Justice for Fred Taft: Did the KKK kill a black man in Los Angeles County?
By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris
I arrived at Pan American park in Long Beach’s Lakewood Village neighborhood on Saturday morning, July 28th, 2018. A friend, who lived in a nearby neighborhood, invited me to a rally that morning. The weekend before, a white man in his 50’s shot and killed Fred Taft (57), a black grandfather, and former longshoreman, and truck driver, in the park’s bathroom as he attended a family reunion that Saturday afternoon. Family members reported seeing racist graffiti, signed KKK, on nearby park benches and the sidewalk, and a white Prius circled before the murder, a man shouting racial slurs at the family. A week later, no one had been apprehended. Community members rallied that morning to demand Long Beach offer a cash reward for information leading to the arrest of Mr. Taft’s murderer, and for police to declare his death a hate crime, which they hoped would trigger an FBI investigation into white supremacist activity in the area.
Lakewood Village, California is on Long Beach’s northern border with the city of Lakewood, in Los Angeles County, California. It is a city with quiet streets and modest single-family homes, many proudly displaying American flags from their front porches and yards. The blocks immediately surrounding Pan American are 54% White, 25% Hispanic, 13% Asian, and 7% Black according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The municipality is situated between the large African-American communities of Long Beach and Compton, the majority Asian community of Cerritos, and the suburbs of Orange County to the south east. In 2016, voters around Pan American Park cast ballots for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump 61% to 32%.
Driving around Pan American park, one can tell see it is a majority white neighborhood. On that Saturday morning, people washed their cars on the street and in driveways, mowed grass and trimmed hedges, and went about their weekend morning routines. The modest working-class neighborhood was quiet; three to four-year-old sedans, rusted Volvo hatchbacks, and shiny new pickup trucks lined the streets. A tall white man wearing a tall sombrero to keep from burning in the mid-morning sun grabbed groceries out of his car.
In Lakewood, California, families work at good paying public-sector union jobs, including Long Beach, Bellflower and ABC Unified School Districts, the Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services and Sheriff Department, Lakewood city itself, and Lakewood Regional Medical Center, a unionized community Hospital. The biggest private sector employers were Albertsons, Wal-Mart, and Costco.
The quiet neighborhood has not been without its share of racial tension. In the fall of 2014, students at Mayfair High Schools took to the streets in a peace march after finding nooses, racist graffiti, and Nazi swastikas near Mayfair and neighboring Bellflower High School. But besides its uniquely white working-class character in cosmopolitan Los Angeles County, I saw nothing unusual as I pulled up to park at Pan American park.
As I entered the park, a black man wearing an NAACP shirt welcomed me. His name was Earnest from the Compton Chapter of the NAACP, and he would speak later that morning. He shook my hand as he was conversing with another. I asked him where the bathroom was, he smile. “Well, the bathroom by where people are gathering is closed, it is a crime scene. There is another inside the gymnasium. I have to go too, I’ll show you.” I followed him.
Entering the gym, there was a gender neutral / handicap accessible singe bathroom on the right. The NAACP leader went in. I walked a few more steps to the Men’s room to relieve myself. There were a bunch of white guys showering and changing; some had just finished playing baseball. Others were getting ready to start the next game.
Stacey, a 20-something white woman with bright-colored manicured nails sat guarding the Gym’s entrance. She was a recreational leader, full-time in the summer, part-time in colder months. She normally worked Monday through Friday, but was getting overtime for guarding the bathroom today. She sat chatting with her mom, who had just returned from the community forum about last week’s shooting. The police aren’t disclosing much, they don’t want to hamper their investigation. It makes people think nothing is going on, but they don’t want the suspect to take off. Sooner or later he is going to open his mouth, and they’ll find out who did it.
The park bathroom is situated under the shade of several large trees, on an asphalt path that snakes through the park at the edge of a baseball field. That Saturday afternoon, as his family barbequed nearby, Fred entered the bathroom, where what police say was a white, middle aged man, shot him three times in the back , then left, jogging slowly out of the park. carrying a rifle. Witnesses saw him clutching sagging his pockets as he left, as if they were full of ammunition. Family members speculated if the murderer was loading his rifle to shoot up the whole picnic, when Fred went in to relieve himself, and was killed.
