Tag: History

Interviews

Curating History in Southern California and Beyond

Editorial Introduction: Midway through volume 100 in its present ordering, Merry Ovnick has overseen tillers of California’s historical terrain as Editor of Southern California Quarterly for fourteen years, curating regional historical scholarship for readers eager to learn the shared history of this remarkable place. Published first in 1884 and running for 134 years as the scholarly publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, SCQ explores “the history of Southern California, California as a whole, and the American West.” Ovnick’s own expertise, though, is Los Angeles; specifically L.A.’s residential architectural history. Boom Editor Jason Sexton and SCQ Book Reviews Editor Allison Varzally sat down with Ovnick earlier this summer in a residential setting on L.A.’s Westside—not far from where Merry grew up—to conduct this interview.

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Boom: It’s always good for Californians to come back to their roots. And having this conversation here is probably special because this is where you grew up, about two blocks from here. What is it like coming back to the old hood?

Ovnick: Well, I don’t come very often, and it was quite different during those days. We started school at Short Avenue Elementary, just around the corner, and we were its pioneer kindergarten class. At the end of this block was all fields—agricultural land, where beans and celery and things like that were farmed. They’d been Japanese farms before the relocation and in my earliest memory they were Mexican farms. This is home.

Boom: This is home, but now you are in the San Fernando Valley both living and teaching. But going back to your growing up years, what was it like growing up in L.A.? Were your parents from Los Angeles?

Ovnick: I don’t know what to compare it with, but it worked out. My parents came from Kansas and migrated during the Depression, and my dad worked at Douglas Aircraft during the war.

Boom: Now you are a historian interested in regional history, and have been editing Southern California Quarterly for fourteen years. When did you begin to think about California as a place? And specifically, to think of Los Angeles as a place?

Ovnick: I don’t think as a kid you think of such things. It’s just home. That’s what you know. You may travel, but then you come home and home is normal. Unless you’re a child whose parents moved around a lot so that you can understand how different a culture or lifestyle might be in different places, I don’t think you think comparatively. At least, I didn’t. We moved to Santa Monica when I was ten, but that was still local. And we did some camping things. Every so often we trekked to Kansas to visit my grandmother. But that was it.

Boom: What were your preferred hobbies or pastimes as a kid? Were you reading a lot? Nonfiction? Were you interested in history from the beginning? Or were you studying space?

Ovnick: Oh yes, I was a terrible bookworm. We went to the Venice Library, which was an Arts and Crafts style building at the time. By fourth grade I had read every book that I could in the children’s section. So the librarian—whose name was Faye—kindly said that I could use adult books as long as she or my mother approved of the books. I would get historical fiction things, and then the main character would snuggle up to somebody (graphically described) and I’d wonder, “Why would they be doing that?” But I knew better than to ask my mother. She would never let me read again. So I had to grow into with this mentality of, “Oh, now I understand the things that I had read.”

Boom: What led you down the career path into becoming a professional historian?

Ovnick: Well, I decided when I was thirteen that when I grew up I wanted to be a history professor. Mainly, in those days, history meant princesses and castles and that sort of thing. But I had understood that history professors got to teach what their favorite subjects are and they got to do research on those subjects and they could just dwell on this world that I had come to enjoy. The “history of what” changed as I grew older and a little more perceptive, outside of the princess mold.

Boom: Did you have inspiring history teachers?

Ovnick: No, it was books. And so public libraries meant a lot.

Boom: So what led you to become, then, not just interested in history but specifically a scholar of Los Angeles?

Ovnick: Well, I have an interest in architecture. I’m not sure exactly how that started, but I’m interested in buildings. The other was that as an undergraduate, at Santa Barbara then at UCLA, my field was Japanese history. That was my interest. I decided that to do graduate work I would need language and would have to go to Japan to do research. So, when I was proposed to I originally said “no,” causing a big flap. Then I said “okay,” but here’s the condition: I would get to do graduate work in Japan. My husband said “yes,” and we got married. Then he said he lied and I could never go. So I had to think about what I wanted to do when I eventually took up graduate studies in the U.S.

