The Pasadena-born science fiction author Octavia Butler is considered among the most prescient writers of the last several generations. Her superbly crafted stories deconstruct race, gender, politics, religion, and sexuality while travelling back and forth across space and time. Recent Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis describes Butler as being “on the frontier of human imagination.”
Though Butler passed in 2006, her work has never been more popular. Butler’s Parable of the Sower reached number one on both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists in the fall of 2020, 27 years after original publication. In 2019, the Los Angeles Central Library named a do-it-yourself studio space in the library, the Octavia Lab. Adding further momentum to Butler’s lasting significance is a new book A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by the award-winning author Lynell George that showcases Butler’s inner world.
George demystifies the legendary science fiction author by using archival material from the Huntington to meticulously uncover how Butler constructed herself through a regimented autodidactic recipe of reading, writing and ritual. A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky is creative non-fiction as inspiration without solipsism.
Make the Impossible Possible
Years before Butler won the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1995 and had published any of her eleven celebrated novels like Kindred, Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower, she was a humble soul growing up in Pasadena stealing time to write in the middle of the night or making a small paycheck stretch for weeks at a time. Butler made, as George writes “the impossible possible” and expanded space and time through her discipline and concentration. The fact that she wrote science fiction is further proof of her intention to create new worlds.
George reveals how Butler’s “most ambitious and remarkable creation was the shapeshifting narrative of her own life–the one she honed and sharpened, draft after draft after draft. It was a work of art that was not complete until she made the impossible possible; the unseen, seen. Who is Octavia E. Butler, ‘That tall girl who was always writing?”
George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. George came to call her weekly forays into the archive, “Fridays with Octavia.” George committed to “let the archive lead her.” George’s instinct to let the archive lead her proved fruitful as she found some of Butler’s most insightful thoughts on scratch pads or even on the back of an envelope. It was this marginalia where George found the portal to Butler’s inner world. It was this personal voice that would prove the most fidelity to Butler’s intent. George also found hundreds of newspaper clippings Butler kept on topics like global warming, cancer, vampires and social unrest. These saved articles showed how much research Butler did to write her prophetic stories.
These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money. From the time she was a teenager, Butler crafted her life, filling dozens of notebooks with to-do lists, budgeting and contracts with herself, complete with extra specific wishes serving as willful manifestations. George’s book artfully includes images of artifacts from the Butler archive like a library card, an old calendar, a few pages from Butler’s journal, bus passes, covers of her notebooks and ticket stubs. Butler’s candid handwriting on an old notebook testifies to just how miraculous her journey was.
In our contemporary 21st Century era when New Age commentators on Instagram talk about “the law of attraction,” and “creating your own reality,” George’s portrait of Butler shows us someone who did just that years before these ideas permeated popular culture. “If you read these pages in succession, day after day,” George writes, “they are nothing short of a prayer.”
“Art may be the finest form of prayer,” writes Julia Cameron in her book, Walking In This World. Cameron’s made a long career out of writing books on world building like her perennial bestseller The Artist’s Way. Many of the journaling strategies Cameron offers corroborate with practices Butler was doing instinctually years before Cameron’s book was published. One more Cameron quote connects to Butler: “We make art not merely to make our way in the world but also to make something of ourselves, and often the something that we make is a person with an inviolable sense of inner dignity.”
Butler meticulously constructed her life and vigilantly protected her time and energy to preserve her dignity and achieve her destiny against all odds. Though Butler did not have the specific instructions presented by Cameron, George discovered in the archive that Butler read self-help books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, J. Lowell Henderson and Claude Bristol among others. The writings by these men advised her. “Her advisors, she acknowledged,” George writes, “may not be on the same page socio-politically, may even be dead, but she’d intuited that something essential could be gained from submitting to their worldview, even if she was never meant to be the target audience.” The clues Butler gained from these books taught her how “to keep her own counsel” and write her own affirmations. “These affirmations,” George declares, “are her safety net. They are her therapy she has neither the time, money nor constitution to undertake.” Butler discovered these books in the Pasadena Central Library as a teenager and by the time she started submitting her writing for publication in her early twenties, she had created her own practice to keep herself going. She conquered her fear and self-doubt by using these affirmations and following her strict discipline of research and writing.
Interspersed throughout George’s text are various quotes from Butler that show how she kept herself inspired. Consider this: “We don’t have to wait for anything at all. What we have to do is start.” Butler jump-started her journey in the dark without a map to follow. She grew up in Northwest Pasadena, an omnivorous reader and lifelong hermit who purposely never drove a car. Nonetheless she crisscrossed Los Angeles on public transit and took long walks to find her way in the world. George reveals all of this and shows how Butler’s worldbuilding and writing processes were methodical. She charted her life with such precision that she would often write on the calendar how many pages she wrote each day.
A Lifeline for Writers
The celebrated Angeleno novelist and USC professor Dana Johnson calls George’s book on Butler, “a lifeline for writers.” In conversation with George for a virtual event hosted by Vroman’s Books, Johnson tells her that, “[she] shows us an Octavia Butler we have not seen before.”
George saw Butler speak a handful of times over a three-decade period. The first time George ever saw Butler was when George was in her late teens and she attended the reading with her mother, an English teacher and voracious reader. George’s mom was a fan of Butler and they attended a few of her readings together. George cannot remember if it was at EsoWon Books or the long gone Midnight Special in Santa Monica but she does know that attending these readings impressed themselves upon her as her own journey as a writer was beginning.
Years later George saw Butler in Seattle in 2004 for “Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival.” George travelled to the Pacific Northwest to cover this event for the Los Angeles Times and she even briefly spoke to Butler that day. George’s Times essay, “Black Writers Crossing the Final Frontier,” published on June 22, 2004 described the event and explained that when Butler began writing science fiction in the early 1970s she was often one of the only Black writers doing it, let alone a woman in a male-dominated genre. They made an agreement to speak again but as fate would have it Butler passed two years later in 2006.
Another important point George told Dana Johnson the night of the Vroman’s reading was that this book is a product of serendipity. In 2016 Julia Meltzer, the Executive Director of Clockshop invited George to participate in their year-long program celebrating Butler. This is how it all started. Meltzer recently told me via email: “When we first dreamed up Radio Imagination –a year-long program celebrating Octavia E. Butler where artists and writers were invited to work with her archives at the Huntington Library—I knew that writer Lynell George had to be a part of it.”
“I felt certain that learning about Octavia’s life through what she left behind,” Meltzer states, “would resonate with Lynell and that she would bring her intrepid, dogged and steady journalistic eye to the project. Very early on in Lynell’s research process I sensed that a book was soon to be born. I’m thrilled that my hunches were correct. How lucky we all are to be able to learn more about how Octavia E. Butler deliberately and carefully made herself into a science fiction writer.”
Clockshop’s 2018 book, Radio Imagination includes writing from George, Tisa Bryant, Robin Coste Lewis, Fred Moten and artwork by Laylah Ali, Malik Gaines, Lauren Halsey and Alexandro Segarde. George’s piece was a “posthumous interview” for which she immersed herself countless hours in the archive. As George communed with Butler’s archive, she felt as if she could hear her voice and the channeling for the piece began.
Forecasting the Future
Though readers marvel at Butler’s seeming ability to predict the future, journalist and former editor of LA Weekly Judith Lewis Mernit recalls soliciting Butler for an essay on the “future of reading”. Instead, Butler wrote about how she still wrote on her typewriter because she liked to be methodical and deliberate with her process. However, it was her careful attention to her craft that allowed her to turn a keen eye on the present and imagine the future.
According to Mernit and Lynell George, Butler also observed the world around her by reading hundreds of articles on climate change and taking daily walks around Pasadena. Butler always paid close attention to the plants and trees in her neighborhood, noting the different species and details, such as, whether a tree was producing as many fruit as in the previous year. Like a scientist, she carefully cataloged her observations in her notebooks in detailed lists.
George’s book includes lists that Butler created from her walks and bus rides around the city. In these trips, Butler observed the city up close. The lists she wrote often read like poems. Here is one of Butler’s poem-like lists exactly as it appears in George’s book:
Brown and deep green hills of early summer
The grass is dry for the most part.
Blond with a little green grass
And many deep green trees.
Alvarado + Sunset—N. on Alv.
Small El rancho mkt—not chain
Way into hills
W. on Sunset—through cut hills
Both sides—houses cluttered on hills
Much wood frame
@ Sunset to sea—enclaves + open
As George’s narrative reminds us again and again, Butler’s careful attention to the world around her empowered her with the x-ray vision to write about the environmental conditions of the future. She was watching her immediate surroundings so closely that she could read the writing on the wall about rising temperatures or social unrest before everyone else.
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky spotlights Butler with the same verisimilitude that Butler herself used to show us the future of our world. George writes that she found the book’s title while reading a passage in the archive: “Science fiction allowed her to reach for something beyond what she could visualize. Reading through a draft of a speech Octavia was puzzling out, I was struck by a particular answer. Science fiction is a handful of earth, and a handful of sky and everything around and between.”
Lynell and Octavia
George shares several commonalities with Butler beginning with the fact that she lives in Pasadena just minutes from where Butler grew up. Moreover, both Lynell George and Octavia Butler write the type of impeccable prose that only comes from countless drafts and years of practice.
Indeed, George has practiced her own diligent writing regimen with the same dedication as Butler, having written thousands of essays over the last 30 plus years for publications like Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Essence, LA Weekly, Alta Journal, the Smithsonian, and others. George’s countless articles have mapped Los Angeles and crisscrossed California with the same veracity as Butler’s fiction. And finally, they both were very close to their mothers and were gifted typewriter’s by them when they were little girls. George’s dedication in the book reads, “To my mother, who bought me my first typewriter.”
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky accomplishes many missions simultaneously. Whether the reader wants to learn more about what made Octavia Butler so influential or if they want to learn how to be as influential as Octavia Butler, Lynell George provides a roadmap that reveals Octavia Butler’s secret recipe for expanding space and time.
Mike Sonksen is a 3rd-generation Angeleno. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK. He teaches at Woodbury University.
Virtually nowhere in the metropolitan United States could rent be called affordable for the average family, and there are certainly no places where a family on poverty wages could pay rent without assistance. In California, a family must report a household income of roughly $100,000 to make the median rent in the state. These numbers vary widely depending on region, reaching their most extreme levels in the Bay Area cities. However, even in Fresno, the largest urban center of the Central Valley, a family needs to earn nearly $20 per hour to afford the median rent in the area while the current state minimum wage is only $12 per hour. These gaps are not static over time but are growing as rent increases outpace wage increases, a point recently explored by The New York Times.The fallout from this feature of the affordable housing crisis is the subject of so many other stories that characterize California – homelessness, substandard housing, population decline, and displacement.
Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, directed the affordable housing crisis conversation toward one particularly devastating consequence that ultimately links the unaffordability of housing to homelessness: evictions. Often, evictions happen because the tenant failed to pay their rent. Other times, evictions occur with no fault on the part of the tenant – because of a foreclosure, habitability issues, or, egregiously, because of retaliation against the tenant by the landlord. In addition to formal, court-ordered evictions, Desmond estimates from survey data in Milwaukee that informal evictions may as much as double the total amount of evictions that take place. These are evictions that occur outside of the judicial process and reflect the vulnerable position of the tenant, who vacates the premises prior to the court filing out of fear of entering the court process or because they cannot afford the court process. Evicted forced researchers, reporters, advocates, and policymakers to realize that the process of evicting a family from their home is a key culprit in exacerbating family poverty, unemployment, and neighborhood instability. More importantly, Desmond’s work illuminated the harsh reality of a court system that is designed not to protect families from entering a downward spiral into poverty and homelessness, but to protect property.
Often, the conversations about the affordable housing crisis and its consequences focus on the major metropolitan areas of California in the Bay Area and Southern California. In a database search on scholarly articles, graduate level theses, and newspaper articles over the past 20 years using the key phrases “housing crisis” and “California”, we found 1109 results for “Bay Area,” 3081 results for “San Francisco,” 1586 results for “Southern California,” and 3525 results for “Los Angeles.” In contrast, over the same period with the same key phrases, we only found 288 results for “Central Valley” and 250 results for “Fresno.” This demonstrates that both the scholarly and popular attention has been largely focused on the housing crisis in the southern and northern metropolitan areas of California, with far less given to the Central Valley.
Yet, in Fresno alone the California Housing Partnership Corporation reported a nearly 35,000 unit shortfall in affordable housing, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates a 41,000 unit shortfall for the county overall. More alarmingly, Central Valley counties, where approximately 45 percent of households are renters, experience far higher rates of evictions than anywhere else in California. The typical renter in the Central Valley is rent-burdened, which is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a household that spends 30 percent or more of its income on housing costs. Fully a quarter of those households are severely rent-burdened, defined as a household that spends half or more of its income on housing costs. For this and other reasons, including higher rates of poverty, the virtual non-existence of tenant protection programs and laws at local levels, and increased migration from Southern and Northern California metropolitan areas into the Central Valley in search of lower housing costs, the affordable housing crisis conversation must include the Central Valley.
In this piece, we examine evictions and displacement in the Central Valley. This work developed through our research and experiences as scholar-activists and housing justice advocates in the Central Valley. We focus primarily on Fresno County, a sprawling, diverse metropolitan area comprising both urban and rural settlement in the heart of the Central Valley, but also include some findings from San Joaquin and Kern Counties, which are located in the northern and southern regions of the San Joaquin Valley, respectively. We draw on data from eviction court filings, observations in eviction court, and stories from tenants in Fresno County to answer the question: What accounts for the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley? In answering this question, we develop three main points:
The affordable housing crisis conversation in California must include the Central Valley, where stark social inequalities are intricately tied with housing and neighborhood inequality. This means that scholarly work must consider the complexities of the housing crisis in California from the high-cost, high-income urban areas outside of the Central Valley to the lower-cost, lower-income urban and rural areas within the Central Valley. Housing activists as well must include the population and the needs of the Central Valley in their advocacy work and support the activism taking place within the Central Valley;
Evictions happen at a higher rate in the Central Valley than anywhere else in California. They are a devastating outcome of the affordable housing crisis and are an effective tool of the court system used to prioritize the protection of property and property-owners over poor families and families of color, and;
Immediate action could be taken by policymakers in the Central Valley at the local level that would bring balance to the relationship between tenants and property-owners and prevent further displacement, systemic social inequality, and neighborhood instability, which is particularly urgent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact.
Background: The Central Valley
The Central Valley is a vibrant, dynamic region known for its representation of over a hundred cultures, nationalities, and racial and ethnic identities, according to 2018 American Community Survey estimates. But it is also an area known for its high levels of social inequality by a multitude of metrics – income and wealth inequality, residential segregation, health disparities, and opportunity gaps in labor and education. The nature of social inequality in the Central Valley is so complex that it would be impossible to identify any one cause or solution. However, it becomes very clear through a spatial lens that many of the inequalities observed in the Central Valley are tied to neighborhoods and housing. When we map median income, median home values, percent in poverty, and percent nonwhite by census tract in the urban center of Fresno County, we see an indisputable overlap (Figures 1-4). To the east is the city of Clovis, a predominately White, wealthy suburb where the availability of affordable housing is so inadequate that it prompted a lawsuit by a local legal aid organization. Yet even within the more racially and socioeconomically diverse city of Fresno, it is apparent that there are distinct boundaries drawn which prevent low-income families of color from entering certain neighborhoods and in turn concentrate these families in identifiable areas of the city.
These boundaries are in part historical, tracing back to the days of racial covenants, and later redlining, which prompted further public and private disinvestment in neighborhoods where families of color resided while resources and opportunities were diverted to Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. In addition, public housing, which shifted to become a resource for families of color neglected by the federal government, was primarily built in racially segregated neighborhoods where Black and Latinx families resided. This history is an important piece in understanding housing insecurity and inequality in Fresno because it led to widely disparate home values between neighborhoods.
Because families of color saw their neighborhoods forced to depreciate due to the actions of federal and local government, wealth and class inequality are now almost inseparable from racial inequality in Fresno. In White, affluent neighborhoods, housing values appreciated by directly benefiting from the inequities created by racist and classist housing policy. White families have enjoyed both wealth accumulation and racial exclusivity because the unaffordability of housing in these areas for low-income families has mostly meant that it is unaffordable for families of color as well. In Clovis specifically, experts argue that the deliberate choice to not zone low-income affordable housing is precisely why it is a predominately White community. These neighborhood-based inequalities created a setting where larger economic forces, in particular rising housing costs combined with depressed wages, would lead to a far more troubling human crisis: displacement and homelessness.
Evicted in the Central Valley
Given that financial hardship is responsible for both the triggering of an eviction and the vulnerability of the tenant, poverty is part of this story, but focusing on individual poverty does not capture the full effect of what changing economic conditions can do. Douglas Massey demonstrated in a compelling simulation how segregation can create a scenario where economic downturns are heavily absorbed by areas of concentrated poverty. When race and class segregation are interrelated, this specifically means that poor communities of color shoulder a heavier economic burden. In the context of an ongoing housing crisis in an area that was hit particularly hard by the housing bust, the pattern of segregation in Fresno County created an uneven distribution of evictions and displacement, with families of color seeing the most precipitous drops in housing value and poor families of color experiencing evictions at a higher rate than anybody else.
The eviction rate in 2016 in Fresno County was 2.16 percent, meaning that just over 2 percent of renters were formally evicted that year. While this seems like a negligible percentage, 2 percent amounts to over 3,000 families displaced from their homes in a single year. The volume of evictions physically manifests in the form of standing room-only crowds within the courtroom. In relative terms, the eviction rate in Fresno County is substantially higher than in both San Francisco County (0.25 percent) and Los Angeles County (0.58 percent), as well as in the state of California overall (0.83 percent). In addition, we have reason to believe that the number of families evicted each year in Fresno is perhaps thousands more when informal evictions, or evictions that happen outside of the court system, are considered.
Families who are informally evicted often vacate before the formal eviction process begins in order to avoid court action, which could incur fees and tarnish their record as a tenant. These are more likely to be impoverished families who cannot afford the added costs of responding to a court Summons and Complaint. In Fresno and surrounding rural communities, where there is also a large population of undocumented and mixed-status families in addition to families in poverty, we suspect that the number of informal evictions is even higher because of families who fear court action due to their immigration status. Even without data on informal evictions however, the number of formal evictions alone is shockingly high. Our research suggests some possible explanations for why evictions occur at such a significantly higher rate in the Central Valley than in areas with more notorious affordable housing issues.
In our previous report, we found that in 80-90 percent of eviction cases, the reason for the eviction was unpaid rent. In the majority of these cases, the amount of rent owed was less than two months’ worth. Here, then, is the first clue: rent burden. Rent burden is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as the percentage of household income that is spent on rent. A family that spends more than 30 percent of their household income on rent is considered “rent-burdened.” The number is somewhat arbitrary, but it captures families who have less of a financial cushion when something goes wrong – an unforeseen medical incident, an accident, a sudden job loss or drop in income. In San Francisco County, where rents are among the highest in the country, rent burden is 27.5 percent, which means the typical family spends just over a quarter of their income on rent. In contrast, in Fresno County rent burden is 34.7 percent. Rental costs may be higher in the Bay Area, but costs relative to income matter. In Fresno County, the typical renter household is rent-burdened. In areas characterized by high levels of poverty, the typical family is severely rent-burdened. To reiterate, a severely rent-burdened household is defined by HUD as a household that spends half or more of its household income on rent.
Eviction Court and the Prioritization of Property
With the typical family spending over 30 percent of their income on rent, it is not a surprise that many families fail to pay rent, triggering an eviction filing almost as soon as rent is past due. From the perspective of property-owners and the court, this is reason enough to abruptly order a family out of their home. In eviction court, this process is quick and brutal. We have seen families appear for their court date unaware that their story of impending homelessness, catastrophic financial loss, and emotional and mental trauma would hold no bearing in a setting where the main priority is to protect the property and the financial interests of the landlord. Eviction court is a sphere dominated by attorneys who have made a career out of representing landlords, the same handful of predominately men appearing every week with an attitude towards the whole affair as something routine, each judgment seeming to be a foregone conclusion in favor of the landlord. The gender and racial disparities are apparent, with women of color overrepresented among tenants who appear in eviction court and White men overrepresented among the attorneys. As one tenant, a single Black mother in Fresno County, remarked on the power imbalance in the tenant-landlord attorney dynamic, “It was a lawyer against a little Black girl.” This mother was ultimately evicted with her young son after a confusing court process that left her with no option to fight her case.
