Photo by Gregory BojorquezPresident Bush keeps saying America is safer now that Saddam Hussein is
out of power. Prez hasn’t been to Watts lately.
The much heralded, often copied and never equaled Watts housing-project gang peace
treaty of 1992 has officially imploded, leaving bodies, grieving families and
shell casings scattered over the most infamous black neighborhood west of the
South Side of Chicago.
The nights of mixing purple, blue and red are over. Gone are the days when the
Grape Street Watts Crips from Jordan Downs (purple), the Bounty Hunter Bloods
from Nickerson Gardens (red) and the Project, or PJ, Crips from Imperial Courts
(blue) could encounter one another without fear of death.
During the wild year of 1989, in the LAPD reporting districts that cover the three
main housing projects in Watts, there were 25 homicides. During the height of
the treaty in 1997, there were four.
So far this year there have been at least seven killings in and around the projects,
dozens of shootings, a reported 187 violent crimes and, with all that, the acknowledgment
that there is no more treaty.
Long gone are the joyous parties and rowdy football games that homies from the
projects threw and played together. Gone are the days when a gangster from the
Jordans who had a child with a lady from the Nickerson could have a lazy Sunday-afternoon
barbecue in peace.
“I can’t even go see my son,” says Grape Street member Dell (“like the computer”)
Hester, 21. “I got a baby from a girl in the Nickersons, but I can’t even go there
no more. It’s gonna be a real hot summer.”
While many in law enforcement say the treaty has been shaky for years, only recently have actual gang members themselves admitted it.
The 1992 treaty, which became official the day before the Rodney King verdict
set the city ablaze, was born from older gang members who did not want their children
to go through the dread they had long endured. It was marked by celebrations,
by families and friends being able to visit each other in different projects without
But in the last year or so, as a new generation of gang members came of shooting
age, which is about 13 to 16, word began to spread that the treaty was on the
ropes. And in the projects, words, rumors, truth and fiction get spread fast.
Soon residents of Nickerson Gardens knew it wasn’t wise anymore to go to Jordan
Downs, and folks from there knew they weren’t getting the royal treatment if they
popped in at the Nickersons or Imperial Courts.
“We ain’t even thinking about a peace treaty right now,” says Bow Wow, a respected
26-year-old from Grape Street. “We’re just trying to get a cease-fire. Just trying
to stop all the shootings.”
Thomas “Tuck” Graham Jr., 20, a Bounty Hunter who was so young when he started
banging he doesn’t even remember how he got his nickname, says the days of peace
with Grape Street are over. “We used to see Grape Street members come over here
and we’d give them a pass,” says Tuck as he smokes a cigarette and sips on a small
bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. “But now things are different. I see a
Grape Streeter, especially in the Nickersons, he ain’t getting no motherfuckin’
passes, especially since they killed my homey.” His homey was Dwayne “Sexy Wayne”
Brooks, 22, a Bounty Hunter renowned as a smooth-talking ladies’ man.
The Watts peace treaty certainly did not stop all violence in the housing projects.
Internal, in-house disputes were often settled with Mac 10s and Sigs. There were
also gang member–vs.–rival gang member acts of violence, but for the most part
this was done on an individual level, a personal dispute between, say, a Bounty
Hunter and a Grape Streeter over a range of things, from drugs to, of course,
women. But the peace treaty pretty much squashed one gang firing on another gang
simply because they were from a different hood.
tranquil moment at
Photo by Gregory Bojorquez
The killing of Sexy Wayne marked a clear return of killing someone just for that
On March 5, there is a minor conflict in Cerritos at a skating rink. For decades,
such places have been magnets for many black gang members. Details of the incident
are sketchy, but either words or a few fists are briefly exchanged. Bounty Hunters
say Sexy Wayne is not involved in the incident. Later, a group of cars drives
to the Artesia Transit Yard near Gardena, where there is a Park and Ride MTA station.
“Shortly before 2 a.m., a group of up to 70 cars that had been cruising just happened
to stop there,” says Detective John Goodman of the LAPD’s Harbor Division. “There
was some kind of confrontation, and there were a lot of shots fired. Brooks was
shot and killed. A lot of people saw it. That may have started the escalation
in the current violence.”
