At midday on a recent Wednesday, Margaret Prescod was passing out handbills in front of Cartier’s on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. She approached passers-by briskly, handbill extended, eyes seeking contact, voice firm, cordial, authoritative:
“This man is killing women here in the L.A. area.” With few exceptions the startled people accepted the handbills. Most walked away studying the composite drawings of the South Side Slayer and reading about the $35,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the man who had slain 17 women--most of them black, most of them said to have prostitution records, most of their bodies found worlds away in South-Central Los Angeles.
Show of Solidarity
Prescod was leafleting on Rodeo Drive with several members of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders that she formed last January. It includes an aunt and sister of two of the victims.
With them was Liza Culick, a young white woman from the Take Back the Night Coalition, a group of organizations representing anti-violence and feminist movements that has formed, their literature says, “in solidarity with” the Black Coalition.
As a television news crew tracked their actions, Prescod paused to make statements. A striking, well-spoken black woman in her 30s who has a sense of style and considerable poise in front of an audience or a camera, she said it was critical that all residents of Southern California be made aware of the slayer.
Then she went on to update the criticism she has been leveling against the Los Angeles Police Department since it first announced a year ago last September that a serial murderer had slain 10 women.
Citing recent reports of racism and sexism within the LAPD, she contended that the department had been slow to make the investigation a priority and unable to staff the task force with an adequate number of black or female detectives.
Once the camera crew left, Prescod looked up and down the moneyed street and said, only half-joking, “I don’t know about going into some of these stores. They just look too intimidating.”
“But that’s what we do when we go into a neighborhood,” said Gilda Green-Hagood, a coalition member. Until recently, however, the other neighborhoods have been in South-Central.
“You’re right,” Prescod said with grim reluctance, and proceeded to go up and down the block, often drawing a deep breath and pulling herself up, smiling in mock horror, as she went into David Orgell, Bijan, Elizabeth Arden, Yves St. Laurent, Cartier.
While the others lingered outside, Prescod made quick, rather perfunctory runs into the shops, but, to the women’s surprise and encouragement, the shopkeepers were courteous and receptive, exchanging a few remarks, accepting the flyers, deploring the murders.
It had been a different sort of intimidating atmosphere the previous Saturday when Prescod and five other women from the coalition had leafleted in South-Central along Figueroa between Florence and Manchester.
There the stores were boarded up or heavily grated. And the women could point out the rock houses and gambling parlors.
It is an area frequented by prostitutes, some of whom work out of the motels that line the street, or strip as it is called.
As they fanned out, Prescod missed no one, and when, more than once, she came upon tough-looking youths heading her way, she took the initiative.
Handbill out, eyes meeting theirs, “Hi, how’re you doin’ today?” followed quickly by, “Have you heard about the South Side slayer?”
Outside one motel one young woman stood unsteadily. She was young, with large doe eyes and a thin child’s body, and looked too out of it to be able to comprehend the flyer Prescod handed her.
But she pulled herself together, focused and called Prescod back, saying, “Give me some more. I know some of the girls.”
Prescod’s conversation with her eventually led to a walk through the courtyard to a dingy room where two other young women were resting on a bed.
No one was speaking very clearly, but they had all known several of the victims, were all scared to work the strip and all blessed Prescod for what she was doing. They thought they had seen the slayer, and the doe-eyed one was convinced she had had a narrow escape once, having been lured into a van with a promise of “rock or $20.” She had become suspicious and got out before the door had slammed.
“It’s true some of us smoke that dope,” she told Prescod, “but that doesn’t mean somebody should be killing us.”
“You be careful,” Prescod said gently to her.
Prescod, who is married to labor union official Sam Weinstein and is the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, has been making herself controversial, disliked and distrusted by some, admired by others, a source of discomfort for many.
Sometimes passion overtakes her poise. As for her demands that a task force be formed, a reward and billboard campaign be established, the FBI be brought in and police be made accountable to the community, she dismisses angrily any notion she should be grateful as these suggestions have been implemented, saying that “finally they’re doing something they were supposed to do all along.”
She has accused the public at large and some of the leadership of the black community of not making the killings a priority, of finding something about the killing of black prostitutes that is not important.
She has done it wherever she goes, including at the weekly vigils the Black Coalition and Take Back the Night have been holding outside police headquarters at Parker Center.
Many do not know how to take her. The questions some ask, off the record more often than not, are full of innuendo: “Where is she coming from?” “What’s her agenda?” “Does she have a hidden agenda?”
Police Chief Daryl Gates has called the charges Prescod’s coalition has made “asinine” and the women “dummies” for making them. LAPD spokesman Commander William Booth refused to comment on Prescod or the coalition, other than observing that “they certainly have been exercising their First Amendment rights.” And Lt. John Zorn, who heads the task force investigating the serial murders, will say about her “not a word. I’ve got no comment.”
