CITY TIMES COVER STORY : ...
Niaela Smith lightly touches the fingernail-sized scar from the bullet that grazed her right temple, a permanent reminder of the violence that has plagued the housing projects of Watts.
Smith was riding in a car driven by a gang member when a rival gangster drove up alongside and started shooting. But that’s part of life in the projects, Smith said.
“Whether you hung with gangs or not, you always had to watch your back, because even if somebody wasn’t trying to get you, you could end up taking a bullet meant for someone else, by accident,” said Smith, 23.
At least, that’s the way it was before Bloods and Crips factions in Watts laid down their AK-47s and 9-millimeter pistols in 1992 and pledged an end to wanton killings, some say.
“I love the peace treaty,” said Smith, whose two younger brothers are Grape Street Crips. “The first thing that went through my mind was that there wouldn’t be any more killing. The peace treaty slowed down a whole lot of killing.”
For years, during the bloody feud that loomed between Bloods and Crips in the Watts projects, women had been among the targets and victims of rival gangsters, or the bystanders who ended up taking a stray bullet. They have also been the ones to worry that their sons, brothers or boyfriends would be the next casualties of urban warfare.
Though the killings haven’t ceased completely, the 2-year-old truce has eased some women’s minds. And they pray that the uneasy peace will continue.
“I think what the young men are trying to do (with the truce) is to give us back our community, our families,” said Theresa Allison, founder of Mothers ROC (Reclaiming Our Children), a support group that helps parents of arrested and incarcerated young men.
Mothers who spent sleepless nights waiting for word that their sons had been killed now open their homes to truce meetings. Young women who feared their children’s fathers would be gunned down before the babies took their first steps see a brighter future. And teen-age girls who cruised with their homeboys welcome peace.
“I think everyone plays a role in this truce. It’s not just men and can’t be just men, because these boys have mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends. They have children,” Allison said. “We all have a stake in this truce staying together.”
Women didn’t participate in the series of truce meetings held before the civil unrest two years ago. Nor were they clamoring before reporters and television cameras soon after, pushing for a piece of the American Dream--economic opportunity and political clout.
For the most part, they stayed in the background, supporting the transformation and efforts of the men who hammered out the peace treaty and joining them in celebrating the end of more than a decade of bloody rivalry at truce parties and picnics.
Smith was one of the party-goers. It wasn’t too long before those parties that she and her mother, Deborah, were kept awake almost nightly by the crackle of gunfire outside their Jordan Downs apartment. With every round of shots, they feared that Fred Smith--Niaela’s brother and Deborah’s son--would be lying dead in some street.
Deborah Smith talks rather matter-of-factly about her son’s gang involvement, like someone who has accepted the inevitable. (Another son, Fred’s twin brother Charles, is also a Grape Street Crip and is in jail.)
But there are still twinges of a mother’s pain in her voice as she recounts watching Fred get beaten up during his “courting” into the Crips sect and the sleepless nights that added more gray hairs to her head.
“Every time it got late I would wonder if he was ever coming home,” Smith said. “He knew I didn’t approve of it, but there wasn’t nothing I could do to hold him back.”
Fred Smith, 22, whose street name is “Scorpio,” joined the Grape Street Crips at age 11 and spent several years committing drive-bys, robberies and other crimes. He has spent eight of the past nine years in and out of jail. Now on parole and ready to start a job, he is making some changes that please his mother.
“I think he’s got more sense now,” she said, watching her son, in purple jeans and matching short-sleeved shirt, joke with his friends and flash a boyish, dimpled smile at his mother.
“I can say, since ’92, I’ve rested a lot easier,” she said. “That doesn’t mean everything is perfect, but this part has settled down a bit and that makes it a bit better.”
Emma Williams is skeptical that things are better. She admits that the killings have subsided since the truce, but the violence continues, she said. It is apparent in the quarter-inch hole from a bullet shot through the windshield of her son Saffarr’s cream-colored Monte Carlo in February.
“There was a time when someone was getting shot and killed and people were going to funerals every week,” she said. “I was so scared one time I was fixing to pack up and move.”
“But that was back in the day” before the truce, Niaela Smith interrupted. “You’ve got to admit that things are different now.”
Williams agreed. “The truce made a whole lot of people stop pulling the triggers and it seems the death rate has dropped, but I still don’t know,” she said as she sat on the stoop of her Jordan Downs apartment.
The truce didn’t have too much to do with Monique Marshall’s decision to distance herself from the spiral of gang life that entangled her for nearly a third of her 17 years. But it gave her the freedom to move between neighborhoods that were closed to her for years because of her involvement with a Crips sect.
“I just got sick of ducking and dodging from people,” said Monique, who is focusing her attention on trying to get through high school and raising her year-old son.
Like many other teens, Monique grew up around Crips in her neighborhood at 83rd Street near Normandie Avenue. She got caught up in gang life and started skipping school, getting drunk, looking for other girls to beat up for money and making sure she didn’t get beaten up herself.
