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Michele L Waters
– Broken Spirits: A Letter To My Cousin Rodney G. King, is an exclusive memoir of Rodney King’s confidant, business partner and cousin Ontresicia Averette.
Ontresicia Averette who stood by her cousin, Rodney King, through the beatings and the historical verdict that acquitted the four police officers involved in the incident, encountered her own cataclysms through sexual harassment and racial discrimination while working with NASA/JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory).
Broken Spirits introduces its readers to two stories of oppression and social injustice experienced by Averette and King, while gaining a vividly human side of the under-privileged communities struggles which plagued many inner cities.
"Broken Spirits" is a unique memoir which not only tells Averette's story, but allowed other races to voice their experiences and opinions regarding the calamity suffered by thousands during the the 1992 L.A. riots as well through the interviews conducted by Michele L. Waters.
Chapter One – March 3, 1991
It was March 3, 1991 when I received a call from Auntie Dessa. “Treesa,” she said, using my nickname from her and most of the family, “Auntie needs some help. Glen was in an accident last night with the police.” She was talking about her son, my cousin Rodney King, who we all call Glen.
“What kind of accident?” I asked. I also was a little stunned because I didn’t know he had been released from prison yet.
“I don’t know, I got a call this morning and I had to go down to the county jail. They acted like they didn’t want me to see him, but when I got in….my baby was laying there with his body covered all the way up to his head. Treesa, Glen’s head and face were so swollen, I could hardly recognize him; he didn’t look like himself.” Her voice trembled as she paused, seemingly to hold back from crying. “Anyway, the police said I’ma need a criminal defense attorney. Some friends and I have made some calls, and it turns out, all of these attorneys want at least $5,000 before they’ll get started. I’m trying to raise the money. Do you have any money?”
“Well. I have my tuition money; but don’t worry, I’ll call Aunt Tootie and Aunt Lootie to see if I can raise the money for you.” Aunt Dessa was a devout Witness, even after most of our family had turned away from the religion. Aunt Dessa wasn't close with many members of the family since they were no longer part of the faith. Although I wasn’t practicing the faith either, for some reason I remained in Aunt Dessa’s good graces. I was her link to the rest of the family. Aunt Lootie, however, was still a Witness, but when I called her and explained what had happened to Glen, she blurted, “I don’t have no money.” I asked Aunt Lootie to tell Uncle Bud to call me, but he never did. Since Glen had just recently been released from prison, maybe that’s why the family wasn’t too quick to give up their hard-earned cash. It was late that Sunday afternoon. I had just come in from the grocery store when I got the call. After talking to my Aunt Dessa, I jumped into motion with phone calls. I expected I’d have a much better chance of getting in touch with people since it was the weekend. As I put away my food, I had the phone to my ear, talking to each family member.
My cousin Debra, Aunt Tootie’s daughter, said she’d give me $250, and I had my $250 tuition money. That was all I was able to raise, $500 out of the $5000 Aunt Dessa needed. I called my friends Tyrone Hampton, who was the president of the Pasadena/Altadena Black Business Association (BBA), and his wife Denise Hampton, to see if they could give me a referral for an attorney. I explained to them what little I knew about Glen being beaten and that I needed to find a good attorney who would help us and work with us for the retainer fees.
Tyrone gave me the number for Skip Cooper, president of the LA Chapter BBA, and good friends with Johnnie Cochran. He told me to tell Skip that he had referred me. Based on the story I told Tyrone, he felt I needed to get in touch with Johnnie Cochran.
While folding the grocery bags, I paused for a few seconds to grab the pen and write down the number. Then, I called Skip immediately and told him everything. He said Johnnie was in Georgia on business, but to call his office and leave a message with his staff that Skip had referred me.
Monday morning, March 4, I swerved into the cold damp parking structure of the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) Foothill building, slung my badge against the ID reader, and pulled into a parking space on the first floor. My stomach was in knots every time I entered the building, and today was worse. Not only did I have to deal with the everyday stresses this placed caused me, but now I had to prepare for another fight. Although I didn’t have a lot of details as to what had occurred when Glen was arrested, I knew two things: he was beaten pretty badly, and the police were responsible.
Around this time, a few of us African-Americans were in the middle of an investigation at JPL for the disparity of treatment against blacks in the company. Still, going through the investigations from the complaints we had filed with the Employee Relations department months ago, we were all nervous about what would happen to us. Yet, we stood our ground. The only black manager at JPL at the time was a man I’ll call Roger, the Contractor’s Capability Manager who had been at JPL for a long time. He was a tall, big-boned man – not really fat, but not muscular either, and just over six feet tall. He had a caramel tone with sideburns that curved into his full beard. He had very thin lips for a black man and spoke with an educated southern accent. Most of us blacks at the company were oblivious to what was going on. We knew as individuals we were not being treated fairly, but since we didn’t talk about it, in fear of retaliation or being labeled as a troublemaker, we kept our thoughts to ourselves. It was Roger who brought us together in a private meeting to point out the disparities between us and our white counterparts.
