10 Cents a Life 


“What the hell is that?”

Tim Watkins, director of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), had just dumped a handful of .357 Magnum hollowpoint bullets out on his desk.

That, Eric,” Watkins said, “is what an 8-year-old kid gave me yesterday before I started going over his homework with him. You know what he told me when I took them from him?”

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I shook my head.

“He told me that he found them on the street and that you can get a hundred of them for about 10 bucks.” Watkins leaned forward on his elbows, and his brow wrinkled like a war map. “That means that life in Watts is worth about 10 cents. Now, what the hell is that about, man?”

This conversation ran through my head as I approached the yellow plastic police tape that cordoned off the northbound pedestrian traffic on Graham Street and blocked entrance to 103rd Street, also known as Charcoal Alley, the main drag in Watts. I spotted a gray compact, with both doors sprung open, in the middle of 103rd Street. A blood-soaked sweatshirt lay on the asphalt next to the car, which was pointed west, just before the Blue Line crossing. LAPD and Sheriff’s deputies were both on the scene.

I walked up to LAPD Sergeant Jay; I knew him from the time he used to work MTA security on the trains, before the contract went to the Sheriff’s Department. We shook hands. I told him that my neighbors had elected me Neighborhood Block Watch captain. I asked him what happened.

“About 8 o’clock this morning, the car out there pulled up to the train crossing,” said Sergeant Jay. “The crossing gates were down, and they were sitting there in traffic waiting for a train to pass. Two guys walked over to the compact and opened up on the occupants. The driver died on the scene. The passenger took rounds in the arms, legs and upper torso.”

“You know, Jay,” I said, “the guy who lived isn’t going to tell you anything about the shooters.”

“Hell, no,” he said, “that fool was on the ground bleeding to death and lying about who he was before his mama walked up and identified him.” The man was speaking with resentment in his voice. “There I am trying to help him. You know, try and get a line on the guys who did it, get ’em off the street. Fool laying there is bleeding out all over the ground got nerve enough to lie to me about his identity!”

“You think he got a clue?”

“About what?” Sergeant Jay asked.

“About who he really is?”

Jay shook his head, as though he didn’t understand what I meant.

“Fool is aiding and abetting urban terrorism,” I said. “He’s a statistic, who is working his way up toward being a casualty in an undeclared war, and he doesn’t even know it. There were 656 homicides in Los Angeles last year, Jay — 271 gang-related, black-on-black. You know the Killing Mob is at war with the Barrio Grape Streets in Watts?”

“I thought we were at war with Iraq,” said Sergeant Jay.

Sister Gee walked up. Sister Gee is the Muslim lady who runs the concessions stand at the Platform Station stop on this corner at 103rd and Graham Street, on the east side of the railroad tracks. She is dressed, as always, in Muslim garb, in an all-black habit, looking like a nun, only she doesn’t have on the white bib or the rosary beads.

“He’s right, Officer,” Sister Gee said. “These gang kids are urban terrorists. Only last weekend, I had to walk a group of senior citizens to the Towers. The gangbangers were about to jack them.”

Sister Gee walked away.

“What you got on the rounds?” I asked Sergeant Jay.

“The shooter used a 9-millimeter,” Jay said. “We got two suspects in custody.”

“Did you find the weapon?” I asked Sergeant Jay. “The thing is to find that weapon. Get it off the street.”

“You sound discouraged,” Sergeant Jay said.

“Think about this,” I said. “We need to raise the cost of bullets so high that a guy would need a job — a real good job — to buy one. Then we could take the tax revenue from the increased cost of ammunition and create some jobs for these young people. When I say young, I mean the kids who are 8 and 9 years old. The older violent offenders have been working all their lives at being criminals.”

“You think raising the cost of a bullet will solve it, huh, Eric?” Sergeant Jay asked.

“No,” I said, “but life down here should be worth more than 10 cents.”

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