Last week San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed delivered his usual speech about the benefits of slashing the retirement benefits of his city’s public employees – and why he is now pushing for a statewide ballot measure that could dramatically change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians. Reed’s initiative – which he characterizes as a bipartisan effort and which hasn’t yet qualified for the 2014 ballot — would allow the state and local governments in his home state to reduce retirement benefits for current employees for the years of work they perform after the measure’s changes go into effect. What was not usual about Reed’s speech was its setting: The Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, 3,000 miles from California.
In a move to slash the retirement benefits of public employees in California, a group of mostly conservative policy advocates has been working behind the scenes on a possible 2014 ballot initiative. A copy of the still-secret draft initiative, which could dramatically impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians and send a signal nationwide, has been obtained by Frying Pan News. (See the document’s text following this article or click here.)
If enacted, the proposed law would allow the state and local governments to cut back retirement benefits for current employees for the years of work they perform after the changes go into effect. Previous efforts to curb retirement benefits for public employees have largely focused on newly hired workers, but the initiative would shrink pensions for workers who are currently on the job.
Not everyone was convinced.
Critics, who include pension-fund experts, lawmakers and AARP Kentucky, claim the new law will hurt workers, taxpayers and retirees. What’s more, they say the law was largely crafted behind the scenes by an unusual alliance between two out-of-state organizations: the Pew Center on the States and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Some detractors go further and assert that the Arnold Foundation is using Pew’s sterling reputation for academic integrity as a fig leaf to hide its own free-market agenda.
According to its website, the Center on the States focuses on policy initiatives that include early education, prison sentencing and corrections, and the electoral process. The center is one of seven arms of the influential Pew Charitable Trusts, which is headquartered Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with offices in Washington, D.C. The Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation is in the vanguard of nationwide efforts to limit pensions for state and municipal workers; it was founded by billionaire John Arnold, a onetime Enron trader who later made his fortune as a hedge-fund manager.
“We want to bring to your attention . . . the deceptive work that the Pew Center on the States is engaged in across the country in order to promote their cash balance overhaul policy,” a group of 10 Kentucky state senators and representatives cautioned in an open letter to legislators in other states. The letter warned lawmakers “about the ramifications of letting Pew into your state,” as well as “its unholy alliance with the Arnold Foundation.”
By Gary Cohn, Frying Pan News:
Last November unions won a resounding victory when voters defeated Proposition 32, a ballot measure that would have crippled labor’s political influence in California, partly by barring public-employee unions from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes. The initiative, which enjoyed a huge lead in early opinion polls, was heavily funded by wealthy conservatives and far-right groups.
Union leaders were overjoyed by its defeat.
“You can’t buy California,” Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association (CTA), told an election-night victory party in Sacramento. “We’re not for sale.”
The celebration hasn’t been long lived. In a little-noticed move in April, a conservative legal organization that has pushed to overturn the 1964 Voting Rights Act filed a lawsuit in federal court in Santa Ana that could accomplish in the courts what Prop. 32 couldn’t at the ballot box. The players behind the suit may not be household names but the millionaires and private foundations covering their legal fees represent a familiar klatch of extreme libertarians who, since the 1980s, have been attempting to move the country in a hard-right direction.
California’s Proposition 32 proposes outlawing the use of automatic payroll deductions from union members and corporations for political purposes. Backed by such labor-hating billionaires as the Koch Brothers, Charles Munger Jr., and by anti-marriage equality crusaders like Howard Ahmanson and Larry T. Smith, the measure will decimate unions’ ability to participate in the political process—stripping them of their considerable clout in the state. But that doesn’t mean Prop. 32 is purely about union-busting. Instead, the measure provides its wealthy backers with a means to an end — to eliminate organized labor as the most significant obstacle to imposing a corporate and fundamentalist religious agenda on an otherwise stalwart progressive state.
Prop. 32 isn’t an end game. It’s the beginning of a much larger conservative agenda for California. The only way to truly understand the potential impact of Prop. 32’s passage is to analyze the agenda of its backers.