In our previous study of evictions filed in 2016 in Fresno County, we found that 73 percent of the landlords in our sample had legal representation compared to only 1 percent of tenants. Not once, after months of observation, did we witness a judgment in favor of a tenant. Most families who we observed or spoke to appeared in court without any realization that they were entering partway through an ongoing process of filed paperwork, evidence-gathering, and legal consultation on the plaintiff’s (i.e. landlord’s) side. In many cases, tenants were not aware that they had missed their opportunity to file an answer, which must happen typically within five days of receiving the eviction notice, or that to have their side of the story heard they would need to have a trial separate from the unlawful detainer hearing. These trials usually occur the same day, catching tenants by surprise and without the needed evidence or witnesses to defend their case. This gives tenants little time to seek legal advice and gather documents. Oftentimes, we witnessed trials occurring within an hour of the hearing. And here, in seeking to understand why evictions happen at a higher rate in Fresno County than in other areas, is our second explanation for why evictions are so frequent: a woefully imbalanced justice system with few protections in place for tenants.
While some court processes, such as small and large claims cases, are slow and cases can carry on for months, eviction cases, known in legal terms as unlawful detainer cases, are moved through the system with astounding speed. In Fresno County, we found that most cases end in default or they are resolved and renters are evicted within a month of the initial court filing. The emphasis on property and the prioritization of the needs of property-owners is a key reason why this is so. Judges often frame their decisions as prioritizing the return of the property back to the property-owner. When talking about the property itself, judges use terms such as “expedite” and “urgent.” In contrast, there is little concern in the legal process for the tenant and their far more urgent need to stay housed. In the rare instance that tenants are truly able to confidently present their case to the judge, tenants openly express anxiety over not knowing where to go once they are locked out. Pleas are often met with expressions of sympathy from the judge but nonetheless cold resolution from the ruling, which holds that they must vacate the property or be forced out. Evictions are whiplash-fast and are considered a concluded matter almost as soon as the tenant is served with a notice. Ultimately the law is designed to put the needs of the property-owner over the needs of the tenant, who has no claim to ownership. Thus the matter of returning the property to the property-owners is often handled very quickly and decisions almost always fall in favor of the landlord. As evidence to this point, Eviction Lab data reports that of the 3,058 eviction court filings in Fresno County in 2016, 3,036 resulted in evictions – 99.3 percent. Meanwhile, the remaining issue of determining money damages that the tenant may be responsible for can be placed on a different, slower timeline.
Other actors in the eviction process, including the attorneys and law enforcement, also demonstrate the prioritization of property over humanity. In our survey research and advocacy work, tenants have described sometimes overly forceful behavior from authorities, such as sheriff’s deputies kicking down the front door while children were home alone. The overall motivation of landlord attorneys is to win cases and to collect fees that renters are typically ordered to pay, leading them to ruthlessly confuse and mislead tenants. Tenants are called to meet with landlord attorneys, without attorneys of their own, in the hallway or in small conference rooms in the courthouse. As the attorneys interact with tenants, it becomes clear whose interests they represent. We observed on numerous occasions landlord attorneys frame the situation in ways that discredit tenants’ statements and evidence, invoking anxiety and fear in the tenant, which only adds to an already stressful and confusing situation. Some of the tactics that we observed include presenting ledgers that do not include all of the payments that the tenants have made and muddling timelines so that the tenant can no longer recall dates or the order in which events occurred. Even though tenants bring their own evidence of money orders purchased and rent checks cashed, they soon begin to doubt their own account or worry that the evidence will be insufficient to win their case. Landlord attorneys make matters worse by explaining to tenants what the cost will be if they lose their case rather than settling for an agreement with the landlord.
Tenants have everything to lose, and within minutes they are forced to make a decision that is far from their original objective when they arrived at court, which was to keep their home. Now, after feeling intimidated and confused, their objective becomes: escape the court process with as little long-term consequence as possible. The property and the interests of the property-owner are the primary concern of the court, and while there are mediators to facilitate negotiations between landlords and tenants, nobody stands up for the tenant in the courtroom. The roles of advocates and activists could make a significant difference here, a factor that we discuss further in our conclusions.
Finally, the third explanation is the lack of local policies that protect renters. In California, there are jurisdictions where renter protections are well-established. However, they are very few in number: according to Tenants Together, only 23 out of 482 cities in California have rent control and/or “just cause” policies in place. Rent control effectively caps increases on rent to keep housing costs more affordable, while “just cause” requires landlords to justify their reason for issuing an eviction. Tenant protection laws are not without their controversy, but regardless of what other effects they may have, we found that in cities where these laws are in place, evictions are far more likely to be on the decline in tandem with an improving post-recession economy. In an analysis of eviction rates from 2006 to 2016 in California, we found that 70 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities with tenant protection laws in place saw eviction rates decline over the ten-year period. In comparison, only 46 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities without tenant protection laws experienced a decline in evictions. Notably, none of the twenty-three cities with local tenant protection laws are located in the Central Valley.
The recent enactment of the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 in California, which among other things makes “just cause” evictions the law across the state and caps rent increases, may improve matters in this regard. But the Central Valley continues to be notoriously lacking in local protections for tenants, a fact that is not well-understood but certainly observable in most jurisdictions, and this is reflected in the court system where tenants have little power to defend their rights by law due to a lack of legal representation and an unjustly opaque legal process that leaves many of them in a losing position over a failure to follow procedure. Recently, Nelson highlighted the discordance between how the tenant perceives the legal process of eviction and the process itself. Oftentimes, tenants misunderstand their relationship with the landlord and do not expect the swiftness of court action. Community advocates and grassroots organizations who fight for housing justice are carrying much of the critical work of educating tenants through “Know Your Rights” workshops, flyers, and resources. With local tenant unions in the Central Valley, outreach and organizing efforts could go even further.
Evictions as a Tool of the Social Divides
We have up to this point written in very general terms about eviction trends and procedures in the Central Valley and more specifically in Fresno, but our discussion about the historically established class and race divides in Fresno is important to bear in mind, because these determine who is more likely to face eviction. According to national estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey, 3.3 percent of Black renters reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to only 1.3 percent of White renters. For those who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, the disparity is even more staggering, with 4.4 percent reporting an eviction threat. Poverty and rent-burden are also factors, reflecting the relationship between housing insecurity and financial insecurity. Of those who are severely rent-burdened, 2.6 percent reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to 1.4 percent of those whose housing costs relative to income are moderate. Of renters who live below the poverty line, 3.2 percent reported receiving an eviction threat compared to only 1 percent of those whose income is 200 percent of the poverty threshold.
The obvious consequence of evictions is that families who are evicted find themselves suddenly severely housing insecure. But the fallout of an eviction is even more widespread and far-reaching than its effect on housing options. In our analysis of eviction court records in Fresno County, we calculated a measure that we call “compounded burden.” As we described above, most tenants are evicted over failure to pay rent. But the final money judgment includes the original amount owed plus other costs: holdover damages (i.e. the money that the landlord has lost in unpaid rent since the eviction) and attorney and court fees. The compounded burden is the factor by which the initial amount owed is multiplied when the final money judgment is made.
On average, tenants end up having to pay four times what they initially owed. The average tenant in our study owed approximately $1000 at the time of eviction. Based on the average compounded burden, the average tenant will find herself owing $4000 when the final judgment is made. If this amount goes unpaid, the State of California permits a 10% annual interest rate on the amount owed. Each year that the amount goes unpaid, this hypothetical average tenant who no doubt struggles with a multitude of financial hardships will owe another $400. Indeed, from our observations in eviction court it was not unusual to hear of a money judgment that would include nearly $1000 in attorney and court fees alone along with holdover damages that would amount to 1-2 more months’ rent in addition to the initial amount owed. Another factor associated with compounded burden is the prolonged period of time that vulnerable tenants are forced to carry debt. For example, a tenant and landlord enter into a stipulation (agreement between two parties approved by the judge) in the amount of $4,300, which includes past due rent, holdover damages, and court and attorney fees. The tenant, who makes a minimum wage, can only afford to pay $35 per month and is now carrying this debt for 10 years. Evictions alone may not affect a tenant’s credit score. However, if a tenant is ordered to pay money damages and fails to pay, they can be sent to collections. A credit reporting agency then places derogatory information on their credit report. Evictions with money damages are a twofold blow. Threefold, if you include the fact that a judgment accrues interest.
And this measure of compounded burden does not account for all of the other costs incurred from a sudden displacement – moving costs, storage fees, hours missed at work, extra transportation costs to handle legal obligations, search for a new place, and drive children to schools in neighborhoods that they no longer live in, the exorbitant cost of taking up temporary shelter in a motel, which many families do in Fresno, and the repeated fees attached to each rental application (up to $35 per application). It becomes apparent that an eviction, triggered by financial hardship, begets even greater financial hardship. When one considers that the families who are more likely to face an eviction are families of color, have children, and live in poverty, we can understand how so many social disparities can persist.
Consider, for example, the impact that an eviction has on a child – after all, children are one of the most likely populations to experience eviction. The social lives of children are anchored in multiple ways – their families, but also their neighborhoods and especially their schools. When a family is evicted, they are not likely to stay in the same neighborhood. This disruption removes a child from their neighborhood and may eventually force them to enroll in a new school, breaking critical social ties with teachers, classmates, and neighborhood friends. When we examined the frequency of evictions by month in Fresno County, we found that evictions happen at a high rate every month out of the year, which means that hundreds of families are evicted in the middle of the school year as well as during summer and winter breaks (Figure 5). Even if a child is able to stay in the same school, school attendance becomes difficult to maintain while the family is displaced and the parents are managing the situation. An eviction event can be traumatic for a child despite a parent’s best efforts to protect them, particularly when the eviction is carried out by law enforcement. Children coping with instability in their lives are more likely to face challenges when it comes to mental health and development. With conscious support from educators, this sudden disruption can be mitigated in its impact on the child’s social, emotional, and academic outcomes. However, while school districts track an overlapping population of students who are homeless, they do not specifically track students who have experienced an eviction.
The spatial dynamics of these trends again must be considered. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in their influential work American Apartheid, drew out how segregation works as an effective mechanism for reinforcing inequality and oppression. When segregation is in place, it becomes very easy for the dominant group – wealthy Whites – to hoard resources and opportunities even while living in the same metropolitan area as other groups. In a metropolitan area, this can happen through municipal boundaries, with Whites moving to suburbs with exclusionary zoning and cutting off Black and Latinx families from their tax base and resources. As mentioned previously, this is the story that is told about the city of Clovis. In a single city, however, where all residents to a limited degree have access to the same tax base, more covert tactics must be used to maintain race and class boundaries and restrict access to the higher investments and newer development of White neighborhoods. The favored tactic in this scenario is housing discrimination.
There are many ways that housing discrimination can occur: for example, through steering, whereby realtors and property managers selectively show properties to families on the basis of their race and/or income, through housing loan discrimination, or through screening out prospective tenants who have Section 8 vouchers, (i.e. housing assistance). In California, all of these tactics are now outlawed under federal and state laws (e.g. Fair Housing Act of 1968 and SB 329). While this does not stop these forms of discrimination from occurring and enforcement is weak at best, it certainly reduces their frequency. But there is one extremely powerful, legal way to screen out low-income applicants, which in a city like Fresno can also effectively block many Black and Latinx households: deny them housing on the basis of an eviction record. When a tenant is evicted by the court, the eviction appears on their tenant record for seven years. Evicted tenants are placed on what is essentially a tenant blacklist with little chance of finding rental housing outside of areas of high poverty. In talking about the eviction on her record, one tenant said, “I’ve got seven years,” as if it were a prison sentence. In a way, an eviction on record likely does have a similar impact as a felony conviction when it comes to finding housing, especially in an area with an enormous deficit in affordable housing. Another tenant, a single mother with her daughter, expressed fear of losing her Section 8 housing following an eviction judgment. The loss of public housing assistance is an enormous blow, given that the waitlist for public housing assistance is closed in Fresno County and families on the list wait years to receive assistance.
The financial and emotional destruction that an eviction can create for a family is so immense that it is difficult to overstate, but evictions also contribute to instability in neighborhoods. If there were no geographic pattern to evictions, we would speak only of the effect on the family. But evictions are not geographically random and they happen in certain areas with remarkable frequency. In Fresno, specific parts of the county and especially in the city of Fresno experience higher rates of eviction than others (Figure 6). In neighborhoods of concentrated poverty where the population is predominately Black, Latinx, or Southeast Asian, and the typical family is spending over half of their income on rent, the eviction rates reach as high as 10 percent, which means that nearly 1 in 10 families are evicted every year in these neighborhoods. This, again, does not account for the informal evictions that are also occurring in these areas.
With such a high rate of turnover, neighborhood cohesion and solidarity is very difficult to establish, which makes it challenging for residents to build safe and healthy communities and, importantly, mobilize and wield political power. This particular consequence of evictions is two-sided: while poor communities with high instability have difficulty developing political capital, wealthier stable communities are able to lobby on their own behalf and claim more of the city’s resources and investment. The blame for this imbalance is often directed towards the poor communities, with local agencies such as the police department referring to them as “broken” neighborhoods and letting others assume that it is the residents themselves who did the breaking. But the instability of these neighborhoods is largely affected by external mechanisms of destabilization, including evictions.
Given that evictions happen at a higher rate in neighborhoods where poor, Black, and Latinx families live, segregation is reinforced. Because these families now have an eviction on their record as a tenant, they find themselves barred from entering wealthier, Whiter neighborhoods where families enjoy better-funded schools, maintained roads, more parks and greenspace, and newer housing stock. They not only become stuck in neighborhoods marred by disinvestment, they actually sink deeper into these areas as they must now find housing where landlords are willing to overlook their eviction record. In a city like Fresno where slum housing is numerous, these families have a higher likelihood of finding themselves in the clutches of slumlords, living in substandard housing with an even higher risk of eviction.
Many more evicted tenants may end up homeless, but the likelihood of homelessness following an eviction is not equal for all tenants. National estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey reveal that among renters, White households, households above the poverty line, and households who are not rent-burdened are more likely to say that they can find a new home if they are evicted. Black householders, severely rent-burdened households, and households living below the poverty line are more likely to say that they will go to a shelter following an eviction (Figure 7). In our ongoing eviction court study, we have yet to survey a tenant who knows where they will live after being evicted from their current home, with some expressing only the possibility that they could move in with a family member and others telling us that they have moved into a motel room.
Beyond the communities that suffer the direct consequences of housing insecurity and evictions, the jurisdiction also pays a price for not doing more to keep families in stable housing. The cost of evicting a family who could not afford rent and certainly cannot afford the added fees accrued through the court eviction process is borne by local governments. Counties must deal with the cost of processing thousands of evictions a year, and both cities and counties must devote more funding to public programs to support a growing homeless population who not only lack shelter but may also have more complicated healthcare needs.
After the Pandemic
When we first began researching and writing on this topic, the COVID-19 virus was not a part of the conversation. But now we are in the middle of a pandemic and what appears to be a massive societal shift as we rapidly adjust our entire way of life to prevent the spread of a highly infectious disease. Social scientists and social advocates fear that this shift will follow the well-worn paths carved out by centuries of systemic oppression and resulting social inequalities. As unemployment surges in the immediate economic fallout of a nation under siege, we have every reason to expect a widening of the chasm between those with wealth and those without.
In the weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic truly began to hit home in the United States, housing advocates raised the alarm based on what we already knew about the precariousness of being a renter. In the Central Valley, where the majority of renters experience unsustainable levels of rent burden, we knew that the public health safety measures put in place which resulted in cutting wage-labor hours, layoffs, and school closures would leave low-income renters unable to make next month’s rent. Some local jurisdictions in California acted quickly to protect renters, but none in the Central Valley led the way. In Kern County, only the City of Delano instated any renter protections. San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties adopted emergency resolutions with language revoking commercial and residential landlord authority to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. However, both resolutions offer zero guidelines on what tenants can or should do if they are served with a notice. The City of Stockton was the first in the Central Valley to enact emergency measures temporarily halting some evictions, but they are inadequate for providing much-needed protections for the most vulnerable renters.
In the City of Fresno, the reaction was lethargic and the final policy decision, which came only after Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-28-20 authorizing local jurisdictions to take emergency action on evictions, fell far short of providing needed protection for renters. Fresno City Council, like other local governments, passed a policy that placed the burden of protection squarely on renters. Renters needed to be aware of the ordinance and then notify their landlord in writing of their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 and provide documentation within 10 days of notifying their landlords. Evictions for reasons other than nonpayment were excluded from the order (e.g. unauthorized occupants to care for a loved one or shelter in place with family). This left many renters still at risk of eviction.
Ultimately, only around 10 percent of the jurisdictions across California chose to instate any sort of emergency ordinance for renters during peak months of unemployment. Most of the orders adopted a similar approach, helping renters establish a legal defense against eviction for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. Under the emergency ordinances put in place by local jurisdictions and another executive order by Governor Newsom, some tenants were given the opportunity to document their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 so that, upon receiving an eviction notice, they could respond to the complaint in court with evidence that their failure to pay rent was due to loss of income or health issues related to the pandemic. This policy is fundamentally different from an eviction moratorium, which legal experts describe as a comprehensive ban on eviction filings. The only example of a moratorium in California was in Oakland where landlords are able to bring a small claims suit for past due rent but cannot file an eviction lawsuit.
But still, there is reason to hope. While the decisions by local and state policymakers to address eviction still inherently privilege the landlord over the tenant, many policymakers made it clear that they are not ignorant of the calls from housing advocates. In early April 2020, the Judicial Council of California, which is responsible for making rules for courts in the state of California, did what other government entities would not and halted the processing of all eviction filings (with some public safety exceptions) for the duration of the pandemic emergency, temporarily, but comprehensively, addressing the gap in protections put in place by the Governor’s executive order and local emergency orders. The ruling was lifted on September 1 but was followed by the passage of AB 3088 in the California legislature, which protects tenants from eviction due to nonpayment of rent through February 2021. Immediately after the passage of AB 3088, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions in the name of public health.
These are signs of progress. The recognition that many renters are housing insecure and vulnerable to crises positions our society to make long-lasting structural changes. However, the will to shift the balance of power between owners and tenants is still anemic in the Central Valley, with few jurisdictions signaling that they are considering the aftereffects of the pandemic on renters when the emergency ordinances are lifted and the business of evictions can return to full operation. This means that once the emergency orders are lifted, if tenants are served with a notice, they must still go through the court process of responding to an eviction lawsuit and gathering their own evidence to defend their case. Tenants must still be prepared to navigate the legal system to retain their housing, almost always without legal assistance or representation. Therefore, the systemic problems that we identified as contributing to the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley prior to this pandemic, such as the lack of legal representation for tenants, are likely to remain in place and allow this current state of emergency to exacerbate the eviction crisis in the region. Indeed, California scored only a 0.9 out of 5 on the Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, a policy analysis tool designed to evaluate the extent to which state governments are protecting tenants from displacement during and after the pandemic, because statewide orders do little to truly prevent a surge in evictions. They choose only to defer rather than halt evictions.
We can also assume that informal evictions, which operate outside of the law and therefore are unlikely to be affected by policy changes aimed at formal evictions, will carry on. These evictions primarily impact undocumented or mixed-status immigrant households and extremely financially precarious households – the same households that are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection due to a reliance on essential worker jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing, and service industries. To be protected by the COVID-19 emergency policies, one must be privileged by the law in the first place. Based on Desmond’s work, the implication is that undocumented families, extremely poor families, and families impacted by mass incarceration are less likely to find protection from displacement during the pandemic, especially if they are renting from slumlords.
We cannot say with certainty what our society will look like when we come out on the other side of this global crisis, but we can formulate some predictions regarding evictions based on the existing evidence. Without taking action to instate long-term protections for renters, we expect to return to a standing-room only eviction court when society is restored to something akin to normal. Tenants are placed at an institutional disadvantage by a society that has always privileged the needs and interests of those who own property over those who do not. This truth is reflected even in the COVID-19 emergency ordinances, which only extend protection from evictions while the state of emergency is ongoing. Once the public health crisis is over and the danger is no longer imminent, there is no obvious plan to protect renters from the full force of eviction proceedings throughout the Central Valley, which means that the emergency ordinances are not about making radical changes to reduce the financial and social vulnerability of renters.
