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50 years after Watts, African Americans still feel caught between violent crime and the police

50 years after Watts, South L.A. still suffers from lack of jobs and poor relations with police

The new City Council member representing Los Angeles' 8th District will take office on July 1, just a month and a few days short of the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots.

Around the nation, 1965 is celebrated as the year of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and the passage and signing of the landmark Voting Rights Act. But in Los Angeles, those were distant events, read about in the newspaper and viewed on television. L.A. is where, and 1965 is when, the narrative of the African American struggle for freedom and justice shifted from the South, with its entrenched but obvious and relatively simple racial divide, and the industrialized North and West, with their more intangible discrimination, economic disparities and unwritten racial codes.

With Watts and adjacent areas still smoldering, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., just a few months after the Selma march, arrived in Los Angeles to deplore the violence but also to say we should have seen it coming.

“By acts of omission and commission,” King said, “none of us in this great country has done enough to remove injustice. I therefore humbly suggest that all of us accept our responsibility for these past days of anguish.”

Later, a state commission headed by the former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency reported that the root causes included too few jobs, inadequate schools and tension between the police and the African American neighborhoods they patrolled.

A half century later -- a half century -- the 8th District, which includes tony Baldwin Hills but also reaches the edge of Watts, has too few jobs, much better but still inadequate schools, and tension between the police and the African American neighborhoods they patrol.

Aren’t police-community relations vastly improved? Yes. The outgoing councilman for the 8th District, Bernard C. Parks, joined the LAPD the year of the Selma march and the Watts riots, and had a distinguished career. He served five years as police chief before going on to three terms on the City Council. The LAPD has diversified and become more community oriented. The LAPD's community policing model has helped heal much of the rift between officers and the community.

But African Americans, men especially, still feel caught in a vise between violent crime in their neighborhoods and the very police whose job it is to protect them from it.

“We as African American men are picked on,” said Robert Cole, one of four candidates to succeed Parks. Speaking at a candidate forum on Feb. 7, Cole noted that he is soon to turn 50 – and that is a landmark for African American men. Many believe they won’t make it.

Cole recalled being handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car for an hour before being released.

Candidate Marqueece Harris-Dawson has five years to go before before he reaches 50, and already, he said at the forum, he has had guns pointed at him five times. Four of those times, the people holding the guns were LAPD officers.

“I’ve never even been accused of a felony,” he said.

“There is still police brutality,” said Forescee Hogan-Rowles said at the forum.

Bobbie Jean Anderson was the only candidate who listed better community-police relations among her top three priorities. There are so many other issues competing for attention in the district: the need for economic development; the demand for an equal share of city services; help to stop sex trafficking of young girls.

But Harris-Dawson said change requires police officers from the neighborhoods they patrol -- officers who "know the difference between people who are doing no good and those who are walking down the street just being young."

Harris-Dawson also referred to the shooting death by LAPD officers of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill African American man, last Aug. 11.

It was 49 years to the day after the beginning of the Watts riots.

Police have released an autopsy but have held on, so far, to other crucial information about the shooting.

“We still don’t even know why Ezell Ford was stopped by police,” Harris-Dawson said.

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