“It’s something bout a block boy that push that line, ride for the peace treaty and hustle at the same time, looking out for my brah brahs cause life’s too short, especially when the suckas telling and got homies in court.”
-JT the Bigga Figga on the Fillmore neighborhood
For this week’s cover story on the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, the Guardian did a few things we thought might strengthen the reporting for the piece. We read hundreds of pages of law-enforcement records filed by the city attorney in last year’s gang injunction cases. We also collected extraordinary historical details about Ella Hill Hutch herself, the first black woman elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.
During the time we worked on the story, journalist Alex Kotlowitz, who’s mostly been missing in action since publishing his ground-breaking 1991 book on public housing in Chicago, There Are No Children Here, happened to write an extensive story on gang intervention efforts for the New York Times Magazine, which is well worth the read.
In the meantime, a little about Ella Hill the supervisor. In 1980, she endured a grueling reelection campaign that drove her literally to the point of exhaustion. She was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia weeks after placing a surprising fourth in a citywide race. Three months later she uncharacteristically missed a Finance Committee meeting on Feb. 25, 1981, and police eventually found her dead of heart failure at her small Scott Street apartment.
Hutch had represented District Four prior to the reelection battle, which included the Western Addition. But voters briefly repealed district elections making it extraordinarily difficult for less well-financed candidates like Hutch, a long-time office assistant for the ILWU and also the first woman to serve on the BART board, to win office at City Hall.
The Examiner write in 1977 that Hutch attended so many parties for constituents, her martini glass would often be filled with water by the end of the evening.
Hutch was politically moderate as a supervisor but fiercely defended working-class tenants and during her term cast a crucial sixth vote in support of rent control legislation. Dianne Feinstein eventually vetoed it as mayor.
But Feinstein ended up cutting the ribbon for the $2.3 million Ella Hill Hutch Community Center four months after the supervisor’s death anyway.
Rev. Arnold Townsend, a longtime political fixture in the neighborhood, told us that behind the scenes, Feinstein worked to block him and others from leading the new facility after complaining that they were “too radical.”
Ella Hill operated under the nonprofit umbrella of the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, one of the city’s oldest black institutions founded in 1919 and still located on Presidio Avenue, until Ella Hill attained its own 501(c)3 status in the early 1990s.
Greg Gordon is the son of Ella Hill’s legendary former executive director, Leonard “Lefty” Gordon, who died of a heart attack in 2006, told us that his dad played the role of a PO in the Bay Area indie hip hop film from 2000, Beware of Those, produced by Fillmore native JT the Biggah Figgah. The quote at the top of this entry came from a magazine JT produces.
“The first job I ever had was a volunteer job, which my father made me do,” Gordon laughed to us. “I was volunteering at the Bayview-Hunter’s Point Senior Center. My father would drive me up there and say ‘You’re not going to stay at home.’ That happened to me in about the eighth grade.”
Greg Gordon joined Ella Hill’s board of directors a few months ago.
One of the other things we looked at for this week’s cover story were the hundreds of pages of law-enforcement documents the city attorney filed last year in support of the Western Addition gang injunctions.
Regardless of how you feel about the injunctions, the records paint a portrait of tragedy and terror faced by many of the residents living in the Western Addition’s public housing units.
In June of 2000, prosecutors accused a purported member of the Chopper City gang, 28-year-old Sala Thorn, aka Dwight Hall, of robbing a Johnny Rockets Restaurant in the Marina of $12,000 with another man after they briefly held a group of employees captive. A plainclothes officer hearing a call about the robbery pursued their getaway vehicle until it reached the Golden Gate Bridge where it stopped abruptly in the northbound lane.
A female driver spilled out onto the road and into the path of oncoming traffic crying hysterically. Thorn allegedly climbed out the passenger side, calmly walked around the car, and took over behind the wheel before speeding away. As the officer, Thomas Watts, waited for back up, he turned to the woman still sobbing in the road.
