Watts Truce Holds Even as Hopes Fade
It’s a warm weekday afternoon in Watts, and a 29-year-old man known as Ray-Ray is open for business inside the Jordan Downs housing project.
Shirtless, his big arms bulging even at rest, Ray-Ray sits on a chrome and black vinyl chair set on a small concrete porch. Beside him are the goods he sells to residents of the project: a cardboard box full of Fritos, Oreos and chips, an ice chest stocked with Bud, Olde English 800 and soda.
As he surveys his surroundings, a young man pedals by on a red bicycle and waves hello. Ray-Ray nods back and the bicyclist--a member of Bounty Hunters, the Bloods gang that rules the nearby Nickerson Gardens housing project--rides on into Jordan Downs.
The scene is a reminder of how much and how little has changed in Watts in the five years since the Los Angeles riots.
Five years ago, that bicyclist probably would have been shot simply for being a Blood inside Jordan Downs, the domain of the Grape Street Crips.
Today, a gang truce signed days before the riots by leaders of the Blood and Crip sets that rule Watts’ housing projects remains in effect--to the surprise of many citizens and police. Gang-related crime remains, but random attacks on rivals have virtually disappeared, a fact that many housing project residents--not merely gang members--say has made life significantly safer.
Five years ago, Ray-Ray thought he was on the verge of becoming a successful businessman. He was bolstered by post-riot promises of entrepreneurial opportunities for the inner city--even for gang members like himself.
Today it is obvious he was wrong.
The post-riot notion that gang members could trade violence for capitalism withered on the vine long ago. One of the most dramatic creations--a nonprofit corporation called Hands Across Watts, formed two months after the riots to lead the Bloods and Crips of Watts into mainstream business ventures through corporate donations--died in 1995.
In this four-square-mile community of 32,000, there is widespread bitterness that enthusiastic visions of ghetto entrepreneurialism turned out to be little more than talk.
“I think this community is more hopeless now than it was before,” said minister Mujahid Abdul-Karim, a resident of Watts since 1978 and a man who was instrumental in brokering the 1992 gang truce. “They have no hope that anything is gonna change. They see nothing has been done within that five years.”
Added Jim Galipeau, a veteran gang probation officer: “The only tragedy of the truce was that society needed to reward [gang members who created it] and didn’t do a damn thing.”
Nine-year-old Daude Sherrills Jr. was just 4 in 1992. Even today, he doesn’t know how much of a role he played in the gang truce.
“I did this for my kid,” said his father, Daude Sherrills, 29, a former Grape Street Crip who was one of the prime architects of the treaty. “I stopped gangbanging because I had a son being born.”
His mission took years, stalled by memories of too many funerals, too much anger and too many tears. The truce finally took effect April 26, 1992, when a dozen members of the Grape Street Crips drove a van from Jordan Downs to the Imperial Courts housing project, home of the rival PJ Crips.
“We got to thinking we have to make this real,” recalled Aqeela Sherrills, Daude’s younger brother. “Gotta go over there. So we went to the PJs, turned on some music and took out a video camera. For a while it was really tense. They didn’t know what was going on. But we’ve been knowing each other all our lives. Cats started walking up, shaking hands and the truce was on.”
By 8 that evening, up to 300 gang members were having a party, one that moved two days later to Nickerson Gardens, home of the Bounty Hunters.
On April 29, the party was going strong at Jordan Downs.
Then the riots erupted.
Though many gang members throughout Los Angeles used the chaos as an opportunity to kill rivals, in Watts the infant truce held. Of the 45 deaths attributed to the riots, three occurred in Watts; each of those victims were shot during confrontations with Los Angeles police.
Today, police and residents of Watts confirm that gang-on-gang slayings over emotional issues of turf boundaries or gang clothing have virtually disappeared. No longer is someone risking death for, say, wearing the purple of Grape Street outside Jordan Downs or the blue of the PJ Crips outside Imperial Courts--a custom that still exists in some parts of Los Angeles.
However, the truce has failed to extinguish the larger problem of crimes by gang members against ordinary citizens, police say. The community remains a dangerous place. Last year, Watts’ murder rate was five times as high as the city of Los Angeles’. Thirty-three murders were reported within its borders, which include Central Avenue on the west, Alameda Street on the east, 92nd Street on the north and Imperial Highway on the south.
In addition, two of the major players of the peace treaty--Gregory “High T” Hightower from Jordan Downs and Tony Bogard from Imperial Courts--have been slain since the truce. According to sources, both were killed by people they knew from their own neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, residents who live in Watts’ housing projects say they are better off. Before the truce, they would not socialize with friends in other projects, afraid of being mistaken for a rival gang member.
“I have some good friends who live in the Nickersons, but I could never go see them because, just because I live in the Jordan Downs, they would think I was Grape Street,” said Chris Williams, who is not a gang member. “Now I walk through there all the time and I walk proudly. I’m not afraid anymore.”
Before the truce, said Dana Perkins as she strolled through a Jordan Downs parking lot not far from Ray-Ray’s business, “I wouldn’t even be outside in the daylight.”
