Making a stand in a place where the status quo is violence and death
In any other part of town, it would be considered a blood bath: Five men shot to death in six weeks in one neighborhood.
The crime wave is the presumed result of a feud between two factions of the same street gang. The neighborhood -- Nickerson Gardens -- is Los Angeles’ version of no man’s land; one of the city’s most dangerous and volatile housing projects. And five dead gang-bangers in Watts don’t count for much in a city celebrating a drop in crime that has made Los Angeles its safest in two decades.
Enter the Wrecking Crew for Christ Holiness Church Trauma Center. I’m not making that up. That’s the name of a South Los Angeles congregation heavy on reformed ex-cons. About 50 members staged a march through Watts’ housing projects on Saturday, on a mission to stop the carnage.
There was Pastor Michael L. Rowles with a megaphone, hawking his redemption mantra. Middle-aged women in sweat pants, waving and shouting Hallelujah. Young men with tattoos on their necks, their baggy white T-shirts scrawled with “Jesus is Real.”
When all else fails, we pray, I thought. I grabbed a notebook and fell in line.
Too many have died. We’ve come to let you know that somebody cares. . . . We must not be afraid.
Cops on bicycles cleared traffic. An LAPD car led the march into Nickerson Gardens, a marcher waving a giant cross from the front window.
Cooperation between residents and police is being credited for part of the city’s crime drop. But gang crimes are tough to crack; the LAPD has not made arrests in the Nickerson Gardens killings.
Fear is the culprit, the marchers told me. “If you go into Nickerson Gardens after 6 o’clock, you wouldn’t think anybody lives there,” said Carl Lee, a former drug dealer, now a minister and fitness trainer. “People are too scared to go outside.”
Scared to be shot by gang-bangers; scared to be questioned by the cops.
The police “are doing the best they can,” Lee said. “But you have five killings and people are afraid to talk. You’ll be known as a snitch; you’ll wind up dead; you’ll have to find another place to live.
“That’s why we as a church have to go over there and begin to pray.”
As we walked, residents trickled out of their apartments. Some waved and shouted their thanks. Others looked on blankly, unsure what to make of the raucous display.
“One thing’s for sure,” one marcher told me. “With all these police officers around, there ain’t gone be no shooting for at least this hour.”
The devil is alive!The killing must stop. The things going down in our community are wrong. . . . Oh God, turn our sons around.
John King knows prayer isn’t enough. He grew up in the neighborhood and works now as a project director for the city’s Housing Authority. He told me he felt inspired marching. The demonstration of faith “helps people internally,” he said. “They can look in the mirror and say, ‘I can make better decisions.’ That’s the first step toward change.”
But the second step relies on resources to restore programs like King’s Vocabulary League (every basketball player had to bring a vocabulary word to games and practice) lost during a decade of shrinking funding.
Crime seems to have become a sporting event of its own.
“If you come home from the store with a flat-screen TV in the morning, they’ll break into your house that night and it’s gone,” said Albert Brown.
Brown flagged down King when the marchers passed him. “You got anything I can do?” he asked. Teach a class, coach some kids, volunteer to mentor someone? He was looking for something to keep him going.
He introduced himself to me by his credentials. “I’ve got no record, no felonies, no parole, no holds. I’ve got a driver’s license, no suspension, no tickets. I’ve got a high school diploma, and one year of college.”
Still, he’s been jobless for six months, since the trucking company he worked for went under. He’s got four children to support.
It’s hard to steer kids away from gangs when thieves and drug peddlers are the project’s success stories. “They see the wrongdoers living high,” he said. While men like him struggle to provide.
As the marchers headed off down the block, Brown’s 12-year-old son circled back toward us. “Can I have a dollar, Dad?” he asked. “Not now,” Brown said softly. “I don’t have it. Maybe later.”
We are standing for our community, for what is right, for God in our lives.
They are not ready to celebrate with the rest of the city right now. Yes, crime has dropped in South Los Angeles. But unemployment and poverty are rising, and with them, hopelessness and desperation.
It’s tempting to write places like Nickerson Gardens off. We reduce them to cliches -- “gang-ridden,” “crime-infested” -- as if project residents need pest control, instead of opportunities and education.
“Nobody wants to live like this,” Ebony Coleman told me as we walked together toward my car. She lives just outside the project’s boundaries, and won’t let her 12-year-old son leave the block.
And it’s not just stray bullets she’s worried about. “Some people here think this is normal, all these people getting shot,” she said. “If I let my kids play in the projects, I’m afraid they’ll grow up like that.”