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Family battles Watts' street gangs

By AURELIO ROJAS

LOS ANGELES -- James Hawkins' store is the center of an urban war -- a bloody 10-month battle pitting the 72-year-old grocer and his family against hundreds of Watts gang members enraged by resistance to their neighborhood rule of terror.

At issue is who runs the streets of Watts, the police or gangs. At stake are the lives of Hawkins and his family.

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'My father has said the only way he'll leave here is in a box, and if we have to, we'll go with him,' said James Hawkins Jr.

The Hawkins -- James Sr., his wife, Elsie, their 13 children and 72 grandchildren -are reinforced by the 6,500-member city Police Department and 5,700-member county Sheriff's Department.

Arrayed against them are about 200 16-to-22-year-old gang members, who live across the street from Hawkins' tiny grocery in a pastel-colored enclave known as the Nickerson Gardens Housing Project.

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The Hawkins family has been under siege since January, when James shot and wounded a robber at his store.

The battle intensified in September, when James Jr., 38, grappled with and then shot and killed a reputed member of the Bounty Hunters, who allegedly was stealing a bicE:le from girls outside the store.

The Bounty Hunters, supported by the Bloods and Crips gangs, declared war and began a month-long series of attacks on two of the family's homes and store with guns, shotguns and Molotov cocktails.

Four of Hawkins' six sons are military-trained -- and they put their experience to work.

'In one of the incidents, we must have exchanged 30 to 40 rounds,' said Elton Hawkins, 32. 'Another time, they tried to ram a stolen car into the store, hoping to get us out in the open so they could take clean shots at us.

'Fortunately, I shot out the car's tires and it swerved into the middle of the street.'

Earlier this month, a police gang unit officer told a reporter it was not practical for Hawkins and his family to remain in their home, which adjoins the store, because officers could only 'police the results of the violence, not the violence itself.'

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The next day, Police Chief Daryl Gates said the statement did not reflect the position of the department.

'When the liberties of the Hawkinses are attacked,' Gates said, '6,500 Los Angeles police officers will counterattack on behalf of that fine family.'

Two weeks ago, police officers and sheriff's deputies posted a 24-hour watch on the store and home where Hawkins lives with six members of his family.

Police have also stepped up patrols in the area, which has taken on the look of a war zone with flood lights and police helicopters hovering overhead.

Hawkins, a self-made man who earned a fortune in the funeral business, 'could live among the wealthiest of the wealthy if he wanted to,' his son, James, said.

Indeed, the patriarch's brown-and-tan Rolls Royce sits in his carport, along with assorted Mercedes and sports cars belonging to other family members.

'At first, we kept trying to get him to move out, but he's been here 42 years,' James Jr. said.

'Now, it's a matter of pride and self-dignity. Our father is a religious man, but he taught us that you must stand your ground, that you must always fight for what you know is right.'

The district attorney's office announced recently that 14 gang members had been charged with terrorizing the Hawkinses and more arrests were expected.

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But James Jr. concedes the well-publicized stakeout has become a 'political issue.'

'They can't protect the president, so what makes them think they can protect us,' he said. 'In the end, we'll have to defend ourselves, just as we did before the police showed up.'

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