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Arts and Entertainment

Photos: Skid Row Grieves LAPD Killing Of Homeless Man With Art

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There are no signs telling you when you've entered Skid Row. The bleak-looking community is out of sight, out of mind for many Angelenos. But the recent shooting death by Los Angeles police officers of a homeless resident known as "Africa" in the heart of the neighborhood was caught on a viral video that thrust the neighborhood in the headlines. News crews descended on the neighborhood, but not all the residents are happy that the off-the-radar neighborhood is getting attention in this way.

"They are telling our stories for us, and it's total fear-mongering," General Jeff, a community leader and Skid Row resident told LAist.

Africa, later identified as Cameroonian immigrant Charley Keunang, 43, happened to be shot just around the corner from a mural that has become a place for Skid Row residents to tell their stories. Now a makeshift memorial of messages, flowers and religious symbols stands on the spot.

Behind the scenes, activists in the community characterized by poverty have been working to make Skid Row—50 city blocks boundaried by Main, 7th, 3rd and Alameda streets— habitable for the long haul. Part of that plan involves the creation of what will be a three-story high art mural on San Julian Street between 5th and 6th streets, near LAPD Central Division. Currently, the wall sports Skid Row's iconic "Skid Row City Limit" painting, a map of the community, a painting of a Native American with the words "This land is our land," a bright and intricate abstract called "The Skid Row Cornucopia" with words like "hope," "culture" and "reality" wound into it and the newest addition, a set of angel's wings.

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The wings have been dedicated to Africa, the mentally ill man gunned down on video March 1. Its creator, L.A.-based artist Colette Miller, titled the piece "Africa Wings." Miller has painted the angel wings all over the world, including Juarez, Mexico; Harlem, New York; Kenya and Australia.

"They represent the spirit of humanity," she said.

LAist went by to check out the new painting, and as if on cue, Skid Row resident and poet, Ian Thomas, 48, stopped in front of the wings and asked, "You like art?" He then recited from memory a poem he composed called "To the Sisters."

"I got more, I write a bunch of them," he said.

Community activists are trying to create positive energy to offset the stigma and negativity that haunts Skid Row with a mural project, started last February, entitled the Skid Row Super Mural.

"The mural actually generated that whole exchange of more positive energy. That's exactly what we're doing," General Jeff said. "The mainstream media won't see that, the masses of people won't see that. All they hear is, there was a criminal the LAPD killed, and Skid Row is still a dangerous place.' They totally will miss this side of the story."

The way Africa's story has been told is a sore subject for residents who live on Skid Row, and they've been fighting back.

Following Africa's death, law enforcement officials leaked stories to the media saying Keunang had been imprisoned for bank robbery 15 years ago. He was institutionalized for treatment of a mental illness while incarcerated, according to reports. General Jeff criticized police for leaking those stories to the media while not being forthcoming with information about the incident, communicating with the community or providing psychological support to people who knew Africa or witnessed the violent death.

Residents are protesting against media coverage of the shooting, as well as the shooting itself. Recent incidents seem to point to poor communication and understanding when covering the nation’s largest permanent homeless community.

A video posted to YouTube on March 2 shows Skid Row residents blocking an ABC 7 news van and forcing it to turn around while they make the "hands up" gesture that has become iconic in the Black Lives Matter movement, symbolizing the high number of unarmed black Americans who have been slain by law enforcement. On March 4, a news crew with the local Fox station called 9-1-1 after a resident broke a news camera outside Skid Row's Midnight Mission. Representatives from the Los Angeles Community Action Network told LAist the crew was filming the man who told them he did not want to be on camera. Police responded, tased the man when he fought back and arrested him.

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"The irony is on Main Street, you have a pet friendly store that offers more humanity toward four legged animals than for people living here in desolate environment," Skid Row resident Suzette Shaw said. "The murals bring light to the fact that it is a community."

Shaw said she wants the artwork to be one way to attract positive attention and create a starting point for residents to tell their own stories, on their own terms.

"The elephant in the room is that Skid Row is a predominantly African American community. Why is that?" Shaw asked. "The art is a symbol showing there is humanity here, that we are people."

General Jeff said the artists on Skid Row are just getting started.

"This mural project is going to be a magnificent, positive seed planted and people from all over the world are already feeling it," General Jeff said.

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