THIRTY-TWO PEOPLE showed up in Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s field office in Watts to talk about the surge in street violence. There were gang members, mothers of fallen sons, city officials, residents, the commanding officer of LAPD’s Southeast Division, community organizers, clergy and even some outsiders. They stressed the importance of jobs, and of getting resources into this forlorn neighborhood, but, most urgently, of getting a cease-fire for the latest gang war in Watts.
After a relatively quiet autumn, the Grape Street Watts Crips from Jordan Downs and the Bounty Hunters from Nickerson Gardens are back at each other’s throats, backs and internal organs. Since Christmas there have been five homicides and at least 25 shootings associated with the latest outburst. Over Super Bowl weekend, there were shootings in Nickerson Gardens, and at Imperial Courts, the third of the major projects in Watts and the domain of the PJ Crips.
“There hasn’t been anything like this in years,” said Sal LaBarbera, lead homicide detective for LAPD’s Southeast Division, which covers Watts. “It’s a mess. A real mess.”
During the meeting, frustrated by the lack of actual young gang members in attendance, “PJ” Steve Myrick, a powerful PJ Crip from the Imperial Courts projects, stormed out, two homeboys in tow. Little Janice Hahn jumped out of her seat and went after PJ Steve like she was Pittsburgh Steeler strong safety Troy Polamalu. She implored him to stay and speak his mind. With the help of Cynthia “Sista Soulja” Mendenhall, an activist from Imperial Courts, Hahn persuaded PJ Steve out of an elevator and back into the meeting.
After 30 seconds of silence to cool down, Hahn stood up and said, “The reason we are here is we are all affected by this. I’m struggling with this, too. You may not even know who I am. But when I hear kids who say they don’t think they will make it to their next birthday, I can’t live with that.” Looking directly at some gang members — including one who was wounded by rivals who sat nearby — she said, “You’re going to do the cease-fire. Then I’m going to finally get this community the resources that everyone else in the city takes for granted. We are in this for the long haul.”
Then Myrick got up and spoke passionately for several minutes.
“This is like a joke here. How you gonna have a cease-fire meeting, but you don’t have any shooters here?” said Myrick. “I represent the PJs, not the whole Imperial Courts. There’s a difference.”
Big Donny Joubert and Big Hank Pervis, two longtime, well-respected community activists from Nickerson Gardens, agreed that the “players” needed to be at the next meeting. But Joubert, who helps run a basketball league at the Nickerson Gardens gym, stressed the importance of getting a good job.
“You give a person a lasting job that he can support his family on, take care of his girlfriend, it will change his life,” said Joubert. “These meetings are very important and we need to continue them.”
Southeast Division Capt. Rich Meraz said there has not been a killing in more than two weeks and was encouraged by the recent arrests of Grape Street Crips on murder charges. Even with the project gangs back at it, violent crime is down in Southeast Division early into 2006 compared to the same period last year. “We are trying to defuse the situation, trying to get people to talk to us and hopefully put a lid on this,” said Meraz.
Off to the side, three white-T-shirt-clad gang members scoffed at the notion the LAPD was trying to end the madness.
“Man, them officers, they come through the projects and be saying, ‘Ooh, you better watch out tonight. Grape Street is gonna come down on you hard tonight,’?” said a PJ Crip who did not want to be identified. “Now, how the fuck is that helping the situation?”
Nevertheless, on Monday representatives from Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs met with LAPD Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, Capt. Meraz and others at the Southeast Division station on 108th Street to discuss the volatile situation.
“It was a good, positive meeting and we are going to have another one soon,” said community activist Joubert.
THERE HAVE BEEN MANY RUMORS as to what started this round of killings — Hollywood has nothing on Watts when it comes to gossip — but one seems to be gathering credence. On Christmas Eve, or the day before, a group of Grape Street Crips was at a club in Lakewood or Bellflower. Several Bounty Hunters were at the same club. A young lady from Grape Street started loudly putting down Nickerson Gardens. After a while, one of the Hunters knocked her out cold. She was the sister of a Grape Street Crip who has some clout, and when he heard about it, it was on.