Street rumors quickly circulate that the shooter was from Grape Street. Brooks,
decked out in Blood red, had been with members of the PJ Crips, who have become
strange gang fellows of late with the Bounty Hunters.
Perhaps the most unusual result of the latest outbreak is that it has brought
the Bounty Hunters, the city’s most notorious Blood gang, closer than ever to
the PJ Crips of Imperial Courts, and that alliance against the Grape Street Crips
is sending bewilderment throughout the black street-gang community.
Nine miles away from Watts, in Hyde Park, a long way in gangland L.A.,
Kevin “Big Cat” Doucette, a notorious shot caller of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, is
telling his cohorts about that distant gang war.
“That’s about the craziest shit I ever heard,” says Big Cat, 45. “The PJs and
the Bounty Hunters teaming up against Grape Street. Crips and Bloods teaming up
to go at Crips.”
Even law enforcement is surprised by the alliance.
“The alliance doesn’t seem plausible or possible, but that’s what we’re hearing,”
says Detective Dana Ellison of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Century Station.
“The so-called treaty is dead.”
And with the dead treaty comes the return of the payback shooting. Bounty Hunter
or PJ Crip gets killed, supposedly by Grape Street, then a Grape Street must die
in retaliation. Doesn’t have to be the shooter that gets hit with the payback.
Sometimes, doesn’t even have to be a gang member. Just someone living in the rival
project will do.
Someone like Jason Harrison.
A week after Sexy Wayne was killed, Harrison, 19, who is not a Grape Street gang
member, is gunned down on 102nd Street inside Jordan Downs. It’s on.
The next day, the Imperial Courts project is shot up. Then the Nickersons gets
sprayed. Then Jordan Downs. Then, then, then. Sal LaBarbera, the lead homicide
detective for the LAPD’s Southeast Division, which covers Watts, says tension
is as high as it’s been in a long, long time.
“You can tell the energy level is up in Grape Street,” says LaBarbera, a cool
New Yorker straight outta Central Casting. “Guys are on guard duty. Trash cans
are lined up at the entrance to the projects. Folks are ready to go. Ready to
run into their apartment and get the guns.”
He’s right, of course. It’s a rainy late night inside Jordan Downs on 102nd Street
near an entrance to the projects off Juniper Street and 103rd, where two dumpsters
the size of Escalades are placed. Young men and teenagers of the 700-unit project
are indeed on the lookout for strangers while they smoke chronic and sip Olde
English 800, still a favorite after all these years.
Contrary to popular opinion, especially from Westsiders who’ve never been here,
Jordan Downs can be a welcoming place, especially at a Saturday-afternoon barbecue
or baseball game. You might get some curious glances at first, but then, after
a few intros, a couple of beers, it’s usually cool. Certainly a warmer welcome
than a Grape Street Crip would get on Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills.
But at night, at least this one (and many others), the place is about as friendly
as Uday and Qusay in a bad mood during the Persian Gulf War. “The fuck you doin’
here? Get the fuck outta here, bitch,” booms a Grape Streeter to me as I slowly
drive by. I’m in an Enterprise-rented black Chevy Aveo with doors so flimsy one
burst from a Kalashnikov would turn them into Emmenthaler Swiss cheese.
“Hello, officer,” says another, which for years has been a common nighttime greeting
to me in Watts. Not a lot of Armenians here. I stop in the lot between buildings
99 and 100 and inform the two Crips that I’m a reporter trying to find out what
happened to Jason, trying to humanize him. From nowhere, two more Grape Street
Crips appear, one of them standing in a doorway.
“You need to leave. We ain’t talking to no reporters.” I park the Aveo in the lot a short distance from my new buddies, get out of the car, and walk over to the makeshift memorial display of murder candles, yellow roses, a large purple bunny rabbit and a framed photo of Jason Harrison. Scribble a few notes — barely legible later — and head back to the Aveo.
