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Cosby Takes a Stand in Compton

The comedian urges residents at a community meeting to 'work toward something' in fixing the city's problems.

October 20, 2005|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

Bill Cosby didn't come to Compton High School on Wednesday night to sugarcoat reality.

He began with a story about both hope and tragedy.

The city, he said, needs to honor Venus and Serena Williams -- the tennis superstars who rose from the public courts of Compton to the top of the world rankings.

"How difficult is it for Compton to have a parade so that parents can bring the children and hold them up and say: 'They're from here'?" he asked the hundreds of residents who came to talk about turning things around in their violence-plagued city.

"And then one of the sisters was shot and murdered," he said, referring to the 2003 killing of the Williamses' half-sister Yetunde Price. Cosby paused for the audience to complete his sentence.

"In Compton," they replied.

"And the verdict was mistrial -- in Compton," Cosby said. "Still no parade.

"Come on, Compton. You understand?" Cosby said to murmurs from the crowd.

"You're known for a lot of things, Compton -- not many of them good ones. Why don't you bring them out?"

Cosby's "Call Out" to Compton was one in a series of appearances that the actor and comedian has made in lower-income neighborhoods across the country.

The city has recorded 54 homicides this year, 11 more than all of last year. At least six more people have been killed within blocks of the city limits. The killings have come amid a steep uptick in shootings that have left about 200 people wounded.

By coming to Compton, Cosby journeyed to one of the birthplaces of the hip-hop slang and gangsta dress and lifestyle he has criticized. He caused controversy last year when he called some in the black community "knuckleheads" for what he sees as their disrespect of the legacy of the civil rights movement by embracing sloppy grammar and diction.

But in Compton on Wednesday, many speakers welcomed his criticism as an opportunity for the local African American community to take a hard look at itself.

How to turn things around has been the subject of town hall meetings and calls for citizen participation, particularly since local leaders have said the cash-strapped city has no new revenue to buy more services from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

In recent months, with homicides mounting, city leaders have taken steps to improve morale and tackle underlying issues of gang life that fuel much of the local struggle with violence.

This month, a city-funded gang intervention program will open its doors, the first in some time.

On Saturday, hundreds of residents gathered for what politicians hope will be an annual Compton pride day, which included a celebrity softball game, food stands and information for job seekers. Cosby's appearance Wednesday night provided a stark look at the community's problems.

He and other speakers traced many of the problems back to the home -- calling on parents to take a firm hand, to participate each day in their child's education, to demand excellence, and to be role models for self-sufficiency. Acknowledging that many young black children are being raised by single mothers, several people called on black men to take on a fatherly role not only to their own children but to other children in the community.

But with the verve of an old-time revival leader, Cosby asked those gathered to focus on what they could change, to keep an eye toward "working toward something."

"People from Ethiopia, from Nigeria, who came from a piece of land with a goat want to come to America," he said, "We're already here."

The evening was divided into two sessions, one to provide grandparents and foster parents with strategies to help children make better decisions and a second for the wider community to talk about safety issues.

"People who say, 'I'm not going to flip some burgers. I'm going to sell some drugs, and if I get killed I get killed,' that's mind-boggling," Cosby said, "because we didn't come from giving up. We came from surviving."

Many who spoke recounted their own lives to illustrate for the young people in attendance that anyone can achieve goals. John Hill, chief of staff to county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, said he attended 22 grammar schools between first and third grade as the child of migrant parents before going into foster care. Early on, he said, he was determined to live a different life.

"I said to myself: 'If I have to do the homework when my daddy is drunk inside the house, I'll do it in the headlights of the car in the dirt,' " Hill said, getting a standing ovation.

Later in the evening, Vicky Lindsey, whose eldest son was shot and killed at a Compton High School football game a decade ago, called to the stage anyone in the audience who had lost a child to violence. Cosby, whose 27-year-old son Ennis was murdered in 1997 in Los Angeles, remained onstage.

Tina Norwood Jasper, her sweatshirt a makeshift memorial to her slain son, Biko Hasan, stood next to Lindsey. Hasan, 20, was shot and killed on Super Bowl Sunday as he stood outside a relative's house in Compton smoking a cigarette. Hasan's uncle, Jasper's brother, was shot nine times and a cousin was struck once. Both men lived.

Hasan was Jasper's only living child. An older daughter had lived only eight days.

"Two trips to the cemetery," she said. "That's tough."

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