1999 INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST (JOURNAL) — TAPE #609, SIDE #1
Q: Mark Russell Bell
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Q: So it’s Monday morning. I had a call from Tammy from the Santa Monica agency who I haven’t called in a long time. She had a two-week gig at www.carparts.com if I wanted it so I told her I’d be checking back with her after the first of the year. I don’t think Mighael wants me to work right now. I think I have enough to do with the book and possible interviews, etc. Anyway, this really makes me a basketcase, having to be in this predicament. I see I got some Email today from Alex Rodberg. He just wrote back:
Thanks for your time. — Alex
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Q: 665 — wait. No. 6665CD. (near accident) These people can’t drive! It’s so ridiculous. 6665CD. That’s the Massachusetts license plate of the car in front of me.
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Q: So I’m home from the temp job. Today I began what’s supposed to be a couple weeks of work at www.carparts.com. I really saw firsthand how Internet sales are growing. This company’s business is increasing so drastically that they have to hire a lot of temps at significantly higher wages to service the volume so I interviewed with Teri who told me what to do. They haven’t had time to make any directions manuals because they keep changing the system from month to month. And the emphasis, of course, is always on speed and getting the work done. However, the emphasis should really be on servicing the customers properly and making sure they’re taken care of because if you don’t do that then what are you accomplishing? But, of course, in this room where there’s a lot of activity going on, I don’t think people really care much about the customers. They really just care about getting their work done and collecting their paycheck and going home at the end of their eight-hour shift or probably longer. Anyway, this was illustrated because the ones that I had difficulty with I was saving to do later — I had questions about. I thought I was the only one who was working on the Email questions but then I noticed that all of my questions had been done in a fairly brief period of time so at first I thought that maybe the computer was malfunctioning or that I had somehow inadvertently pressed a button that erased these. Or I didn’t know what was happening. Was Mighael trying to get me fired, I wondered? Anyway, it turned out there was another temp—somebody who’d been there a lot longer—but there’s just no way he could’ve reliably fulfilled those difficult questions so quickly so what does that tell you? I mean once you’ve serviced them it looks the same if you service them poorly as if you service them well so you can see what direction this assignment seems to be going in. And, of course, driving on the freeway is atrocious. It’s the most crowded freeway in the world and I got on at around 6:45 and I only got there a few minutes early at 8, (“JUST”) working in Santa Monica. And going home was even worse. Somebody (tried to) cut me off and screamed an obscenity at me. People do not like each other. People hate one another. Our society has so anesthetized people (“THAT”) they go home to their television sets, to their movies, to their video games. And now they’re even buying things over the computer. I mean it seems that they want to cut down human interaction to the smallest extent possible and that’s why people just don’t respond to one another the way they used to. Ellen said that when she drove eras ago, decades ago, people were always courteous and let her drive onto the freeway if she just smiled at them. What do you think they do today? So, anyway — on Saturday I did receive a letter back from 20th Century Insurance Company or should I say 21st Century Casualty Company? At the top of their stationery, it has both. I’ll read what it says.
Dear Mr. Russell:
We have reviewed the information obtained regarding your claim.
Our investigation to date has led us to conclude that the injuries and/or damages alleged by you were not caused by any action of our insured.
Based upon our investigation which included statements from both parties and a review of damages, we have determined our insured made a left turn into a driveway, proceeding to turn right into the parking space and attempting to pass our insured on the right when the collision occurred.
Q: I guess they meant to put in the words and ‘you were (attempting . . .).’
We must therefore deny any and all liability for the claim.
Furthermore, the California Statute of Limitations for personal injury action is one (1) year from the date of the accident in which you sustained an injury and a property damage action is three (3) years from the date of the accident. This means you must, on or before November 11, 2000 and/or November 11, 2002, respectively, either:
(1) Settle your claim, or
(2) File a lawsuit against the person(s) responsible for your loss.
If you fail to protect your interests as outlined above, you may be prohibited, by law, from recovering any money for your injuries/damages. By not taking action, you give up your rights to make a claim for personal injury/property damage against our insured.
If you have any further information or documentation which we should consider, please send it to us.
If you believe that this claim has been wrongfully denied or rejected, you may have the matter reviewed by the California Department of Insurance, which you may contact by writing: California Department of Insurance, Claim Services Bureau, 11th Floor, 300 South Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA 90013 or calling the following Consumer Communications Bureau telephone numbers: 1 (800) 927-4357 or 1 (213) 897-8921.
SincerelyAnitra Sims20th Century Insurance Company Q: So, if that wasn’t enough, in a separate envelope they sent me a ‘Request For Free Rate Quote.’ Can you believe it? They want me to sign up for their insurance company. So I probably will go ahead and send a letter to the California Department of Insurance because this seemed a very blatant case. Anyway, I still don’t understand how they said that “were not caused by any action of our insured.” I mean come on — he hit me. I didn’t hit him. So I will send a letter — maybe this weekend if I have enough energy left after the freeway and temping.
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Q: What’s especially disturbing is the possibility that this could make my own insurance rates go up. Of course, my insurance company would love any excuse to increase their charges. So no one was rooting for me, as usual.
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Q: So it’s almost 2 a.m. I woke up at 1 a.m. I’ve been thinking ever since. So your probably know what I’m going to say because it’s very obvious but, obviously, I’m not going back to that evil place. I guess I keep making the same mistake over and over again. Talk about satanic. (“I GUESS”) The metaphor just keeps returning unless you’ve learned your lesson and I haven’t learned my lesson. I guess — in this case I thought I would be doing something helpful for people in terms of working for a company that’s — anyway, what a joke, right? I mean even the names of the temp agency and Santa Monica are dead giveaways. I guess I just am not meant to be a temp. I’m just going to call Tammy and explain it to her the best I can. She does know about my book. Maybe I’ll send her a copy of the book. It’s probably the best advice anyone’s ever given to her in terms of explaining or trying to explain or can you explain? (“THIS”) Probably I should just tell her that my mom isn’t well enough to go by herself to dialysis and it’s true. She almost tripped last night just walking. I don’t know. I guess from now on I’ll just go through the want ads.