Here are the 10 most dire issues California can look forward to if Prop. 32 is to pass this week:
A slightly different version of this post, written by Matthew Fleischer, appeared September 13 on Frying Pan News.
Remember the Healthy Forests Act? Or the Clear Skies initiative? How about the Voter Protection Act? Conservative activists and legislators have floated these and other Orwellian-sounding political measures in recent years – laws designed to accomplish the exact opposite goal their titles claim to advocate. But perhaps no political measure is as breathtakingly disingenuous as California’s Proposition 32, the November ballot initiative that supporters claim will “stop special interest money” from flowing to Sacramento.
Funded primarily by conservative multi-millionaires, the initiative would strip labor unions of the ability to use membership dues for political purposes, while largely leaving the clout of wealthy individuals and private corporations untouched – the “fraud to end all frauds,” as Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik has labeled Prop 32. Instead of unilaterally curbing “special interests,” this bill would politically kneecap the most significant opposition to the largely pro-corporate, neoconservative agendas of its wealthy backers. The ripple effect would endanger everything from the most basic consumer, environmental and workplace protections to funding for essential services for children, the poor and the elderly.
The personal prejudices and political hobbies of Prop. 32′s individual sponsors provide a view of the kind of California these men of money and power envision for a future in which their whims could well become legislation. Prop. 32’s leading donor is Charles Munger Jr., a Stanford physicist and heir to the fortune of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway business partner Charlie Munger. The third-largest individual political donor in California since 2001 (spending $14.1 million, almost all on Republican candidates and political platforms), Munger Jr. has given $875,035 to push Prop. 32 thus far, according to his latest filings as a “major donor” with the California Secretary of State’s office.
Aided by a non-threatening fashion sense (like Tucker Carlson, Munger is a firm believer in the un-ironic bow tie), Munger has positioned himself as somewhat of a moderate libertarian. Other than his advocacy for Prop. 32, Munger has remained rather vague in spelling out his economic ideas.
Nevertheless, Munger’s political activities reveal his true stripes. He was a backer, in 2005, of a failed ballot measure to extend the probationary period of school teachers seeking tenure, and donated millions to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s various gubernatorial campaigns. Like Munger, Schwarzenegger also projected a hologram of affable moderation but his legislative agenda was anything but.
This past May, Munger donated $750,000 to help launch a new Republican think tank called the California Reform Institute. According to an August, 2012, Los Angeles Times piece, the CRI’s sole purpose is to boost Republican State Senator Sam Blakeslee’s political ambitions. Blakeslee, who has voted against home-foreclosure reform, prohibitions against sexual-orientation conversions therapy and funding for school transportation, enjoys a 100 percent approval rating from the arch-conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
Still, Munger has kept his economic ideas hazy enough that a recent Los Angeles Times profile described his political temperament as “centrist,” owing to the fact that he balances his anti-taxation views with calls for the Republican Party to soften its focus on gay marriage and abortion – much to the chagrin of his conservative allies.
“I would’ve been very welcome in Republican circles if I decided to go chuck $10 million in a bunch of races up and down the state to fight for Republican control of Congress,” Munger told the Bay Citizen Web site in 2010. “It isn’t a worthy ambition compared to doing this,” he said of his slow-burn libertarian agenda.
As a result, Munger’s media treatment has established him as the perfect conservative frontman for the Prop. 32 effort – a sort of John McCain maverick-type, willing to buck the conventional wisdom of his party. According to this narrative, Munger’s aversion to blood-and-guts evangelical social activism bestows upon his current Prop. 32 efforts a sort of principled libertarianism.
And yet a look at his fellow major contributors reveals a decidedly different picture of the forces behind Prop. 32. Beneath Munger on the donor rolls, a more anti-gay, anti-choice collection of moneyed, pro-corporate political missionaries couldn’t be found – ultraconservative Brahmins who have no hesitation throwing around their money and political might to advance their agenda.
Newport Beach-based real estate investor Larry T. Smith, for example, has so far contributed $255,000 to the cause. Smith is a prominent proponent of “gay-to-straight” conversion therapy for minors who personally donated $50,000 to help support Prop. 8 and funneled even more money to the campaign through his political action group, the Family Action PAC.
Family Action, according to its mission statement, isn’t “a small band of monied Republicans who want to adopt the mantra of the left and move away from the Republican Platform, i.e., become more Democratic Party-like in the Party’s stand on social issues. We will not abandon the Republican Party’s long-standing support of unborn children, sanctity of life and traditional family values for political expediency [sic] sake.”
Curiously, since 2009 the largest recipient of the Family Action PAC’s funds has been Smith’s own company, MHI Real – to the tune of more than $108,000 for “fundraising events.”
Smith’s position as the founder and chair of his own personal PAC has given him a bigger soapbox from which to espouse his religious and political views.
“The California Legislature spends their time on trivia instead of dealing with the major problems that the state has,” Smith recently lamented to the Christian news site Onenewsnow.com about the pro-gay rights Assembly Joint Resolution 43. “And it also tells you how the special interests control the California Legislature.”
Smith’s choice of words in defining gay rights as a “special interest” is particularly notable, considering Prop. 32’s Web site advocates “taking back California by reducing the influence of Special Interests across the board.”
Smith, however, certainly isn’t alone in his desire to impose right-wing Christian political values on California and the nation. Fellow Prop. 32 donor Howard Ahmanson was one of the leading backers of Prop. 8 in California, donating nearly $1.4 million.
The heir to a $300 million fortune, Ahmanson, who suffers from Tourette syndrome, once told the Orange County Register that his political aspirations for the country involved no less than “the total integration of biblical law into our lives.”
Ahmanson has had the sense to impose a virtual media blackout on himself ever since. But while he’s largely clammed up about his politics to the media, his money has yet to stop talking. Throughout the 1990s, Fieldstead and Co., the entity that manages Ahmanson’s private assets, channeled money to such rock-ribbed conservative nonprofits as ALEC, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
He’s donated millions to both creationist and school-voucher causes, and in 1998 and 2005 he donated to the two previous “paycheck protection” initiatives that sought to limit the political activity of unions, giving, respectively, $98,000 to Yes on 226 and $20,000 to Yes on 75. In the 2005 election he also funneled $115,900 into the failed Proposition 73, which would have required parental notification by females under 18 years seeking abortions.
Ahmanson also has a history of financial support for the California Taxpayer Protection Committee. Fieldstead and Co. recently gave the anti-tax-and-regulation group $60,000 and Ahmanson donated $20,000 personally in 2008. The CTPC’s roster of donors is mainly from the insurance and oil industries. According to Ballotpedia, it supported 2010′s controversial Mercury Insurance-backed Prop. 17, which was widely seen as an industry attempt to gut California’s car-insurance reform law.
In the early aughts he donated $1 million to the American Anglican Council – ostensibly to help undermine the tide of tolerance growing in the church towards LGBT parishioners. In a 2004 interview with Salon, Ahmanson’s wife Roberta said of her husband, “His goal is to do with his money what God wants him to do.”
So far, that primarily has revolved around electing socially conservative Republicans and fighting against gay rights, although Ahmanson found the time in 2003 to become one of the primary backers of Gray Davis’ recall.
Strangely, Ahmanson told the Daily Beast in 2009that shortly after Prop. 8 passed he decided to become a “blue-dog Democrat.” What parts of him became Democratic remains to be seen. Fieldstead and Co. recently donated $375,000 to the California Taxpayers Advocate, which California Republican Assembly candidate Matt Kokkonen – a Tea Partier – labeled a “slush fund” in service of “Big Medicine, Big Utilities, Big Developers, and Big Grocers” back in 2010. “Blue Dog” Ahmanson also donated $50,000 to the California Republican Party this past May.
Proposition 32 is not, of course, a conspiracy cooked up by a Billionaire Boys Club, but is part of a frontal assault on consumer rights, worker and environmental protections and the very idea of robust government services. Its coalition of donors and potential beneficiaries include corporations and ideological cadres who are philosophically opposed to the idea of taxation and government regulation.
Such donors include the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association ($125,000), the Lincoln Club of Orange County ($110,000) and Web Laundry Services (WEB)’s CEO William Bloomfield Jr. ($300,000) – a real estate tycoon who is also running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against Los Angeles Congressman Henry Waxman.
But in the weeks to come, it will probably be the “moderate libertarian” Charles Munger, the leading donor to Prop. 32, who will be thrust into the limelight to articulate the need to eliminate union political spending. Like Clear Skies, Healthy Forests and voter protection, Munger and his bow tie will put up a clean enough front for Prop. 32. But it’s the other moneyed figures now lurking in the shadows who tell the true story of this initiative.
A slightly different version of this post, written by Steven Mikulan, appeared yesterday on Frying Pan News.
On Wednesday, June 13, Caroline, an organizer at a downtown press conference held by opponents of a proposed Chinatown Walmart store, noticed a young woman chatting to reporters. She’d seen her exactly one week before at another news conference. There, the young woman introduced herself as Zoe Mitchell, said she was a student at the University of Southern California and, somewhat vaguely, mentioned that she was interested in writing human interest stories.
At the June 6 event, Mitchell seemed sympathetic to the cause of workers who had a long list of complaints against the Walmart-contracted warehouses they worked in. And she had a request – could she talk to some of these workers who spoke English and record their names and stories?
Caroline was happy to accommodate the student and hooked her up with a lengthy interview with the worker present who spoke English. Then, on June 13, Caroline spotted “Zoe” and went over to her. (Watch video here.)
“Hi, you were at our event last week!” she said, greeting Zoe. But the young woman gave the organizer an odd look and tried to turn away.
“I just wanted to welcome you back,” Caroline persisted. “You’re the student from USC.”
“No I’m not,” the young woman replied coldly and moved away.
Before long word spread among the news conference’s other organizers that the erstwhile student might be a Walmart spy. Caroline now followed the young woman about as “Zoe” handed out her business card to the assembled journalists.
“What is your name, who are you working for?” Caroline asked, point-blank. She got an equally blunt answer.
“Stephanie Harnett. I’m with a PR firm hired by Walmart.” The card she’d been handing out revealed her employer: Mercury Public Affairs, a national “high-stakes” PR agency whose partners include political operatives and former elected officeholders, mostly from the GOP.
Harnett then went about her real assignment which, apparently, was to infiltrate the event and try and sway reporters. But the organizer followed Harnett with a video camera, asking, “Why did you lie last week?” Harnett kept dodging the other woman, trying to hide her face from Caroline’s camera until, finally, Harnett pleaded, “Can’t you just leave me alone – I’m just trying to do my job. I respected you doing your job, why can’t you respect me?”
An Internet search reveals that Harnett did once write for USC’s Daily Trojan newspaper before she graduated from the school. Frying Pan News called the number she had written on a media sign-in sheet, but it was not a working exchange. A call to the number on her Mercury business card was answered by a woman who directed us to spokeswoman Becky Warren in Sacramento, but a message left with Warren was not returned by press time; neither was a request for comment made to Walmart.
Harnett is still looking for respect -- today Gawker announced that she has been fired and her Twitter account is closed. Whether her playing secret agent was Harnett’s own idea or her employer’s hasn’t been fully explained yet, although statements made to Gawker by Warren and Walmart disavow knowledge of her actions.
If, however, she was an undercover spy for Walmart it would mark an escalation in the corporation’s tactics as it fights to gain a foothold in downtown Los Angeles. Given recent allegations about Walmart’s bribery of public officials in Mexico and elsewhere, though, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Especially in the age of James O’Keefe III, when agents provocateurs troll public events and record their political enemies’ quotes for use against them.
“It is unusual in this day and age to send in an undercover operative,” says Ross Johnson, a veteran Los Angeles publicist and CEO of Ross Johnson Public Relations, when asked about the incident. “But there are very few rules in the political 24/7 news cycle of a political public affairs agency. Am I surprised they got caught? No. Do they care they were caught? I doubt it.”
A slightly different version of this post, written by Steven Mikulan, appeared on Frying Pan News.
Much was made in Ray Bradbury’s obits last week of his paradoxical nature: He was a science fiction writer who never drove a car or used a computer, a seer who looked to the past to describe the future. All of which was true – Bradbury was one of the few authors who could make a trip to the next century seem like a sentimental journey. The reason is that so much of his Tomorrowland was really mid-20th Century America dressed up in a space suit and relocated to Mars. The Midwestern front porch on a summer evening, lit by fireflies and the murmur of conversation, was as key to Bradbury’s fictional worlds as rocket ships and robots.
In fact, Bradbury is too often typecast as a science fiction writer – after all, he wrote a number of plays for Los Angeles theater, along with the screenplay for John Huston’s film Moby Dick and the narration for King of Kings. His few novels and most of his short story collections are probably best described as fantasy – fantasies whose frequent moral twists made them social fables. Fahrenheit 451, for example, is a dystopic vision of the nearest of futures – a censorious world every bit like ours except that firemen happen to burn books instead of putting out fires. “The Other Foot,” a 1951 short story with a lynching theme, takes place on a Mars populated with American Negroes, but it’s really set in a place much closer to home.
I spoke to Bradbury a couple of times on the phone and was surprised to learn how humble a background he came from. A true child of the Great Depression, Bradbury sold afternoon newspapers on Olympic and Norton in Los Angeles, then spent part of his earnings attending meetings, at a downtown cafeteria, of the science fiction club he and his friends had founded.
“Dues were 10 cents a meeting,” he told me in a 2004 interview for the L.A. Weekly. “It cost seven cents to take the trolley car there, and Clifton’s had wonderful dime malts — they were whole meals. We’d also eat cheese enchiladas.”
His low-income upbringing would leave its mark on Bradbury, whose stories invariably spotlighted underdogs and outcasts. Not only did John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath have a profound impact on the young fantasist, but Bradbury said he used this Dust Bowl novel to structure the short stories in his collection, The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury, an autodidact who graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1938, was no propagandist for any cause, however, and seemed pleased by his late-career credentials as a curmudgeonly Luddite who hated cell phones and the Internet.
He also seemed to relish a reputation as the house male chauvinist whenever he appeared on television programs and, during one of our interviews, told me quite bluntly that the country was going to hell in a handbasket because of all the illegal aliens from Mexico – a country he described as “horrible.” In fact, despite several short stories sympathetically portraying Mexicans and immigrants who were presumably legal, Bradbury traced his animosity to Mexico to a harrowing road trip he and a friend took south of the border after World War II. He would never return.
It’s disheartening that an artist of Bradbury’s stature harbored such repugnant views. And while there’s no excusing it, Bradbury’s anti-immigrant bigotry offers a sobering reminder that artists are only as human as the person sitting next to you on the bus, and that in some way our heroes will always let us down. Poets don’t make their precarious livings as saints, but, like Bradbury, when they die they leave our lonely planet a little poorer.
A slightly different of this post, written by Steven Mikulan, appeared on Frying Pan News.
File this under the We Couldn’t Have Said It Better Ourselves Department: Op-ed columnist Joe Nocera articulated on the very respectable pages of the New York Times what many of us have known for years: Unions are good for the economy. Well, no – make that, unions are essential for the economy to work for everyone. Nocera, the famously contrarian business writer, talks about his picket-line-walking parents and his union-solid Rhode Island birthplace – but how, as a member of America’s post-war educated class, he came to view organized labor “with mild disdain.”
The madeleine that stokes his remembrance of union things past is The Great Divergence, Timothy Noah’s new book about income inequality. After confessing to holding an outlook once similar to Noah’s early views of labor as “a spent force,” Nocera now agrees with him that liberals have turned their backs on unions with terrible consequences. Citing Noah’s claim that the decline of union membership has a neat, statistical corollary in the collapse of middle class incomes, the Times columnist follows up by quoting Harvard economist Richard Freeman’s assertion that the cratering of union membership unambiguously accounts for 20 percent of the present income gap in America.
“This makes perfect sense,” according to Nocera. “Company managements don’t pay workers any more than they have to — look, for instance, at Walmart, one of the most virulently antiunion companies in the country.”