Conclusion: What Should Be Done?
The skeptic who asks whether the goal should be to reduce evictions may now understand that the consequences of eviction are multilayered and far-reaching, exacerbating deep family poverty, uprooting children from their schools and communities, and destabilizing neighborhoods. Anybody who believes in the importance of a functioning society ought to agree that these issues, especially when they are systemic, are signs of societal dysfunction. In the Central Valley, with high levels of poverty and a worsening housing crisis, we argue that we are witnessing dysfunction. We also argue that stable housing is critical for giving families opportunities and ensuring their health and well-being. Housing may not solve every issue, but it certainly, as Desmond so vividly demonstrated in his work, gives families stable ground to stand on and address other issues.
Tens of thousands of eviction lawsuits are filed annually throughout the Central Valley and even greater numbers of informal evictions occur outside of the legal realm. The narrative that displacement is a problem in the Bay Area and Southern California and rents are affordable in the Central Valley is false and harmful. Affordability is relative to wages, cost of living, the supply of affordable housing, and strong public policies that protect tenants and landlords. This false narrative must be challenged because it serves to exacerbate the existing housing crisis in the Central Valley as residents from Southern California and the Bay Area are pushed out of their communities and spill over into the Central Valley. The Central Valley has the highest rate of evictions in California and the majority of cases end in a Clerk Default Judgment. This means that tenants automatically lose, by default, before they ever have a chance to share their side of the story. Too many tenants cannot access or navigate the complicated court system within the very narrow window permitted. This leads us to conclude that the court system is designed to operate as a debt collector or legally sanctioned displacement instrument for landlords. The bottom line: the system prioritizes the protection of private property and property-owners over poor families and families of color.
Our previous analysis of court records in addition to our observations and survey data from eviction court have led us to some possible solutions. In our research, we found that most tenants (83%) owed less than two months’ rent and half of these tenants owed only one month plus late fees, meaning that often tenants are issued a notice almost as soon as their rent is late. We found that the property owners with the largest portfolios only accounted for just over 2 percent of all evictions in Fresno County. This leads us to conclude that the majority of evictors are landlords who own few properties and in many cases may only own one other property which they are financing and renting out, perhaps as a strategy for building personal wealth. We say this with the understanding that slumlords with large portfolios use multiple LLCs to obscure the size of their holdings. But the ‘mom and pop’ landlords, understandably, cannot afford for their tenants to miss rent. Local emergency rent funds could prevent a majority of evictions from occurring, ultimately helping the tenant family stay in their home until a long-term solution is reached and protecting the landlord from sudden financial difficulties. Fully-funded local rental assistance programs are crucial to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. Emergency rent (or relocation) assistance is a proactive measure that will help stabilize housing for tens of thousands of Central Valley renters. Over the span of the COVID-19 pandemic, following pressure from housing advocates, major Central Valley cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton passed emergency rent assistance programs. However, these programs are COVID-19 focused and largely funded with CARES Act funds – the first major COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress – and thus there is no indication that these rental assistance programs will remain in place or stay funded when the state of emergency ends.
Further, John Pollock, Coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel argues that providing vulnerable tenants access to legal representation in eviction cases is critical to prevent displacement. A growing number of jurisdictions across the nation (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York) agree and findings that assess the impact of these programs on reducing evictions are promising. New York City, the first city to implement a Right to Counsel for eviction, experienced a 14% decrease in eviction filings in the first year and a significant number of families (84%) who were served with an unlawful detainer lawsuit remained in their homes.
Similarly, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590), which launched housing pilot projects in six California counties (Kern, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Yolo) led to positive outcomes for tenants. Tenants received either full-scope legal representation (i.e. having an attorney file pleadings, and represent the tenant in court, etc.) or access to court services such as legal advice and/or were provided assistance filling out and filing court documents. With greater access to legal representation tenants were able to successfully navigate the court process, negotiate a fair settlement (70%), have their case heard by a judge and secure a favorable outcome. Major findings from the first-year evaluation of San Francisco’s universal right to counsel program found a 10% reduction in eviction lawsuit filings from 2018 to 2019, an increase in housing stability among tenants (67% of those receiving full legal representation were able to remain in their homes), with an even higher rate of success (80%) for African American tenants. Although the program does not restrict access on the basis of household income, 85% of recipients were extremely low or low income. The cards are stacked against tenants who are poor, and among economically vulnerable Black and Latinx tenants in particular. A civil right to counsel is only one tool, but it is proving effective in leveling the playing field for tenants in eviction court. As policymakers search for solutions to address the eviction crisis, especially as a means to combat long-standing racial inequities, a civil right to counsel that includes proactive rent assistance shows promise in addressing economic and racial inequities in housing. In addition, while most housing advocacy groups cannot give legal advice, they have increasingly carried some of the work of legal aid organizations by organizing workshops, creating toolkits, appearing at hearings, and sharing information through social media networks to help tenants prepare for eviction court and defend themselves from illegal landlord activity. These efforts should be more fully supported with public funding and resources.
Housing advocates have been regularly attending city council and board of supervisor meetings across the Central Valley to give public comment, in addition to holding research meetings with local elected officials and state representatives, to inform elected leaders of the eviction crisis, pressure them to take action, and bring concrete policy solutions to the table. We believe that when elected leaders are presented with evidence of a crisis impacting thousands of people in their community annually with no end in sight, they have a moral, ethical, and legal duty to act and act quickly. Some have risen to their duty under the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis by enacting temporary restrictions on evictions and rent relief programs, but the actions taken fall woefully short of instating long-term stabilizing protections. We have outlined the multitude of problems associated with the eviction crisis, the longstanding inequities that lock poor families and families of color out of safe, decent, and affordable housing opportunities, and demonstrated how the eviction court process disadvantages renters. We provided evidence-based solutions that elected leaders can enact immediately to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. We have demonstrated that the Central Valley must be included in the conversations about housing justice. We are now, in the middle of a pandemic, certainly in an unprecedented time but crises have a way of bringing to the surface longstanding injustices which create the opportunity for systemic change. We can reimagine a new normal where every human lives in a safe and affordable home in a thriving neighborhood.
 Rebecca Diamond, Tim McQuade, and Franklin Qian, “The Effects of Rent Control Expansion on Tenants, Landlords, and Inequality: Evidence from San Francisco,” American Economic Review 109, no. 9, (2019)
 Michael C. Lens, Kyle Nelson, Ashley Gromis, and Yiwen Kuai, “The Neighborhood Context of Eviction in Southern California,” City & Community, https://doi.org/10.111.12487 (2020); Nkosi et al. (2019)
 City of Delano, “An Urgency Ordinance Of The City Council Of The City Of Delano Temporarily Prohibiting Evictions Of Residential Tenants Arising From Income Loss Or Substantial Medical Expenses Related To The Covid- 19 Pandemic,” March 26, 2020, https://www.cityofdelano.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/2465
Amber R. Crowell is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on residential segregation, housing, social inequality, and race. She has published research on the spatial demography and driving factors behind racial residential segregation patterns. She is also a community advocate for tenants’ rights in the Central Valley, working to reduce evictions and establish a right to housing for all. She currently serves as Regional Housing Coordinator for the grassroots community organization Faith in the Valley and is an appointed member of the City of Fresno Anti-Displacement Task Force.
Janine Nkosi is a dedicated and passionate sociologist, activist-educator, and community-based researcher. She is firmly committed to helping folks develop and deepen their sociological imagination through critical community-based research and organizing to address some of the most pressing issues in the community. Dr. Nkosi is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Fresno State and teaches full-time at Merritt College in Oakland, CA. She is the Regional Advisor for Faith in the Valley a grassroots community organization dedicated to working alongside residents to advance racial justice across the Central Valley. One of the campaigns Janine is involved in is the Healthy Housing Campaign, which is rooted in a belief that housing is a fundamental human right, and everyone deserves a safe, healthy, and deeply affordable place to call home. Janine’s teaching, research, and organizing philosophy are rooted in critical race methodologies, critical pedagogy, relational organizing, asset-based perspectives, and lived experience.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
On a Saturday morning in late October, public workers in downtown Los Angeles block off the stretch of Broadway from Olympic Boulevard to Hill Street. Around 10 am, a crowd gathers, donned in blue and red garments, shirts embroidered with mola, white polleras with bright-colored pom-poms, or Panama flags draped across their backs, to celebrate the Annual Panamanian Independence Day Parade. Distant relatives and former neighbors spot each other and greet with air kisses on each cheek. The crowd travels with the parade down Broadway and ends with a battle of Panamanian bands at Pershing Square. By activating spaces like downtown, a small but significant, interconnected community of Black Panamanians made Los Angeles their home.
The 2018 Senior Queen of the Parade waves at attendees along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.
While some have lived in Los Angeles since the 1960s, many Black Panamanian families moved to L.A. from Panama and other states such as New York, to live alongside African-Americans with roots in the American South during the 1970s and 1980s. As they sought housing in areas where other Black Panamanians already lived, a constellation of Black Panamanian families and individuals grew in South Los Angeles, North Long Beach, Watts, and Compton. Decades before they migrated to the United States, their grandparents left countries like Barbados, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and other Caribbean islands for Panama. Like them, they relied on family, friendship, and cultural practices.
Settling into their new city, they moved to affordable homes and several apartment complexes in Compton, including an apartment complex my mother, a canteen cashier at an aerospace company, managed. Known as “The Blvd,”because of its location on Long Beach Boulevard, one of Compton’s major thoroughfares, Black Panamanians came to occupy over half of the complex’s units. Its layout—apartments that faced each other with a communal space in the front and a walkway in the back that led to the next building—encouraged neighbors to interact and kids to play together. On Saturday mornings, music poured from every apartment: Anita Baker, Johnnie Taylor, Ruben Blades or Tabou Combo. The aroma of fried, sweet platanos and collard greens drifted between the apartments. During the summer, one neighbor sold duros, juices frozen in plastic cups, with flavors like tamarindo, ginger-infused jamaica, and, my favorite, coco, made with fresh coconut milk and shredded coconut, sweetened with cinnamon and nutmeg. If someone had a party, we all partied and feasted on delicacies such as saus (pickled pig feet with onions, cucumber, and white vinegar), chicheme (a drink made with sweetened milk, corn, and cinnamon), and Panamanian tamales (a spicy, reddish masa filled with green peas, peppers, a bone-in piece of chicken, and a prune, tripled wrapped, first in a banana leaf, then wax paper, then aluminum foil). For Nochebuena, my mother made pineapple glazed ham for everyone and rang in Navidad with the songs of Ismael Rivera, Oscar D’León, and Ruben Blades. Though the apartment’s location placed us in the cross-hairs of both gang violence and pedestrian-involved car accidents, we created spaces of joy by sharing Black Panamanian and African-American culture and resources.
On weekends, the Black Panamanian community throughout Los Angeles came together. The physical and social proximity of Compton, Watts, North Long Beach, and South Los Angeles, made it easy to gather in each others’ homes or in local, public spaces. On Saturday afternoons, a group of women, which included my mother, gallivanted to local or cross-town casinos, Compton’s Ramada Inn or Inglewood’s Hollywood Park and Casino, to play bingo. On Sundays, they headed east, out of Los Angeles County, to San Bernardino’s San Manuel Casino. If they didn’t want to drive, they got together in someone’s home, but kept the stakes high and brought their plata. The men played straight dominos in the dining room or backyard or joined the women in the living room, where you could hit on two or three in a row, before winning with the traditional five in a row. Their children commandeered the kids’ room to play video games or listen to hip-hop and dancehall music, growing hungrier as time passed before the evening’s host finished cooking rice and peas (red beans), guandú (also called gandules or gungo peas), or lentils, fried, sweet platanos, stewed chicken, and salad – potato or coleslaw. At times, food inspired the gathering, and someone prepared and sold dinners or fritura, fried finger foods such as hojaldas (a fried bread, also known as hojaldres/dras), empanadas, fried yucca, patacones (twice-fried green plantains), or carimañolas (mashed yucca filled with ground meat then fried). Whatever the occasion, we all ate and ate together.
Victor and friends outside the shop. Photo courtesy of Victor
Some Saturdays I accompanied my father to Victor’s Upholstery Shop (known to everyone simply as Victor’s shop); this meant peeking into the shop to say hello then sitting in the car for what felt like hours while my father hung out. Initially located on Washington Boulevard in L.A.’s Arlington Heights, the upholstery shop occupied the corner unit of a large, white brick building, with peeling paint, no windows, and one front metal gate. Named for its proprietor—a slim, brown Panamanian, with a gold tooth and a Caribbean accent (like many Black Panamanians), who often dressed in a natty fit and cap—Victor opened the shop in 1965 and availed his business to the local Panamanian community. For decades, the shop doubled as a communication hub and hang-out spot. If you wanted to confirm information about an event, you called Victor’s shop. If you needed to purchase pre-sale tickets for the upcoming boat cruise or dance, you could buy them at Victor’s shop. When the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was ousted in 1989, the local news stations came to Victor’s shop to interview the Panamanian community. The layout of the space itself reflected its many functions. Bolts of fabric lined up like wallpaper on one wall, shelves with binders upon binders of swatches stacked on another wall, and a wide wood work table occupied the center; it sat atop a carpet of wood dust. A dim corner room, across from the work table and behind Victor’s desk, housed a large TV and chairs. The walls were plastered with posters of athletes and bikini-clad women selling alcohol. While the sounds of Victor pounding sofa upsides with a mallet echoed through the shop, the TV room rang with the raucous laughter of men who planted themselves to talk politics and bochinche (gossip) in a mix of Spanish, English, and Patois, drink rum and milk or Cerveza Panama, and watch boxing matches, especially ones that featured Panama’s pride, Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran. In exchange, they helped Victor make deliveries. As they aged, they gathered for potlucks and quieter moments.
Across from Victor’s shop was Jucy’s Jamaican restaurant, one of L.A.’s few sit-down Caribbean restaurants, which has operated for over thirty-five years. It serves typical Panamanian cuisine like chicken soup with dumpling, stewed meat dishes, and chicken curry. Sometimes we drove down Crenshaw to indulge in a beef patty from Stone Market. Opened in the 1970s, we first frequented Stone Market because it carried typical food items and brands that local stores did not, such as guandú peas, Malta Hatuey (a sweet, carbonated beverage), and bacalao (salted codfish). Outside, men sat on folding chairs or milk crates, talking and playing dancehall and old school reggae that you could purchase. Over time, it became a staple in the Black Panamanian community. Located next to the market is the star of the operation: a take-out, cash only, food kiosk, where dinners, patties, and, the best carrot juice I’ve ever tasted, are prepared and sold. It is a small structure, with just a kitchen and front counter, a floor fan circulating heat and noise, and a dry-erase board that displays the menu of the day. Upon entering, the smell of coconut, butter, and cinnamon from the loaves of Coco bread and bun welcomed you the way the cashier will not. What was written on the board is what they had in stock; if an item was marked out or erased, they ran out of it for the day. If it wasn’t on the board, one shouldn’t ask for it (these were the unspoken rules). When an abuelita or other keepers of the homemade bun recipe went on a cooking hiatus, families settled for purchasing buns for Easter or Christmas from Stone Market.
During summer holidays like the 4th of July, we celebrated at Scherer Park in Long Beach. Nicknamed “Parque Del Amo,” for its location off Del Amo, between Long Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, some families arrived as early as six am to claim one of the limited numbers of picnic tables, while others brought folding tables, lawn chairs, or blankets. Each family prepared meals at home and brought them to the park: cole slaw, potato salad, rice and peas or guandú, baked barbecue chicken, and even hotdogs and hamburgers. Occasionally, my father set up a fryer and sold patacones and codfish cakes. Children would go from table to table to meet-up with friends. Asking for or accepting a plate from a table other than your own was a faux paus; my mother insisted that doing so constituted begging and set the trap for a good piece of bochinche. Folks might say that your mother did not care for you properly. The Scherer Park gatherings grew in size; at one point, someone hired an official DJ and a Panamanian ballet folklórico group performed on a portable dance floor. As Panamanians began to move to cities within San Bernardino County, festivities like an annual end of the summer picnic, were held east of Los Angeles at Frank Bonelli Park in San Dimas.
Couples dance close at a Father’s Day Dance at the Shatto Banquet Hall. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.
Parties worthy of a formal venue took place at Shatto Banquet Hall, a rental hall on Slauson Avenue, which was popular among L.A.’s Louisiana Creole community. We had our own version of formal wear. For men, it consisted of a button-down blouse, silk slacks, and dress shoes with no socks. Women wore glittered or sequined body-hugging dresses, extra-high heels, and a slather of gold – gold bracelets, anklets, earrings, and necklaces with placas (name plates or plates in the shape of the Panama Isthmus) or an Ojo de Venado (a round ball/amulet wrapped in gold letters). No matter the type of jewelry, it had to be gold, as the women deemed anything else chichipatti (cheap). At Shatto Hall, I witnessed my first and only quinceñera, another second-generation Black Panamanian girl, who body rolled down the two lines of Black damas and chambelanes to Raven-Simone’s rap song “That’s What Little Girls are Made of.”
The predominant narrative about the Afro-Latinx community in L.A. claims that we suffers from isolation and are disconnected. However, it is clear that a network of Black Panamanians nurtured and created a strong sense of identity for the next generation, including myself. As an Black Panamanian in Los Angeles, I was not a anomaly. Instead, I was part of a community that held and named me.
Yet, as the places and spaces known to the community changed, so did the community. Panamanians no longer live on “The Blvd.” Encounters with violence and the lack of opportunity due to divestment and the loss of jobs once provided by large industries, pushed African-American and Black Panamanian families out of Los Angeles. Many followed the out-migration of African-Americans east, to cities like Rialto, Upland, Fontana, and Rancho Cucamonga. Folks no longer gather at Scherer Park. After decades of running his upholstery business out of Washington Boulevard, Victor had to move. This was likely a result of rising commercial rent costs and gentrification. The original location of Victor’s shop is now an art gallery. He retired soon after his shop relocated. Jucy’s and Stone Market have managed to weather the changes and will perhaps benefit from the planned Crenshaw light rail running next to Stone Market. 
The entire building has experienced a transformation, with new tenants replacing old ones
While many families moved out of L.A. County, some families, including my own, remained. We moved from Compton to Long Beach, and finally, to Watts. My family arrived to these places without the community that once enriched us and made these places home. I long for that community –my mother does too. Now, as a mother, I desire for my children to experience the affirmation that I did growing up in a Black Panamanian Los Angeles. Yet, in the face of change, we remain resourceful and look to the past for guidance. As the child of migrants, I am able to do things that my parents were not able to: I can take my children to Panama. I can take them to the annual parade, the place where we still gather, and introduce them to our neighbors from “The Blvd” and our friends like Victor. Those of us who grew up nurtured by this community of Black Panamanians, and those who are just discovering it, know that in any place we gather, we are our own multitude.
Jenise Miller is an urban planner and poet. She is the great-granddaughter of Black Panama Canal builders and a native of Compton and Watts. A recent Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) fellow, her poems have been featured in The Acentos Review, Dryland Literary Journal, and Cultural Weekly. She received her M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA and B.A. in Black Studies and Sociology from UC Santa Barbara. She lives in Compton with her family. You can find her on Twitter @jenisepalante and www.plannerpoet.com.
During a speech delivered at Boston College on November 18, 1970 Huey P. Newton extended Marxist-Leninist material dialecticism as a mode of theoretical and practical inquiry through his critical neologism “intercommunalism.” Describing two variants of intercommunalism, one reactionary and the other revolutionary, Newton premised his analytic on an understanding that American empire had eclipsed the nation-colony model of European imperial integration in a similar fashion to the ways that system eclipsed the “primitive empire” Romans built within the world as they conceived it in the Classical period of the West. “North America,” he argued had been “transformed at the hands of the ruling circle from a nation to an empire,” changing “the whole composition of the world.” As a result, the elite of the United States “necessarily control[led] the whole world either directly or indirectly.” Intercommunalism, in its reactionary variant, created a world defined by the dislocation of finance, production, and consumption across increasingly dispersed and mediated geographic system of resource-siphoning in which automation would give way to “cybernation [and] probably to technocracy.” The primary effect of reactionary intercommunalism, according to Newton, was the creation of a permanent class of expendable people the world over with no access to the benefits of technological transformation and who were forced to bear the worst effects of global integration.1
In contrast to reactionary intercommunalism, Newton proposed and adopted “revolutionary intercommunalism.” As a result of “nations hav[ing] been transformed into [the] communities of the world,” revolutionary organizers could also make it a “time when the people seize[d] the means of production and distribute[d] the wealth and the technology in an egalitarian way to the many communities of the world.” Newton’s interpretation of the revolutionary variant of intercommunalism justified the shift of the Black Panther Party toward its Survival Programs. Without the basics of subsistence in food and healthcare and without critical education, there would be no ability to survive, let alone to throw off the technocratic elite, he reasoned. Revolutionary intercommunalists could shut down the draining of collective resources to line the pockets of Empire’s elites. Using the capacity of the new technological age, which had taken a person to the moon but which refused to end hunger and depravation, revolutionary intercommunalists, including the Panthers, could create a global sense of the world based not on exploitation but rather on the power to extend human happiness and wellbeing equitably.2
These key turns in Newton’s thought, his analysis of both the reactionary and revolutionary versions of intercommunalism, as well as the Black Panther’s organizational praxis responding to these novel theorizations, remain important theoretical and practical points in challenging globalization—the hegemonic financial and cultural integration of the earth that has continued since the era of Newton’s theorization. This, our age of the orange autocrat in the U.S. and of multiple neo-fascist regimes around the world, is defined by unprecedented technocratic monopoly and the devastating expansion of the permanently jobless, homeless, and nationless who can make no claim to the advances associated with globalization and who face the brunt of the negative effects of this order. Extending Newton’s concept, we currently face the rise of what I call reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism—a variant in which the façade of integration accompanying multicultural neoliberalism has given way to the explicit embrace of autocracy in and through technological, economic, and political integration. Across disparate human geographies a technocratic elite—ranging from logistics capital to social media tycoons—dictate the lives of ordinary people, deciding if they work, live, or die and under what conditions.
Basil D, Soufi, “Aerial view of the Inland Empire overlooking San Bernardino and Rialto, California,” Courtesy of Soufi via Creative Commons
Juan D. De Lara’s important new book Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California(UC Press, 2018), garners for readers analytic purchase not only on the dynamics of the technologically integrated commodity chains shaping contemporary reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism, but also on the potential for labor organizing and politics to extend the practice of Newton’s revolutionary intercommunalism. One of the powerful aspects of De Lara’s study is that, like Clyde Woods’ work in the context of the Mississippi Delta, he takes the region as his point of analysis. Foremost, as De Lara argues, the region provides a frame through which to analyze the ways that “[c]reative destruction is…woven into the fabric of capitalist development” and provides “solution to the devaluation of fixed capital by reconfiguring spatial-temporal relationships to create new investment options.” Emerging from a “speculative growth regime” the Inland Empire as a distribution center for global commodities emerged as corporate boosters and politicians beginning in the 1980s justified the expenditure of collective resources to extend Southern California’s port, warehouse, and distribution infrastructures into the region encompassing cities east of Los Angeles like Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ontario. As De Lara demonstrates, these changes were sold to ordinary people as the tide that would lift all boats, as the collective potential for prospering after the devastation of the region’s rapid deindustrialization in competition with emerging production centers around the world. Elites reasoned that the expenditures, as well as the environmental-health threats related to concentrated diesel pollution, would be worth the enhancement of the region’s position in the mounting competition for increased commodity imports. They argued that these developments would improve the lives of the region’s ordinary residents by providing them with stable incomes and concomitantly with access to the housing market as owners. In effect, however, these processes further entrenched vulnerability in communities exposed to global market fluctuations. Indeed, the cost of speculatively-growing Southern California ports and the Inland Empire distribution networks to make them competitive with others around the nation, was the extension of tedious and poorly compensated labor under conditions of often cyborg-like surveillance, as well as environmental degradation, and racial violence.
As it chronicles the rise of a regional elite, De Lara’s work holds onto material dialecticism, introducing points of possibility for the subversion of regional logistics hegemony through the narratives of predominantly Latinx warehouse workers. In particular, he includes, along with his analysis of the dominant social-spatial features of the Inland Empire, the “counter-mappings” of workers, or the “collective stories provid[ing] insight into how people make sense of the world” which are also the “seeds of opposition to dominant systems.” Importantly, De Lara credits ordinary people with the ability to generate theoretical and cartographic insights useful in analyzing and thwarting this reviling and destructive system. In chapter five, for example, De Lara shows the ways that ordinary Latinx warehouse workers, “José,” “Angelica,” and “Marta” make sense of vulnerability within the wider geography of the region. He connects their analysis with their attempts to defy the imposition of a system of technologically enhanced management in which workers are wired to track productivity (or the lack thereof) as part of the wider coordination of production, commodity importation, warehousing, and distribution for corporations like Walmart. De Lara places these everyday forms of analysis and resistance on a continuum with the efforts of organizations to combat vulnerability. For example, these mappings helped to drive the inroads made by unions to end temporary work and also undergirded efforts to halt raids, detentions, and deportations undermining local Latinx communities. The rudimentary coordinates of worker’s alternative vistas on the matters of labor, place, and politics, served as the substrate out of which activist consciousness emerged. Union and community organizers drew together people by highlighting their shared narratives and common geographic analyses.
De Lara’s book provides an excellent addition to the growing work in critical human geography. It would be particularly effective if paired with important works of regional analysis and Marxist geography including Clyde Woods’ work and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. These works, taken together, help us to gain purchase on the development of the geographies of gendered racial capitalism in state and global capital formations and also to take stock of resistance. These works also remind us of the vital place of what Newton understood as “the left of the proletariat.” In a world, increasingly defined by reactionary global integration, it is only the everyday and organized subversions on the part of ordinary people that can dislodge the tyranny of technocracy, giving expression to a world free of borders wherein the advances in technological capacity can be distributed to address crises such as the environmental catastrophe, in order to insure our collective wellbeing rather than our collective destruction. As De Lara’s work effectively illustrates, we must recover the radical potential of Newton’s analysis, forwarding it into the nascent order. We must also organize shoulder to shoulder with the potentially revolutionary intercommunalists across the world if we are to survive the terrifying juncture of environmental destruction, technocratic monopoly, and global integration. The people of the Inland Empire have led the way in demonstrating the place of ordinary people can incapacitate technocratic power and fighting fascism, the political analog of an economy based in technocratic monopoly.
May the revolutionary intercommunalists of the world unite!
1 Huey P. Newton, “Speech Delivered at Boston College: November 18, 1970, To Die for the People, ed. Toni Morrison, (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2009): 20-38.
J.T. Roane is assistant professor of African and African American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript under contract with NYU Press titled, “Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia.” He serves as co-senior editor for Black Perspectives, the digital platform of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).
Editorial Introduction: Something I heard in Kim Shuck’s poems and read in Lynell George’s writings indicated both California women not only understood and shared a passion for our place, but could also deliver a deeper understanding for the rest of us through discussion of what it means to be a committed Californian. While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling. I became convinced they had to meet.
Shuck, San Francisco’s seventh poet laureate, is also an educator, mentored by some of the great women artists and activists of the twentieth century, from sculptor, educator, and Japanese internment survivor Ruth Asawa, to poet and Native American cultural affairs educator, Carol Lee Sanchez. With a heritage that is part Oklahoma Cherokee and part Polish, Shuck has followed in the footsteps of artist/activists, while tutoring children in the arts and math, teaching poetry and Native studies at the collegiate level, and generally pitching in where needed in her community, whether supporting independent bookstores and public libraries or eradicating everyday racism in our town square. A many times published and awarded poet, her most recent project to create fifty-five poems in fifty-five days was inspired by the reactivated thirty-year effort to remove the colonialist/settler statue, Early Days, from San Francisco’s Civic Center. The takedown of the bronze occurred in September and the poems and dialogue surrounding it caught the attention of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture continues concerted efforts to remove racist statues and logos from the public sphere. Shuck’s new poetry book, Exile Hearts, publishes in December with the American Indian/Indigenous press, That Painted Horse, while her reading series and appearances as poet laureate continue unabated, within and outside the Bay Area.
George is beloved in the Southland from her years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. Her family came West from New Orleans, a journey she chronicled in her first book, No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso), and she has spent her share of time reporting from there as well in San Francisco’s North Beach, her homes away from home. George’s latest, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, for LA-based Angel City Press, combines her photography with her writings about the changing cityscape and the people who contribute to making LA the de facto capital of the West Coast. The stories combine the best of what people bring with them, the already considerable gifts of our native, majestic desert-mountain-seascape, and George’s own experiences as a close observer. Earlier this year, she won a Grammy Award for her liner notes about Otis Redding’s historic performances, Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings; she also spent a chunk of time with the Huntington Library-housed archives of original Afro-Futurist, science fiction writer Octavia Butler. George can be found giving talks at cultural institutions from Loyola Marymount and the University of California to Union Station, or about town, writing and photographing her LA, the place she knows and loves best.
While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling.
And so they met, at the fifty-year-old literary landmark, Beyond Baroque, in Venice, where I organized a reading with the expressed purpose of joining the pair to read from Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the San Francisco story anthology I edited, and to discuss matters of north versus south, and specifically the changes we’ve lived through as women still committed to California dreaming and doing. While that conversation between California cultural herstorians, poets and artists, journalists and photographers (accompanied by songwriter Peter Case) was indeed lively, it was our talk prior to the public one, where Boom editor Jason Sexton and Shuck’s partner Doug Salin were also present, where we got down to parsing the rougher business of our state, from its wild nature and riotous flora to the problems of racial and economic inequality that have been with us since the origins of statehood. We join that conservation as Shuck and George recollect their experiences growing up as students in California classrooms.
Photo of Shuck, George, Sullivan, and Sexton by Doug Salin.
Lynell George: When we moved from our home in the Crenshaw District to Culver City, immediately I was put in a low reading group without testing. I confronted the teacher and said, “You know I actually already read these books.” and I could see that she was not paying attention to me and it wasn’t just that it wasn’t sinking in. Not that she wasn’t absorbing it; she just didn’t believe it.
I went home to talk to my mother about it and she had just come home she was taking her shoes and her hose off and was listening to me talk and all of a sudden, she’s getting dressed again, and we were heading down to the school to talk to the principal and the teacher. Because my mother was an English teacher, she was able to tell them, “You give her this test, this test, and this test.” But what if she wasn’t able to do that? What if she didn’t know? And so the teacher had to correct it and then, of course, was angry with me for the rest of the year because she was embarrassed in such a public way. That was early on. I was eleven, ten, something like that.
Kim Shuck: I went to public school and then to high school at a private school because dad was working in Silicon Valley at that time and suddenly he was making money. Both my parents had been working class and they went, “Oh it’s gonna be good for her if we put her in this private school….” And essentially, I had a lot of trouble, but after the one time my father got called in from work—you did not call Indian men in from work—it was not well received and dad was so angry. He drives up from Mountain View back to San Francisco and he doesn’t understand how frightening people find him—a six foot plus, dark-skinned man with jet black hair—looks like if a darker-skinned Elvis had never gotten fat and had been career military, and he walks like that. His lips are disappeared and he is talking to the guy in the office about this thing. And after that I really had no problem with anyone because nobody wanted my father coming back to school.
They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like. They threatened me with expulsion and then I said, “Well let’s just call my parents.” I didn’t want to be yelled at by these people anymore. And everybody in the office kind of went hmm… and did the math and thought, “That means that big man will come back: Let’s not have him back.” When I got named laureate of San Francisco, they called up and asked, “What do you remember about going to our school?” I remember the poetry teacher telling me my work would never go anywhere because it was too self-referential.
They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like.
George: What lit the fire in me as a reporter was, I wanted to tell the stories of the neighborhoods that I knew really well, but didn’t see their stories told with richness and in their voices. There was a negative feeling about the Los Angeles Times when I started there in the ’90s: People felt it didn’t tell the story of their community. So, here I was an African American reporter, and do you trust what I can do with your story? Then over time, people got to know my byline and my reputation, but I had to earn it and I knew I had to earn it. I didn’t walk in expecting, like, some of the other reporters often said, “Your quotes are going to be in the L.A. Times.” I was like, “Please, contribute to the story. I want to hear your side.” That was the important part and I was able to create lifelong relationships with people all over the city because of that. It didn’t so much happen with The Weekly, like if I was going to do interviews in South L.A. or East L.A. Back then, they didn’t distribute the papers in those communities, so a lot of people didn’t know what that was: “And what is that paper?” “Who are you with?” But, by talking to them, connecting with them, finding whatever the common ground was, they trusted me to take back that story.
Shuck: You get them to tell you stories. You have to earn their trust. The poem about the mother and child or the parent and child cycle poem that I do, there is a line in there:
The boy showed me the mark of the scorpion on his leg
and I showed him the mark of the spider on mine
That happened. I work with brand new immigrant kids from Mexico and this student had walked across the border by himself…. It’s a long story. It’s not mine to tell, but boy, is it a good story and as he was telling me that story, he pulls his pant leg up and he goes, “That’s a scar from the scorpion sting.” So I showed him where on my leg, there is a spot where there is just skin over a hole because I got bit by a fiddleback spider. I said, “That’s a spider bite.” He went, “Wow. That’s cool.” And suddenly I had all of this street cred. You find the common ground, you know? Tell me where it hurts. Maybe I can help, maybe I can’t, but I will witness for you.
George: Once I sat in a classroom at San Francisco State, and had to turn in a story for the class. I was writing about L.A. When the discussion opened up, the first question was “Can she do this?” And I’m like… “Can she do this? Why are they asking about me? I’m sitting right here.” And instead of the professor trying to shift the conversation, she starts saying, “Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure. If she sent this story into XYZ magazine….” And finally I said, “I’m not sure what you are talking about.” And it was clear that they didn’t understand what race the characters were in my piece. The characters were multiracial because it was a story about Los Angeles in a multiracial environment, but they were looking for something that identified the character as African American. Nobody would really come out and say that right away.
This is a different conversation than one that happened in the memoir class; this was a fiction class. Either way, I was screwed. I’m writing true life and I’m writing fiction and whatever I do or say, as in, “I’m reflecting the environment around me,” would prompt, “Can she do that?” I said, “Men write women. White men write all kinds of….”
Shuck: Anybody they feel like.
George: Anybody. So why can’t I? And then the instructor said, “Well, I’m sure, if they saw….” I think she said something about a picture, a photograph of you. “What difference does it make?” And she couldn’t answer. But, it stopped everything cold and at that point, yeah, I kind of shut down. Why would I share my work with this group?
Shuck: Right. Well the thing is you grow out of them and that’s kind of the fun part. You keep going. So when we went into the hearings for the removal of the Early Days statue, I started in the mode, “Okay. I’m listening. What do you have to say?” And it was so unreasonable. They kept speaking as if we weren’t there. It’s complicated for me. I can fact-find in plain sight, if I don’t have a relative with me. The first guess people make isn’t, “That’s a Native woman.” But finally, that behavior is like an icepick over and over at very shallow depths increasing over time. People call this microaggression, but it’s not. One of my good friends broke a tooth clenching her jaw over something like that. I mean, these are not micro at all. Finally I just went “Ahhhh” and I went off. And the stuff came out and I feel like if you read all fifty-five of the poems back-to-back, you’d see me de-comp-ing over time. The things I don’t deal with right away get really complicated on the page, so it makes for crap poetry—passionate—and I call them rants when I write like that. I mean, at my best, I’m not calling people idiots and racists.
George: Right. Sometimes it’s necessary.
Shuck: Sometimes it’s just so true that you have to. Somebody’s got to say it. In the hearings this guy was saying, “I know art because my family has funded a lot of art museums.” I got up and said, “I know art because I am an artist and I have two degrees in art and I teach it, and on the days when I am not teaching it, I am making it.” My family built the buildings, those museums…. We didn’t own them, but I do feel a certain ownership of them. And if this was just a conversation about art, we could sit down over a coffee or a brandy and have it as a really polite conversation, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We are talking about privilege and that’s going be more painful. People get their scabs torn off in this conversation: “There will be blood.” I kind of ranted at them for a few minutes and then I did that sort of Columbo thing and went, “You do know that you’re on the wrong side of this argument, right? You do know that eventually this statue is coming down and that history will look ill upon the fact that you have made it take longer? You get that right?”
George: It’s funny, when I moved to San Francisco and I would meet people and they would ask me where I was from and very often someone would say some version of, “Oh. How lucky for you to have left L.A. You made a good choice being up here. Because L.A. is such a pit.” And I’m like, “No. It really isn’t. And you should come and spend time down here and I would take you on a tour. I really would.” I would take you on a tour that would blow your mind because it would burst through every misconception and preconceived notion you have. And I actually did do that with a couple of friends and they’ve gone back and told people, “It’s not what you think.”
The idea that all of the sudden sitting in traffic or I’m at the market, trying to get to my car, I look up and I see the mountains and there’s snow on them: And you can actually see them, which in the seventies, you could not always see the mountains. In the eighties, you could not always see the mountains. You can see them now. And there is something for me still, about sitting in my house with all of the windows open and hearing all my neighbors playing their music….
Shuck: And the slight breeze changes, and it’s a whole different setting.
Shuck: I feel like what I see that still happens here that sort of has stopped happening in San Francisco is that you can see people kind of hanging out with one another outside. When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own. And as time has gone on, there is less and less and less of that. I love it when I come down here and I see, it’s after dark and we’re driving through wherever, and there’s this group of folks outside, sitting there talking and that is a useful thing to remember and something to try to resurrect a bit.
When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own.
George: That’s a good point. I moved up there without a car because I didn’t need a car. It was exciting to learn a city on foot, learn a bus system and be in the BART system or on MUNI and learn how to read a map and get myself around places. That stayed with me as I traveled other places, but when we finally were able to get a rail here, and I’m on it a lot—I know it’s because of San Francisco.
I’m watching this younger generation of Angelenos: It used to be this rite of passage for us to get a set of keys so we could drive everywhere and be independent. I’m noticing there are kids so much younger who know the city in ways that my generation will never know because they went out and they pushed into different neighborhoods. They have friends, they have places they meet, and they’re independent at a younger age and they think about the city’s grid in a different way than we did. It’s very exciting to watch that, and I see it through my San Francisco eyes.
Shuck: Yeah. I don’t know about here, but in San Francisco, everything’s gentrification grey.
George: Yes. Here it’s starting to be that way.
Shuck: With entitlement orange trim.
George: Yes! Yes! Yes! You get the chartreuse doors too.
Shuck: Yes! I just saw my first one of those on Valencia. And Guerrero had one, as well. I just want to say, there are all these eviction arsons in San Francisco. Houses with small apartments that have a lot of long-term residents. So this one place down in the Mission actually bolted charred boards, which I know is a traditional Japanese aesthetic thing, but it’s so tone deaf: It was built on the site of a house that had burnt down.
George: Oh my god. Oh no.
Shuck: I loved that the first graffiti that went up was “Are you fucking kidding me?” It wasn’t even a tag. It was just exasperated.
George: Do better. Just do better. It pains me to look and see it because part of the richness for me of being here has always felt like the world comes here. And if we are open enough to have conversations, we get closer and closer and closer. And that was the thing, like I could dip into a Haitian community here, a Brazilian community, Salvadorean community. I had friends from so many places—Cuba, Costa Rica—and that also is, I think, one of the things that turned me into a journalist. The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard. I like that riot of color and the difference.
It depends on where you are in the city, but there are certain things that are going away.
The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard.
Shuck: I have a lot of lines about this because it really irritates me and, as I said, [snaps fingers] “Fast switch sarcasm.” Understand this: If we have a good earthquake, half of those guys are going back where they came from. Wherever that is.
George: Oh yeah. That’s very true. That happened here too.
Shuck: The people who have moved here by volition. Because the acquisitional people who moved in for a paycheck are not committed. There are other kinds of neighbors who move in and make themselves part of a neighborhood and participate in things, and that’s a big difference. It’s a cycle. It was kind of getting better through our generation and it’s getting worse now, but nature will resolve this.
When the building at 22nd and Mission burned down, one of my students lost his father.
It’s been so interesting to watch the pushback. The city got involved, so they haven’t yet rebuilt the forty-story, you know, ice cube tray for techy rats.
George: The ice cube tray. That’s so excellent. I had not heard that before, but that’s so right.
Shuck: But if you notice, the buckeye butterflies are back. There was a night cloak there the other night, as well. We have very few night cloak butterflies in San Francisco and they used to be all over the place. And the buckeyes we haven’t really seen in any numbers for a long time, but the minute you bring their food back, shockingly they come back and start eating it.
George: Oh, that’s beautiful
Shuck: In San Francisco, Native San Franciscans keep being called unicorns, as though we’re mythological and rare. I’ve been trying to make the point lately at readings to ask, “Who was born and raised here?” And there’s always a lot of us. I’m not going anywhere.
We’re still here and I’m not going, you know? And Doug’s not going. And my kids are there. And their father was also born in San Francisco, by the way, so they’re native San Francisco on both sides. We’re here. We’re around, you know?
I want you to think about what oxalis does. if you put a pot with just dirt in it out on your porch in San Francisco within six months, it will have an oxalis plant or a nasturtium in it. One or the other. Seriously. And oxalis reseeds itself like four different ways. It’s got roots under the ground, it’s got seeds, if you chop it up, the little bits of it will grow a new one. They’re pretty resilient and I feel we’re that way too. So, I just don’t think it can keep happening. This direction is not endless. It’ll pop back, you know? It will, but I think we need to stop talking about ourselves as though we’re all going away.
George: You hear that about L.A. too, that it’s rare. I remember being at some event with a bunch of Brazilians and they were going around the table asking the question and I said, “No I’m a native of Los Angeles,” and a woman kept asking me.
Shuck: No, but where?
George: Yeah, “No, but where?” I said, “No. Los Angeles.” She said, “That’s very rare.” No, it’s not. If you took a poll, there would be more people in this room who are native than you think, and I think there’s this perception because of the way people are grouped.
Shuck: We are five native Californians in one room.
George: In one room. Owning that nativeness and talking about it is so important. That’s why when I did this book, After/Image, I wanted to focus on what was still here and who was still here, and what unifies us. When I’ve been doing the readings, I ask people, “What’s your L.A. story?” Because I want us to share in a group like what matters still about L.A.
Shuck: Otherwise it’s just like being talked around in those classes—the way that they make us disappear in San Francisco or in L.A.
George: Yes. Absolutely.
Shuck: It’s exactly the same thing. We’re right here.
Shifting the World one Opinion at a Time (Kim Shuck)
I have come awake
Homesick in my hometown
Tapped sacred songs onto porch wood
Onto pavement squares
Like a child game
Thrown a place holder
To the next foothold
Tapped sacred songs onto library walls
City hall walls
The thing we bring here today is not predicted by your security
Coal hot memories
And a terrifying patience
If Los Angeles is ever evolving, being an Angeleno must be something that by consequence is too not-fixed, that it is an identity in flux.
What far more interests me is how Los Angeles exists in our own imagination—influenced by that perception—how a sense of place affects and shapes us: TV beams in weekly, scripted scenarios, movies seduce, but so many of us who grew up around narrow narratives of place work against or away from that; we’re not all chasing the round-the-next-bend dream (film industry, real estate, peace of mind), but often we are the fruit of those who came in search of it.
For us, then, the kids who lived in those off-the-radar places on the map—a dead-end street, “below-the-10,” or over the bridge—finding your path, your way, meant finding your terrain, your tribe, and your heart.
We move through a collection of roads that spin us toward some next chapter of understanding. In certain ways, it’s ongoing coalition building: Whom we connect with gifts us another small brick of clarity and compassion—a sense of deeper self-making. And with all this connecting, mixing, and borrowing, if we are lucky, it can produce something as uncanny as indelible.
Lynell George, adapted from photo by Al Quattrochi.
 Excerpt from After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame (Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2018), 144.
Denise Sullivan is a fourth generation San Franciscan who’s lived in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Author of several books of music biography, she’s editor of Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions for independent press Manic D, and co-editor of the 2018 chapbook, The City Is Already Speaking: The Sound of Calle 24. She writes the SF Lives column for The San Francisco Examiner.
“Greeting from Bakersfield California” reads an early twentieth century postcard touting the various tourist attractions in the city and greater region. Bakersfield is mostly known as the home of the “Bakersfield Sound,” a style invented by country music legends such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the 1950s and 1960s, and as a destination for migrants who came from places like Oklahoma during the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl. It is located in the southern part of California’s Central Valley, a multibillion-dollar agricultural region that provides a significant portion of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Bakersfield was on the frontlines of racism and extremism, and a city located in a county where police corruption and law enforcement official-involved deaths ranked among the highest in the country.
Bakersfield, and Kern County as a whole, is the heart of California’s “Deep South” when it comes to race relations, the immigration debate, and the politics of white minoritization. Unlike the Deep South, where African Americans have faced a long legacy of white supremacy, Latinx peoples who are composed of mostly Mexican-Americans, make up over fifty percent of Kern County’s population. Importantly, the Latinx population faces the brunt of white supremacist and neo-Nazi racial violence, corruption in county law enforcement agencies, and a white working- and middle-class public who openly shared their racist view of Mexican-Americans as they boldly pledged support for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential contest.
In the 2012 presidential election, fifty-seven percent of Kern County’s population voted for Mitt Romney. Four years later, a majority voted for Donald Trump. This is in a state where over sixty-one percent of the population voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Latinx population in the county increased dramatically. Bakersfield, the urban center of the county, is home to approximately 360,000 residents, of which nearly half are of Latinx. Among California counties, it is home to the state’s fastest growing population and much of this growth is due to the increase in the Latinx population.
Despite the undeniable importance and visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement as the twenty-first century took off, the county with the highest number of the kinds of deaths protested by the movement is Kern County, and the victims tend to be Latinx. Between 2008 and 2014, Kern County law enforcement officials killed 3.54 residents per 100,000 on average each year, the highest number among all counties in the U.S. In 2015 alone, fourteen people were killed by law enforcement officials in the county, equaling 1.5 deaths per 100,000. That’s three times the total in Los Angeles County, which ranked forty-fifth in the U.S. During the same year, New York Police Department officers policing the five boroughs—a population ten times larger than Kern County—killed only ten people. While a vast majority of the victims were Latino, most of the deaths came at the hands of white males who compose approximately seventy-five percent of law enforcement officials in the county.
Although protest and candlelight vigils followed these deaths, the lack of a “Latinx Lives Matter” type of movement, or multiethnic and racial alliance against police brutality on a broader level, illustrates the vulnerable state of the population in red California’s urban center.
The high rate of law enforcement-related deaths garnered a national media spotlight and prompted attention from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In December 2016, State Attorney General Kamala Harris and the State Department of Justice began a civil rights investigation based on “excessive use of force and other serious misconduct” committed by law enforcement officials employed in the county. The announcement regarding the investigation failed to mention that most of the victims of this possible excessive force and misconduct were Latino males. Although protest and candlelight vigils followed these deaths, the lack of a “Latinx Lives Matter” type of movement, or multiethnic and racial alliance against police brutality on a broader level, illustrates the vulnerable state of the population in red California’s urban center.
In Kern County, the Latinx population is burdened with worry about not only police brutality, but also racist violence from the general public and anti-immigrant sentiments that place the lives of undocumented peoples in danger of incarceration and deportation. The lack of attention paid to the systemic racism and law enforcement related deaths in Kern County faced by the Latinx population also stems from two other issues. One of these is the fact that race relations tends to be viewed in binary terms as a black-and-white problem. This continues to marginalize Latinx peoples from the broader narrative of race and ethnic relations throughout history, and prevents an accurate understanding of the diverse multicultural society that is twenty-first century California. The second issue is the mainstream U.S. American social and cultural notion that Latinx peoples are only recent arrivals. This misconception stretches even further to wrongfully rationalizing that Latinx peoples have no meaningful history or roots in the present-day U.S., and as such make little contributions to society. The presence of a vulnerable undocumented population, as well as flawed notions of race relations and the Latinx-American experience, fuels a collective inability to bring greater oversight to the law enforcement corruption and systemic racism in Kern County.
Within the first few hundred days of his administration in 2017, Donald Trump sent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials deep into the heart of even the smallest towns in central and northern California to round up undocumented immigrants. Passed in April 2017, Senate Bill 54 classified California as a “sanctuary state” and guaranteed that state resources would not contribute to the detainment and deportation of undocumented immigrants. Elected in 2006, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood had proposed to go against the California state government and make it a “non-sanctuary county.” However, the Latinx community has faced more dangerous and time-spanning social conditions that have threatened their lives and well-being in Kern County.
Law enforcement-involved deaths of Latinx residents of Kern County was not new in 2015. Between 2005 and 2015, most of the seventy-nine law enforcement-involved killings occurred on the southeast side of Bakersfield, which is an area where Latinx peoples are the majority. On the evening of 7 May 2013, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies approached David Silva as he slept across the street from the Kern County Medical Center waiting to get help for bouts of depression. Upon their approach, Sheriff’s officers attempted to wake him up, then proceeded to handcuff him as he woke up, fearing he was on PCP. As Silva tried to stand up, likely in somewhat of a state of shock after being abruptly awoke by Sheriff’s deputies, the officers unleashed a police dog, which bit him thirty times. Sheriff’s deputies then struck him several times with batons, hog-tied him, and placed a shield on his head. Before leaving the scene, Sheriff’s deputies confiscated phones used by witnesses to record their treatment of Silva. After vomiting throughout the evening in custody of the Sheriff’s Department, the 33-year-old father of four stopped breathing and died just after midnight the next day. In May of 2016, Kern County agreed to pay $3.4 million to settle a suit brought on by Silva’s family.
Another one of the more controversial law enforcement-related killings came in November of 2014 when Bakersfield Police Department officers pursued James Villegas in a high-speed chase. After wrecking his vehicle, the 22-year-old Villegas was fired upon and killed by police officers. According to officers on the scene, he approached them in a confrontational manner and reached for his waistband after exiting the wrecked vehicle.
Witnesses of the incident involving Villegas told a different story. At least two witnesses testified that he put his hands in the air after exiting the wrecked vehicle and was waiting for the officers to approach him as they abruptly fired their weapons at him. As was the case with a majority of law enforcement-related deaths in Kern County that occurred both before and after the Villegas incident, the officers who killed him were cleared of any wrongdoing. A few days after Villegas’s death, 200 community members held a candlelight vigil with signs that read such things as, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot.” “We just want to raise awareness,” claimed David Silva’s brother Christopher at the vigil. Silva passionately continued with this strong message: “There’s something very wrong in this town.”
Silva passionately continued with this strong message: “There’s something very wrong in this town.”
As if the police-related killings in early twenty-first century Kern County were not enough, the disturbing behavior exhibited by law enforcement officials sheds light on a wide range of social and cultural problems in the region’s law enforcement community. Following the death of James Villegas, veteran officer Aaron Stringer entered the coroner’s office, reached under the sheet covering his deceased body, fondled him, and tickled his toes in front of other officers. He then proceeded to twist Villegas’s neck while joking about the human body in the condition of rigor mortis, while stating, “I love playing with dead bodies.”
In what was at the time not made public, the City of Bakersfield paid the Villegas family $400,000 to settle the case shortly after the incident. The Public Records Act allows city and county law enforcement agencies to keep settlements private, but if a member of the public asks for the records they must be provided. In 2017, after requesting records of settlements stemming from possible police misconduct, Bakersfield area news agencies broke a story that uncovered an expensive history of payouts. Between 2010 and 2017, the police department paid out over $5 million to settle cases involving police while the County Sheriff’s Department paid out $22 million. In April of 2018, Sheriff Youngblood was caught on video stating that it was better, from a financial standpoint, to kill a suspect than “cripple” them, “because if you cripple them you have to take care of them for life, and that cost goes way up.” Similar to the investigation launched by State Attorney General Kamala Harris in 2016, Youngblood’s comments were covered in the national media; but the fact that most victims were Latinx was left out. In June of 2018, Youngblood was re-elected as Kern County Sheriff by over sixty-four percent of the population. “I feel good,” stated the sheriff at his election night party held at the legendary Buck Owens Crystal Palace. “This is exactly what we thought would happen. We’re just going to go back to work and serve this community.”
A few years before the Villegas incident, officer Stringer plead no contest to misdemeanor reckless driving and was able to get charges dropped on a 2010 hit-and-run and driving under the influence charge. Stringer, who retired following the Villegas incident, was not exactly a model citizen himself amongst other law enforcement officials. Unfortunately, he was not alone.
Other local law enforcement officials exhibited similar behavior that certainly does not rest within the bounds of what Donald Trump, and other presidents before him like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan referred to as “law and order.” In 2011, Bakersfield police officer Scott Drewry left the department after he was charged with a misdemeanor for throwing a rock through the window of a local business because of a civil depute the business owner had with one of his family members. In July 2012, Officer Albert Smith received a thirty-day jail sentence and three years of probation after he pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of engaging in sex with a prostitute. Smith reportedly engaged in sex acts with at least three local prostitutes while on duty in his patrol car, as well as other undisclosed locations. The court dropped six of the seven charges he faced and Smith resigned shortly before the hearing.
“The 357 other men and women that work at the Bakersfield Police Department are here and dedicated to public safety,” claimed Chief Williamson after the Smith conviction, stating also that “they’re dedicated to serving our community” and “they are committed to going out every day, day in and day out, and putting their lives on the line to keep our citizens safe.” Police and sheriff-involved deaths, incarceration rates that exhibited institutional racism, county and city law enforcement payouts, and criminal activities conducted by law enforcement figures, however, told a different story.
In 2013, former Bakersfield police detective Christopher Bowersox began a ten-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to possessing images of child victims of sexual abuse. In May of 2017, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies Logan August and Derrick Penney pled guilty to conspiring to steal and distribute marijuana. August had participated in numerous drug busts with the narcotics division. After stealing, trimming, and bagging confiscated marijuana, he distributed over twenty-five pounds of the drug at a street price of $15,000. In a video issued to Kern County residents, August claimed “I am sorry” and that “I made a decision based on Satan playing games with me.” August and Penny pled guilty to federal drugs charges, and received three years of probation and 250 hours of community service.
August and Penney worked with former Bakersfield police detective Patrick Mara and others to steal marijuana from Kern County Sheriff’s office storage facilities between June and October of 2014. Mara began his five-year prison sentence in October 2014 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. His former partner Damacio Diaz started a five-year prison sentence two years later on charges that he accepted bribes from a drug trafficker, sold methamphetamine he confiscated and stole from the department, and filed fraudulent tax returns.
In August 2016, Officer Rick Wimbish and his partner responded to a break-in at a Subway restaurant. Upon their arrival they fired on the perpetrator, twenty-nine-year-old Jason Alderman, as he crawled out of the glass front door he had smashed in. Alderman died at the scene after being struck by seven bullets. After an unsuccessful attempt by the Bakersfield Police Department to confiscate the video camera footage and hide it from the public, it was released and a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Alderman’s family. Alderman’s death was the first officer-involved shooting reviewed by the District Attorney’s office, which prompted State Attorney General Kamala Harris to launch an investigation on law enforcement officials in the county later that year. The most significant difference between Alderman and a majority of the other victims of police-involved deaths is that he was white.
Officer Wimbish, one of the figures who fired on Alderman, was the son of a former Kern County Sheriff and a twenty-five-year veteran of the Bakersfield Police Department. Prior to his encounter with Alderman, he was involved in four fatal shootings in a two-year period, firing with other officers in one instance on an unarmed confidential informant and member of his own department, Jorge Ramirez, during a planned operation. None of these shootings, however, prevented Wimbish from earning a salary and benefits package that totaled $200,000 annually as he continued to work as a police officer, while also instructing other officers and teaching local schoolchildren about the important role performed by law enforcement officials in the community.
In December 2016, Bakersfield police officers fired seven shots at Francisco Serna, an unarmed seventy-three-year-old man with dementia who was taking a walk one evening. They killed him right across the street from his home in southwest Bakersfield. Like the two residents who called 9-1-1 to reports Serna’s supposedly bizarre behavior, police officers mistook a dark colored plastic crucifix he was carrying for a revolver. Following his death, Serna’s family cited that he often took evening walks around the neighborhood to help himself go to sleep. In July 2017, Police Chief Lyle Martin called Serna’s death “unfortunate” and “tragic,” while also stating that the police officer who fired the shots was working within the department’s, as well as state and federal, guidelines. At least six officers approached Serna after he was identified by the neighbors who called 9-1-1 on him, but only one responded to his actions with gunshots.
In addition to the rash of police-involved deaths faced by the Latinx community, incarceration statistics also highlight a broader racist criminal justice system in Kern County. In 2004, Kern County had the highest third strike incarceration rate in the state with 59 per 100,000 residents. Passed by California voters in 1994, Proposition 184 mandated that three nonviolent felony convictions brought a sentence of twenty-five years to life. It was the strictest “three-strike” policy in the country and contributed greatly to the over-population of California prisons, as well as the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Latinx residents. According to a 2004 Justice Policy Institute study, Kern County’s Latinx third strike incarceration rate, at 53.7 per 100,000, was the highest in the state and nearly three times the rate of Los Angeles County. Overall, Latinx incarceration rates in Kern County are nearly double the state rate.
In addition to the systemic racism in the criminal justice system, in July 2017 several civil rights groups including the Dolores Huerta Foundation, reached a settlement with the Kern County High School District regarding a lawsuit which alleged that Black and Latinx students were unfairly targeted for suspension and expulsion. In 2009, the district reported 2,205 expulsions, the highest number in California. This is in a school district where the Latinx population comprised sixty-four percent of the student population. These findings and the lawsuit against the school district illustrate the way in which Black and Latinx students are tracked from the schools to the prisons at a much higher rate than the white community. Between the 1990s and the 2010s, funding for prisons and jails in California rose three times faster than spending on schools, and allotment for higher education in the state remained relatively flat.
Some white county and city residents, like so many other places hard hit by economic changes in the last few decades, expressed belief that a Trump presidency would revive the local economy. At the start of 2016, the unemployment rate in Kern County was over eleven percent more than double that of California as a whole. Likewise, at approximately forty-nine thousand, the median income in the county was nearly twenty thousand dollars less than the state average and one in five families in Bakersfield lived below the poverty line during the 2016 presidential race. Roadways and front yards across the county were lined with Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” signs.
In October 2016, Joe Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, headlined one of the largest pro-Trump rallies held in the county. During his speech, Arpaio joked that President Obama didn’t like him because of his incredibly vocal support of the Birther Movement. The sheriff was widely known to encourage racial profiling by law enforcement figures under him during his time in office in Arizona.
At the very moment he addressed the crowd in Bakersfield, Arpaio faced federal charges that he defied a judge’s order to stop targeting Latinx peoples in traffic stops and other activities conducted by the Maricopa County Sherriff’s Department. In addition to the federal lawsuit, Arpaio also refused to allow the Sheriff’s Department to recognize President Obama’s decision to grant temporary immunity to undocumented peoples who came to the U.S. as children. “They hate me, the Hispanic community, because they’re afraid they’re going to be arrested,” Arpaio boasted in a 2009 television interview, “and they’re all leaving town, so I think we’re doing something good.”  “As Arizona has become center stage for the debate over illegal immigration and the civil rights of Latinos,” explained Joe Hagan in an August 2012 edition of Rolling Stone, “Arpaio has sold himself as the symbol of nativist defiance, a modern-day Bull Connor bucking the federal government over immigration policy.” The crowd at the Bakersfield Trump rally numbered in the thousands and was almost exclusively white. President Trump pardoned Arpaio in October of 2017 and in March of 2018, he announced he was running for Senate and vowed to revive the Birther Movement.
Despite the profound level of social divisions in the county and Trump’s highly divisive rhetoric, one Kern County native cited that he would help end social divisions. The same individual argued without providing any examples or context—and without being provoked—that “I cannot stand being called a racist, a bigot. I have nothing against anyone. Don’t tell me what I feel or what I think. I am so sick of that narrative being shoved down my throat.” While many public intellectuals, writers, politicians, and voters pushed the narrative that they voted for Trump because of “economic anxiety,” the talk of ending social divisions did not include people of color in Bakersfield and the rest of the country, just as the slogan “Make American Great Again” struck a particular chord in white identity politics with its implicit embrace of the “good old days” when white male supremacy was even more entrenched in American society than it was in 2016.
