The General and the War to Save LA’s Soul (Part IV)
[This is part four of a four-part series. To go to part one, click here.]
Later, I joined Dogon and we began walking to LA CAN’s office on Main Street. I could not take my mind off what I was leaving behind as I felt heavy and wrong from it. I knew then that Annie Moody, the old man, Leslie and Howard were not going to let me go. When I left Skid Row that day, a part of me would stay behind to be tortured by what I knew and what I could do very little about. Dogon pointed his finger down San Julian Street, taking my attention off grim realities toward something else, anything else. Many years ago, he said, a group of Red Shirts tried to take the property of some homeless people on San Julian Street, but they fought back.
“That’s the toughest street in LA, man,” he said laughing. “The Red Shirts got beat up. They got their bicycles taken and they got chased out.”
Without knowing it, at that moment Dogon said exactly what I needed to hear.
When we entered LA CAN’s office, Dogon went straight upstairs, probably to talk to one of the nonprofit’s two directors. I sat down in the reception area to rest and wait for him. LA CAN’s office was far from corporate standards of decency. It was a work space of hand-me-down desks, tables, chairs and filing cabinets. Whatever had been purchased new was well-worn by then. The aging, bare fluorescent lamps on its walls made for a dank ambiance, which was further made cave-like by the lack of windows. The office’s high ceiling was water-stained and its paint was peeling in large sheets; its vinyl flooring was abused and cracked. But for what it lacked, it made up for in authenticity. On every wall were protest signs and posters from various campaigns on its walls — “No Displacement Zone,” “Housing is a Human Right,” “Being Black is Not a Crime” and one I assume Dogon had created: “Gentrification My Ass. We’re Not Leaving. End SCI.” It was a multi-walled collage whose overall message was a giant fuck-you to Lt. Paulson’s polite society.
Joe Thomas, a member of LA CAN, was mopping the floor. When I asked how he was doing, he nodded his head heavily and said he was doing much better. Thomas had been trying for six years to get into an apartment that is set aside for low-income people. Thanks to his perseverance it was his last day to sleep on the street.
“Social Security is not enough to get you off the street,” he said. “Now when I first got my Social Security, it was like 600 dollars. That is not going to get you off the street due to the fact that you got to keep care of yourself. You want to have clean clothes. You got to eat. You got to have transportation. And the mainstay of what the living-rate is right now is astronomical. Homeless people should have the right to do whatever it is to survive, to live on the streets, wherever, where they can’t be cited. Even though a person is not housed, they still should have the same rights as everybody else that’s in a house, because basically it’s not their fault. You look at employment, more people is laid off. They can’t get unemployment no more. They ran out of money. There’s no place to put these people at and the system wants to switch wheels and say it’s our fault when in fact it’s not.
“Homelessness really started in about the ‘80s. Nobody wanted to listen. They thought the city was going through a phase and it was just going to pass over and everything was going to be all right in LA, which it was not. During the ‘80s, they were letting people that didn’t have a place to go sleep in City Hall. We have photographs of that. The police were giving out papers saying you could go there, get a bed or something to sleep for the night. When that didn’t work and things start escalating more, the city shut it down and they just let people out. And then during that time when Reagan was president, he shut down all the institutions for mental health. That’s another problem we got out here. They never reopened those facilities. So now you got a mixture of people out here. You got mental, you got disability, you got some people that just don’t have a job, and you got some people that just migrates from other states. And nobody’s trying to find a way of getting people off the streets.”
I had often seen Thomas at LA CAN actions, but we never chatted much. We had sat next to each other at meetings and we had said hello to each other on the street, and although we talked, our conversations never more than scratched the surface. But that day was different. Thomas is thin, not very tall and hobbles when he walks. The hair on his head is short and he wears large plastic-framed eyeglasses. He has an ornery demeanor to him that betrays his friendliness. While he mopped the floor, Thomas mentioned he was able to sort out an issue with his VA benefits recently. He told me he was a Marine in Vietnam from 1967 to 1973. He was a radio operator, one of those guys who carried a 13-pound radio on his back, and by doing so, made himself a prime target for the enemy.
“I had that distinguished job where everybody wanted to take you out 24/7, because you’re the only communication,” he said. “They cut you off, you can’t bring anybody in. It’s not like Hollywood where they show you like it’s somebody picking up a Ma Bell phone and saying, ‘Hey, these are my coordinates.’ It’s not like that. We had to learn four different types of language. We had one for the Air Force, one for the Navy for the latitude and longitude where we were at, one for the Army and one for the Marines.”
Thomas had a long scar that ran the length of his left jaw bone, starting from the corner of his mouth. I had always wondered how he got it. I had envisioned a wild bar fight from his youth, something about a two-timing woman and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but for all I knew, maybe he got it from running with scissors as a child. I asked him how he got it.
“Thanks to ‘Nam,” he said. “I didn’t even see it when it was coming. I had my backpack, I had my radio. The only weapon I had was a government-issue .45. We were in the jungles, in the marshes and stuff, so when they came through, I didn’t even see it. It happened so fast, I didn’t even feel it. I looked down and said, ‘Damn, I’m bleeding.’ My teeth were hanging out. I didn’t even know it.”
“You were shot?” I asked.
“No, no. That was a bayonet. It was hand-to-hand combat. Yeah, we didn’t have the technology or push-buttons or nothing like they do now. No, it was strictly … it was war.”
* * *
Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the wise cannot see all ends.
— J.R.R. Tolkein, “The Fellowship of the Ring”
The first floor of LA CAN’s office was divided into three sections. The front was mostly a reception area; the back was an open space for meetings; and the middle section was made up of desks lined up in pairs and separated by partitions. Each work area was personalized with various knick-knacks, but Dogon’s area had the most flair. Mounted on the concrete wall next to his desk was the Black Nationalist flag, upon which, using a black marker, was written: “All Power to the People.” Hanging on the flag’s upper corners were a black bandanna, a gas mask, a camouflage boonie hat and a toy assault rifle. Behind Dogon’s desk was a cork board partition that was covered with photographs — Black Panthers, Malcolm X — and posters — “Patrol the Police! Cop Watch Training.” Positioned on top of his computer, next to hanging Mardi Gras beads, was a gorilla mask, which was wearing an Asian straw hat. Behind his computer, next to the partition, were stacked papers covered in a zebra print blanket. On top of the blanket was a black Superman doll, a black panther plush toy and two black-and-gold Egyptian statues about a foot in height. The desk was cluttered with papers, a day planner and empty beverage containers. Between his keyboard and monitor was the head of a small alligator, with its jaw wide open and its eyes glaring. While I had talked to Thomas, Dogon had been moving around the office like a humming bird, never still and never in one place very long. Finally I caught him at his desk. He was on eBay searching for accessories to decorate one of his two vintage tank bicycles, which is a hobby of his. Last Christmas, Dogon rode one of these bikes through Skid Row, dressed like a Chinese Santa Claus and handed out doughnuts and candy to the homeless.
Our conversation drifted to his years in prison, which is where his life slowly began to turn around, and from the least imaginable catalyst. Dogon’s transformation began when a prisoner named Charlie lent him an Afrocentric history book, a view of history that puts African culture at the root of human achievement. When Dogon asked Charlie for something to read, a history book was not what he had in mind. Dogon was pissed, and he pouted for a few weeks before the boredom of prison life left him no choice but to read the book, cover to cover. The information, though criticized by scholars as not being genuine history, nonetheless opened Dogon’s eyes wider to the oppression of his race, beginning in Egypt with the great pharaohs to contemporary civil rights leaders, and set him on a life changing course. When Dogon requested another book, Charlie introduced him to Magic, Charlie’s cellmate, who was also the mad tribal priest of Corcoran State Prison. At Charlie’s request, Magic appeared in front of Dogon’s cell with another Afrocentric history book in his hand.
