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Up From the Streets: A Scene From Occupy L.A.

Dito Montiel and Aqeela Sherrills at Occupy L.A.

Luigi VenturaDito Montiel and Aqeela Sherrills at Occupy L.A.

Woodrow Coleman came all the way from Long Beach to see the Arab Spring bloom in downtown L.A.

The African-American septuagenarian with deep-set brown eyes and a woolly white tangle of beard sports a well-worn baseball cap that suggests he has something money can't buy -- poverty.

"For a change, bring some change," he says, taking a seat on an ice chest. "Make the world a better place for people to live."

A randy redolence of patchouli, B.O., weed and bus exhaust hovers like a storm cloud, feeling more like Manhattan in July than Occupy L.A. in October. The ideological ooze congeals like liquid mercury on the steps of City Hall.

Nearby, two Mexican teenage boys in tight jeans and black T-shirts with bandannas pulled across their faces brandish signs about corporate greed. Movie director Dito Montiel and superstar activist Aqeela Sherrills take a break on the steps.

Montiel and Sherrills, both products of public housing projects, came of age 3,000 miles apart on symbiotic coasts. Montiel grew up just down the street from the high-rise Astoria Housing Projects in Queens, N.Y., while Sherrills comes from the lowlands of Los Angeles: the sprawling Jordan Downs projects in Watts.

"I remember when we were kids, I used to go up on the roof," Montiel says. "I always thought you guys had it worse, because [L.A. projects are] low-rise, but I found out later that it's worse here." He looks more fitness guru than urban guerrilla in a soft, blue zip-up hoodie and shorts. "I remember what I felt like as a kid. You walk a thin line. I've been lucky. I take a good bat to the head and bounce back."

Sherrills is tall, handsome and fit, in a white polo shirt, English walking cap and flip-flops. "I remember, third or fourth grade, seeing people getting shot and killed and their fingers cut open and their neighborhood written on the wall with their blood. Really gruesome shit. I kinda somewhat made it through that. In ninth grade one of my really good friends got shot and killed. The crack trade entered the community and totally decimated it. All of the girls we were in love with became strawberries, turning tricks for money and shit."

Montiel and Sherrills transcended the social housing matrix and became high-functioning achievers. Sherrills co-founded Amer-I-Can with Jim Brown and the Community Self-Determination Institute after his son was killed in '04 in a random shooting. He brokered the infamous 1992 peace agreement between the Bloods and Crips.

Montiel migrated to L.A. after a music biz career as a hardcore frontman in New York in the '80s and emerged as a novelist and screenwriter in L.A. His third film as writer-director comes out next month.

"It's called The Son of No One," Montiel tells Sherrills. His film was shot in Queens at the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in North America. "It's about two kids who get killed in the projects. They felt like no one cared. They weren't entirely wrong."

Starring Channing Tatum, Al Pacino and Katie Holmes, the film is based on Montiel's book of the same name, about two kids who kill two people in the projects in the 1980s.

"Movies is a strange world to get into," he says. "The minute you say 'projects,' they say, 'OK, hip-hop soundtrack and who's breaking out the guns?'"

Sherrills says he never questioned the violence while growing up. "It meant I'd have to question the violence going on in my own home, and I didn't have the language or the courage to do that ... until I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Evidence of Things Not Seen."

Montiel talks about he knew in Queens, a named Hanky, who was 18 when he was 14. Hanky was shot and bled out in a hallway. "There were bullets in him. The police came and were laughing and eating sandwiches when they took him away."

Another friend, Black Vinnie, told him, "Nobody gives a shit about anybody here."

His words linger. In the movie, Pacino plays a cop, who says: "Not a single, fucking person, no one gives a shit."

The focus outside the mayor's office shifts from capitalist classism to the Prison Industrial Complex as a doughy, middle-aged white woman, looking more like a librarian from Encino than a class warrior, claims a spot on the steps, carrying a wordy sign: "Long-term isolation is torture, Pelican Bay hunger strike, NRCAT [National Religious Campaign Against Torture]."

The heat of the day finally relents late in the afternoon, and Montiel and Sherrills are ready to hit the road. They live the same distance from City Hall in opposite directions, Sherrills in Watts, Montiel on the Westside.

"Is it true that it's near impossible to get out of the world that you're born into?" Montiel asks. "Yeah, it is tough. It's the truth. A lot of good people get stuck in weird ruts. A lot of people here are saying that it's beyond that now."

Sherrills is hard at work developing a wellness salon to heal the traumatic experiences. Montiel is writing the script for a movie based on his book The Clapper.

As Occupy L.A. leans into Homeless Awareness Month in November, a predictable silence from moneymaking Hollywood persists. Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, Jeffrey Ross and a video crew from Jimmy Kimmel Live! with a man in a gorilla suit have paid visits. Someone said Denzel was here, and there's a whisper that Demi is coming soon.

Follow Sam Slovick on Twitter and see more of his work at SamSlovick.com.