Spending the weekend with the cast and crew of “Freeway Crack in the System” at the Pan African Film Festival was in one word, enlightening and yet another comes to mind-hopeful.
A native “Angelino,” I grew up in the Hollywood hills and started my first business less than 5 miles away from one of the most notorious parts of the city-South Central Los Angeles. I remember the 80s well and the growing war on drugs that I would not know the true depth of until I met Gary Webb on Thanksgiving Day in 2004. I was a reporter for a local paper and listening to him talk about breaking a story so big that the fallout ultimately ruined his career-but not his spirit-revealed the determination he still had to tell his story. That voice was silenced just 15 days later and would stay silent for 10 years.
“Freeway: Crack in the System” takes the feature film, “Kill the Messenger” to the next level-a very intimate one-as only a documentary can. It digs deeper into what Webb broke ground on; undoing the damage that started with the media turning its back on a story too hot for it to handle; ending with the death of a career and later a great reporter. It sifts through the rubble to unearth the real story behind the war on drugs; one with roots in the San Francisco Bay Area and a drug ring that sold tons of cocaine to South Central gangs at the onset of the crack cocaine era; one that funneled millions in drugs profits to the Central Intelligence Agency to fund anti-communist allies in Nicaragua.
The film brings together The Freeway Boys, some of the largest drug kingpins of the day (those who invented crack cocaine) with the cop who initially tracked them down and later crossed the line that led to the largest theft and money laundering scandal to ever hit Los Angeles. All would eventually spend years in federal prisons for their roles in the crackdown.
The world premier at the Pan African Film Festival in LA on February 7th brought the Freeway boys all together again, including the infamous Freeway Rick Ross, Julio Zavala, Cornell “Coach” Ward, and Norman “Shitty Slim” Tillman, along with former LA County Sherriff Deputy gone bad, Robert Juarez and Coral Baca, the original source for Webb’s story and an associate of several major drug traffickers.
One of the most emotional moments of the evening came when Freeway Rick Ross’s mother spoke of Gary and expressed her wishes to someday meet his family-a wish that was granted when his only brother Kurt Webb’s wife Diana and their son Phoenix were escorted to her side. It was a powerful and long overdue meeting, one that found her sharing her visits with Gary and the support he offered that gave her hope for so many years.
“Gary came to our community meetings every month,” she said. “He never failed to give me hope that I would see my son again. I believe that without his guidance, Rick would still be in prison.”
Diana Webb also thanked Director Marc Levin for such a fitting tribute to Gary, one that she said will finally bring closure to their family.
“The screening took place in two theatres at Rave Cinemas-ground zero in South Central LA,” said director Marc Levin. “This was a big deal and ninety percent of the people who attended grew up in the middle of it all.”
One audience member, who grew up in Compton, stood up and talked about knowing many of the faces he saw on the big screen.
“But I never really understood what happened until I saw this film tonight,” he said.
The screening also marked the first time Baca had appeared publicly to promote the documentary and speak about her experience since leaking the story to Webb.
“They were all there,” Levin added, “Including the cop who chased these guys and is now working with them. It was so powerful.”
The after party at Maverick’s Flatt also held significance as a local institution that has been part of the Crenshaw corridor since 1966.
It was there that I had the opportunity to sit and listen to stories from the men and women involved in this historical turn of events. It was at times hard to comprehend how I could be breaking bread with those who played such a large role in the devastation of their own neighborhoods-often at the expense of their own families. However, it was during these conversations that I saw a glimmer of hope for the human condition.
Here is where the rest of the story begins.
I asked how they could wreak such havoc in their own backyards without seeing what they were doing at the time. As the mother of a 20-year-old son, Tillman’s response struck a chord.
“Hell, we were like 20 years old,” he said. “All we saw was the money, the fancy cars, the trips, the $20,000 Rolex watches. We were just kids caught up in the power it gave us. We didn’t see what was happening until it hit home.”
For Tillman, who used to supply users with drugs, hitting home came when he received a call that his brother Charles, aka “Boobie,” a well known member of a prominent CRIP set, had been killed.
“I had an army ready to go and take down entire gangs for that,” he said. His older brother Dwight stepped in and asked him why he wanted to go and hurt people at random in retaliation.
“They made momma cry,” he replied.
“I’ll never forget what he said then,” Tillman added. “How many mommas did Boobie make cry? That’s when I decided to get out. But it wasn’t soon enough. Now my whole family is gone.”
His sister fell victim to a drive by shooting by a retaliating gang and after years of substance abuse, his only remaining brother Dwight died from a heart attack.
Tillman went on to work for the Chicago Housing Authority as a drug treatment referral counselor and now runs a successful tax preparations services business.
This is a full circle story with an ending that has yet to be told, one that takes you from the ghettos of Los Angeles and million dollar a day revenues-complete with trips around the world and living in ridiculous wealth-to losing everything and spending decades in prison. It is now a story with a polar opposite spin, as many of the major players try to undo the damage through their involvement with anti drug groups, community centers designed to keep kids off the streets, and drug counseling programs that rehabilitate and turn addicts back into respected members of society.
Freeway Rick Ross-who went into prison not knowing how to read or write-used his time not only learning his ABC’s but went on to steer his new-found legal knowledge into gaining his freedom. Ross has since written a book, “FREEWAY: Rick Ross, The Untold Autobiography,” about his experience and he speaks openly on the importance of literacy. He also runs the Freeway Literacy Program that assists others who suffer from not being able to read and write. Ross says he has been given a second chance to give back to his community through mentoring and sharing his story so that today’s youths achieve their greatest successes without following in his footsteps.
Cornell “Coach” Ward, like most of the others, never used drugs, echoing the sentiments made by Ross in the film that they all liked the money better.
He did however cook the cocaine into crack, a drug so powerful it only had to seep into his skin to produce life-altering consequences that resulted in his daughter being born a crack baby. It was a painful wake-up call, as he struggled to watch her fight for her life. She survived and attended the screening by his side.
Now a coach and pastor, Ward serves as Executive Director of Unity One, an organization devoted to arming gang bangers with career training, goal setting, conflict resolution and life management skills instead of guns and drugs.
Juarez is back working with the police but not as a cop. Instead he speaks to officers at the Los Angeles Police Department about where he went wrong and how going bad can ruin their lives.
Ward, Tillman and Newell are also working with Congresswoman Maxine Waters on a program for intercity youth, as well as other organizations that will create ongoing job training programs geared toward enabling ex-cons to re-enter society as productive citizens.
It is an effort worth notice, a true test of the human condition. It is a story of tragedy and triumph, one that now finds the Freeway Boys driven to use their experiences as drug lords in an effort to rebuild the community they once helped to destroy.
Premiering “Freeway: Crack in the System” in the heart of where it all began was a risky move, and reception could have gone either way, according to Levin, who worked five years on the film after meeting Rick Ross in 2006 when Ross was in prison.
“This was one of the most extraordinary screenings I’ve ever attended,” he said. “This is ground zero for the crack era. This audience is a home crowd but that can be a double edged sword. They could have said, ‘Who are you to tell our story?’ Instead they said, ‘What can we do to make sure everyone sees this?’ They blessed it.”
Not only does “Freeway: Crack in the System” play a critical role in the evolution of the failed drug war across the country, it should be at the top of the must see list for those involved in the growing “Black Lives Matter” movement and the fight against mass incarceration.
Al Jazeera America TV is scheduled to premier “Freeway: Crack in the System” on March 1st and again on March 8th. To find Al Jazeera America TV in your area, visit aljazeera.com/getajam.
Kymberli Weed Brady can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.