Caught In The System
I. Slauson and Crenshaw
Lisa P is from Crenshaw. She knows all its avenues, all its corners. She has it all mapped out in her head, what it means to move from one block to the next. She's 57 years old, and grew up running these streets. She was born Ellisa McKnight but prefers the nickname she's gone by since childhood.
Slauson Avenue runs east-west through Crenshaw. Driving toward the Pacific Ocean down Slauson, Lisa moves one of her box braids away from her face and hits her joint as she passes one of the neighborhood's unofficial landmarks, Slauson swap meet. Looking out her car window at the sign that reads Slauson Supermall, Lisa P says that it was on this very site that she first remembers seeing a boy who would grow up to be one of Crenshaw's most celebrated – and most mourned – sons.
"He stood right there, by that pole," she recalls. "Skinny, little scrawny kid selling incense."
The young salesman Lisa remembers spotting on this L.A. street corner was named Ermias Asghedom. A couple of decades later, he'd be known not just in Crenshaw but around the world as Nipsey Hussle, his new name glorifying the work ethic that earned him notice as a kid and acclaim and success as an artist and businessman as an adult. Throughout, he remained a fixture in the neighborhood. In fact, if you keep driving a mile and a half down Slauson, past neighborhood restaurants and fast food joints, salons and dollar stores and churches and mosques, you'll arrive at a strip mall on the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard that's the home of The Marathon Clothing Store, where Nipsey would stake his claim, where he'd do everything he could to change Crenshaw for the better and where, on March 31, 2019, in the parking lot of the store he owned, he'd be shot and killed.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Nipsey Hussle was the epitome of a hustler. Like Lisa P and many of the other young people who grow up in this neighborhood, he was a member of the Rollin 60s Crips, one of L.A.'s biggest sets, from the time he was a teenager. He never denied being affiliated. Once his music took off, he repped his set in every song. But he was also a community advocate for Crenshaw, and constantly gave back to his hood.
"He never lived up to ... society's expectations of what he should be," says Karen Civil, one of Nipsey's former business partners. "Society's expectation is, 'Oh, he's just a quote-unquote gang banger from the Crenshaw district.' Not at all. He's an entrepreneur. He's a Grammy award winner. He's a father. He's everything in between and he exceeded the expectations of what society thought."
The story of Nipsey Hussle's life has been retold into mythology, a hip-hop fairy tale, one that reinforces the illusion of the American dream: a self-made man who came up from the bottom, stayed connected with his community and used his art as a vehicle to change it. But the irony of his untimely death sheds light on the larger backdrop of inequality in his hood — the phenomenon of mass supervision in Black communities.
II. "Stucc In The Grind"
"If you wrote a story like this, it would seem too on the nose," says Jeff Weiss, a writer and cultural critic from L.A. "It would seem too perfectly scripted to create the saddest possible tragedy – it's like, Shakespearean."
Before he was Nipsey, Ermias Asghedom grew up the son of an immigrant in a family that couldn't even afford back-to-school clothes. He didn't see many options to support himself or his family, and around the age of 14, he joined the Rollin 60s.
In a 2018 interview with Hot 97, he talked about how being in the gang changed his life. "I adapted to the culture ... Naturally, that's not who I am," he said. "As kids we come from nurturing, but there's a lack of that in the coldness you get from going outside. The world said we was wrong, but the set embraced you for who you was. And that's the allure of gang banging."
Being in the set gave him a brotherhood, afforded him protection. He wore his pride in his colors and his "Slauson Boy" tattoos, which also made him a mark for police surveillance. In the early 2000s, the LAPD was still cracking down hard on gang violence. In an interview with NPR the year before he died, Nipsey described the reality he faced growing up in Crenshaw.
"If you check the stats – the murder rates in the years I was a teenager and the incarceration rates in L.A. in my section of the Crenshaw district, of the Rollin 60s when I was 14, 15 – none of my peers survived. None of my peers avoided prison. None of 'em," he said.
Then his world broadened. In 2004, after spending his entire life in South Central, Nipsey traveled to his father's homeland, Eritrea, with his dad and his brother. Over a visit that lasted a few months, he saw a whole country of people who looked like him living autonomously, taking pride in their country. It lit a fire under him to build community like that back at home.
"I was 19 when I came back, so I was still knee-deep in what was going on in L.A.," he said on Hot 97. But something in him had changed. "You know, you got those two voices. This one became a lot louder because I couldn't fake like I wasn't exposed to the way things could be. And you know, I think it led to me making decisions that brought me into music."