“I yelled several times at the woman to get up and get out of the lane,” Watts later told a judge. “The woman finally began to stand up. As she did so, a car driving southbound in the fast lane struck the woman, causing her body to be thrown back in the northbound fast lane.”
It’s not clear from criminal records whether the woman driver of the car was a total co-conspirator in the alleged robbery. But her name was Lenties White and she was a mother of two who lived at Fillmore and McAllister streets. When the oncoming car struck her body, she flew 100 feet over and beyond Officer Watts as he stood nearby. Despite a badly mangled body of broken arms, legs and ribs, Lenties White lived long enough to beg another officer who’d arrived on the scene not to let her die. Records suggest Officer Watts was deeply shaken by the incident.
Thorn, meanwhile, led the California Highway Patrol and the Marin County Sheriff’s Office on a chase involving speeds of 90 miles per hour before he was eventually stopped and arrested. In 2005, he was sentenced to a state prison term of three years for fleeing peace officers.
Police say that Chopper City is one of three gangs that together have caused endless mayhem over a 14 square-block area that straddles Fillmore Street and rests just north of Ella Hill. Herrera’s injunction request against them followed a controversial trend in other cities like San Diego and Los Angeles to sue gangs.
A civil litigant is certainly in a better position to win a lawsuit against a gang member than a criminal prosecutor hoping to overcome reasonable doubt in a felony trial. Only 65 people were targeted by the gang injunctions, a tiny fraction of the neighborhood’s youth population. But Herrera’s move has still suffered no shortage of critics who believe its shoving more minorities out of a neighborhood that’s already losing huge numbers of African American residents to outward migration, which police admit it is. Lt. Ernie Ferrando, head of the SFPD’s Gang Task Force, told us that the Knock Out Posse is evaporating and other gang members are simply leaving the Western Addition.
The Knock Out Posse has existed since the ‘80s, according to court records, but Chopper City and Eddy Rock formed only in recent years. A six square-block area west of Fillmore Street shared by Knock Out Posse and Chopper City is known as the “Uptown” alliance and includes the Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King and Robert Pitts Plaza public housing complexes. Police say Chopper City gelled in August of 2004 after 18-year-old Demorea “Spark” Jacobs was shot to death by someone from Eddy Rock that month on Divisadero Street while walking home from a Walgreen’s. As of last year, no one had been arrested for the murder.
Their sworn enemies in Eddy Rock claim an eight square-block area east of Fillmore Street that includes the Plaza East Public Housing Complex, formerly known as the OC Towers, which were demolished in the late 1990s. The Knock Out Posse’s war with Eddy Rock began in 2002.
The city accuses all three gangs of orchestrating or being the target of numerous retaliatory murders over the last six years. Members have repeatedly been arrested for or suspected of selling crack and MDMA, committing robberies and burglaries, hiding guns in public housing courtyards and backyards and even fearlessly commandeering people’s homes, among other things. Combined, the allegations have caused the public’s patience to diminish and the immediate pressure on elected officials to expand.
In September of 2006, a woman living at 629 Larch Way says Eddy Rock members took over her house when she left town for two months stashing drugs and guns there; they also allegedly filled the walls with graffiti and stole the woman’s black leather couch.
That same month, police say Ricky Rounds, an alleged Chopper City member, was kidnapped and held captive inside a trailer by Knock Out Posse members (the two aren’t always apparently allied). Police were tipped to the kidnapping and when they arrived, Rounds and another man were seated in the trailer covered in blood having been beaten. Five Knock Out Posse members were charged in the incident.
In May the following year, police found a semi-automatic handgun and bullets in a baby stroller while executing a search warrant at a home on Dakota Street affiliated with Chopper City. The following month during the Juneteenth Fair, police say it took 20 officers to prevent a near war between members of Eddy Rock, the Knock Out Posse and other smaller gangs when they met each other on the street.
On June 25, 2006, a purported Eddy Rock member named John Brown was found by police bleeding of a gunshot wound in the leg at 601 Larch St. But police say at the time he requested that they not investigate the shooting.