Boom: Was there a gap there at all? When you discovered you weren’t able to go to Japan to study where and what you wanted?

Ovnick: It was quite a crisis, and lasted a long time. I’ve now since been to Japan and enjoyed it very much. But at the time I figured California history has the Asian-American component, which was the next best thing.

Boom: Southern California Quarterly is more than Southern California history and more than California history. It includes the Far West, the American West, and the Pacific.

Ovnick: I’ve had articles on Hawaii, and there’s one in our Fall 2018 issue about British Columbia. But that article does mention there’s a parallel with what’s happening further down the coast.

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Boom: But taking you back to 2005, when you took the helm as editor of the journal, why did you volunteer to take it up?

Ovnick: It was because I had done the book review editing at first. Clark Davis had been groomed to be the successor to Doyce Nunis (who was the editor for forty-three years), and started by becoming book review editor. The journal had fallen into trying times, with grammar errors, typos, and other things that the editor had missed. That was painful for Clark, who was quite the diplomat, to work on the book reviews when the journal was in such sorry shape. So we talked about it and I was the intern coordinator for the history program at CSUN. So, I said how about I get interns who are dual English/History majors and set them up under Doyce as copy editors? Doyce, who was missing teaching, would love to have the tutelary role and there would be an extra pair of eyes without Clark having to say something.

So, we did that for a while and that worked out well. He loved handling the interns. He had two interns and they both went on to Ph.D.s later. Then Clark died very suddenly at age thirty-seven—a tragedy for all who knew him. That then left a gap. That’s why I was moved in to be book review editor, and Doyce later retired as editor two years later.

Boom: Among the many exceptional articles you’ve published in SCQ, do you have a favorite?[1]

Ovnick: No—usually the one that is latest is my favorite.

Boom: So you didn’t have any doubts about assuming the editorship? Because it’s one thing to be book review editor, but a much grander responsibility to be the editor. What was the transition like? Can you describe what you see your role as editor being?

Ovnick: I work approximately twenty hours a week on the journal. At first it was very, very difficult and it was also just as I was starting to turn my dissertation into a book. So that got put on the back burner and it never got done because I do this instead.

The role of editor is a dual role and there’s a conflict between the two. One, the editor is the conduit for the author. The author has done the research, the analysis, the writing, and this is how the work gets out to the public. It also builds her CV and helps her survive “publish or perish.” So, the conduit role is one where the editor just helps the author shape things, getting them to publication.

The other role is to serve as the guardian of the history discipline’s standards. You’re the one who decides what the public should read and what kind of integrity it should have. So the conflict is, if you really need articles for the next issue and you have a poor article but you really need an article, do you relax the guardian role? One of the safeguards is the peer review process which we rigorously enforce. But even so, there’s that pressure from the two sides.

Boom: And at certain times has it been harder to secure potential articles?

Ovnick: I’m in one of those situations right now. I have one article that has to be totally revised and the author is incapable of doing so. I’ve worked on him for two years to get this wonderful research into publication shape and he can’t do it. I’m going to just shepherd this along. But that’s only one article out of the three that make up an issue, so I’m in one of those desperate spots.

I have actually had several times where I’ve needed to step in. Doyce admitted that many times he solved this “not having an article ahead” in one of two ways. Either he wrote an article himself and published it and admitted that he had not sent things out for review for several years because he thought he was capable of reviewing everything himself. The other way he solved it was to just not produce that issue. Instead of volume or issue one, two, three, and four for the year, he’d have one and two, then a combined three and four, which he got complaints about from people who were paying for a subscription. They got this type of reaction fairly frequently. During my tenure, though, we’ve never missed an issue, and we’ve never been late in fourteen years.

Boom: Obviously “quarterly” is embedded in the name of the Southern California Quarterly, but have you thought about—given the pressures of producing in such a regular fashion—producing less frequently? Like maybe once a year, or even twice a year?

Ovnick: In the early years of the journal, it was an annual publication in the very beginning. But that hasn’t come up with the historical society. If it does, we could do that. So far it hasn’t.

Boom: And is there significant direction that comes from the historical society?