The music he made showed you the world he knew, with shout-outs to OGs and local stomping grounds. He was honest about experiences in his hood. "I wasn't always banging but I speak about it openly," he rapped in 2013. "No shame in my game. I did my thing on the coldest streets."
His music won fans among peers and critics. "He had kind of the laid-back stoner cool of a Snoop, but had more of the mission and ethos of like, a Tupac," Weiss says.
Aside from the bars, Nipsey followed his own entrepreneurial drive to sell what made him unique in rap. He created a recording label called All Money In and in 2013 got attention from the whole music industry for his creative approach to marketing when he sold 1,000 copies of his mixtape Crenshaw for $100 a pop. Jay Z bought 100 copies himself.
"Like, so many of us are way more than what we look like," says songwriter James Fauntleroy, who worked with Nipsey throughout his career and appears on Crenshaw. "Every now and then you find somebody that, in a good way, is so out of character that they're a more interesting character in the play of life."
"I say there's weather changers and weather reporters," says Larrance Dopson, Fautleroy's collaborator and one of Nipsey's longtime producers. "Nipsey and a few of us, we're weather changers."
In 2018, he finally dropped an official debut album, Victory Lap, which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and went on to be nominated for a best rap album Grammy.
All the while, he was working on other ventures. In 2017, he and his brother, Blacc Sam, opened an L.A. storefront to sell their merch and spread their ethos. They called it The Marathon Clothing Store, and it wasn't on Fairfax or Melrose, far removed from the streets that gave Nipsey his grind. It was right in the heart of the hood that made him. The store was part of his focus on Black ownership, and entrepreneurial strategy to "buy back the block."
At Marathon, Nipsey hired parolees to sweep up or even work the register. He wanted to give people opportunities he never had as a kid, opportunities that have never really existed for people in Crenshaw. He was known to donate clothing to people in the neighborhood who needed it, especially OGs coming home after doing time.
That commitment to his hood led Nipsey to do something unexpected: He wrote a letter to the LAPD. It read, in part:
"Our goal is to work with the department to help improve communication, relationships and work towards changing the culture and dialogue between LAPD and the inner city. We want to hear about your new programs and your goals for the department as well as how we can help stop gang violence and help you help kids."
In Crenshaw, cops were the opposition, and people who talked to cops were even worse: snitches. Being a snitch meant you were a threat in the hood.
At least one person in the LAPD wanted to make a connection. Steve Soboroff was, at that time, the president of the LAPD's Board of Police Commissioners, a group of civilians that lead the department by setting policy and playing liaison between the public and the police (Soboroff is still on the board, but no longer president). When he got Nipsey's email, he was impressed, and went to work setting up a meeting between Nipsey and his management team at Roc Nation and Michel Moore, the chief of police.
"I thought it was an opportunity to let him know what we do, and for him to let us know what his ideas were," Soboroff says. "And so, 'Tell me about the culture and dialogue from the perspective of people that come into your store.' "
But then, a standstill. Though Soboroff tried to get time on the books for a sit down, he says some members of the department wanted to look into Nipsey's background, specifically related to his gang affiliations.
"That's why the meeting didn't happen two months earlier," Soboroff says. "The department was a little bit reluctant. ... It's hard to get off a gang database, and when people can't get off a gang database when they're no longer gang members and they've paid their dues, it can affect their future."
Finally, though, Soboroff and Roc Nation managed to schedule a meeting between Nipsey and Moore for the afternoon of Monday, April 1, 2019.
But that meeting never happened. On Sunday, March 31, 2019, Nipsey was in the parking lot outside Marathon Clothing, as he was most Sundays. He had a small crowd around him, some taking selfies, some chopping it up.
Not all of the conversations he had that day were so casual. Later, two eyewitnesses testified in a grand jury hearing that they heard Nipsey and another man, a Rollin 60s Crip named Eric Holder Jr., talking about the dangers of cooperating with police. Nipsey warned Eric that there were rumors about police having paperwork on him, that the streets might see him as a snitch. Eric tried to brush it off. The conversation was tense, but cordial. The men dapped, and Eric left to get some food.
A few minutes later, another man named Kerry Lathan, who had until recently been in jail, and who had been the recipient of Nipsey and Marathon's generosity, pulled up to say hello, to thank Nipsey for the help he'd given him and to pitch him some designs for a T-shirt he'd sketched.
Then shots broke out. According to videotaped evidence and eyewitness accounts, Eric Holder walked back up to Nipsey with a gun in each hand, and started firing.
Kerry was hit in the spine, and fell to the ground. He couldn't see anything except the feet of people all around him, until he saw Nipsey fall to the ground beside him. Surveillance footage captured the shooter unloading nearly a dozen bullets into Nipsey before running to a nearby car. Nipsey and Kerry were rushed to the hospital, and at 3:55 p.m. on March 31, 2019, Nipsey was pronounced dead.