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Q: So last night I thought I could make there be a happy ending by ending my work on the book and saying something sensational and attention-getting—if things weren’t sensational enough—to try and compel people to do something by somehow making it clear that we’re all in this together as we’ll as We’re all in this together. Feelings, thoughts and emotions come and go while each of our actions or failure to act has consequences. By the way, I don’t think I’ve mentioned before how portentous I find that early scene of the movie “Michael” where the bank is destroyed. At the time I’m making this tape I still haven’t incorporated into a journal as planned so long ago that article I found in the LA Weekly October 8-14 edition entitled “Ghetto Star” — “‘Monster’ Kody Scott and the Culture of Ornament” by Susan Faludi from her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. So I’ll include the article here.
In a culture of ornament, manhood is defined by appearance, by youth and attractiveness, by money and aggression, by posture and swagger and “props,” by the curled lip and petulant sulk and flexed biceps, by the glamour of the cover boy, and by the market-bartered “individuality” that sets one astronaut or athlete or gangster above another. These are the same traits that have long been designated as the essence of feminine vanity, the public face of the feminine as opposed to the private caring, maternal one. The aspects of this public “femininity” — objectification, passivity, infantilization, pedestal-perching and mirror-gazing — are the very ones that women have in modern times denounced as trivializing and humiliating qualities imposed on them by a misogynist culture. No wonder men are in such agony. Not only are they losing the society they were once essential to, they are “gaining” the very world women so recently shucked off as demeaning and dehumanizing.
The old American male paradigm can offer no help to a man competing with ghostly, two-dimensional armies of superathletes, gangsta rappers, action heroes and standup comedians on television. Navigating the ornamental realm, much less trying to derive a sense of manhood from it, has become a nightmare all the more horrible for being virtually unacknowledged as a problem. At the close of the century, men find themselves in an unfamiliar world where male worth is measured only by participation in a celebrity-driven consumer culture and awarded by lady luck. There is no passage to manhood in such a world. A man can only wait to be discovered.
When he was 11 years old, Kody Scott began to “put in work” with the Eight-Tray Gangsters, a set of the infamous Crips that dominated his South-Central neighborhood. Putting in work meant raining violence and retribution on his set’s “enemies,” who eventually became mostly other Crips in a rival set, the Rollin’ Sixties. “This was my ‘rite of passage’ to manhood,” he would write in the best-selling Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, and he took it seriously, seeking to distinguish his passage with a particularly brutal brand of violence. “Revenge was my every thought. Only when I had put work in could I feel good that day; otherwise I couldn’t sleep . . . And I was a hard worker.” In 1977, a 13-year-old Kody stomped on a robbery victim for 20 minutes, then abandoned the comatose man in an alley. For this “work” he earned the moniker “Monster,” borrowed from the word the police on the beat that day used to describe the sort of person who would commit such an atrocity. On New Year’s Eve, 1980, 16-year-old Kody was ambushed by the side of the neighborhood Western Surplus store by three young men who emptied a six-shooter into his stomach, back and limbs at point-blank range. The Eight-Tray homeboy who was with Kody at the scene turned and fled before the first shot was even fired. Hospitalized for two weeks, Kody miraculously survived.
Kershaun Scott followed his older brother into the Eight-Tray Gangsters. By the time Kody was shot, Kershaun had already “put in work,” and had claimed the gang name “Li’l Monster.” The two brothers had grown up close; they were only 18 months apart in age and shared a room. That fraternal closeness became a stand-in for paternal care after their father moved out of the house and, as the years passed, dwindled as a presence in their lives. The abandonment was a terrible, unexpected blow to Kershaun. “I was his favorite,” he recalled. “Our relationship growing up was fantastic.” Kershaun’s favored-son status contrasted starkly with that of Kody, whose very existence was a perpetual reminder to Ernest Scott of his wife’s reputed dalliance with a football star, former L.A. Rams running back Dick Bass. The sons recall that when Ernest Scott struck out at his children, which he did increasingly as tensions mounted in the house, he saved his most punishing blows for Kody. Kershaun, on the other hand, said he was never hit. In the first few years after the divorce, the imbalance continued: When Ernest Scott came to pick up his sons for a weekend of movies and restaurants, he often left Kody behind. Then, in about 1975, the paternal visits ended. “He just stopped being our father,” Kershaun said.
On New Year’s Day in 1981, with Kody clinging to life in the hospital, his body strung like a Christmas tree with IVs and breathing tubes and sensors, Kershaun prepared a mission of retribution; as Li’l Monster, the duty fell to him. For the mission, he needed guns, and he knew where he could get one. “For as long as I can remember, my father carried a .38 on top of the dash of his blue Pinto, in a brown paper bag.” His father also had a 12-gauge shotgun and a 20-gauge pump. “He gave me the shotguns and $50 and told me to bring the guns back when I was done. There wasn’t much conversation. The whole visit took 10 minutes.” Did Ernest Scott try to stop his favorite son from committing murder? “All he said was, ‘Be careful,'” Kershaun replied, his hands balling up with anger at the memory. “I think it was because in his heart, he realized he had ceased being my father, and had no rights.”
The night after Kershaun picked up the guns, he drove around the Rollin’ Sixties neighborhood with a few other Eight-Tray buddies, randomly firing at young men they spied on the street. Or, as Kershaun put it later for the cameras, in the melodramatic terms that make gang stories such a media staple: “Once the sun went down, the mission was in action . . . We started on our journey into enemy territory.” The boy whom Kershaun eventually murdered was 14 or 15, his own age. Kershaun didn’t even know him; he was just a figure spotted moving swiftly in the dark. As he passed, Kershaun leaned out the car window and “gave him both barrels of the 12-gauge shotgun that was not sawed off.” The force of the explosion obliterated the boy’s entire midection. The murdered boy “wasn’t necessarily the person who actually pulled the trigger on my brother,” Kershaun said later to a film crew. He had no connection with the assault on Kody, at least none that would have been known to Kershaun, “but he was affiliated with that neighborhood, and that’s just like getting the triggerman himself.
Avenging the attack on his brother landed Kershaun in Juvenile Hall for five and a half years. In all that time, his father never paid him a visit. He was able to see his brother, who was in and out of jail. Some members of Kershaun’s gang showed up, too, and back in the neighborhood, he was granted new respect for having risen to the challenge, proving himself a gunslinger and surrendering his freedom out of his devotion to his brother. He had earned the right to the “Li’l Monster” label and claimed local-hero fame. As Kody wrote later of his brother’s “taking the call to colors”: “I was Li’l Bro’s hero, the closest thing he had to total invincibility. Everything I did, he did. And now, with my being wounded, he knew that there was someone out there that was stronger, more determined than me. The vast weight of this fell heavy on his shoulders, and it became incumbent upon him to destroy that person and ‘save the world’ — our set.”
By then, Kody Scott had elevated himself to the status of original gangster, or O.G., which he regarded as the equivalent of general, and he saw his brother as a rising junior officer. “Each set actually functions like the different divisions of, say, the U.S. Army,” he wrote. “Protecting” the set and “defending” a brother’s honor were part of a comforting fiction that made the Scott brothers and fellow gang members feel like they were caught up in an old-fashioned, war-forged masculine operation based on valor, loyalty, care for each other and courage under fire. “Combat was starting to take its toll on me,” Kody Scott wrote. “But still my dedication, my patriotism, was strong.” The language he used was wholly martial: The Eight-Tray members were “combatants,” “elite shooters,” “troops steeled in the ways of urban guerrilla warfare.” Being in South-Central was like being “‘in country’ — in the war zone,” and Normandy Avenue “can be compared to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.” When his set unleashed an attack on a rival set, it was “launching a final offensive on the [Rollin’] Sixties — our own little Tet offensive.” The “well-seasoned veterans” in his set “could be compared to long-range reconnaissance patrol soldiers in Vietnam. There was nothing else for us but war, total war.”
Despite Kody Scott’s martial rhetoric (and despite the Los Angeles Police Department’s fondness, especially at budget time, for portraying the gangs as highly organized conspiracies), L.A. gangs were distinctly Unmilitary in structure, with loose hierarchies and an organizational based on amorphous and changing notions like “respect” more than on specific functions. But if one had to use war as a metaphor for the gang strife in South-Central, the American experience in Vietnam was at least an apt point of comparison. The meaninglessness of turf gained, the pointless and horrific body counts, the arbitrariness of how one defined the “enemy,” the toll on the young and innocent, the meaninglessness of “winning,” all of these were hallmarks of both “wars,” as Kody Scott understood quite keenly. “Sets began to predict the winners,” he wrote, “a virtually impossible deed, as our war, like most gang wars, was not fought for territory or any specific goal other than the destruction of individuals, of human beings. The idea was to drop enough bodies, cause enough terror and suffering so that they’d come to their senses and realize that we were the wrong set to fuck with.” The point of gang violence wasn’t the one the “combatants” imagined, as Kody Scott hinted at when he suggested that the whole idea was to produce not real gains but just the image of terror. In South- Central, it was truly a produced-for-televison war.
The night that Kershaun Scott succeeded in killing one young man and wounding four more, his passage into manhood was not yet assured. One confirming proof yet remained. “I can remember hitting the corner and looking back and seeing all five people stretched out, and I knew the job had been well-done,” he recounted in the documentary film “Eight-Tray Gangster: The Making of a Crip.” It was well-done because his opponents had not only been felled but were visible — “at which point I went over to my girlfriend’s house, sat back and watched the 11 o’clock news.” To be a man under the new rules of showmanship required having the fruits of one’s destructive acts ogled by an audience. Violence was not about defense or even aggression per se, but about glamour, albeit a gory glamour, which helped explain why it didn’t really matter whether Kershaun Scott killed the real triggerman or not. In celebrity culture’s approximating of revenge, a good visual, not a precise target or purpose, is the thing.
The “combatants” in South-Central were contestants under new rules of ornamental masculinity. The martial rhetoric, the stockpiling of weaponry, the display of violence, all were part of a nitrous-fueled drama that had as much to do with “winning” under the image terms of the new culture as it did with proving valor under any traditional warrior code. As Kody Scott himself would realize later, the war he had been engaged in throughout his coming-of-age years was, above all, a ratings war, a campaign to attain what he came to call “neighborhood celebrity.”
“My father’s generation was the last responsible generation,” said Sanyika Shakur (now Kody Scott’s legally adopted name) as he welcomed me in August 1997 to his girlfriend’s two-bedroom house in the San Fernando Valley. He had just moved in, having been released from jail three days earlier after a year’s sentence for a parole violation — his second such since the publication of what was supposed to be his transformational autobiography.
Newly out of prison, Shakur was unnerved by wide-open spaces. He led the way to the smallest room in the house, a back bedroom that his girlfriend, Felicia Morris, had converted to an office. Morris waved goodbye from the living room; a radio disc jockey and songwriter, she was on her way to work. Behind the office was the garage, where her guard dog, a rottweiler named Kody, barked ceaselessly. “When I first moved to South-Central,” Shakur continued, “there were industrial ties still. Men still owned their homes, supported their families. But then something happened. It turned to a neighborhood of renters. I started seeing an increase of men in the streets. It was like the economy in this country had reached its apex, and we black men had outlived our usefulness.”
As a young man, he had still hoped that he could demonstrate a workmanlike “usefulness” within his gang set. “You put in work and you feel needed in a gang. People would call on me because they needed me. You feel useful, and you’re useful in your capacity as a man. You know, ‘Don’t send me no boys. Send me a man!'” But he was beginning to see his former life in a different light. What he once perceived as “work” now seemed more like PR. “What the work was,” he said, “was anything you did in promotion for the gang.” He found it amusing how the media viewed gangs as clannish and occult. “We’re not a secret society. Our whole thing is writing on walls, tattoos on necks, maintaining visibility. Getting media coverage is the shit! If the media knows about you, damn, that’s the top. We don’t recognize ourselves unless we’re recognized on the news.
“There’s a lot of talk about loyalty and mission and all that with the gang, and that’s part of it,” he said. “But my initial attraction to these guys I saw who were in gang life was that these dudes were ghetto stars. And I wanted to be a ghetto star.” He set out, as any PR man would do, to get his brand name out. “I considered it advertising, being on the campaign trail. Bangin’ is very much like promoting for the Republican or Democratic party. What you do is, you have your name ringing on the wire, on several levels. You do it by promoting.” The publicity effort took many forms. “You write your name all over. You have to always have your marker and your gloves, because you are on the campaign trail. When you shoot somebody, you say your name, loud. And I wouldn’t hide my face. You leave people alive, knowing that the word will get out on who did it. You go to parties and you shoot in the air and say your name. Or you go to parties and you shout-whisper your name in girls’ ears, tell ’em what a badass you are, or tell ’em, ‘Tell so-and-so, he can’t kill me.’ You’d primarily use females, because they had the gossip thing down. They are very important, because if they are impressed, they spread the word.” He’d gauge the progress of his fame by how speedily a rumor he started about himself spread. “You’d know your celebrity by the return rate, how fast it would get back to you. The return rate is what you look for.”
Kody Scott’s image-enhancement strategies were not homegrown. “I got all these ideas from watching movies and watching television. I was really just out there acting from what I saw on TV.” And he wasn’t referring to “Superfly” or “Shaft.” “Growing up, I didn’t see one blaxploitation movie. Not one.” His inspiration came from shows like “Mission: Impossible” and “Rat Patrol” and films like “The Godfather.” “I would study the guys in those movies,” he recalled, “how they moved, how they stood, the way they dressed, that whole winning way of dressing. Their tactics became my tactics. I went from watching ‘Rat Patrol’ to being in it.” His prime model was Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde.” “I watched how in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ they’d walk in and say their whole names. They were getting their reps. I took that and applied it to my situation.” Cinematic gangsterism was his objective, and it didn’t seem like much of a reach. “It’s like there’s a thin line in this country now between criminality and celebrity. Someone has to be the star of the hood. Someone has to do the advertising for the hood. And it’s like agencies that pick a good-looking guy model. So it became, ‘Monster Kody! Let’s push him out there!'” He grinned as he said this, an aw-shucks, winsome smile that was, doubtless, part of his “campaign.”
Kody and Kershaun Scott took their campaign into the world beyond South-Central’s streets in 1991, when a (female) fashion-model-cum-journalist, Léon Bing, wrote Do or Die, a book about the Los Angeles gang wars that devoted a chapter to the brothers. It put their names in play, mostly Kody’s, actually, for one simple reason: His picture graced the cover. He looked like the bad guy in an action blockbuster, with his movie-star shades and a Mac-10 assault pistol clutched to his muscle-bulging bare chest. Kershaun was supposed to pose with his brother, but at the last minute he couldn’t make it to the photographer’s studio. On such happenstance does celebrity turn. Both brothers found the photo inauthentic. The photographer, Howard Rosenberg, asked Kody to take his shirt off and pump up with some weights he had on hand. “It was not menacing enough,” Rosenberg told me. “It was just a way of giving a little more edge to it.” But as Kershaun observed, “My brother always wore khakis and a button-down Pendleton shirt when he was out on a mission, and he did not take his shirt off.” Posing with a gun wasn’t Kody’s idea, either. The weapon wasn’t even his; it was on loan from a Blood who had been interviewed for Bing’s book. “Kind of disproves the theory that Bloods and Crips hate each other so much!” Kershaun noted archly.
Misleading or not, the photo attracted the eye of the media, and whenever reporters wanted an L.A. gangster quote, they invariably phoned Léon Bing to get in touch with Kody Scott. The cover picture drew a few Hollywood nibbles as well. When William Broyles Jr., a Vietnam vet and formed editor of Newsweek turned screenwriter, wanted to research his pilot script for a prospective ABC television series about life in South-Central, he called up Bing and she took him to meet Scott in jail. The two men exchanged war stories, as Broyles recalled, and the writer sensed they were bonding over their shared “military” backgrounds. “Going through South-Central for Kody was in some ways like me going through Vietnam,” Broyles, a former Marine, told me later. “It was a combat scene.” In fact, both men’s battle experience was limited: By Broyles’ account in his memoir, Brothers in Arms, he didn’t see all that much on his Vietnam tour of duty, half of which he spent in relative comfort, living “with the generals and colonels in permanent houses built on top of Freedom Hill,” where they dined on steak and lobster and played Ping-Pong in the evenings. And while Scott’s early teen years, by his book’s description, sound like they were spent in nonstop shoot-’em-ups, his street-warrior days were quickly cut short by jail; since turning 16, he has rarely been outside a penitentiary for more than a few months at a time. Nonetheless, Broyles felt, “If Kody was alive in Napoleonic times, he’d be a general . . . If he’d been in my unit [in Vietnam], I would’ve been thrilled to have him there.” In any event, the network turned down the TV drama about life in South-Central, and it looked as if Kody Scott’s tiny media flame would be snuffed out as quickly as it had ignited. The 1992 Los Angeles riots rectified that.
In some respects, the riots were themselves a media event, staged with significant production assistance from the Los Angeles Police Department. With news that the jury had acquitted the police officers charged with the brutal beating of black motorist Rodney King, the LAPD knew it might be facing an uprising in South-Central. First, a group of Eight-Tray Gangsters decided to protest the verdict by stealing armfuls of 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor from a package store a few blocks away from the corner of Florence and Normandie. Then, at that famous corner, young men began hurling rocks and bottles. Police officers swooped down, arresting one of the young men and hauling him over a gate and onto the ground, an act that inflamed onlookers. The LAPD notified the media of a police action in progress, then promptly pulled out of the area. The Police Department’s mind-boggling decision to withdraw all law-enforcement officers for the next several hours, combined with the massing of helicopter-borne camera crews above the corner of Florence and Normandie, literally set the stage for the riots. “Once the police pulled out, that was it,” recalled Kershaun Scott, who was there that day with his fellow Eight-Tray Gangsters. “Because then the media was there, broadcasting the scene live with no cops in view. And so everyone else saw it and thought it was a green light to riot.” In one telling early confrontation, captured on film, a young man charged a news photographer and tried to commandeer his camera, while spectators cheered. (It was Kershaun Scott who attempted to intervene to escort him to his car.) For sets like the Eight-Tray Gangsters, it was a day for “maintaining visibility,” a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get their names out.
Kody Scott missed out on the grand media event. When South-Central exploded, he was once again behind bars. As it happened, his incarceration proved to be only a temporary setback. In the aftermath of the riots, members of the media, entertainment and publishing industries swarmed around South-Central, searching for its most visible representatives. With “Monster” in prison, “Li’l Monter” inherited the mantle. Television and print reporters clamored for his time; his phone rang nonstop with interview requests. He was invited to give speeches, and soon he had a lecture agent. He fielded a number of movie offers, including one from rap star Ice Cube. A one-hour documentary was made of his life, “Eight-Tray Gangster: The Making of a Crip,” directed by Thomas Wright, the original screenwriter for the quintessential gunfighter-and-drug-dealing black action flick, “New Jack City.” (That film’s script had undergone its own market-driven violence inflation: By the final cut, a screenplay that had originally called for only two deaths—each with ramifications—was, much to Wright’s distress, a wall-to-wall meaningless bloodbath.)
When Ted Koppel showed up to do a special “Nightline” on the riots — his “next Tiananmen,” as the ABC News anchor would later describe it in his book on the program’s history — he made a beeline for Kershaun Scott. All told, Kershaun appeared on “Nightline” four times. “I was honored to be on ‘Nightline,'” he told me. He reveled in the sudden recognition, but in a subtly different fashion than his brother. Kershaun saw the camera as an opportunity to take the knowledge he had gathered in all those years he spent at the library before he joined the gang and put it to use. “Ted was blown away, because he expected to get this gang member who was all ‘uh, cuz, this’ and ‘uh, bro, that,’ and instead he got a guy who was very aware of our history.” Kershaun turned the tables by, for instance, confronting Rebuild L.A. director and former Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth on the need for inner-city jobs.
Soon enough, however, the klieg lights were packed up in the TV vans and driven off. But upstate in the solitary-confinement wing of Pelican Bay State Prison, Kody Scott was about to make the biggest post-riot splash of all. He had started writing a book on his gang experiences with a prison-issue pencil and sending the installments to his media contact, Bill Broyles. The former journalist, in turn, had his secretary type out Scott’s manuscript and forwarded a partial draft to his own agent and to the editor of Esquire, who published an excerpt. Word of Scott’s tell-all gangster confessional quickly made the rounds of a publishing industry eager for a piece of the marketable L.A.-riots drama. Kody Scott had gone on the campaign trail again. While Broyles was under the impression that he had the only copy of the prison manuscript, Kody had also sent the draft to Keyshaun and asked him to get director and author Thomas Wright to plug the book to HIS publisher too. Wright sent the manuscript to Avon Books, which Federal Expressed a contract to Scott in prison. A bidding war soon ensued, with each side frantic for victory. Declining an initial offer for a $25,000 advance from Atlantic Monthly Press, Scott argued, reasonably enough, that he should at least get the $75,000 that the first-time author Léon Bing had received for her gang book. By the time he had finished campaigning, Scott had landed a $150,000 advance, with the promise of additional payments to come of as much as $100,000.
The winning publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, was eager to get the book out in time for the first-year anniversary of the riots, and Scott was pressed to make quick work of it. He said he was also told to drop his concentration on the history and development of gang life and just focus the book on himself. “I said I wanted this to be a book about gangs, not an autobiography,” he recalled telling the president and publisher of Atlantic, Morgan Entrekin. “And Morgan said, ‘Well, I’m not interested in gangs. I’m interested in you.'” Entrekin recalled that he had advised Scott to cut sections toward the end of the book, where “he had started to become more politicized and more into Marxist and Marxist-derived thoughts. I argued with him that I didn’t think it was appropriate.” But the original manuscript, Entrekin said, already was mostly a personal narrative.
For the cover, Atlantic Monthly Press went back to photographer Howard Rosenberg for a shot from his Do or Die portfolio. They settled on another shirtless, gun-clutching pose. Rick Pracher, the art director at the publishing house, later explained to the Los Angeles Times why he selected that particular picture: “There’s a slight head tilt, which gives him a fuck-you attitude. I found it much more menacing.” The picture was in color, but Pracher converted it to black-and-white for “that rough-hewn edge — raw, more gritty.” Or, as Scott told me later, more candidly: “It was some sexual shit. Here’s this black dude with his shirt off, with his gun extended like a phallic symbol. Yeah, it was menacing; it was menacingly sexual.” He was being packaged and marketed as a sex object. “And the reason I know that,” he told me, “is when the book came out, I got inundated with letters — 30 to 40 a day — and 90 percent of them were love letters.”
Kody Scott wanted to call the book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, a gang slogan he had tattooed on his chest. But his publisher had other ideas. “They came up with Monster, not me,” Scott said. “Morgan [Entrekin] flew out and and said, ‘Here’s your cover!’ And pride overrode logic.” What Entrekin had unveiled in the prison visitors’ room was a mockup of a cover with the elongated letters in “Monster” stripped across Scott’s body like jail-cell bars. At the time, Scott acted like “he loved the jacket,” Entrekin told me. He even requested “extra copies so he could put them up in his cell.” But as time passed, Scott began to feel queasy about the implications of the cover. “It was Monster in a Cage,” he said with a grimace. “It was this whole celebrity thing if ‘Let’s take this whole gang thing and let’s take it down to one person.’ And I began to wonder, Did they think they had found the one guy who could elucidate it all from having survived it? Or did they just take this guy and use him for the moolah in an exploitative relationship? Was I their guide? Or was I the talking gorilla?”
If the publisher was after “moolah,” that goal was certainly achieved. Only a day after Atlantic won the bidding war, the book’s foreign rights went for exorbitant sums in a feeding frenzy at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The press was similarly ravenous, although more to look at Scott than to hear him. Vibe, the hip-hop magazine, was the only mainstream publication to offer him a writing assignment. The broadcast media salivated to get him on their sets. Prison officials turned most of them away, but “60 Minutes,” the most-watched television news program, was soon setting up its cameras in the visitors’ room to produce an episode on his life and times — entitled, in a quaint effort at gang-hip, “Monsta.” “Over the years, no gang has received more attention than the Crips and no gangster has become more notorious than Kody Scott,” narrator and host Steve Kroft intoned. “For nearly two decades, the tattooed, bullet-scared veteran of L.A.’s gang wars robbed, mugged, and murdered his way to the top ranks of the gang underworld, earning the name ‘Monster Kody’ for his distinctive brand of brutality.” The preamble ended on an “Entertainment Tonight” note, with the observation that this “handsome” and “bright” new author had a book contract worth “a quarter of a million dollars” and “now Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz’s agency is peddling the movie rights.”
When Kroft asked Scott about his response to a good review in The New York Times, Scott said, “I kinda jumped around the cell a bit. It’s the first time I’ve ever been recognized by a civilian for something other than aggression, naked aggression.” But he was on “60 Minutes” in recognition of the sort of “naked aggression” displayed on the book cover, the sort that made him, in Kroft’s account, “a full-fledged ghetto star.” And that was why Kroft asked the media’s favorite gang question, the oft-repeated question that would begin to eat away at Scott. “Do you have any idea,” Kroft asked, “how many people you’ve killed?” Scott, already annoyed by the media’s eagerness for graphic body counts, retorted: “No, no, I don’t know, no! I wonder how many people Oliver North killed? Or Norman Schwarzkopf. He’s a hero, isn’t he?”
One moment in the interview revealed another side of Kody Scott. “You don’t have most of the usual excuses,” Kroft said disprovingly. “You didn’t grow up in the projects, you had a very strong mother, your biological father is . . .”
“Absent!” Scott interrupted. “Absent! Missing in action . . .”
” . . . an NFL football player,” Kroft continued, as if Dick Bass’ celebrity made up for his absence.
But, Scott said, “While my father was on the football field . . . I was in the street, you know what I mean? . . . And Dick never came.”
“Do you resent that?” Kroft asked.
“To a great extent. No doubt about it. I hate him. Because I think about what I could’ve been. I can’t dig that, runnin’ out on your kids, you know. The father thing, that’s just heavy to me now, that’s just heavy to me.”
As he spoke, his head ducked in and out of the shot. It was soon apparent what he was doing. His hands were chained and he was trying to rub his face on his shirt — to wipe away the tears. It was the one unposed, unpracticed moment of the interview and, according to Scott, it almost wasn’t aired. After the taping, he recalled, “Steve Kroft wanted to cut it out. He kept telling me, ‘We can cut that out.’ He didn’t want people to think that I was not who they perceived me to be.”
“I may have told him don’t worry about it,” Kroft said, and explained that he was probably just protecting Scott’s feelings. “I may have asked him if he was upset, but I don’t think I’d promise not to use it. There are ways you can cut something like that so he wouldn’t be quite so teary. It was very teary.”
Anguish over paternal abandonment was an ever-present phantom in my conversations about manhood and media recognition with both Kody and Kershaun Scott. “I am the product of a man who wasn’t there,” Sanyika Shakur — Kody — told me more than once, with a bitterness absent from his commentary on his most mortal gang enemies. “My father never passed any knowledge to me.” In early 1999, Shakur spoke to the man he believed to be his father for the first time in his life. Shortly thereafter, Shakur returned to prison. Four months later, I learned of the call from Dick Bass. “He just called to give me an update,” the retired running back told me of his only conversation with his possible son. “He was working on some project, I don’t remember what it was, maybe a TV script. He asked me if he could call me ‘Dad,’ because he said he’d never been able to call anyone ‘Dad.’ I said okay.” Then, Bass recalled, “I said, ‘Maybe we can get together.’ But we never did.”
But even if Dick Bass had been around all those vital years, what sort of knowledge would he have deeded a son? Bass wasn’t likely to pass on the ability to become an NFL football player. That isn’t the sort of “skill” one can generally teach; as in all celebrity vocations, every man is on his own. Ironically, that was the lesson Kody Scott learned even in Bass’ absence, though his quest for stand-alone celebrity followed a more violent path.
Monster Kody wouldn’t do many book signings. In September 1995, he was paroled, his first time out of prison since Monster was published. He was supposedly a new man, with the new name of Sanyika Shakur and a new line of work — he had a contract with Propaganda Films to consult on a screenplay based on his book. Five months later, the police pulled him over while he was driving near his home. They found a gram of marijuana in his car. A week afterward, parole officers arrived at his home to search for narcotics and administer a drug test. Shakur ran out the back door. For the next three months, he was a fugitive.
One of the people to hear from him in that time was screenwriter and filmmaker Tom Wright, who had made the documentary about Kershaun. “It was the most bizarre juxtaposition,” Wright recalled. “He was calling because he wanted me to help him surrender — he was afraid otherwise he’d wind up getting killed by the cops — but at the same time he was calling me to get advice about how to write his screenplay!” Shakur peppered Wright with professional questions: Should he sketch out scenes on index cards? Was it a good idea to use a lot of voice-overs? Did you write the dialogue before or after the plot outline? Wright encouraged him on the phone, while at the same time trying to get him to surrender to the police. “I kept saying, ‘Kody, man, you’ve got bigger problems than that!'” But looking back now, Wright saw that the on-the-run script consultation made a certain perverse sense. “It was very sad, but in an odd sort of way, it was his salvation — because he cared enough about maintaining his own image to stick around. All he had was the vision of himself, and thankfully, it did not include his demise.”
A few days after the conversation, the police finally arrested Sanyika Shakur. They found him on a front porch in South-Central, seated before a line of about 10 people bearing pens and paper. He was signing autographs.
On a Saturday morning a year and a half later, Shakur, again on parole, was sitting in his girlfriend’s living room, wringing his hands and looking nervously at the time. The clock’s hands were moving much too fast. Soon he would have to leave for the audition. He had agreed to try out for a part in “The Bouncer,” a feature film about “the toughest bouncer in Los Angeles,” according to the advertisements of Bulletproof Productions. The film’s screenwriter and director, Stuart Goldman, had invited him to the casting call, which was just down the road at House of Champions, a martial-arts and kickboxing studio. “What are you so worried about?” Felicia Morris’ mother asked, looking at the kneading hands. “You’re already a ghetto star. Now you’re going to be a movie star.” Shakur stared at the floor morosely. “I don’t know,” he said. “Movie star, that’s a whole other realm.”
We drove over to the audition, Shakur clutching a copy of the casting-call flier. “Think You’re a BADASS?” it said in huge letters. “Let’s Find Out . . .” When we pulled into the parking lot at House of Champions, scores of beefy men were lined up out the door and around the corner. Shakur surveyed the crowd and visibly cringed. “Oh man, look at these guys.” He gazed out at the sea of bulging biceps. “This is just what I was worried about. I haven’t been working out enough. I’m too small.”
As it happened, Shakur’s build was of no matter. The casting call was only a gimmick to generate media attention that, in turn, might generate financing for the film. “I tried to set up a publicity stunt,” Goldman told me. “I was going to stage fisticuffs and then have a pal of mine who’s an undercover cop arrest someone. But the owner of House of Champions wouldn’t go for it.” Goldman was disappointed, but he still had one card left to play: Monster Kody. “I’m thinking I could use him for the publicity.” Goldman already had some ex-gangsters on display: On the judging panel that day were two former “high-ranking gang members,” he informed me. “I’m just one of these guys who likes hanging around with tough guys. It’s a man thing. Men want to be acceptable to gangsters.” That impulse had already netted him interest from Mickey Rourke. “Mickey Rourke’s hung out with Tupac [Shakur],” Goldman said. “When I called him about the film, he said he wasn’t really interested, but when he heard about Kody Scott, he got all excited. When I said I actually met him, he was fawning over me. He said if ever there was a project, this is it. He compared Kody to Billy the Kid, a real gunslinger.”
At the House of Champions, so many men had showed up that Goldman gave up on even the pretense of an audition, instructing everyone just to turn in their résumes. Monster Kody exhaled a great sigh of relief. As he was getting ready to leave, Goldman hurried over: “Your book is so amazing. We could work together on a script.” They agreed to get lunch.
A week later, my phone rang and it was Sanyika Shakur. “Stu is pissin’ me off left and right,” he said. The movie negotiations had broken down; either Goldman had offered a loan or Shakur had requested one, but in either event no money had been forthcoming and the film deal was a dead letter. “I’m so depressed, I feel like going out and robbing something,” Shakur told me.
Goldman groaned when I called him. “It was my fault really. I said to Kody, if we do this, you could write part of it. And he said to me, ‘I’d want nothing more than to write with you. You could TEACH me.’ I should have cut it off there.” When Goldman called back to say he couldn’t raise the funds for the film, he said, Shakur offered to sell him the movie rights “for an incredibly low amount — fifteen hundred dollars,” then asked for a loan of about the same amount; Goldman said he didn’t do personal loans, and the conversation degenerated from there. “It’s too bad. I was looking forward to having him pal around with me. I was going to wait a few days and have him take me to the hood.”
As the week progressed, Shakur’s mood continued to decline. He called me again to report the latest deal that had fallen through, the promise of a whole episode of “Geraldo.” The producers had finally decided that the gang thing was a bit old and canceled his appearance. Maybe it was just as well, Shakur said. “I mean, was this producer inviting me on because he admired me, or just so I could be attacked?” It was a familiar trap, and he said he didn’t want to be known as a killer anymore. “What is that? To become a man killer? It’s a negation of a negation. It’s my whole psychosis of being a man.”