Ovnick: Well, the money comes from them, and this is their most costly item. So, it’s a crisis for them, they’ve been doing a big fundraising job just to support the journal. We recently received a bequest.

Boom: That’s reassuring. Can you say anything about that?

Ovnick: As a bequest, it’s a will, and becomes active upon the passing of the donor, which is hopefully a long time from now.

Boom: We did spend some time going through the various issues you’ve produced as editor, and noticed a couple of innovations, like “The Historian’s Eye.” Can you tell us about that?

Ovnick: I did a number of those with the help from others. One of them was someone from the Auto Club, and one was from his wife, who is the historian or archivist at City of Hope. They asked to do them, and I have another author who suggested that we do little bio sketches. His first suggestion was Mira Hershey, you know, of Hershey Hall at UCLA, an early feminist who had money.

Boom: One of the images depicted folks getting into a street car and you brought up the theme “chivalry.” How do you choose images? And what are you looking for?

Ovnick: Just something interesting. I have to be careful to ensure it’s not just some image I like. I did this in the classroom, things like that chivalry one when you notice what the ladies are wearing, they have to step up fairly high to get off the dirt street and there’s that white dress dragging on the dirt street. Various little things like that.

Boom: In some decisions you’ve made of what to publish in Southern California Quarterly, what you’re highlighting isn’t your area of research, it’s rather a curatorial area of interest. I’ve noticed that during your tenure. I [Jason] remember the previous editor of Boom, Jon Christensen, with an issue of Boom we were working on where I said I didn’t want to strong-arm things related to my interests and views, to which he responded that I’m allowed to do some of that. But I noticed you haven’t really. You’ve focused mostly on racial, international, socio-political history, and social histories.

Ovnick: Yes, I admit that there’s probably more architectural articles early on because somebody would know me from my architectural interests and submit an article here rather than somewhere else. Likewise then for Japanese-American history, which I’ve probably done more than is quite even-handed. I have another one coming up in the next issue.

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Boom: So, let’s bring us back into the areas you’ve published on, especially in L.A., and California, as these things also reflect some of Boom’s concerns related to the future of California. How do we curate this place and what’s here? From your work on residential architectural history, does Southern California have a best style of architecture, one most fitting for this place?

Ovnick: Well, the Spanish Colonial, which was deemed to be appropriate because of a romanticized version of a Spanish past. But I’ve seen Spanish Colonial houses in Utah and Wyoming where somebody just liked that style I guess and there it was. So that’s one we’ve appropriated.

Also, the California Bungalow, which was my dissertation topic. I have a particular soft spot for that. The Craftsman magazine, which was published in the East, after 1908 had a crisis where they let their entire art department go. There were drawings of ideal interiors that sold their style of furniture, but they had to fire their art department. They then became reliant on people near and far to send them photographs to use as illustrations. A great share of the ones that came during that period came from Los Angeles with photographs of small to large houses in the Arts and Crafts mode. But they were redone for California, with lightweight material, not the winter roofs or snow-shedding roofs or insulated walls. They featured the indoor-outdoor life with sweeping porches and cross-ventilation, and on-site trees intertwined with the house, that were indigenous to California.

It became The Craftsman look because of their lack of an art department. I later tracked down some of those houses and found them by looking through Ancestry.com and finding out where that architect’s address was. There is something about the appropriateness of that style for California.

Boom: Why do you have this kind of affection for the Bungalow style?

Ovnick: It just looks very cozy and comfortable. I wouldn’t mind living in one.

Boom: Does your own house reflect your architectural passions?

Ovnick: No, which of course destroys the entire premise of my first book.[2]

Boom: Your book and one issue of Southern California Quarterly noted the cross-pollination of East and West characteristic of Southern California architecture, which has also been characterized by experimentation and reinvention. Isn’t that a luxury, perhaps one that we’re not going to be able to afford much longer?

Ovnick: Oh yes, and the single-family residence is an albatross.

Boom: Okay, well that brings me to another question. Is a house an investment?

Ovnick: Absolutely. When you look at the early advertisements, they promised that when you buy a tract house in the 1920s it will double in value in a number of years. It is an investment and you could buy the empty lot next door and hold onto it, because the value of that land and that tract is bound to go up.

