South Central tells no lies

Woman and three children sitting on a tan arm chair. Bookshelf full of colorful books in background.

I didn’t know what was worse: hearing them gunshots in the middle of the night, or hearing the police down the street and helicopters hovering over us. 

Let me start off telling you where I am from. I was born in Watts, Los Angeles, also known as South Central, aka, the projects. 

I am telling my story because I am a walking miracle. A young black man does not get the privilege to see 18 where I come from. I had to dodge all of them bullets to get to this point. I come from poverty. No one thought that I would make it this far — not even me. 

The projects are being rebuilt, but the article “Decades after Watts revolted, the black neighborhood is being revitalized” states families still face social hardships like stability and money problems. Author of the article, Adam Mahoney, said, “The poverty rate has ballooned to 2.5 times higher than the national average, and life expectancy is 10 years shorter than it is in the affluent enclaves of West LA.”

The Fourth of July was the first time that I ever got shot at trying to fit in. I was only 11-years-old when I got my first ever “put on.” I had to fight 2 people just to actually rep the set. Compared to some gangs, who require you to kill someone to get initiated, this was minor. I was really committed to doing something that I wasn’t even sure about doing, but I did it because I felt like I was a part of something. I was surrounded by other individuals. I thought they would always have my back. Then I came to realize there’s levels to street life and whatever you’re willing to dish you have to be willing to take. It’s no easy slope. 

young child outside wearing white sweater with black stripes
Troy Johnson as a child. Photo courtesy of Takina Willis.

After I got my put on, my initiation, I had to learn the ins and outs — remember I was only 11-years-old and the older cats from the same set were already telling me, “You cannot go down this block or up this block.” Still, I did it anyway because I thought I was untouchable when I was younger, and I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into. 

The Fourth of July forever changed me. Some of the homies from the hood and I were all playing football until we heard car tires screeching. We heard shots fired, about seven, and we all scrambled to get in the house. One of my best friends’ mom screamed at the top of her lungs, “Get yall ass in this damn house now!” Then the car did a U-turn and shot at my mom four times. Thank god my stepdad was there to move her out the way. 

That very next day I got one of the biggest whoopings in my life. My mom finally broke things down to me after she finished, and told me why there is always going to be a target on her back. During this time my mom was a police officer for the Los Angeles Police Department. All the gang members on the block had their own perceptions about my mom. Because she was an officer they saw her as a snitch. They thought they couldn’t do stuff around the hood because they had a cop living here. 

Growing up I learned to stay away from police as far as possible, but seeing my mom in uniform I began to think differently about it.

Living in South Central is no joke, that’s why you have to be street smart. It’s OK to be book smart too, but I do think me being street smart is the reason why I am here today. When my mom finally got us out of the projects, me and my sisters still felt uncomfortable because now we were living in-between fearless rival gangs: the East Coast crips and the Athens Bloods. 

We stayed on the East Coast block and Athens was right around the corner. 

Rule one: Know when to get out of situations. 

Rule two: Watch who your friends are and who they hang out with because they can have a target on their back. Even worse, they might be trying to set you up. 

Rule three: Do not — and I repeat do not — walk down the streets with any gang colors on like red, blue, orange or purple.

Last rule of the Street Smart 101 handbook: pay attention to your surroundings and always be aware of what is going on in front of you or behind you, because you never know what could happen. 

For example, according to The Washington Post in a five month period, “Gun violence has killed over 8,100 people in the United States, that is about 54 lives lost per day.” More than 300 of these fatal shootings happened where I grew up and around the community. That’s why I say I am a walking miracle, because I could have been one of those numbers. 

I have lost too many people to gun violence in these streets and it devastates me, because a lot of the time people are doing it just to do it, and as a consequence you have people leaving family behind, or even children. 

My cousin was shot and killed due to gun violence. He gave us something to cherish, his daughter, but at the same time you have to sit and explain to her where her daddy is and that’s no easy thing to do.

One thing that I will forever remember about being in South Central, was when someone broke into our house. The house’s set-up was with me in my mom’s room, which was in the very back, with my sisters’ room in the front. 

One night some dude tried to come in through my sister’s window and he touched her. My mom jumped up so fast and grabbed her gun and knife and went outside. My stepdad had his knife too. Their reaction was priceless in a way. 

It felt like they were ready to go to war to protect their own and all I could do was sit there and be mad, but also check on my sisters. 

In my head I was thinking, “Who has the time in the middle of night to be out here touching little girls in their sleep?” My mom filed a police report and she started looking for another place to live because she felt like that would not be the perpetrator’s last time doing this. As for my sister, they have been scarred for the rest of their life. 

They still do not leave their windows open at night because of what happened and since then, every time I come home they feel more safe sleeping with me at times, than in their own room. One out of every six Amercian women will be victims of rape or attempted rape. 

One thing I do appreciate about the hood is the people who look out for you and the stories they share with you about their lives.

 When the OG’s tell you a story they always hit you with, “Back in my day young blood.” In my head I think, “It’s about to get real.” Usually, they will relate to how back in the day it was way different compared to now and how they got away with so much compared to now. 

One classic example is talking back to your parents, or not doing what they say. I remember an OG told me that if my siblings and I ever talk back to my momma, we would have multiple objects coming at us — he wasn’t talking about a belt. I don’t know if it’s just me, but doesn’t that sound like some abusive stuff? 

When I think about it now, I remember my grandpa telling me to do something. I asked him why and he said, “I am not asking you, I am telling you,” and then threw a shoe at me. That’s when I realized we may come from the same hood, but we came from two very different eras.

Troy Johnson can be reached at [email protected].