It’s tempting to call General Dogon’s battle against the gentrification of LA’s Skid Row a David and Goliath story, but David won his fight. General Dogon hasn’t lost yet—in fact small victories have been achieved—but the fight’s far from over.
The hard truth is that General Dogon and anyone else who advocates for the impoverished and disenfranchised are up against a mighty giant, and a rich one at that. Money is such a powerful motivator that it’s basically synonymous with power.
As part of Chapter 51: Leaders, artist and skater Danny Minnick talks to human rights activist General Dogon about his work with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, his dedication to helping the folks of downtown LA, and more.
How long have you been on Skid Row?
I was born and raised here on Skid Row. My mother was a Christian, so her side of the family was always in church—seven days a week, believe it or not. So seven days a week I was in church till I was about 16…17 years old.
Then I heard this old lady testify one day. She was talking about how all her life she used to party and get high and fornicate and all of this kind of stuff. I’m in the back usherin’, and I’m like, “Hmmm…I’m doing this shit all the way wrong. I’m supposed to be out there havin’ a good time—partyin,’ gettin’ high, fornicatin’—and then when I get old, I’m gonna come on back to the church, give myself to the Lord, and slide on into heaven with everybody else.” So I decided to leave the church. And it would be like 20 years before I would step back into church.
I started hangin’ with the guys in my mother’s neighborhood that was gang members. I wouldn’t really consider myself a part of the gang, but I used to like smoking weed and drinking beer.
I ended up getting involved with the gang thing, then I ended up gettin’ into my addiction. I was running back and forth downtown. I started staying in hotels downtown, I started living on the streets, I became homeless. Then I started doing robberies. I was an armed robber. I used to rob banks, rob jewelry stores…rob everything. So my addiction led me in front of a judge. I was facing 36 counts of armed robbery. I took a deal for eight of ’em and they gave me 18 years state prison.
Fortunately I was able to meet this guy named Magic. He wasn’t magic for making stuff disappear, but he could change your mind with the knowledge that he had. This was the smartest man I ever met. Told me shit I never heard before. So basically I did the Malcolm X thing where I came in brain-dead and he re-educated me. I used to pride myself on reading over a hundred books a year. I learned a lot. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life when I got out, but I knew I wanted to do something with social justice. I knew I wanted to get out and give back for all the crazy stuff that I was doing when I was young, growing up.
When I got out of prison I still had my addiction on me. I wasn’t actively using but I still had the craving. So I went to Harbor Light drug program right here on Fifth and Los Angeles, just to get the rest of the monkey off my back. I signed up with Skid Row Housing Trust low-income housing. They ended up giving me a spot, right here nextdoor.
One day I was kickin’ back, we was watchin’ a football game, and we heard this woman screaming, me and the guys. We jumped up and ran outside. Around here the businesses hire private security guards, and the private security guards are running around here like LAPD lackeys. They actually take it to the street and start patrolling, dictating and telling citizens what they can and cannot do. So they was twisting this woman’s arm. I’m like, “Hey man, what the hell are you doin’?” “Oh, she got a cocaine pipe in her hand.” “So you’re gonna break her arm ’cause she got a damn cocaine pipe?” And she was like, “I don’t have no pipe!” So I told them, “Let the woman’s arm go!” He let her arm go, she opened her hand up, and it was one of those eyeliners. I’m looking at this cat like, “Man. Dude, you outta control!” So he’s like, “Who is you?!” I said, “I’m General Dogon. From now on, man, we gonna be watching your ass.”
I didn’t know what to make of this because I had just got out of prison. Eleven years I was in prison, that’s when they came. I got to asking my neighbors, “Who’s these damn security guards?” And people are telling me, “They don’t want you to stand outside the front of the building and smoke cigarettes. Can’t come out for fresh air; they want you to move it down the street.” So every week I’m getting into arguments with these guys, ’cause they coming by every day, dictatin’. There’s people who live in these little rooms in these hotels, people dying in these hotels. They need to get out. On top of that, this is considered our front yard. We come outside, you should be able to smoke a cigarette and get some air without some punk-ass Burger King security guard telling you to move it down the street. I was pissed off. I wanted to do something about it. So this guy was tellin’ me, “Go down to LACAN. They do stuff like that.”
LACAN is better known as Los Angeles Community Action Network. It’s a community-based, membership-driven organization that works with people dealing with poverty, helping them discover and create new opportunities that give us voice and power in decisions that affect us. We have four areas of work, and those are broken down into campaigns. It’s a housing campaign where we advocate for extremely low-income housing. Then we have a nutrition workshop. We recognize that Skid Row is the largest recovery community in America. So we do work around bringin’ folks’ bodies back, teachin’ folks the best things to eat. We have a rooftop garden where folks can come in and grow their own vegetables. Then we have what we call a Downtown Women’s Action Coalition. It’s a group of women that meet every other week to talk about women’s rights, and we have men in there that support. Then we have a civil rights campaign, a community residence that’s actively involved with the police and community public safety. We have a community watch team, which I’m the point person for. We go out and monitor the cops, make sure they’re not violatin’ folks’ rights. We also have an SCI committee, the Safer Cities Initiative, launched in 2006, that brought the 110 extra police to this community.
The city of Los Angeles has been tryin’ to gentrify downtown for about the last ten years. LACAN has been actively fighting, trying to keep poor folks on their land. First they attacked our housing. White flight, after the Watts Riots in the late ’60s, a lot of White folks took off from South Central, Compton, and Watts, and ran out to the Valley. It kind of left downtown deserted. It was Blacks, from the ’60s to the ’70s, that took care of downtown, these old buildings. Then Hispanics came and started working on these buildings. Now White folks want the buildings back.
This guy named Tom Gilmore came out with this idea to take some of these old buildings, gut ’em out, put a toilet and a microwave in there, call it a “loft,” and get anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 rent. When Tom Gilmore started building these lofts, all these other hotel owners was like, “I gotta get rid of these motherfuckers. I ain’t gettin’ but $300…$400, and this cat is getting a thousand?” They got like, 200…300 units. Every hotel down here tried some type of scam to illegally evict the tenants, so we had to fight a war with ’em. We had to go to the housing department and the redevelopment agency, and we also went to City Hall. It took us five years to get a moratorium that stopped the conversion and demolition of low-income housing units into condos and lofts.
Once we won the right to stay on the land, then the cops in the city was like, “You won the right to stay on the land, but when you come out your house, I got Lieutenant Paulson and Sergeant Crook throwing you against the wall and searching you.” And that’s what they did. After we won this housing battle they released 110 cops to this community. It was Bratton and his Broken Windows theory of policing, where they figured if they come into a community and see broken windows, or they see graffiti on the wall, those little crimes will lead to Part One crimes, which is robbery, burglary, murder, and stuff like that. It’s just racist, biased policing. They wrongfully attack poor people, especially homeless folks, for crimes they call “quality of life,” like sleeping on the sidewalk, sitting on the sidewalk, urination and defecation in public, panhandling—things that are natural survival tactics that homeless folks do. This is a community of anywhere from 13- to 15,000 residents. They was averaging over 700 arrests a month and was writing over a thousand tickets. The first year of SCI policing they arrested 11,000 people and wrote 13,000 tickets to a community that’s only 15 blocks long with enforcement.