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.
This is not the life I expected to lead. But gradually you take some responsibility, then a little more, until finally you are not in control anymore. You have to give yourself entirely. Then once you make up your mind that you are giving yourself, then you are prepared to do anything that serves the Cause and the Movement. I have reached that point. I have no option anymore about what I will do. I have given myself fully.
The bomb scare that night was the least of his worries. As far as death threats were concerned, Dr. King had experienced his fair share of close calls. His home had been bombed—he’d been stabbed with a letter opener, hit with rocks, eggs, fists, and arrested over fifteen times. And, yes, there had been plenty of bomb scares similar to what occurred inside the University of Southern California’s Bovard Auditorium on the night of 16 October 1967.
Dr. King visited the University of Southern California campus to deliver a speech titled “The Negro in America.” He flew United Airlines and arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport at 6:35 p.m., appearing calm yet tired. At this stage of his life, King had become more controversial than ever to the American public. He’d publicly denounced the Vietnam War in a fiery April 1967 speech in New York, angering not only pro-war advocates but also his own supporters who believed he was moving himself away from his core cause of civil rights. He’d gained weight over the years, and grew numb to the fear of losing his life.
Dr. King’s Los Angeles visit was preceded by a similar speech delivered on Sacramento State College’s football field, speaking out on Vietnam to an audience of several thousand: “Our nation is trying to fight two wars at the same time, the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty, and is losing both.” As soon as he finished, King headed for the local airport. According to the late journalist David Halberstam, this was Dr. King’s routine: “Most of King’s life is spent going to airports, and it is the only time to talk to him.”
In Los Angeles, he was greeted by a USC committee and guided to a car. As had become his standard outfit, King wore a black suit, rumpled from the flight, with a white collared shirt and gray tie. Some, such as then Daily Trojan editor Hal Lancaster, were able to see King up close, and what affected the reporter the most was the fatigue in the reverend’s eyes:. “Any man who averages three hotel rooms a week is bound to be tired.”
After dropping off his luggage at a Hyatt, Dr. King got back into the car and headed for the USC campus. He’d started to wake up and looked out the window of the car, the city of Los Angeles passing by. Dr. King spoke to those in the car about how California and the Catholic Church had “gone backwards” in helping to enact a fair housing plan. One example of ‘fairness,’ would be an attempt to eliminate discrimination while a potential tenant’s application is being processed. As King recalled, California at one time “had an open housing act here and went back and abolished it.” To the reverend, it was simply another case of the church not taking enough social responsibility in the communities where they still held sway. “It has been a great tragedy of the church that this has been considered secondary. The church must be concerned with the total man, his physical as well as spiritual being.”
At 7:45 p.m., Dr. King entered a room inside USC’s Bovard Auditorium. He wanted some time to himself before he went out. As he collected his thoughts, around eighteen hundred people filled the auditorium, eager to see the reverend in the flesh.
He spoke with an urgent vitality—the kind that can perhaps come only after hearing a knock on death’s door—and the crowd was sent to a higher plane of thought.
Just after eight, Dr. King, after an introduction, walked up to the podium. At 5’7” he was not an imposing presence on stage, but this setting had become his second home. Unassuming and mellow off stage, King had a knack for bringing himself to life as he spoke to a crowd. On this night, he started slowly, deliberately, his slow southern drawl allowing everyone to follow his every word. The longer he spoke, the quicker his words came—emotions bubbling to the surface….
But around 8:30 p.m. as Dr. King retold the history and plight of the black American, the L.A. Fire Department received an anonymous phone call from someone who said there was a bomb inside the Bovard Auditorium, and that it would detonate “in fifteen minutes.” With the fear planted, the crowd evacuated Bovard, and Dr. King was taken by campus police to a conference room. Just before leaving the stage, Dr. King wanted to reassure his listeners to “please return because there are some very important things I still have to say.”
They returned, and when Dr. King once again stepped behind the podium, he’d grown somewhat. He spoke with an urgent vitality—the kind that can perhaps come only after hearing a knock on death’s door—and the crowd was sent to a higher plane of thought. Dr. King told the now active audience (many of them students) to deny the ‘myths’ halting the progress of African-Americans.
One of the myths involved time. Just give the cause enough time, and everything will work itself out. But King had no interest in being patient. To him, “time is neutral, and can be used either constructively or destructively.”
Another myth rested in the notion that legislation was unnecessary, and all that was needed was for the general public to have a change of heart.
With his voice booming off the auditorium walls, Dr. King disagreed:
I’m a Baptist preacher, and I’m in the heart-changing business… but while morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated, and while the law can’t make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me.
The biggest round of applause came from his comments on the war in Vietnam. Dr. King surely knew there were hundreds of students anxious of being drafted, and furious over the fact that American soldiers, some family and friends, were being killed every day. Dr. King demanded that America “stand up and say to the world we made a mistake in Vietnam… justice is indivisible, but injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The bomb scare had sadly caused Dr. King to leave without what had been a pre-planned question and answer session. He had another plane to catch. A rally in Houston was next, along with two smoke bombs. Immediately after that, King, his brother A.D., Wyatt Walker, and Ralph Abernathy were to report directly to a Birmingham, Alabama prison, obeying a Supreme Court order regarding a long-appealed ‘contempt’ offense that occurred in 1963. Such had been his life ever since giving himself “entirely” to the movement. On the college campuses in Sacramento and Los Angeles, he’d found support among the younger anti-war generation, but these events were few and far between. The appeal of ‘black power’ had taken hold, and King’s message of nonviolence had started to lose its authority over his own supporters.
