Homeless man shot by LAPD: Who was 'Africa'?

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Story highlights

  • The man known as Africa often helped employees at a homeless shelter
  • But he sometimes acted erratically, and footage showed him fighting before his death

Los Angeles (CNN)No one knew him by his real name.

But on the harsh streets of Skid Row that became his home, he was known as Africa.
Surveillance footage, police and homeless community activists paint wildly different pictures of the man -- one who could be violent, benevolent, troubled and altruistic.
    Africa was shot and killed by Los Angeles police Sunday after he scuffled with officers. The shooting, caught on video, has renewed accusations of police brutality because it showed him already on the ground. Police say he tried to reach for an officer's gun.
    The Los Angeles County coroner's office has identified Africa, but is not releasing his real name pending notification of relatives.

    Life on the streets

    Africa came to the United States from the continent about a decade ago, said a friend who would only be identified as Nick G.
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    Like Africa, Nick had also been homeless on the streets of Skid Row -- a decrepit area wrought with poverty and despair.
    "He wanted to get away from here, he wanted to go back home," Nick said.
    "He was very depressed. Very, very depressed. He had a good side to him, a good heart."
    Africa kept a tent outside the Union Rescue Mission homeless shelter. Even though the shelter was right in front of him, he didn't want the help.
    Instead, Africa often helped the shelter's employees.
    "Our cleaning guys -- he would help them organize cleaning of (the) sidewalk," said the Rev. Andy Bales, the shelter's CEO.
    He described Africa as gentle and kind -- but with an erratic side.
    "I attribute the erratic behavior to this difficult environment out here."

    Bursts of violence

    Less than an hour before he was killed Sunday, a nearby security camera showed Africa apparently dealing drugs -- the sad and only real currency of Skid Row's economy.
    The footage then shows Africa getting into a fight with the man in the orange tent next to him, violently tipping the tent and kicking the man. Police arrive and talk to Africa, but he jumps into the tent -- prompting officers to draw their guns.
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    Africa then jumps out, swinging his arms at police. Los Angeles police say he tried to grab an officer's gun, and that's when he was shot.
    Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck called the incident "an extreme tragedy."
    "We feel great compassion in the LAPD for people who live in conditions of homelessness, and often mental illness, with no treatment," Beck said.
    "We prepare our officers to deal as best they can with them, but the reality is this is much more than a problem that the police alone can solve."

    The broader problem

    Bales said the dismal conditions of LA's Skid Row makes it a tinder box for more problems.
    "There is no other major city in the U.S. that has a skid row like ours," he said. "2,000 human beings living on the street. Until we deal with that, we're going to continue to have an explosive situation."
    On the sidewalk where Africa was shot, a modest memorial sits atop a small pile of belongings.
    "RIP Cameroon," one cardboard sign reads "Rest in Peace Africa."
    It's unclear when the Los Angeles County coroner's office will release Africa's real name.
    From there, it's unclear where Africa's remains will go.