by John Malpede, Los Angeles Poverty Department
Our dear friend and collaborator and Key LAPD staff member KevinMichael Key has passed on. He died on Wednesday, July 19, 2017, surrounded by his loving children, brother, grandchildren and friends.
Kevin is a big and loving presence in the Skid Row community, working as an advocate with UCEPP (United Coalition East Prevention Project), as a community liaison for the diabetes program at JWCH Community Clinic and an important member of Critical Resistance, the prison abolitionist organization. He’d also worked with LA Community Action Network (LA CAN) and been a 2-term member of the Downtown Neighborhood Council. He was one of the community leaders in the campaign to defeat a liquor license in the New Genesis Hotel, and that organizing victory became the subject of LAPD’s 2016 production “What Fuels Development?”
Through his many involvements, Kevin was an amazing, effective connector in the community, coolly ambling down the street, he operated at a speed faster than Internet – and louder. He’d boom out a shout to somebody across the street and get things done. Or as he’d say, “when everyone’s out there is pumpin’ and fakin’, KevinMichael is smokin’ and shakin’”. Kevin loved Skid Row cause it was the “New York part of LA”.
A former public defender, Kevin was at ease approaching and if necessary getting in the face of people in suits, but his main love was striking up a conversation with anyone on any street in Skid Row. Of course, he loved people wherever he was.
LAPD — Los Angeles Poverty Department theater company — was in El Alto, Bolivia, about to perform “Agentes y Activos,” our Spanish language show about the futility of the war on drugs. El Alto is a shanty town of over a million people that hovers over the city of La Paz. Before the show, Kevin went out in to the plaza, and with super limited Spanish approached families, adults and children, giving them fliers and a big smile. “Agentes y Activos, teatro, gratis, aqui en quince minutos.” Fearlessness enabled by love. When we played the same show in a prison, afterwards one of the inmates referred to him as “the big Cubano”, because of his accent. We all felt this was a big coup—that his accent was recognizable as anything in particular, as he’d learned his lines phonetically.
Kevin was proud to say, “Skid Row saved my life. I got clean and sober on Skid Row.” And he helped a lot of people on the road to recovery. Never preachy, but always warm, disarming and funny, Kevin was able to convince people that they could do better for themselves, get out from under their pain. We were reading an article from the New York Times claiming that Del Rey Beach was a big location for recovery, because there are all sorts of expensive programs there and people come there, go through the programs and then stay in the community. We laughed and decided that’s nothing compared to Skid Row. We decided to make “Biggest Recovery Community Anywhere”, which we did.
When he received his cancer diagnosis, we went from rehearsal to the sidewalk outside his apartment at the Yankee Hotel for a group hug that lasted 15 minutes —as sirens blared and fire trucks pealed off from Skid Row firehouse #9. At the end of the hug Kevin looked at us all, Henriëtte, Tone-Tone, Christina and myself and said, “From now on, only love.”
We’re carrying your love with us my brother. We love you Kevin. Only love.
In His Own Words:
I came out here with dreams of being the poor man’s Johnny Cochran. Two kids, ten boxes, unemployment check, momma’s house and a law degree. That was my dream and aspiration. That was the type of lawyer I was trained to be.
In a treatment center in Skid Row I said, “Hi, I’m KevinMichael.” I put my two names together. From that day on I haven’t drank or used and to the best of my ability I haven’t tried to do any harm to anyone. I prefer KevinMichael. If anybody says “Hey, KevinMichael!” a peace comes over me. Kevin did a lot of shit to people. Michael did a whole heap of shit to people. I became KevinMichael Key in Skid Row.
I was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. At a fairly early age, I moved to New York City. The toughest parts: Harlem and Brownsville, the Mike Tyson part of Brownsville. I came out to California, October 3, 1983. I got clean and sober here in Skid Row, July 2, 2002. I got a job as a paralegal with the LA County Public Defender’s office. A good paying job. The best part of my legal career was as a public defender. I was in court every day, first as a paralegal, then as a supervising paralegal, and then as a trial attorney. I worked courts all over LA County. The people in my job loved and cared about me. I was dedicated. I had a desire to help. From nine to five I’m on my client’s case. They like hearing somebody talk hip, slick and cool, street shit to them. I was going to court and saying, “Objection your honor.” That impressed them. But I couldn’t be fully engaged because come five-o’clock, I put my hat to the side and I’m going to the hood and finding out where the good dope is.
One day SRO had scheduled our twelve-step meeting and LAPD rehearsals at the same space and same time at James Wood. I thought, “OK, I’ll come and see the performance because she’s going to need someone to clap for this mess.” But La Llorona: Weeping Women Of Skid Row, spoke to me and it spoke to everyone. It was nothing like the rehearsal. It had a flow, it had a meaning it had an intensity. So a friendship was incubated. Agents & Assets was about the war on drugs, which I was intricately involved with. It was about congressional hearings and the Poverty members were going to be playing congressmen and Mr. Hitz, who was the CIA Inspector General. I’m a lawyer, I can do this! I joined and I started listening. “This is deep, this is what art is about.”
I joined the LA Poverty Department and I started working part time with UCEPP and getting deeper into what environmental prevention looks like. I came in with all those stereotypes. You think about people who look like us. You don’t think about the businesses that thrive on communities like this: that sell drug paraphernalia. You don’t think about the landlords that got substandard housing, who are employing the twenty-eighth day shuffle, which was one of LA CAN’s first campaigns. Then I saw how the Poverty Department, how LA CAN, how UCEPP were the few organizations that were asking those hard questions. Suddenly, I was involved, walking in the streets, and people were starting to notice,: “KevinMichael!” I got a little dip in my hips, some glide in my stride, some glut in my strut.
I’m starting to really feel a part of. Addicts will tell you they want to – and most people everywhere want to be a part of something – a part of something greater than yourself. A part of a solution rather than the problem.
Working together we have done some really cool things to change the narrative about Skid Row. I’ve been down here, clean and sober fifteen years.
Over and over and over again, the people have prevailed, ‘cuz people do care about each other around these streets. We have to ‘cuz tomorrow night, it might be you. I am my brothers and my sisters keeper because he’s gonna keep me. That’s my story. And I’m sticking wit’ it.–KevinMichael Key