by Michael Slate
Revolutionary Worker #1172, October 27, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org
The Watts Prophets--a spoken word group formed in the 1960s--once did a piece called "I Remember Watts" that talked about how people in Watts go to the school of hard knocks and how most of these knocks come from the cop's club. Police brutality is still daily life in every corner of Watts.
I've been talking with people in Watts and writing stories about them for many years--and I've never had a visit to Watts when the police didn't make some kind of appearance. The subject of cops always came up when people shared the neighborhood news with me or when I was investigating a story. Often they made a more direct and sinister appearance. You see, a couple of people can't stand on a corner in Watts just talking and laughing--and especially not in the projects--without the cops taking notice. They cruise by real slow, trying to intimidate people with their mad-dog stare. At night they creep up and let loose with their high-powered searchlights--like they were patrolling a prison yard.
Over the years I've also seen a growing resistance to such disrespect and brutality. People in the projects have organized themselves to watch the police and to challenge them whenever they come up on someone. In the Nickerson Gardens projects, people use whistles to alert the community about cops harassing or beating someone.
On August 6 something new came up. All over Watts people wore brown and black ribbons to show their solidarity with Donovan Jackson, the young man beaten by the Inglewood police in July, and all victims of police brutality. The cops viciously assaulted Donovan while he was handcuffed behind his back--and this was caught on videotape.
More than 1500 people wore ribbons on that day, and in many spots people are still wearing them. At least 500 people in Nickerson Gardens wore the ribbons. Ribbons were everywhere--in stores, churches, mosques, a local barbershop, and the only coffeehouse in Watts. All kinds of people wore them, from grandmothers to hardhead bangers.
This is the story of that day, told by the people who made it happen.
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon as we sat in Donny's living room. Donny has been around the projects all his life. He carries a lot of respect in Nickerson Gardens. He was one of the first to get into Ribbon Day and helped come up with the design for the ribbons. Donny is a thoughtful man--always looking at how the world is and trying to figure out how it can be changed. Lately, police brutality and the situation in the world has Donny questioning all kinds of things.
"I wanted to let Donovan know that there was support coming from the Watts area. Because a lot of times when things like this happen you seem alone. Although you know it's happening to people of different ethnic backgrounds all the time, it just seems like it becomes a personal problem.
"That video of Donovan Jackson causes you to reflect on all the police brutality that you see. And it's caused me to almost wonder, Is there really any good police? I've always thought there are good police and bad police. But now you start to wonder is there actually any good police per se, or is all of them basically bad and you just caught them on a good day or whatever... This is not a problem that's gonna go away, it's wedged too deep in the fiber of our institution."
Donny wanted people in other parts of L.A. and the country to know what the people in Watts are up against every day. "Living in Watts is like coming home and having your house robbed--you feel like somebody's been in your house and just taken what you have. They go up in your house for no reason at all. No respect! And you know it's unconstitutional. They'll just come up in your house, drag you out. You have to make a literal stand, you have to lock your door and refuse to let them in because they will just push right by you as though they're paying the rent in here. I've seen this all my life.
"When you look at the TV and you see somebody been shot down or beat down, it has the effect of bringing some life out of you. When you look and you see that nothing is being done to the police and already they've come up with some type of escape where the police can get away with what they've done, it's just like being robbed, being raped or having a family member raped. Even if it's another race, you know that could have been you, it just wasn't you that time."
The ribbons were brown and black--people wanted to show that while police brutality hits all people, it hits Black and Latino people the most. And everyone wanted to make a statement about Latino and Black people uniting against this.
Jeanie, a 15-year-old Latina and a student at Jordan High, wore the ribbon and struggled with her friends to join her. I caught up with her at a Saturday festival in Ted Watkins Park. While neighborhood drill teams performed to drum and brass music, Jeanie talked about why the Ribbon Day was important to her. "I wore the ribbon cuz it was brown and black, and that meant Latinos and Blacks stick together. I want people to see that there's somebody representing for us and we're not alone. So when it comes for the cops over here trying to do something, they can see that we stick together.... I want people to see that we're sticking together. Right now, we're not sticking together, and that's why the system takes over us. They rule over us in the projects. We live in there and we against each other when really we supposed to stick together."
Trike is in his mid-20s, and not all that long ago his address was the state pen. He's on parole, and he lives in the projects. Every day he is banging up against cops. He had to carefully consider whether to wear a ribbon. "I saw what happened to Donovan Jackson on TV, and then the revolutions come through here and explained to me and told me what the ribbons was for so I put it on to represent this dude. ...At first I was kind of nervous, you know what I'm saying. I'm thinking the police see me with this ribbon and then see the revolutions and they think I'm out here trying to start trouble for them. But then I thought about what happened to that man, and that was wrong. That's why I put it on, to represent this guy and try to get some justice for him. I seen a couple people wearing them but some wasn't serious and some was--I was one of the serious group, that's why I put it on."
Harikala is like a ball of electricity--she can't sit still and she talks a mile a minute. Her heart is firmly with the people. She's a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade and one of the youth who helped organize the Ribbon Day.
"The ribbon was an idea of the Watts Committee Against Police Brutality. They busted out with this idea. It's really simple but it represents a lot. It went out really good--so many people got the ribbon. It was a day for everybody to wear the ribbon in the projects. I think they were really filled with people wearing them. And even around the projects. We went to the County office, to the hospital, to schools--everybody was taking it up. People who don't usually stand up and say something did. It was something everybody could take up. A lot of people wanted to take it up as their own. A lot of people were even making them around the projects and taking them out on their own. There was a grip of different kinds of ribbons that were really beautiful. People would take bundles to give to their families. They were put in stores and elsewhere on cardboard displays so people could take them.
