By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Watani Stiner didn’t have to return to San Quentin. He’s here for his family.
Born in Houston in 1948, Watani grew up drinking from the “colored” water fountain in the segregated South. Christened Larry Stiner, the oldest of five children, he was raised in a strict Catholic household with a picture of white Jesus next to his mother’s Bible on the kitchen table. Racism was an omnipresent reality for his family — a reality whose orthodoxy a young Watani accepted without question. “At the time, I didn’t think about it as the injustice it was,” he says. “I thought about it in terms of sin. It was a sin for me to want to drink out of the ‘white’ fountain. It was a godly privilege to be white.”
For his father, however, a World War II veteran and a Ph.D. in mathematics, having to stoically bear the indignities of racism and segregation was too much for his pride to handle. He turned to alcohol to nurse the humiliation and betrayal dealt to him by the country he fought for.
As Watani grew older and his father’s alcoholism worsened, his mother began to fear for the safety of her children. “My father was really two people,” says Watani, “the man I loved and the man who drank.”
By 1958, his mother had had enough and bought three Greyhound bus tickets to Los Angeles — for herself, Watani and George. The trio would eventually settle in Watts, while the boys’ other three siblings stayed behind in Houston with their grandmother. Watani would see his father only once again.
Although his fractured family situation hurt, Watani discovered a sense of freedom on the West Coast. There were no more “colored” and “white” water fountains, no more having to go through the back door to buy groceries from a store.
“We had a relative degree of autonomy in Watts, compared to Houston. We could pretty much do what we wanted — with the exception of occasional police harassment and brutality.”
But though he relished his newfound independence, Watani found the smothering racism of East Texas replaced by the aggressive street culture of Watts.
“The first thing I noticed about Watts was how much everyone cursed. ‘Fuck this and fuck that.’ Texas was pretty sheltered — I wasn’t used to hearing those things.”
Curse words were the least of his troubles. Watani, with his shy disposition and polite Southern temperament, soon became a target for the street-hardened neighborhood kids. “I used to have to run home from school every day,” he says. “If I didn’t, the other kids would beat me up pretty good. Outsiders were not readily accepted.”
Watani struggled to fit in, but his efforts were aided greatly when his mother remarried. His stepfather, James, provided Watani with the fatherly guidance he desperately craved. “We started out calling him ‘Mr. James,’ but we wound up calling him ‘Daddy,’ ” says Watani. “He was everything you could want in a father — working hard every day, teaching us discipline, and there for us whenever we needed him.”
Despite his early traumas, Watani developed into, by all accounts, an intelligent, well-adjusted young man. Even with an aggressive, often militant, police presence in his neighborhood, he never had any serious run-ins with the law. He graduated from Manual Arts High School in June of 1965 and married his high school sweetheart, Jackie, who was already pregnant with their first child, Larry Jr. As to his feelings on racial injustice in America, for Watani, as for most residents in South-Central at the time, the civil rights struggle was secondary to just getting by.
“We saw Martin Luther King on TV,” says Watani, “but Watts was a long ways off from the South.”
That was about to change. Months after Watani’s graduation, on the night of August 11, 1965, black motorist Marquette Frye was pulled over in Watts by a white police officer on a routine DUI stop. As Frye began to struggle with the officer, hundreds gathered to watch his arrest. When Frye’s mother, who lived nearby, got involved, she was arrested too — enraging the crowd and setting off six days of riots. Watts exploded, and the blast awakened the racial-political consciousness of L.A.’s black youth.
“Watts was a cathartic experience,” remembers Watani. “It brought all these deeply buried feelings of anger to the surface. After the riots, a whole new range of possibilities opened up. We didn’t want to ‘turn the other cheek’ like our parents and Martin Luther King. Our generation suddenly wanted to be like Malcolm X — to assert our rights by any means necessary.”
Though he contemplated joining the Nation of Islam, Watani eventually came across his niche in the civil rights struggle accidentally. Walking home past the Aquarius Bookstore on a December night in 1966, he found a group of African-inspired, colorfully dressed black men and women, chatting and celebrating in a language he didn’t recognize — Swahili. When he went to investigate, he was immediately embraced by the group and invited in to celebrate alongside them.
“I had never had such rich feelings of racial pride and self-worth,” he remembers. Watani had inadvertently stumbled upon the very first Kwanzaa celebration and Maulana Karenga’s Us organization (“as in us and not them,” says Watani).