War and Peace in Watts, Part Two
Photo by Gregory Bojorquez This is the second part of Michael Krikorian's story. To read the first part of War and Peace in Watts, click here.
Ronald Kartoon Antwine is sitting in his garage, looking out at the Union Pacific railroad tracks near 114th and Wilmington Avenue. Kartoon is one of the legendary Bounty Hunters. A former menace to society. A 6-foot-4½-inch, 260-pound thug who carried a pistol in one pocket and a sawed-off Winchester pump shotgun under his black leather jacket. He robbed people, shot people, beat up people in the wild days of the 70s. He paid for his crimes by doing more than 15 years at the toughest prisons in California, including thousands of days at Folsom back when Folsom made the Pelican Bay of today seem like juvenile hall. He walked out of prison in 1992 and has not been back. Just days after he left Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe (Americas Hottest Prison), the peace treaty was being negotiated, and Kartoon became a key representative for the Bounty Hunters and Nickerson Gardens. He recalls that one of the biggest sticking points was that the Crips PJs and Grape Street were concerned about their safety in his Blood neighborhood. One day I said, Lets find out, and we all started walking through the Nickersons, Bloods and Crips. The young homies were stunned, but they joined in. It was beautiful. These days, Kartoon is a gifted writer, a Bounty Hunter historian, a community activist, and still a respected figure in Nickerson Gardens. You see that field right there by the tracks? he asks, pointing 50 feet away. That used to be our Vietnam. That was the frontlines. That was the border between the Bounty Hunters and the PJs. There used to be weeds higher than me there, and wed be sniping at them from our side and theyd be sniping at us from their side. But now that the PJs and Bounty Hunters are getting along, the weeds are gone, and so is the fear of gunfire. I sit in this garage and its a pleasure to see the people cross the tracks, crossing enemy lines. Its like walking through a force field on Star Trek. Used to be you cross those tracks, you die. Now people walk back and forth. Kartoon, 46, partly blames the local government and the lack of resources available to help stop the violence. But Kartoon (Bloods disdain the letter C) reserves his harshest words for those whom he considers the cause of the treatys demise and the latest upsurge in violence by young, reactionary gangsters. All the projects are doing their part to stop the violence, but every project has those reactionaries who listen to no one and dont want to participate in the peace movement, he says. All we ask is they dont sabotage the peace. Its like in Baghdad. They got that one religious sect doing all the bombing. But the other sect refuses to retaliate. Kartoon says hes been in the Nickersons during and after recent shootings. With other hall-of-fame Bounty Hunters Big Hank, Big Donny and Na Na, he tried to persuade the young homies not to retaliate. Our young guys were saying, 'Fuck this. We gonna do something.' So Hank and Donny and everybody, we had to calm them. Its not an easy thing to do.
He doesnt tell young Bounty Hunters what to do to attack or not to attack but rather emphasizes the consequences of their actions.
"All the guys getting busted, they dont realize what a life sentence is. When the pop goes off, when their head pops out of their ass and they realize they aint going home after just five years. When they realize theyll never be able to taste a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder again. To see them go crazy when they hear their moms is dying and theyre locked up and cant go see her. When they hear their woman is pregnant by their best homeboy. When they realize theyll never see a night sky again."
As Im driving one evening through the 1,066-unit Nickerson Gardens, said to be the largest housing project west of the Mississippi, dozens of men and women are milling about, and children are playing near their apartment units, many of them with small, nicely tended gardens with roses in full spring bloom.
For anyone who has ever seen the nations worst housing projects, such as the now-destroyed, infamous Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side of Chicago, the projects in Watts look almost pleasant during a quick drive-through. They are not high-rise prisons like Robert Taylor, Cabrini Green or Rockwell Gardens, but rather two-story buildings with small patches of lawn in front of them. A closer look, however, reveals the poverty and aura of hopelessness.