Nocera concludes his column with a line that might have been borrowed from no less a radical economist than Paul Sweezy. “If liberals really want to reverse income inequality,” Nocera writes, “they should think seriously about rejoining labor’s side.”
Far from it, liberals – and even union members – seem to be abandoning and undermining labor. We only have to look at the dismal results of the Wisconsin recall election to see the evidence. There, National Public Radio and others report, exit polls revealed that 38 percent of union-household voters cast ballots to retain the state’s paranoiacally anti-labor governor, Scott Walker. Why this disconnect?
Some union members are solid Republicans, for a host of reasons beyond union identity. “You can’t assume just because a person is a union member, they are also a Democrat,” Kristin Hansen, an Obama campaign volunteer, points out in the NPR piece.
Other union voters, who would previously have leaned towards the Democrats, may be disenchanted with the donkeys. For one thing, the White House has kept labor at arm’s length since the morning after election day, 2008. They barely paid lip service, for example, to labor’s prime directive since 2007 – passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), legislation that, among other things, would have made forming a union just a little more efficient – and democratic – by protecting pro-union workers from employer reprisals.
EFCA was nothing radical — it didn’t seek to overturn Taft-Hartley or force company employees to watch multiple screenings of Norma Rae. Getting it passed, however, meant everything to the unions. Nevertheless, many of labor’s erstwhile congressional allies were too cowed by the conservative assault to lift a finger for the House and Senate versions of the bill.
Finally, labor’s struggle to endure may be a self-perpetuating state. Its losing streak — from EFCA’s death on the vine to the Wisconsin recall debacle — means that unions are now locked in a spiral of existential battles for survival in which every election drains them of resources and morale. Even when unions defeat cynical “paycheck protection” initiatives, they must devote more money and effort to defeat them than the corporatist forces spend kiting these measures. This means unions are doing less of the things – like organizing, standing up against the worst of big business and lifting jobs into the middle class – that would directly benefit the working people whose support is sliding away.
This translates into a grim calculus in which unions are diminished with every election cycle and have less muscle to offer in the fight to retain the White House. While unions remain the biggest source of election campaign money and boots-on-the-ground volunteers in voter drives, they are losing members and clout. As Noah and Nocera suggest, now is not the time for liberals to keep unions at arm’s length, but to embrace them tighter than ever.
Author Erin Aubry Kaplan is a Los Angeles journalist whose book, Black Talk, Blue Thoughts and Walking the Color Line, is published by University Press of New England. A slightly different of her post appeared April 24 on Frying Pan News.
I was living in Inglewood in 1992. When the verdicts came in I was getting a facial -- we were all really outraged in the salon. At that time I was teaching adult education courses -- basic English and math for GED exams, plus ESL classes. I felt like I had to do something and a teacher friend and I heard there was a rally at the First AME Church. I was excited -- I hadn’t really seen this kind of energizing in L.A. before. But as we drove to FAME people were filling up the streets and the energy felt dangerous.
We never made it: This guy threw a trash can into the street and someone tried to stop a motorist. (My father also went to FAME and didn’t make it inside because it was too crowded -- but things got ugly and people started to leave. Some guys were ready to bust up my dad's car, but somebody he knew yelled at them, "He's okay, he's Larry Aubry, good people!" and they backed off.)
So we kept driving west to where the streets weren’t filled and ended up in Brentwood at a bar – in the Hamburger Hamlet! The mostly white crowd there only wanted to watch the Lakers. My friend and I got mad at that too -- we were the only two black people in Brentwood and we were scolding these white people for not caring about what was happening in South Central.
A fair amount of stuff happened in Inglewood that wasn’t publicized – there was quite a lot of looting, and a curfew -- which is why I didn’t go out after the first night. My sister was working at the Auto Club near USC. From a distance she looks white and so she had to drive off through red lights a couple of times, because people were coming after her whenever she stopped.
I was mostly excited and expected something major to come out of this. A big tide was turning -- I felt the iron curtain had lifted. At the same time there was a new jazz club on Crenshaw and King that got burned to the ground, and that really killed me.
