people if they knew who did it and if they saw anybody climbing up there. One boy shouted out that he saw someone climbing up the pole to the wires. The cops came over and asked him who that was and he looked real serious and said that he saw that thing that the cops just pulled down from the wires climbing up there earlier in the day. Everybody laughed except the cops. They took that dummy down but now somebody went and painted `LAPD--Liars and Murderers' on the walls. Let's see the cops take the wall down."

Ready for 10/22

Walking down one of the border streets of the projects you can always catch sight of small groups of young men. Sometimes they're shooting craps and sometimes they're working on cars. Sometimes they want to talk and sometimes they don't.

I was getting ready to leave the Nickersons when I came up on a group of young men talking about what is happening to them day after day. They were talking in a lot that ran off of the street. Posters for the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality were up on lamp posts, dumpsters and trees. G. stepped out of the group to tell me what happened to him. As he spoke he always kept one eye on the street and the entrance to the parking lot. The reason was clear soon enough. "This is what happened. I went to a house to visit some friends. Maybe five or ten minutes after I got there the police raided the house. They came in and they didn't find nothing but they handcuffed all of us. They took the keys out of everybody's pockets and found the keys to the trunk of a car in the driveway. This car didn't belong to me and I didn't have the keys. They took drugs out of the car and put them inside the house and started taking pictures of it. There was 10 guys inside the house and I went to jail for it. I was basically the only one who went to jail for it but my brother and my cousin were arrested too.

"Now I'm facing 10 years off of this. I grew up in these projects and I never been to jail except for one time in San Diego. Now they always coming up on us in here, especially since this raid happened.

"When I saw this stuff in the news about the Ramparts officers I thought this is what's been happening all along and people need to wake up and listen to what is being said about it. What I'm going through is enough for me to know that they must be doing the same thing to other people if they're doing it to me. I actually seen another police report that was identical to mine except the names was changed. Everything they talked about inside the house and all was the same as what they said about the house I was in and the only thing different was the address and the name of the person arrested. It was the same police report with just a different name. It's like all they got to do is just put your name in the blank spot.

"People need to be out here when the police is coming out here messing with other people. People got to stand up about this. On October 22, wear black! Get on the bus and go down to the march. That's what we got to do. I can't speak for everybody but this is something I want to participate in cuz this is affecting me and I want to change this situation."

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