For young blacks in South Central Los Angeles, chances of a decent life are low,of violent death high.But for one boy, the 1992 riots brought a chance to make good: as video diarist, then. as boy, as photographer. Ennis Beley's talent and charm shooting, aged 15. Matthew Heller learns why
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The Independent Culture
For the homicide detectives in the LAPD's South Bureau, it appeared quite a routine case.

It was a fatal shooting in a residential neighbourhood of South Central Los Angeles on 18 June 1996. There was the usual pool of dried blood on the pavement, a few frightened witnesses, the young, black, male victim who had died at the hospital about an hour after being pumped full of bullets. Just one of over 200 people murdered in the South Bureau's jurisdiction since the beginning of the year, the majority of them victims of gang warfare and many, like this one, mere children.

The detectives compiled a typical scenario: the victim while strolling with a friend is struck by gunfire from an assailant in a passing vehicle; the gunman then walks over and, as he lies helpless on the pavement, finishes him off execution-style; a reputed gang-member, he dies wearing a bright red sweatshirt, the colour of the Blood gang "set" to which he belongs.

Los Angeles is a city long inured to such violence; and, as Detective Armando Moriel and his partner, David Crew, set out to find the killers, the last thing they expected was to be disturbed by any media interest. Within hours of his death, however, the investigators were handling phone calls from inquiring reporters. The victim, it appeared, was not your run-of-the-mill gang-member. "It quickly became apparent he had done something of interest," recalls Moriel, a burly veteran of eight years on the department. "Everybody wanted to know the circumstances of his death."

The victim was a 15-year-old named Ennis Beley. And what he had done in his short life was make himself into something of a celebrity, one whose charismatic personality, artistic gifts and connections to an unlikely group of benefactors seemed to mark him for a destiny that transcended the mean streets of South Central LA. As a 12-year-old, he was the youngest of nine Angelenos who made "video diaries" of their lives after the 1992 riots for a documentary commissioned by the BBC. According to the makers of LA Stories: From the Eye of the Storm, Ennis stole the show with his moving, candid portrait of his environment.

After working on the film, he was recruited on to a prestigious book project - Picture LA: Landmarks of a New Generation - for the Getty Conservation Institute. This time armed with a still camera, he turned in stark, black- and-white images that Lauren Greenfield, the book's director of photography, still raves about. "He had such a great eye," she says.

Those he worked with took Ennis under their wing, giving the short, wiry kid with a broad, toothy grin and high-pitched voice access to a privileged world most South Central youths only dream about. Some let him stay in their comfortable homes on LA's Westside and treated him to fancy restaurants and shopping trips. Ennis, who was born out of wedlock and raised by an elderly friend of his mother's, took to calling his benefactors "Mom" and "Dad". They even paid for the boy, a chronic truant, to go to private schools - including, until he was suspended a couple of months before his death, an elite institution in backwoods Mississippi.

But the benefactors - Greenfield herself, the producers of LA Stories, the sponsors of Picture LA and many others - are now mourning what might have been. At a memorial service for Ennis last month, some could barely contain their grief. "In many ways, Ennis touched my life more than anyone else I've ever known," photographer Jessica Kannan said tearfully.

Perhaps most painfully, they are left wondering if their efforts were worth it. How, they ask, could he have so much apparently going for him, yet end up like so many others - a bullet-ridden corpse on a South Central pavement? "Maybe we were incapable of making any kind of difference," sighs Fenton Bailey, the British-born, Los Angeles-based co-producer of LA Stories. "I always knew what we could do was inadequate and insufficient. It's depressing to know how inadequate and how insufficient it actually was."

IT'S EASY to miss the dry-cleaning store from the street. There are bars on the display window and the front gate is kept padlocked at all times. No sign advertises its name or services. If you peer through the window, you might spot a couple of ancient sewing machines, piles of clothing, a steam press, ironing boards - and the tall, gaunt figure of its proprietor, Howard Glen.