“How did you get my number?” he allegedly yelled when they called him about the incident. “Don’t call me. I don’t know who shot me, just like last time. I didn’t want any of you guys fucking calling me or talking to me!” Less than a month later, 23-year-old Brown was found dead from several gunshots, stuffed under a pickup truck at Larch Way and Laguna.
Brown’s death darkly illustrates how places like Ella Hill may have more street credibility than the police could ever hope to possess. Some residents in the Western Addition so distrust and even loathe law enforcement that a bizarre tug-of-war ensued over Brown’s bloodied body between a gathered crowd and police who’d responded to the shooting. More than two-dozen officers appeared on the scene before paramedics could take Brown away, and despite the crowd of 40 or so people, police were unable to identify any witnesses to the shooting itself, according to a police report.
Paris Moffett, a purported Eddy Rock leader, told the Guardian in a different story about the gang injunctions last November that young people in the neighborhood whom police had identified as troublemakers would defy the injunctions and handle the problem of violence on their own.
“We’ve got the most influence of anybody,” Moffett told us at the time. “But they don’t think so. Instead of putting us down, if they want to stop the violence, why aren’t they helping us?”
Moffett was arrested the day that story went to press for allegedly possessing a large quantity of crack and MDMA and a Colt .45 semiautomatic. He’d been sent to state prison before in 2002 after pleading guilty to shooting a man on Eddy Street who was already paralyzed and wheelchair-bound from past gunfire.
Alex Kotlowitz’s May 4 Times Magazine article describes a growing school of thought where treating violence immediately in troubled neighborhoods comes before anything else. Kotlowitz has spent much of his career documenting urban conflict in Chicago and his latest scribe tracked efforts there to confront it as a public health issue through a program called Ceasefire.
The theory surely isn’t a new phenomenon, but Ceasefire attacks the problem like a bull, directing hardcore former criminals – men and women with street credibility, which Ella Hill also possesses, a vital quality no one outside the neighborhood can fabricate – to intervene aggressively and incessantly in potentially explosive bouts of revenge among gangs and drug dealers.
Shootings and attempted shootings have dropped by up to 27 percent in some areas where it’s been deployed, figures that surprised even jaded academics. Baltimore police officers after investigating an incident will pull back so Ceasefire’s “interrupters” can mediate. Oakland and Los Angeles are courting Ceasfire’s founders.
The man behind Ceasefire, physician Gary Slutkin who fought infectious diseases in Africa for 10 years, compares street violence intriguingly to malaria, smallpox and leprosy in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1880s.
“Everybody blamed the people. Dirty. Bad habits. Something about their race,” Slutkin told Kotlowitz. “Not only is everybody afraid to go there, but the people there themselves are afraid at all times because people are dying and nobody really knows what to do about it. And people come up with all kinds of other ideas that are not scientifically grounded – like putting people away, closing the place down, pushing people out of town. Sound familiar?”
Generating statistical data in San Francisco is difficult to begin with, so the city can’t entirely understand the extent to which people in the Western Addition are disadvantaged. That fact was borne out inadvertently by a report on the local economy just released in April through the business-backed, private nonprofit Social Compact, Inc.
It says the Western Addition is vastly under-served by traditional banking institutions even though median incomes are much higher in the area than they were in 2000. What the report doesn’t do, however, is explain how much of that comes from newer, wealthier residents and the extent to which race plays a role in determining who gets real access to business loans and job prospects.
The mayor has eagerly pointed to the report to show how private interests too quickly overlook neighborhoods like the Western Addition due to outdated census figures that also shortchange the city when it comes to applying for federal subsidies.
But the report also doesn’t distinguish between individual Western Addition streets, where one block might be laden with multimillion-dollar homes while the next is corner-to-corner public housing. Nor does it address people prohibited access to private sector resources directly and indirectly by endlessly being pin-balled through the penal system. And it doesn’t say a thing about the effect of 50 years of federally backed urban redevelopment on the area.
