Maxine Waters' battle against powerful white men began when Eula Love was killed in 1979


On Jan. 3, 1979, Eula Love was a black woman trying to make ends meet in South Central Los Angeles. William, her longtime husband, had died of sickle cell anemia six months before, and she alone was responsible for raising their three young daughters on his monthly $680 Social Security checks.

Love had fallen behind on her gas bill, and news reports say she owed the Southern California Gas Company at least $60. That day, the company sent a serviceman to Love's home to either collect a minimum payment of $22.09 or turn the gas off altogether. When the serviceman got to Love's home, she demanded that he leave. When he refused, she reportedly picked up a nearby shovel and swung twice, hitting the worker in the arm. The man then left.

Love took her 12-year-old daughter, Tammy, to a nearby market with the Social Security check to get the gas company's payment. She stuffed the money in her purse and headed home. Meanwhile, the gas company serviceman had reported the incident to his supervisor. The company then sent two workers to Love's house, where they waited for police to arrive. Love met the workers there, and then went into the house. One historian reported that Love told her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila, that they refused to take her payment.

For Maxine Waters and her South Los Angeles constituents, Eula Love's death was a tipping point.

Two LAPD officers — Lloyd O'Callaghan, who was white, and Edward Hopson, who was black — soon arrived to assist the gas company workers. Police reportedly said the officers found Love standing outside her house holding a knife, seething, with "froth" coming from her mouth. The officers drew their guns and demanded that she drop the knife, but Love instead turned to walk back into her home. That's when, the officers alleged, Love turned back toward them, raised the knife and threw it. Simultaneously, they opened fire, striking Love eight times. She died on the scene.

(In the course of reporting, Mic found that for decades after the shooting, several discrepancies appeared across media and historical reports, including that Love's name was incorrectly spelled "Eulia." Where possible, Mic has chosen the most commonly cited details and spellings, though they may differ from the linked sources.)

Love's killing touched a nerve in South Los Angeles. As word spread about the shooting, residents, members of the local NAACP chapter and police accountability activists demanded an immediate investigation.

Then, Maxine Waters got involved.

Mike Mullen, Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

To truly understand Waters' approach to confronting political power structures now, it's important to understand how and why she took on Eula Love's case in 1979. For Waters, Love's death resonated more personally than most. After all, they were peers. Both women began working in factories as teenagers to help support their families. Love, 39, had three children; Waters, 40, had two. Love was born in Louisiana and came to LA with her family amid a wave of black migration from the South; Waters' family migrated from St. Louis. Both women had made the wide boulevards and one-story stucco houses of South Los Angeles their home.

For Waters and her South Los Angeles constituents, Love's death was a tipping point. Waters was roughly two years into her first term in the California State Assembly, representing a South Los Angeles community that had long felt under siege. Poverty rates were high, and stories of police abuse were constant. There was Carlos Washington, Bob Trivis, Ray Galante and William Gavin Jr., all victims of what Waters later called "the epidemic of police brutality in Los Angeles."

"These are moments when there are all-out attacks on your people," Melina Abdullah — a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and a leader with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles — said. "Any time there's an all-out attack on black people, she steps up. She fights."

Nearly 40 years later, Waters is still fighting. It's at the sunset of her time in elected office that her star is shining brightest. She tells the world to "stay woke" and has been lovingly dubbed "Auntie Maxine" by her legions of diehard black female fans. But most importantly, she's been one of President Donald Trump's fiercest critics, relentlessly calling for his impeachment. She's "out to get him," and Trump opponents continue to hail the congresswoman as an icon of anti-Trump resistance.

In many ways, Waters foreshadowed the political skills that would later define her time on Capitol Hill by focusing her animus toward LAPD's then-Police Chief Daryl Gates. It was Gates, emboldened with the power to oversee one of the country's largest and most influential police departments, who was to blame for turning a blind eye to abuses that claimed the lives of black men and women like Love, she argued. Waters masterfully wielded the media in her favor, going to the city's black newspaper and drawing the attention of the almighty Los Angeles Times. More often than not she lost these battles, but gained support among America's most downtrodden people that would help sustain her for the war.

In early 1979, Waters stood at a podium in front of about half a dozen news microphones and breathlessly listed a slew of facts to the network news cameras in front of her.

"On Jan. 3, 1979, two members of the Los Angeles Police Department shot and killed Eula Love at her home in a dispute over a $22.09 utility bill," Waters said. "She died on her front lawn before the eyes of her children."

Waters stood stoically and her voice was measured. She was clad in a beige blouse and brown blazer with her hair pressed and curled just so. She continued, looking down at a written statement before her and then directly into the cameras.

"Once again we have a member of the black community dead under circumstances that are highly questionable at best," she said.

When Love was killed, it had been 14 years since the 1965 Watts Rebellion drew the nation's attention to how the city policed its black neighborhoods. The McCone Commission, which investigated the causes of the riots, reported that black residents felt they were "at the mercy of bigoted police," who acted under departmental policies that required them to be proactive and confront people who they thought looked suspicious. Often, that meant targeting innocent black residents, according to a 1992 Los Angeles Times report.

"Maxine Waters, in many ways, is taking up the mantle of what [police reform activists are] doing at the state level," Felicia A. Viator, an assistant history professor at San Francisco State University who's researched Love's case extensively, said. "This is a period that we don't typically associate with that kind of bold, anti-police activism on the state level, much less the national level, [because] we tend to think the Black Panther Party sort of dissipates in the early '70s, and then there's this downtime."