Boom: We can probably safely conclude that for twenty miles of coastal California, but what about the interior? The Central Valley, the Inland Empire?

Ovnick: Inland Empire has its own background because of the citrus boom and the railroads coming in there and other things. It might be special. For the Central Valley, Bakersfield and Fresno have taken the prize recently of being California’s fastest growing cities. I’m glad though that I don’t live in the Central Valley. It’s hot enough in the San Fernando Valley.

Boom: In some of your research you’ve shown that some developments here have been borrowed from elsewhere, especially from the American East. But have we and could we be developing ideas for residential housing from the Far East more then we have? Like Japan?

Ovnick: Well, the indoor-outdoor house with sliding panels is the Japanese aesthetic of simplicity. Those have influenced our architecture.

Boom: I [Allison] was also wondering how we might incorporate the density of Japanese cities, where they seem to be able to house a lot of people in very little space. I don’t know what that means if you don’t have the single-family home that has defined Los Angeles, but if we move toward that model of densification and more clustered living….

Ovnick: It could be, but you know what works in Japan is partly because of a cultural thing about privacy. You may have people very close together, but you’re very quiet and you don’t air your arguments because it just would not do. There’s a whole cultural thing that has to happen. You can’t just import the buildings from another culture and have any luck.

Boom: Of course, residential architecture relates very much in the title of your ’94 book, somewhat hidden in there is an echo of the California Dream. How that relates to the “working man,” buying a home in the post-war world. But how does the California Dream manifest in Los Angeles residential architecture?

Ovnick: In that case, how do you distinguish the California Dream from the American Dream? Success and being ahead of your parents’ generation was it, and the expectation that each generation would do that. Even if there’s a ceiling now that makes it not so likely. All those people who moved out here weren’t California-bred people to begin with, they came from Iowa or wherever and had an American Dream that they could realize in California.

Boom: I think a single-family detached house was part of that dream, so maybe that dream is changing as it becomes impossible to attain.

Ovnick: It needs to. Otherwise it becomes a disappointment. I think that’s a good thing to discuss in Boom particularly. In the world of Internet and Facebook and other things, that dream may be very real. There are all kinds of savvy people who can expect to make hay while the sun shines. But as a general thing, and when you have a classroom full of elementary school students, do you hold out that dream for them? For everyone, of every color, of every part of town or immigrant background, or in whatever economic situation? There needs to be some readjustments.

I was talking to somebody in Paris about this recently, who was in awe that I came from Los Angeles, and asked, “What is Los Angeles like?” I said, “Well, we have 55,000 homeless that live on the streets,” and he was aghast. He asked what is being done about that? And what can we answer?

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Boom: You’ve written on post-war Los Angeles, a long seventy-year moment that might be coming to a terminus soon, reflective of what we’re discussing. Could you thematize what’s happening in Southern California during those decades?

Ovnick: I think it was a turning point for gender issues, for one thing. Men had gone off to war and being macho was very much a part of it. Women might be Rosie the Riveter and they might have been capable during the war, except when you look at the ads. The Office of War Information monitored advertisement, and I have a small collection of ads from wartime popular magazines; they had the young woman with the stylish hat and her pocket book asking, “I earned it, why can’t I spend it?” Then, the stern response that she ought to save it for the home front and postwar when the boys come back from oversees and make new starts. The patriotic thing to do is to save your money, buy war bonds. There was this sense of women doing their part for the home front as just part of being the little woman helping the man. It reinforced a gender ideal that had been moderated in the ’20s and ’30s that has been reinforced as a macho thing.

The final chapter of my book where I deal with this happens to be my favorite chapter, but because nobody had done primary research on World War II at that time, I had no secondary sources. Everything had to be primary. Looking at the expectations for housing after the war, you know, “When I get home from this war I’m going to build a house and have hot running water and I’m going to have…,” and so on. They spun big dreams during the war about the house that they and Rosie the Riveter were going to move into at the end. Then the building trades and architects and building material suppliers and others were all busy gearing up for postwar, how they were going to change from making war items to making things for a housing boom that fed that dream or would make it come true for people.