Outside the bathroom, locked by a door of dark blue painted iron bars fastened shut with a chain and padlock, family members, friends, and well-wishers had placed candles, flowers, balloons, and signs. Blue and red heart balloons, fluttered in the breeze, red roses, slightly wilted yellow flowers, and blue, white, and pink flowers rested in different vases. On poster read, RIP Fred Taft. White, blue, and red candles sat in rows, with the occasional candle imprinted with a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“Surely someone knows what happened, who did it.” A brown skinned family gathered with a black family in front of the makeshift memorial. “Surely, for insurance reasons, they would have some cameras.”
A shining green and purple dragon fly buzzed past. Two women wailed out flailing their arms in mock distress. An older white couple stood a few feet away, slightly behind the individuals shook up by the dragon fly. The man, he would later speak as the former President of the Lakewood Village Tenant Association, he wore a navy-blue shirt and brown loafers. He stood solemnly and still, hands clasped together, staring at the bathroom crime scene. His wife stood next to him, blond highlights accentuating her long greying hair.
People with black NAACP shirts and bright blue shirts specially made for the occasion stood around waiting for the program to start. The blue shirts were imprinted on the back in bold white letters – All Lives Matter, on the front above the heart – “A death to one is a death to all Justice for Fred Taft.” People stood about waiting as folks from the nearby community meeting at the Lakewood Village Church Hall, where the Lakewood Village Neighborhood Association, Long Beach Police Department, and grieving family members and friends had gathered earlier that morning.
A group of family members arrived, wearing Justice for Fred shirts, Justice for Uncle Fred, for Brother Fred – black shirts with white letters, family photos emblazoned on the front, with pictures of him dressed in a suit, or posing with children, grandchildren, cousins, and kin in another.
As the rally began, I noticed a baseball game happening on the field across from the gathering as if nothing was happening. Two opposing teams of nine players each – all white—they wore striped white shirts and dark cargo shorts; a few had white adidas pants in case they decided to slide in to steal a base. They took their Saturday morning adult league game seriously—hitting the ball, pitching, catching, and running around the bases.
Alone in the crowd, a short elderly white lady with dark sunglasses and bright white hair stood slightly hunched over – she stood silently in front of the bathroom crime scene, imprints of blue elephants on her loose fitting buttoned shirt swayed in the light breeze.
A few members of the press had gathered – a photographer from the Press-Telegram, a man from the long beach paper LBREPORT.COM, a cameraman from KTLA who filmed the makeshift memorial at the bathroom entrance.
Someone placed another bouquet of flowers at the bathroom’s entrance. One poster read – “Gone too Soon,” above a picture of Fred Taft. Below read, “All violent crimes are hate crimes.” Another poster quoted the bible. “Fred, I know you’re in Heaven” and “The lord is near to the broken hearted and rescues those with sprits crushed. Psalm 34:18”
A white woman in yellow mentioned that KKK was written on benches nearby a white man shot him in the back of the head with a rifle, the rumor was that he walked off nonchalantly, but no one would come forward to ID him.
A black woman wearing a white dress shirt held a red sign reading “Silence=Violence.” She lived in Lakewood Village with her family, she told me. I asked her what it was like. She had been pulled over a few times by police, enough to feel singled out. They always asked her if she was lost, she would reply she was just driving home, and lived around the corner. Her husband was pulled over once and told to walk home—for a broken tail light. It’s supposed to be a fix it ticket, she explained. After the shooting she is scared to send her kids to the park alone. She had a 12 year- old. The police are reluctant to call it a hate crime, she explained, because they don’t want the FBI involved. A local neighborhood Facebook group is full of dismissive comments, asking what the victim was doing in that park, and if it was gang related. I mean he was barbequing at a family reunion, she sounded exasperated. When Obama was elected she recalled, she was pumping gas at a shell station up the street, and a group of guys with shaved heads, skinheads, approached her. “They said, Martin Luther king had a dream, I sure as hell hope that nigger Obama doesn’t have a dream,” surrounding her menacingly, before suddenly leaving. Normally it is fine, but you get the occasional stares and comments to feel like you aren’t welcome, she said. “I guess it’s just being a black woman in a white neighborhood.” I thanked her for telling her story. Shortly afterwards, the program began.
