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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Never Giving Up the Fight

Protest is not a passing fancy for John Peoples, who for nearly a decade has called on the U.S. to pay African Americans reparations for damages caused by slavery.

August 17, 2000|TERRY McDERMOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Political campaigns as viewed from the inside are disasters waiting to happen. They're balloons circling a rose bush, about to pop.

Campaign workers worry about what an opponent does, whether a check clears or a crowd cheers. The biggest worry of all is often the campaign's own candidate.

"He said what?" they'll scream.

In the business, this is called going "off message." Aides worry a single intemperate remark will destroy in a day what they have been trying to build for a year. Unless you've ever worked in a campaign, it can be unsettling to hear the contempt with which undisciplined candidates are regarded.

By this measure, although he's not running for anything, John Peoples is a potentially perfect candidate. Mr. Peoples, as everybody calls him, has been on message for nine years.

Almost every single day for those nine years, somewhere in South Los Angeles, he rolls up in his van with the African red, black and green colors, towing a little trailer he calls a "slave ship" behind him, and sets up shop.

The product of Mr. Peoples' shop is a campaign urging the United States government to pay reparations to African Americans for harm inflicted on them by slavery. He unfurls banners calling slavery the black holocaust. He unfolds sandwich boards demanding "40 acres and a mule." "Pay Up Now," says another.

For the last year, his principal place of business has been in the grassy median of South Broadway, just off the intersection with Century Boulevard. This is, not coincidentally, opposite the field office of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), an African American congresswoman Mr. Peoples would like to see take a more aggressive stance on his issue.

"That's our office," said Prince Michael McCloud, one of Peoples' disciples.

Mr. Peoples, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends or strangers, sometimes with the accompaniment of James Brown on the box, sits under a shade tree in the median and preaches his message to whoever will listen. It's a simple message: You owe us money. We want it.

He's a soft-spoken, caramel-colored, white-whiskered man. Like a lot of politicians, he habitually wears a blue suit of clothes, the difference being his is a set of overalls, with splashes of plaster where the pinstripes ought to be. He wears scuffed work boots, a floppy felt hillbilly hat and a chain draped over his shoulders. He is patient and will sit and listen, apparently endlessly, to anyone's ideas without so much as a "Hmmm."

Monday, he spoke at a rally held in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention. Although Peoples' friends say he has been campaigning for reparations longer than anyone, organizers of the rally were reluctant to let him speak.

"They consider Mr. Peoples a renegade," McCloud said.

He did, nonetheless, address the small crowd, and it was easy to see the potential roots of the organizers' reluctance. Mr. Peoples is direct and unyielding.

Some people, he said, suggest that instead of actual cash reparations, money ought to be put in a fund and invested on behalf of slave descendants.

"Shoot 'em," Mr. Peoples said of these moderates.

Members of Congress urge black activists to go slow in campaigning for reparations lest they scare off white allies.

"Them [expletives]," Mr. Peoples said. Then, in case you misheard, he repeats it and adds, "If you're not with me, you're on the wrong side."

Peoples has gathered a small following of loyalists. To call it an army would be ridiculous, a platoon an overstatement even, but they help out, digging into their own pockets to pay for pamphlets, helping haul the slave ship around town. For the last several weeks, they've set up a mock jail cell outside a prosperous South-Central church whose pastor has not been enthusiastic in embracing their cause.

"Not that we dislike the man," Mr. Peoples said, "we're just saying, 'C'mon in.' "

Mr. Peoples, 60, has been in Los Angeles since the early '70s when, en route to Las Vegas, he met a man from Glendale on a bus and came to visit. That ended a vagabond existence during which he lived in 20 states. That's an estimate, he said; he's never actually added them up. Asked how many towns he's lived in, he looked as if the thought had never occurred to him. "Oh my gosh," he said. "We don't know."

He has supported himself mainly by odd-job electrical work and often has a pair of pliers in his pocket. He more or less retired when customers complained when he towed the slave ship with him to jobs. They didn't want it parked in front of their houses.

Mr. Peoples decided that if it bothered people--especially black people--so much, then he had a lot of work to do and dedicated himself to it.

"Because I had everything I needed, I didn't really have any problems. But I looked around and see a lot of people doing bad. That ain't right. If some people are doing good, we all ought to. This is what it takes. Full-time action," he said.

Surveying Mr. Peoples' "office" neighborhood, it's easy to see that, economic boom notwithstanding, he's right that not everybody is doing well. The great flat plain of South Los Angeles still looks as much ravaged as rescued. Brian Weaver, a lifelong resident, said he's brought white acquaintances through the neighborhood and they look around in astonishment.

"They didn't know we existed, didn't know how we lived," Weaver said.

The rally Mr. Peoples spoke at Monday was held in the hopes of catching some attention from people in town for the convention. And it did, a little, but Mr. Peoples said it was just another day to him.

He was back out on Broadway the next day. The signs were up, the banners unfurled, the slave ship in place.

He sat in the shade, puffed a breakfast cigar and waited for an audience.

Convention or not, attention or none, Mr. Peoples is back on message.

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