A fifth Grape Streeter, older, like in his 40s, approaches, identifies himself only as Wes, and speaks quietly. “Jason was a good kid. Been knowing him since he was 12. Just had seen him an hour before he got shot, talking to some of the guys, and then I guess he was walking to his grandmother’s, right over there. Be careful.” I want to talk to the younger gang members, but figure it’s early in my reporting and why push it. At least, that’s my excuse to myself. I drive away.
The next day, a former teacher of Harrison’s praises him. “Jason was just a great, great kid. When I heard what had happened, it felt like I’d been hit in the gut with a baseball bat,” says Gary Miles, a teacher at Markham Middle School and a longtime friend of the Harrison family. “Jason was never involved in any of the Grape Street gang stuff. He was a good, hard-working student. One of those kids, every time you saw him, he’d give you a pound and a hug. Always had a smile. A kid that loved life.
“Lots of people not from around here don’t understand how entrenched people are to their neighborhood, to their set,” says Miles. “Lots of these kids are third-generation gang members from these projects. Forget about being jumped in. These kids are born in.”
Miles, who is from Brooklyn, says the lure of the streets can often be too tempting for a project boy to resist. “Some kids would rather be a part of the hood thing than go on to junior college or a university if they could. It’s that lure. Plus, you throw in the music culture, MTV, and it just adds to the desire. Do I want to be a college football player or do I want to be hood famous? It becomes a seduction.”
Two weeks after he died, Jason Harrison is laid to rest. His funeral, at the Inglewood Mortuary, is overflowing with emotion and mourners. About a hundred guys, guys that grew up together, went to Folsom and Corcoran together, just mingle outside during the services. Jason’s father has “Kodak RIP” shaved into the back of his head. Jason’s nickname was Kodak because he blinked a lot.
His aunt goes on a tirade during her eulogy. “We are here today to take a real good look at our lives. There’s been too many deaths on our streets. When a person takes your life, you don’t take one life. You kill a family. You kill a community.”
The aunt ratchets up her voice. “Today, parents are burying their children. Kids are killing kids. Children are killing, then going to bed snoring.”
A purple-clad teenage boy passes out. He starts shaking. Almost no one notices, even the three Crips standing directly behind him.
The aunt starts to scream. “He coulda been a gardener, a chauffeur, a movie producer, a cook. We don’t know what Jason coulda been.”
of a broken treaty:
Family and friends remember
Photo by Ted Soqui
At the Community Self Determination Institute, on the northern border of
Watts, executive director Aqueela Sherrills describes the current situation as
a “powder keg.”
“It’s the worst it’s been since the treaty in 1992,” says Sherrills, whose own
19-year-old son, Terrell, was killed in 2003 in an unrelated incident. “It’s crazy
out there right now.”
Sherrills and his brother Daude, both of whom have been active in the gang peace movement for more than a decade and who have traveled the world speaking about it, say the current problem is a matter of leadership. The other gangs couldn’t agree more.
Many PJ Crips and the Bounty Hunters lay most of the blame on the Grape Street
gang, who they say have lost their leadership, which has cut loose a new generation
of young gang members to go on shooting sprees.
Daude Sherrills admits the leadership in Grape Street is not what it once was,
but also says, “Imperial Courts has a lot of enemies. We’re not responsible for
“But the hopelessness and joblessness create an idleness, which can create apathy
for life,” he continues. “And that creates a domino effect that leads to murder
and mayhem in the streets. Our race is in worse condition than we were before
the ’65 riots. Everyone needs to take responsibility. We are fortunate more lives
haven’t been lost.”
Throughout the years, though, many lives have been lost in the three housing projects.
According to LAPD statistics, from 1989 to May 21 this year, in the three reporting
districts, or R.D.s, that cover Jordan Downs (R.D. 1829), Nickerson Gardens (R.D.
1846) and Imperial Courts (R.D. 1849), there have been 202 homicides. During that
same period, there have been a startling 6,470 assaults in the three projects.
These numbers cover just three reporting districts, not including all of Watts,
out of a total of more than 1,000 in the city.
In 2003, as things started to heat up, there were 12 homicides in the three projects.
In comparison, that year the entire West L.A. Division, with 63 R.D.s, had three
“There’s no denying it’s a very violent place,” says Captain Sergio Diaz, commander
of the Southeast Division, which covers more than just Watts. “As of May 21, there
had been 30 homicides in Southeast Division, an area less than 10 square miles
and 140,000 people. That’s 10 times the national average.”