Donald Trump’s racist claims that Mexican immigrants were drug dealers, criminals, and rapists during speeches, illustrate that his campaign, as well as the support he received, was based on much more than just “economic anxiety.” Kern County residents expressed sentiments which illuminated the point that their support of Trump went far beyond economic concerns to embrace racist worldviews. Residents in Oildale, a predominantly white and Republican unincorporated suburban community a few miles north of downtown Bakersfield, overwhelmingly supported Trump during his run for office. The community is over 75% white and has a long tradition of racism.
In the 1960s, when African Americans represented a larger portion of the non-white population in the Bakersfield area, white residents hung a sign on the bridge that crosses the Kern River between Bakersfield and Oildale. The sign stated the following: “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in Oildale.” In the mid-1970s, over a dozen black students enrolled at Taft Junior College were escorted out of the southwestern Kern County community by law enforcement officials after they were attacked by a white mob shouting, “Kill the Niggers!” The incident eventually prompted the State Attorney General at the time to launch an investigation regarding the violation of civil rights. This was long before Kamala Harris pushed for the investigation of excessive force and misconduct among law enforcement officials in the county. In Boron, a town east of Bakersfield, three Ku Klux Klan members were arrested in 1981 for burning a cross in the front yard of a black family’s residence and in the 1990s several black motorists were attacked on the streets of Oildale by white residents.
In one instance, the car windshield of a black motorist was smashed by a white woman shouting racist insults. In another, two white residents were charged with federal civil rights convictions for stabbing a black man. Black cab drivers in greater Bakersfield also avoided Oildale in the 1990s, as one reportedly entered a bar to notify a customer of his arrival only to be told, “We don’t like niggers in here.” A watermelon was placed in the front yard of one black family who moved into Oildale and racist literature regularly appeared on doorsteps and in mailboxes throughout the 1990s.
Members of the Chamber of Commerce actively tried to improve the image of Bakersfield in the early 1990s, and many were in denial that places like Oildale were seething with racist hatred. “There’s no more bias here than anywhere else” explained David Brandon of the Chamber of Commerce. “The community is more diverse and more accepting today,” cited North High School principle Bill Bimat, who also explained that “thirty years ago a black couldn’t buy a house, couldn’t work here, and literally would’ve been run out of town.” These civic and business leaders expressed a different reality than the former leader of the Bakersfield chapter of the NAACP in the early 1990s who explained that “if you’re black, you’re always looking over your shoulder,” and also that while there were some good people in Bakersfield, “there are also others who are looking for some hate. For years, it’s been blacks.” While racism against African Americans was prominent in the city in the 1990s despite the level of denial expressed by some white community leaders, from the 1990s onward; the growing Latinx population became the new target.
While racism against African Americans was prominent in the city in the 1990s despite the level of denial expressed by some white community leaders, from the 1990s onward; the growing Latinx population became the new target.
The racist billboards in the 1960s, a cross burning in 1981, and the white supremacist violence of the 1990s, is only the tip of the iceberg. Racism was imported to the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s by whites who migrated to California from the lower Midwest and American South. Klan violence was common on the streets of Bakersfield in the 1920s. Similar to the American South in the early twentieth century, a plethora of local businessmen and politicians counted themselves as members of the racist terrorist organization. The mayor’s office, police departments across Kern County and the County Sheriff’s Office, local judgeships, school districts, and the county board of supervisors were controlled by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Prominent business owners also counted themselves as members of the organization. The power of the Klan in early twentieth century Kern County coincided with a fairly rigid system of public Jim Crow segregation. For example, African Americans could only reside in eastern and southeastern parts of Bakersfield—neighborhoods now home to mostly Latinx peoples—and their children were forced to attend “colored schools.” Working and middle-class white suburban areas, especially those located near the oilfields, were off-limits to people of color, as were oil industry jobs. From the early twentieth century onward, oil companies tended to only hire white employees who lived in segregated all-white communities. Although the industry has gone through cycles of boom and bust, historically speaking these were the best jobs that many white working and middle residents could hope for.
While of course not every Trump supporter during the 2016 election race exhibited xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist tendencies, Oildale was one of those places where Confederate flags flew, and where white nationalist and neo Nazi gangs roamed the streets. White working and middle class residents spoke openly about their racist beliefs.
The population in Bakersfield changed a great deal between the 1960s and the early twenty-first century. Between 1970 and 2010, the Latinx population increased from ten percent to forty-five percent, at the same time as African Americans decreased from thirteen percent to eight percent. Just like the openness in regards to racist beliefs of white residents in earlier decades, some were open about their disliking of the Latinx population while Donald Trump ran for president in 2016. “I don’t like Mexicans. I don’t like them,” cited fifty-eight-year-old Oildale resident Betty Robinson in an April 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times. “To me, if you can’t speak English, why be here? Go back to where you come from,” continued Robison. Robinson’s ignorant comments related directly to, and mirrored in some ways, Trump’s racist comments about Mexican-Americans and spoke to notions of white supremacy in Oildale.
Over the course of just a few weeks in the spring and summer of 2009, three racially motivated incidents occurred in Hart Park, a large public park a few miles east of Oildale. In May of that year, members of the white supremacist group known as the Oildale Peckerwoods pleaded no contest to the charge of violation of civil rights and assault after they attacked a group of Mexican-Americans in the park while yelling racial epithets and white supremacist slogans. The incident resulted in two state prison sentences for assault and violation of civil rights and a misdemeanor assault charge, leaving four people injured. One required fifty stitches. A similar incident took place a few weeks later, leading to two arrests of white supremacists. “Apparently, they’ve picked that park as part of their territory,” claimed Kern County prosecuting attorney Michael Vendrasco, who continued, saying, “they’re not shy about yelling that stuff.” In addition to the three attacks in the summer of 2009, five other race-related hate crimes against Mexican Americans took place in Hart Park between January and June of 2009. It is reasonable to believe that many more went unreported to law enforcement officials.
The content shared on public Facebook profiles of people who identify as Oildale Peckerwoods blatantly illustrate Vendrasco’s statement that members are not shy about sharing their racist beliefs. Specific references to Facebook content, however, were not included in this essay to respect the privacy of peoples concerned, and to prevent any ethical concerns and issues related to authenticity of sources. However, there are concrete examples of white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate in the region’s culture. One example is the acoustic pre-teen folk-pop duo known as Prussian Blue, popular in the early 2000s.
Lamb and Lynx Gaede, the twin sisters that made up Prussian Blue, were homeschooled by a mother who claimed that she was a white nationalist, and that it was her goal to share that part of her life with her daughters. Born and raised in Bakersfield, the duo took the white supremacist and neo-Nazi world by storm in the early 2000s by releasing four albums. Prussian Blue’s lyrical content praised white victory in a racial warfare, white victimhood in a new era of multicultural diversity, and the threat of black violence against white people. In their 2004 song “Aryan Man Awake,” they wax nostalgically about loss of land and wealth among whites that evokes images of the Reconstruction period in American history and the mythical threat of armed black violence ever-present in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. “Aryan man Awake,” sing the duo, “How much more will you take, Turn your fear to hate, Aryan man awake.”
In an early 2000s interview on ABC’s Dateline, Lamb and Lynx Gaede explained, “we must secure the existence of our people and our future for white children.” The two girls also referred to nonwhite people as “muds” and Adolf Hitler as an individual who possessed “a lot of great ideas.” The girls also shared with the ABC journalist Cynthia McFadden some of ways in which they had fun. Included in this list was a computer game entitled “Ethnic Cleansing,” a first-person shooter game where the player gets to travel around an urban environment posing as either a neo-Nazi, skinhead, or Klansman. They are then tasked with killing African, Latinx, and Jewish Americans who roam the streets making gorilla-like sounds. The game was created in 2002 by the white supremacist organization known as the National Alliance, which also signed Prussian Blue to its recording company, Resistance Records. The young twins also expressed that they enjoyed a game referred to as “dancing around the swastika,” which they demonstrated on their kitchen floor with a swastika composed of black electrical tape.
David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who ran on the Republican ticket for president in 1992 and served as a representative in the state of Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was one of Prussian Blue’s more prominent and vocal fans. After the group opened for him at one event, Duke said they were “examples of what we really want for our kids.” The musical duo also appeared at events with Tom Metzger, the leader of the Southern California based neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization known as White Aryan Resistance (WAR). In an early 2000s BBC documentary on neo Nazism and white supremacy in the U.S., Lamb and Lynx’s mother April said that “they’ve got to start some time,” when she was asked about why she got her children into racial politics at such a young age. The girls were eleven years old at the time of the filming. April also explained, “I think that Lamb and Lynx’s music and their appeal, especially as they just get a little bit older, they’re going to be an example, and they are going to show… how being, proud of your race is something that would be very appealing to young teenage girls. You know, I mean, what young man, red-blooded American boy, isn’t going to find two blonde twins, sixteen years old, singing about white pride, and pride in your race… very appealing.”
April’s father, Bill Gaede, also appeared in the episode of Dateline. When Prussian Blue was formed and began to perform live and release records, he owned a ramshackle ranch off State Route 180 on Elmwood Road east of Fresno. He had a reputation as someone to avoid, despite the fact that his home was about ten feet from the windy road around which he continually fed and ran pigs and cattle with no regard for the fecal matter they left behind, nor the traffic they backed up. The cattle brand for his ranch, which was adhered to the side of his full-size white Chevrolet truck, included a swastika, as did his favorite belt buckle that he wore around town regularly. Gaede was rumored to park his truck near communities of color just to intimidate residents. In 2002, after a tree burl became popular in the Latinx community because if its resemblance to the Virgin Mary, Gaede chopped the tree down and allegedly shouted “You Catholics! There’s your virgin!” In 2012, he started selling his Swastika Brand Honey. He raised the pop duo’s mother in the same fashion as she raised her children, a clear case of the multigenerational nurturing of white racist hatred in California’s Central Valley.
The threat of white supremacist and neo-Nazi-inspired hatred and violence, however, goes beyond intergenerational nurturing, racist attacks at Hart Park, and Prussian Blue to simple matters of life and death. In April 2017, Justin Cole Whittington, a twenty-five-year-old member of the Oildale Peckerwood gang received a fifteen-year federal prison sentence for firing a sawed-off shotgun at a Latino man in his Oildale front yard. The incident occurred on 19 December 2012. Before firing one round at the victim and driving away, Whittington exited a vehicle near the man’s property and shouted the words “fucking nigger” and “get the fuck out of Oildale.” The pellets did not strike the victim, but he heard them pass by his head. He and his family moved out of the area shortly after the incident. Following this, Whittington fired his shotgun from his vehicle at a convenience store owned by a person of Middle Eastern descent. The perpetrator had a “P” and “W” tattooed on his shin and “23” on his stomach to signify “W” for white power. Before the sentencing, Whittington was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse in 2015 after surveillance footage at a local market caught him punching out his toddler and picking him up by the neck.
Kern County’s history of racism and social injustice was around a century old when Donald Trump was elected to office in 2016. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the county was a hotbed of law enforcement-involved deaths and law enforcement corruption. It was a place where Latinx peoples were incarcerated and killed by law enforcement officials more than anywhere else. Not just in California, but in the country. White residents openly expressed their racist distaste for Latinx peoples, which at times turned violent. A new generation of white supremacists and neo-Nazi millennials embraced the uneducated and ignorant view of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Kern County was the southern-most county in California to pledge a majority of votes for Trump and race relations in the region harken back to the Deep South.
Shawn Schwaller received his Ph.D. in history from Claremont Graduate University in 2015, and is currently a lecturer in the Department of History at California State University, Chico. His work engages California history, questions around identity politics, race and ethnic relations, and popular culture.
“We don’t want to walk into a kumbaya situation,” said Umar Hakim. The sixteen men and women gathered around a conference table in Inglewood simultaneously nodded in agreement. “We need training,” Hakim said, “because we already know who’s holding the power.”
One of the men at the table was Khalid Shah, a veteran activist and organizer in South L.A.’s African-American Muslim community.
“I wanted to be a police officer at one point,” Shah said as people began recounting stories about encounters with the LAPD. “Then the police killed my friend in the projects.”
He shook his head and his eyes clouded over as he relived the preventable event.
“Why?” he wondered, his pain a bridge between past and present.
The community-development organization that Umar Hakim leads—Intellect, Love and Mercy (ILM) Foundation—convened the group to prepare for an upcoming public forum between African-American Muslims and the LAPD at Masjid Bilal Islamic Center in South Central. The meeting would be the first of its kind in recent memory between local law enforcement officers and the constituencies that Hakim and Shah represent.
At a time when public officials often view both Muslims and African-Americans solely through the lenses of policing and security, the event at Masjid Bilal presented an opportunity for L.A.’s African-American Muslims to challenge and dispute that narrow perspective on their lives. It was also a chance for the community to exert agency over the way that law enforcement officers approach their work in neighborhoods where tensions between residents and the LAPD continue to run high and unresolved.
“I’ve heard so many stories of kids being dehumanized by police,” Khalid Shah stated, eliciting murmurs of recognition from everyone around the table. Shah added that his decades-long history of activism has paradoxically both reinforced and softened his suspicion of the LAPD.
“I’ve also meet good, honest individuals who happen to be wearing the uniform,” he said. “That’s enabled me to balance things. I’ve even invited police to talk to some of the young people we work with.”
At that point Delonte Gholston stepped in to guide the conversation. Gholston and his co-facilitator, Eddie Anderson, were fresh from their work on the Trust Talks, a series of dialogues between residents of Skid Row and the LAPD. Umar Hakim had invited Gholston and Anderson to the meeting in Inglewood to help Hakim’s team prepare to steer the event at Masjid Bilal toward practical outcomes and away from both unproductive rancor and “kumbaya”—a feel-good form of dialogue that avoids hard truths and thus fails to move the conversation forward.
“The name of the game is stories to solutions,” Gholston emphatically declared. “That means knowing your story, knowing what you want and knowing where you want to go with it.”
Anderson jumped in, lean and dapper in contrast to Gholston’s broad-shouldered casualness.
“If they hear our stories,” Anderson added, “they have to see our pain. Teach them how you want to be treated—show the problem and the solution in the same story.”
With that said, Delonte wrote the words “story” and “solution” at the top of two columns on a whiteboard at the head of the table.
“Now stories,” he said to the group. “What are your experiences with the police?”
“If they hear our stories,” Anderson added, “they have to see our pain. Teach them how you want to be treated—show the problem and the solution in the same story.”
Trauma weaved through the narratives that followed like an electrified wire. Abdul Ali, a barber who grew up in Watts, recalled the National Guard occupying his high school in the 1960s. Gerald Thompson, who came of age in South L.A. in the 1970s and 80s, recounted being hassled and even thrown against the side of a car by the police “just because I was hanging out.” Rashida Rogers, a sign-language interpreter, said she had intervened on several occasions when she witnessed LAPD officers “running up on” young people in her neighborhood.
Rogers said, “I have gotten out of my car and said, ‘What’s going on?’” when she observed police intimidating children who were on their way to school.
“The officer was like, ‘They were loud, they were making noise’,” Rogers said. “Holding up children from school because they were being loud! To me, they’re placing fear in them—the same oppressive mentality that they’ve always tried to instill in our young people.”
Gholston’s roster of words and phrases under the “story” heading painted a grim picture that depicted pure trauma, fear, deficient accountability, lack of trust, prejudice, and a preceding command-and-control culture. Stepping to the side of the whiteboard where he had written “solutions,” he asked, “How do we address this?”
“True community policing will only happen when police live in the community,” Eddie Anderson said. “We want officers who live within a five-mile radius of the communities where they work.”
Sadiq Davis, whose reentry story is depicted in the documentary “The Honest Struggle,” remarked, “If officers are friendly, it has a positive effect.” He added, “Some of them are just as afraid as we are.”
Others spoke about the importance of regular psychological evaluations for officers—especially those who have served overseas in the military—as well as the need for greater civilian oversight of the police department. In response to the latter point, Gholston mentioned Measure LL in Oakland, an initiative to create a civilian-run police commission and invest subpoena power in an agency responsible for investigating complaints of police misconduct. The measure won overwhelming support from voters when it appeared on local ballots in 2016, and Gholston believed it could be a model for similar initiatives in L.A.
“We also have to change our culture,” Khalid Shah interjected. “It’s cool to go to the penitentiary but not cool to become law enforcement officers. We have to become part of the effort to change that.”
Several people around the table looked dubious. Shah shrugged, conceding the complexity of the point.
“I fear the cop; I don’t respect him,” he said, playing Devil’s advocate against his own assertion. “Why would I want to become something I don’t respect?”
As the prep session wrapped up, participants took cellphone pictures of the stories and solutions that Gholston had written on the whiteboard. Umar Hakim hung back as everyone said their goodbyes.
“A lot of the men and women in the room had some deep history,” he said. “A lot of the new organizers make the elders feel like they’re obsolete. I want to build on where they left off.”
Hakim was also looking toward the upcoming meeting with the LAPD as a turning point.
“During the course of CVE”—shorthand for law enforcement initiatives that fall under the heading of countering violent extremism—“a lot of misconceptions are presented about the Muslim community, and particularly the African-American Muslim community,” Hakim said. “I have to use these relationships for more than saying you’re wrong. This is an opportunity to push back on those ideas.”
A couple of weeks later, on a warm Wednesday evening, the courtyard of Masjid Bilal—the seminal African-American mosque in Los Angeles—was abuzz with conversation. About a hundred people were divided among ten tables. At each table there were two or three LAPD officers, a volunteer mediator from Days of Dialogue (an organization that facilitates challenging discussions between constituencies in Los Angeles) and about half a dozen members from Masjid Bilal and other predominantly African-American Muslim congregations. Participants from the prep session in Inglewood were thrown in the mix as well.
Andrea Martinez Gonzalez, a mediator from the city’s Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, ended up at a table where a woman from Sub-Saharan Africa was an unexpected ally for a young white LAPD officer who looked defensive and uncomfortable.
“The African woman created an interesting dynamic at our table,” Gonzalez said. “She was coming from a law-and-order culture that had respect for the police. She was really on the officer’s side!”
Gonzalez said that the other people at the table were polite, but kept bringing up the problems related to police violence that were plaguing their neighborhoods, as well as other communities across the country. In telling his story, the officer said people regularly shouted at him and disrespected him while he was trying to do his job—and that he was frustrated because nothing he tried seemed to diffuse those situations.
“That might change with more of these dialogues,” Gonzalez said later. “There are bad apples in every profession. But a lot of why people are angry is that these young officers are the inheritors of what went on in the old days.”
She added that the officer also complained that news outlets only produce stories about what law enforcement officers do wrong. Still, she was sympathetic to the counter-narrative offered by the community members at her table.
“It’s incredible how much injustice is out there,” she said. “People feel the police are there for anything but protection.”
Gonzalez said that she was optimistic about the prospects for further meetings between the groups represented that night at Masjid Bilal.
“I’m impressed from the first dialogue that this group is really trying to build a bridge to the LAPD,” she said. “The more dialogues they have, the better it is. It’s noble work.”
Officer Jim Buck, a community liaison with the LAPD’s Counter-terrorism and Special Operations Bureau who sat at a different table, echoed Gonzalez’s cautious optimism. He also knew the sources of tension in the room, along with the possibilities for progress, as well as anyone else.
“It’s been a real journey with Umar,” Buck said. “The first time I met him, he didn’t want to have much to do with me. Since then, he and I have had many conversations about policing. We’ve agreed to disagree on many issues, but I consider him a very close friend.”
A decade ago, Buck was serving as a drill instructor at the Los Angeles Police Academy when the then-Chief of Police asked him to become a liaison between the LAPD and communities like Masjid Bilal. The assignment was in some ways an odd fit—Buck described himself as a “conservative Republican.” But his gregarious personality turned out to be the most important asset in his effort to allay fears and build trust among people who were wary of his intentions as a representative of a police counter-terrorism bureau.