Still, if this was the end of media recognition, even if it was just for being a man who killed men, what did he do now? “I keep thinking of robbery,” he said for the second time that week. “I don’t know, it’s weird. It’s like I’ve got the Stockholm syndrome.” What did he mean? I asked. “I don’t know, but it’s like, in prison, at least the guards are paying attention, you know what I’m saying?”
A week later, Sanyika Shakur missed a required weekly drug test and so violated his parole. The violation came with a mandatory three-month sentence. Monster Kody was back in jail.
Some weeks into his reincarceration, I arrived for visitors’ hours at the Los Angeles County Jail and ran into Felicia Morris in the waiting room, which wasn’t surprising; she was a loyal and regular visitor. She had a pile of paperwork on her lap; she used the long wait to catch up on her job. Finally, the guards announced, “Rudy Scott!” Morris sighed at the mangling of his name. “The guards do that all the time,” she told me. It was their way of letting the inmate’s girlfriend, and the inmate, know that they weren’t impressed by Monster Kody’s notoriety. In a cubicle on the other side of the Plexiglas, Shakur was waiting. “What can I say?” he said to me, chagrined. “This is like my norm. This is where I get my writing done.” He did have a question he was eager to ask me, though. “Did you see me on ESPN?” I hated to tell him I hadn’t; I knew he’d be disappointed.
Afterward, Morris and I walked through the dank parking garage adjacent to the jail, its many potholes overflowing with oily water. We stood by our cars and she broke down in tears. “I just hate to see him in chains” was all she could choke out. At the other end of the lot, a scuffle erupted. We looked up to see police officers throwing a skinny young man against the hood of a car. He lay still as they searched him. Two of the young man’s buddies stood skittishly at a distance, hands at their sides, powerless to help.
Kershaun Scott abandoned the field in a different way. He retreated first to an anonymous suburb and a classroom at California State University in Long Beach where he got straight A’s. But he still felt unnervingly exposed, and eventually he moved with his new wife, their daughter and his wife’s two children from a previous relationship to the desert town of Ridgecrest, 150 miles away. He was looking to escape the grinding poverty of South-Central, the perpetual crisis of his brother, the appeals of his former gang friends to get back into the action, and the police who seemed to dog his steps. But he was also fleeing the media. “After ‘Nightline,’ every day I was doing an interview,” he told me as he drew the blinds against the merciless sun. Children’s toys littered the floor, where his 2-year-old daughter sat twisting the legs of miniature action figures. A large photograph of Kershaun’s old Eight-Tray Gangsters set, throwing gang signs, hung in the center of the living-room wall like an extended-family portrait. “After a while,” he said of the media onslaught, “the pressure got to me. I just wanted to go somewhere and be Kershaun, not be everyone’s Li’l Monster.”
What troubled him was not so much the media’s approach as his response. “I started to ask, Are these the right questions? And what gives me the authority to answer these questions? You know, a lot of people got exposure after the ’92 rebellion, but it didn’t lead to anything.” He went over to a closet full of videotapes, pulled out a tape of his appearance on a TV news program in Los Angeles, “Midday Sunday,” and popped it into the VCR. The show, billed as the first time a Crip and a Blood had ever appeared together “in peace” on a news program, was something of a historic event by media lights, but the host, Tony Valdez, seemed intent not on peacemaking but on knocking down two gunslingers as social menaces. After detailing the bloody body count of this “war” in South-Central, Valdez turned on them: “I’m sure that there are people who are watching this morning who think that’s barbaric, savage. How can you justify it?” The two guests sat speechless before his tongue-lashing. “It’s incredible! . . . Where are your morals?” Valdez closed by asking whether either of them would still pull a gun on a rival gang member. “Would you do it today?” he demanded. From his living room in the desert, Kershaun offered the reply he wished he had delivered: “Well, Tony, it would be good for ratings, right?”
Kershaun couldn’t imagine any way out of the role into which he had been cast — and had cast himself — short of total withdrawal. He saw how his brother shuttled in and out of jail, in and out of the media eye, and he wanted nothing more to do with this crime drama anymore. “I can’t understand for the life of me what he finds so interesting about being in jail,” Kershaun said. After so many years of following worshipfully in Kody’s path, he was coming to grips with some painful truths: His brother never was in a position to teach him, and underneath his fraternal devotion, he felt betrayed. Just about every time he had been arrested, Kershaun observed, it had involved a caper Kody had instigated. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said carefully, not wanting to be misunderstood. “I’m thrilled my brother wrote that book and that it was a major success. Because it was the one moment in his life when he could say he had succeeded. A book, you have it for life. A book is knowledge.” What bothered him was not his brother’s authorship or the fame it had brought him, but the false image on which the fame was founded. “He wrote this book, and people everywhere read it and looked to him as someone who’s been through the rough waters and succeeded. But in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Because he’s back in jail. He doesn’t walk the walk. He’s just let me down on too many things.”
In the months to follow, Kershaun would find a part-time, minimum-wage position at a Blimpie down the street, but even in his desert town, where rents are rock bottom, the salary hardly covered the basics. He began working on the side on a book of his own, about the politics behind the riots and his own personal struggle to change his life. He was planning to call it Crossroads. His wife, Vanessa, would go through a difficult pregnancy that required her to stay in bed for months while Kershaun took care of her and the children and bicycled to his job at the fast-food outlet and back. For the time being, that was enough. “I used to think being a man is to be straight with your gun and to have sex with as many women as possible,” he told me. “Now I’d say it’s to take care of your family and make sure they are safe and have a roof over their heads. What makes a man is owning up to your responsibilities.”
Moving to the desert was, of course, am extreme and shaky remedy for Kershaun Scott. It wasn’t likely to be far enough away to flee the world that was so much a part of, as the framed picture of his gang in the living room indicated — or to escape the culture of celebrity. Even in the desert, after all, the TV’s in the living room, the phone’s ringing, and your toddler is pulling the legs off action figures.