Not much had changed leading up to Love's death. Though black residents made up an estimated less than 20% of LA's population, they made up a disproportionate amount of people arrested and shot at by police, the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city's black newspaper, reported in 1980. Per the Sentinel, a report the Los Angeles Police Commission issued found that police officers shot at 584 suspects from 1974 through 1978, and 321 — a whopping 55% — were black. In 1979, black residents accounted for 36% of all arrests and made up 41% of people charged with assaults with deadly weapons on police officers.

It was against that backdrop that Gates seemed to make the department's relationship with the black community even worse. When the department was scrutinized by activists in the late 1970s and early 1980s for its use of sometimes deadly chokeholds, Gates relied on racist pseudoscience to suggest the problem wasn't the tactic, but the biological makeup of the people on which it was used.

"We may be finding that in some blacks when it is applied, the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people," he reportedly said then.

As Democratic state assemblywoman, Waters had already been a vocal opponent of police tactics like strip-searches and chokeholds.

But that rhetoric coupled with Love's death seemingly lit a fire in Waters' criticism — and she took direct aim at Gates.

Wally Fong/AP

"Chief Gates, the so-called leader of this department ... [said] that the responsibility for the Love shooting should be borne by Eula Love," she wrote in the Sentinel in November 1979. "While in the purest sense some might refer to the Eula Love killing as self-defense, I simply cannot."

"How sensitive can one be to the needs of the black community by stating such things as, 'Black people are more susceptible to injury from police chokeholds than normal people'?" she wrote in a May 1982 Sentinel editorial, in which she cited Love's killing as one of several cases that proved Gates could not manage the force effectively. "This statement at the least is irresponsible, insensitive and certainly has no medical basis to substantiate it. This statement is vintage Daryl Gates."

"Let's protect and serve the citizens of Los Angeles by collectively calling for the replacement of Chief Gates by whatever means necessary, and concurrently seek someone who can work with the community and within LAPD in our quest to combat crime in Los Angeles and improve police-community relations," Waters wrote.

Maxine Waters' criticism of Daryl Gates is the same in tone and substance as her biting retorts about Donald Trump.

Waters was already displaying the cutting qualities that would endear her to a constituency that appreciated brutal honesty. Her criticism of Gates is the same in tone and substance as her biting retorts about Trump or any member of his administration these days. Nearly 38 years after criticizing Gates in the November editorial, she explained her constant criticism of the Trump administration this way to the Associated Press: "I must address this so-called president, no matter where it takes me."

But back in 1979, Waters' criticism was mostly confined to her constituency in South LA. She still didn't pull any punches, and, perhaps more tactically important, she proved adept at communicating directly with her audience via the press.

As a prelude to her now-infamous calls for Trump's impeachment, she repeatedly called for Gates' resignation. She wrote at least three editorials in the Sentinel between 1979 and 1982 demanding that Gates step down. In each one, Waters reminded readers of the black locals who had been killed by police, and every time she listed Eula Love's name first.

Maxine Waters "immediately goes to the LA Times ... knowing that she needs a bigger audience for this, and says explicitly that this is about race," Viator, the historian, said. "She charges the LAPD ... with being trained to be tough specifically with black people, and she implies that the LAPD, the police are trained to fear black community members."

The Sentinel began running scathing editorials about the shooting. The Los Angeles Times sent a team of reporters to Love's hometown in Louisiana to unearth a fuller picture of her early life there. Esquire and the New York Times also picked up the story, which by then had blossomed into a broader look at what critics said was deeply entrenched racial bias in the department.

"Eula Love was unique in the sense that this was a woman who was at home who had ... not done anything but try to protect her home," Greg Akili — a member of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, who is in his late 60s — said.

Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives (Collection 1429). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Although Waters is a relentless fighter, she doesn't always win the battle. Black people seldom do when they're fighting against institutional racism.

Ultimately, Gates didn't resign then. Instead, he served as LAPD's chief of police until 1992, when he was forced into retirement after four officers were videotaped mercilessly beating Rodney King, a black motorist. After the tape was made public, Waters was one of a long list of public officials who called for Gates' resignation.

"The history of Daryl Gates in Los Angeles and the way that he's handled his job is not a pretty one," Waters said on C-SPAN in 1991. "I became very much involved after the killing of Eula Love. ... I know enough about him, and I think those who have been watchers and evaluators of the Los Angeles Police Department know enough about him to know that he's not good for Los Angeles anymore. He's not good for the force anymore."

The officers who shot and killed Love were never charged with any wrongdoing. Federal investigators looked into the case to determine if Love's civil rights had been violated, but it appears to have gone nowhere. A delegation of jurists even toured Los Angeles to gather evidence regarding claims of human rights violations against minority groups, in situations similar to Love's, that were detailed in a petition sent to the United Nations.

South Los Angeles came together to support Love's remaining family. Neighbors and local churches pitched in to raise money. Stevie Wonder held a benefit concert at the Roxy and raised $45,000 for the family.

On Jan. 12, 1984, nearly five years to the day of Love's deadly confrontation with police, the Sentinel reported that her family had won a $900,000 settlement from the city of Los Angeles and the Southern California Gas Company; the money was to be paid out periodically over the course of several years. At the time, it was said to be one of the largest pretrial settlements in a police shooting in Los Angeles police history.

Love's daughter, Shonna, gave birth to a daughter of her own 12 days after the shooting in 1979. In May of that year, the Sentinel named her one of its Black Mother of the Year award winners. Maxine Waters was there and gave a tribute. It was dedicated to Eula Love.

Love's case proved to be a defining moment in Waters' career, one in which Waters forged her uncompromising style and began what would become a decades-long struggle to combat injustice in black communities. Almost 40 years later, it's no surprise that she's once again in the spotlight, waging the same battle, using many of the same tactics against Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Now, her stage is bigger than ever.

So, too, are her opponents.