Georgiana Williams never expected her last child, a precocious baby whom she named Damian.
She had grown up in the Deep South and been a plain, churchgoing woman all her life. But now she was pregnant--the result of an unfortunate affair that occurred when she was recovering from a serious illness and had been told she no longer could bear children.
She thought about an abortion, prayed and finally decided, as she usually did, to put her fate in God’s hands. “It must be for a purpose,” she thought.
For the next two decades, the single mother of three raised her children, worked day and night as a live-in nurse and thought of little else beyond her tiny world of family, work and church.
But now, she says, she finally understands what God planned for her and Damian, who is now on trial for one of the most notorious crimes of the Los Angeles riots, the beating of Reginald O. Denny.
“God spared my life and had a reason for giving me Damian,” said Williams, 52. “He knew that I would not be afraid to fight for Damian and anyone else who needed to be fought for.”
While many prominent people in the black community have shied away from the case, preferring to keep a distance from the brutal nature of the crimes, the views of this large, fierce-eyed woman have struck a chord in many inner-city neighborhoods embittered by a long history of conflict with the police and the criminal justice system. With a certainty and resolve matched by few others, she has railed against not only the prosecution of her son, but also against what she views as a racist society bent on making him a scapegoat for the riots.
“I was a lady who went to work, went to church, cooked and loved everyone. I saw no racism, no prejudice, no hatred,” she said. “I was dumb.”
Her crusade has placed her in the difficult position of arguing for justice through a case that has become ingrained in the public mind as the symbol of the riots’ chaotic brutality. For a wide cross-section of Los Angeles, she is a deluded mother, blind to the crimes of her child and willing to say anything to save him.
“Look, the boy committed the crime,” said one prominent black leader, reflecting the strong views of the case despite the fact that its outcome is pending. “She needs to get off this babying and pampering. He’s a criminal.”
Yet even among some of those revolted by the attacks on Denny, Williams’ efforts have had a visceral appeal--that of a mother trying to save her son. At demonstrations and community meetings, she is mobbed by supporters.
“People approach her as if she were Queen Nefertiti,” said Naomi Bradley, a longtime resident of the neighborhood and formerly a reporter for the black weekly, the Wave. “I would just hope my mother would fight for me like that.”
Her words reverberate most strongly, however, among voiceless parents who believe their children have been unfairly locked up, arrested or harassed by police.
“How can anybody in America talk about apartheid in South Africa when we’ve got worse right here on our front step?” she boomed in characteristic style after one court hearing. “How in the hell do they expect these young men to get a fair trial?”
In any other time, Georgiana Williams might have been just another working mother in South-Central. But through a odd confluence of events, she has become “the mother of the L.A. riot,” as the New Yorker magazine described her.
Her oldest son, Mark Jackson, was one of the first to be arrested at the corner of Florence and Normandie on April 29, 1992, in an incident that some neighbors say led to the violence that later flared at the intersection. Her youngest son, Damian, was one of the last arrested, taken into custody two weeks later on May 12 in a showy onslaught of Los Angeles police officers led by a flak-vest-clad Chief Daryl F. Gates.
“I’m no mother of no riots,” she said in a recent interview, bristling at the implication that she is somehow responsible for the riots.
She sees herself as a modern-day Moses. “America is as hardhearted as Pharaoh was and blacks here are a praying people, like the Israelites were,” she said in an interview with the Final Call, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam. “He couldn’t send Moses so he decided to use Georgiana today and I am confident of victory.”
Compared to the circumspect attorneys and pastors who make up the core of Los Angeles’ black leadership, Williams can be coarse and blustery, exuding a down-home indignation that can be as embarrassing as it is intimidating.
One of the public’s first glimpses of Williams came soon after Damian was arrested. She was videotaped by news people breaking up a shoving match between a cameraman and a spectator. She waved an umbrella at the crowd of reporters, yelling: “Get out of the way before I take this umbrella and give you a whipping!”
“I’m going to spank you like I spank a little kid!” she warned.
At the same time, however, she exudes a disarming sense of Southern warmth that makes her one of the few sympathetic characters in a courtroom drama dominated by the unremittingly harsh images of the riots.
In a surprising moment during the trial, Williams waved to Denny after he had spent several hours testifying about the attacks at Florence and Normandie. Denny extended his hand for her to shake, but as he stood there, Williams wrapped him a bear hug.
“I told him I loved him,” Williams said. “I respect this man. I admire him. This man has no malice in his heart.”
During a brief courtroom break later that day, Williams sat quietly on a bench in the hallway, leaning wearily against the wall. This is the way she usually looks--exhausted.
Williams was born in 1940 in Vicksburg, Miss., the daughter of a cotton sharecropper two generations removed from slavery.
In Mississippi, home was a whitewashed shack with no electricity or running water and walls covered by old newspapers. As a youngster, she did the back-breaking work of picking cotton in a state where lynchings still occurred.
Despite the hardships, she still has fond memories of her life there. She knew nothing about racism and never thought it unusual that she had to ride at the back of the bus or drink from “colored only” water fountains.