In this cramped, almost Dickensian space, Glen, now 75, lived with Ennis. The store is on Normandie Avenue, only a mile north of the infamous intersection with Florence Avenue where trucker Reginald Denny was beaten to a pulp as the LA riots flared up four years ago. It's about two miles from where Ennis was killed. Across the street, weeds infest an empty lot where a grocery store, levelled in the riots, once stood.

A World War II veteran who took part in the Normandy landings, Glen has a deeply furrowed face, a wisp of beard above his chin and a stooped gait - the result of years bent over a sewing machine. He ekes out a meagre living these days. Like so many local businesses, his is a casualty of the disintegration of what was once a prosperous, middle-class black neighbourhood. "Ain't no business now," he complains.

He points out a thick column supporting the ceiling near the entrance, a good place, he says, to take cover from stray gunfire. "Ain't no bullet goin' through that." The bedroom he shared with Ennis is partitioned off by a forest of old doors and cardboard - for privacy, but also for protection. "We'd hear shootin' a bit," he explains. "I'd say, 'Lay down on the bed.' "

As the hot afternoon sun turns the place into a furnace, Glen talks about the struggle to raise Ennis that began the day he was born, 9 July 1980. His mother was already struggling to raise three other children and dealing with a drug problem. When she brought him home from the hospital, Glen, a much older man who had befriended her, decided there and then to take responsibility for the child. He was his first benefactor. "I kept him till he walked out of here that fatal day," he tells me. "All of his life he was with me."

When Ennis was still in nappies, Glen threw his mother out of the home they were sharing. He wasn't going to relinquish the child to a foster home. When a social worker came by, he pleaded, "Please don't take my baby." She left, saying the case was closed. He never formally adopted Ennis or even established legal guardianship. But they lived as father and son. Ennis hardly ever saw his biological father and never got on with his mother. "Everybody thought he was my baby," Glen says. "Even now people are shocked when they hear I wasn't his father."

Ennis moved with Glen to the dry-cleaner's from another home in the area when he was nearly 10. By then, he was already a disciplinary challenge for his doting "father" and any school-teacher. "I had him spoilt and he knew it," Glen ruefully admits. Though bright and energetic, he never took readily to the structure of a school day, to being on time for classes and doing homework. He'd play truant, go back to school, feel frustrated at being so behind academically, get suspended for acting out in some way - a vicious cycle all too common in the chronically overtaxed LA public school system.

By the age of eight Ennis had also taken his first steps into the gang world. This is the only world that thousands of young black men in Los Angeles will ever know, a world in which one in two grows up in a single- parent family, more than one in three has a gang affiliation, one in three is either behind bars or is in some other way under the control of the criminal justice system, and there is a better chance that they will die from a gunshot wound than by any other means. Glen does not know how far into this world Ennis eventually ventured, but it was as if his worst fears had been realised when he spotted gang graffiti scrawled over one of the boy's school-books. "It shocked the hell out of me," he recalls. But he says there wasn't anything he could do about it. All over the dry- cleaner's Ennis would practise the crude, red insignia of the Harbor Park Brims, the Blood set that claims the neighbourhood as its territory. To this day, you can see it on the headboard behind the bed. "I would be real pissed off with him but that didn't faze him," Glen says.

He and Ennis had been living in their little fortress on Normandie for barely two years when the 1992 riots erupted around them. The civil unrest was a cataclysm for South Central. But for Ennis, it turned into his greatest opportunity to escape the all-embracing hopelessness and oppression that had been sucking him into the world of the gangs - and that had helped cause the riots in the first place.

LIKE most celebrities, Ennis was discovered in a roundabout fashion. With the burnt-out ruins of his neighbourhood still smouldering, he was interviewed by a documentary crew from the American Film Institute at a public swimming-pool where he and his friends would hang out. Meanwhile, World of Wonder, a TV production company co-founded by Fenton Bailey, was planning its own post-riot film, in collaboration with the BBC. One of its staffers asked a friend at the AFI if they knew of anyone in South Central who might make a good video diarist for LA Stories. The name Ennis Beley came up.

