Project mother opened home to NAACP director Chavis awaited King case verdict

April 19, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- For most of the past week, the kitchen table of Thesus Phelon's home in Jordan Downs -- a Watts housing project -- has been the national headquarters of the NAACP.

The 22-year-old mother of three girls was host to Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, the newly appointed executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mr. Chavis came to Jordan Downs to meet with the African-American community in preparation for the verdicts in the federal trial of the four officers accused of violating Rodney G. King's civil rights.

Yesterday, the day after two of the officers were found guilty of the charges against them, the maelstrom of activity in Ms. Phelon's home had quieted.

Mr. Chavis was in Washington and was due to return today. But at least for a day, television crews were no longer camped on her front lawn and her living room was no longer a makeshift studio. She was able to enjoy a midmorning breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and grits on her back porch.

Mr. Chavis slept in her bed, while she slept with one of her daughters. At first, the civil rights leader protested. "He said, 'I don't want to put you out of your bed,' " Ms. Phelon said. But she insisted, because she wanted to make him feel at home.

She cooked soul food for Mr. Chavis and two of his associates who also stayed there from Tuesday until Saturday. She washed clothes. She did the dishes.

The civil rights leader stayed at Ms. Phelon's southeast Los Angeles home at the recommendation of the leader of a local community organization who knows Ms. Phelon. "They knew that I would take care of him," she said.

There were some inconveniences with the visit -- "The only tiresome part of it was all the media people, all the people in and out of the door" -- but she admitted the spotlight was thrilling. Mr. Chavis even pulled her on camera during one of his interviews. "That kind of caught me off guard," she said.

But most of all, Ms. Phelon said it was important to the people of Jordan Downs that Mr. Chavis would come and live among them. Normally, the only get attention they get is a news report on the latest gang killing.

"I admire people like him, because in the line of business he's in, you don't find people who would be willing to stay in the projects," she said. "I've never met anyone who was willing to put that much into it."

As Mr. Chavis walked the neighborhood talking to people, he was able to get an idea of what life is like. Jordan Downs is known among Angelenos for its poverty, drug activity and gang violence. It is a low-rise project, a sprawl of buildings housing six two-story apartments in a line.

Ms. Phelon's two-bedroom home is in a pale-blue cinder-block unit. There is a scrubby lawn in front and several shrubs. A heavy black metal screen, which she keeps locked, bars the door.

Although Mr. Chavis was a busy man, Ms. Phelon was able to talk to him for about two hours one night about her life in Jordan Downs. When she talks about the neighborhood where she has lived since she was a year old, there is an ambivalence.

On the one hand, she says it's not as bad as people think.

"I'm used to things in the neighborhood," she said. "I'm used to gang-bangers being around. I'm used to looking at them every day. They might scare you, but it's something I'm used to. They're a part of my neighborhood."

But then, this is not where she wants to stay forever.

"You know, life here in Jordan Downs is not really that bad. But I think there's a better life for me somewhere else," said Ms. Phelon, who works as a receptionist at nearby Jordan High School.

"Me myself, it's like this community slows me down a little bit," she said. "It doesn't motivate me. There are people here who work. But the majority rules, and the majority in this community don't have jobs. They hang out all day. I live in a depressing neighborhood."

And she worries about her girls: 5-year-old Breanna, 4-year-old Porshay and 9-month old Tyreea. "I feel if I stay here, I will be cheating my girls out of a better life," she said. "As a single parent, I don't think I'll be able to deal with the teen-aged life here in Jordan Downs. I've got to make a move."

She said Mr. Chavis was encouraging. "He told me I am young and had my whole life in front of me," she said. "And instead of just talking abut what I should do, that I should just go and do it. Just make a move, make a turnaround."

Ultimately, she says she wants to be a computer technician. "But that's a very high goal," she said. Her first step will be to leave Jordan Downs, she said.

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