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War and Peace in Watts 

A gang treaty implodes and the killing resumes

Thursday, Jul 14 2005
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Photo by Gregory BojorquezPresident Bush keeps saying America is safer now that Saddam Hussein is out of power. Prez hasn’t been to Watts lately. The much heralded, often copied and never equaled Watts housing-project gang peace treaty of 1992 has officially imploded, leaving bodies, grieving families and shell casings scattered over the most infamous black neighborhood west of the South Side of Chicago. The nights of mixing purple, blue and red are over. Gone are the days when the Grape Street Watts Crips from Jordan Downs (purple), the Bounty Hunter Bloods from Nickerson Gardens (red) and the Project, or PJ, Crips from Imperial Courts (blue) could encounter one another without fear of death. During the wild year of 1989, in the LAPD reporting districts that cover the three main housing projects in Watts, there were 25 homicides. During the height of the treaty in 1997, there were four. So far this year there have been at least seven killings in and around the projects, dozens of shootings, a reported 187 violent crimes and, with all that, the acknowledgment that there is no more treaty. Long gone are the joyous parties and rowdy football games that homies from the projects threw and played together. Gone are the days when a gangster from the Jordans who had a child with a lady from the Nickerson could have a lazy Sunday-afternoon barbecue in peace. “I can’t even go see my son,” says Grape Street member Dell (“like the computer”) Hester, 21. “I got a baby from a girl in the Nickersons, but I can’t even go there no more. It’s gonna be a real hot summer.” While many in law enforcement say the treaty has been shaky for years, only recently have actual gang members themselves admitted it. The 1992 treaty, which became official the day before the Rodney King verdict set the city ablaze, was born from older gang members who did not want their children to go through the dread they had long endured. It was marked by celebrations, by families and friends being able to visit each other in different projects without fear. But in the last year or so, as a new generation of gang members came of shooting age, which is about 13 to 16, word began to spread that the treaty was on the ropes. And in the projects, words, rumors, truth and fiction get spread fast. Soon residents of Nickerson Gardens knew it wasn’t wise anymore to go to Jordan Downs, and folks from there knew they weren’t getting the royal treatment if they popped in at the Nickersons or Imperial Courts. “We ain’t even thinking about a peace treaty right now,” says Bow Wow, a respected 26-year-old from Grape Street. “We’re just trying to get a cease-fire. Just trying to stop all the shootings.” Thomas “Tuck” Graham Jr., 20, a Bounty Hunter who was so young when he started banging he doesn’t even remember how he got his nickname, says the days of peace with Grape Street are over. “We used to see Grape Street members come over here and we’d give them a pass,” says Tuck as he smokes a cigarette and sips on a small bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. “But now things are different. I see a Grape Streeter, especially in the Nickersons, he ain’t getting no motherfuckin’ passes, especially since they killed my homey.” His homey was Dwayne “Sexy Wayne” Brooks, 22, a Bounty Hunter renowned as a smooth-talking ladies’ man. The Watts peace treaty certainly did not stop all violence in the housing projects. Internal, in-house disputes were often settled with Mac 10s and Sigs. There were also gang member–vs.–rival gang member acts of violence, but for the most part this was done on an individual level, a personal dispute between, say, a Bounty Hunter and a Grape Streeter over a range of things, from drugs to, of course, women. But the peace treaty pretty much squashed one gang firing on another gang simply because they were from a different hood. A tranquil moment at Nickerson Gardens Photo by Gregory Bojorquez The killing of Sexy Wayne marked a clear return of killing someone just for that very reason. On March 5, there is a minor conflict in Cerritos at a skating rink. For decades, such places have been magnets for many black gang members. Details of the incident are sketchy, but either words or a few fists are briefly exchanged. Bounty Hunters say Sexy Wayne is not involved in the incident. Later, a group of cars drives to the Artesia Transit Yard near Gardena, where there is a Park and Ride MTA station. “Shortly before 2 a.m., a