Among the other diarists were two LAPD officers, a Los Angeles Times reporter and a teacher. No one was more enthusiastic than Ennis. He still wasn't going to school but he did show up regularly at World of Wonder's office in LA's Koreatown district to hand in his tapes and get tips about photography. His unusual personality - what Bailey calls a "combination of two extremes" - fascinated the staff. He displayed the playfulness and curiosity of a young child: if he heard a pop song he knew, for example, he would immediately start singing along in his loud, off-key voice. But he also had a maturity beyond his years. "When given an opportunity to be constructive, to work as a member of a team - to be mature, in other words - he did it," recalls Mahasti Ashfar, director of the Picture LA project. "He wasn't just an idler." One effect of this maturity was that, although he was only 12, he could hit it off with just about any adult. Among his friends was the transvestite singer Ru Paul, whose career is managed by World of Wonder.

The production staff were so charmed by him that they took him to movies, shopping malls and chic Hollywood cafes. Sometimes they'd even let him spend the night at their homes. "He was really pure, smart clever," says Alison Pollet, a researcher on LA Stories who was especially close to him. "He was able to acclimatise himself to any situation."

They had some problems with him. On one occasion, he ran off with an office cellular phone; on another, he helped himself to Pollet's car. According to Bailey, some people warned him about getting too involved in the life of someone from such a different and dysfunctional background. "They said it was a road to ruin," he recalls. "But the point was that through this whole video diary experience, we already had become involved with his life."

The BBC screened LA Stories just before the first anniversary of the riots, in April 1993. Ennis's footage, accompanied by his commentary, was raw, profane and totally unaffected. Viewers saw him doing everything from celebrating Christmas with Glen at the dry-cleaner's to pointing out where a young friend was killed in a drive-by shooting. He talked about a nightmare in which he dreamt of being shot and, most harrowingly, about his life expectancy. "I hope I live through the end of '92 and '93," he said, "and I hope I live till 25 or more, until God say [sic] I got to go right then."

Ennis had become a media darling while working on LA Stories. As one of his locations, he chose the courthouse where the second Rodney King beating trial was being held. The press corps waiting outside the trial, eager for some diversion, turned their cameras on the scrawny kid who kept darting between them with his camcorder and joking around with them. After their film was broadcast, Ennis and Bailey teamed up to be interviewed on CBS News, his slurred diction and double negatives a jarring counterpoint to the Oxford-educated producer's polished diction and elegant phrases.

"Since you've picked up the camera, do you feel like you've changed?" interviewer Monica Gayle asked Ennis enthusiastically at one point.

"Yes," he replied.

"How?" she followed up hopefully.

"Now I have something to do when I ain't doin' nothing and it can keep me away from gangs and joining and drive-by shootings and everything."

By the autumn of 1993, he was on to another project. Through Lauren Greenfield, a photojournalist who had met Ennis during the Rodney King trial, the Getty Conservation Institute selected him as one of eight young people assigned to photograph their personal landmarks. He ventured beyond South Central, using a surprisingly mature grasp of point of view and composition to capture Beverly Hills shoppers, Hollywood gang-members and Venice Beach skateboarders. Adding to his conquests, he captivated the Getty staff. "Everybody was touched by Ennis," says Mahasti Afshar. "He had something that you wanted to see develop."

But Ennis didn't make money from these projects, and the question that dogged what had become a small army of admirers was how to help him develop further, how to overcome the fact that he was still a vulnerable juvenile living amid the poverty and violence of South Central. Says Bailey: "We felt the only thing was to get him into school and hopefully he would start thinking for himself about what kind of life he wanted, start moving towards it."

