As an LAPD cruiser crawls down the street, a chorus of high-pitched whistles rise up in every direction. People emerge from the scores of tents that line the sidewalk—tents that are as much a fixture as palm trees in Hollywood—and join protesters and other residents in blowing their tiny silver whistles with all of the force their lungs can summon.
Within moments the police cruiser turns the corner and drives into the distance, and the flurry of chirps subside. But the police will be back again. They always come back. This is Skid Row.
The whistles were passed out Monday by a local political group as a way for some of the 1,700 homeless that live on Skid Row to alert neighbors to danger, which, for many of them right now, means the police. Here on San Pedro St., between 5th and 6th, a broken crate, hoodie, blankets, scattered flowers, candles, and a crumpled tent make up the remains of the home of a man nicknamed “Africa,” who lived on this slice of pavement underneath a tall battered tree until he was killed by police officers on Sunday afternoon, during a confrontation that was captured on video and uploaded to Facebook, where it drew millions of views. [Update: The LAPD identified the victim as Charley Saturmin Robinet.]
In one video, Africa is shown swinging at four officers outside of his tent. He’s quickly tackled to the ground, but keeps fighting. A Taser is used, and as this happens, a woman—who might be his girlfriend according to witnesses—picks up an officer’s baton, and she’s taken down by the other cops that arrive on the scene. The Taser doesn’t stop Africa, and this is where he allegedly grabbed an officer’s gun. Officers yell, “Drop the gun! Drop the gun!” before firing five rounds, killing him.
“It appears to me that the officers acted compassionately up until the time that force was required,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said during a press conference on Monday. He showed pictures of the gun along with a dislodged magazine that he says is evidence of a struggle for the weapon.
But many of Skid Row’s residents, who came out to visit the makeshift memorial Monday evening, still find it hard to swallow that Africa would try to take a weapon—even despite reports that say he just finished a decade-long stay in a mental facility—or that four officers couldn’t control him after using the Taser.
“Why did this happen? It’s a mystery to me. I didn’t know [his life] was going to end like this—he didn’t know it was going to end like this,” says Ota Omoruyi, a Skid Row resident from Nigeria. He’s known Africa for about six months, and calls him “Cameroon,” Africa’s home country. He wrote this nickname on a piece of cardboard that’s now the centerpiece of the memorial that stands where his friend once lived.
“I’ve never known him to be violent, I’ve never known him to be confrontational,” he says. “I’ve known him to be intellectual, and to talk with purpose. I cannot say what went on in his mind when the police came. But I know he was depressed for about a week, thinking about sending money home, to his people, and about getting out of homelessness.”
“He wouldn’t fight you. He would walk away. He’s not the type of guy who would die by police shooting. I don’t understand that.”
Omoruyi, and others I spoke with, said that Africa had fought with his girlfriend earlier and only wanted to be left alone in his tent when police arrived. Police ripped the tent open and tased him when he didn’t comply with orders—and things got out of control. “They pulled him out of his tent! He was fighting the police, don’t get me wrong, but he must have been disoriented after being tased.” Omoruyi was only half a block away when he heard the shots.
“We used to talk about philosophy. He listened. He advised you. He wasn’t aggressive, he didn’t always have to believe that he was right,” Omoruyi says. “He wouldn’t fight you. He would walk away. He’s not the type of guy who would die by police shooting. I don’t understand that.”
Kevin Hall, 46, lives on the eighth floor of the Weingart Center for the Homeless across the street. He says he was on the phone with Africa a short time before he was confronted by police. “He was telling me he was having problems with his woman,” he says. “I told him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to chill out, just go and have a good day, man.’ But as soon as he was about to leave, his girl started fighting him. And then the police came.”
“He was a good person,” Hall says. “He was kind. He might have done his drugs and things, but he was always respectful to others around here. And we knew him. He’d always come out of his tent saying, ‘Hey, how you doing, bro? What’s up, brother?’”
“I have hateness, I have sadness, all of those emotions all mixed together. It wasn’t right what they did, they left a lot of people traumatized.”
Television news crews came and went Monday evening, and revolving packs of 20 or more residents stopped by the memorial. Some hadn’t even heard what happened. Louie, a Skid Row resident who didn't want to give his last name, was across the street with his girlfriend, Armida, when police opened fire Sunday afternoon. “He was yelling, ‘I didn’t do shit, why you buggin’ me for!’ And they just kept going on and on. They ended up ripping open his tent to get him out. Drug his ass out. They tased him, then they fucking killed his ass for no reason. He didn’t go for no gun. Yeah, he fought, but after he was tased. That was his reaction to being tased.”
At least one of the officers is said to have worn a body camera, and it may clarify if Africa did go for a gun or not. For Louie, he’ll have to live with what he saw.
“I have hateness, I have sadness, all of those emotions all mixed together,” Louie adds. “It wasn’t right what they did, they left a lot of people traumatized.”
Just before sunset a police car drives up right next to the curb where everyone had gathered—but the officers don’t get out. “They’re sitting right there to intimidate the locals,” Walter Williams says. “They’re trying to intimidate the people who live around here, to keep them from coming here. You see how fast it cleared out?”
I look around, and he’s right: The crowd of 30 is now down to just a handful of people, a few of them protesters who are getting ready to leave. “That’s why you see no local homeless people here right now. They’re here for intimidation, and it works.”
Not all of the homeless are intimidated, though. Reginald Taylor, another resident, grills the officers sitting in the car. Well, specifically, the two black cops (who didn’t want to comment on the situation). “You motherfuckers ain’t been coming down here, so why you want to bring your black ass down here now?! Shit! You ain’t been coming! You didn't give a fuck then, what makes you give a fuck now?!”
At that point the officers get out of the car and try talking to Taylor. “I know you can’t wait for me to be alone,” Taylor, who’s also black, says to them. “I already know it. I see the way you looking at me.”
While this happens, an old man runs atop one of the nearby news vans and yanks off an antenna—and officers run after him.
“It’s just like anywhere else,” Taylor tells me. “Events like what happened to Africa seem to occur all the time. If you really want to get to the facts of the matter, just come down here, man, and be among us. Just come and see for yourself how we’re living, and everything else down here. That’s the only way you’re going to get the truth. It’s something that can’t really be put into words. It’s something that you have to see. You have to come down here and live it to see what we go through.”
As night falls, and the sound of Tupac’s “Do For Love” echoes from a faraway street corner, a woman walks up to the memorial as the crowd started to disperse. “Y’all need to pray for this man, say a prayer for him, please,” she says, struggling to get the words out. “And pray for his family, because they’re going to come out here from Africa and this is all they’re going to see. Y’all better cry, I’ve been crying all day. This was my friend.”
A march is planned this morning from the spot where Africa was killed to the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters.