Monthly Archives: November 2008

Tucson

I was at the Hut on Friday, watching the live band with all of my brother Dan’s friends in it, they’re really good, so I was enjoying it, but after Melissa left I was on my own for a while. And feeling funnily split into layers, Tucson means too many things to me to fit inside really, they slide over each other uneasily, and I wonder who exactly I am.

It means the desert, which to me is beauty and freedom, wide open spaces and heat. It’s growing up in the adobe house my parents built on a dirt road removed from everyone but my immediate family. It is deep happiness in being alive, and every evening spent on the hill watching the sun set golden behind the mountains. It’s walking in the monsoons and being surrounded by water, watching it pour down the wash in waves of muddy roaring taller than me, sweeping everything before it while the sheet lightening brightens the sky and the thunder cracks and the world is fresh and new smelling. It means a fascination with the world around me, how plants grow and the lives of animals and insects. It is years of devouring every book I could get my hands on. It’s walking out the door with my dog and walking for miles and never seeing another human being. It’s running around barefoot. It’s losing everything.

It means school too, and years of never quite understanding the kids around me. It’s my own terrible shyness coming off as snobbishness I think. And being far too much of a school girl and never cool enough to pull off the second hand clothes and bad haircuts, and learning just how much other girls can wound you with only their words. And it was always being defensive and afraid…of just looking people in the eyes because that could be enough for them to physically hurt you. It’s P pounding some other girls head into the pavement with her right hand wrapped up in the girl’s long black hair. It’s blood on the floor of the hall, lockers bent out of shape, the guy that got shot in the high school parking lot, people taking pills in the drinking fountain and unplanned pregnancies all around me while I was still afraid of kissing. It was constant reminders of our poverty, and thinking about race and class and the world. A lot of fear and humiliation from school really, though I had some good times too.

It means working at Kmart, and living in the world where English is never spoken, going out to dive bars in South Tucson with my ex Luis, and dancing to rancheras and mariachi and tex mex pop in places where I wouldn’t get carded. It’s winning 20 dollars in beer vouchers in a cumbia contest in a bar just off the res, it’s a new fear of the migra. It’s all of my minimum wage jobs really, and coworkers like Art who used to go out driving with beers and his gun and shoot up the watch-for-cow signs on the reservation, and Mike who used to spend work breaks playing with salt, using his license to card it into snortable lines on the table. It’s Famous Sams where they used to have los tigres del norte and gath brooks and lowrider oldies and led zepplin on the jukebox, and where I used to play pool.

It’s coming home now, now that my parents live in a completely different part of town and having no contact with anyone I used to know, or the old places I used to go. I am almost like a tourist now, it never quite feels real. I sort of inhabit my little brothers’ Tucson which is completely different again. I haven’t even thrown in the Britishness, or Mexico or college or L.A. I’ve come so far since then, yet these are the foundations I suppose. I’m still not sure what they mean, though I keep stumbling over them.

Hatred and Happiness

Today I am hating LA.

There are few times I really hate people, very few. But EVERY time I try to get myself and my bike off of the train, and have to fight my way through a bunch of fat, ugly, morally bankrupt assholes who don’t have the common courtesy to let people off the train before they force their way onto it. Well. I hate them all. En masse and individually. And when people occasionally get a smack from one of my pedals or my bag I don’t even care, because damned if I get stuck on there and have to ride the train until the next stop. They always just stand there and stare at you when they’re directly in front. They don’t even try to move. And I don’t know what they think I’m going to do, I have far fewer options than they do if I want to get off the god damn train.

There are other things I hate about the train, but those have more systemic causes I know. I hate seeing kids the age of five and elders over 70 selling candy. I hate being around people drinking 40’s out of black plastic bags. I hate the simmering violence. Today in front of me there was an old black man spread out over three seats. And a rough 30-something  latino guy asked him to move his feet. And he refused. And so the latino guy pushed his way onto the seat beside him. And the interchange?

“You think that mother-fucking seat is worth getting your head blown off? I will blow your head off mother-fucker, and so tell me if your life is worth that mother-fucking seat. Just you reach for it mother-fucker, I dare you, I will shoot you in the mother-fucking head, all you god damn mother fucking beaners should stay on your own damn side of the border, stealing our jobs, I hate all of you god damn mother fuckers, I’ll shoot all of you…”

And so on. And me with my insides curling up with fear because people do get shot in this city for such stupid shit, and there’s no telling what the latino guy is going to do and there’s a couple of younger black kids drunk already and with 40’s in their hands sitting a few seats up and one stands up and walks back to see if he’s going to get into it, and so I thank fuck when the latino guy realizes he is dealing with someone crazy enough (and with little enough to lose) to actually hurt him, and moves away.  I hate it when poor people fight each other. It’s stupid, and it makes me angry. And I know that old guy has been kicked around by a horrible fucked up racist world, I hate that he let it beat him and takes it out on other people, other races.

And I’m still sore from getting hit by a stupid car, and I’m hating that too. I hate the stiffness along my right side and the ache in my shin. And i hate that people in cars don’t watch out for bicyclists.

And I hate the fact that I came home today looking forward to a wee bit of pasta, and all of the pots and pans have mysteriously disappeared. So I had to have tuna instead. And the can opener wasn’t really working. And there was no mayo. And i’m hoping that the pots will return with my roommate.

And you know, I started the day so happy. I’m not entirely sure why I woke up so happy, but I did. And then I wandered down to the liquor store for milk and tortillas and the old guy down there told me I was as beautiful as always even though I was all sleepy and tousled and entirely unwashed. He held my hand as he gave me my change and said he would love to marry me…what a lovely thing for the ego. Because he was very charming about it, and very respectful, and altogether a lovely old man. It’s not so nice when they’re lewd and creepy and look you up and down, I despise those guys, I’d have to hike up the hill to the Korean place.

And so this morning I sat on the bus surrounded by screaming children and wished happiness were contagious, that it could float around me to light up the grime and the dust the way afternoon sun sometimes does, set it dancing and spinning in tiny shining motes of light like golden butterflies. I thought that would be lovely. And then the day beat it out of me.

LA’s floating islands

Wealth in LA floats. We are not just segregated from north to south and east to west, but above and below. And I suppose I knew about the aerial isle that was once Bunker Hill, but I’d never really walked it, and until you walk you don’t really know a place. At 4th and Hope you are high up above LA, and all traces of the old Victorian neighborhood once there were completely bulldozed and destroyed several decades ago. And there followed some truly grim decades in terms of block architecture, and a planning model designed to keep public space as the exclusive right of the right people. So it is a modern wonderland of concrete and plazas leading to car garages and sleek, expensive men and women. There are a couple of skyscrapers built on it, their lights serve as the stars and I’ll not deny a strange beauty to them…there are some expensive shops and restaurants, but they all look like upscale chains. It’s that particularly L.A. thing I think, where everything is relatively new, sanitized, familiar, safe. People here trade what is real and true for a secure and enhanced façade every time, just look at sunset strip with its fake western bar, it’s fake Irish pub. Look at people themselves. And this place is made for cars, you have to climb a very steep hill to get here, and it isn’t the easiest thing on foot. I’m sure that’s quite deliberate. The right sort of person doesn’t walk in this city. I passed Gehry’s Disney hall, it’s on the edge of this as is MOCA. Wealth’s claim on high culture.

Usually I go beneath this place, through the terminator tunnel with its shiny white tiles reflecting the light when they are not falling off the walls, and the homeless sleeping along the sidewalk. I like it better underneath.  The higher you go in LA, the richer it invariably gets. From crack in Hollywood to cocaine in the Hollywood Hills and so it goes everywhere…even Echo Park has had its bastions of wealth up on top of everything, and now of course it is gentrifying at the speed of light, and from top down.

These things make me angry, so I’m glad the YMCA is still there, giving people one last reason to democratize space. I was walking because I forgot a clean shirt to change into after workout, sauna and steam, and couldn’t face jumping on a standing room only bus full of people going home from work. Especially since I was going home TO work. Happy Friday to me. But I haven’t really been home for so long, so I’m still enjoying it.

Robert King in L.A. and San Diego

I had the honor to drive Robert King around Southern California this past weekend to a handful of events centered on the Angola 3 campaign and his new book From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of ex Black Panther Robert Hillary King.

It’s an incredible story of what it means to be Black in this country; beautifully written and deep and it made me cry at two different points. And never fear, it has an inspiring ending.

I learned that I actually eat more than King, I wake up MUCH later, and that      there were possibly a few too many things edited out of the book (which I take responsibility for, though all complaints should be sent to my colleague ramsey). And a lot of really great stories that should have been in there but somehow never made it. Like the exact plan of how he escaped from Angola, and climbed walls using rope made out of the ticking from the mattresses and stepped on someone’s face and heard one of the women yell hey Tarzan, take me, it’s Jane…Which is why you have to hear him speak. But we were there to educate, not just tell stories, so I’ll be serious for a moment.

Slavery has continued in this country under the guise of prisons. There are now approximately 2.3 million people in prison, another 5 to 6 million people are on some kind of parole or probation, and 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 21 and 29 are incarcerated…

And there is a vast amount of money to be made on prisoners. The prisons get money for housing and feeding prisoners, and money for transporting them. They get money for the work that prisoners do while in prison. Prisons form the entire economic base and are the principal employer in many a small town. In Angola, Louisiana the 5,000 prisoners are counted in the town census as citizens allowing the town to receive additional federal benefits. Angola is 18,000 acres that went from plantation to prison with no break in between, even maintaining the sugar cane and cotton fields. Prisoners are guaranteed no rights in the constitution that supposedly abolished slavery. Here is a view of the place from the book:

So Robert Hillary King. He joined the Black Panther party in a Louisiana prison and worked to organize prisoners to protest the terror of the conditions they lived in. He, along with compañeros Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were actually succeeding in some things, like getting holes cut in the cell bars so that their food no longer had to scrape along the bottom of their doors when it was shoved underneath. They held classes in literacy and political education. They protested and worked to end the physical and mental abuse of prisoners, the constant invasive strip searches, and the prevalence of rape. They were reaching out to white prisoners. And so they were stopped.

King was framed in the murder of another inmate on his tier, found guilty though the man who had killed testified it had been in self-defense and that he had acted alone. Albert and Herman were framed in the murder of a prison guard (based on the testimony of seven eye witnesses – each of whom claimed they were the only ones at the scene besides the murderers! One of whom was shortly released on furlough due to his blindness. All of whom received incredible treatment from that day on, in spite of testimony that was hopelessly contradictory). King, although he was not in Angola at the time, was put under investigation as an accomplice, and was held in solitary for 29 years on that ground.

King fought his case over the years, and walked free in 2001. He said that he might be free of Angola, but Angola would never be free of him. He has kept that promise. Herman and Albert continue in prison, though Albert’s conviction has been overturned. The State has appealed the decision, and are resorting to character assassination in their attempt to ensure that both Herman and Albert remain safe and sound behind bars until they die.

So we started with an event sponsored by the Southern California Library at the L.A. Grand Theatre, a showing of the documentary on the Angola 3 (could use a bit more editing but is really a great documentary) with King speaking after. We had dinner with Gary Phillips and Gilda Haas (both future PM authors), then drove down to Whittier to stay with the Cambrons. It was a weekend of brilliant people and great hospitality I have to say! Then on Saturday we drove down to San Diego, where we stayed with Dennis Childs and his wife Saranella, both of them beautiful in every sense of the word. That day’s event was at the Malcolm X library, and the following day at UCSD.  Here he is at the Library:

And here are King and Dennis at UCSD:

And of course, we were traveling in style in the rented red mustang, here are King, Saranella and I, it has been extraordinarily hot here as you can see:

A brilliantly intense weekend, though I’ll admit my thoughts had a certain tendency to stretch somewhere rather different in a smiley day-dreamy sort of way. And it was an exhausting though rewarding trip, so happy reverie came as some relief in the rare downtime. I don’t think that’s why I did my best to make King miss his flight up to the Bay by jumping on the 605 North rather than South in rush hour traffic after a last lovely night in Whittier, it’s the fact I’ve yet to try my bike on the freeways I believe! Or that I don’t know Whittier. Or that I forgot to clarify the direction with Arturo before leaving. But everything worked out all right in the end…

There is much to be done on the campaign to free the remaining two of the Angola three. For more information on how to get involved, go to http://www.angola3grassroots.org, and for the book or dvd, click on the images above or go to http://www.pmpress.org.

The Black Panther, Red Mustang, and I

This is a pre-blog really, and the title says it all. For the next three days I shall be touring  Robert King, ex Black Panther and one of the Angola 3, around Southern California in a cherry red mustang. It’s rented, they had nothing else left. So look for us on LA and San Diego streets near you…hopefully you won’t see us chatting to any cops.

Unidad Campaign puts the “Public” back into “Public Meeting”

Tonight the City of Los Angeles held a scoping meeting for the Environmental Impact Report on the South L.A. and Southeast L.A. Community Plan. Exciting, right? You’re on the edge of your seats…

Usually there are a handful of people at these meetings. Some men and women in suits. Maybe a handful of people in the community with the time and the money and the training to look into the issues and show up. They represent an incredibly small slice of the community interest, and generally a conservative one.

Tonight was different though. First, a lot of people showed up. A lot.  People not usually at this sort of bureaucratically mind-boggling morass of legal and environmental jargon, why would they be here? It is designed to preserve the facade of participation while keeping people out, to ensure planning is left to the experts who can then do whatever they want to do. These experts spent decades removing almost all services and cutting funding to everything left; tearing down homes to build factories; permitting liquor stores, hourly motels, and strip clubs to march side by side with schools, parks, churches. They used planning to devastate the neighborhood with one hand, and withheld any sort of aid to struggling organizations with the other. The war zone that breaks my heart every day has been the result. And in spite of them, in spite of an absence of jobs and hope, in spite of the crack explosion of an earlier decade and the constant battle of drugs and turf that claims our youth, in spite of high rents for slum housing so overcrowded that people sleep in bathtubs and their beds in shifts, in spite of all this we have created some things that are beautiful. And the goal seems to be to plunk down a lot of high end retail and luxury housing on top of that, pushing people from one slum where they have managed to build networks and community to another that is unknown. At least, that’s what has been happening to date with the city bending over in its eagerness to facilitate it.

So people stood up tonight to reclaim the place of the public in a public meeting. To demand that the city recognize decades of racism, greed and neglect that have resulted in a devastated community. To reclaim their right to continue to live in that community even as they fight to improve it. And to reclaim the word environment…when was it reduced to spotted owls, air quality, density, parking and green space? It is all of these things and they are all important, but how can it not also include the buildings, the people who live within them, and the conditions in which they live?

So it was a meeting of righteous anger, of stories that could make you cry, of great applause for all of the community speakers. And comedy of course. You’d really think that planners would be overjoyed at this break in a life of regulated tedium! Monic gave a ringing list of all the groups and organizations present at the meeting and over 60 of us stood in a show of strength, so the Planning Department’s enforcer got snippy and said we had to “keep the agitation down.” I don’t think he knows what that word means precisely, but Jesus, who spoke next, promised to be gentle. Though perhaps you have to know Jesus to appreciate how funny that was. And then there was someone from the neighborhood council, one of those privileged people who always challenge my belief in the efficacy of direct democracy due to their terrifying ubiquity in all community institutions (I’ll let you imagine the kind of annoying person I mean to escape any libel charges). At any rate, she said she lived in a district that had been recommended for a historical preservation zone as the “18th Street HPOZ”…and then she continued (in shock horror) that she couldn’t BELIEVE that the city had called them that and she OF COURSE would never…ha! 18th street is, of course, one of the biggest L.A. gangs, so it’s just funny all the way around, but the thought of her identifying as 18th street had me rolling. And I wonder if the city planner actually had a sense of humor. No one actually laying down the law in an HPOZ (what colors you can paint your house, how high your fence can be, what windows can be used etc) has ever had one in my experience.

At any rate, it was a good and dare I say enjoyable evening that really shed some light on some of the structural inequality within our city, and perhaps will make a difference.

For folks who need details, LA’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) threshold guidelines actually do state that displacement and housing are environmental issues; that’s just been conveniently ignored even though I believe we have pointed it out before. They also look at overcrowding and excessive rent burden (sections C, D and J.2 for all you communities under fire).

For more information or to get involved in an amazing effort you can contact the Unidad/ Unity campaign, unidadcampaign@gmail.com. You can also check out http://www.saje.net, or do some reading on the work of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice.

Trick or Treating in McHughville

McHughville consists of over 150 buildings spread throughout Los Angeles, all of them with leaking pipes, peeling paint, lack of ventilation, rat holes and etc. He paints the outsides of them, however, so from far away they look decent. The population is about 8,000 tenants, and at least a million roaches, chinches, fleas. There are also a large quantity of mice and rats, I know in one building I went to, the tenants hung all of their food from nails in the wall so that the wildlife couldn’t get at it. And it’s never pleasant to think that the fleas attacking you when you walk in the door have just left a rodent of some description.

So for Halloween, SAJE got a bus and took a load of families down to Marina del Rey to try and talk with the owner (again), convince him to do the right thing and fix his buildings. Since he didn’t open the door, we flyered the neighborhood and talked to his neighbors. We also left him a lage invoice on his doorstep with a conservative estimate of how much rent he owes his tenants, as no one should have to pay to live in a hellhole. The kids mostly dressed as mice, they were cuter than the real thing of course

The press was there as well,look for it on KTLA

so I imagine that Frank McHugh is not a happy camper this morning.

Nor am I, I must admit. Celine and I dressed up as the absolutely fabulous Eddie and Patsy, I really love dressing up. Over dinner and margaritas, however, we came to the conclusion that our costumes weren’t the best, and that Celine looked more like the character from suddenly seeking susan, and I looked rather like a hooker from Elfquest. I blame the wig really because the short leather skirt really was perfect. Somehow we emerged from the evening without pictures of the two of us, but here’s a bit of Celine and the big star of the night, John, the Dance Dance Revolutionary.

And so after dinner we headed over to Guatelinda and Very Be Careful, where we found skirts that made mine look a trifle long, a waitress wandering about in a rather plump state of near nudity, and a fair sprinkling of drunk assholes, but who cared if VBC was playing? And so Pats/hooker elf danced to rocking cumbias the way she has undoubtedly never danced before. And the bartender rather fancied me I think (he said I looked like a painter, I don’t know what that means exactly but is vaguely flattering), so the drinks were obscenely strong, and hence life rather painful today, I always forget that alcohol is actually poison. It didn’t help that after another house party and getting to bed at 4:30 am, I had to be up just after 8 to get pictures from the trick or treat action to Bev…

And now…I am packing. Off to Boston tonight after maybe hitting Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetary. That was the definite plan this morning, but it is raining!