“We didn’t know we were suffering because we didn’t know any other life,” she said.
After high school, she attended nursing school and left for California as part of the vast migration of Southern blacks who moved here in the years after World War II.
She arrived in Los Angeles at the height of the civil rights movement, but in her mind, it was a distant battle. She was content to work and raise her family. Church was her only outside activity.
After marrying twice and leaving both husbands, she settled into the life of a single mother, becoming a respected member of the working-class neighborhood on 71st Street, just around the corner from the intersection of Florence and Normandie.
“I was satisfied serving the Lord and minding my own business,” she said.
Virtually everyone in the neighborhood under the age of 40 calls her “mama” or “grandma.” The older generation respectfully calls her Miss Jackson, the surname of her first husband, whom she left after he got drunk for only the second time in their marriage.
Damian was born in 1973, 10 years after his closest sibling. In her mind, he has always been her “miracle baby.”
She fawned over him, as she did her other children, lavishing on them toys that others in the working-class neighborhood did not have. They had go-carts when others were still waiting for bicycles.
The rules in her household were strict. The children attended church and there was no smoking, swearing, gambling, drinking or any of a host of other sins allowed in the Williams home. In retrospect, she now says: “I think I was probably too strict with my kids.”
Over the years, said Williams, her son has been arrested for car theft and hit-and-run, but has never been convicted of a crime. While police portrayed her son as a violent gang member, she said she has never seen any evidence of his involvement.
If there was any other trouble, she insists she was unaware. Some remain skeptical.
“She’s trying hard to prove to people that he’s not as bad as they say he is,” said one supporter of the defendants. “But there is skepticism that maybe you don’t know your son like you think you do.”
Williams’ insulated world came to an end on the afternoon of April 29, 1992, the first day of the riots.
She was at Young’s Beauty Salon getting her hair done when she heard the first radio news reports of bursts of rioting throughout the city.
As she sat in the beauty shop, she was unaware that her son Mark was being arrested and the violence at Florence and Normandie was being transmitted to televisions around the world.
As she drove home, she was stunned by the chaos in the street. “It never dawned on me that they were rebelling over Rodney King,” she said.
On 71st, the street was packed with people. She said she found Damian and a group of neighbors sitting on her porch.
They said that Mark and two others were beaten and then arrested by police. She prayed for hours that night, repeating the 91st Psalm to herself as rioting swept the city:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,
who abides in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
Two weeks later, as she was finishing an all-night shift at a patient’s home, her brother called her, saying that Damian had been arrested.
As Williams raced home, she heard then-Police Chief Gates describe her son as a thug and a gang member on the radio. She only knew Damian as a son who had gone to church all his life. He never wanted for anything, she remembered. He was football player, not a criminal. “Why is he telling these lies?” she recalled thinking about Gates.
It was the first moment in what she considers her political awakening. A few days later, she watched Damian being led into the courtroom in shackles “just like when they brought us over on that ship from Africa,” she said.
She has maintained from the beginning that her son is innocent--a victim of mistaken identity.
Williams said that it is clear that her son is a smaller man and has bigger legs than the person shown in photographs and videotapes of the attack. He would never steal and, contrary to the testimony of one victim who said Damian often demanded cigarettes from him, would never smoke.
Police have pointed to a taped statement he made after being arrested as proof that he is not as sweet as his mother has claimed. The tape has not been introduced in the current trial.
Damian said on the tape: “Mama, I did throw the rock. . . . She said: ‘Dame, you know you were wrong, but that was the devil.’ ”
Williams has been unswayed by the tape, saying the statement was coerced out of her son.
Her claim of her son’s innocence has drawn a mixed response from the public. In some circles, it is simply incomprehensible. As one supporter conceded, even in the black community, “99% of people . . . are ambivalent about this.”
But her message about the corruption and raciscm of society has found a sympathetic audience among those angered by the criminal justice system, but who have had little voice in the past.
“Georgiana’s voice is so loud because it represents the hopes, aspirations and fears of so many people,” said B. Kwaku Duren, an attorney and member of a support group for the defendants in the Denny trial called the Free the LA4+ Defense Committee. “There are so many other Georgiana Williamses out in the community. So many people who want to have a voice but don’t.”
Among prominent black leaders in Los Angeles, Williams says, only U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) has been an open advocate of Williams’ efforts. Most others have kept a respectful distance from the fray, calling for a fair trial but little more. Williams brands them as cowards.
In contrast to the parents of Henry Keith Watson, the other defendant in the trial, she speaks out frequently in the court hallways, lambasting reporters for what she believes are unfair stories and commenting on the latest developments in the trial.
She attends the trial every day, working on weekends to support her family. She has mortgaged the house to pay the attorneys.
“All my life, I have been so humble, so submissive,” she said recently as she slumped on a couch at home during one of the rare off days in court. “I will never keep quiet now. . . . The old Georgiana is gone.”
* CONFLICT IN TESTIMONY: Two witnesses in Denny case present conflicting details. B1