In other words, the Social Compact report can’t fully recognize the experiences of people living in neighborhoods like the Western Addition. Meanwhile, outward migration away from San Francisco among blacks outpaced 18 other major U.S. cities between 1995 and 2000, according to a study done last year by San Francisco State University.
Scholars say two significant population waves led African Americans to San Francisco in the first place, once in the late 1870s after the establishment of the transatlantic railroad and later starting in the 1940s as military industrial jobs grew at San Francisco’s ports.
The contemporary phenomenon of “reverse migration” began in the 1990s as African Americans, many among them skilled and highly educated, began a retreat from northern urban cores to the suburbs where schools and neighborhoods were perceived as safer, better-quality and more affordable, while whites, in turn, followed gentrification back to the cities. The south in particular seemed more willing to welcome black entrepreneurs and it’s seen an influx in new residents as a result.
Loïc Wacquant, a UC Berkeley sociology professor who compared Chicago’s black ghettos with de-industrialized areas of Paris in his 2007 book, Urban Outcasts, describes two historical experiences for minority populations in places like San Francisco. The “communal ghetto” here of the 1950s, for instance, contained working class residents such as ship builders in Bayview-Hunter’s Point where minorities were relegated to live along racial lines but at least possessed prideful institutions like schools, churches and community centers.
Today’s “hyperghetto,” as he characterizes it, resulted from the rise of a white-collar, service-based economy, the decline of unions, the withdrawal of meaningful social safety nets and the self-fulfilling perception that neighborhoods like the Western Addition are violent hellholes with no history or identity “where only the detritus of society would tolerate living.” Wage labor is fragmented, like workfare jobs or day labor, while violence ascends and reasonably attracts the most attention.
From there, determining what public policy initiatives to deploy and where to aim them becomes less clear as some residents in the meantime begrudgingly decide to move away from the very communities that reared them.
“It would seem intuitive that violence is a result of economic deprivation, but the relationship between the two is not static,” Kotlowitz wrote in the May 4 Times piece. “People who have little expectation for the future live recklessly. On the other side of the coin, a community in which arguments are settled by gunshots is unlikely to experience growth and opportunity.”
And finally, from this week’s cover story, there’s more to our account what happened to Esau Ferdinand, the 25-year-old man police initially accused of shooting Donte White inside Ella Hill’s gymnasium in the spring of 2006.
Police released Ferdinand from custody about four months after the killing because they didn’t have enough evidence to prove he’d been involved.
But less than three months later, the game caught up with Ferdinand again. On Nov. 26, two relatives of Ferdinand, 20-year-old twin brothers Elijah and Emale Ferdinand, were attacked in West Oakland on the front porch of their 12th Street duplex by a pair of men armed with a .357 and 9 mm. Press accounts said the victims, like Esau, hung out in San Francisco’s Fillmore District and had just returned to the East Bay from jobs as security guards in the city.
Emale and a third man survived the assault after being treated at a local hospital. But Elijah succumbed to gunshots in his back and lower limbs. OPD spokesperson Officer Roland Holmgren said the case remains open today with no known motive and no new leads.
Esau Ferdinand has since taken to using Elijah’s name and birth date. It came up as a listed aka in Alameda County when a California Highway Patrol officer pulled him over last fall for blasting through the Bay Bridge’s toll plaza in a blue Buick Century. At first he allegedly told the officer his name was “Julius Hughes” but then gave up his real driver’s license, which was suspended.
The Buick was impounded and Ferdinand was released. Criminal records show that he missed a late March court date for a charge of giving false information to a law enforcement officer and an Alameda County judge issued a bench warrant.
Six months before that, Esau was arrested in San Francisco for allegedly driving on a suspended license, driving under the influence and again giving false identification to a police officer, according to court records here. All of those charges were dropped in 2007 for reasons that aren’t explained in public records.
We’ve since learned that despite all of this happening to Ferdinand after being let go for White’s murder, he was arrested again recently on a gun charge.
For Esau Ferdinand, the game and all of its broken rules lives on.
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