L.A.--The Police Murder of Margaret Mitchell

Revolutionary Worker #1010, June 13, 1999

It was rush hour on La Brea Ave. in Los Angeles, Friday afternoon, May 21. People heading south from Hollywood crowded the supermarkets on their way home. Commuters waited at the bus stops and school kids walked along in lively groups. At 4:20 p.m. a single gunshot exploded near the corner of 4th and La Brea. The LAPD shot dead Margaret LaVerne Mitchell.

Margaret Mitchell, a homeless 54-year-old Black woman, was pulling a shopping cart along the street. Two cops on bicycles, one male and one female, approached and started harassing her. Under a California law, police can ticket people and confiscate their carts--for supposedly not having a store's permission to take the carts onto the street. The law is enforced only against the homeless, and it takes from them the little that they have.

Margaret Mitchell walked away from the police. Her shopping cart held all her possessions, including the nice red blanket that was sort of her trademark with the people in the area. As she walked down the street, someone driving by recognized her, pulled over and tried to talk the cops out of hassling her. But the cops continued their pursuit. One witness, a Black man in his 40s, saw her running and pulling the cart behind her as the cops ran after her. "My first thought was, `Oh, man. When they catch this person they're going to beat her.' That was my first thought. I didn't see the guns. I just saw the cops running. And I saw her in front of them running. And then I heard the bam! It was so sudden that I didn't even realize she was shot until moments later when I processed it and I saw her laying on the ground. I thought, `Oh my god, they just shot that woman!"'

Victim in the War on the People

Margaret Mitchell was 5 foot 1 and weighed 102 pounds. People in the neighborhood did not know her name until after the shooting. But they knew her as a soft-spoken woman who smiled a lot. The police claim that she had a "weapon" in her hand--a screwdriver. They say she threatened to kill them, that she "lunged" and "slashed" at the male cop--causing him to "fear for his life." Police Chief Bernard Parks and spokesmen are arrogantly defending these killer cops. They have repeated over and over that "none of the witnesses contradicted the account given by the officers." They are lying.

This cold-blooded police murder happened on a six-lane street during rush hour in the middle of a shopping district. There were many outraged eyewitnesses who spoke to reporters at the scene or called radio and TV stations to get the truth out. All of these witnesses contradicted the police version. All of these witnesses agreed with the account that the RW heard from the people on the street: Margaret Mitchell was going away from the police with her back turned when she was shot, and she was not even holding the screwdriver. A salesman at the automobile dealership at 4th and La Brea said, "She never threatened anyone." So did another man who talked to a KNX radio reporter. These comments have been public since the very first news reports. Two or three witnesses insisted she was shot in the back. A lawyer for her family is calling for an independent autopsy.

About 75 people rallied at the Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters, to denounce the murder. "Margaret Mitchell is the latest victim in a war on the people," RCP supporter Joey Johnson said. "She needed help. She needed psychiatric help...she needed a home. She needed to be taken care of. She didn't need to be shot down in the street like a dog. This is happening coast to coast, in cities large, in cities small. There's an epidemic of police brutality going on in this country." There were activists from the L.A. Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, L.A. Catholic Worker, Oct. 22nd Coalition, Stolen Lives Project, and others. The initiators of the protest included: Najee Ali of Project Islamic Hope, Pacifica radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson and Melvin Farmer of Californians Opposed to the Three Strikes Law.

After the May 27 demo, Police Chief Parks once again defended the murder of Margaret Mitchell by saying, "We're not going to carry the burden of racism in the country of the United States for the last 200 years and place it on those officers' shoulders." But the reality is that the shooting of Margaret Mitchell was an example of how the police "protect and serve" this system of white supremacy and national oppression.

The neighborhood where Margaret Mitchell lived and died is an upscale business and residential area. A nearby stretch of Wilshire Boulevard is called the "Miracle Mile." Shops along La Brea Ave. there sell expensive fabrics, furniture and fixtures, the kind featured in home decorating magazines. To the west is the neighborhood of Hancock Park and the gated apartment complex Park La Brea. All of this is a world away from the life of Margaret Mitchell and other homeless people who sleep in the doorways, bus shelters and alleyways. But people in this neighborhood have found ways to express a deep anger at the death of Margaret Mitchell.

A Shopping Cart Memorial

People in the neighborhood and activists built a memorial with a shopping cart, and visitors have come from all over the city to pay respect. An older Black woman from south L.A. walked and took the bus for an hour to visit the memorial. She brought three roses she picked in her front yard and wrapped in a plastic bag with water. She said, "Our prayers are with this lady, whoever she was. I'm sure she had a mother. I'm sure she may have some children out there. She may be someone's nice auntie, someone's cousin. It was just wrong." Some people knew that Margaret Mitchell liked stuffed animals, so little white rabbits and other stuffed toys became part of the memorial. There are a number of Jewish schools in the area, and someone left a mourner's Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in Hebrew and English. Spanish-speaking immigrants left traditional devotional candles.

