50 years later, more courage is still needed in Watts

I have lived in Watts for 20 years and there was never a time where I was afraid to walk down the streets. Other people seemed paranoid about my neighborhood to me; I thought they had heard too many reports of violent crime in the media that made them afraid of my neighborhood. Yes, there are gangs, drug dealers, drug users and poverty – but I always felt safe. That changed one night a few weeks ago.

I had just returned from work after midnight from the evening shift at LAX where I work to pay for my college education. I hate to get home at such a late hour but I was in no position to turn down overtime pay. My friend parked outside of my apartment complex. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man in a black hoodie skipping towards us. “Is that a gun?” my friend screamed. It was. I just knew he was going to shoot into her car. Panicking, I begged my friend to start the car and drive off. I couldn’t do anything but put my head down and cry. I was sure it was over, until I jerked back into my seat due to her stepping on the gas. “Shanice, are you okay?” she asked. No, I wasn’t. And I knew it would be a while before I would be okay. I ran into my house that night and cried even harder. For the first time in 20 years I wanted to move out of Watts.

The following day, I was walking around like a lifeless zombie when I bumped into my apartment manager. I told her what happened and she said, “Some guy just died so the block is hot right now. They see an unfamiliar car and they are ready to shoot. The only thing that may have saved you was they either recognized your face from living here, or they saw you were a woman.” Maybe. The idea of my being a woman saved me from being murdered gave me a bittersweet feeling. I have four African American brothers, an African American boyfriend, and several African American male friends who are not gang related whatsoever. Would they have been shot if they were in the same scenario?

At work, my paranoia increased as my coworkers talked about the social media hash tag “100 days, 100 nights.” After a 27-year-old man was murdered, gangs in the area allegedly threatened (via social media) to have a killing spree for 100 days and 100 nights. “You gotta be stupid if you are entering South LA at night,” one told me. “Don’t you know they don’t care? They are killing babies, women and men, gang related or not…You gotta stay in the house if you want to see 2016.” Even if there was no proof that murders were going up, the thought of having a killing spree for 100 days seemed like the worse thing that could happen.

My grandmother also told me to stay home to be safe. But even if I wanted to stay in the house it’s unrealistic if I want to be successful. I have classes to pass, shifts to work, money to collect and articles that need to be written.

The next day, I wanted to stay inside but I had no choice but to leave my house because I had a driver’s education class. Every time someone walked past the car I wondered if this was the person who came up to my friend’s car. Finally I parked the car and told him I couldn’t do this. I explained that I’m struggling to accept that my community is really this dangerous place like outsiders seem to think.

He told me how he was a teenager living in South Los Angeles at the time the Watts Riots took place. After they were over, he said it was as if the gang mentality was eliminated and everyone was united. “For a black man that was special,” he said. “I could walk down the street wearing whatever color I wanted, and not have to worry about being shot or involved in some type of controversy. Everyone in Watts was fighting for something greater and hopefully that will return because it seems as if the unity and progress is diminishing.” He urged me. “How much progress can a community make if they are too scared to leave their home? The people living in Watts back in the 60s had to be courageous if they wanted to get their point across, they didn’t rely on a gang and killing their own people for 100 days to do it either, no they were united and brave.”

It’s true that if the residents of Watts from 50 years ago lived in fear, there may not be a local library, a local hospital, nor would I even be living in the home that I have had the pleasant experience of living in for over 20 years (I live in an affordable housing unit built out of a response to the riots). I wish today we could see more unity and fighting for a better tomorrow. In respect for the anniversary of the Watts Riots, we need to come together in the same way residents did after the riots 50 years ago to make social change that could possibly be talked about 50 years from now.

–Shanice Joseph