group of up to 70 cars that had been cruising just happened to stop there,” says Detective John Goodman of the LAPD’s Harbor Division. “There was some kind of confrontation, and there were a lot of shots fired. Brooks was shot and killed. A lot of people saw it. That may have started the escalation in the current violence.” Street rumors quickly circulate that the shooter was from Grape Street. Brooks, decked out in Blood red, had been with members of the PJ Crips, who have become strange gang fellows of late with the Bounty Hunters. Perhaps the most unusual result of the latest outbreak is that it has brought the Bounty Hunters, the city’s most notorious Blood gang, closer than ever to the PJ Crips of Imperial Courts, and that alliance against the Grape Street Crips is sending bewilderment throughout the black street-gang community. Nine miles away from Watts, in Hyde Park, a long way in gangland L.A., Kevin “Big Cat” Doucette, a notorious shot caller of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, is telling his cohorts about that distant gang war. “That’s about the craziest shit I ever heard,” says Big Cat, 45. “The PJs and the Bounty Hunters teaming up against Grape Street. Crips and Bloods teaming up to go at Crips.” Even law enforcement is surprised by the alliance. “The alliance doesn’t seem plausible or possible, but that’s what we’re hearing,” says Detective Dana Ellison of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Century Station. “The so-called treaty is dead.” And with the dead treaty comes the return of the payback shooting. Bounty Hunter or PJ Crip gets killed, supposedly by Grape Street, then a Grape Street must die in retaliation. Doesn’t have to be the shooter that gets hit with the payback. Sometimes, doesn’t even have to be a gang member. Just someone living in the rival project will do. Someone like Jason Harrison. A week after Sexy Wayne was killed, Harrison, 19, who is not a Grape Street gang member, is gunned down on 102nd Street inside Jordan Downs. It’s on. The next day, the Imperial Courts project is shot up. Then the Nickersons gets sprayed. Then Jordan Downs. Then, then, then. Sal LaBarbera, the lead homicide detective for the LAPD’s Southeast Division, which covers Watts, says tension is as high as it’s been in a long, long time. “You can tell the energy level is up in Grape Street,” says LaBarbera, a cool New Yorker straight outta Central Casting. “Guys are on guard duty. Trash cans are lined up at the entrance to the projects. Folks are ready to go. Ready to run into their apartment and get the guns.” He’s right, of course. It’s a rainy late night inside Jordan Downs on 102nd Street near an entrance to the projects off Juniper Street and 103rd, where two dumpsters the size of Escalades are placed. Young men and teenagers of the 700-unit project are indeed on the lookout for strangers while they smoke chronic and sip Olde English 800, still a favorite after all these years. Contrary to popular opinion, especially from Westsiders who’ve never been here, Jordan Downs can be a welcoming place, especially at a Saturday-afternoon barbecue or baseball game. You might get some curious glances at first, but then, after a few intros, a couple of beers, it’s usually cool. Certainly a warmer welcome than a Grape Street Crip would get on Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills. But at night, at least this one (and many others), the place is about as friendly as Uday and Qusay in a bad mood during the Persian Gulf War. “The fuck you doin’ here? Get the fuck outta here, bitch,” booms a Grape Streeter to me as I slowly drive by. I’m in an Enterprise-rented black Chevy Aveo with doors so flimsy one burst from a Kalashnikov would turn them into Emmenthaler Swiss cheese. “Hello, officer,” says another, which for years has been a common nighttime greeting to me in Watts. Not a lot of Armenians here. I stop in the lot between buildings 99 and 100 and inform the two Crips that I’m a reporter trying to find out what happened to Jason, trying to humanize him. From nowhere, two more Grape Street Crips appear, one of them standing in a doorway. “You need to leave. We ain’t talking to no reporters.” I park the Aveo in the lot a short distance from my new buddies, get out of the car, and walk over to the makeshift memorial display of murder candles, yellow roses, a large purple bunny rabbit and a framed photo of Jason Harrison. Scribble a few notes — barely legible later — and head back to the Aveo. A fifth Grape Streeter, older, like in his 40s, approaches, identifies himself only as Wes, and speaks quietly. “Jason was a good kid. Been knowing