Neither did Mark Ridley-Thomas, who heads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Southern California. Asked to comment on Prescod, he said, “I respectfully choose not to comment.”
One of SCLC’s board members, however, attorney Walter Gordon III, said, “I think she’s one of the leaders to emerge over the past year . . . I think her record speaks for itself. She single-handedly built the coalition; she’s brought people together of different races, coordinating with Latinos, with the Take Back the Night Coalition. Anytime you have a black woman take a position and get noticed there’s going to be conflict. She’s a powerful person with a charisma, so she gets called aggressive, pushy, confrontational. It’s the same old hysterical female trip. So what? She gets things done.”
Hard to Gauge Effectiveness
City Councilman Robert Farrell, in whose district the victims have been found, said he knows Prescod only through this issue. He would say of her only, “She’s one of many persons in South Los Angeles to take the issue and generate the high visibility this issue deserves.”
As for the effectiveness of the coalition, Farrell said it was hard to say other than that they had clearly helped get out the message about the killer and helped to get media attention.
Prescod has said that some members of the community, especially the religious community, were uncomfortable that most of the slayer’s victims were prostitutes. Gordon mentioned it was an elementthat made some reluctant to support Prescod because they feared they would be manipulated into appearing in support of prostitution. (Prescod has been working off and on with prostitutes for 10 years, advocating the abolition of laws regarding prostitution, as opposed to legalization, she said, which will help pimps and further exploit prostitutes. Recently she has been helping plan a conference of women who work on rape hot lines and in battered women’s shelters to discuss how their services can and should be extended to prostitutes.)
One minister, the Rev. Dumas Harshaw Jr., pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, agreed that some in the community had such reservations.
“It always happens when you’re dealing with that line of work. Most see it as not a proper line of work . . . Whenever a human life is taken, that’s a significant loss, whether it’s a prostitute, a politician or a President. I’m grateful for her efforts to help us see that.”
Coalition members themselves are proud of the role they have assumed. LaVern Butler, a resident of South-Central and mother of four, explained, “These are people from the community who have never before had the opportunity, the chance, or the nerve, to come out. I myself met Margaret, saw her reaching out. No one else was doing anything. I joined her effort.”
Prescod said some of the local power brokers in the black religious community invited her to meet with them early on and advised her: “If you want to get anywhere politically, come through us.” She said they urged her to drop the vigils and back off. She refused.
She discussed her motivations late one Sunday afternoon, finally getting around to lunch after a long meeting at the Pasadena YWCA.
She had been with members of another group she helped form--the Women Count Implementation Committee. WCIC is another coalition, this one to help implement the plan of action called the Forward Looking Strategies that came out of the United Nations Decade for Women conference last year in Nairobi. The group is planning a Peace Camp the weekend of Oct. 24 at the United Methodist Church in Echo Park.
She started to chuckle when asked about suggestions that she has a “hidden agenda.”
“I know I’m supposed to have one. I’ve really been trying to think what it is . . . I’ve been clear and public about the issues I’m involved in. There’s nothing I’m trying to hide.”
Put most bluntly, she’s in it for the money. She has said that before and will again.
“I’m interested in economic equality for women and all the things that would mean for society if that existed. Beyond that there isn’t an agenda.”
But there are a lot of activity and community organizing. The Black Coalition is a recent add-on to a more than full-time set of commitments that she keeps track of in a fat, jam-packed datebook.
In addition to the coalition and the implementation committee, she is in the leadership of numerous groups with unwieldy titles. First among them, and at the core of all she does, is the International Wages for Housework Campaign, its sister group, International Black Women for Wages for Housework, and its U.N. affiliate, Housewives in Dialogue, through which she is a lobbyist at the United Nations.
Her latest involvement is with the Carmen Lima and Family Defense Committee, a newly formed group to aid the Salvadoran woman who founded the Coalition for Visas and Rights for the Undocumented. Lima, who has publicly said she is herself undocumented, recently turned herself in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and faces deportation.
She networks with any number of other organizations and ad hoc committees. She’s also gathering allegations of abuses of immigrant and refugee women by law enforcement agencies, which will be taken before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva through her Implementation Committee.
The common thread in all her work? Grassroots women.
“Grassroots? By that I mean those of us who have the least access in the society--to money, resources, state power.”
If there is one thing she knows about, it is access. But, if she is serious about one thing, it is in saying us and not them.
Prescod was born in Barbados and spent her early childhood there. She has a degree from Long Island University, has done graduate work at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and distinguished herself as a teacher, first in elementary school at Ocean Hill-Brownsville in New York, later becoming an expert in adult reading programs in City University of New York. She is a skilled community organizer, having started first in New York with teachers, students and welfare mothers before moving to Los Angeles.