“When the community has issues,” Buck said, “they come to us. We’re the most visible form of government. My unit has to understand how Islam expresses itself in Los Angeles. People have invited my unit into their homes, mosques, businesses and schools.”
Referring to the event at Masjid Bilal, he said, “All of this is what we do, how we do it, why we do it. We want to create a resilient community.”
Like Gonzalez, Buck said he saw the event as the first step on a long but hopeful road.
“It gives us a positive starting point,” he said. “But the easy part is getting communities together. The challenge is moving forward.”
Rashida Rogers, the sign-language interpreter who attended the prep session in Inglewood, was mostly pleased with her experience at Masjid Bilal. From her perspective, the key benefit was the opportunity for members of the community to present their story in their own words and to lay the groundwork for future events that could move the conversation in a positive, evolutionary direction.
“It gives us a positive starting point,” he said. “But the easy part is getting communities together. The challenge is moving forward.”
“Sometimes the story gets twisted,” she said. “This was my first time speaking up and saying that the information you have about us portrayed us wrong. What I heard in response to that at my table makes me hopeful.”
She said it was the officers’ apparent willingness not just to hear, but to really accept what she was saying that left her optimistic.
“If people can change the condition of their hearts,” she concluded, “who am I to think that change can’t happen?”
A few weeks after the meeting at Masjid Bilal, Umar Hakim was savoring success.
“People feel like an opening was made,” he said. “It broke a lot of ice in our own community and showed us that we can address our problems in a diplomatic way when people are trained and given the tools to promote accountability.”
The key to that positive outcome was the storytelling strategy that the prep session participants brought to the tables where they sat during the event.
“It was good to work out the kinks in talking about your trauma behind closed doors,” Hakim said. “Then when you get to the public square, you say what you need to say. People felt like they were actually heard. That’s what I really wanted—to help my community to establish its voice.”
Hakim said he envisions future dialogues between the LAPD and the city’s Muslim communities—achieving concrete changes like the police reforms enacted through Measure LL will take sustained effort. He also wants to see meetings between community leaders and the developers who are driving gentrification in South Los Angeles, particularly around the site of Inglewood’s new football stadium.
“We’ve trained around twenty leaders at this point,” Hakim remarked, referring to community accountability programs developed through the Intellect, Love and Mercy Foundation. “I would like to get to forty, sixty, one hundred. We need a platoon of people to address development! Enhancing the community is cool, but I want to be sure our people don’t get left behind in the process of progress.”
Whether it’s confronting tensions between citizens and police or managing development in a community where residents have historically been denied agency over their lives, Hakim is optimistic that the strategy that yielded signs of progress at Masjid Bilal can be replicated as a means of tackling other challenges.
“Out of this I hope people will see that there’s more than one way to approach a problem,” he said. “You’ve got to engage it from all angles.”
 The Pew Research Center’s first-ever national survey of American Muslims (“Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream”), conducted in 2007, found that African-Americans account for roughly twenty percent of the total Muslim population in the U.S.
 Andrew J. Grandage, Britt S. Aliperti, and Brian N. Williams refer to this historical overlay of past practice that distorts police-citizen collaboration in the present as a “shadow effect.” See Grandage et al., “Leveraging the Intersection of Politics, Problem, and Policy in Organizational Change: An Historical Analysis of the Detroit, Los Angeles, and Atlanta Police Departments,” in James D. Ward, ed., Policing and Race in America: Economic, Political, and Social Dynamics (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 57.
 Dialogue is generally acknowledged as the key process involved in successful conflict resolution—specifically, as a prerequisite for de-essentializing the “other” and building trust between conflicting groups. See, for example, Ivana Markova and Alex Gillespie, eds., Trust and Conflict: Representation, Culture and Dialogue (New York: Routledge, 2011) and Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).
 Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Jane I. Smith, eds., Muslim Communities in North America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 166.
 Following the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers involved in the incident a year later, Mayor Tom Bradley formed the Christopher Commission to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the LAPD’s operations. Among other findings, the commission determined that nearly two hundred officers were implicated in repeated instances of excessive use of force. A few years later, officers in the elite Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) program figured prominently in the Rampart Division violence and corruption scandal. After a 12-year period of reform mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the LAPD was finally freed from federal oversight in 2013. See Grandage et al., “Leveraging the Intersection of Politics, Problem, and Policy in Organizational Change,” 71.
 According to the Pew Research Center’s 2017 Demographic Portrait of Muslim Americans, “American-born black Muslims are more likely than other U.S. Muslims to say it has become harder in recent years to be Muslim in the United States. Nearly all American-born black Muslims (96%) say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims in America, almost identical to the share who say there is a lot of discrimination against black people in the U.S. (94%).”
Nick Shindo Street is the senior writer with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. His reporting on religious movements, politics, sexuality, popular culture and news media has appeared in Religion & Politics, NiemanReports, TheLos Angeles Times, The WashingtonPost, Al Jazeera America, GlobalPost, Religion Dispatches, The Jewish Journal and Patheos.
The theologian, mystic, and minister Howard Thurman visited San Francisco for the first time in the late 1920s, according to an account he later gave to a friend. In his published reminiscences, he recalled attending staff meetings of the national YWCA held in Asilomar, California in the mid-1930s. One summer, he remembered, “when I disembarked from the Oakland ferry and walked down Market Street, I had a sense of coming home that I never felt any place else in the world.”
I once had almost exactly that same experience, and feeling, admittedly after disembarking from a VW van rather than the Oakland ferry. But the same sense of “coming home” for the first time was there.
Last year, I decided I might be interested in writing a biography of Howard Thurman, someone who long has interested me. When I read this sentence in his autobiography, I suddenly felt “called” to do so, using the language of the Baptist tradition in which both Thurman and I grew up. “It was a cold, foggy day in July when Sue and I shivered into San Francisco,” he remembered of moving there in July 1944, “but the city loomed before us as the loveliest sight we had ever seen.” He felt that he and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman “shared a sudden awareness that destiny rode with us right into the city.”
Image of Thurman courtesy of Noah Griffin; modified, Jacquelyn Campaña.
He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism. And he tested out his ideas in San Francisco… where he risked everything to pursue his central idea—a religious community beyond race.
Thurman was not an activist, as Martin Luther King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism. And he tested out his ideas in San Francisco from 1944 to 1953, a key period in his life where he risked everything to pursue his central idea—a religious community beyond race.
Thurman moved to San Francisco to pursue what he considered one of the great adventures of his life: to establish an interracial congregation that would defy the conventions by which the great majority of American churches operated. He came during an era of rapid transition. San Francisco was a city of some 630,000 just before World War Two; of those, only about 5,000 were African American. By the end of the war, thanks to a migration westward, approximately 32,000 African Americans lived in the city, and a distinct black neighborhood had developed. Many lived in areas with small rooms and apartments recently vacated by Japanese Americans; about 5,000 Japanese Americans from San Francisco ended up in internment camps. One local NAACP leader in San Francisco noted that “Caucasian San Francisco turned to the machinery already at hand for the subjugation of the Oriental and applied it to the Negro,” referring to residential segregation and unequal treatment in nearly all areas of municipal life.
The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, originally located in the Filmore and thus identified as a congregation in a black neighborhood, eventually found its home at 2041 Larkin Street in San Francisco, where it still exists today. It lives now in a very different city than the one Thurman came to towards the end of World War Two. Those stories, that of Thurman in the 1940s and the eventual results of his great experiment, suggest much about what Thurman did and did not accomplish with his dream of a cosmopolitan American Christianity. His venture in San Francisco did not have the long-term results he hoped for; but his life’s work, including his congregation in San Francisco, proved influential in the broader movements of American religion after World War Two.
Born in 1899 in West Palm Beach, Florida, Thurman lost his father when he was seven years old and spent a somewhat lonely childhood communing more with nature than with people. His mother and grandmother were major influences, and he grew up in a Baptist church. But he was somewhat wary of it given that a local Baptist minister initially had refused to give his father, a somewhat-outspoken agnostic, a proper burial. Through hard work and years of struggle and malnourishment, Thurman made his way to a black Baptist high school in Jacksonville, where he was the valedictorian. Early on in his life, he staked his success on books—academic success. His success led him to his early affiliations with the YMCA, and to Morehouse College, which he attended from 1919-1923.
After receiving theological training in Rochester, New York, he served as a nationally prominent minister and educator at Howard University in the 1930s and 1940s. From his post there, he crisscrossed the country on speaking engagements, began some of his first significant writing endeavors, and struggled to balance his thoughts on both the potentialities as well as the limitations of Christianity. He also investigated the dilemmas of the universal message of Christianity and the particular expressions of it within the American racial hierarchy.
During these years, Thurman gradually developed his ideas about nonviolence and religion, and how Christian nonviolence could be part of the Christian solution to the race problem. He pondered how to counter the everyday racial violence endemic in the South. And during this time he developed ideas about what it meant to hate, and the costs of hatred on both sides. For blacks, fighting hatred posed the danger that it was possible to “hate people so bitterly that one becomes like them.”
One focal point in Thurman’s life came in 1935-36, when he traveled to India for six months. He went there with his wife Sue Bailey Thurman as part of a four member “Negro delegation” of the American Christian Student Movement. Initially, he was reluctant. He did not want to be put in the position of defending indefensible practices in American Christianity. Once persuaded, he sought out audiences with prominent Indian thinkers and writers, including Rabinandanth Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.
The India trip was the turning point, with its two key moments. The first came at the law school of the University of Ceylon, where the principal took him aside after an address and asked him what he was doing there. The principal concluded, according to the account provided in Thurman’s book, Footprints of a Dream, “I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you, but sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.” In other cities, people queried him—“why is the church powerless before the color bar? … From a 10,000-mile perspective, this monumental betrayal of the Christian ethic loomed large and forbidding.” 
When Thurman finally met Gandhi, February 1936, much of the conversation hinged on the meaning of the word “nonviolence,” originally Ahimsa in the Sanskrit. Gandhi explained how the word did not come across fully in English, with the negative non- at the beginning. In reality, nonviolence was a metaphysical force, a truth that underlay the seemingly endless violence of human life. Always given to a love for the mystical, Thurman was fascinated. Sue Thurman, however, pushed Gandhi on how to apply these ideas in a context where black Americans faced lynching. By some accounts, at the end of the talk, Gandhi mused that “if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.” By Thurman’s account, Gandhi ended the meeting by pointing out that the greatest enemy of Jesus in the United States was Christianity itself. Leaders at the founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference two decades later remembered it; they understood themselves to be carrying out Gandhian principles of social struggle.
By some accounts, at the end of the talk, Gandhi mused that “if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”
During the same trip, Thurman traveled along the Khyber Pass, and while looking into Afghanistan and trains of camels bringing good along the roadways used by ancient conquerors, he noted the following:
All that we had seen and felt in India seemed to be brought miraculously into focus. We saw clearly what we must do somehow when we returned to America. We knew that we must test whether a religious fellowship could be developed in America that was capable of cutting across all racial barriers, with a carry-over into the common life, a fellowship that would alter the behavior patterns of those involved. It became imperative now to find out if experiences of spiritual unity among people could be more compelling than the experiences which divided them.
By the early 1940s, Thurman was growing restless in his post of Dean of the Chapel at Howard University. In mid-1940s, he staked his life and future on a risky endeavor: the creation of an experimental interracial congregation in San Francisco. He later said, “There was kindling in my mind the possibility that this may be the opportunity toward which my life had been moving.” He thought the vision he had at Khyber Pass might be coming to pass.
In 1943, the Reverend Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister and college professor at San Francisco State University, contacted Thurman about finding a part-time divinity student who might be interested in participating in an experiment together to form an interracial congregation in San Francisco. He had been put in contact with Thurman by A. J. Muste, a doyen of peace and pacifist groups. At first, Thurman later said, he did not see a connection between himself and the church, but later realized this was the right time and place, especially in San Francisco, “with its varied nationalities, its rich intercultural heritages, and its face resolutely fixed toward the Orient.” San Francisco was the “ideal center” for his religio-racial experiment.
Together with Fisk, Thurman helped to plan what soon came to be called the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. It was one of the first self-consciously multi-racial congregations in American history. There were predecessors from the nineteenth century, including Tremont Temple in Boston, and more recently there had been a variety of interracial religious experiments in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other cities. But Thurman had something more permanent in mind. Just before his arrival, Thurman wrote to Fisk that “we must keep in mind constantly that the kind of church that we are building has never been built in the United States before. We must not hamper the creative form that the spirit of God may inspire, by clinging to the patterns with which we are ordinarily familiar.”
His work with the Fellowship Church seemed to embody his thoughts in “The meaning of Commitment,” wherein he wrote the following:
Commitment means that it is possible for a man to yield the nerve center of his consent to a purpose or cause, a movement or an ideal, which may be more important to him than whether he lives or dies. The commitment is a self-conscious act of will by which he affirms his dentification with that he is committed to. The character of this commitment is determined by that to which the center or core of his consent is given.
He got the itch to “establish empirical validation for what to me is a profound religious and ethnical insight concerning the genius of the church as a religious fellowship.” He further wanted to “find out for myself whether or not it is true that experiences of spiritual unity and fellowship are more compelling than the fears and dogmas and prejudices that separate men.” He believed that if every community had such a venture as this congregation, “the Church itself would once again set in motion those spiritual processes which gave to it its original impetus and power.” 
The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples had a rocky start. Originally connected with, and heavily subsidized by, the Presbyterian Church, Thurman quickly pushed it towards a different vision. The last thing he wanted was a mission church, and even less so a “neighborhood church” when it was clear that racial segregation defined American neighborhoods. If the church remained in the Fillmore district of San Francisco (where it originally was located), he realized, it would quickly become a black church, and non-black congregants would disappear, defeating the entire purpose of the enterprise. In any event, the church soon outgrew its original location, and it became necessary to move simply for practical reasons of space. He continued resisting being made the object of “charity and condescension” by Presbyterians, however well-meaning they might be, because in that case
the crippling disease that has dogged the vitality and the health of the Christian enterprise would have overtaken us—the deadly disease of condescension. Very quickly we would have become a dumping ground for uplifters and the challenge of the development of an integrated religious fellowship would have bounced off the conscience and hearts of the people. For herein lies the great temptation: If a man can feel sorry for you, he can very easily absolve himself from dealing with you in any sense as an equal.
Eventually, Thurman moved the church out of the orbit of the Presbyterians. It became an independent congregation, subsidized in part by a national group of supporters (including Eleanor Roosevelt) and also by fees from Thurman’s near-constant speaking engagements. Thurman lived on trains as much as he lived in the city itself. His star was in its ascendancy.
Thurman consistently resisted several models he had seen in the past: the mission church, which invariably became an object of condescension; the social mission or activist institutional church, which could easily lose its spiritual moorings; and the church with no connection to social life, which could easily lose its ethical imperative. His vision was of a church with strong spiritual grounding that would prepare, strengthen, and fill with God’s love those who would carry on a struggle for justice in the social world. The church had a social mission, but not one that was direct; it was not the job of the church to organize protests, to become social service agencies, or to directly involve themselves in political life. Rather, as Thurman saw it, individuals in the thick of the struggle should have a place to “be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church. … The true genius of the church was revealed by what it symbolized as a beachhead in society in terms of community, and as an inspiration to the solitary individual to put his weight on the side of a society in which no person need be afraid.”
By 1949, the church numbered about 285 members, with whites about sixty percent of the total; a few years later, whites made up about half, and blacks about forty percent, of its 345 members. Some congregants envisioned the church as a center for social activism and protest, more so than was ever the case with Thurman. After an initial period of co-pastoring with Alfred Fisk, the church became Thurman’s own, a kind of trial project for his ideas. The initial commitment spoke of congregants seeking “after a vital interpretation of God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth whose fellowship with God was the foundation of his fellowship with men,” and of people desiring “to have a part in the unfolding of the ideal of Christian fellowship through the union of men and women of varying national, cultural, racial, or creedal heritage in church communion.” The Declaration of the Church called it a
creative venture in interracial, intercultural, and interdenominational communion. In faith and genius it is Christian. While it derives its inspiration primarily from the source of Hebrew-Christian thought and life, it affirms the validity of spiritual insight wherever found and seeks to recognize, understand, and appreciate every aspect of truth whatever the channel through which it comes. It believes that human dignity is inherent in man as a creature of God, and it interprets the meaning of human life as essentially spiritual.
Over the first few years, several versions of “the commitment” evolved, at first more Christian oriented, and then less so over time, reflecting in part Thurman’s own move away from the Christianity of his youth and towards a more universal vision of cosmopolitan spirituality, humanitarianism, and what he called “sensitiveness”—what we might call a kind of mindfulness oriented towards social action.
Thurman also used the church as a venue for experimentation in worship aesthetics, especially music and dance. With the help of noted musician and arranger Corrine Williams, Thurman developed a music program at the church, later to be led by Raymond Fong. Thurman took pride in the choir as evidence of his ideas about worship as “the highest act of celebration of the human spirit,” in which the “worshiper sees himself as being in the presence of God. In His presence, the worshiper is neither male nor female, black nor white, Protestant nor Catholic nor Buddhist nor Hindu, but a human spirit laid bare, stripped to whatever there is that is literal and irreducible.” The key to the church was not the mixture of peoples but rather the “duality of the individual’s religious experience achieved through worship and the effect of that experience on daily behavior.” He saw Sunday morning as a time that “for each person present” was “a moment which becomes his moment in the presence of God.” This was consistent with Thurman’s larger vision of churches as centers of spiritual nourishment, from which people could then be empowered to pursue social transformation.
“As I moved more and more into the center of the process at the church I began feeling the urge to put into written form some of the things that were stirring within me,” he later wrote in his account of the church, Footprints of a Dream. One of those things stirring was the “weekly meditation written out of the heart of my own spiritual struggle,” which appeared in the weekly church calendar. Soon people demanded them for wider distribution, and his written words became a “means for a wider participation in the fundamental idea and an ideal upon which we had set our course.”
In the long-since-gentrified milieu of contemporary San Francisco, it stands more as a symbol of an honored past than as a beacon into any future.
In part through the venue of his church, Thurman was becoming a national celebrity. He and the church were featured in Life magazine, and in 1953 he would be listed as one of the twelve most influential preachers in the country (at a time when such a list still had currency, still mattered). By that time also, he had become known for his book Jesus and the Disinherited, his most powerful work, and one that influenced the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ironically, it was precisely that growing national prominence that made him the object of a number of tempting offers, including the one from Boston. Thurman’s church project over the years tended in the direction of becoming a majority black congregation, something he decidedly did not have in mind. In the long-since-gentrified milieu of contemporary San Francisco, it stands more as a symbol of an honored past than as a beacon into any future.
In 1953, the president of Boston University wooed him away to become the first African American to serve as Dean of Marsh Chapel at BU. By that time, Thurman sensed his major work in San Francisco was at a point of transition, and he sought the opportunity to work again with students. He remained at BU until 1965, and then retired from public life. He lived out his days in San Francisco until 1981, writing his last books, creating the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, and compiling his papers, recordings, and addresses into an archive that is now available online and at the Howard Thurman Papers at Boston University.
Thurman always attempted to balance his mysticism with activism, his reveries toward God with an emphasis on what should happen in this world because of that connection to God. For Thurman, the “true purpose” of spiritual discipline was to “clear away whatever may block our awareness of that which is God in us. The aim is to get rid of whatever may so distract the mind and encumber the life that we function without this awareness, or as if it were not possible.” As well, he emphasized the importance of the “moral essence of vital religious experience” in preparing “those most engaged in sustaining democracy.” Love of God and working to him would strengthen congregants to understand others; they would become “apostles of sensitiveness.” As he told the Christian Century in 1973, “I didn’t have to wait for the revolution. I have never been in search for identity, and I think that [all] I’ve ever felt and worked on and believed in was founded in a kind of private, almost unconscious autonomy that did not seek vindication in my environment because it was in me.”
One of the ironies of Thurman’s work is that his universalist cosmopolitanism ended up exercising its greatest influence on those who came specifically from the tradition of the African American Church, and whose internally focused and ethnically-based churches then empowered the civil rights movement. And this happened in spite of the fact that Thurman was not well known then, and is even less known now, by a large number of African American religious leaders. His influence came from his deep well of intellectual thought, personal mentorship, and quiet prodding, far more than from any public role. Thurman’s universalist vision eventually came to pass in the civil rights years in religious institutions that preached an idiomatic black American theology, and in ways that the leaders of those institutions often did not recognize. One of the aims of the Howard Thurman Papers Project and its corresponding institutions and research facility (also housed at Boston University), in fact, has been to make his work accessible to a generation who did not have personal contact with him, and in many cases would not have studied him in universities or seminaries.