him since he was 12. Just had seen him an hour before he got shot, talking to some of the guys, and then I guess he was walking to his grandmother’s, right over there. Be careful.” I want to talk to the younger gang members, but figure it’s early in my reporting and why push it. At least, that’s my excuse to myself. I drive away. The next day, a former teacher of Harrison’s praises him. “Jason was just a great, great kid. When I heard what had happened, it felt like I’d been hit in the gut with a baseball bat,” says Gary Miles, a teacher at Markham Middle School and a longtime friend of the Harrison family. “Jason was never involved in any of the Grape Street gang stuff. He was a good, hard-working student. One of those kids, every time you saw him, he’d give you a pound and a hug. Always had a smile. A kid that loved life. “Lots of people not from around here don’t understand how entrenched people are to their neighborhood, to their set,” says Miles. “Lots of these kids are third-generation gang members from these projects. Forget about being jumped in. These kids are born in.” Miles, who is from Brooklyn, says the lure of the streets can often be too tempting for a project boy to resist. “Some kids would rather be a part of the hood thing than go on to junior college or a university if they could. It’s that lure. Plus, you throw in the music culture, MTV, and it just adds to the desire. Do I want to be a college football player or do I want to be hood famous? It becomes a seduction.” Two weeks after he died, Jason Harrison is laid to rest. His funeral, at the Inglewood Mortuary, is overflowing with emotion and mourners. About a hundred guys, guys that grew up together, went to Folsom and Corcoran together, just mingle outside during the services. Jason’s father has “Kodak RIP” shaved into the back of his head. Jason’s nickname was Kodak because he blinked a lot. His aunt goes on a tirade during her eulogy. “We are here today to take a real good look at our lives. There’s been too many deaths on our streets. When a person takes your life, you don’t take one life. You kill a family. You kill a community.” The aunt ratchets up her voice. “Today, parents are burying their children. Kids are killing kids. Children are killing, then going to bed snoring.” A purple-clad teenage boy passes out. He starts shaking. Almost no one notices, even the three Crips standing directly behind him. The aunt starts to scream. “He coulda been a gardener, a chauffeur, a movie producer, a cook. We don’t know what Jason coulda been.” Victims of a broken treaty: Family and friends remember Jason Harrison. Photo by Ted Soqui At the Community Self Determination Institute, on the northern border of Watts, executive director Aqueela Sherrills describes the current situation as a “powder keg.” “It’s the worst it’s been since the treaty in 1992,” says Sherrills, whose own 19-year-old son, Terrell, was killed in 2003 in an unrelated incident. “It’s crazy out there right now.” Sherrills and his brother Daude, both of whom have been active in the gang peace movement for more than a decade and who have traveled the world speaking about it, say the current problem is a matter of leadership. The other gangs couldn’t agree more. Many PJ Crips and the Bounty Hunters lay most of the blame on the Grape Street gang, who they say have lost their leadership, which has cut loose a new generation of young gang members to go on shooting sprees. Daude Sherrills admits the leadership in Grape Street is not what it once was, but also says, “Imperial Courts has a lot of enemies. We’re not responsible for their enemies. “But the hopelessness and joblessness create an idleness, which can create apathy for life,” he continues. “And that creates a domino effect that leads to murder and mayhem in the streets. Our race is in worse condition than we were before the ’65 riots. Everyone needs to take responsibility. We are fortunate more lives haven’t been lost.” Throughout the years, though, many lives have been lost in the three housing projects. According to LAPD statistics, from 1989 to May 21 this year, in the three reporting districts, or R.D.s, that cover Jordan Downs (R.D. 1829), Nickerson Gardens (R.D. 1846) and Imperial Courts (R.D. 1849), there have been 202 homicides. During that same period, there have been a startling 6,470 assaults in the three projects. These numbers cover just three reporting districts, not including all of Watts, out of a total of more than 1,000 in the city. In 2003, as things started to heat up, there were 12 homicides in the three projects. In comparison, that year the entire West L.A. Division, with 