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
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 (“America’s
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, ‘Let’s find out,’ and we all started walking through the Nickersons,
Bloods and Crips. The young homies were stunned, but they joined in. It was
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 we’d be
sniping at them from our side and they’d 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 it’s a pleasure to see the people cross the tracks,
crossing enemy lines. It’s 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 treaty’s
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 don’t want to participate in
the peace movement,” he says. “All we ask is they don’t sabotage the peace.
It’s like in Baghdad. They got that one religious sect doing all the bombing.
But the other sect refuses to retaliate.”
Kartoon says he’s 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. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
He doesn’t 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 don’t realize what a life
sentence is. When the pop goes off, when their head pops out of their ass and
they realize they ain’t going home after just five years. When they realize
they’ll 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 they’re locked up and can’t
go see her. When they hear their woman is pregnant by their best homeboy. When
they realize they’ll never see a night sky again.”
As I’m 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 nation’s 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 attorney’s
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 “I’m not from
here,” “I’m just visiting,” “Fuck off” and “Talk
to PJ Steve.”
PJ Steve is Steven Myrick, a tall, well-built 39-year-old who’s
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 couldn’t 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 doesn’t feel safe
in Jordan Downs.
In Jordan Downs, a group of Grape Streeters talk about the breakdown
of the treaty, and the future. “I didn’t really like the peace treaty anyway,”
says Scrap, 29. “If I kill you today, then one of your homies who’s like
11 or 12 now is gonna remember it, and when he gets older he’s gonna blow my
head off. That’s what’s 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
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.” That’s 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 wouldn’t be happening,” says
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,
Honcho’s 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 there’s nothing else to do. The reality is, if we have guys
from our own hood who get high and we can’t control them here, how can we expect
them to go to other hoods and not act stupid?”
But Kmond says most gang members don’t even know why they bang.
“A lot of so-called gang members could win Oscars. They’re
acting like gang members. They’re doing the stuff gang members do — shooting,
killing — but they don’t 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. What’s 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 that’s 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 it’s the only way to survive.”
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 can’t 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
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 weren’t
shooting each other. But now, unfortunately, that is over.”
On the evening of April 9, Officers Oscar Ontiveros and Darren
Stauffer, from Diaz’s 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 won’t
make it any better), citizens who live here have a great deal of pride in Watts.
I’ve never heard anyone boast, “Man, I’m from Bel Air,” but folks
seem almost eager to tell you they’re 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. “There’s
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
“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
Citing the same impetus that was behind the 1992 treaty, the adults
say they are doing this for the children. “It’s 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
As Aqueela puts it, “Peace is not a destination. It’s a journey
with peaks and valleys along the way.”
In Watts, that journey just might be never-ending. But at least
there’ll be a whole lot of people along for the ride.