Fifty years later, the general American public now annually remembers the triumphs of Martin Luther King Jr.—the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize—and we have chosen to idolize him with memorials and statues, and given dozens of schools and highways his name. But these honors are empty if we choose to ignore the sacrifice and message of a man who, according to Christine Farris, King’s sister, was an “ordinary and average man.” Perhaps sociologist Charles Vert Willie, one of King’s friends and college classmates, said it best: “By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.”
Photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inside Bovard Auditorium around 8 p.m., 16 October 1967. Courtesy of University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC Libraries Special Collections.
Header image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inside Bovard Auditorium around 8 p.m., 16 October 1967. Courtesy of University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC Libraries Special Collections.
 Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 163.
 Stan Metzler, The Daily Trojan, 16 October 1967.
Long Beach Independent, 17 October 1967, A2 and San Bernardino County Sun AP Report, 17 October 1967, where it appears King delivered similar speeches in Sacramento and Los Angeles on that same day.
 David Halberstam, “The Second Coming of Martin Luther King,” Harper’s Magazine, August 1967.
 Hal Lancaster, “The Calm Martin Luther King,” The Daily Trojan, 17 October 1967.
[O]nce those convictions were erased, the presumption of their innocence was restored.
– Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Maurice Atwone Caldwell was released from a California prison over six years ago, but he doesn’t feel free. Hobbled by back pain and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from years in prison, he spends many days in his suburban Sacramento apartment. He feels most relaxed sitting alone in his favored spot on the couch: “I’m secluded here. In prison, you are secluded. You go to your cell, you are separated from everybody. When you have people around you, you’ve got to have a sense of trust. I don’t have no sense of trust.” Looking back on his life, Caldwell doesn’t see much reason to have a sense of trust.
In the summer of 1990, twenty-two-year-old Caldwell was living in San Francisco’s Alemany housing projects. “Little Twone,” as the 5’4 Caldwell was known on the streets, was in a situation shared by many young people today—a few years out of school, working at whatever jobs were available, hanging out with friends and trying to get established in the adult world. In that era of rampant crime and crack cocaine, any young black man with only a high school education would struggle. But Caldwell faced extra challenges.
“To me, my case was personal. My case falls back to my last name—my father.” Donald Ray Caldwell was convicted of killing a San Francisco police officer during a robbery and served nineteen years before being released in 1988. As Maurice sees it, the San Francisco police resented the fact that the elder Caldwell was alive and walking the streets, and they were more than willing to settle the score at Maurice’s expense. In 1989 and 1990, Maurice was arrested more than a dozen times; in every case the charges were eventually dropped.
A botched drug sale in the early hours of 30 June 1990 changed Caldwell’s life. Around 2 a.m., after an evening of drinking, four men drove up Alemany Blvd. looking to buy crack cocaine. They found a dealer, but as the buy was being completed something went wrong and shots were fired from a handgun and a shotgun. The four friends scattered, but one man, Judy Acosta, died from gunshot wounds. Caldwell, who was in bed with his girlfriend in a nearby apartment, heard the shots and ran outside to find out what was happening, but only saw an acquaintance walking away carrying something that looked like a shotgun.
The initial police investigation didn’t turn up much since in the midst of an epidemic of drugs and violence, Alemany residents generally deemed the police more likely to harass a witness than arrest a killer. But several weeks after the murder, neighbor Mary Cobbs identified Caldwell as one of the shooters. He was arrested 21 September 1990. Caldwell’s family scraped together money to hire a lawyer who had never tried a capital case before, but assured Caldwell that “this case is a slam dunk.”
The initial police investigation didn’t turn up much since in the midst of an epidemic of drugs and violence, Alemany residents generally deemed the police more likely to harass a witness than arrest a killer.
The prosecution’s case against Caldwell did have problems. None of the survivors of the shooting were able to positively identify him, and several witnesses testified that Caldwell was indoors when the shooting occurred. The police failed to follow accepted procedures while taking Cobbs’s statements, which cast doubt on the reliability of her identification of Caldwell. However, at trial Cobbs was steadfast in her assertion that she saw Caldwell at the scene of the crime with a shotgun. The jury found Caldwell guilty, and he was sentenced to a term of twenty-seven years-to-life in prison. Cobbs, who claimed Caldwell threatened to kill her if she testified, was proclaimed a hero and awarded the Medal of Merit by the City of San Francisco.
Throughout his twenty years in prison, Caldwell strenuously asserted his innocence. He wrote letters to anyone he could find who might help him. Finally, in 2009 the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) took up his cause. The NCIP followed leads that Caldwell had given the police and his attorney, but which neither Caldwell’s attorney (who was later disbarred) nor the police ever pursued. Marritte Funches, serving time in a Nevada prison, admitted he shot Acosta and swore that Caldwell was not involved. Investigators demonstrated that Mary Cobbs could not have seen the incident from her window, and talked with acquaintances who testified that Cobbs lied about Caldwell.