“I feel more relaxed now because I can go to picnics and hang with the Bloods and stuff and even though they know I’m a Crip, they won’t mess with me because they know I’m cool,” Monique said.
Nadie Battle, a crisis intervention worker with Community Youth Gang Services, worked with Monique and her mother to get the teen out of gang-banging. Girls who were heavily involved in gangs “knew it was time to make a change because the guys had mellowed out, and so they had nothing to do but mellow out,” Battle said.
Ex-gangsters and community leaders in the projects and parts of South-Central say the truce is holding and moving beyond Watts’ boundaries. Members and leaders of more than a dozen gang factions that include the Rollin’ 60s, Eight-Tray Gangsters and Hoover Crips recently announced efforts to call a cease-fire.
So far this year, the peace efforts have resulted in a sharp drop in gang-related homicides. Between Jan. 1 and May 22, detectives in South Los Angeles logged 27 gang-motivated slayings compared with 49 for the same period in 1993, a 45% decrease. There were 124 gang-related slayings in South Los Angeles in 1993, compared to 126 the year before.
“There were some real genuine people who wanted the peace,” said Cmdr. Willie Pannell, head of operations in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Bureau. “Particularly some of the mothers and families and some of the guys. There was a need for this.”
The police department also reported a decrease in rape and attempted murder in the South Bureau, but robberies and felony assaults have increased.
Between Jan. 1 and April 30 in LAPD’s South Bureau, 471 robberies were logged, a 58% increase from the 298 reported during the same period last year. There were 440 felony assaults during the first four months this year, up from 396 in 1993. Rapes fell 26% in the two years and attempted murders dropped 3%.
“They weren’t shooting each other, but they were doing everything else,” Pannell said.
Charles Rachal, a former Crip who now works to provide outings for youngsters to keep them away from gang life, said “the peace treaty was to stop killing each other. That doesn’t mean the deaths are gonna stop.”
“To tell a man ‘Stop gangbanging,’ that’s one thing. To tell a man, ‘Stop gangbanging and stop selling drugs,’ that’s two different things,” said Rachal, who works for South-Central L.A. Youth Services, a nonprofit organization.
Rachal’s explanation for the continuing violence is what makes Williams of Jordan Downs doubtful of the truce’s complete success.
“It’s fixing to be summer and they’re gonna throw parties and somebody is gonna say something about someone else’s woman and BAM!, it starts all over again,” she said.
In the insular housing projects of Watts where the truce was born, a few say the peace accord has weakened because the men who worked to put the agreement together turned their attention toward having a presence in the media and getting funding for their aspiring business ventures or fledgling organizations. The result was a failure to make significant efforts to create substantial programs to work with the young boys and girls in the community.
“I think we in the (truce) leadership forgot who we were supposed to serve,” said Fred Williams, founder and director of Common Ground Foundation, a program to keep students in school. Williams has been involved in trying to keep the truce going and helped organize a national truce summit in Kansas City, Mo., in 1993.
“We left these young brothers hanging and they’re holding on to what they can on their own,” he said. So, Williams added, the truce is “fragmented, but it’s not gone. It’s not over.”
Williams said he is working on reunifying the frayed factions of the peace movement. His idea, the Watts Truce Movement Assn., is still in the planning stages and is an attempt to pull various truce organizations together to work collectively on various issues.
However, he doesn’t see women playing an integral part in his reunification plan. “If the women are gonna be a part of the movement, they’re gonna have to deal with the girls like we’ve dealt with the brothers, because the girls start some of these problems with the brothers,” Williams said.
Several fights between young men in the gangs have been over girls and dicey romantic situations, Williams and other community workers said.
But while male gang members have seen a few efforts and organizations emerge since the truce to help keep the peace and help them stay away from gangbanging, little has been done in the way of programs specifically for girls and young women.
“A lot of the young men are trying to get their lives together right now and once this . . . has taken place, the women are going to have a major role to play in helping to keep this all together,” said Jim Brown, founder of Amer-I-Can, a recovery program for former gang members.
“This generation of girls can be saved. I’ve seen it done and I’ve done it with a few,” said Battle of CYGS. “But they need their own leaders.”
Allison of Mothers ROC said she has played her own part in trying to keep the peace. She founded the group in December, 1992, months after her son, Dewayne Keith Holmes, was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for a robbery he says he did not commit.
Every day, Allison said, she is out on the street talking to teen-age boys, gang members or people in Imperial Courts, or she is visiting someone in the California Youth Authority or going to court as part of her work with Mothers ROC.
“I think women are the main ingredient in what’s needed to help keep this going,” Allison said, sitting poised at a table in a fast-food restaurant in a gray suit jacket and gold blouse with neon orange nail polish. “We were a large part of the force that marched through the projects on April 29 to celebrate the staying power of the truce.
“As this (truce) continues, I think we will find a more permanent place in helping to continue to this quest for peace,” she added. “We can’t escape that it affects every one of us.”