For almost five years I had been sort of working with a small publication called Accent L.A., but the riots realigned my priorities. We pulled the issue we’d been working on and rewrote a new one to cover the unrest. We put together a pretty good issue and got it out.
Soon afterward the L.A. Times hired me -- the official beginning of my journalism career. They had a crisis of conscience and started all these new sections I wrote for, covering the Crenshaw area for three years. The Times had a diversity committee for a while and that created some tension in the newsroom – they’d rounded up black and Latino reporters from the Valley or Orange County bureaus to cover South Central. People knew it was dangerous -- they were cannon fodder.
Not nearly as much changed after the riots as I thought would. Stuff was cleaned up and the police have gotten better, but we didn’t learn our lessons. We ended up with “retail justice” -- all that black anger about inequality of justice got focused on Let’s Build Some Stores – Krispy Kreme, a Home Depot. There’s not a core economy, though -- just stores that serve people who work elsewhere. Unemployment in the city is worse now. Twenty years later, look at that leveled land next to the Crenshaw Mall – that’s all you need to know.
Click here for more 1992 Remembered stories.
Author Reverend Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city's mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was a founder of Santa Monica's renter's rights campaign. A slightly different version of his post appeared April 19 on Frying Pan News.
It was a Wednesday night and my son was watching the news on TV in his room while I fixed dinner. “Dad,” he called from the bedroom, “Dad, you better get in here and see this.”
“This” turned out to be the beginnings of the worst urban social upheaval in American history. Its early moments were caught on film by a news helicopter high over the intersection of Florence and Normandie. We watched, transfixed, as some black kids pulled a white truck driver out of his cab and one of them hit him with a brick. An Asian woman was threatened as she tried to make a right turn off Normandie onto Florence, her face etched with fear. Car windows were broken. The news commentators called them “hoodlums” and the police were nowhere in sight. Then we watched as the city began to burn.
I was an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara when Watts upended L.A. in 1965, and now, in 1992, I wanted to see for myself what the aftermath of a night of riots looked like. So I put on my clerical collar – my defense against universal disorder – climbed in my old VW bug, and drove the streets of South L.A. I haphazardly drove to every United Methodist Church south of the I-10. From Vernon and Budlong to Normandie and 65th Street, to Grammercy near Manchester, over to 85th and Main, down past 103rd and Central, then back north toward the I-10.
The streets were relatively quiet in the morning-after hangover. Not many cars. Police units with officers crammed in, four-to-a-car, guns bristling. Latino families pushing shopping carts from looted supermarkets piled high with boxes of diapers, bottled water, canned food.
Every church I saw – including the ones I passed that weren’t Methodist, were locked up, closed. The ministers were home safe, apparently. Except for an older minister I knew at one place. He had spent the night at the church, he told me. He knew the gangs in the neighborhood and in the early morning hours he had pushed a flaming mattress away from a wall of the community center across the street that the church operated. Alone, he had talked down some kids in the neighborhood who were on a rampage.
Later up on West Adams, my long-time mentor, Rev. Jim Lawson, was also at his church, Holman United Methodist. He was the one who had invited Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis to support the garbage workers’ strike and who had trained Nashville’s non-violent demonstrators. From his office window we now watched the smoke curling up from a dozen fires around the basin. We felt saddened by the events and the destruction, and we were aware of how much more there was to come before things turned around.
In 1965, the official response examined the needs in South L.A.: the bureaucracy of welfare, the neglect of schools, the absence of supermarkets, the segregated housing, the dearth of hospitals, the barest representation at City Hall, an occupying force of a nearly all-white police force. These were the results of a white Los Angeles that was not paying attention. As my then-bishop at the time said, “I didn’t know.”
In 1992 the response looked at the assets of South Los Angeles. Bankers took bus tours to places they had never seen and realized there were healthy loan opportunities there. Studies examined the amount of groceries people from the area purchased but could not buy in South Los Angeles, so firms promised to build supermarkets and strip malls. The school district geared up the largest municipal bond issue in American history to build new schools across the inner city. The media acknowledged and acclaimed the richness and diversity of cultural experience throughout the area. The city identified 52,000 jobs in South L.A. -- where conventional wisdom said there were none -- and initiated job creation and work-readiness projects.