63 R.D.s, had three homicides. “There’s no denying it’s a very violent place,” says Captain Sergio Diaz, commander of the Southeast Division, which covers more than just Watts. “As of May 21, there had been 30 homicides in Southeast Division, an area less than 10 square miles and 140,000 people. That’s 10 times the national average.” Photo by Ted Soqui To be closer to the late-night scene, when violence is most likely, and to get a better sense of the mood of the community at its most vulnerable, I decide to move in for a couple of nights at one of the two motels along Wilmington Avenue, between Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs. I have been warned by several gang members not to do this. “But if you do,” laughs Daude Sherrills, “bring your own sheets.” I do. Red 300-count Egyptian cotton. I had been saving them for a special occasion. This wasn’t what I had in mind. My choices are the Villa Hills, near the railroad tracks off 108th Street, and the Mirror Motel, down on 112th Street. I check out the Villa Hills first. I am somewhat intrigued by the name. There’s not a hill for miles, and to call this place a villa is like calling Fallujah a resort town. Later, I realize the Hills part must have been taken from the slight 5- or 6-foot rise on Wilmington for the railroad tracks, and I guess the Villa part comes from the small bougainvillea near the front of the motel. The rooms go for $40 a night. The manager shows me Room 16. As soon as the door opens, the stench hits your nose like a jab from Larry Holmes. A combination of odors I don’t even want to think about. I tell the guy thanks and head back to check out the Mirror. The Mirror, painted a faded powder-blue, is a bit larger, two stories, and has 30 rooms. At 4 p.m., there’s only one car in the parking lot. I ask the Indian owner-manager how much for a room for the night. Thirty-five dollars. But then he says something very un-innkeeper-like — he fervently implores me not to rent a room here. “No, no,” he says. “No, you should not stay here. It’s not good around here.” He holds up his left hand and starts shooting off an imaginary pistol. “Boom, boom, boom. Every night, every day. Don’t stay here.” I’m tempted, but head back and rent Room 16 at the Villa Hills. (I’ll go back to the Mirror another night.) I bring in the sheets. They’re full-size and don’t fit the queen-size bed, but I get two corners on, which is enough. There’s a television that gets Channel 7 and a few others. No porno. There’s a dirty sink and a tiny shower, a ratty dresser, a broken window screen, and walls that appear to have been splattered with something that was probably once cavity blood. Across the street, Tommy’s Liquor is getting ready to close up at 7 p.m. “It’s not safe here at night,” the clerk says. A couple blocks away, a taco truck stays open later, doing a decent business in the early evening. As night falls, cars start showing up at the Villa Hills. Some stay for maybe a half-hour. Others, all night. Some guests make a lot of racket arguing, and some are clearly having a good time. Around 11 p.m., I take the Aveo out for a cruise through the three projects. They seem rather quiet on this night. In Imperial Courts, one lone, young PJ Crip, who won’t give even his nickname, asks, “What we suppose to do? Just let Grape Street shoot at us?” Still, even at this hour, several front doors are open and many folks appear as relaxed as if they were at a Sunday-afternoon picnic in the park. It takes more than decades of homicide to lock down the residents of Watts. A short time later, I head back to what Daude Sherrills calls “the only five-star hotel in Watts.” After a while, I go out for a short walk, past the railroad tracks, toward 107th Street. There’s a couple walking the same stretch of forgotten road. I hear at least five gunshots and instinctively duck down a bit, though the shots are not from a nearby passing car. The lady ahead laughs and calls out, “Fraidy cat.” Her companion laughs too. The next morning, I learn from police that a few blocks away, Keith Moore, 19, of Jordan Downs, was shot to death at 105th and Lou Dillon, in an area of Watts called Fudge Town. These shots are not the only ones of the night. Two other times, gunfire is heard near the motel. Police later say the Fudge Town killing is the only shooting they are aware of. No one calls the cops in Watts just to report gunfire. Someone needs to be hit. If gang members here were good marksmen, the homicide rate in Watts would be world-class bad. To read the second part of War and Peace in Watts, click here.

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