The NCIP filed a petition for habeas corpus in state court claiming that Caldwell’s conviction was based on perjured testimony, that he received ineffective representation by counsel and that he was actually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. The court ordered him released, finding that his attorney’s inadequate defense constituted a violation of Caldwell’s constitutional rights. Still asserting Caldwell’s guilt, the San Francisco District Attorney entertained retrying the case and offered Caldwell a plea bargain: he could acknowledge guilt and would be released from prison on the basis of the time already served. When Caldwell refused the deal, the District Attorney dropped the charges. On 28 March 2011, Maurice Caldwell was released from prison. He had served over twenty years, just about one year longer than his father.
Caldwell’s release confronted him with new challenges—making a living and a building a life. The family members who stood by him through his ordeal had all died while he was incarcerated. The world had changed while his life was on hold. Caldwell had never owned a cellphone or an iPod, and he barely remembered how to buy a ticket for a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train. The kitchen work he had done while in prison left him with a bad back but no marketable skills.
In some ways, Caldwell was worse off than an inmate who served out an entire sentence. While few would argue that post-release services in California are adequate, at a minimum the system provides the supervision of a parole officer and some limited resources to assist the former inmate’s reentry into society. Since the court found that Caldwell should never have been in the corrections system in the first place, he was not eligible for those services. A 2008 report on wrongful convictions by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice recommended that services to assist reintegration into society be offered to the wrongfully incarcerated. Shortly afterward, the legislature overwhelmingly voted to make this change, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. It has never been revived.
Still, Caldwell persevered. He moved in with his sister and her partner, and found work as a laborer at a recycling plant until increasing back pain forced him to leave the job. He moved to Sacramento with his girlfriend and continued to work until disabled by carpal tunnel syndrome. Also, like many who have spent long years in California prisons, Caldwell has suffered (and suffers) from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which contributes to his current disability.
Paige Kaneb (NCIP), sister Debbie Caldwell, grandniece Tayonna, Maurice, Linda Starr (NCIP), fellow exoneree Rick Walker.
Today, Caldwell’s greatest satisfaction comes from working with the NCIP, speaking about his personal experiences. “I’m not one of those persons who get out of prison and stand in front of the camera and say ‘I’m not mad at the system.’ I am mad at the system. And for that, I am doing something about it.” Speaking is therapy for Caldwell. But even more, it is his way of setting up his three children for a better life than he had. “The character I’ve got right now, when my kids grow up, ain’t nobody going to be able to say, ‘your father was a bad person.’ They’ll be able to look and see me speaking, helping people…. I am not doing what my father did to his kids.” But his speaking engagements do little to pay the bills, and Caldwell has few opportunities to earn other income. Having lost literally the best years of his life, Caldwell needs compensation.
There are limited routes for an exonerated inmate like Caldwell to receive compensation. The best hope is a claim for violation of civil rights under federal law by showing that the conviction was secured through illegal actions by police or prosecutors. Though notoriously hard to win, such claims offer the prospect of punitive damages and are the basis for most of the multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements, as in the infamous Central Park Jogger case. That $41 million settlement paid five individuals approximated $1 million per year served. Caldwell filed a civil rights case in federal court, but the lawsuit was dismissed without a trial (an appeal is currently pending). Claims can be made under state law as well, but these too are only rarely successful.
The other option is a claim under a statute providing compensation for wrongful incarceration. Until relatively recently, few such laws existed. Although California’s statute was enacted in 1941, most states’ laws came in more recently. As of 2000, only fourteen states (along with the District of Columbia and the federal government) had such statutes, and many of those provided negligible amounts. The California statute capped payments at a flat $5,000 until 1969, when the limit was raised to $10,000. A key reason for this was that until the widespread use of DNA evidence, wrongful convictions were deemed rare.
Since the early 1990s, studies (many supported by the New York-based Innocence Project and its affiliates around the country) have documented hundreds of erroneous convictions. In response, many states have made efforts to reduce errors, for example by establishing strict guidelines for obtaining and using eyewitness identifications like that of Mary Cobbs, which are known to be a prime source of wrongful convictions. Many have also passed laws providing compensation for those wrongfully convicted. Currently, thirty-two states have statutes providing compensation for wrongful incarceration. Ironically Texas, which executes far more individuals than any other state, also offers the most generous payments for wrongful incarceration.
Over the years, California’s legislature has modified procedures and increased the amount of compensation available. Payout is now set at $140 per day served (about $50,000 per year), with claims being reviewed by the California Victim Compensation Board and submitted to the legislature for final approval and award. As with statutes in other states, compensation is available only to individuals who are innocent, not to those released as a result of mistakes or governmental misconduct in the course of the prosecution.
The most recent changes in the California requirements for recovery came in 2013 in response to analysis showing that most claims were being denied. The changes in the law seem to have made a difference. Since 2014, seventeen out of twenty-seven claims have been granted. Still, meritorious claims are being denied; at least four of those denied since 2014 were contrary to the recommendation of the staff-hearing officer who heard them. One involved Luis Galicia, who was convicted in 2009 of lewd acts with a child under fourteen years of age.