The Los Angeles city attorney has imposed a gang injunction against the Bounty Hunters here that makes it a misdemeanor for any of them to be together, although it is impossible to enforce all the time. In part of the city attorneys report, LAPD Officer Victor Ross, one of the most hated men in Nickerson Gardens, writes, "When gang members are stopped by law enforcement they will say that they are going to visit their grandmothers, but in fact they are just hanging out with a bunch of other gang members, drinking, using drugs, playing loud music, gambling, loitering to be hooks or lookouts. They are doing anything but visiting their grandmothers."
Officer Ross describes a few gang members, like Aubrey Anderson, known as "Lunatic" or simply "Tic." "He is feared in the sense that he is short-tempered and is seen as crazy enough to do anything. He is not afraid to commit violence to further the gang." Another one is Israel Jauregui, a.k.a. Izzy, who has a tattoo on his arm that says, "Kill or Be Killed." "He is a violent gang member who is not afraid to commit shootings or other violent acts for the gang." Izzy, it turns out, is in federal custody now, and attempts to contact Lunatic were unsuccessful, much to the delight of my family.
Of the three projects in Watts, Imperial Courts appears the most run-down. The blue and green buildings that house 490 units look tired. Trash is rampant, flowers are few, and packs of young men evil-eye every stranger.
Recently, on a spring afternoon at Imperial Courts Recreation Center, which has a shiny full-size basketball court, no one is in the gym. But the narrow streets are full of young men. No one wants to talk about the breakdown of the truce. The four most common responses are "Im not from here," "Im just visiting," "Fuck off" and "Talk to PJ Steve."
PJ Steve is Steven Myrick, a tall, well-built 39-year-old whos been a Crip almost his entire life, did nine years for kidnapping, robbery and assault, and has 2-inch-tall letters, "P" and "J," tattooed on his throat.
When PJ Steve heard about the 1992 treaty, he had mixed emotions.
"I was locked up when the peace treaty happened, and I was confused about it for a while. I couldnt get it," says PJ Steve. "But then you realize it was a move for the kids. Kids need a better way than the way we had it. But now you got kids going back to the same ways.
PJ Crip "Cornbread" chimes in that he doesnt feel safe in Jordan Downs.
In Jordan Downs, a group of Grape Streeters talk about the breakdown of the treaty, and the future. "I didnt really like the peace treaty anyway," says Scrap, 29. "If I kill you today, then one of your homies whos like 11 or 12 now is gonna remember it, and when he gets older hes gonna blow my head off. Thats whats happening today."
There is some hope in Jordan Downs that the infamous Grape Street shot caller Wayne "Honcho" Day may soon be free after serving nine years in federal prison on drug distribution and conspiracy charges. Day, now 48, was sentenced to more than 19 years, but he successfully appealed on the basis that he was poorly represented, and a decision on whether to reduce his sentence will be made within a month or so, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Terrell.
In a 1997 speech by Steven R. Wiley, then chief of the Violent Crimes and Major Offenders section of the FBI, Honcho was called "the Godfather of Watts." Thats a slight exaggeration, but when told that Honcho may be getting out of prison soon, both Kartoon and PJ Steve consider it good news.
"If Honcho was here, this wouldnt be happening," says Kartoon.
Sitting on a wooden table near the closed Jordan Downs gymnasium on a fine spring afternoon as his friends prepare to barbecue and play baseball, Honchos nephew Kmond Day lays part of the blame for the violence on alcohol.
"Alcohol is not for peace," he says. "But some people drink cuz theres nothing else to do. The reality is, if we have guys from our own hood who get high and we cant control them here, how can we expect them to go to other hoods and not act stupid?"
But Kmond says most gang members dont even know why they bang.
"A lot of so-called gang members could win Oscars. Theyre acting like gang members. Theyre doing the stuff gang members do shooting, killing but they dont even know the whole purpose of representing the hood. If you ask them why they bang, they say, 'To represent the hood.' Represent what? There is no point in representing the hood. Whats the purpose? There is no purpose."
Many young kids gangbang out of fear, not fear of the other hoods but fear from guys from their own block.
"You got cats thats killing cats from other projects, and the homies that are with them are afraid of them, so they try to impress their big homies," says Kmond. "But really, they are just scared. But they think its the only way to survive."