There was such uniformity in the news that you also couldn’t show a picture of the coastline because a Japanese submarine might notice that a little notch there, which might lead directly to a war plant. With all those cautionary holds on what could be published, it’s no wonder that my parents and Archie Bunker and many others had such black-and-white, good-and-bad views that fit the Cold War. It was good guys and bad guys, and we were the good guys. It was just so sharp and clear—that generation spent their youth not seeing anything except black-and-white.

Boom: But the ’60s and ’70s started to challenge that.

Ovnick: Absolutely. It was their kids in the ’60s who saw grey and objected to Archie Bunker’s views—generational conflict as of about 1964, when the war babies grew into teenagers.

Boom: And how is that shaping the residential architecture? Thinking of young people living outdoors. Breaking free of their parents’ homes.

Ovnick: They turned their tie dye stuff into boutiques and joined the middle class.

Boom: And after the wave of white Buddhists moving to Japan and coming back….

Ovnick: That’s actually what this upcoming article is about—a person whose last name was Goldwater, who was the second cousin of Barry Goldwater, and who was a Buddhist priest during the war.

Boom: So the religious architecture in Southern California—especially Los Angeles churches, temples, mosques—especially if said communities are moving around a Buddhist temple, for example, how did religious architecture shape Los Angeles during this time, and is it having any influence on residential architecture?

Ovnick: Unfortunately, my book was just on residential architecture. But from the Society of Architectural Historians, which I’m heavily involved with, we do tours of churches and recently toured one by Ernest Coxhead that was where Cesar Chavez first raised the challenge over on the east side of Lincoln Heights. We look at church architecture, but is it a case of L.A. shaping the architecture or is it architecture shaping the people that are in it? For example, the Hompa Hongwanji temple, right across from the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), which has the traditional arch which faces outward and is now owned by JANM; it’s made out of concrete but it echoes the thatch roof of tradition, including echoing the cedar wood graining that a traditional Buddhist church in Japan would have had because it was built during the 1920s by an Anglo architect and some of the touches are neo-Egyptian because it was a stylish thing and the architect worked in theatrical things. I don’t think that’s new or unusual.

In Savannah, Georgia, there’s a Jewish synagogue that was built in the 1840s in Gothic Revival style. You know Gothic, with that window that’s split into two smaller Gothic arches, symbolizing the Trinity. The rose window with the twelve leaves to represent the twelve disciples. Those have iconographic meanings, but this was a Jewish synagogue and it was built in neo-Gothic because that was the stylish church-like architecture, and this was an affluent membership who were movers and shakers in their community and they particularly wanted a Jewish “church” that would fit in with other churches. They didn’t want to look strange. So, whether a time and a culture shape the building, or the building then shapes the culture—I mean, I doubt many people who went to that “church” thought about the nativity and the twelve disciples.

Boom: So, they like the style and don’t necessarily care where it came from.

Ovnick: I wrote and published in California History on motion pictures and how motion picture-making affected architecture in the 1920s, in the silent era. Without sound, the actors and cinematographers had to do other things—if the story was about a princess and a castle, the very first scene had to show the young lady, probably with a coronet on her head and crenellations on the top of a wall behind her, and maybe a moat. Then movie-goers would realize this was about a princess and didn’t have to have a big discussion. Things like style references that make a setting were exaggerated and clear to read in the silent film era. In the 1920s we get the little castles and Tudor houses and the Spanish Colonial. All these easy to read make-believe backgrounds. Then, likewise, cinematographers used heavily rusticated surfaces so light and shadow would play off them so they wouldn’t look too flat in the kind of film and lighting they had at the time. We had those exteriors with what they called jazzed stucco, the troweled-on stucco that were supposed to look like adobe houses (that never had such a rough looking job) because light and shadow worked. Other parts of the house like columns or door arches or whatever had to be projected in a certain depth, so they cast light and shadow.

Our culture changes, and of course movies are shown nationwide. So you see make-believe architecture in Utah and Wyoming, and you see that heavy use of shadow and texture on buildings—it “took” across the country. It took especially hard here because this is where movies are made. So many people are in the industry, and in fact many of the set designers in Hollywood were also doing residential architecture on the side.

