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LA People 2009: Salt and Spice — Betty Day, the Godmother of Jordan Downs and Beyond

Betty Day doesn’t take shit from anyone. She’d tell off Obama if he pissed her off. Hell, she’d cuss out Putin in a heartbeat while walking the streets of Moscow at midnight. That’s Betty Day, the godmother of the Jordan Downs.   

At a weekly Monday-morning meeting of the Watts Gang Task Force at Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s office on Compton Avenue, Day, president of the community group, storms out to confront Father Peter, the priest of the nearby St. Lawrence of Brindisi church across the street. Day has heard that Father Peter is leaving the pulpit, and she is having none of it. Someone from the church puts a hand on Day’s shoulder; she shrugs it off. She turns to Father Peter and says, “You’re not going anywhere. If I have to go all the way to the Pope, you’re staying in Watts.”

Father Peter responds by turning to an onlooker and saying, “Betty is wonderful. She loves the people. She loves the poor.” He’s known Day for 20 years.

Just then, Day gets word via cell phone that there has been an overnight break-in at Jordan High School. At least 12 of the school’s already scant number of computers have been stolen. She gathers some of her people and they head to the parking lot where she waits as other members of her group jog two blocks to get a car to take them to the high school a half-mile away.

“Why don’t they call the LAPD?” she says. “They got lots of cars around there. But, no, they call me instead. What does that tell you?”

Earlier in the Gang Task Force meeting, a white man put his hand on Day’s shoulder, apparently a popular place. “I was gonna punch that motherfucker,” she says. “I’m not playing games.”

That’s Betty Day, too. Age 69.

As she waits for the car, Day talks about how Jordan Downs, one of the most notorious housing projects in the United States, has had only one homicide so far this year, a stat backed up by the LAPD.

“The people themselves are just tired of the violence. It’s been going on for so long. I just do what I do best. I am a people person. I understand and I listen. Most people, they don’t listen. If people would listen, things would be much better.

Day says she works all “four corners of Watts,” referring to not only Jordan Downs but the Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts and Gonzac Village projects as well. The car finally arrives to take her to Jordan High.

Forty-five minutes later, back at the task force meeting, LAPD Sgt. James Linder of Southeast Division’s Community Relations gets a phone call telling him that 12 computers have been stolen from Jordan High School. Day is already at the school dealing with the situation, but this is the first word the sergeant is getting. He tells his captain. It’s news to him, too.

“Betty’s got a big heart,” Linder says. “She has helped bridge the gap between the community and the LAPD. She’s been instrumental there. Some of our officers have had trouble accepting her because of the past,” he admits, “but, in my eyes, she is golden.”

That “past” is mainly due to those officers’ feelings toward her son, the former infamous leader of Grape Street Crips, Wayne “Honcho” Day, whom the FBI once described as the “Godfather of Watts.” Honcho served more than 11 years in federal prison on drug charges and was released last year.

Even the commander of the Southeast Division has good things to say about Betty Day. Like Linder, Capt. Phil Tingiridessays she has helped the relationship between Jordan Downs and the LAPD, a place that traditionally has had a poorer relationship with the LAPD than the Taliban has with the Green Berets. “Helping the relationship is much appreciated,” he says. “She seems to be genuine.”

James Phillip Smith, president of Youth Employment Solutions, says Day “gets things done. She’s connected politically and she’s connected on the street, which allows for her to get the proper resources. She is always trying to help someone. People respect her.”

“Betty brings a lot to the community,” says Donnie Joubert, a peace activist based in Nickerson Gardens. “She is serious about the peace. She is a strong activist for Watts.”

When told Day was to be the subject of a small profile, Councilwoman Hahn looks surprised. “Small profile? You could write a book about Betty Day. Betty is the heart and soul of the Watts community. She is the salt of the Earth. She provides the spice, too. She also provides some stability from the history of Watts to the future of Watts. She is the core.”


Click here for a complete list of L.A. People 2009.


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