This week marks the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots. On April 29, 1992, the city erupted in flames after the not guilty verdicts in the trial of the four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. But another anniversary is getting much less media coverage. The day before the riots, black street gangs in Watts declared a truce in a bloody war that had killed hundreds of young men. It was an extraordinary moment in the city’s history.
It was a chaotic scene outside the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts on April 28, 1992, the day before the L.A. Riots broke out. Hundreds of young black men from warring factions of the Blood and Crip gangs were gathered not to protest the Rodney King beating, but to declare a ceasefire.
"I do drive-by shootings, I kidnap babies, I kill people, so what? I'm an active gang member," one man who asked not to be identified at the time said. "I’m going to stop." Pressed by a reporter about whether he really will stop, the man said, "Check the homicide rate in Watts next year this time, fool."
Sure enough, Watts gang crime fell the next year.
One of the young men there that early spring evening was Aqeela Sherrills. He said some of the OGs — the original gangsters, the guys who exercise authority in gangs — were skeptical of a truce.
"T.B. was like 'Man, it's going to take years for this thing to happen. Man this is too quick, too soon,'" Sherrill quoted prominent Crip Tony Bogard as saying.
"So while the big homies was off in there kind off arguing back and forth about the merits of a peace treaty, the young cats was outside," he said. "We started celebrating, 'The peace treaty is on! The peace treaty is on!'”
After shooting at each other for years, Crips and Bloods partied all night together, he said. "It was an unbelievable release."
The ceasefire had been in the works for several years. Sherrills was a Grape Street Crip, but was one of the few who’d made it out of the Jordan Down housing project for a few years of college at Cal State Northridge.
"'The Autobiography of Malcolm X,' James Baldwin’s 'The Evidence of Things Not Seen.' These things challenged me," Sherrills said. "They politicized me and they also gave me courage and language to begin to speak with folks in the neighborhood about what was happening."
Sherrills started talking with fellow Crips, including his brother Daude, and rival Bloods willing to listen — like Twilight Bey, who shook hands with a Crip very publicly at a 1988 peace summit. Sherrills and Bey had gone to middle school together.
Former football star Jim Brown facilitated meetings through his Amer-I-Can gang intervention program.
Hip-hop artists like the West Coast Rap All-Stars played a role too, Sherrills said, quoting lyrics from "We're All in the Same Gang."
“Back in the '60s our brothers and sisters was hanged, how could you gang bang?"
There were good reasons to stop gang-banging. Life as a gangster had gotten increasingly dangerous. The L.A. murder rate had topped a thousand a year.
“I mean I couldn’t even pump gas. I couldn’t go to the grocery store," Skip Townsend, a Rollin' 20 Blood from West Adams, said. "I couldn’t do anything without interacting with someone who would want to hurt me or I’d have to hurt them.” Townsend, after initially rejecting the truce, eventually joined it.
Around the city, black and Latino gangs took their cue from what was happening in Watts and forged ceasefires of their own. But the truce was strongest in Watts, among African-American gangs from the housing projects — the Grape Street and PJ Watts Crips, and Bounty Hunter and Hacienda Village Bloods. They even used the 1949 ceasefire agreement between Israel and Egypt as a blueprint for a formal written peace accord in 1994.
Sherrills, 42, said many times rival gang members who supported the truce would stop others who were ready to start shooting.
"We would get right on the phone and say ‘What happened?'" Often, they'd find out about some personal beef between two guys. "Oh, no, he’s jealous because his girl is sleeping with homeboy. So then we get at him and say ‘No, that’s not the deal. You can’t create no war between the neighborhoods based upon your own personal stuff.'”
Sherrills said enforcers would sometimes add something: "'If you get too far out of line, there’s folks in the neighborhood that will check you.'"
Sherrills said it was this work that mostly accounted for a dramatic drop in gang crime in Watts over the years — not anything the LAPD did. He argued the department back then tried to undermine the truce partly out of fear the gangs would unite against the police. The LAPD has denied this.
Police started working with former gang members to reduce violence a few years ago. Sherrills remains suspicious. "I feel like law enforcement has successfully co-opted the movement because now gang intervention has to be validated in a sense by law enforcement."
For years, the gang truce held. There's debate about when it ended. Sherrills said it lasted a good 10 years before fading away.
Alex Alonso of StreetGangs.com is an expert on L.A. gangs. He said the blame does not lie with those who first agreed to the truce.
“There is a newer generation of gang member who decide they do not want to be a part of the truce," he said. "The identity of the gang is more important to them and fighting over that identity consumes them."
Gang shootings continued throughout the truce. Sherrills lost a son in a 2004 attack.
But gang crime remains at historic lows, thanks in part to the spirit of the truce that lives on in former gang members who forged it and now work to get kids out of gangs.
In the Imperial Courts Housing Project, Tony Bogard was a key backer of the truce. He was an original gangster in the PJ Watts Crips. Back then, a reporter asked him why he got out of gang life.
“What is there? Killing? Killing another black man? Robbing another black man? Ain’t nothing there in the gangs.”
A year later Bogard was fatally shot — some say because he had a hard time leaving the gang life, others say because he was trying to keep the peace. He knew one thing: that a gang truce alone would not turn around his Watts neighborhood, and the young men who live in it.
"The gangbangers that are in the community, that are slinging drugs — put an economic plan together and then they’ll quit selling drugs," he said. "You have to substitute something."
That kind of economic help never came.