Christmas morning, Derrick “Baby G” Harris, 35, from Nickerson Gardens was visiting friends and cousins near Jordan Downs. He was shot seven times. He tried to drive away, but crashed his car. He held on for nearly a month, but died last week. His funeral was held Saturday. Hundreds attended.
“He was into the peace treaty,” said his cousin Teka Harris, 25. “There’s just too many innocent people getting killed.”
On December 27, Darshay Harris, 25, from the Westside visited his girlfriend in Nickerson Gardens. For the last time. He was shot to death on 113th Street and Compton Avenue, allegedly by Grape Street.
On January 8, Tarrell Joseph, 18, was standing near Ace Hi Liquors at 115th Street and Wilmington Avenue, a few blocks from the Nickersons, when he was shot multiple times. He died the next day.
On January 9, Rayfton Morrison, 41, was shot and killed while standing in a playground on 105th Street near Gonzaque Village, a smaller project whose gang, the Village Boys, has ties with the Bounty Hunters.
On January 15, Ronald Belton, 16, was walking in the Nickersons in a parking area known as “the Folsom Lot” when he was struck down in a hail of gunfire.
“Ronald wasn’t about gangbanging at all,” said his uncle Willie “Lil Nut” Williams. “He was about sports, and he was trying to get into Verbum Dei [High School]. He was just a good kid. Never hurt nobody.”
“Most of the shootings have targeted the Bounty Hunters,” said Detective LaBarbera. “Though the actual victims often are not Bounty Hunters.”
Part of the reason there have not been more Grape Street victims is the intense effort by respected men in the Nickersons to rein in the troops. It’s an extremely difficult task.
One of them is Ronald “Kartoon” Antwine. “You can’t tell them what to do, but I tell them to think. Think. You make a split-second decision and you can spend the rest of your life in prison.”
The Grape Street Watts Crips, Bounty Hunters and PJs have a decades-old history of violence. But on April 28, 1992, the day before the city blew up after the acquittal of the policemen accused of beating Rodney King, the gangs of the Watts housing projects signed a peace treaty that was the most successful of all the city’s gang truces. Though there were individual clashes, for more than a decade the gangs got along in relative peace.
Last year, several shootings and deaths led many to state the peace treaty was officially dead. But for months there was an uneasy calm, until Christmas.
USING A CANE TO SUPPORT his bullet-riddled body, Elvonzo “Redmann” Cromwell from Grape Street reflected on the meeting with Councilwoman Hahn. Of all those in attendance, Redmann probably found it the most traumatic. Last spring he was shot three times by PJ Crips and lost a kidney. Now he was in the same room with members of the gang that nearly killed him.
“Man, it was super hard to be in that room with them,” Redmann, 26, said in Jordan Downs later that night. “For me to even be in a room with some PJs, that’s a huge step. I’m biting the bullet. I got a lot of pain and after I got shot I wasn’t really for peace.”
He said he was doing it for his five kids who live with their mother in Bakersfield.
“When I hear that my kids are afraid to come visit me because of where I live and my lifestyle, it’s time for me to change,” he said. “I’m doing this for my 10-year-old son.”
Redmann, who had a PJ bullet removed from his torso last week, said street gangs were not his biggest fear.
“Tell the truth, I’m more scared of the police than the gangs,” he said. “I guess they doing their job, but they come in with M-16s and tactics. And the courts, they giving out years in prison like it’s free candy at Halloween time,” he said. “I got 18 of my homies from Grape Street that are between 18 to 20 years old doing life sentences. Eighteen.”
The LAPD has made more than 100 arrests in response to the shootings, two on suspicion of murder and 40 for violation of the gang injunctions, according to Lt. Paul Vernon.
After the meetings, Lil Nut and PJ Steve and a few others went to Jordan Downs in hopes of getting some of the youngsters to come to the table.
“It was a little shaky at first, but then it was cool,” said Lil Nut. “They said they gonna come to the next meeting. That’s a good sign. Plus nobody got shot today.”
More than anything, people in Watts just want the gunfire to stop. Like Redmann said, “I don’t wanna be living like I’m in Iraq when I’m living in Los Angeles.”