In 2011, Galicia filed a petition for habeas corpus in state court. By then it had come to light that Dr. Mary Spencer, whose examination of the minor was critical to the prosecution’s case, had given false testimony in a 1991 case (as it turned out, she gave inaccurate information in at least ten other cases, too). Three other doctors reviewed the medical reports and found no basis to conclude any molestation had occurred. The District Attorney chose not to oppose Galicia’s petition and the court ordered his release, but did so without making a finding of innocence.
Galicia filed a claim with the Victim Compensation Board. The Attorney General’s office, who represents the state before the Board, opposed the claim asserting that Galicia was guilty of the crime. After a daylong hearing, the hearing officer concluded that Galicia had proved his claim of innocence and recommended it be paid.
The Board, reluctant to accept the recommendation, asked Galicia’s attorney and the Attorney General’s office to present their arguments to the full Board. No witnesses testified, but a representative of the Crime Victim Action Alliance was allowed to speak and urge the Board to deny Galicia’s claim. The Board rejected Galicia’s claim 3-0. The chair “found that the evidence presented was very complicated, and had difficulty drawing any conclusions.” She said she wanted to support the hearing officer’s recommendation, but “couldn’t find the evidence” that would allow her to accept that recommendation.
California State Capitol via Flickr user Ken Lund.
There are obvious institutional reasons that the Board may be hostile to claims of wrongful incarceration. The Board’s mission and primary business focus is on victims of violent crime, not victims of erroneous prosecution. The stated mission of the Board is straightforward: “The Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board provides financial assistance to victims of crime.” In that capacity, the Board processes tens of thousands of claims per year, and over the last few years has averaged payouts totaling over $50 million annually. In contrast, the program for compensating those wrongfully incarcerated, discussed in the Board’s Annual Report in the section, “Additional Board Functions,” paid out about $14.5 million total from 2001 through 2017.
The composition of the Board as set out in its enabling statute does little to adjust the balance. Two members are specified in the statute. One is the Secretary of the California Government Operations Agency, which is charged with improving government administration and fostering efficiency. The other is the State Controller, who is responsible for the state’s financial resources. As the Controller is required to sit on seventy boards and commissions, they typically designate a staff member for this role. In any case, given the nature of their jobs, neither of these delegated officials is likely to have any expertise in criminal law or procedure.
The third member is chosen by and serves at the pleasure of the Governor with no specified qualifications. Michael Ramos, the District Attorney for San Bernardino County, was appointed in 2004 by Governor Schwarzenegger and has served since. According to an ACLU study, San Bernardino County has the second highest rate of killings by police officers in California. Beyond how this context may inform Ramos’s approach, district attorneys are unlikely to provide sympathetic perspectives for a body reviewing claims against the state being made by those once convicted of a felony.
Ramos’s service on the Board reflects his perspective as a prosecutor. In voting to overturn the hearing officer’s recommendation to approve the claim of Timothy Atkins, he made what has become a typical comment: “I still feel the same way regarding the statements and then one thing that actually stood out for me and when I have these difficult—very difficult decisions—I always lean toward the victims. We have a victim that has been murdered.” It is difficult to see how the plight of victims factors into assessing the evidence of the claimant’s guilt. Indeed, a wrongfully convicted person is also a victim. But, as the longest serving member of the Board and the only one with criminal law experience, Ramos’s pronouncements carry a lot of weight. And the Board generally operates by consensus. Since 2010 there have only been three split votes, and in all three Ramos voted to deny the claim.
California State Senator Bill Monning has recognized the flaws in the system: “Unfortunately, the current compensation review process forces exonerees, who have very few resources, to defend their claim before the Victim’s Compensation Board, whose members are not experienced in the legal nuances of wrongful conviction cases.” In March 2017, Senator Monning introduced SB 321, which would require appointment of a special master, qualified by “education, training, and work experience,” to oversee all claims for wrongful incarceration. However, at least for this session, the bill will not be enacted.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for a claimant is the burden of proof—under the California law, they have the burden to prove that they are innocent of the crime of which they were convicted. In addition, the Board has issued regulations to clarify how claims should be reviewed. Those regulations specify that the claimant must prove innocence “by a preponderance of the evidence,” which means the Board must find it is more likely than not that the claimant is innocent. This is the standard used throughout the United States for civil claims, and contrasts the heavier burden on the prosecution in a criminal case—proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, the Board added a hurdle for claims of wrongful incarceration. The claimant’s testimony can be considered, as well as the fact that they were released and not tried again, or were acquitted on retrial. However, none of that can be the basis of an award without “substantial independent corroborating evidence.” Even after their conviction has been reversed, the claimant’s own testimony cannot be sufficient to support a finding of innocence.
Though the claimant’s burden of proof is deemed met if a court has already made a finding of innocence, there may be no such finding even when the facts indicate it. Most individuals who are exonerated after serving time in jail are released through habeas corpus proceedings in state or federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that in the federal courts, the subject of a habeas corpus review “is not the petitioners’ innocence or guilt but solely the question of whether their constitutional rights have been preserved.” Under California law, new evidence pointing to innocence can be ground for reversing a conviction, but it is only one of numerous bases that can be presented. Many state law proceedings, too, are based on claims that the defendant’s constitutional rights were violated. In those cases, discussion of innocence can be beside the point.
