January 2012

Right Makes Might

How a dogged civil-rights lawyer, an ex-gangster and a risk-taking LAPD captain helped avert a second wave of Rodney King riots

CONNIE
RICE

MURAL: EL MAC / PHOTO: BRIAN LEATART

It was late afternoon on Good Friday, April 9, 1993. My NAACP Legal Defense Fund office had emptied, but I was still at my desk, hoping for a quiet stretch to finish a complaint in our latest lawsuit against LAPD. The phone rang.

“Lady Lawyer?” a male voice growled.

From that honorific title, I knew he had to be Grape Street, the Crip set named for a street bordering Jordan Downs housing project. Crips were only one of L.A.’s then estimated three to four hundred gangs, but its members were among the most feared of the county’s estimated thirty to forty thousand gangsters.

Something serious must have happened. Grape Street never called during the day. “Yes, who is this?”

Never mind who it is, he barked. He was calling to alert me that cops in Watts were acting “crazy,” riding four strong, brandishing rifles through cruiser windows and blocking off 108th Street near LAPD’s fortress-like Southeast Division east of the 110 Freeway. Oh no, I thought, they’re going to trigger another riot.

Had we really gotten to this point—again? I knew what this was about. After the riot-sparking April 29, 1992, acquittals of the cops who had beaten Rodney King toothless the year before, the feds had put the same officers on trial for violating King’s civil rights. Apparently, LAPD thought the second verdict was about to drop. Bitter about accusations it had been AWOL after the first trial and determined not to get caught with its badge down again, LAPD was preparing to crush any post-verdict upheaval.

The caller continued his ominous description of the preparations: snipers on the roof of the police station and officers in riot gear, masks and tape-covered name tags, all of which, he concluded, meant LAPD was using the countdown as cover for rounding up Grape Street and killing them. “You need to tell the police that we ain’t fittin’ to go down like that,” he warned. “There’s gonna be a lot of dead cops if they come up in here. A whole lotta dead cops—’cause we jus’ ain’t goin’ down without no fight.”

Snipers, blockades, roundups, rifles—I scribbled as fast as my pen would go. Who had told him all of this? I probed.

“Ain’t no one tole me nothin’,” he snapped. “I seen it myself. Tell ’em stop this s--t, or they gonna die.” He hung up.

I dialed Ben Hannity (not his real name), captain at Southeast Division. Hannity, a strapping Irish Catholic, had risen through LAPD as a true-blue good ol’ boy whose midlife master’s degree in urban sociology had ruined his tough-cop identity. Shortly after the ’92 riots, he had breached the barricade between our warring organizations and called. Identifying himself as a white LAPD command officer, he apologized for the King beating, lamented the riots and offered clandestine help. What struck me was that unlike the black officers with whom we secretly worked, he had not called from a pay phone—or whispered his offer. Brewing catastrophe was, I thought, sufficient reason to use the number he’d given me.

“Got a heads-up from Grape Street,” I said. “They think you’re prepping for war—with them. Say you’ve got riot gear, face shields, street barriers, roof snipers. What’s going on?”

Hannity sighed. “Parker Center ordered us into emergency countdown—top alert and full riot gear. We got reports that gang members were going to bomb the station, so we put snipers on the roofs.”

For a moment I was speechless. “Captain, you’re kidding. Bomb the station—with what, crop dusters? This isn’t Colombia, at least not yet. They don’t have airpower! What are you doing? You’re panicking them. You’re about to trigger the very thing you’re trying to avoid.”

I paused to calm my voice. Men stop listening when they hear the “girl voice”—a woman’s escalating, high-pitched plaint. I could hear Hannity straining to listen. “Let’s back up for a minute,” I continued in a steadier, lower pitch. “What plans do you have for the Easter barbecues this weekend?”

“What barbecues?” Hannity asked. He had forgotten it was Easter weekend, when mid-city parks fill with families, many gang-related, for cookouts. Riot-pumped cops, tatted-up black men and fires—an inauspicious combo on any weekend but a disaster in waiting on this one.

“I’m coming down,” I said. “You are meeting with Fred.”

Fred Williams was my sherpa of the streets—and of the Grape Street gang. He had gangbanged for years but, after a change of heart, started a homegrown gang-diversion outfit called the Cross Colours Common Ground Foundation. I’d met him after stumbling into a gang-truce negotiation and clumsily offering to help lower the insane death toll of the crack war.

Built like a tree trunk, with a bald head and a stunning face of blended African and Indian beauty, he had a striking presence. But it had been his middle-class mannerisms—handing me his business card, speaking standard English—that sparked my interest. I suspected Fred moved fluidly across worlds—un bandido sin fronteras. Regardless, he was surely my go-to guy to diffuse what could be another explosive LAPD disaster.

“Order your officers to let me past the barriers,” I told Hannity, “and tell them not to shoot me.” I reached Fred, told him to meet me at Southeast and raced out the door. On 108th Street, nameless officers behind face shields stopped me for a few minutes at the barriers. Then as I marched into Southeast, I glanced up. Snipers with scope rifles were indeed on the roof.