A few days later, Holder was arrested and later charged with murder. He pleaded not guilty, but his trial has been delayed multiple times.
III: "Everything Right Is Wrong"
In January of 2020, Kerry Lathan was sitting in a wheelchair under the shade of a small gazebo in the courtyard of a Long Beach rehabilitation center. He had on a navy sweatsuit and his gray goatee has been freshly shaped up. Kerry had been in the rehab center for a month, recovering from a right brain stroke.
On this day, as with many others, Kerry is here with Lisa P, who he calls his sister, though the two of them aren't related. Lisa, dressed in a maroon sweat suit, glitter lash extension and her red box braids up in a bun, helps Kerry eat and wheels him around – they're about the same age, but she treats him protectively, very much like a baby brother.
Kerry and Lisa have been like siblings since they were kids, and they've seen gang life in Crenshaw change over generations. They got down with the Rollin 60s when the set first started in the 1970s, and Lisa says that at the time, it was more like a youth club, a family formed to escape the ones they had at home who were neglecting or sometimes abusing them.
Lisa has great memories of those early days with her friends. She remembers sneaking out at night with a group, gathering up pillows and blankets and hopping the fence into the 59th Street Schoolyard, where they'd push benches together and make one big bed to have a sleepover under the stars. Instead of s'mores, they'd split a chicken dinner between them.
Accounts of the formation of the Crips echo that all-for-one, one-for-all mentality. The gang emerged in the void left behind as Black liberation groups like the Black Panthers were being dismantled. Lisa P even claims that Crip is an acronym for "Community Revolution in Progress."
Soon subsets like the Rollin 60s formed under the Crips' umbrella. Some sets broke off entirely, forming new gangs with new territories, colors and codes. Desperate conditions in their neighborhoods intensified over the years. When crack started flooding in, gangs went into business selling it. Beefs started over sales territory and many of those rivalries got set in stone.
By 1985, South Central L.A. was a hotspot of the crack epidemic in America and violent crime in the city kept rising for almost another decade. As it did, the LAPD's CRASH Units were smashing into homes, yoking up whoever and arresting men en masse. Incarceration rates were skyrocketing, and the hip-hop of the era, by artists like Ice-T and N.W.A., was steeped in the reality that Lisa and Kerry were living through, painting vivid pictures of harassment by police.
"Why are they saying 'F*** the police,' though?" Lisa says. "Because we could be sitting in front of a store minding our own damn business and they're trained to come and antagonize us. That's why we say 'F*** the police.' "
Musicians like NWA spoke to everything Lisa was seeing around her, and gave her pain a new vocabulary. But most people coming up in chaos like that, she says, aren't given the chance to nurture their talent.
"A lot of people aren't able to understand their purpose in my neighborhood because they're trying to survive," Lisa says. " 'I need milk. I need bread. Damn it, I just got a gas bill. Oh my god, my lights is off.... How am I going to even think of anything else? I have no room in my mind to think of nothing else because I'm so busy trying to survive.' "
By the 1980s, Kerry was married and had started his family. He was trying to hold down various jobs, but he was already on the police's radar, having been in and out of jail for robbery and battery. It made it hard to even get interviews. Selling drugs presented fewer hurdles and higher rewards.
"You know, when you would leave broke and come back with 10 or 20 thousand dollars in your hand, that became habit forming," he says. Soon he was dealing full time. But Kerry developed a reputation for giving people who were short money they owed him a break, and that became a liability.
In 1994, Kerry was suspicious that one of his customers had been cheating him: paying him for crack rock, then breaking off a piece of it with her fingernail and then complaining that what he sold her was too small and demanding a refund. Once she even called the cops on him.
Eventually she tried this in front of other dealers and customers, and the two got into an argument that got physical.
"They put their hands on me," Kerry says, "and hit me on the back of the head, and that set the alarm off." While two other dealers held the woman down, Kerry stabbed her in the back, then ran away and left the woman to die alone in the street.
He was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
In early 2018, while Nipsey Hussle's Victory Lap was topping the charts, Kerry was anxiously awaiting the results of a parole hearing. While in prison, he had become a model for rehabilitation. He underwent anger management, drug treatment programs and — most importantly according to transcripts from his hearing — victim's awareness training, which gave him insight into the impact of his crime. He also got his education in prison: certificates in mechanical drawing, cabinetry and drywall.
But still, he had reason to be nervous. His appeal for early parole had been denied once before. As he waited in the hallway while the parole board made their deliberations, he tried to comfort some of the other inmates up for parole, to ease his own nerves.