And yet ultimately Thurman moved history. He did so less through his creation of interracial visions such as the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples, but more through his translation of universalist ideas to an American religious idiom. Thurman was a “seeker” before we had such a term, and paved the way for contemporary ideas of religious pluralism. In that sense, he really was (and is) America’s pastor, as much if not more so than Billy Graham. That is because American religious ideals, Trump evangelicals notably excepted, look more like Thurman’s than Graham’s. Thurman labored under anonymity, but ultimately the arc of history is bending his way. His years in California helped to bend them that way.
 Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1981), 98-9.
 “Biographical Essay,” in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, vol. III, The Bold Adventure, September 1943—May 1949, eds. Walter Fluker et al. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Pres, 2015), xxiii.
 Howard Thurman, “Relaxation and Race Conflict,” from 1929, reprinted in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, ed. Walter Fluker, et al., vol. I, My People Need Me (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 145.
 Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1959), 24.
 For a fuller account, see Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011).
 “Racial Roots and Religion: An Interview with Howard Thurman,” The Christian Century 90 (9 May 1973): 533-35.
Paul Harvey received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992, and since 1996 has taught history of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is presently writing a biography of Howard Thurman for the Eerdmans Library of Religious Biography series. For more, see www.paulharvey.org/about.
Jackie Robinson, 1940. Photo courtesy of ASUCLA Photography.
James W. Johnson’s The Black Bruins maps the rise of five former Bruins’ athletes who not only helped further the integration of college sport, but each became trailblazers in their own right. While the legacies of Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson rest with the integration of professional sports, Ray Bartlett’s and Tom Bradley’s reside with public service in a racially hostile environment. Simply put, The Black Bruins notes the overcoming of racial roadblocks of the times, while presenting each man’s narrative as a non-monolithic experience. It illustrates how each man capitalized on his talents and opportunities, showing five separate works of art all displayed on the same canvas, and leaving with six unique perspectives—the whole and its parts. That is to say, conveying the breadth of multiple narratives in a few brush strokes.
For starters, the prologue transports the reader back in time by framing the socio-historical landscape of the 1930s American West—Los Angeles, in particular. This section showcases the significance of the first Great Migration shaping an optimism for many African Americans flocking to LA in the hopes of bettering their lives outside of the constraints of the Jim Crow South. Johnson emphasizes this point in addressing both the large African-American population of LA at the time and the White flight occurring from the South as well. The idea of African Americans fleeing the oppression of the South, while White Southerners are also relocating to LA juxtaposes the idealism of the highway to progress with the reality of obstruction waiting at the next rest stop. Both Jackie Robinson (from Georgia) and Tom Bradley (from Texas) were children of the South, as their families were part of this African American migratory group. Contrary to Robinson and Bradley, Bartlett, Strode, and Washington were born and raised in Los Angeles—not versed in the culture of de jure racism, but aptly familiar with de facto racism. However, common experiences do not always render common responses. This is key, as each man’s response to the times is distinct.
The five men were track and field teammates at one point, with Washington, Strode, Bartlett, and Robinson also playing football together. Additionally, Robinson played basketball and baseball for UCLA. Despite this, Johnson takes great care to ensure that the other narratives are given their due and weaves a larger tapestry for the reader to appreciate. Jackie Robinson’s rise from Pasadena City College to UCLA and finally the integration of professional baseball carries some prominence in the narrative. Yet, Kenny Washington’s and Woody Strode’s integration into professional football by signing with the LA Rams is one of the books’ several gems, and, Strode also became a moderately successful actor. Another gem is the coverage of Tom Bradley’s climb to become Los Angeles’ first African American mayor, serving the community for twenty years. Although, Ray Bartlett’s star did not shine as bright as did those of his teammates, his legacy of public service is significant.
By interconnecting the narratives, Johnson creates an enjoyable web of “six degrees of separation” in a who’s who and who else of important people that contributed to the rise of the “Black Bruins” along the way. The Black Bruins succeeds in articulating the significance of UCLA’s often overlooked role in integrating college sports during a time when many universities (including USC) were either reluctant to recruit more than a few African American athletes, opposed to start African American athletes or simply observed the “Gentleman’s Agreement.” This is not to say that the roadblocks were minimal. Johnson enumerates multiple instances in which Strode, Washington, Robinson, Bradley, and Bartlett were subject to racism both home and abroad. Those familiar with the history of the era will note this as par for the course. It provides a legacy today that UCLA and other UCs can and must build upon, especially as the UC campuses maintain a significant underrepresentation of African American students.
The book presents a bit of a paradox. Johnson articulates five remarkable biographies, but the story still feels like it is told too quickly, a legacy still not adequately appropriated. Overall, The Black Bruins is a home-run for those unfamiliar with both UCLA’s modest—yet significant—contribution in integrating college sports in the late 1930s and the five former teammates who helped put UCLA on the map. The book also reminds readers that narratives are not singular, but intersect with others. Perhaps an existential take-away from The Black Bruins is one that compels us not only to consider more carefully how to appropriate and build upon such legacies, but also to better see how our own diverse and distinct California narratives connect to each other.
 Kenny Washington and Woody Strode re-integrate the NFL in 1946. Jackie Robinson integrates Major League Baseball in 1947. Ray Bartlett was a Pasadena Police Officer (one of the first and few African-American police officers). Tom Bradley becomes the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles, serving twenty years.
 Both Southern African Americans and Southern Whites were leaving the South seeking opportunity during the early Great Depression Era. James W. Johnson, The Black Bruins: Remarkable Lives of UCLA’S Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 3.
 Johnson discusses Jackie Robinson’s “Black Belt” Georgia background (p. 7) and Tom Bradley’s Texas roots (pp. 18-19).
 Johnson articulates Tom Bradley’s transformative impact on Los Angeles that is significant in both his tenure and the city’s response (p. 211).
Nickolas Hardy is a retired U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) veteran and lecturer at Cal Poly Pomona. His studies in Kinesiology include Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Sport, History of Sport, and Philosophy of Sport. He is an avid researcher in the dynamic intersections between sport and society, emphasizing on the African-American experience.
In the last few years, dozens of articles and think-pieces composed by cultural critics and urban pundits have discussed rising rents across Los Angeles accompanied by the transforming local landscape and built environment. Many of these pieces approach the city from a distant, more theoretical standpoint. The native Angeleno journalist Lynell George provides a much more personal and an even deeper perspective on shifts across Los Angeles because she’s been covering the terrain longer than just about anybody. Her new book of essays and photographs from Angel City Press, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, examines and explicates Los Angeles in search of place and belonging with an uncanny verisimilitude.
Rooted in personal experience, George catalogs the changing landscape, delving deeply into the city’s shifting districts and ever-evolving zeitgeist coming to rise because of these shifts. A lifetime of covering her hometown is distilled into eleven meticulous essays complemented perfectly by her own poignant, original photography. One of the key themes of this collection, as she states in the text, is that there are “‘many’ Los Angeleses swarming, each with stories that [tend to]) remain in the margins, territories that could only be accessed by someone familiar with its history and layout.” Another key idea she hammers home is that the Los Angeles depicted “on television or in the movies didn’t jibe with what [she] encountered daily, no matter where [she] lived.”
Quite simply, George knows Los Angeles better than almost anyone. City of Quartz author Mike Davis stated to me in an email late April that “L.A.’s written image has always been a predictable mixture of hyperbole, cliché and outsider ignorance, with boosterism and fear as two sides of the same coin. Lynell George comes from a different place entirely. With subtle love she explores the everyday to discover the extraordinary: the creative and rebellious spirits of the neighborhoods, the schools, and the true (not fake) bohemias. She truly sings Los Angeles.”
The Many Los Angeleses
As Davis notes, George’s forte is revealing the many Los Angeleses and she’s been doing this for over three decades. A former staff writer at both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, her writing has won many awards over the years, even a 2018 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes for writing the liner notes, “The Stomp Comes to the Strip,” for the six-CD set, Otis ReddingLive at the Whisky A Go Go. In 2017, George also won the Alan Jutzi Fellowship from the Huntington Library for her work with the Octavia E. Butler archive.
Her first book, No Crystal Stair, published by Verso in 1992 peeled back the false facades of South Central Los Angeles to reveal the faces of the city: the mothers, fathers, extended families, the churches, the schools, and legions of teachers and social workers in the district that walked the walk. Her behind the scenes portraits of community pillars like community organizer and youth advocate Levi Kingston, jazz musician John Carter, filmmaker Charles Burnett, the Marcus Garvey School, and the Ward AME Church showed the real South Central Los Angeles, not the exaggerated misrepresentation that mass media promoted in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Her early essays are meticulously reported and stand the test of time. This new collection carries this spirit even further, matching her poetic prose with her equally skilled photography. There’s an organic unity in After/Image that radiates from every page.
Lynell George was born in Hollywood, raised in the Crenshaw District, and then moved to Culver City just before adolescence. Her parents were both teachers around inner-city Los Angeles and her father eventually became a principal. Both of her parents migrated to Los Angeles for opportunity during the early 1950s, the last wave of the Great Migration. Her father was from Pennsylvania and her mother, Louisiana.
After/Image revisits her formative years to paint an in-depth portrait of not only Black L.A.’s transformation, but the city at large. “The black L.A. where I grew up in the ’70s,” she writes, “was a territory built of dreams and defeats. A work-in-progress that was still being shaped by the unrest of the ’60s and the outsized dreams of our forebears.” After/Image maps these territories, “both physical and of the mind.”
After graduating from Culver City High School, she attended Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and studied with the great Los Angeles novelist Carolyn See. See praised her work right from the beginning. “Carolyn was a Mentor,” George tells me. “She was the first to suggest in college that I send one of the pieces I wrote for her class to either the Weekly or the L.A. Reader. Ten years later, that piece (or part of that piece), ended up being part of an essay in the Pantheon collection, Sex, Death and God in L.A., and entirely by chance, Carolyn had an essay in the same volume as well.”
After graduating from LMU, George went to graduate school for Creative Writing at San Francisco State. While in San Francisco, she met the novelist, essayist and professor Leonard Michaels. Michaels helped her sort out if she should continue in the Masters’ Creative Writing Program or take the leap of leaving grad school. “He gave me advice about what a writer should do: ‘Read. Write. Find someone who you trust to read and critique your work,’” she recalled. “He encouraged me to stay open to the world.” George ended up staying in San Francisco for only a year when a summer internship back home at the LA Weekly became a job opportunity. She listened to Michaels’ advice and sooner than later, she was doing cover stories for the Weekly.
A Pioneer of Los Angeles Journalism
For about seven years George was a staff writer at the Weekly and eventually went on to become a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times for fifteen years. George was one of the first writers in the city to cover the rise of Leimert Park as an artistic enclave in the late 1980s and the first writer to spotlight the district in the LA Weekly. She also pioneered coverage for important topics like the Black and Korean Alliances before the 1992 uprisings happened and dozens of other issues that are now more widely discussed like public versus private schools, Black filmmakers, and gentrification.
These were the glory days of the LA Weekly and George was printed along with important L.A. voices like Wanda Coleman, Ruben Martinez, and Mike Davis, all of whom she became close confidantes with. She met Coleman sometime in the late 1980s and they remained in touch all the way until 2013 when the legendary poet and writer passed. Coleman even introduced Lynell to her brother George Evans and the artist Michael Massenberg, both of whom George has had fruitful collaborations with in recent years. “Wanda was a special force in my life,” George confides. “She was a solid sounding board and sat down with me to make sure that I paid attention to whom and what was around me. She always alerted me to good stories, good people I needed to know or have around me.”
Though Coleman was nearly two decades older than George, they shared many commonalities like both being African American women writers from South Los Angeles with parents who came to Los Angeles during the Great Migration, though Coleman’s parents were in the first wave and George’s at the end. “[Wanda] was a letter writer,” George remembers, “and I still have those notes, postcards and double-spaced typewritten letters she’d drop in the mail.” Their last meeting, shortly before Coleman passed “was a ‘lunch’ that went for seven hours. It was more than a lunch, it was a seminar—in research, history, writing, life, and of course Los Angeles. I’ll never forget it.”
Like Wanda Coleman, George has lived almost her entire life in Los Angeles County. In her adulthood, George lived in Echo Park and Pasadena. Though some of After/Image is autobiographical, it is a larger meditation on the rapid changes sweeping Southern California in the last few decades.
Throughout the text, George converses with a variety of local experts like Lila Higgins from the Natural History Museum who muses on the once-ample green space across the city now developed. The chapter with Higgins, “Urban Wild,” explains how Southern California is “a hotspot of biodiversity,” and what we need to do to preserve local ecosystems and restore the Los Angeles River.
Recording A Vanishing Place
In the book’s opening essay, she writes: “I seem to have ‘lost’ Los Angeles. It’s as if the city were a set of keys I’ve somehow misplaced. I keep frantically retracing my steps hoping to locate it—something’s lost and must be found.” George embarked on this journey as a writer, and a photographer. She rose early every Sunday morning and began wandering all over the city to record “that vanishing sense of place.”
Another mission of the book is to not only locate Los Angeles, but also “to find and catalog what and who is still here. What is Los Angeles when you pull the image of the city away? What are you left with? What is the Los Angeles that lives inside of us? The one—the afterimage—that lingers in the mind’s eye.” The resulting essays, interviews and photographs presented in After/Image are a captivating panorama of 2018 Los Angeles. Among the many subjects covered, she highlights the shrinking size of Little Tokyo and rising rents in the Arts District and Boyle Heights. George shares her conversations with native Angelenos and neighborhood experts like James Rojas, Nancy Uyemura, and Evelyn Yoshimura for sharper insight.
The second chapter of the book, “Lost Angelena,” is a short section that gives insight into the collection’s genesis. For three years, George taught a journalism course at Loyola Marymount University called, “Telling Los Angeles’s Story.” In this class, she encouraged students to look deeper at the city and to analyze beyond the standard tropes and stereotypes that have characterized Los Angeles to outsiders and to followers of film and mass media. “As I encouraged students to look beyond facile definitions I found that I had to as well,” she writes. “My challenge was slightly different than theirs since I was teaching the class in the shadow of what home and place had once meant—and consequently means now.” She ended up diving back into “the city’s grid, drifting past old intersections and addresses.”
The third chapter is appropriately titled, “Arteries of Memory.” Revisiting her childhood home near 61st and West, George recounts her rite of passage growing up in the Crenshaw District. In between breaking down the backstory of streets like Slauson, she explains how the area transformed and the reverence so many residents then and some still feel for city streets. “My father used to recite the names of major surface streets like liturgy: Main, First, Washington, Western, Sepulveda, Exposition, Adams… and, closer to home, Slauson.” She even shares the old Johnny Carson joke: “Take the Slauson cut off, get out of your car and cut off your Slauson.”
The inside story is one of a truer Los Angeles. Her family had been the first black family on their stretch of the street. For a time, she states, “That little stretch of 61st, in that moment, could have been a filmmaker’s backdrop for conveying the mirage of Los Angeles that existed in our collective imagination: white-stucco homes, built in the teens and twenties, with terracotta roofs and wrap-around porches, long driveways and yards that were a vivid sketchpad of shaggy palms and fruit trees and flower beds where the snapdragons fought for space among the succulents. Paradise—until we found that it wasn’t.”
George discusses her family moving from the Crenshaw District to Culver City in the early 1970s and the changing cityscape. Her observations on race are nuanced and from firsthand experience: “I started school with almost all black classmates. For a time, predominantly white. Then black, and by the end, tipping toward mixed again.”
As much as George covers the city’s history within the narrative, there’s a deeper insight embedded in every page. Well-documented topics like the 1965 Watts Uprisings, white flight, and neighborhood redevelopment are shown by George in a new light with greater context. Her conversations on the changing cityscape with longtime Angelenos like Frances E. Williams and Skira Martinez concretizes the topic and makes it more personal. George shows how “Gentrification begins with words. Language of erasure. There used to be nothing here…. That place is a ghost town after dark…. No one goes there anymore…. It’s a no man’s land.” The very language used to describe evolving neighborhoods, she points out, begins the process of erasure with words like “discovered” and “unearthed.” These terms are how the word “Columbusing” has recently emerged.
In the penultimate chapter, “Flow,” she explores what race means in Los Angeles by celebrating the “in-between spaces where new identities formed.” Beginning with her own high school experience she grew up with a “black kid that surfed,” “the white kid that pop-locked,” and the “Japanese-American kid who played basketball with a J.J. Walker comic back-bend.” To further illustrate these stereotype-defying individuals, she remembers an old high school confidante, an Irish-Catholic girl. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the city was still very segregated, and yet her friend “was part of an emerging new crop: those who were bold enough not to run from, but to step out and embrace what was new; what we would be in conversation with each day.”
Furthermore, George writes, “Before we used words like ally or accomplice, [the Irish-Catholic girl] found a way to stand shoulder to shoulder in ways that mattered most—being quiet, listening, defending, reaching out. She spoke a passable schoolyard Spanish, well enough to be understood, and perhaps most critically, to understand. What was most important to me was she had your back.” The second half of “Flow” spends time with another genre-bending native Angeleno, the bass player Wil-Dog Abers from the iconic L.A. musical group, Ozomatli. Wil-Dog was a white kid within the racially tense 1980s who used music to find an identity, “his portal into enclaves, neighborhood, hidden outposts, and intimate friendships.” People like Wil-Dog and her old friend represent how Angelenos embraced the world around them and flowed along with the changes in the city.
A final word also needs to be said about After/Image’s photography. The last section of the book, “The Spirit of Place,” is almost exclusively photos for sixteen pages. There’s a three-paragraph introduction to the chapter and then five quotes from Angelenos like recent poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez and the Japanese-American writer and activist, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, interspersed through the images.
The spirit of Los Angeles
George’s opening sentence of the final passage says it all: “The most evocative features of Los Angeles can’t always be put into words. Sense of place is a connection that takes root. It flourishes deep inside. That spirit of place may come in a quick glimpse or along a periphery. Maybe it’s a mood. A hidden vista. The scale of a street. The bend of a skyscraping fan palm.” The book’s cover image of Union Station with the glowing purple sky in the background is a perfect example of a picture beyond words.
George’s photos throughout After/Image capture the evocative moods and hidden vistas nested within the fabric of the city. Influenced by Roy DeCarava, the iconic Harlem-born photographer who used his photography to celebrate everyday life in Black America, her photos of everyday Los Angeles extend the moment with the same kind of authenticity. George has been taking photos as long as she’s been writing, but in her recent explorations walking across the city over the last five years, she “began to take along a camera to record specific details—front steps, attic windows, a tangle of succulents, the remnants of backyard incinerators, hand-drawn signs, lost lists, long shadows, the play of light, details or moments that forced [her] to look twice or ask questions.”
The overall work provides a powerful portrait of Los Angeles in 2018 and over the last half century. She admits, “I can’t quite say if this narrative—the photographs, the testimonials—is a love letter or a Dear John note.” Ultimately, the book is a remarkable ode to Los Angeles and the sweeping arc of her narrative is compelling to natives and nonnatives alike. Her final sentence before the extended photo essay summarizes both the book and her intentions: “I walk to remember to tell and honor these stories—what still lies outside the frame and the images of Los Angeles that live inside of me. And us.”
In March and April of 2018, George has been appearing across Southern California supporting After/Image in venues like Vroman’s Bookstore, the Annenberg Beach House, and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She also has essays in two forthcoming books: L.A. Baseball: Photographs from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; and Radio Imagination: Artists and Writers in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler. George’s meticulously prevalent writing and research combined with her personal insight proves why she is one of today’s best voices singing Los Angeles.
* All photos courtesy of Lynell George, used by permission.
Mike Sonksen is a third-generation Los Angeles native whose prose and poetry have been included in programs with the Mayor’s Office, the Los Angeles Public Library’s “Made in LA,” series and Grand Park. Most recently, one of his KCET essays was nominated for an Award with the L.A. Press Club. Sonksen teaches at Woodbury University.