“That’s when I met him,” said Dogon. “I’m looking at this cat and I’m like, ‘Goddamn.’ I swear to God this dude would scare the shit out of you. He was like six-six and real skinny. I’m still trying to figure out what nationality he was, because he was charcoal-black. He would just always say, ‘Black!, Black!, Black!’ every time I asked him. He had fire eyes. I hadn’t ever seen no eyes like this myself. It’s like these people who was high and you know because their eyes turn red. His eyes were naturally like that, like he was naturally fucked up everyday. I tripped off that, because when I first met him I thought this guy was smoking some weed or something, because he looked fucked up. Then I noticed every time I saw him his eyes were red. He was a chain smoker, as a matter of fact his whole front teeth was all stained from coffee and cigarettes. I think that was his only vice, was coffee and cigarettes. He had, I don’t know if you’d call them dreadlocks or what, but he had seven locks of hair. His locks would stay on a north-south axis. He’d say it was the universal flow of energy, which flowed north to south. He’d say that Jesus and all those guys, they used to have dreads and they used to align themselves on a north-south axis and that way, when they come out in society, the energy would be with them. But he used to … his brain … I mean, I could see the veins in his forehead. He could be straight brainstorming and meditating so much that the veins in his forehead would just protrude out when he’d come out of his cell. We’d be on the yard and the whole time he was on the yard I could see the veins in his head sticking out. He had this fucking necklace, man, that would scare the shit out of you. In it, it had chicken bones, feathers, dead animals, like rats and birds, and all the little stuff that he had got off the yard. This guy used to take dead animals in his cell and dice them, open them up. He was the weirdest guy I’ve ever seen in my life, but he could take an ignorant motherfucker and turn him into an intelligent man, that’s why they called him Magic. I think the biggest thing that Magic taught me was how to think. He was probably the smartest person I ever met in my life. This guy knew everything.
“So he gives me the book, and I’ll never forget the book. It was ‘Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization’ by Anthony Browder. That was the book that really shook me up. It was scary as fuck because it had the white Jesus, it had the black Jesus, it had the Ark, it had the cross, it had everything, like the real shit, the fake shit, then it showed you the real-real shit. I mean it gave you the history on the real shit. It talked about Alexander the Great, if I remember right, in 332 BC when he came through Egypt. It talked about all the Greek philosophers and how they came into Egypt and sat at the feet of a black man and learned all their wisdom and knowledge and then went back to Europe and claimed it for themselves. It talked about coming to America, about slavery, about Christianity, about everything. I mean that book really pissed me off. It got me madder than a motherfucker, so I had to really talk to Magic now. I had a lot of questions for this dude, Magic. Charlie was all right, but Magic, that motherfucker, I ain’t never asked him a question that he didn’t answer.”
Learning an alternative history that shed greater light on the contributions of African civilization gave Dogon pride, but also anger for the way black civilization had been used and then tossed aside throughout time to make way for someone else’s glory. But aside from history lessons, Magic also provided Dogon with an education in a unique brand of metaphysics. During walks through the yard or in Magic’s cell over a glass of pruno, a type of prison wine made from fermented canned fruit, Magic discussed with Dogon existence itself, and even existence before existence. He taught Dogon to have a spiritual respect for the elements of the Periodic Table, which Magic described as gods, the prime creators at work in the universe.
During this time, the man, formerly known as Steve Richardson, and also known as Dracula, was becoming General Dogon. General is a term of respect. It is a title given for one’s accomplishments, and Dogon earned his title in prison by helping others. Magic had taught Dogon how to write Inmate Complaints, a form inmates had to fill out so their grievances would be addressed by prison authorities. This led to Dogon learning to write administrative appeals and writing them on inmates’ behalf. One such inmate came to Dogon when his conjugal privileges were about to be revoked because he had tested positive for marijuana after returning from such a visit. The inmate came to Dogon weeping, because his wife, who was if anything an honest woman, told him that if she couldn’t get anymore dick she would no longer drive across the state to visit him, or at least not as often. Dogon took up the case, and hit prison officials with a rhetorical left hook that may still have them reeling to this day. Using what he learned from Magic and the multiple books he had read concerning an alternative narrative about the black race, its culture and people, Dogon applied his knowledge to the inmate’s appeal. He argued that due to a THC-like molecule occurring naturally in melanin, a black person could give a false positive in a drug test, thus the evidence against the inmate was not admissible.