On Monday afternoon, Margaret's only child, Richard Mitchell, came with his family to the spot where his mother was gunned down. For long minutes they wept quietly, wrapped in each other's arms. In a quiet voice, Richard and his wife, Brenda Haag, told about the extraordinary woman they had loved. She was born in 1945 in Kansas City and moved to L.A. before Richard, now 34, was born. Her husband died when Richard was still a child. She raised him as a single parent, at the same time putting herself through California State University, L.A. After she graduated, she worked at the downtown headquarters of a couple large banks. "She was a good person, a college grad, a grandmother," said Richard. "She just fell into a depression and ended up here. She wore a three-piece suit, 8 to 5, Monday to Friday. She was a good woman. It's tough. She went into a depression. We tried to help her, and there was just nothing we could do."

About seven years ago, as her family recalls, Margaret started to experience problems with mental illness. Richard and Brenda tried desperately to get help. Brenda said everywhere they went, they got doors slammed in their face. They even called the police, who told them she had to be a danger to herself or others before they could do anything. What they finally did was to shoot Margaret Mitchell in cold blood.

Robert Haag, Margaret's stepson, said, "It wasn't right. She was the greatest person you could know. She was so great. I couldn't picture any of this. She always had a smile. She was always there for us. She took me in like I was her own." Brenda added, "This can't keep going on. Wasn't it a few months ago that an African American woman [Tyisha Miller] was shot? Why was she shot?" Margaret Mitchell also left two grandchildren, and two step-grandchildren. Her youngest grandchild just turned a year old and will never meet his grandmother.

Out on the street, people also remembered Margaret Mitchell's smile. A Black woman in her 30s, a professional singer, came to share memories with the family. "I've got two kids. I bring them up, I tell them to respect people on the street no matter what. It is not a crime to be homeless. Absolutely not. I talked to the woman all the time. I would just call her `the lady with the red hat and the red blanket.' She was a nice woman. I never seen her angry. I never seen her mean... I'm going to dedicate my show to her." A homeless man told the L.A. Times that when he got food poisoning, Margaret Mitchell got him medicine and nursed him back to health. A woman in a flower shop said she used to come in, sometimes to sell incense, sometimes just to appreciate the beauty of the flowers.

As the week went on, the memorial grew. It was moved to a prominent place at the corner, where the shopping cart was set on a makeshift platform. A paper placard read, "Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, 1945-1999, Rest in Peace." Along the front another sign in red said, "Bloody Evidence of Police Brutality." A box in the center had another message: "I knew you had a name! I'll always remember your smile!" There were many flowers, from large bouquets to a few carefully picked blooms, as well as candles and other offerings. People cut her picture out of the newspaper. Others brought cups of coffee, a sweet potato pie. People from the neighborhood come out at night to light candles and incense.

One note placed on the memorial said: "Margaret, you did not deserve this. Your memory will serve an important purpose-- we will not forget what the policeman did to you and we will seek justice on your behalf. May you rest in peace."

There was a notepad at the memorial for people to write comments. One person wrote: "I may never have met you. I may never have touched your face. We are complete strangers. But then, we are not!! Because I've seen you @ the buses, streets, abandoned parts of the city, city parks and seashores. Wish I could have done more. Wish I could have done more. Wish I could have done more. Alas, a poor soul's lament! Love you."

The Police Are Not Our Protectors

Most of the people in the area are white and have very little experience with police brutality--but some are now thinking about it a lot. A young woman who lives nearby talked to the RW during a daily visit to the memorial: "They have no business confronting people on the street for no reason unless they're going to help them. They're supposed to be protecting these people, not taking their last little bit that they have. Who are they protecting?! It makes you angry." Her roommate added, "Now I hesitate to call the police. You call the police and something worse happens. What's the right thing to do? I don't know who the cops are anymore; I don't know what to do." Another neighbor said, "I think that because Margaret Mitchell was Black that that may have had a lot to do with why they shot her." One elderly white woman just started crying when a reporter asked her about the shooting.

As people visited the memorial, the police maintained a heavy-handed presence and harassed people on La Brea Ave. This made people even angrier. When two white youth on motorcycles were pulled over, 20 cops converged on the scene. Two young women shouted, "Don't shoot them!"

A woman in her 60s saw a copy of the RW and commented, "So, you think we need a revolution? I agree." An elderly man added, "Well, at this rate, it's going to happen." The woman said she had an idea: "I want to go home and make a sign against police brutality and bring it down here, right in front of these cops. Let them try to stop me! There's nothing they can do about it. It's my right as a citizen!"

A young worker from the neighborhood came by. "I have the latest news," he said bitterly. "I heard on KPFK that they just finished bombing a children's hospital in Kosovo. They're murdering hundreds of innocent children now. And Margaret Mitchell was innocent too. I knew her. I gave her cigarettes every day." He blew a kiss to her picture. "I took off work to come here. I had to pay my respects."

A white woman in her 20s had one request for the RW reporter: "If there's one thing I hope you can convey through the article in your paper, it's how deeply we all feel this. It's coming from the bottom of our heart."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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