"Looking down the hallway and looking at people who just came out of the room that I was in, crying, and I say, 'Look man, come here, you don't have to cry. All you have to do is understand yourself. Go deep. Find your freedom. Because it's not in here,' " Kerry recalls.
This time the parole judges decided Kerry had earned his freedom, and in September 2018 he was finally released. At that moment, he became one of 4.5 million people on probation or parole in the United States — twice the number of people currently incarcerated. About a third of those people on probation or parole are Black.
Life on parole in California comes with a lot of rules: Your residence can be searched at any time. You can't use a knife with a blade longer than two inches unless you're in a kitchen. You can't travel more than 50 miles without first notifying your parole officer. Kerry says he wasn't even allowed to go into corner stores that sell liquor. "Everything ... right is wrong. That's how clearly you could say it."
Kerry also had to agree to be entered into a gang database, so he had to observe "no go zones" – places he could and couldn't go at different times of the day – and rules about who he was allowed to be with. That meant that technically, Kerry couldn't be around Lisa, or at least two of his children.
"His daughter is in prison," Lisa says. "So when she comes home, she's a parolee. He's a parolee. How are they going to see each other? 'Cause they both of them in violation. ... Nine times out of 10, either you got a criminal record or somebody that you know has a criminal record."
Kerry was out, but with so many rules and such heavy consequences for breaking them, he felt like he was walking on eggshells. One in five people entering prison in the U.S. today is there for a parole violation.
Kerry and Lisa felt that they couldn't rely on the parole system. But Lisa knew of someone they could look to for help. And she says that despite never having met her or Kerry, Nipsey Hussle didn't hesitate to help Kerry when she reached out.
"They gave him hoodies. They gave him shirts, socks, tees, underwear, everything somebody getting out of prison might need," she says.
Here you have two men: Kerry, who had caused harm long ago and spent two decades wrestling with remorse, trying to make good and change his life. And Nipsey, who turned neighborhood-wide trauma into music, and that music into opportunities for his hood. Those paths both led to the parking lot in front of Marathon Clothing on March 31, 2019, where one of them ended.
IV: "The system wants to have contact with you"
Before Nipsey was born, before Kerry joined the Rollin 60s, law enforcement was figuring out a way to track people all over California.
Wes McBride is a former sergeant in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. He's retired now, but back in the 1970s he patrolled East L.A., home to a large part of the city's Hispanic population and gangs like the Marianna and the Juarez. McBride says that every time they approached someone they thought might be a gang member, officers would fill out something they called a "field interview report."
"You use it any time you stop somebody and he's up to no good, but you can't prove anything," McBride says. So officers would take down suspected gang members' names and descriptions of their vehicles, for potential use in relation to future investigations.
In the late 1970s, McBride helped to create a gang database to standardize about a dozen criteria from these field interview reports, things like location, affiliates, tattoos, even dress. If a person met just two of the criteria, they went in the database, even if they hadn't committed a crime. That database would come to be known as CalGang.
Today, McBride insists the system does not amount to racial profiling, even though police are designating individuals for inclusion in CalGang based on preconceived notions.
"I worked East L.A. Ninety-nine percent of everybody in East L.A. is Hispanic. Uh, we didn't have any other races to pick on, you know, to stop," he says. "And the same – you go down to South L.A. it's all Black population. I don't make you a gang member. You make yourself a gang member with your attitude, your dress and your actions. If you want to be a gang member, you're a gang member."
Nipsey had firsthand experience with this kind of profiling. In a 2013 interview he told Combat Jack that police would "come through and get to know you. ... They'd come hop out, ask you questions, take your name, your address, your cell phone number, your social, when you ain't done nothing. Just so they know everybody in the hood."
By 2018, there were more than 100,000 people catalogued in CalGang's database. It's become standardized, used by law enforcement across the state, even federal departments. But in 2016, an audit of the database confirmed a slew of problems. People had been entered into the system without a reason. Babies under the age of one were included because of "admitting to being gang members."
There's a state law that requires anyone who has gone five years without adding anything to their record be removed from CalGang, but the audit also showed that for hundreds of people, that had not happened.
Sean Garcia-Leys, a former senior staff attorney at the Urban Peace Institute, has represented dozens of people who say CalGang infringed upon their civil liberties.
"Almost all of my clients, even the ones who are gang involved, should have been purged but for a traffic stop at some point where they were pulled over for running a stoplight or something like that, and the officer noticed that they had a tattoo – even if it's a 20-year-old tattoo – and that stop was then used to restart their five-year purge date," he says.