However, her own sense of who she is has remained constant, and it goes back to the “bloody little peasant girl from Barbados,” who grew up in a household where money was always a problem. This, in spite of the fact her parents were teachers and had a sense of community responsibility that gave them a status in the village.
Status could not take the place of money and as a result she has memories that she says cause her problems to this day. She did not make eye contact in relating them, but looked to the side and down.
Worst for her was accompanying her father, along with her her sister and brother, to the “great house” of the tenancy they lived on.
“It was so degrading, having to watch my father go begging, really, with as much dignity as possible. We were never allowed in the great house, so we all had to stand outside the window while he talked. After a while someone would appear with a basket. It was humiliating.”
The family moved to New York, where, Prescod said, she was involved in the civil rights movement and demonstrating within weeks of her arrival. By the time she started teaching, she was learning to differentiate in that highly politicized climate between those who said “us” and those who said “them.”
“That whole sector, the teachers, the social workers, the do-gooders, drove me crazy. The faculty lounge at CUNY made me want to throw up, people wanting me to feel I was better than those ‘out there.’ I always figured the only way to save my neck was to throw my lot in with the people we were supposed to be doing good for . . .
“I am always very skeptical if you’re not doing it first and foremost for yourself, and doing it in a way that other people can come along with you. Once you make that distinction--'I’m doing it for others'--you set yourself up to scab on others. You’re better than them. It’s not cause for trust. But if you’re in it for yourself, then you’re in it.”
It is a distinction that puts her at odds with much of the mainstream American women’s movement, and with those feminists whom she calls “careerists,” “monetarists looking for a cushy job. They use other women to make their careers.”
She spent the late ‘60s and early ‘70s looking for the right cause, had “a little bout with black separatism, cultural nationalism, discovered being African.” She joined several feminist study groups and one Barbados study group, but joined no political groups or parties.
“To me, there was always something wrong. I knew things needed to change, but I just didn’t buy it. I did not want to be split up. It seemed you had to be a black, or a woman, or a separatist and accept the definition of one of those categories as the full answer. It didn’t feel liberating to me. It felt like I was being put in a box.”
Just when she was most fed up with sexism and racism, and most restless to commit, she met a black woman whom she admired, Wilmette Brown, and found the cause she had been waiting for, the Wages for Housework Campaign.
The campaign is headquartered in London where it is led by an American organizer, Selma James. Essentially it demands that all of women’s unwaged work, especially that done in the home and in agriculture, be counted, included in countries’ gross national products and paid for.
She and Brown read the literature and were impressed enough to borrow money for a trip to London where the campaign was having an international conference. They returned to New York and founded the International Black Women for Wages for Housework in 1976.
“That was it for me,” Prescod recalled, laughing. “I left the Barbados group and told the men how I felt about making the fishcakes while they sat around and talked about all they were going to do back in the West Indies.”
At some point in the midst of all the community organizing she met and married Sam Weinstein, the son of Selma James, and an organizer himself. Weinstein is president of Local 132 of the Utility Workers Union of America (representing workers at Southern California Gas Co.) and secretary of the Coalition of California Utility Workers.
They debated who would move to which coast, she said, but when Weinstein was elected president of Local 132 it was clear Prescod was moving to California and would have to start all over.
It is a life of endless meetings and phone work, of actually getting out on the street, of touching base, networking, taking care of every last tedious detail and the grand plan of things.
The main problem with being an organizer, she said, is not the tedium but the fact that there is far too little time for Weinstein or Prescod to see each other, or to be with their 4-year-old daughter, Chanda.
Chanda, a bright, confident, sociable child seems none the worse for it. They do their best, Prescod said, to make sure they are with her at least individually and not to shortchange her. She is her parents’ daughter, however, calling herself a union member, protesting being sent to the back of the bus on a children’s tour of Universal Studios by calling out, “Rosa Parks!”
About the time problem, she said, “Sam and I have to have a great deal of patience and respect for each other in the work we’re doing. We try to find time late at night or early in the morning to be together. Sometimes it’s hard. When you’re exhausted it seems harder. And living on one salary makes it hard. (She is unsalaried, and said she turns speaking fees over the campaign and gets reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses). If we had two salaries, we could get some help. I feel literally as if I’m always working--doing organizing, child care and housework. I take this wages for housework campaign very personally!”
She is not complaining.
“I’ve always known I wanted to be involved in the movement to make it a better world. Look, what bloody choice do I have? I either accept the fact I’m a second-class citizen and not do anything about it and continue to be treated that way, or I try to do something about it.”