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Watts Truce Holds Even as Hopes Fade

Neighborhoods: Rival gang members for the most part are not killing each other. But the spirit of entrepreneurialism after the riots has dissolved.

May 18, 1997|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN and GREG KRIKORIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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