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Boom: There’s a great chapter in Day of the Locusts that talks about the crazy diversity of architectural styles that come back in the movies. And we keep telling ourselves stories, projecting. The last line of your book captures this, where you conclude that Los Angeles is “a durable dream.” A beautiful line. But in light of things like the current enormous homeless crisis, do you still believe that Los Angeles is a durable dream?

Ovnick: As a matter of fact, I wrote that book so long ago that I’d forgotten all about that last line. In 1994, who could predict the Northridge earthquake, which hadn’t happened when I wrote that.

Boom: But it’s interesting how just a couple years after major riots that make people doubt whether this region is sustainable.

Ovnick: That’s not maybe just this region. Polar ice caps are melting and other things. People in Venice are doing these elaborate mega-houses on these tiny lots. Society of Architectural Historians was showing one of these houses and the architect was telling us that one of the things she had done was to look at the underground water flow, because it was basically on marshland, and at the topography. So, she built hers in a part of Venice that was several feet higher and away from those underground stream flows, which are ancient stream flows. She wanted to build a one hundred-year house, so it would be there for her kids.

Boom: Forward-thinking. And do these kinds of questions shape your work as editor of SCQ?

Ovnick: You never know what the next article is going to bring, and it’s going to be on some topic you’ve never addressed before hopefully because if it’s something you’ve done already you don’t want it. Each piece needs to contribute something, and every one is a learning experience from an editor’s point of view. I learn things every time, and if I didn’t, then there’s probably something wrong with the article. So how significant is it? What kind of insights does it give on things like homelessness and earthquakes and all those other things, or perhaps on a path that can be constructed? We look at things with a more empathetic eye because of a particular historian’s work, and that has an impact on our current times. It’s not that history repeats itself, it’s just that we open up our mind when we read history, which is a human subject. We’re gaining a wider understanding of our fellow men and women.

Being an editor, then, is like having your finger on a pulse of what’s out there being done and what its possibilities are when it reaches a reading audience. I think that was one of my biggest accomplishments was to get SCQ online. At the beginning, before there was a regime change at the Southern California Historical Society, there used to be a board that I spoke to on multiple occasions about the importance of going online, and their eyes would just glaze over since they were absolutely uninterested, didn’t want to think about it, and didn’t want to know the mechanics of how this could be done or who could do it. It was like talking to the wall.

As the board eventually changed and got some newer members, it happened. I think an all-print journal is not a viable entry. I’m old, so I like reading things in print, and I like having the covers, and enjoy working on the covers. But I know that print things are a dying breed. Whether you can reach an audience, the right audience or a big enough audience with what you put online, that’s a concern.

I think one of the solutions is a journal like ours that has multiple subjects. Every issue has a real diversity of topics that are there, even when they’re a set. But even as a set, each article expresses different viewpoints. A person who’s reading something they got online and sees the title of the article above and below might be intrigued and might read things they wouldn’t otherwise. But if it’s not in that very journal issue as something that might be important to them, are they going to go back and look at past ones? So, one of the concerns of the marketing people at UC Press is how to keep reminding people of good stuff that’s in the past issues. Doing special online issues introduce readers to something covered back in 1920 or 1942 that might be of interest work to send people looking backwards.

Boom: Deeper into the archives, and the online archives.

Ovnick: That’s a possibility, and I hope it works. The current president of the HSSC reached out to four grad students at three different institutions and got them to do bibliographic essays on subjects like Native Americans. They looked through back issues of SCQ and put together a bibliography of articles that have been done on a particular subject. They did one on the mission, noting the articles on the mission era back in the 1920s were romanticizing the padres and the adoring Indians. Then in the 50s they were doing thus and so, which leaves a track that they’ve analyzed. How we change how we view the past, missions being a particularly good example, puts us in mind not to just think in black-and-white, but enables us to think critically about what is the “historical truth.” Twenty years later, something else was the “historical truth.” I think that’s broadening, and it will hopefully work to send others to past issues of SCQ.

Boom: I think that’s something that is hard for undergraduates to grasp, the idea of historiography. That the interpretations change by what you’re reading.