“So just by a black man being excited or like doing something that’s real, you know, like hyperactive, like sex and stuff like that, it will alter the melanin level, which will increase the THC level,” said Dogon. “And I showed this using diagrams that I used from my books. I made copies in the law library and all that shit. I put all this information in there and said that the man wasn’t under the influence. He was just excited he got to see his wife, you know? I asked them, ‘What’s the THC level of him when he was going out?’ They couldn’t produce the report from when he tested going out to see his wife. He could have been altered already by being excited, you know what I’m saying? And so I put that into the appeal, and it was like they couldn’t prove it. Basically I said he was naturally high, and guess what? He ended up beating the fucking appeal. So he ended up winning his business back. Man, him and his wife loved me. She sent me a 40-pound package. She told me to get a list, whatever I wanted. I just asked for coffee and cookies and candy and shit. I didn’t want to tax them.”
This was also the time when the General began to take on what he calls his spiritual name, Dogon. From the books he was reading, he learned about the Dogon tribe in Africa, an impressive group of people who live in present-day Mali and Burkina Faso. According to the Dogon, before the universe began, a tiny seed, about the size of an atom, drifted through space. Due to vibrations occurring in the seed, it exploded, about where the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius A and its diminutive friend, Sirius B, can be found. After the seed exploded throughout space, it formed an oval shape, called “The Egg of the World.” Everything we know and love today hatched from this cosmic womb — stars, galaxies, planets, the gods, all life, all matter and every conceivable mystery that will keep humans guessing from now to eternity.
The Dogon have a reputation for being good astronomers. They understood Earth orbited the sun long before Christian sky pilots admitted to lying about our planet’s orbit. The tribe were aware of other planets too, and knew that Sirius B took 60 years to complete its orbit around Sirius A. Besides being known for their astronomy, the Dogon were tough sons-of-bitches too. They didn’t take kindly to French colonialists and Christian sky pilots, whom the Dogon fought long after all other tribes had given up, thrown in their spears and accepted the capitalist-loving, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus as their economic savior and sexual adviser. Nor were the Dogon anyone’s fool. They were never duped by Christianity as they saw it for what it was: an immoral lubricant for violent rubes with foreign accents to kill their families and destroy their villages in the name of civilization. Those Dogon who adopted to modernity and shed their beliefs chose Islam instead as a final protest, which after 9-11 now makes them the sworn enemy of a new generation of backwoods Christian sky pilots. It was these attributes of the Dogon tribe, its wisdom and tough spirit, that inspired Dogon to take on their name as his own.
“They were supposed to be a people that came out of the water,” said Dogon, leaning back from his computer and giving eBay a rest. “They said their ancestors were fish, that they came out of the water and moved onto land, and my sign is Aquarius, so I just took to them. I really took to the history too. I think I found my roots there or something.”
When Sirius B completes its orbit, it and Sirius A appear between two African mountain peaks, which signals the Dogon when to hold their rite of renewal ceremony called “Sigui.” It is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest religious ceremony. The last Sigui went from 1967 to 1973. It is a time when young men learn a cryptic language and the secrets of their people. The ceremony marks the passing of a generation, from old to new. General Dogon was going through his own renewal ceremony with the aid of Magic. He was gaining knowledge he never had, grounded in spirituality and dignity, and becoming interested in doing social justice work. Before his renewal was complete, however, there was a final lesson Magic was to teach Dogon, which was prompted by Dogon’s new tattoo, an inscription on the left side of his neck that read “Caucasoid 187.”
“When I got the tattoo Caucasoid 187 on my neck, he was pissed off,” said Dogon. “It means death to the white race. One-eighty-seven is the penal code for murder. I started reading these books and I’m seeing all this shit the white folks did, all the destruction, it was just making me feel mad. I’m mad, I’m in jail and I’ve got all this goddamn time. I put the tattoo on there as a warning sign. But Magic was pissed off like a motherfucker. When he saw it, he was furious.”
“You know I didn’t teach you all this,” said Magic. “Why’d you put that shit on there?”