Making a difference: Gregory Thomas Photo by Gregory Bojorquez Some in Jordan Downs complain bitterly about what they consider the rough tactics of one LAPD officer, Christian Mrakich. They claim he harasses people and encourages the gang wars. "Mrakich is the Rafael Perez of Jordan Downs," says Daude Sherrills.
Captain Sergio Diaz says he has received several complaints about "an officer" in Jordan Downs, but nothing has been substantiated.
"While I cant talk about personnel investigations, I will tell you, in the course of a criminal investigation earlier this year, we know from wiretaps that targets of these narcotics investigations encouraged each other to make complaints about a specific officer who they knew to be investigating them," Diaz says. "We checked them out and concluded he had done nothing wrong."
Attempts to interview Mrakich are rejected by the LAPD, but his commander laughs when told that many gang members spoke badly of the officer.
"We have a lot of bad things to say about Grape Street, too," says Captain Diaz. "They are killers, dope dealers and robbers. Mrakich and [Victor] Ross are very effective in the projects, and of course many people hate them, quite naturally."
Unlike some in the LAPD, Diaz praises the now-fallen peace treaty.
"There was a lot of skepticism in the department about the treaty, but I believe it made a significant difference in the violent-crime rate," says Diaz.
"Obviously, the truce thing was good in that people werent shooting each other. But now, unfortunately, that is over."
On the evening of April 9, Officers Oscar Ontiveros and Darren Stauffer, from Diazs Southeast Division, are involved in a shooting that kills Bounty Hunter Spencer "Fox" Johnson after, they say, he pointed an assault rifle at them near Bellhaven and 112th streets. Gang sources say Fox was on the lookout for a Grape Street attack at the time.
In the early-morning hours of May 9, another Bounty Hunter, Kemal Hutcherson, 24, is gunned down not by police on perhaps the most cruelly named street in the city, Success Avenue.
Though it has a nationwide bad rep (and this story wont make it any better), citizens who live here have a great deal of pride in Watts. Ive never heard anyone boast, "Man, Im from Bel Air," but folks seem almost eager to tell you theyre from Watts. And because of their resiliency, and because of the mostly good memories of the 1992 treaty, there is much hope that this current battle of the projects will not be left to fester and maim and kill for years.
In the last two weeks there has been a call to fight the good fight. Not to cave in to the violence and accept it as in days of yore. Not to just be outraged when a cop kills a black kid, but be outraged when a black kid kills a black kid.
In the projects, a new group of respected, slightly older gang members not just famous triple O.G.s like Big Hank from the Nickersons or Elementary from Grape Street, but adults in their mid-20s and -30s, men and women who are trying to reach the youngsters and quell the killings have emerged.
One of those young men is Bow Wow from Grape Street, who has been meeting with his counterparts from the other projects and reporting back to the young homies.
"We need to keep conversating," says Bow Wow. "Theres a new leadership, and we just need to keep talking and not shooting."
The older guys can help, but much hope is put on the new generation of leaders.
"We are dealing with a new generation who are trying to maintain the tradition of peace, trying to make a difference in a positive way," says Gregory Thomas, supervisor of those gang-intervention workers at CSDI. "Young brothers with respect. Guys that have been through a lot and changed."
The spirit behind the new leadership is that the new violence has heaved the responsibility for peace on the newer generation, and a lot of younger men are stepping up in an effort to stop this madness. They are trying, for example, to prevent a 15-year-old from getting into a car with an AK-47 and shooting another black boy because he lives in a housing project that is similar to his own but has a different name.
"This is not about the Nickerson Gardens or the Jordan Downs or the Imperial Courts," says Michelle Irving, a former Sybil Brand regular turned gang-intervention worker. "Those are just names someone gave three housing projects."
Citing the same impetus that was behind the 1992 treaty, the adults say they are doing this for the children. "Its sad to see a young person walking down the street worried about if he or she is going to get shot," says Irving, who was "a mother and father at age 14." "They should be walking down the street thinking about school. Thinking about a future. A bright one."
As Aqueela puts it, "Peace is not a destination. Its a journey with peaks and valleys along the way."
In Watts, that journey just might be never-ending. But at least therell be a whole lot of people along for the ride.
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