"When the Donovan Jackson thing happened, I heard that a lot of people in the projects were turning around to look at the revolutionaries for an answer: what were they going to say about this; was something going to be popping, was there going to be an event on a certain day. They wanted to express themselves cuz so many people had anger against the police and felt like they wanted to support Donovan and anyone who gets beat up by the cops and harassed. I felt like this was something that was really wanted out there; it was really needed."
Joe Veale, spokesperson for the L.A. Branch of the RCP, is a former Black Panther and has lived in Watts for ten years. He added an endnote to Harikala's comments, pointing to the special role the people in Watts play in the struggle against police brutality. "Some residents here in Watts, some people who was involved in the gang truce as well as some people that live here, people around the Watts Committee Against Police Brutality, and some revolutionaries got together and talked about what was happening in relationship to the Donovan Jackson beating by the Inglewood police and what should our response to it be. Everybody agreed that when something like that happens, here in Watts we have to find a way to take a stand against it and we have to become an example for others in doing that. When anything like that happens, whether it's here or in some other parts of the city or even some other parts of the country, we have to find the ways to come out and take a stand against it. And especially something that's as egregious as that beating in Inglewood."
Ms. Lewis has lived on the edge of Nickerson for close to 50 years. She's lost children and grandchildren to poverty, prison, and police bullets. Her grandson, De Andre Harrison. was one of three people killed by the LAPD in the Nickerson Gardens on April 29, 1992, during the L.A. Rebellion. Ms. Lewis has lived through a lot but she never seems tired. She is always there, always ready to fight.
"When I saw that Donovan Jackson video on TV I thought it was the most outrageous thing I ever saw in my life. I couldn't believe it. I got kids, too, and it could've been one of my kids. I would've had a fistfight. I'd probably be in jail cuz I would've jumped in it too. I talk too much.
"I took part in the Ribbon Day. I thought it was my duty and I wanted to take part in it cuz I thought it was a worthwhile cause. I enjoyed taking part in it. I took the ribbons, sewed the ribbons, took them to the people in my church--we was all about it in my church. We went around and discussed that it was a worthwhile cause because we was selling them on account of the kid who got beat up by the cops. It went real well, everybody was on my side. We had ribbons on a picture of the guy right in here, and everybody that wanted a ribbon would buy it and take one off the picture. We had it right there on my table for a couple of weeks....
"Police ain't gonna give us nothing but a knock on the head. People told me we really need to get together. We really need to stick together, and we really need to stand up for one another."
Every neighborhood has a Miss Eva. She's one of those people who knows everything that is happening and everybody who walks through the projects. Miss Eva keeps a special eye on the police in the Nickerson Gardens. She loved Ribbon Day.
"I made the ribbons because I was really interested. I was overjoyed to do it because I thought it was so wrong for them to do that little boy like that, plus he was handicapped too. I felt like I was doing something to help people, I was doing my part....
"When I saw what happened to Donovan Jackson on TV I hated it with a passion," Miss Eva remembered. She said the beating reminded her of what happened to her nephew, who has cerebral palsy. One day she saw six or seven cops chasing her nephew. "I was saying `What's wrong, what's wrong?' One of the officers pulled the trigger but the gun didn't go off. One of the officers say this lady says my nephew robbed them." Miss Eva told the cops that her nephew was handicapped. He is not able to run or talk too well, and one of his hands is frozen in position near his chest--the same hand that, according to the cops, had held a gun in a robbery. Miss Eva told the cops, "Suppose you pulled that trigger and it went off and shot him off of what she said. How could you do this?" The incident caused her nephew to go into a seizure a short while later.
"I've seen a lot of things that happen over here in the projects. My grandson was walking over here in my yard and the police come out of nowhere, grabbed him and threw him in a flower bed and they pushed me. We didn't know who it was. My grandson said, `What the hell.' And one of the officers went to hit him. They put their rings on their fingers and was fixin to hit him. So I picked up a stick and was fixin to hit him with it. Everybody was saying, `Put it down.' They asked me what I was gonna do. I told them if their friend hit my grandson with those rings, I'm gonna bust him with this stick for this simple reason: We both gonna go together. You was wrong for what you did.
"The policeman told me, `If you ever need any help don't you call me cuz I'm not coming to your house.' I said, `Don't worry, I'll never call you for help.' They asked me why, and I told them for the simple reason that if they doing all this and I call them for help, they might do something to me and say I was in the wrong. I told them they supposed to protect and to serve. You guys not protecting us, and you serving us with time in prison for no reason."
After September 11 the police have been promoted as heroes, and suddenly even their most criminal behavior is being justified. But police brutality didn't end on September 11, 2001. If anything, the police have been given a total green light to kill and brutalize people, especially Black and Latino people. Since 9/11 more than 140 people nationwide have been murdered by the police. And this is just what we know about.
That's why it gives me such heart to see things like the Ribbon Day in Watts. People living on the bottom, staring into the guns, clubs, and prisons of the law, daring to stand up together and say: NO. We refuse to let this continue. Brutal cops are not heroes. And they're saying this not just for themselves but are setting an example for and inspiring all of us.
The Black Panthers used to explain their revolutionary optimism in the face of all the weapons and tools of oppression lined up against them by saying that the spirit of the people is greater than the man's technology. The spirit I've seen in Watts these days gives me great hope--not just for the fight against police brutality but for the future of us all.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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