Garcia-Leys says Nipsey satisfied a lot of the criteria that could land somebody in CalGang, from his tattoos to law enforcement's suspicion that Marathon Clothing was a front for gang activity. Hypothetically, every time he went there, he could have his five-year clock restarted. But because until recently CalGang was a confidential database, there was no way to know if his name has been purged or not, or if you were ever in to begin with. All public information requests we made to the LAPD to find out whether Nipsey was in CalGang were denied.
About a week after the shooting, Kerry Lathan was released from the hospital, and he moved into a halfway house for parolees. Still recovering, he was wheelchair bound and in a lot of pain when parole officers showed up — not to see how Kerry's doing or to offer support or help, but to arrest him for violating his parole.
"They said 'Gang affiliation,' and I took out the newspaper. It said, 'Nipsey Hussle: A Voice of Peace,' and I said, 'So, y'all [gonna] send me back to prison for talking to a voice of peace? Y'all crazy,' " Kerry says.
Months later, Kerry still didn't understand exactly what happened. So we asked the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the agency that oversees his parole, what rule Kerry broke. Via email, a spokesperson declined to answer, citing privacy concerns. But they said they could confirm one thing: The violation was "unrelated to the Nipsey Hussle incident."
We now know that this was a lie.
According to Kerry's parole violation report, which was obtained by NPR, parole officers interviewed Kerry at least two times while he was in the hospital, both by phone and in person. Officers cited several ways Kerry violated his parole, all stemming from the "incident in connection with the shooting death of Rapper Nipsey Hussle."
In making their case that Kerry should be arrested, the officers noted that Kerry had admitted to associating with Nipsey Hussle in those minutes before the shooting. Parole officers cited departmental resources used to confirm "that Nipsey Hussle is a documented Rollin 60s Crip gang member." According to the report the officers searched Kerry's phone and found a photo of Kerry at a strip club with two other men that officers say are "flashing" gang signs.
We asked Bruce Western, the co-director of Columbia University's Justice Lab, to read Kerry's violation report. Western studies the sociological impact of life lived on parole, and he pointed out that a group of 50-year-old men displaying gang signs might not currently be involved in criminal activity.
"It's very subjective to make that leap," he says.
In 2017, more than a third of parolees locked up in California were there because of a technical parole violation, not for committing a crime. Western says that can make people feel like they've been set up to fail.
"The person on parole only has limited control over whether or not they are going to come back into contact with the system," Western says. "If they live in a heavily policed community, the likelihood is that they will come back into contact. The system, in many cases, wants to have contact with you."
The officers took Kerry back to jail, but after media attention on his case and a petition with 20,000 signatures, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reversed his parole violation. After spending 12 days locked up, Kerry was released.
But here's what's scary to think about: If Kerry's violation had occurred because he'd been talking to any other alleged gang member besides Nipsey Hussle, he'd likely still be in jail.
Recently, there has been some effort to reform the system. In the last year, multiple LAPD officers have been criminally charged for inputting false information into CalGang, and the LAPD finally conducted an internal investigation that led, this summer, to police chief Michel Moore declaring that the department would quit using the database permanently. None of the data that the LAPD has entered into CalGang can be used by any other law enforcement agency ever again. But other law enforcement agencies in California can still access and update the database themselves.
Both Kerry and Nipsey were trying to work within the system, trying to play by its rules to improve themselves and their hood. Nipsey reached out to the cops, who delayed their meeting because they saw him as a gang member. Kerry reached out to Nipsey for help and it landed him back in jail. The way the system works, it's almost like it wants to make sure people like Nipsey and Kerry aren't working to help each other.
Nipsey Hussle's mantra was "The Marathon Continues," and depending on where you sit, that never-ending pursuit of a dream can be inspiring or exhausting.
December 19 will mark Kerry's one-year anniversary in his Long Beach rehabilitation center. He's got a piece of a bullet lodged in his back. He is coping with the effects of his stroke and still cannot walk. He told us he got COVID-19 earlier this year and is recovering. He says that when he finally gets out, he wants to find residence in public housing where his daughter and grandchildren can visit him. He will live the rest of his life under the strict regulations of a parolee.
Lisa P is a registered paralegal, and is writing a book about the history of the Rollin 60s called Orphans of the Revolution, Story of a Rollin Sixlett. She says she has found a publisher and is working to release it in 2021.
"I just want to see something different before I leave here. I don't have a lot of time ... and I just really want to see a change in my community," she says. "I can make it that."
This story consists of material published within an episode of the NPR Music podcast Louder Than A Riot. It includes editing and reporting by Adelina Lancianese, Dianne Lugo, Dustin DeSoto, Matt Ozug, Michael May and Jacob Ganz.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.