Fred arrived right behind me, bristling alertness. He shot me a look that said, “Dammit, I’m only doing this for you.” Despite his discomfort, he showed his best—levelheaded and full of street intelligence. He laid out the panic triggered by hostile cop actions and told Hannity he could help calm the situation if only the cops would stand down. Hannity frowned. He had to be considering that not only would he be disobeying Parker Center, he’d be riding shotgun with an ex-gangster and a civil-rights lawyer who sued his department every chance she got. Fred, sensing Hannity’s dilemma, offered up his own in commiseration: “Look, man, this ain’t good for neither of us—just for the community and for your officers.”

For a moment, I was speechless. “Captain, you’re kidding. Bomb the station—with what, crop dusters? This isn’t Colombia...They don’t have airpower! What are you doing? You’re panicking them. You’re about to trigger the very thing you’re trying to avoid.”

That did it. Hannity extended his hand. “Okay, let’s go get this done right.” They exchanged numbers, drew up a to-do list, and we fanned out. Hannity removed the snipers, ordered his officers out of riot gear, put their name tags back on display and took down the street barricades.

He pulled back the cruising cowboys with the rifles and reassigned his veterans to foot patrols—on this weekend barring the new academy grads whose only exposure to blacks had been The Cosby Show. Fred communicated the stand-down to Grape Street and got the message to the Bounty Hunters, the Bloods gang in the nearby Nickerson Gardens housing project, convincing both to pull back on a deadly counterattack.

That night, Fred took the captain and a few of the more enlightened patrol officers to each park, introduced them around and later escorted the officers to several family barbecues—the exact kind of community engagement the Christopher Commission had demanded but LAPD had tossed into a bonfire of the commission’s reports.

Easter Sunday saw the sun rise over a quiet Watts, the threat of conflict averted. An exhausted Hannity and Williams slapped each other’s backs and headed home. I chuckled at the unlikely duo and the macho bickering they needed to mask their mutual, if grudging, respect. They had operated like old vaudeville partners, schmoozing neighbors and cops into a calm but queasy cooperation.

The verdicts came down a week later, announced on Saturday morning, April 17, and they triggered nothing but relief: Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell were found guilty on all counts of criminally violating Rodney King’s civil rights and would later be sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were acquitted of all charges. With that, two of the 27 cops responsible for the brutal beating of Rodney King finally would pay some kind of price, and L.A. would escape another riot.

Nonetheless, I had to shake my head. Neither the city nor its police force had learned a thing. The safety of the country’s second-largest city once again had been imperiled by intemperate police action and saved only by quickly flipping to the community policing the department had flatly rejected.

A tremendous fight lay ahead to pry LAPD away from intimidation and toward trust. And given where we were, it felt like it would take centuries to make cooperation the norm.

Our risky alliance with an exceptional LAPD captain stood in surreal contrast to our daily courtroom wars against the department. Yet there was no denying it. The first glimmer of partnership had peeked through the ashes.

I now knew what it looked like—and that it worked. And I was horrified. This phase of the battle for constitutional policing could not be won in courts or commissions. No judge could order LAPD to adopt Hannity’s mindset.

But even more daunting, this phase of the battle for basic safety required countering the savagery of the streets and, worse, the warrior culture and treachery within police ranks. I had no choice but to infiltrate both sets of gangs: L.A.’s street thugs and its police. What I didn’t know was whether it was possible to survive a quest for unholy alliance with warrior cops and a dangerous liaison with former gangsters.

No matter, it was a risk anyone on a mission to win basic civil rights in America’s gang zones had to take. And it was a risk I owed to past crusaders who struggled and died over centuries for my freedom—to live in safety, dignity and liberty.

I am the great-granddaughter of slaves and slave owners. As an Ivy League–educated lawyer, I have collected fully on America’s promise, cresting atop my family’s meteoric rise from legal chattel to legal counsel in three generations.

I detract nothing from my hard work, but without the sacrifice of pioneers, my family’s talent and the advantages of being light-skinned, I would not have reached the mountaintop Martin Luther King Jr. glimpsed right before his death. We all stand on their shoulders and eternally in their debt.

I am free. But because far too many are not, I left the playgrounds of profit to take up the battleground for access. From the garrisons of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Advancement Project, our teams stormed today’s Bastilles: battling police brutality, freeing innocents from death row, helping Mayor Riordan and Genethia Hayes mount a takeover of LAUSD, empowering bus riders with a $2 billion victory over the MTA and crusading for overall freedom from violence.

We should be proud that this work changed the odds. As one magazine noted, we have “picked up where Clarence Darrow left off.” But win-loss tallies in the courts often miss the choke points in the streets and obscure the structural inequity that is a dagger at the throat of our democracy.

It has become painfully clear to me that until our poorest children also reach the mountaintop, and until the country understands that the final cost of their chronic destitution will be our own destruction, we have work to do.

My quest for safety in the kill zones began the moment I un-derstood children died daily for simply wandering into the wrong neighborhood. The mission has tested every-thing I’ve become to repay those who advanced “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want” on a much riskier vigil than mine.

Our ancestors are watching. When the time comes to join them, I do not plan on explaining how indifference kept us from delivering the basic safety upon which freedom rests.

Not on my watch.

Adapted from Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America, from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones, by Connie Rice, published by Scribner. Copyright 2012; all rights reserved. Printed by arrangement with Mary Evans Inc.

CONNIE RICE, internationally renowned civil-rights attorney, is an award-winning activist and cousin of Condoleezza Rice.