Bailey is earnest and intense in an English way, his only concession to Tinseltown flamboyance being the Ru Paul poster above his desk with the tag-line "Lettin' It All Hang Out". His round, boyish features and shock of tousled hair lend him some resemblance to the comic-book hero Tintin. With his business partner Randy Barbato, Alison Pollet, Lauren Greenfield, her mother - a professor of psychology - and TV news cameraman Ron DeVeaux, he formed a core sextet of benefactors who pooled their money together to fund Ennis's education.

After paying for tutoring, they enrolled him in late 1993 at the private United World International School of Learning, on a tiny campus about two miles from his home. According to Felicia McCall, a school administrator, he did attend regularly but could not keep up with his far more advanced peers. "He had a whole lot to learn compared to the others," she says. And he had a "street mentality" that she worried could never be erased. "Some people, you can't take that out of them no matter where they go, what they do or what they're exposed to."

As he turned 15, in the summer of 1995, Ennis was out of United World and back on the streets. According to Howard Glen and others, his gang involvement increased noticeably. He dressed in Blood colours and even got a gang tattoo on his arm. "It was red this, red that," Glen complains. He's sure Ennis wasn't up to anything violent, just hanging out with his "homies". "As far as him bein' big bad wolf, he wasn't such shit as that."

Fenton Bailey drove him to juvenile court one day in July to appear on a charge of breaking the curfew that is supposed to keep South Central juveniles off the streets and out of trouble. In the car, he mentioned five more charges. "I almost ran off the road," Bailey says, laughing.

It was time, the benefactors decided, to get him as far from South Central as possible. That turned out to be some 1,500 miles away, at the Piney Woods Country Life School near Jackson, Mississippi, one of only six African-American boarding schools in the US. As it often does with students from underprivileged backgrounds, the school provided a scholarship that covered most of the $8,200-a-year tuition. His benefactors subsidised his living costs.

Ennis surprised many by adjusting reasonably well to the strict discipline. "I saw him come here as a rather frightened person and get real comfortable and start maturing a little," recalls Ron Weathersby, a school administrator. Ennis, he says, had "gotten serious" about his studies and resolved to compete academically. He also did a part-time job on the school farm and, sociable as always, made lots of friends. But there was still that problem with the "street mentality", a warped code of honour that interprets even a sidelong glance or accidental physical contact as a mark of disrespect. "Everything that happened, he felt it was being directed personally at him," Weathersby says.

After some previous run-ins with students that got him disciplined, things came to a head in April. As he was walking down a corridor, some youths burst out of a door. One bumped into him. "Before anyone could do anything, Ennis hit him in the mouth," Weathersby says. "It was a little too hardcore for the folks here."

He was suspended for the remainder of the scholastic year. Weathersby talked to him the day he left. "He told me this was the best place for him. I told him, 'Just get yourself together, stay safe and I'll see you in August.' " He sighs. "Those were our last words together."

BACK at the dry-cleaner's on Normandie Avenue, Howard Glen stares down at a table piled high with clothing and nervously fingers a pair of trousers. "It's a real hurtin' thing to me," he says in his slow drawl. "I never knew anything like that would hurt so bad."

We're talking about the "fatal day", the day some gunman took his boy away from him for some reason that he is totally unable to fathom. Ennis had been back from Piney Woods for about two months. No school in Los Angeles would take him so late in the academic year, and he was still too young to find regular work. As always, the streets beckoned, but, says Glen, he had seemed "awful scared". "He had some narrow scrapes after he got back here," including a beating with a baseball bat that confined him to bed for three days. Glen has no idea what prompted the assault. Then, on 18 June, a Tuesday, Ennis left the store around midday without saying where he was going. He was wearing a red sweatshirt on top of a long-sleeved shirt - not exactly the way to dress on a hot day. "The last thing I said was about him bein' out there with a hot sweatshirt on," Glen tells me.

