Up From the Streets: A Scene From Occupy L.A.
Woodrow Coleman came all the way from Long Beach to see the Arab Spring bloom in downtown L.A.
Luigi Ventura Dito Montiel and Aqeela Sherrills at Occupy L.A.
The African-American septuagenarian with deep-set brown eyes and a woolly white tangle of beard sports a well-worn baseball cap that suggests he has something money can't buy -- poverty.
"For a change, bring some change," he says, taking a seat on an ice chest. "Make the world a better place for people to live."
A randy redolence of patchouli, B.O., weed and bus exhaust hovers like a storm cloud, feeling more like Manhattan in July than Occupy L.A. in October. The ideological ooze congeals like liquid mercury on the steps of City Hall.
Nearby, two Mexican teenage boys in tight jeans and black T-shirts with bandannas pulled across their faces brandish signs about corporate greed. Movie director Dito Montiel and superstar activist Aqeela Sherrills take a break on the steps.
Montiel and Sherrills, both products of public housing projects, came of age 3,000 miles apart on symbiotic coasts. Montiel grew up just down the street from the high-rise Astoria Housing Projects in Queens, N.Y., while Sherrills comes from the lowlands of Los Angeles: the sprawling Jordan Downs projects in Watts.
"I remember when we were kids, I used to go up on the roof," Montiel says. "I always thought you guys had it worse, because [L.A. projects are] low-rise, but I found out later that it's worse here." He looks more fitness guru than urban guerrilla in a soft, blue zip-up hoodie and shorts. "I remember what I felt like as a kid. You walk a thin line. I've been lucky. I take a good bat to the head and bounce back."
Sherrills is tall, handsome and fit, in a white polo shirt, English walking cap and flip-flops. "I remember, third or fourth grade, seeing people getting shot and killed and their fingers cut open and their neighborhood written on the wall with their blood. Really gruesome shit. I kinda somewhat made it through that. In ninth grade one of my really good friends got shot and killed. The crack trade entered the community and totally decimated it. All of the girls we were in love with became strawberries, turning tricks for money and shit."
Montiel and Sherrills transcended the social housing matrix and became high-functioning achievers. Sherrills co-founded Amer-I-Can with Jim Brown and the Community Self-Determination Institute after his son was killed in '04 in a random shooting. He brokered the infamous 1992 peace agreement between the Bloods and Crips.