“That’s the way I feel,” said Dogon.
“Oh, so you took it personal?”
“I didn’t look at it that way, but yeah, you can say that.”
“I didn’t teach you that shit,” said Magic. “Now you’re being like them. That ain’t the way you fight back. That’s the reason why I’m in this prison.”
Developing a hatred for white people was never part of Magic’s lesson plan, and to punctuate his point, the teacher chose to reveal the most challenging lesson of his own life.
“He was in there for tying some pregnant woman upside down and gutting the baby out of her,” said Dogon. “This guy was way out. He was crazy. It was a white woman that he did it to. They gave him life for that and then some more shit. I walked the yard with him for about six years, but he didn’t tell me that till later on, after I met him.”
* * *
“Dogon!” called the receptionist. “There’s somebody here who needs help with a ticket.” Without pause, Dogon logged off eBay and left to greet the person. LA CAN gets a lot of walk-ins. They are homeless people seeking help in navigating the bureaucratic maze of citations, fines and court appearances. It’s a hellish ride for anyone with no money or address, especially those with mental illness. They filter in, usually with the same statement: “Somebody told me about this place, said you could help.” That day, one guy came in with a 500-dollar ticket for having his shopping cart in the street and pushing it along the gutter. Others had come in with 200-dollar jaywalking tickets.
Dogon came back to his desk and got back onto his computer. A small woman in her 30s followed him and sat down. Keeping her knees together and her elbows tucked in, she held her purse and a plastic bag that held a bottle of iced tea and a sweater. Her eyes were tired and taxed, her voice, mousy.
“So I’m researching tickets you got on the court’s online service,” said Dogon. “And so your ticket is for sleeping?”
“Sleeping on the sidewalk; homeless, sleeping on the sidewalk,” said the woman. “I know it’s been turned into a warrant by now, I think. I just want to get it taken care of.”
“The worst thing you can do is let a ticket go into collection,” said Dogon.
“Yeah, I know, because another one did and I go to court in May for that one. I was on the way to the store riding a bike on the wrong side of the street. I have to pay 690 dollars for that. But I’m going to go to court on that in May. I just want to get all that out of the way. I don’t want to start no job or something and they stop me and pick me up, you know? So I’m trying to clear everything up now.”
“So this is where you at right now,” said Dogon. “The last action was on April the 29, 2013, Division 80. You failed to go there, so the case status now is a warrant. This is it. This is the warrant.”
Dogon turned to her and began to speak with lawyerly professionalism.
“This is your options,” he said. “You can pay them right now, which is 723 dollars.”
“Plus the e-Public Access Service Fee of 10 dollars will be added to this amount. So that’s 733 dollars, or you could take a court date for arraignment on it. My advice to you would be to take the court date for arraignment, try to go into court and try to explain your situation. You don’t want this ticket to go to collections. If it go to collections, that 700 dollars is going to damn near double because GC Services Collection Agency is going to want to get their money for handling this case.”
“Mm-hmm. Yeah, because they already gave one to a collection agency. They want 690 dollars for riding a bike on the wrong side of the street. They told me I can’t get my license until after I pay them.”
“So court reservation, right? That’s what you want? You want morning court or night court?”
“I’ll go to morning court,” she said.
Dogon turned back to his computer and, with a few clicks on his mouse, he requested a court date for her.
“Now,” he said, turning back to her again, “what you need to do is have an excuse why you didn’t go to your regular trial, why you didn’t come to court, because you like about eight months late. This was April and here we are in January. So you want me to get this court date? If anything, it would stop your ticket from going to collections.”
“Mm-hmm. I don’t want it to go there.”
“Yeah, and it’d buy you some time,” he said, “because that’s what you want to do. You want to keep getting extensions, keep getting extensions. Let the ticket get old. Always address the court, but don’t always be quick to go to trial. Let it get old, because the older it is, the weaker it is.”
