Depending on whom you ask, they either are vicious gang members who deserve to spend the rest of their lives behind bars, revolutionary soldiers who sounded the first shots of a racial insurrection, or decent young men who are falsely accused.
One is said to be a stalwart member of the notorious Eight Tray Gangster Crips, while another is a quiet man whose main preoccupation is with motorbikes. A third is a husband who holds down two jobs and is expecting the birth of his second child. The fourth is a drifter, who is said to have spent the past two years hanging out at the neighborhood Unocal station, pumping gas and hustling customers for change.
Today, they stand accused of one of the most vicious and widely publicized attacks ever carried out on live television--the beating of truck driver Reginald O. Denny, who was dragged from his truck, pummeled senseless and robbed as millions of horrified viewers watched. They are Damian Monroe (Football) Williams, Antoine Eugene (Twan) Miller, Henry Keith (Kiki) Watson and Gary Anthony Williams.
Despite their vilification by the likes of Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, in certain circles the four men are not only defended but deified. Activists and supporters have dubbed them "the Los Angeles Four," compared them to Revolutionary War heroes and characterized the attack on Denny as an act of war, not crime.
"There is very deep feeling for these men," said Celes A. King, chairman of the California chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. "And that feeling is growing."
From law enforcement records and interviews with relatives, neighbors, friends and associates, the portrait that emerges of the Denny suspects challenges many details of the police accounts, but also suggests that the men are an improbable group to lead the revolutionary vanguard.
Soon, they will go to trial; many in the community are convinced that these four young black men will be denied justice. And despite differences between the cases, many already have made the verdicts for the officers who beat Rodney G. King their yardstick for a fair trial. If four white officers can be found not guilty, some activists and family members of the Denny suspects ask why can't four black men?
Of the defendants, none has attracted more attention than Damian Williams. Police say it is Williams, 19, who is pictured on the videotape hoisting a brick--sometimes it is described as a piece of cinder-block or a rock--and smashing it into the side of Denny's head. That man then dances next to Denny's motionless body and flashes a gang sign.
In a videotape filled with images of violence, there are few moments more appalling than that one, and Williams has emerged as the central figure in the approaching criminal trial. It was Williams, the youngest of the four suspects, whom Gates chose to arrest personally.
Williams' lawyers admit that their client was at the Florence and Normandie intersection that evening, and suggest that he was drawn there by the noise of the growing commotion. Others say he was enraged by the sight of police arresting a young neighbor and putting the neighbor's mother in a chokehold.
In either case, the Los Angeles riots were not Williams' first brush with violence.
He has an arrest record that includes charges of battery, robbery, resisting a public officer and hit-and-run. A copy of the search warrant left at Williams' house says police found shotgun shells and a gun among his possessions.
Neighbor after neighbor said Williams was universally known as an "O.G.," or "original gangster." According to one court document, Williams has a "71" tattooed on his left hand, a mark of allegiance to the 71 Hustlers.
Police say the Hustlers are a subgroup of the Eight Trays, although gang members say the Hustlers are merely a small group of 71st Street men who run dice games and engage in other low-level criminal activity.
Williams, who never finished high school, has a 3-month-old boy named Jaron. Williams' mother, Georgina Jackson, is a soft-spoken nurse from Mississippi who has taken up the fight for her son with vigor. She says Williams is a good father who tries hard to support his boy by installing car alarms for friends and neighbors.
He has played semipro football--which some say accounts for his nickname. Poster-size pictures of Williams in uniform bracket the front porch of his mother's house, and his trophies are scattered throughout the living room.
Some say Williams has a generous streak, too. One neighbor recalls that when her young boy was playing in the street one day, Williams saw him and was astonished at how long his hair had grown. Williams asked the boy why he did not get it cut, and when the boy said he had no money, Williams marched him down to the barber shop and paid.
But far from everyone in the Florence and Normandie area is fond of Williams. The Eight Trays frighten many residents, and some said--in interviews from behind their locked metal screens--that Williams is known to play rough.