Fifty years after riots, Watts builds a bridge for minorities, police

The Los Angeles community has spent a decade forging trust between residents and law enforcement. Here’s what it has learned.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Street art covers a wall along Graham Avenue in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. The neighborhood has spent a decade trying to turn itself around,

On an August day in 1965, five-year-old Donny Joubert sat playing with toy soldiers on his mother’s porch. He was too young to understand why the neighbors were huddled around their television sets or why smoke clouded the air above Nickerson Gardens, the public housing project where he and his family lived.

But when real-life versions of his model army men came marching past his house, even he knew something was wrong.

“I’m looking at them in my hand and then I’m looking at them right in front of me,” Mr. Joubert, now in his 50s, recalls. “I knew something had happened in our community.”

What happened was the Watts riots, a six-day uprising sparked by the arrest of a black man, Marquette Frye, during a traffic stop on Aug. 11, 1965. The riots resulted in 34 deaths, and the city called in the National Guard to quell the violence. It was the worst urban uprising the nation had seen in 20 years.

Today echoes of that violence – and sense of oppression – reverberate in places like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Ferguson, Mo. Protests over police killing black men have sparked a new civil rights movement, one that has once more brought black lives to the fore of national consciousness.

In Watts, however, a different kind of change is taking place.

Though poverty, unemployment, and gangs still plague the community, violent crime is down. Police officers coach youth football teams on weekends and play basketball with locals. Community members work with street cops to curb gang activity in the neighborhood’s three housing projects.

The transformation, Joubert and others say, is largely the result of a long, painstaking process of forging relationships between the community and law enforcement. Every Monday for the past 10 years, the Watts Gang Task Force – made up of elected officials, police, local leaders, and residents – has met in Watts to address the neighborhood’s toughest issues.

As the effort bears fruit, members of the task force have a message for cities now going through what Watts experienced for decades: Building trust within a community requires not just time, persistence, and commitment, but a willingness from all stakeholders to be held accountable for their actions.

“That’s what I would tell all these places that’s struggling,” says Joubert, who is among the task force’s original members and now its vice president. “Here in Watts, you might still have them [bad] attitudes, but … folks know these officers by name. You could see some young men walk up to the officers, shake their hands, embrace each other. You never saw that [before].”

“People say that you can’t build a relationship,” Joubert adds. “Yes, you can.”

The Monday morning meeting

The session begins shortly after 10 a.m. Representatives from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the county sheriff’s office come with updates on public safety, while members of the district councilman’s office and local nonprofits discuss new community programs.

Others, like a resident named Dot, come forward with more personal issues. Where, she asks, are the jobs that were supposed to come with the redevelopment in Jordan Downs?

The Rev. James Jones Jr., the meeting’s facilitator, assures her that they will bring in someone from the jobs program to explain any delays. When another local begins protesting loudly on Dot’s behalf, the reverend – known to everyone as Pastor JJ – reminds the room that they are there to address issues, not complain about them. The man storms out.

“Folks are passionate, and in some cases, frustrated,” says Mr. Jones, a Baptist minister who runs a local group called Gangsters for Christ. The morning’s events are standard fare for a Watts Gang Task Force meeting, he says. In the early days, things would get even more heated.

“We had to stand up and get between folks,” Jones recalls.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Ronald and Denise Perkins have lived in Jordan Downs, a public housing project in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, since the 1960s. They will be among the first to move into the project's new housing developments, which began construction this year.

But bringing together people with diverse views is crucial to effecting change, says US Rep. Janice Hahn (D) of California. Representative Hahn helped found the task force in 2006, when she was a city councilwoman representing Watts and the surrounding 15th district.

In December 2005, she says, a tiff between gangs led to a spate of shootings and deaths in the community. Troubled, a group of residents, including Joubert, approached her one Saturday, demanding she deal with the violence.

“They said their kids couldn’t even play with their new toys at Christmas because they were so afraid,” Hahn recalls. “It really stung me.”  

The first meeting took place the next Monday. Along with residents, Hahn invited the LAPD – a controversial move that almost killed the effort.

“Nobody trusted the police, period,” Joubert says. “So we was furious for a minute because we felt like, what are you trying to do?” A heated exchange took place, he says, but when things calmed down, each side was able to make their case.

“And before you know it, we met every Monday,” Joubert says.

'Nobody was off the hook'

The task force’s original goal was to address gang violence. Among their efforts: helping to launch Safe Passages, a program meant to ensure students could take secure routes to school, after the group learned that many young locals joined gangs on the promise that they could get to and from school without being harassed.

But the task force also worked to bridge divides between police and residents. Members linked up with the city’s Housing Authority, the LAPD, and civil rights advocates to launch the Community Safety Partnership, which encouraged the public to share with authorities information about gang activity and other concerns.