“Yes. The cop may come to court, but he probably don’t remember it, because they write tickets every day, so he might not remember,” said Dogon. “Then on top of that, it’s so weak that, you know, that it lose its power. You understand me? They be more willing to give you community service or just clear the books, stuff like that. The worst thing you can do is do nothing. That’s disrespect to the court. And the judge take that personal when you don’t come in. When he give you a date to come in and you don’t come back in his courtroom, he take that personally and they going to issue a bench warrant for your arrest. So always go to court, even if you ain’t got the money.”
“Mm-hmm, right, right,” she said, looking at the computer monitor and seeing her court date appear. “OK if I write that down?”
“No, I’ll print it up.”
“OK, good. Thank you.”
“I’ll print it out for you and I’ll give you my business card. Right before the court date, come back and then we can sit down and talk about your defense. You said you got it for sleeping on the sidewalk?”
“What time of day was it?” asked Dogon.
“It was in the morning,” she said. “You know, we was up, but didn’t get out of our tent right away, so the police got out the car. I was coming out the tent.”
“Did they come by and warn you first?”
“I don’t … I didn’t hear that.”
“OK, well, that’s the thing about a 41.18(d) ticket,” said Dogon. “The officers must first warn you. That’s part of the agreement they made, that they would give you a warning. They got to tell you that you violating 41.18(d), which is the code for sleeping on a public sidewalk, and they got to give you ample time to get up. And if you refuse to get up, at that point they can cite you.”
“I don’t recall hearing them that time.”
“Well, that’s your argument when you go to court,” said Dogon. “That’s why it’s important for you to go to court. The cop, he probably don’t even know about that. So when he go to tell his story, the first thing he going to say is, ‘I told her to get up. I drove by and they were sitting on the ground. It was after six o’clock so I wrote them a ticket.’ I bet you that’s what he’s going to say, but he not going to say, ‘I gave her a warning, but she refused to get up and we had a right to write her a ticket.’”
“No, they sure didn’t,” she said.
“See, that’s the catch,” said Dogon. “That’s why it’s important to come in here and talk to folks.”
“Yeah, somebody had told me about this place so that’s why I came, because I want to clear it up.”
Dogon printed off the information of her court date and stapled it together for her. There was a moment of silence and I asked her how long she had been homeless.
“Oh, man, off and on for years,” she said. “I had a place and I went back to my mom’s house and I went back again for the — I had to go to an outpatient program, then came back home again.”
“So, came out good. Your court date is in April,” said Dogon. “You got another April court date, so don’t miss this court date, all right? Come back here like the last week of March. Come here and talk to me and we’ll talk about your defense when you go to court. I may have to go to court with you.”
“Oh, OK. Thank you, thank you very much. I appreciate this.”
“You’re welcome,” said Dogon.
“I feel better.”
“It’s a relief.”
“Got it off your chest for awhile.”
“OK, I appreciate meeting you,” she said, putting her papers inside her purse and standing.
“All right, for sure,” said Dogon.
“I’ll be in touch,” she said and then left.
The woman was relieved about having her court date and plan to defend herself, but that didn’t change the fact she still had an arrest warrant hanging over her head for the next three months. A simple slip up on her part, such as sleeping in past 6 a.m., and she might be arrested. No colonist would ever have to worry about such a thing. If they needed to, colonists could hit the snooze on their alarm clocks and never fear being thrown in jail for it.
* * *
The only thing I can’t live with is knowing I did nothing.
— Edward Snowden
We stepped outside so Dogon could smoke. He grabbed a cigarette from his pack, tore off the filter and lit it. It was late in the afternoon and the day was showing its first signs of exhaustion. The sun wasn’t as bright, and already traffic was beginning to pick up as people began to head home from work. Dogon looked up and down the street of a city in motion. I had once assumed that homeless advocates consider business interests and developers to be their enemy. It seemed natural, as they were the ones pushing for the area to be gentrified and pushing for tactics like SCI. But that wasn’t the case. It was City Hall, they felt, that was their true rival. It was a government that paid lip service to democracy, but in truth only represented those who had something to offer. It was quid pro quo governance and a slap in the face to anyone foolish enough to believe in America. The colonists had money and the natives didn’t. It was as simple as that.
“I had thought it was some greedy-ass businessman or I thought it was maybe the mafia trying to take over and run all the poor homeless folks out of downtown and make it just a home for the rich,” said Dogon. “I thought it was some greedy motherfucker that was doing that. But it’s City Hall. That’s where all this shit is coming from. It’s the government. It’s the government that’s denying people their basic rights. It’s the government that’s writing all these tickets. It’s the government that’s attacking us. That’s who’s doing this, the City of Los Angeles.
“They only listening to one side. They ain’t trying to hear no motherfuckers like us talking at public meetings. They don’t give a fuck. They never give a fuck about us. Only reason how come they even listen to us at public meetings is because they just trying to make it seem like they care or act like they doing something. Sometimes I feel that they just want to hear from us, just to see what we complaining about, so they could figure out a defense to counter that or see how to get around shit. I think they take our complaints and see if our complaints are valid enough to where we could file a lawsuit on them for violating any type of constitutional or human rights. … I’m sorry, they don’t give a fuck about human rights. I meant constitutional or civil rights that we could file a lawsuit against the city on.
“But the only thing that pisses me off is that people don’t get involved and fight. It’s that people don’t give a shit. That is one thing that pisses me off. I don’t give a fuck about the redevelopment of downtown. I think I love downtown so much that I would love to see the buildings redeveloped. I’d love to see them hooked up. Everybody wants to be upgraded, you understand me? Nobody wants to live in poverty. I can accept what’s going on, but what really pisses me off is some of my own people, because they don’t want to get involved and fight back. They want to accept the way it is. There is very few people who stand up and say what has to be said or do what has to be done. And to those people who do, I tip my hat.”
After seeing Dogon in action helping that woman, it was difficult to imagine him not working at LA CAN. After so many years of being at the nonprofit, Dogon and LA CAN were synonymous, and his leaving wouldn’t do anyone any favors, especially the poor. I wondered what he had planned to do after he left.
“I’m moving toward a more serious revolution,” said Dogon, blowing smoke out of his mouth and looking at the sky. “I don’t know what that’s going to look like. I don’t know how it’s going to end. That’s why I say I have probably a couple of more years at LA CAN. After I leave, I’m going to start getting more revolutionary and start having more serious direct actions, you know, where … I hate to say it, but it may involve bloodshed. That’s what I’m moving toward. I’m moving toward more serious action, more serious demonstrations.”
Dogon’s revelation brought a memory of mine to the surface. A few years ago, a large political demonstration that went on for most of the day had finally come to rest in Pershing Square, a one-square-block park in the center of downtown. I was there to report on the protest and I bumped into Dogon by evening. The park was filled with a few hundred protesters and surrounded by baton-wielding cops itching for a fight. Circling overhead a police helicopter peered down at us from 500 feet. Despite the ominous threat of state violence, joy crept up from the park’s grass and embraced the rebellious spirits demanding economic justice, and a defiant, celebratory mood filled the air. Dogon’s friends had brought locoweed and a 24-pack of beer — into a park overburdened by childish rules and surrounded by fuzz, no less — and soon Dogon and I were chatting over a cold beverage and sharing a blunt. It was under these circumstances that I learned of Dogon’s deep commitment to the place and people he was sacrificing himself for.
“If you want the revolution, you got to breathe it in,” he said. “You got to snort that shit, get it up in there. You know what I’m saying?”
At the time, I thought I understood what he was saying, but now that he revealed to me his possible plans for the future, I realized I had been taking his statement on a superficial level. Dogon really had snorted the revolution. It seemed painfully clear now, but after meeting so many activists who talked-the-talk, but seldom walked-the-walk, it was not all too surprising. Most activists just sniff around the edges of the revolution and, like Bill Clinton, never inhale. But Dogon had slammed his nose into a kilos worth and didn’t stop until his sinuses were raw and hemorrhaging, his eyes as blood shot as Magic’s and his heart ripped apart from love and hate. He hadn’t started his revolution yet, and maybe in the end he wouldn’t, but he was nonetheless very close to that tender point where morality becomes as clear and vociferous as the first moment of a pilgrim’s enlightenment, that point when right and wrong are painfully clear and a wicked sense of moral authority grips passive muscles and stabs them into action. This moment of clarity is where human evil and goodness apex and create a landscape where saints and demons share zip codes. At the summit of this moral mountain is where one can find the person willing to bomb a public gathering or government building, as well as the person willing to face imprisonment for destroying a defense contractor’s plant or willing to face a police officer’s baton unarmed and in the name of love. Regardless of their motives and justifications, all are willing to sacrifice out of desperation because all avenues seem closed to them. John F. Kennedy’s oft-quoted statement, that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” ran through my head more than once as I listened to Dogon.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s not about my life. I’m already … I’m surprised really that I’ve lived this long. Seriously, I should’ve been dead in my 20s with all the shit that I’d been through. I’m like a miracle child, because all of my friends, some of my buddies that I grew up with, they all in the penitentiary or in the graveyard now. So I’m surprised to even still be alive at this stage of the game. So anything after here is all gravy, you know? But I’m going out like a crazy motherfucker, probably going to be some John Dillinger, Al Capone, Huey P. Newton, Black Panther shootout-type shit.
“I most definitely trying to make a more direct target, make some examples more about the oppression. I think that’s what it’s going to take. People have to step up and take the real sacrifices. When I look at people who sacrifice themselves in other cultures around the world, they do it for a reason, because that’s the only thing that the enemy understands. You understand me? Either take their ass out, destroy them or you fucking take away their resources, whether it be money or equipment or whatever. That’s the only thing they really understand.”
Dogon pointed up the street toward Fifth. It’s distant, but the green color of a security guard’s shirt can be seen. The Shirt was standing next to homeless people at the corner. Some were sitting down and others were leaning against a building. It was assumed the security guard was telling them to get up.
“See, this the bullshit I’m talking about,” said Dogon. “They got to be made examples of, because I could talk to this guy all day long about what he doing, but until I knock him off his fucking bicycle, it don’t mean shit. So that’s what we got to do. We got to start knocking these motherfuckers down. We got to be the bowling ball. We got to start knocking down pins, you understand me?”
“Are you ready for that sacrifice?” I asked. “I mean, is that what you’re …”
“I may, I may not,” he said. “It’s a mind thing. I mean, you got to build yourself up to it.”
I said goodbye to Dogon not much longer after that. I headed west toward Grand Avenue and began my walk home south of the freeway. The thought of Dogon leaving LA CAN was disappointing, but the notion of him lying prostrate at the end of a cop’s gun was a cold bummer that would hang over many people’s heads for years, including mine. As a BID security guard rode by me, I wondered, could I push him off his bike? There would be no shortage of justification for it. I would do it for Dogon, and I would do it for Annie Moody, Leslie and Howard, for our homeless and forgotten veterans, and for all those who sleep in the cold, among the rats and cockroaches, and have to face with hungry bellies a cruelty few of us could ever imagine. And would my act be the spark that jump started “the revolution?” Or would I just become part of a police department statistic reflecting the number of violent crimes in downtown, which would then be used to justify the deployment of more cops? I hoped that Dogon was just blowing off steam and in bad need of a vacation, because I would rather live in a world with General Dogon. Without him downtown would be an empty place with stone buildings and no soul, the perfect monument to gentrification, but a sour degradation of a spirit that was one of a kind.
Turning onto Grand Avenue, I looked up from the ground and saw a man with a shopping cart standing outside an Italian restaurant frequented by colonists. We made eye contact and he began to sing to me.
“Help! I need somebody. …”
“Help! Not just anybody,” I sang in return.
“Help! You know I need someone,” he shot back.
We were only a few paces apart when we sang in unison. “Help!!!”
“Hey, man,” he said laughing, “can you spare some change?”
I pulled out my wallet and handed him a few bucks. He told me there was once a fifth member of the Beatles. He spoke for a while about it, keeping warm with a blanket wrapped around him. I don’t remember the particulars of his story and its theories. My favorite Beatle had been murdered long ago and little else mattered to me about the subject. Instead, I said goodnight and while I headed home, keeping my back toward downtown, I hoped the darkness coming from the setting sun would close the door on the harsh realities behind me.