Photo by Ted Soqui
To be closer to the late-night scene, when violence is most likely, and
to get a better sense of the mood of the community at its most vulnerable, I decide
to move in for a couple of nights at one of the two motels along Wilmington Avenue,
between Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs. I have been warned by several gang
members not to do this.
“But if you do,” laughs Daude Sherrills, “bring your own sheets.”
I do. Red 300-count Egyptian cotton. I had been saving them for a special occasion.
This wasn’t what I had in mind.
My choices are the Villa Hills, near the railroad tracks off 108th Street, and
the Mirror Motel, down on 112th Street. I check out the Villa Hills first.
I am somewhat intrigued by the name. There’s not a hill for miles, and to call
this place a villa is like calling Fallujah a resort town. Later, I realize the
Hills part must have been taken from the slight 5- or 6-foot rise on Wilmington
for the railroad tracks, and I guess the Villa part comes from the small bougainvillea
near the front of the motel.
The rooms go for $40 a night. The manager shows me Room 16. As soon as the door
opens, the stench hits your nose like a jab from Larry Holmes. A combination of
odors I don’t even want to think about. I tell the guy thanks and head back to
check out the Mirror.
The Mirror, painted a faded powder-blue, is a bit larger, two stories, and has
30 rooms. At 4 p.m., there’s only one car in the parking lot. I ask the Indian
owner-manager how much for a room for the night. Thirty-five dollars. But then
he says something very un-innkeeper-like — he fervently implores me not to rent
a room here.
“No, no,” he says. “No, you should not stay here. It’s not good around here.”
He holds up his left hand and starts shooting off an imaginary pistol. “Boom,
boom, boom. Every night, every day. Don’t stay here.”
I’m tempted, but head back and rent Room 16 at the Villa Hills. (I’ll go back
to the Mirror another night.) I bring in the sheets. They’re full-size and don’t
fit the queen-size bed, but I get two corners on, which is enough. There’s a television
that gets Channel 7 and a few others. No porno. There’s a dirty sink and a tiny
shower, a ratty dresser, a broken window screen, and walls that appear to have
been splattered with something that was probably once cavity blood.
Across the street, Tommy’s Liquor is getting ready to close up at 7 p.m. “It’s
not safe here at night,” the clerk says.
A couple blocks away, a taco truck stays open later, doing a decent business in
the early evening.
As night falls, cars start showing up at the Villa Hills. Some stay for maybe
a half-hour. Others, all night. Some guests make a lot of racket arguing, and
some are clearly having a good time.
Around 11 p.m., I take the Aveo out for a cruise through the three projects. They
seem rather quiet on this night. In Imperial Courts, one lone, young PJ Crip,
who won’t give even his nickname, asks, “What we suppose to do? Just let Grape
Street shoot at us?”
Still, even at this hour, several front doors are open and many folks appear as
relaxed as if they were at a Sunday-afternoon picnic in the park. It takes more
than decades of homicide to lock down the residents of Watts.
A short time later, I head back to what Daude Sherrills calls “the only five-star
hotel in Watts.” After a while, I go out for a short walk, past the railroad tracks,
toward 107th Street. There’s a couple walking the same stretch of forgotten road.
I hear at least five gunshots and instinctively duck down a bit, though the shots
are not from a nearby passing car. The lady ahead laughs and calls out, “Fraidy
cat.” Her companion laughs too.
The next morning, I learn from police that a few blocks away, Keith Moore, 19,
of Jordan Downs, was shot to death at 105th and Lou Dillon, in an area of Watts
called Fudge Town.
These shots are not the only ones of the night. Two other times, gunfire is heard
near the motel. Police later say the Fudge Town killing is the only shooting they
are aware of. No one calls the cops in Watts just to report gunfire. Someone needs
to be hit. If gang members here were good marksmen, the homicide rate in Watts
would be world-class bad.
To read the second part of War and Peace in Watts, click
Photo by Gregory BojorquezPresident Bush keeps saying America is safer now that Saddam Hussein is