In Caldwell’s case, although the Innocence Project lawyers argued that he was innocent, the habeas court vacated the conviction based on lack of effective representation at trial as required by the Sixth Amendment. The court made no finding as to guilt or innocence in his decision, and when Caldwell went back to court to request a finding of innocence to bolster his claim, the court declined. The San Francisco District Attorney who never pursued charges against Marritte Funches, who confessed to shooting Judy Acosta, or against Henry Martin, who was identified by Funches as the shotgun shooter, continued to insist that Caldwell was guilty. Caldwell had no choice but to try to convince the Board of his innocence.
Requiring the claimant to prove innocence is inconsistent with a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system: a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. As the United States Supreme Court put it in 1895: “The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.”
The U.S. Supreme Court recently addressed this issue in a case stemming from Colorado’s Exoneration Act. In addition to providing compensation for wrongful incarceration, the Colorado statute governed recovery of court costs, fees, and restitution paid by those wrongfully convicted and placed the burden of proof on the claimants. Two individuals whose convictions had been overturned sued the state to recover amounts they had paid as a result of their convictions, claiming that the state requirements violated their constitutional right to due process by unduly burdening their ability to recover.
Applying a well-established test, the Court (in an opinion by Justice Ginsburg) weighed the interests of the claimants, the risk that the procedures applied will result in erroneous denial of their claims, and the countervailing interests of the state. The Court opened its analysis by noting that the claimants must be treated as innocent: “Once [their] convictions were erased, the presumption of their innocence was restored.” Since the payments at issue were based solely on the findings of guilt, the state no longer had a basis for retaining the funds.
Colorado argued that if it is proper to require exonerees to prove innocence in order to receive compensation for their time in prison, placing the same burden on recovery of fees and costs must be valid as well. The Court rejected this argument on the grounds that the claimants were not seeking compensation: “Just as the restoration of liberty on reversal of a conviction is not compensation, neither is the return of money taken by the State on account of the conviction.” But the Court offered no explanation why this distinction should matter. In a separate opinion, Justice Alito questioned the distinction by asking rhetorically, under Ginsburg’s logic, “why shouldn’t the defendant be compensated for all the adverse economic consequences of the wrongful conviction?”
Every Supreme Court justice takes as a given the validity of the Exoneration Act as to claims for compensation for time in prison. None of the thirty-two states allowing compensation for wrongful incarceration (nor the federal law) require the state to prove guilt to prevent an exoneree from being compensated. Indeed, most compensation statutes are much more restrictive than Colorado’s (or California’s), for example, limiting claims to cases involving a gubernatorial pardon or DNA evidence. Still, the Court’s decision raises the question whether these limits are truly defensible as a matter of either constitutional law or policy.
The first consideration in the Supreme Court’s analysis is the interest of the claimant. The claimant has been deprived of their freedom, their relations with family and friends and their livelihood for the duration of imprisonment. If the wrongful incarceration drags on for many years, as in Caldwell’s case, the effects are magnified. Over time, relationships fade away. Family and friends die or move away, skills atrophy and the very ability to be gainfully employed may be lost. Monetary compensation cannot restore the years or repair the damage, but it may be the only means for the exoneree to support himself or herself. The claimant’s interest in the outcome is very high—likely far greater than the Colorado claimants’ desire to recover the relatively small fees and costs at issue there.
It is no surprise that under California’s rules, many claims for compensation fail. In short, the risk of erroneous deprivation of the claimants’ interests is severe.
The second consideration the Court discussed is the risk that procedures used will result in erroneous deprivation of the interest at issue. The prevalence of exonerations across the country shows that even under criminal procedures that (theoretically, at least) provide all constitutional rights to the defendant, including the requirement that guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, innocent people are still convicted. The risk of error is exponentially greater in claims for compensation under statutes like California’s.
Luis Galicia’s case illustrates the significance of which party bears the burden of proof. While the officer who heard the testimony found Galicia’s showing sufficient, the reviewing Board ”had difficulty drawing any conclusions” about the evidence.” It was easy and natural to conclude that Galicia failed to make his case. Shifting the burden to the state would require the Board to rule for the claimant where evidence is inconclusive.
The nature of wrongful incarceration claims exacerbates the impact of placing the burden of proof on the claimant. The state does not provide representation for exonerees in their claims before the Board. As Senator Monning observes, most exonerees have few resources at their disposal before their convictions and even fewer when they are finally released. Exonerees like Caldwell, who served many years, have claims large enough to support contingent fee arrangements. The rest have few options for obtaining counsel. And in any contested case—like Caldwell’s—claimants face the full resources of the state Attorney General’s office.
Claimants are by definition facing a trial transcript that was sufficient to convince a jury of their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In some cases before the Board, evidence relied on by the prosecution in the criminal case may be excluded or may have been repudiated. Witnesses may be unavailable—in Caldwell’s case, the key prosecution witness, Mary Cobbs, died while Caldwell was in prison—and memories also fade. All these circumstances will tend to weaken the prosecution’s case, but none will prove the claimant innocent. The same effects hinder the claimant’s efforts to prove innocence. It is no surprise that under California’s rules, many claims for compensation fail. In short, the risk of erroneous deprivation of the claimants’ interests is severe.
The final consideration under the Supreme Court’s analysis is the government’s interest. In entertaining claims for wrongful compensation, the state’s only interest is financial. Compare this to a typical criminal trial where if a finding of “not guilty” is erroneous, a criminal escapes punishment. Yet, by applying the rigorous requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, we signal that we are willing to accept this risk in order to minimize the risk of a greater harm: convicting an innocent person. If a claim for compensation for wrongful incarceration is granted in error, the calculus is different. The guilty party already either has or has not been punished, no matter the result of the proceeding. The only “harm” to be suffered by the state is payment of compensation to a guilty party.
Maurice and his grandniece Tayonna.
It could be argued that an erroneous payment is not even harmful. The claimant, by definition, served time in prison without a valid conviction being made. Though no U.S. jurisdiction has done so, a government could decide, as a matter of policy, to compensate all those wrongfully incarcerated whether guilty or not. Such a policy might even save money. Providing compensation to all who were wrongfully incarcerated, regardless of whether the evidence shows they were innocent, might reduce the likelihood that those released will commit additional crimes.
In any case, the amounts at issue are vanishingly small compared to the cost of the prison system. The current California budget includes $11.4 billion for the correction system. To call the expenditures on exonerees a drop in the bucket would exaggerate their importance. A 2015 study by Berkeley Law provides a more useful comparison. The study looked at the state’s expenditures on the 692 individuals who were exonerated from 1989 through 2012 and found that incarcerating the exonerees cost the state $148 million (and this figure did not even include the cost of prosecuting the cases). Paying claims made to the Victim Compensation Board cost just $5 million—less than 4% of the costs already incurred by the state for those individuals.
If the State of California can devote so many resources to the task of sending citizens to prison and keeping them there for years, surely it can afford to compensate more of those who should never have been there in the first place.
Still, the Supreme Court made clear in the Colorado case it is not ready to require states to accept the burden of proof. In fact, the Colorado statute requires claimants to prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence, a much higher standard than California imposes. Yet the same analysis used by the Court in finding the Colorado law unconstitutional as it applied to recovering fees and costs could be applied to the burden California places on people like Caldwell that seek compensation for the years they lost to a mistake by the state.
Of course, the legislature does not need to be constrained by the Supreme Court’s rigorous application of balancing tests and its adherence to precedent. The legislature can review the system and conclude, as it did in 2013, that the procedures in place are simply not fair. The legislature can decree that the current law places too great a burden on those whom the criminal justice system already failed once. Shifting the burden of proof would make a tremendous difference.
In the meantime, the cases drag on. Maurice Caldwell filed his claim for compensation in March 2013. The matter was heard before an officer of the Board on 9 May and 31 May 2017. On 1 September, the hearing officer issued his Proposed Decision: a denial.
The Proposed Decision is baffling. The officer acknowledges that at least seven witnesses supported Caldwell’s version of the events, while “only one strong witness” implicates him—the deceased Mary Cobbs. He brushes aside testimony from the NCIP attorney that Cobbs could not have seen the shooters from her apartment, as well as all the evidence that the police improperly influenced Cobbs—not only moving her out of the projects but also by paying for a trip to Disneyland. As for Caldwell’s witnesses, Marritte Funches confessed to shooting Judy Acosta, a conclusion supported by every witness, and swore that Caldwell was not involved. The hearing officer blithely concludes that since the district attorney never pursued charges against Funches, those statements must not be credible.
What does the hearing officer believe occurred on that night in 1990? He accepts the testimony that Caldwell was in a bedroom with his girlfriend at the time of the shooting, but notes that Caldwell ran outside and “it is unknown what occurred.” To find Caldwell guilty of Acosta’s murder, one would have to believe that Caldwell heard shots, dressed, left the apartment, picked up a shotgun, and ran out to the street, arriving in time to shoot a man fleeing from someone else’s drug deal gone bad.
But in this proceeding, the hearing officer had no need to determine whether Caldwell was guilty. Caldwell was already denied the presumption of innocence, so the hearing officer can rest his decision solely on the burden of proof. He concludes that none of the witnesses on either side “can comfortably be found reliable which is detrimental to Caldwell’s case since he has the burden of proof.” In summary: “None of these pieces of evidence show guilt but they raise further hurdles for Caldwell to show his innocence…. Caldwell has failed to meet his burden of proof.”
So long as the State of California imposes the burden of proof on those seeking compensation, the Victim Compensation Board will repeat that refrain. Individuals who served time in prison for months or years for crimes they did not commit, whether due to police misconduct, abuse of prosecutorial discretion, or simply witnesses who hope to gain an advantage by providing false testimony, will continue to be relegated to the fringe of society.
As for Caldwell, he will pursue the fading glimmers of hope: contesting the Proposed Decision before the Board and litigating his appeals. Any changes in procedure will be too late to make a difference for his life or to help him set a better course for his three children.
Maurice and his family: Amaya Haynes, baby Iyanna Caldwell, Maurice, little Maurice Caldwell, and girlfriend Pamela Haynes.
 The corresponding federal law limited payouts to $5,000 until 2003, when the Innocence Protection Act raised the limits to $50,000 per year, and $100,000 per year on death row. California Commission, pp. 103-04.
 “California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice Final Report,” 24-32.
 In the Matter of the Claim of Timothy Atkins, Amended Proposed Decision, 16 January 2015, Exhibit B (transcript of the Board meeting), 14. Similarly, in a recent case where the underlying conviction was for arson, Ramos identified the fact that a mother and her two babies died in the fire as “the circumstances I took into consideration” in overruling the hearing officer’s recommendation that the claim be paid. In the Matter of the Application of: George Souliotes, Board Decision of 18 May 2017, 6.
 Cal. Admin. Code tit. 2, §§ 644(c) (burden of proof); 641(a) (requirement of corroborating evidence).
 Moore v. Dempsey, 261 U.S. 86, 87-88 (1923); Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 400 (1993). The federal statute governing habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), specifies that a federal court may consider a habeas petition “only on the ground that [the petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.”
 In re Winchester, 53 Cal. 2d 528, 531 (1960): “Habeas corpus has become a proper remedy in this state to collaterally attack a judgment of conviction which has been obtained in violation of fundamental constitutional rights.”
 Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 453 (1895). See In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 361 (1970).
 Nelson v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 1249, 1255 (2017), applying analysis from Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976).
 Maine requires a pardon by the governor, Maine Rev. Statutes § 8241; Missouri requires proof of innocence through DNA testing, Missouri Rev. Statutes § 650.058.
 In the Matter of the Application of: Luis Galicia, Board Decision of 18 February 2016, 3.
 A report by the Prison Policy Initiative found that the United States prison population had a pre-incarceration income 41% less than the average American. Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf, “Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the Pre-Incarceration Incomes of the Imprisoned,” 5 July 2015, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html.
 The state could provide some or all of the compensation in the form of payments over time, which could be terminated if the claimant were to be convicted of a new crime. Texas has this provision. See Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, ch. 103.
 An argument to shift the burden of proof was made several years ago in a law review article. Daniel S. Kahn, “Presumed Guilty until Proven Innocent: The Burden of Proof in Wrongful Conviction Claims under State Compensation Statutes,” U. Mich. J. L. Reform 44 (2010): 123-68.
 In the Matter of the Claim of Maurice Caldwell, Proposed Decision, 14 August 2017, 24.
Peter Colby writes on social and political issues, drawing on his varied career experiences, and his work has been published in Anthropology Now. He has worked in land conservation for the last fifteen years and previously practiced litigation, real estate, and environmental law. Peter graduated from the University of Virginia and obtained his law degree from Berkeley Law, University of California.
Frequently overlooked in California’s ongoing discussions about criminal justice reform are the places at which many individuals have their first experience of being detained—juvenile halls. In 2014, California had more than 86,000 juvenile arrests and more than 51,000 juvenile court dispositions.
Further overlooked is the fact that kids continue going to school while they’re awaiting legal proceedings or after they’ve been committed to a facility (which might be a juvenile hall, a camp, or a ranch). Like all kids, young people in the juvenile justice system are entitled to an education—the California constitution does not make an exception for kids who are locked up. They enter what are known as ‘‘court schools,’’ for weeks, months, or even a year or more at a time. It’s a window that offers kids caught in the system a chance to change their course, and the system a chance to connect with kids who have few connections.
They connect with various teachers as well, which are the same mix seen at any public school—some who have been doing this sort of teaching for a long time and are committed to working in justice settings and others who are there for much shorter periods of time. The subjects taught, hours per day for instruction, and people teaching vary.
More than 47,000 kids spent time in one of California’s seventy-six court schools in 2014. The vast majority came from low-income households and were Black or Latino.
The schools offer an opportunity to change kids’ lives while they’re a captive audience. But in California, that opportunity is being wasted because the schools are failing. In a state preoccupied with reforming education and moving away from mass incarceration, the schools that exist at the intersection of these movements are habitually ignored, under-resourced, and not held accountable.
In a study released this spring, Youth Law Center (a national firm based in San Francisco that works on behalf of kids in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems) found that more than 40 percent of the kids in court schools don’t make any progress in reading or math while they’re there. Many even find that their skills actually decline. Most of the kids aren’t even assessed academically, despite assessments being a federal requirement for long-term students.
‘‘Juvenile court schools can be the first stop on moving young people into the prison pipeline, or they can be an opportunity to intervene,’’ says Youth Law Center (YLC) managing director Maria Ramiu. According to Ramiu, the kids in court schools have ‘‘high aspirations for what they want to do with their lives.’’ They’re hungry to learn, and the system meets them with low expectations.
Ayanna Rasheed. Photograph by Anna Challet.
YLC’s findings are borne out by the experiences of many young people who have spent time in the juvenile justice system. Ayanna Rasheed, now twenty-two and living in Oakland, entered the child welfare system as a baby. Today, she’s studying to become an emergency medical technician and wants to do advocacy work on behalf of kids in foster care. Her adolescence was marked by a series of unstable housing situations, and she spent much of her ninth-grade year in a juvenile facility in San Joaquin County.
Rasheed says that all of the students were taught the same material, regardless of grade level: “The math was the same math we learned in sixth grade.’’ To her knowledge, she didn’t receive credits for any of the work she did there; she says none of it appears on her transcript.
Moreover, she expresses frustration that none of the teachers made much of an impression on her. ‘‘They need to put some heart in it,’’ she says.
And yet, Rasheed’s experience isn’t universal. For Eddie Chavez, nineteen, who spent time in juvenile hall in Fresno County, court school ended up being a turning point in his life. ‘‘You have to focus no matter what because you have a guard watching you, and it’s so quiet, and you can’t mess around,’’ he says. ‘‘I think that’s what was able to keep me focused on my work, because I can’t focus in regular schools. Regular schools just aren’t for me.’’
Chavez recalls having a substitute history teacher for about a week in the court school who brought in a suit of armor and had the students try on the parts while they were learning about the Middle Ages. He also had an art teacher who, in addition to teaching Chavez how to draw, drew him a portrait of his girlfriend and his new baby who were waiting for him on the outside. Chavez still has the portrait. He says he ended up earning the most credits he’d ever gotten in any school.
While he was still in detention, he came into contact with Barrios Unidos, a violence-prevention organization. A mentor would come to the detention center and talk to youth about job training, work opportunities, and education before their release. Chavez ended up joining the organization’s character-building program when he got out and started going to support groups. The organization helped him get a job at thrift store in Fresno.
Chavez’s experience was exceptional, and far too many juveniles wind up with ones like Rasheed’s. Overhauling the system to be more responsive to the needs of young offenders in court schools is a mammoth undertaking. Change will come slowly, if at all. Yet, a number of alternative facilities are creating new models of providing treatment and education, improving the futures of young people in the system.
Margot Gibney was the founding executive director of Youth Treatment and Education Center (YTEC) in San Francisco, the city’s first juvenile ‘‘drug court,’’ which provided treatment, therapy, and high school classes for juvenile drug offenders. An independent study of the school’s students (between 2006 and 2010) found that their recidivism rate after one year was less than 10 percent, says Gibney.
Eddie Chavez. Photograph by Charlie Kaijo.
The educational approach at YTEC echoed the suit of armor moment that captured Chavez’s imagination. Describing her time there, Gibney recalls, ‘‘The kids were rapping the Constitution, creating machines to talk about the Industrial Revolution. We’d have family nights and the parents would come in and kids would teach what they learned, and the parents could see their children in a positive light instead of just coming to court and hearing about all the awful things they’d done.’’
Gibney also says it’s crucial to have highly trained staff who have first-hand knowledge of the communities that the kids come from. ‘‘Their education and where they go with their education is such a strong determinant in the options and opportunities for their lives,’’ she says. ‘‘You have to help them find the things that they can get really excited about.’’
Dr. Teri Delane fits that bill. She’s principal of Life Learning Academy, a charter school on San Francisco’s Treasure Island that serves at-risk youth and those involved in the juvenile justice system. Delane spent time in juvenile detention after being kicked out of high school because of heroin abuse. She says that what saved her life was becoming part of a community at the Delancey Street Foundation, a non-profit in San Francisco that supports people dealing with substance use disorders.
Life Learning Academy serves sixty students, about 40 percent of whom are on probation. Delane says that in the school’s eighteen-year history, they’ve never had an act of violence on campus. And, she notes, they have a 95 percent graduation rate.
For Delane, ‘‘It is not just about staff and everybody else giving to the student. It is the students becoming their own community and helping each other,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s not about just giving kids things. One of the most important things is giving back—a piece of your life has to be giving back. The kids work together and they give their word to nonviolence.’’
At the same time, she says, ‘‘We try to close the circle around them. In that circle are family support, community support, mentor support, job support, friendships, and a safe environment in which to live.’’
About a third of the kids in the school are currently homeless or unstably housed. Despite this, they get themselves up and make it to school every day. Many are sleeping couch to couch, and Delane knows of one who sleeps in Golden Gate Park. Finding housing for her students is critical, and the school is working on raising the money to open a residential facility behind the campus. ‘‘There will not be kids in our school that do not have a safe place to live and a safe place to thrive,’’ she says.
The decision to house kids who don’t have homes is an obvious one, with an enormous pay off. It’s a lot like the approaches trialed by successful alternative models for educating juvenile offenders and at-risk youth.
Margot Gibney emphasizes the need for caring adults who have high expectations and hold kids accountable. ‘‘The research shows that if there’s at least one person in a young person’s life that follows them and provides support in a positive way, that can be the strongest determining factor. However, if you have a team of people, a community, then you just take those benefits and you maximize them,’’ she says. ‘‘Young people don’t need programs—they need family, they need community, they need opportunities and safety.’’
They also need the support of an educational system that takes their aspirations seriously. At minimum, this ought to include teachers and mentors who understand these kids as the future of California, as those who will be shaping this state in the coming years.
Youth Law Center’s findings about the failure of court schools, operated by County Offices of Education, come at a time when the State of California has dramatically reordered the way schools are funded. With the desire to direct more money to districts with higher numbers of underserved youth, a major reform measure, the Local Control Funding Formula, went into effect in 2013; it allocates more money to districts with higher numbers of high-needs students. While all students in the juvenile justice system are considered high-needs, at this point it is unclear what impact this is having with court schools.
What seems to be the case is that while California education reform is addressing important areas, court schools go completely ignored. If this is true, the education reform movement is entirely missing the opportunity to address the needs of a cohort of students who want to learn and whose futures hang in the balance.
Anna Challet is a reporter with New America Media with a focus on health care, public health, and issues local to San Francisco. She has also written about child welfare and juvenile justice; housing and homelessness; and criminal justice, education, and immigration reform.