by Joe Shea
March 26, 2012
THE WATCHMAN COMETH
BRADENTON, Fla., March 26, 2012 -- Brains spilling out of skulls. Blood flowing down the sidewalk. Bottles arcing in the streetlights. Knives strapped to legs. Bullets smacking the wall, hitting cars and people. Suspects running, pursuers chasing them. Men falling dead in the street - I have seen it all in a decade of helping lead a Neighborhood Watch during the crack epidemic that devastated central Hollywood in the 1990s. Police said our group was a "national model," and we hold that testimonial close to our hearts.
Night after night for months, members of the Ivar Hawks Neighborhood Watch patrolled the 16-odd blocks around the long hill where Billy Wilder shot the opening scenes of "Sunset Boulevard." In the course of our patrols, 12 people died and a total of 21 were shot on the one short block that joins Ivar Hill to Yucca Street between Ivar Avenue and Cahuenga Blvd.
With that much activity, helicopters, sirens and flashing cruiser lights were common. So were television cameras, news reporters and radio coverage. The Los Angeles Times said that my friends and I were "heroes" and should be honored with a statue, but jealous officials chose another theme when they built one.
Although our sacrifice and dedication was very real, all of it has faded into history now, thankfully along with the crack epidemic, and very few of the men and women who once defended Ivar Hill still live there; a real-estate developer and others saw to that, pricing or selling our cheap apartments out of our reach.
Today those memories, or the ashes of them, have been stirred for over a month by the death of a 17-year-old black kid named Trayvon Martin at the hands of a Neighborhood Watch leader named George Zimmerman, the son of a Hispanic mother and white father, in a busy little town outside Orlando called Sanford, Fla.
I've tried to remain silent about the murder of Trayvon Martin, hoping justice would quickly wend its rightful course - a course I would "know when I saw it," as a Supreme Court Justice once said about pornography - because I have already written at length about it elsewhere and because I have often been charged by "competing" Neighborhood Watch leaders with competing for the same publicity. I wasn't anxious to renew that discussion about whether it is better to spread your message of saving neighborhoods to the world, where it can be repeated, or somehow spreading it without the presence of any of the leading players. I always thought it was best to lead by example, foster the publicity and spread the message with the story of the real blood and guts behind it. I don't think anyone still begrudges me that, if they ever did.
Neighborhood Watch, but not as practiced by Zimmerman, really does work. His actions have caused his neighborhood, and all his work, I think, to be forever lost. It's not the place anyone is going to want to move into or come back to; it will become a place not to love but to avoid, saddled with a tragic memory that eludes closure and truth.
When the LAPD sent an officer to a community meeting at the Alto Nido, an elegant old building overlooking Hollywood at the top of Ivar Hill (and the scene of the body in the pool in the opening of "Sunset Boulevard", which I have never seen), back in 1991, crack had taken over the entire neighborhood.
The lower portion of the street was littered with dozens of bottles and transients dozed on the sidewalk. One hooker sometimes took her men right there on the pavement. Immediately past the corner on our north side of the street, just beyond a famous rock 'n roll photographer's studio was a small oriental liquor store that sold single bottles of malt liquor, the honey of euphoria for the dozing homeless. Next door to that was a bar called "La Iguerita," a deadly and dangerous place controlled by a gang-connected auto-theft ring.
At our meeting at the Alto Nido, a young black officer organized an initial street patrol. Out on Yucca Street, at least a dozen drug traffickers made themselves at home. Cars honked at them for service, and patrol cars cruised by as though there was nothing out of the ordinary; in fact, it was ordinary, all along the Yucca Corridor, as I named the area from Vine to Highland Ave., and further south, along Selma Avenue, and along many of the east-west streets running between the two - Vine, Ivar, Wilcox, Hudson, Whitley, Cherokee and Las Palmas between Franklin Ave. and Hollywood Blvd. Here, the empire of crack ruled the day and the night.
I don't want to recount the many crimes and issues of central Hollywood, though; I want to try to bring to bear what I know Neighborhood Watch to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. I want to start by saying that the one, hard, fixed rule of our Neighborhood Watch - amid unimaginable dangers - was that no one was ever allowed to carry a firearm. In fact, no obvious weapon was allowed, and the only objects that could serve as weapons, defensive ones, were heavy Maglite flashlights. None were ever used during the many arrests and other actions our group became involved in. No one ever claimed we hurt them or beat them during or after our arrests.
And we did make arrests - at least 15 of them leading to convictions - and they were risky. People who unwittingly offered us drugs were pulled down when the drugs were displayed, and when searched by us or by the police, they often had knives they might have used on us. Bullets came from rooftops and other hidden places as we walked; although several of us were jumped, none of us was badly hurt.
The one exception to the no-weapons rule was for our first leader, screenwriter Clay McBride, who carried a pair of Malaysian fighting canes in a sheath on his back. As a child, he'd been a polio victim, and so he walked with a severe limp, but he was strong and ready for trouble. Once, when three gang members jumped in broad daylight, he laid all three out on the ground.
There were no vehicles, although most of us had them. In fact, one night I was in my living room and heard a sound out behind my bungalow, where my car was parked, and saw a guy named "Pulga," or "Flea.' pumping bullets into my windshield. I had teased Flea on Yucca street the night before as I walked a few yards behind him, said just "Bang! Bang!" - referring to his pumping two bullets a day earlier into a guy who hadn't paid his drug bill. Flea - a drug "enforcer" - didn't like being teased, especially in public. How was I to know?
George Zimmerman might have been at home in our Neighborhood Watch if he could give up his car and his gun for the security of friends and neighbors, which is substantial. He was about our size, a little overweight but probably a durable man, and the action would have fulfilled his dreams of becoming a police officer without all the work and regimentation - and pay - involved. Recent pictures have rehabilitated him from a confused-looking bloody mess to a trimly-beared guy in a nice blue jacket and tie, while other pictures have downgraded Trayvon's look to that of a street jokester in a watch cap.
George would have had the pleasure of seeing all the drug dealers in the vicinity vanish from the street in seconds once we put our foot on the Yucca Street sidewalk. He would have loved helping us enlist the LAPD and the state ABC to close down La Iguerita after four people were shot there one night. He would have loved the block party we threw where the famous Brazilian Gracie Brothers gave a wrestling demonstration. As things got better and nothing went wrong, the State Senate President David Roberti and many other elected officials honored us. We were always in the news.
In Zimmerman's gated suburban community in Sanford, which is only a hundred miles or so from mine on the southern Gulf Coast, according to him, there was a problem with burglaries. Typically, those are going to be car burglaries and break-ins at abandoned or seasonally vacant homes.
Car burglaries require surveillance of a different kind than Neighborhood Watch members can usually provide alone. In Hollywood, police offers from the Hollywood LAPD allowed us to join them on parking-garage rooftops near the big theaters. It would take less than an hour to nab more thieves than they could do the paperwork for the rest of the night - about three in 45 minutes or so.
In a place like Sanford, only a long, slow, drive-by surveillance that inadvertently comes upon cars being robbed once in a blue moon could be effective without cameras and the monitors to man them. With other Ivar Hawks, I was privileged to attend the LAPD Citizen's Police Academy - even getting to use the simulator that forces you to decide rapidly whether or not to shoot an oncoming suspect - and there on the streets I'd learned a little about "likely suspects." Since most were crack addicts and homeless, they rarely looked clean and nicely dressed, but many joggers don't either (and many joggers are cops).
Our suspects could be white, brown or black - rarely if never Asian - and our initial encounter with them would typically be conducted in an open and friendly atmosphere in which we were fundamentally trying to allay any suspicions we had - after all, most people are not criminals, and they dress in a myriad of ways that predict nothing. So it was, "Hey, how ya doing?" "What's up?" People who are completely innocent and constructively occupied often will not respond - they "don't want to get involved" with anything other than their immediate objective. They are victims more often than not, their indifference becoming their vulnerability. We wouldn't bother them further.
People who did engage us were either strangers in the neighborhood, or suspects. Strangers usually want to know where something is, or how far it is. Suspects want to talk, and when we were finished talking with them, they usually kept walking out of the neighborhood. Very little in the way of confrontation came out of these "soft" encounters; every once in a while, though, the guy we engaged was a longtime criminal, even one who had been arrested by us before (using our powers of "citizen's arrest," which every citizen has) and had a beef to air.
So George Zimmerman's first error, from our point of view, was to form an opinion about the Trayvon Martin before he'd ever heard his voice. As a man with a mixed family, Zimmerman probably had relatives on his father's side that were exclusively white and probably - if norms still hold - were not unfriendly but not welcoming to blacks in the neighborhood.
On his mother's side, among extended Latino families, there would be the universal clannishness of Latinos, a sense of "our family vs. the world," and yet a great tolerance for most others. In the central city, usually, that tolerance often breaks down as families compete for resources, whether it be family gang members competing for prime drug-dealing spots or worry about integrated prisons where gangs quickly divide by races.
All of these latter encounters involve a great deal of violence, and even those Latinos who escape to the suburbs, as Los Angeles Latinos escape to Riverside County, bring not only values associated with the inner city but the violence and gangs with them. My friend Nick with his new wife Toni moved a hundred miles away from Yucca Street to raise his children, but to this day he fears the decisions he made in parting with gangs in L.A. could come back to haunt - and kill - him.
I think some of the same thing is probably true of Trayvon Martin's family. Violence has touched every black life in America in one way or another, and it has many lessons for them, some only half-learned. The picture of Trayvon as a scrawny young football player probably didn't resemble so closely the tallish young man in a hoody - or a watch cap he sometimes wore - who turned at Zimmerman's voice when he became aware of a car cruising behind him. This Trayvon was at the end of a football season at a Florida high school now, and he was taller, bigger, stronger, faster and readier to fight than Zimmerman ever was. In Miami, he'd recentlyu been popped by a school guard for having marijuana in his backpack - and 12 pieces of woman's jewelry with it, including gold and diamond rings, and a big flathead screwdriver the guard's report described as a "burglary tool," according to the Miami Herald.
The initial verbal encounter did not go well. There was no introduction, no warmth - even simulated - just questions. Trayvon Martin knew his rights, as almost every young black person does. He also didn't want to be followed, especially at night in a state where child abductions are so frequent. Trayvon probably made Zimmerman as not much more than a nuisance and only a potential threat - someone who meant to stop him even though he was doing nothing wrong, and who seemed to have no authority whatever to do so (and Zimmerman, in fact, had none).
The little Trayvon of the heartbreaking photographs had two choices - he could walk away faster, which would challenge his new sense of manhood, or he could take the issue to the maker, Zimmerman, who at 200 pounds and 5'8' or less - was older, perhaps, but not that intimidating.
Should you ever fight a young black man, be prepared for a real fight. Many of them have trained in Boys & Girls Club and P.A.L. gyms, but even if they haven't, they're trained in the fast, brutal steps of the street. Their first move is frequently a lightning quick punch that connects with a nose or an eye and is followed by a blizzard of other punches to the face. They don't usually, like white street fighters, go for a takedown tackle. The startled Zimmerman has suggested this is what happens to him, and he quickly ended up on his butt. An eyewitness indicates Trayvon then jumped on him and began wailing away at his face.
This is the time when Zimmerman made his critical mistake. His gun was likely in his belt, behind his right pocket, and he was probably lying on it by now. He had two choices: to accept his beating for a mistake he'd made in trying to stop the innocent stroller or to defend his "honor" against a black kid many years younger than him and so to pull out his gun. Once it was out, he probably never showed it to Trayvon but just shot him at the nearest point, probably the chest or stomach. Then the fighting stopped and the screaming began.
Few men are ready to take a beating rather than execute a defense with overwhelming force, but some are. I would like to think that if I found myself in similar circumstances, I would not try to use a weapon - be it a gun or a heavy flashlight, a bottle or a stick - to crush or kill an opponent, but most men are cowards. They will escalate quickly from fists to objects.
I've learned that many times, and my head has been battered with flashlights, boards, bottles and fists rather often. My excuse? The objects did not disable me, and I was alive to fight again, and when I did counter, if I could, I faced no charge of battery with a weapon should arrests occur: to me, that was important.
Conventional street-fighting wisdom is the opposite - strike by surprise, very hard, and disable or kill your opponent as quickly as possible. To me, that is stupidity; to be responsible in any way for the crippling or death of another person is a lifelong stain. I say, take your licking and keep on ticking.
One reason I think things occurred as I described is the long vertical wound an inch above Zimmerman's right eye. I suspect that was not from a fist but the rim of a can or bottle filled with iced tea. That's what they do to you when they get slammed hard into your face. Head-butts do it as well.
I feel badly for George Zimmerman, in that he was moved by altruism, not racial bias, to act as the Neighborhood Watch rep in his suburb. Since no one apparently wanted to join him, he may have felt safety called for a gun, and he got a permit. But he didn't know himself, I believe; he didn't realize he was capable of murder; and he hadn't weighed within himself whether he would take his beating or kill someone first.
As he's learning now, and will eventually learn again at his arrest, which I think should and will come, a human life is indescribably precious, especially to those who have one and have created one. The grass and the houses and the driveways and cars can all be replaced. We must watch for life, and as watchmen, our job is always to preserve it, under all circumstances, at any cost.