Later that afternoon, Ennis visited United World to ask about a summer job there. According to Felicia McCall, the school agreed to hire him once he provided some paperwork. Around 4pm, he was less than half a mile from United World, walking with a female friend in an area bordering the territory of both the Harbor Park Brims and their mortal enemies, the Rolling 60s Crips. Nearby, a street mural is defaced with the graffiti of both gangs.

Police say that a light blue sedan drove up behind the two youngsters. The passenger got out, shouted gang epithets and opened fire. Ennis dropped to the ground. The girl ran away. The gunman then approached Ennis and shot him several more times. "They basically executed him," says the LAPD's Moriel.

Detectives are treating it as a gang-related homicide. "With a lot of certainty, we can say this was committed by a rival gang," asserts Moriel. He describes Ennis as a "bona fide" member of the Harbor Park Brims, one who had the gang moniker "Bandit". Just wearing his red sweatshirt could have made him a target, he says. Moriel has witnesses, but none of them could identify the suspects. "It's a matter of hoping for the one lead that gives us a name or a moniker."

Glen still agonises over letting Ennis out of the store in that sweatshirt. "If I had a second chance, I'd do everything to keep him from goin' that day," he laments. And the benefactors are agonising too, questioning their entire relationship with Ennis. Did they really do him any good? "I doubted it the whole time," confesses Alison Pollet. "It's not a situation you know how to deal with. It was somebody's life."

Particularly troubling to them is how the relationship changed after Ennis was suspended from Piney Woods. Pollet, a blunt-talking New Yorker, couldn't help feeling disappointed with him. "I didn't want to see him," she says. "I felt I couldn't do anything for him any more. I'd helped give him these opportunities. I felt like he had to choose what he wanted to do."

Bailey had a similar reaction: "I know I for one felt: 'I don't know what else to do.' Added to which, I was just really angry with him for getting kicked out." Lauren Greenfield could tell Ennis was depressed about it. "He knew he had screwed up," she says. She assured him that "It was OK he had gotten kicked out" but that "we had kind of given him our best shot and now it was up to him to decide what to do next."

At United World, Felicia McCall believes that this kind of approach, while understandable, was counterproductive. It ignored the fact, she says, that he was still only a child, one in need of direction and positive reinforcement. "Something should have been done to have him doing something constructive." It was asking for trouble to have him back in his old environment "just out there floundering". The frustration burns through McCall's words as she wonders what might have been if the benefactors had found a way of keeping Ennis off the streets. "I understand how they feel but children don't 'choose'. They should have understood his type of mentality and how to deal with him ... They saw the video that he did. There's no way their backs should have been turned on him."

With a sigh, Fenton Bailey admits to "feeling inadequate and to blame and all those things, absolutely". But he stresses that he and his colleagues "always knew that what we could do [for Ennis] was going to be limited, so the love was always going to be limited or conditional in some ways". At the very least, he argues, they went further than "people grandstanding about inner-urban issues ... It did seem that we were actually doing something."

Bailey delivered a eulogy at Ennis's memorial service, for which some 100 people crammed a downtown Los Angeles community arts centre. So, too, did Greenfield. "Besides the fact that we really miss him, I think everyone has thought of all the things they could have done that they didn't," she says. "But there's just no way of knowing the right thing to do."

Ultimately, of course, the "what ifs" cannot be resolved. The one incontrovertible fact, the one that haunts Bailey more than any other, is that Ennis Beley was gunned down in cold blood and broad daylight, another victim of the merciless social madness that is normality for all too many young Americans. "The enormity of the gang lifestyle, to me it is genuinely insane and incomprehensible." Bailey says, wringing his hands. "I think if I really could have understood it surely I could have done something or said something that would ..." He pauses and collects himself. "Just mean he wasn't dead, you know."

Before I leave his store, I ask Howard Glen if he would blame anyone. A frown passes over his lined face. His words are almost lost in the din of traffic passing outside the store's window. "I don't see where you could put the blame. He weren't nothin' but a lamb." !