The first speak was introduced as Brother Earnest, the man I met while first entering the park, and he led the gathering in prayer. He was introduced as a member of the Compton chapter of the NAACP.
“We are gathered here as a unit, and ask god to give us understanding. You have to be willing to understand the lives he touched, Brother Fred. Give us understanding, give us comfort and understanding. Give us the strength, because god gave us the choice. We have the free will, the right to choose heaven or choose hell. Give us sight, oh Lord, to see the goodness in this careless act. Bless us here today; touch the lives of Fred’s daughters and children, and the murderer too. Touch his heart, God, so he can turn from his evil ways and do something good with his life. In God’s name we pray, amen.”
Najee Ali, a community activist who traveled from San Pedro, spoke next. He gave prayers for the family of Fred Taft, a father, grandfather and man of God, who was shot in cold blood, not because he was Jewish, or Christian, immigrant, or native born, but because he was black. It is not black vs. white here, but right vs. wrong. Fred Taft was shot down by a white supremacist with a rifle. As long as someone can be shot in a park bathroom, no one is safe. Our strength is our unity, and love for justice. We love what’s right; if he was White, Latino, or Asian, we would be here demanding justice too. When we see something wrong, we must stand collectively demanding justice. No one should be afraid any more of going into the men’s room by themselves. Its’ scary. This could happen to anyone. But we shouldn’t turn on each other. Turn against the murder. Turn against racism. We call on the Long Beach Police Department to issue a reward for anyone who has information to turn this cold-blooded murderer in. Fred’s daughter approached the podium, but she couldn’t find the words to speak—her voice choked by grief.
Brother Earnest, continued. “If you took 30 minutes to get to know Fred, he would be the best friend you could have. He would rise at six am each morning; after he retired he was an electronics vendor. He’d wake up every day at first light and go out to provide for his family. He’d give us kind worlds to have understanding and courage in the face of danger. Everyone who came in contact with him felt his love. God grant us love for the person who murdered his giving spirit, his position as a father for this young lady, let our forgiveness endure towards everyone, including the person who committed this act. As Christians we have to love him, even if they hate you. Hate them with love; for God is in control…. We have to get back to our moral values. We are so busy in the rat race it’s almost like we’ve forgotten. America is about loving each other, our Christian values. Pray for each other. Pray for this family. Pray for each and every one of us, and check up on this young woman who lost her father suddenly last week.”
Najee continued where Earnest left off. I’m from San Pedro, Earnest is from Compton, is there Mayor of Lakewood here? Is any of the City Council people here? No one spoke. They should be here. Where is the political leadership of Lakewood? At least someone representing an elected official should be here.
This is a rally. They began to chant. What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!
Say his name! Fred Taft? Say his name Fred Taft!
An emergency room trauma doctor who practiced in Long Beach, a cousin of Fred’s, spoke next. I’ve cared for hundreds of victims of violence, but this has never happened to my family. Fred was a man of honor, a family man. Such a considerate man, one of my favorite uncles. This is something that is impacting our entire community. It could be any one of you. My cousin Corie and her children are devastated. We have to call on the city of Long Beach, the Long Beach Police Department, and Supervisor’s Janice Hann’s office to do something to investigate this murder! This is her district! Someone knows who did this. Every life matters. It doesn’t matter your country of origin, religion, or sexual orientation, every life matters. And it is up to us and the leaders of this County to say enough is enough. This was an act of violence and hatred. The Long Beach Police Department is involved. What about the FBI? Justice for Uncle Fred!
A white and yellow sign read; “this is a hate crime.” As speakers continued, a tanned white man with a red sunburned coloration approached, hovering at the edge of the crowd. He had been playing baseball earlier, and had two baseball bats in his backpack, he wore shorts and spiked cleats propped up his thick calves and stocky frame and stood close enough to listen. Nearby, a black man in shades with a suit and bow tie stood his hands clasped together in front of him.
“A man came here to commit murder,” a speaker continued.
A mom with dyed red hair, a pink flowing dress and a light pink skin tone stood listening to the speakers, her son with a green t shirt and black green highlighted sneakers curled up at her feet in fetal position, clenching his knees to his chest. A burley white man with thick arms and dark sunglasses wore a black a cartel ink tattoo parlor t-shirt cut off at the shoulders stood listening as well.
“This person is possibly in the community still,” another speaker continued. “They walked down the street with an assault rifle, someone has to know what happened.” Another called out the climate of fear for black people in Lakewood. “Someone who lives two minutes from here, a biracial family, they were called niggers walking to their car. Our blood isn’t Caucasian or black, we’re all equal – god created us equal, color isn’t an issue its what is right or wrong.”
Another one spoke. “This family needs financial assistance. Catherine Garcia set up a go fund me page. There are also t-shirts for sale saying All Lives Matter. What happened to Fred shouldn’t happen to anyone.” A three-foot-tall skinny Latino kid with a crew cut passed through the crowd, passing out pictures for the fundraising website. The Garcia family approached the front. Mr. Garcia spoke clearly and articulately, with a hint of a southern accent. He wore a blue polo shirt and white billed visor to keep the sun out of his eyes. “I didn’t know Fred, but my kids played with his grandkids, and this go fund me is the least we could do,” he said. “Thank you for your humanity.”
Next a young white man introduced himself, the associate pastor of the church where the community meeting was held earlier that morning. His dark hair was parted meticulously down the side, and his beard neatly trimmed. “We are gathered here in honor of someone, a man of love, of family, who believed in family values. Martin Luther King said, Love is Justice, and Justice is love in calculation, justice is love in action. We honor his vision and the way we do it is people harbor the love in our hearts. It starts here. He pointed at his chest, to convert murder and injustice, even as the trauma of this tragedy fades, and when people stop talking about this, the love that you will continue to hold inside will always be with you. Our church will always be there for you.”
The next speaker was a local community activist from Lakewood. It feels safe here, well, my family hasn’t been in this community that long, a few years, and I’ll tell you, these people are here. The other day in bellflower, there was a white man with white supremacist tattoos and a huge knife hanging walking down the street. I see people in the neighborhood. Send a letter to the mayor! Why did our community leaders want to shut down the meeting half way through? Because it made them uncomfortable?
Next, the former president of the Lakewood village community association, until a few weeks ago. We love our neighborhood. This is not us, I talked to the young family members of the deceased, and as a leader of this community, I assure you this is not us. This is not us. I put 1,000 emails out looking for camera footage. People say that he went this way, then that way. We are trying to find identifying information. We have to ID this person! A few days ago, the children of Fred Taft came by my home. We talked. This isn’t us. We can’t put up with it. Again, I am past president of the Lakewood Village Neighborhood Association, we will not let this rest. We will follow up with the Mayor and City Council and Police Department. Working with neighbors to join me to raise funds and do the best we can to find justice.
The final speaker, Audrena Redmond, was a representative of the Black Lives Matter-Long Beach chapter. She spoke passionately about Frederick Taft’s murder, and explained to the crowd why it’s important to say Black Lives Matter. She said, “Frederick Taft, was a Black man. Statistically, we know that Black people are percentage wise disproportionately victims of hate crimes. With our current president in office there is an uptick of attacks on Black bodies. Unfortunately, and God rest his soul, Frederick Taft was a coward’s victim while using the restroom. On that same day Nia Wilson died, her sister Letifah survived after being stabbed in the neck from behind by a white man in a San Francisco BART station. These were hate crimes. We have to call them that. At the core of this country is racism and its alive and well. We have to say Black Lives Matter because its Black people being most targeted by hate groups. Yes, all lives matter, but the times have called for us to say Black Lives Matter.” Audrena led the crowd chanting “Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” She called out, “Say his name!” The crowd responded, “Frederick Taft.” The crowd continued chanting the deceased’s name. While a hate crime may have taken his life, the community would not let it blot out his memory.
The rally began to end. As I left, I noticed two police cars sitting some distance away, their car engines humming. A blue ford and a patrol vehicle of the Lakewood Police Department. Two black men, one wearing a flannel shirt, sunglasses, sneakers, and navy-blue shorts called out to the officers. “We’re not a racist people!” He said. A white cop got out of the car, stood up, looked around, and got back in. The two men caught up with me as I approached my car. “Black people aren’t racist- you just don’t want to get hurt by someone who is ignorant,” the man explained. I got in my car and took off, past the rows of single family homes, neatly maintained yards, and American flags.