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A Parade of Hearses Protests L.A. Violence

May 18, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

They came in white, silver and black hearses. They wore somber suits and starched shirts. They stood in practiced poses of respectful silence, hands behind backs, heads bowed.

They had, in short, the air of people used to staying in the background as they shepherd others through their grief.

But on Saturday, the dozens of Los Angeles funeral directors, embalmers, morticians, florists, escorts and mortuary counselors -- most of them black -- were doing something else: They were protesting urban homicide.

The demonstration by people in death-related industries had been organized by several Los Angeles funeral home owners and employees -- tired, they said, of young gunshot victims passing through their doors.

It was a strange idea, they admitted. But once word got out, more and more of their colleagues joined in, and the result was a column of nearly 20 hearses streaming through the streets of South Los Angeles on Saturday morning.

Many of those who took part said they have long harbored feelings of unease about profiting from an all-too-common source of business: premature deaths due to a plague of street homicides.

"We know that people are going to die," said Edith Simpson, a counselor at House of Winston Mortuary. "But making money off senseless killing -- that is another thing."

"We want to show we are not just burying people for money," said Eric Williams, the mortuary's office manager. "We are human too. We are not just hearse drivers and money mongers."

Human, and just as likely to suffer as the people they serve, said Elizabeth Floyd, a funeral director at Rucker's Mortuary in Pacoima. Her son, Howard L. Baker, was gunned down in 1984 at age 23.

She told of how she got home in time to find him lying on the ground, his eyes open, as if looking to her for help. Now, as a funeral director, every time she serves a customer who has lost someone this way, "it breaks my heart," Floyd said. "If I could just say something, do something.... The pain is so penetrating. A hole. An emptiness in your stomach. You are never the same."

The protest was conducted in a manner only funeral directors could perfect: First, the hearses rolled through the streets, drawing waves from onlookers, and a few baffled stares. Next came sermons and hymns at a graveyard amid bunches of black and white balloons. Finally, there was a release of white doves.

The event was originally planned as a "No Service Saturday" -- a day without funerals. But it didn't work out that way, organizers said. Some funerals took place anyway, and police said at least four people were killed in Los Angeles County from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon. Two were black men, one was a Latino man and one was a Latina woman.

State Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who spoke at the event, called the protest "extraordinary."

Demonstrations against street killings are commonplace in black communities of Los Angeles. There are regular stop-the-violence rallies and candlelight vigils.

But Saturday's protest shows that such efforts are gaining new backing, Ridley-Thomas said. "People you don't expect are saying, 'Enough is enough,' " he said.

The hearses took to the streets in an hour when many stretches of South Los Angeles boulevards were empty. The procession passed quickly through light traffic, drawing little notice.

But at some points, small crowds gathered. Pedestrians waved and motorists honked. A few people flashed peace signs, participants said.

The hearses bore signs carrying the usual exhortations seen at South Los Angeles antiviolence demonstrations -- "Stop the Violence," "Stop the Senseless Killing." But one car also bore a hand-written sign with a more unusual slogan: "Live a Long Time."

One of the organizers, funeral director Anthony Felder of Spalding Mortuary, stood on Century Boulevard to cheerlead as the column passed. He began talking about his sister, Michelle Alyce Felder -- "my best friend in the world" -- who was killed at age 23, randomly gunned down at a bus stop.

"Even though we profit from this, there comes a time that those of us who deal with death every day need to take a stand," Felder said.

"There they go!" he yelled as the hearses rolled past, their company signs in the windows. "Wake up Los Angeles! Wake up!"

Eric Smith, a Los Angeles County sheriff's dispatch worker, idled his car nearby, waiting for the column to go by.

Smith is 19 and black, a member of the highest-risk age, race and gender group for violent death. At first, he said, he was confused, thinking that he was watching a funeral. But learning the reason, he beamed. "It's good," he said. "I think it's positive. I hope it does something."

The column zoomed up and down some of the boulevards most notorious for violence: La Brea, Jefferson, Crenshaw, Slauson, Florence, Manchester and Vermont, ending at the Angeles-Rosedale Cemetery at Normandie and Washington.

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