After the riots, corporations came forth with a variety of job-training programs aimed at the underclass. But those programs often required higher educational levels than many older gang members possessed. An alternative idea took shape among some business people and gang members: Couldn’t the young men who had operated the drug trade use their street skills to similarly run legitimate businesses?
From this notion, Hands Across Watts was born. Its name came from the slogan that gang members had used as they planned the truce. Its first president was Daude Sherrills, and its members attracted nationwide attention for their pleas for honest work.
Sherrills eventually left Hands Across Watts in the hands of his former rival, Tony Bogard of the Imperial Courts. In 1994, Bogard was killed by an alleged drug dealer over what authorities believe was a financial dispute. From then on, investors appeared to sour on Hands Across Watts, Sherrills said.
“When Tony got killed, a lot of people ran away and didn’t stick with the peace process,” he said, comparing the reaction unfavorably to U.S. diplomatic response to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “When Rabin got killed, America didn’t back out. They invested more. But here . . . they ran away.
“The thing died down due to the simple fact that people didn’t understand that things just couldn’t change overnight,” said Sherrills, who now works as a counselor for a Woodlands Hills-based violence prevention organization. “They didn’t know the reality was our lives could be in danger by even making peace. They couldn’t understand that one wrong step and my life could be taken by guys from my own neighborhood.”
Alan Isaacs, who supervised a short-lived athletic shoe venture that grew out of the peace treaty, agreed.
“There are valid reasons why businesses are not located in high-risk areas,” he said. “The perception is that the inner city is dangerous. Sometimes you can feel it in the air.”
Isaacs was working for Eurostar Inc. when the shoe company unveiled plans in June 1992 to produce the multicolored “Truce” sneaker.
Around that time, Eurostar hired Ray-Ray and his best friend, Gregory Hightower, as consultants. Before long, the two were selling athletic shoes under a tent on Figueroa Street and 88th Place.
With some help from Eurostar, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), a lawyer and two businessmen, Ray-Ray and Hightower opened a combination shoe store and community center, called the Playground, on Florence Avenue. In the front they sold shoes. In the back they organized basketball tournaments and provided after- school tutoring, trying to create a hangout and haven from the gangs.
But after a year of success, business sputtered and the Playground went bankrupt. Isaacs said Eurostar--which never produced the Truce shoe--fired him when he complained about its lack of commitment to the inner city.
“It is all about money,” said Isaacs, who now works for Converse. “What happened was, it was in vogue to get involved. [Once] the cameras were gone, [and corporations] were not going to get a bunch of free advertising anymore,” their enthusiasm faded.
Several calls to Eurostar President Eric Allon were not returned. Eurostar executive Peter Troung seemed to vaguely recall the Truce shoe.
“I don’t remember. Oh, yes, I remember that,” Troung said. “But I don’t remember if that was marketed or not.”
Isaacs was shaken when a reporter told him that Hightower had been slain seven months ago.
“Oh, no. Oh, God. You know, at times I’d say to my wife maybe we saved a life or two. And now High-T’s dead. I don’t know. Please tell Ray-Ray I’m very, very sorry.
“The bottom line is, it’s a social situation. It’s more of a job for the president of the United States than for a shoe salesman.”
De Wayne Holmes, a PJ Crip who was instrumental in putting the truce together, said gang members were alienated by riot recovery efforts that seemed out of touch with their needs.
“So what we are seeing now is the effect of that,” he said. “We are seeing people going back to what they used to be doing, the familiar ways of surviving--selling drugs, robbing, gambling, stealing, hustling. People do all sorts of things to live, to survive, to pay their rent and their bills.”
In 1990, two years before the riots, the U.S. census showed that unemployment was running a staggering 26% in Watts, more than three times the rate of Los Angeles. One consulting firm estimated that in 1996, per capita income in Watts was $5,014, compared to $18,331 in Los Angeles as a whole.
Geri Silva, a community activist and leader of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, is reminded of the hollow feeling left by the 1960s federal War on Poverty.
“It is this illusion of change where government or business or Rebuild LA come in and say, ‘Look what we’ve done’ . . . and [years] down the line, when things don’t work, they will blame the people who live in the community,” she said.
Looking around Jordan Downs, where his mother grew up, where his friends have died from bullets and drugs, Daude Sherrills is defiantly optimistic.
On this warm spring Saturday, the project is alive as always with young children, many furiously pedaling their Big Wheels.
Daude surveys the faded gray and blue stucco two-story units, the weed-infested lawns, the trash-strewn gutters of the parking lots.
“We want to tear all of this down and build it back up,” he says. “But we want to do it ourselves. By 2002, we are going to be looking at sky-rises in Watts.”
In Nickerson Gardens, Greg Brown, who organizes talent shows in Watts, looks at the same kind of scene and sees failed promises.
“You see any improvements around here?” he asks, standing in front of the project’s gym. “In the ‘60s, General Motors [in neighboring South Gate] was the future. In the ‘70s, King hospital was the future. Now the future in Watts and South-Central is jail. You see that new 77th Street [LAPD] station? It’s beautiful. You see anything else in the community that looks better than that jail?”
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