That was a huge ask from a community where once crowds would stop paramedics from giving medical assistance to victims of a crime because “anyone in uniform was considered hostile,” Hahn says.

“The whole time I was growing up here, I didn’t trust the police,” Joubert says. “We felt like everyone that wore that badge was not wearing that badge the right way.”

To overcome that perception, police had to learn a hard lesson: that each of them was accountable for the actions of anyone in uniform, says Phil Tingirides, who began his term as captain of the LAPD’s southeast division, which covered Watts, in 2008.

“There were a lot of angry people and there was a reason behind it,” adds Commander Tingirides, now with the South Bureau. “Rather than sit there and defend it, let’s figure out how to fix it.”

If my son was wrong, my son was wrong. How am I going to try to sue these police if he pulled the gun first?”

– Denise Perkins

When he saw that Hahn tried to make it to every Monday meeting, Tingirides says he did the same. “I wanted to send a message to my officers that this is important,” he says. “If I’m here, you guys need to support it, too.”

The strategy helped, and not just for cops. Some residents began considering their own culpability toward the community. Today, as officer-involved shootings continue in Watts and around the country, some point out that police are not the only ones answerable.

“I understand people going to be upset if some of the police happen to shoot one of our kids, our husband, our brother, our sister,” says Denise Perkins, who has lived in Jordan Downs since the 1960s. “If it was my son out there, I [would] scream and holler to the bitter ends.”

“But if my son was wrong,” she adds, “my son was wrong. How am I going to try to sue these police if he pulled the gun first? We all have got to pay the price for our own wrongness.”

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
US Rep. Janice Hahn (D) of California, one of the founders of the Watts Gang Task Force, says a sense of shared accountability is the secret of the group's success.

That sense of shared accountability is the secret to the task force’s success, Hahn says – and the reason it can be so difficult to replicate: Everyone had to be willing to take some blame when things went south.

“Nobody was off the hook,” she says. “I got criticized, the police got criticized, churches got criticized, the schools got criticized, the community got criticized. We were all being held accountable by each other.”

Signs of change

No one in Watts, even those from the task force, would claim that the community has turned itself around completely. Residents, especially those in the projects, continue to face break-ins, car thefts, and shootings. Gang retaliation and drugs remain persistent problems. As recently as July, 18-year-old Richard Risher was fatally shot by a police officer during a feud between rival gangs in Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs.

“You get frustrated,” Joubert says. “Especially when you think you done stopped it, and you get a phone call that a 16- or 17-year-old just got murdered.”

But things are improving, some residents say. Ms. Perkins, the Jordan Downs tenant, remembers the neighborhood at its worst, when drugs were rampant and people would get shot over dice games.

“It's not like it used to be,” she says. “It used to be bloodshed all around here.”

Indeed, homicide in Watts has dropped by nearly 70 percent since the task force’s inaugural year, according to data collected by the Los Angeles Times. In 2006, the neighborhood saw 26 homicides; in 2015, there were eight.

Last year, celebrity chef Roy Choi opened the neighborhood’s first sit-down restaurant, a trendy, low-cost joint called Loco’L. A group of nonprofits and elected officials are working on a streetscape project that aims to make the community more sustainable and economically viable.

And the Housing Authority and the LAPD have partnered to put together the Watts Bears, a football team made up of 8- to 12-year-olds from the community’s three housing projects and coached by police officers. It’s a sports relationship that has extended beyond the community’s youth.

“We've played basketball against them, we’ve played softball against them,” Joubert says. “We had cookouts.”

Some remain apprehensive of police, says Manuela Valera, another Jordan Downs tenant. “But right now, from what I see and what I know, we have a good relationship with them,” she says.

Perhaps the biggest change in Watts is taking place in Jordan Downs, where after decades of delayed plans and broken promises, a major redevelopment project broke ground this summer. The new proposal aims to double the number of units in the complex and open part of Jordan Downs to commercial retailers – all while keeping in mind the needs of residents, says John King, community relations officer with the Housing Authority who has worked with Watts residents for years.

“We’re really trying to be a part of the transformation of this community,” he says. “One thing is to have a plan, and another thing is to begin to implement that plan with the understanding that people have deep-seated ... issues. And there’s a legacy of poverty. So how do you break that?”

Such investments from various stakeholders have been key to making change happen, members of the task force say. And if this sort of transformation can take place in Watts – a community so burdened with history – then it’s possible for other places, too, they add.

“What you’re seeing in other communities around the country today was [Watts] then,” says city councilman Joe Buscaino, who in 2011 succeeded Hahn in the 15th district.

Some residents worry about what the changes mean for their lives and homes, but others welcome the transition. Sitting on separate couches in their cluttered one-bedroom apartment, Denise Perkins and her husband, Ronald, talk excitedly about being among the first to move into the new development.

“All I want to see is that truck backing up here and I’m putting my furniture on it,” Denise says, clapping her hands together. “I can’t wait.”

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