In 1965 Los Angeles looked at the neglected needs of South Los Angeles. In 1992 it focused on asset analysis and the results attracted investments from both private and public sectors. The work is not done. Some of it has stalled, but in the aftermath of that upheaval the tone and the tenor shifted – and even the results – from despair to possibility. Those were changes my son and I would never have imagined as we sat in his room that night watching TV as L.A. burned.
Other 1992 Remembered Posts:
Anthony Ausgang: The Artist’s Story
Mike Davis: A Tale of Two Riots
Lovell Estell III: Hold the Flak Vest
Martin Hernandez: Burn, Maybe Burn?
Judith Lewis Mernit: The Ecology of Riot
Ted Soqui: A Photographer Follows the Smoke
Blogger Ted Soqui's account of L.A.'s 1992 riots appears below. He covered the violence for the L.A. Weekly and created some the unrest's most memorable images. In 2011 his photograph of an Occupy L.A. protester was used by Shepard Fairey to produce Time magazine's Person of the Year cover. A slightly different version of this post appeared on Frying Pan News.
I was at the Simi Valley courthouse when the jury came in – nobody could believe the verdict, but no one thought the city would blow up. Later I heard something on AM radio about rocks and bottles being thrown at Florence and Normandie, but didn’t know the full situation and so didn’t go down there.
There was no Internet or cell phones then and I got the news on KFWB: “There’s a crowd forming at Parker Center.” I drove there that night with a Nikon and three lenses – a 24mm, a 105mm and a 180mm. I didn’t use a flash because cops were yelling, “Don’t blind me with your flash!”
I parked next to a police car, thinking it was the safest place to be. But the mob turned it over and set it ablaze. Then they started rocking my car. I tried to get them to stop but they wouldn’t. All of a sudden they scattered – the ammo in the burning cop car started exploding. I took my chance and drove off, up the wrong way on a one-way street. I went home and developed my film -- I also bought some more at Pix Camera. I was their last sale before a burst of gunfire went off and the owner shut down the store.
The next morning [Thursday, April 30] I met Doug Burrows, another photographer, at the Brite Spot diner in Echo Park – a big cop hangout. The idea was to get intel on what the LAPD was planning and then follow them. But we didn’t get any because the cops didn’t know what was going on -- there was a feeling of unconcern in the diner.
So we just followed the smoke. That became the plan – you see smoke, you know there’s a photo there.
We shot from Doug’s car -- sometimes we got out and I shot through a paper bag with a hole cut out for the lens, which I hid with my hand until I was ready to shoot. The only other person with a camera I saw was a famous war photographer who had two bodyguards with him – that was when I knew this was a big story.
As soon as we pulled into this one street the fire guys told us to leave – they said some other journalists had gotten robbed a while before and there was nothing the firemen could do for them. We did see some neighborhood people pulling together to put out fires, but it was mostly people taking advantage of the situation.
For the first two days after the National Guard arrived, they had guns but no ammo – and were told to hide that fact from photographers. Part of the Guard were the Tunnel Trolls – they’d taken so much fire that they spent nights sleeping in the Coliseum’s tunnels. At one point some Playboy Playmates arrived to cheer up the Guard that were camped out at the Coliseum. I thought that was just weird and borderline inappropriate.
May First was “Mother’s Day” – the day county checks come in. The Guard was there at the Hancock Station Post Office, on South Vermont, to make sure people could pick up their checks because there was no mail delivery. Everyone got paid that day.
Today there are very few visual scars of the rioting left. You can still see a section of distressed, black-and-white floor tiles on the corner of Vermont and Manchester. I think today people are more thoughtful in their responses to events like the King verdict – you can see that with Trayvon Martin.
When I was taking some 20-years-after photographs for Los Angeles magazine, a Korean-American kid came up to me at Western and Sixth, and asked what I was doing. I explained that there had been a riot here with Korean stores singled out by angry mobs, but he couldn’t understand the riot’s racial mechanics – his best friend was black. But in 1990, 1992, it was all about race.
Other 1992 Remembered Posts: