The struggle for peace after deadly shootings in Watts

By Zeke Reed

Watts is in mourning after two people were killed and nine injured in several July shootings near the Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts housing projects. Photo by Shutterstock.

Watts is in mourning after two people were killed and nine injured in several July shootings near the Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts housing projects. 

The South LA community is known for its political uprising in the 1960s in reaction to police brutality and crippling poverty. 

In the 1990s, Watts once again entered the national spotlight following a historic truce between the Blood and Crips, which helped end LA’s gang wars. The truce happened one day before the Rodney King rebellion, and the resulting unity helped South LA reckon with the unrest’s aftermath.

This history of peacemaking and people power put recent events into stark relief. At a time when homicides are down citywide, Watts has proven a sad exception to this trend.

In response, a coalition of leaders from the LAPD, the city and the community have asked residents to avoid large gatherings for the rest of the year. In the meantime, a Watts Gang Task Force is collaborating on long-term solutions.

Fernando Rejón, executive director of the Urban Peace Institute, is cautiously optimistic about the ongoing coordination between stakeholders.

“The mayor was very supportive and really asked … ‘What do y'all need … to scale up a lot of these community-based safety services that have demonstrated so much success and promise?’ … We need the right intervention workers, people who have … high levels of credibility in the community in order to reach the ones [at] highest risk of violence.”

Rejón’s colleague and intervention specialist Andre Christian knows firsthand what it takes to keep people from resorting to violence. He often reminds at-risk youth that their actions can have real consequences at home.

“I always let people know you reap what you sow… [it] could be your mother, it could be your auntie. So you have to ask yourself: Do you really care about them?”

Intervention work has become even more complicated in the social media age where insults online can escalate into violence offline.

“We have some colleagues in Chicago that share with us that 80% of the violence is fueled by social media in Chicago,” Rejón notes. “I'm not sure what the number is in LA, but I'm sure if it's not 80%, it's probably rising.”

The Urban Peace Institute and other intervention organizations have taken their work online to address the new landscape.

“We're looking at building out new infrastructures around how to monitor social media from a peace lens … and stay on top of some on some feuds … to interrupt [them] before [they] manifest into reality.”

Despite the recent violence, Rejón and Christian have faith that the community’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

Just like in the 60s and 90s, the organizing and peacemaking in Watts has ramifications beyond the community. Christian notes, “A lot of people feel like if Watts can do it, anybody can do it.”

Rejón agrees, saying that the community’s rich history of self-governance gives it an outsized platform. 

“Watts has really been an epicenter of political organizing for the African American community … [to] hold city officials accountable and law enforcement accountable to what the needs are. [This] is what makes Watts such an important place in the City of LA.”