“Watts United”


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A crowd of at least 100 gathered Thursday for a candlelight vigil to mark the driveby-shooting death of 15-year-old Dovon Harris in the Nickerson Gardens housing project. LAPD Southeast Capt. Rick Jacobs announced a suspect was in custody. The crowd cheered and clapped.

Unlike many homicides cases reported on The Homicide Report, this one benefited from numerous witnesses cooperating.


As covered previously here, the reluctance of witnesses to cooperate with police, especially in the context of black and Latino urban poverty, is central to high-homicide dynamics.

It works like this: Witness reluctance affords killers impunity, and gives them power to essentially become underworld lords, ruling lawless ethnic enclaves created by the inexorable calculus of housing segregation and poverty. Within such enclaves, violence becomes a kind of currency that people ignore at their peril, and formal legal protection does not exist. Men and boys, in particular, experience extreme pressure to demonstrate they too are capable of violence. If they appear weak, they risk falling on the wrong side of the violent transactions that organize this underworld. They must walk tough, talk tough, and cultivate a reputation for being dangerous if provoked.

Elsewhere in America, it’s not like that. In, say, Beverly Hills or Encino, people dwell in a world where the state has a monopoly on violence. Violence and power are still inseparable, but the violence is inchoate--conserved within the apparatus of the state. The state’s monopoly on violence remains invisible, but it governs conflicts. When people cross each other, as they inevitably do, the legal apparatus of the state influences how their quarrels are resolved. Business or neighbor disputes end up in civil courts. Fights over girls or insults play out around unspoken calculations of possible state intervention: Kill your rival, and you’re likely to end up in jail. Better to just punch him, or show him up at the next office meeting.

But in a world where the state has lost its authority, and power is diffused among violent individuals, even the mildest, most passive individuals must make uneasy compromises with killers, and the percentage of people--especially men--who actively embrace violence to resolve conflicts expands.

This reporter has interviewed many churchgoing, working, middle-class homeowners--fathers and mothers with no criminal histories and little inclination toward violence--who, nonetheless, seriously consider lethal retaliation when their sons are killed in South Los Angeles. They are not insane for doing so. They are not simply depraved individuals with a yen for ‘senseless violence,’ to quote that overused cliche. Rather, they are human beings who have suffered real injury in a context where state power is missing in action. They are experiencing the ultimate interpersonal conflict in a world where witnesses don’t cooperate, cases go unsolved, and those who hurt others gain power. Think about your son’s killer living near you, enjoying impunity, even exerting influence, and you may see their point of view. Now imagine how the same thoughts might be resolved in the mind of a teenage younger brother of that same murder victim.

The challenge for law enforcement in such communities is to convince people to give state power a chance to penetrate. That means first overcoming people’s distrust and dislike of the police, and also their terror of gang retaliation--’If you were living soaked in gasoline, would you light a match?’ said one Compton resident, talking of what it means to testify against gang assailants in his community.

In Nickerson, where Dovon was killed, new efforts to improve relations between police and residents of the Watts projects may have paid off in helping to solve the case, said Jacobs, the precinct captain. There has been more communication, more negotiation, more give and take, and homicides are down sharply.

One example of the new ethos was the night Dovon’s murder took place. An emotional crowd gathered at the scene--a situation that in the past has resulted in riots quelled by police skirmish lines. But this time, officers stood back as other Nickerson residents pacified the crowd, Jacobs said.

When it came time to investigate Dovon’s murder, residents rallied around his family and people talked. ‘If there was a case I’d put on a pedestal in terms of community support, it’s this one.... They’ve really come through,’ said Det. Sal LaBarbara, Southeast homicide coordinator, watching the vigil a week after the shooting.

Those in attendance heard prayers and speeches. ‘Watts United! Ceasefire! Ceasefire!’ they chanted, then lit candles.