After several meetings, and comparing notes, we decided together to file a complaint to the Employee Relations department in mid-summer of 1990. In general, we had common experiences. We noticed that most of us were not being promoted within the same time period as our white peers. We also realized there was a gross pay inequity between us and our white peers. It was said that we “didn’t have enough education to be promoted and we needed higher degrees”. But we had witnessed our peers of other races being promoted in the past without degrees. They had been promoted on experience and years served with the company. By the time we could show years served and experience, the rules had conveniently changed. So we worked twice as hard to obtain a degree so there would be no logical reason for another denial. Then they came up with other excuses like, we “had writing deficiencies” or we “were difficult to get along with”; so for the past nine months, we’d been walking on egg shells awaiting the outcome of our investigation.
I was anxious to get to my desk so that I could begin making more calls to help Aunt Dessa find a lawyer – preferably Johnnie Cochran. As I rushed through the door toward the entrance to the building, I waved and shouted for the two ladies that worked on the same floor as me to hold the elevator. But wouldn’t you know it, they didn’t. I guess they didn’t hear or see me, but this was of no surprise to me. Some of the staff there made it publicly known their dislike towards me and some of the other blacks – especially after complaints had been filed.
I finally made it to my desk and started making calls before I could get too busy with work. I spoke with someone from Johnnie’s office, and though his name eludes my memory, I will never forget the conversation. After I told him the story of my cousin being beaten by the police, he said, “Really, Miss? Black men are beat down and killed by the police every day, and you say your cousin had a record? No one really cares much about situations like this. These incidents happen all the time. Can you tell me why the police beat him?”
I slouched back in my chair and mumbled, “No. I don’t know.”
“Give me your number, I’ll tell Johnnie you called when he returns,” he replied.
His words, “No one really cares….this happens all the time” reminded me of my own issues with JPL. As my day went on, I snuck in calls to other lawyers, but it was like the man at Johnnie’s office said: no one really cared.
Early in 1982, my Aunt Dessa witnessed me struggling to work two jobs – two dead-end jobs. She told me I should apply at JPL. She said, “You’re so smart, you could probably get a job there”.
I said, “What’s JPL?”
“It’s NASA,” she said.
I remembered my childhood dream and immediately did my research to find out what I needed to do to apply at JPL. After researching, applying and passing a couple of tests, Aunt Dessa was driving me to my interview at JPL. I got the job and began working on April 6, 1982.
So okay, maybe I wasn’t an astronaut, but I was sure as hell at NASA! I was a naïve eighteen-year-old, and really had long forgotten my dreams of working at NASA in Coco Beach Florida, like Tony from “I Dream of Jeannie.” But it all came back to me as I entered the Visitors Control Center at 4800 Oak Grove Drive. I was welcomed by a pretty, caramel-skinned, black lady in a dark suit – very professional, and with a look of distinguished pride on her face. Her name was Bobby. She gave me instructions on what I needed to do and where I needed to go to obtain my security badge. I tried to pay attention to her, but my eyes were drawn to the federal emblem on the floor and the round NASA/JPL emblem on the wall behind her. It was then the butterflies awakened in my stomach. Everything I had ever imagined or dreamed of as a child was about to come true. This was the beginning of my journey to my career. I was proud just to be there. I was hired with the job title of Buyers Aid; however, on the first day of work, I was sent to fill in for an Administrative Aid, a black lady named Tiffany, who was out on maternity leave.
A Buyers Aid executed small dollar procurement acquisitions up to $2,500. When Tiffany returned, I continued to work as an Administrative Aid. Although I was still new to the company, I wanted to work as a Buyers Aid as I was hired to do and as everyone that shared the same title was given the opportunity to do. When I spoke to my supervisor, he said, “It should be a privilege for you to be working at the Jet Propulsion Lab.” I was told I wouldn’t be able to start buying until I received my two-year degree. However, at that time, a two-year degree plus two years’ experience with a good evaluation meant you qualified for a Buyer I position. This was the beginning of my nightmare.
Back then, most, if not all, of the business processes were handled manually. For instance, one purchase order was twelve sheets of paper separated by carbon sheets and bonded together. The last four copies were of no use to anyone – just extras. Most of the time, the secretary would staple the extra sheets to the back of the fifth copy and mail to the requestor. This was normal practice. Although the description of the request was typed out and legible on all copies, the handwritten area such as your signature and buyer code was not legible on the last four copies of the purchase order. Later I found out that my immediate supervisor, a man I’ll call Chris and who despised me, used this company practice to begin building a case against me and to discredit my reputation of having an excellent work ethic.
A couple of years later, after graduating from community college in Pasadena in 1984, I was promoted to a first level Senior Buyer Aid position at JPL. The pay increase was smaller than I had hoped for, and I could hardly pay rent, eat, or clothe myself. But everyone I knew would always say, “You work for a blue chip company.”.... “It’s NASA. It will never go out of business, so don’t worry about the money you’ll get it eventually, and you’ll be able to retire there.”….“You know most black people can’t get into companies like that.” By now, there were other concerns besides pay; like discrimination and harassment that went on at JPL. I expressed this to some colleagues and friends, but their reaction basically told me that no one really cared…it happened all the time. I was just “lucky” to be at such a prestigious company, so I kept my mouth shut – at least for a while. Little did I know, my experiences that everyone claimed were “normal” would turn out to be the onset of even greater injustices, injustices that would come to a head in Corporate America at the same time when the African-American community suddenly stood up and said, “No, it’s not okay anymore!”
I informed my aunt of my unsuccessful attempts to attain Glen a lawyer who would work with us on the retainer fees. “I’ll try again tomorrow, Aunt Dessa.”