Ovnick: And why does it change? It’s very important. The journal is a form—both SCQ and Boom—of public history. Because they reach out not just to the profession, but to a wider public. And I think that’s very important.

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Notes

[1] Out of an extensive list of well-written articles, reflecting good research, and worthy contributions to their fields of history, there are a handful that stand out for their ground-breaking discoveries, exceptional research depth, and insightful analysis. Dr. Ovnick is especially proud to have had a hand in bringing these to publication in the Southern California Quarterly during her tenure (2005-2018; volumes 87-100):

Scott Zesch, “Chinese Los Angeles in 1870-1871: The Makings of a Massacre,” SCQ 90.2 (2008).

Kelly J. Sisson, “Bound for California: Chilean Contract Laborers and ‘Patrones’ in the California Gold Rush, 1848-1852,” SCQ 90.3 (2008).

David Igler, “Captive-Taking and Conventions of Encounters on the Northwest Coast, 1789-1810,” SCQ 91.1 (2009).

Emily Bills, “Connecting Lines: L.A.’s Telephone History and the Binding of the Region,” SCQ 91.1 (2009).

Kim Hernandez, “The ‘Bungalow Boom’: The Working-Class Housing Industry and the Development and Promotion of Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles” SCQ 92.4 (2010).

Hillary Jenks, “Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles,” SCQ 93.2 (2011).

Patty R. Colman, “John Ballard and the African American Community in Los Angeles, 1850-1905,” SCQ 94.2 (2012).

Mary C. Greenfield, “Benevolent Desires and Dark Dominations: The Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s City of Peking and the United States in the Pacific, 1874-1910,” SCQ 94.4 (2012).

James Tejani, “Dredging the Future: The Destruction of Coastal Estuaries and the Creation of Metropolitan Los Angeles, 1858-1913,” SCQ 96.1 (2014).

Andrea Geiger, “Reframing Race and Place: Locating Japanese Immigrants in Relation to Indigenous Peoples in the North American West,” SCQ 96.3 (2014).

Erica J. Peters, “A Path to Acceptance: Promoting Chinese Restaurants in San Francisco, 1849-1919,” SCQ 97.1 (2015).

Benjamin Cawthra, “Duke Ellington’s Jump for Joy and the Fight for Equality in Wartime Los Angeles,” SCQ 98.1 (2016).

Barry Read [3-part set], “Building Mulholland Highway: The Road to Mulholland Drive. Part I: The Campaign; Part II: Construction; Part III: After the Celebration,” SCQ 99.1-3 (2017).

[2] Merry Ovnick, Los Angeles: The End of The Rainbow (Los Angeles: Balcony Press, 1994).

Copyright: © 2018 Merry Ovnick, Allison Varzally, and Jason Sexton. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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Policing an Internal Border

Max Felker-Kantor

While deportations of undocumented immigrants declined slightly in the final years of the Obama administration after a decade of record-high removals, recent federal initiatives have aimed to crack down on unauthorized immigration and expand the authority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).[1] Zero tolerance policies targeting immigrants and refugees seeking asylum on the U.S.-Mexico border have resulted in high rates of removal and family separation.[2] U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also demanded the cooperation of municipal police departments in arresting and turning over undocumented immigrants to ICE for detention and deportation. Yet, a number of cities and police departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), have said they will not cooperate with ICE.[3] Such opposition to federal directives has raised significant questions about the role of local police departments and officers in the enforcement of federal immigration law. However, these debates are not new. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in fact, the LAPD both cooperated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to target undocumented immigrants and also resisted enforcing federal immigration law. In the process, police officers often played an important role in the policing of immigrants, the construction of racialized categories of illegality, and in defining the boundaries of citizenship.

During the post-War period, LAPD officers often arrested undocumented immigrants for unauthorized entry and transferred them to the INS. The rise of unauthorized immigration in the 1970s, pressure on local police budgets from a growing population, and demands from Mexican Americans fearful of being targeted as “illegal,” however, challenged the LAPD’s cooperative relationship with the INS and willingness to enforce federal immigration laws. While police officials viewed undocumented immigrants as a source of rising crime rates in the 1970s, they also recognized that enforcement of immigration status violations made immigrants who were witnesses or victims of crime wary of reporting crime or cooperating with the police out of fear they would be handed over to INS for deportation. In turn, police officials attempted to incorporate immigrants into the war on crime by revising department policy to make arrests based solely on immigration status outside the purview of officers. Department officials also established programs to encourage immigrants who were victims of crime to report such incidents to the police. In short, hopes that immigrants and Latinx residents would support the police and report crime required limiting the discretion of officers to make arrests based solely on immigration status and reducing cooperation with INS agents. The LAPD, in other words, took a step back from policing immigration status violations and cooperating with the INS when such efforts became too financially burdensome or else undermined the department’s crime-fighting mission.

Although LAPD officials nominally accepted limits placed upon officers’ authority to police immigration status violations, in practice the department followed two strategies to sidestep such self-imposed restrictions on officer discretion that blurred the lines between the INS and LAPD. First, the department often sent officers to the scene of INS raids, and by their very presence LAPD officers lent police authority to the federal agents. The presence of uniformed LAPD during these raids demonstrated that the police—and by extension the city of Los Angeles—approved of and legitimized INS raids, and, at times, were active participants. Second, the department did not abandon its assumption that undocumented immigrants were a source of crime. Rather, officers circumvented policies limiting their discretion by creating a new category of criminality called the “criminal alien,” which is separate from the generally non-criminal undocumented population. Using the “harm principle,” which justified policing of those activities that physically or materially potentially threatened to harm others, the police framed the “criminal alien” as a potential threat to both law-abiding citizens and the social order more generally, while at the same time hoping to ensure non-criminal immigrants would continue to trust and cooperate with the police. In doing so, officers maintained substantial discretion to cooperate with the INS and to target and arrest individuals who were suspected of being in the country without proper authorization.

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Police and 18 undocumented residents with hands tied outside raided house. Although the LAPD had committed to the nonenforcement of immigration law in order to ensure trust in the police, they found means of extending the police power and authority into new areas of social life. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives (Collection 1429). Courtesy of Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

The LAPD, then, was certainly motivated by a belief that immigrants (especially the undocumented) represented a significant crime threat. Yet, the efforts to circumvent restrictions on officer discretion also rested heavily on the desire to retain the police power to enforce order in the city. Rooted in theories of prevention and security, the police power of the state granted the police (as this institution of local government) discretion to pacify threats to the social order. Broad discretionary authority allowed officers to define what types of activities (in this case unauthorized immigration) constituted disorderly, improper, or criminal behavior. This police power, in short, enabled the LAPD to aggressively discipline perceived threats to social order, in this case both documented and undocumented immigrants. In the process, the police produced and enforced a hierarchical racial order.[4]

Indeed, the police often portrayed this criminal alien as an undocumented Mexican immigrant. The racialized construction of categories of illegality and exclusion led to violations of the rights of immigrants and such discriminatory treatment of Mexican migrants and Mexican-American citizens as labeled potentially “illegal” and criminal. Aggressive immigration enforcement thereby treated all Mexican-American residents as perpetual foreigners. By constructing a racialized category of the “alien criminal” as any ethnic Mexican in need of supervision, the LAPD simultaneously avoided violating its own policy of non-enforcement of immigration status and expanded its authority to enforce order and define exclusionary boundaries of citizenship.[5]

After the 1960s, the growing number of immigrants arriving in Los Angeles threatened the LAPD’s interpretational vision of social order. Capitalizing on fears among residents and policymakers that immigrants contributed to a drain on public resources and rising crime rates, the LAPD carved out new areas of police authority within the framework of non-enforcement of federal immigration law during the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 1990s, the LAPD’s approach to the enforcement of immigration law brought the police and punitive policy into the daily lives of the city’s immigrant population. In doing so, the LAPD policed an internal border delineating access to the benefits of full social membership in American society.


A Multiracial Metropolis and the Immigration Crisis

Following the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act, Los Angeles experienced profound demographic changes. Mexican immigrants came in large numbers between 1970s and 1990s due to demands for cheap labor in the city’s burgeoning service economy as well as to vast economic pressures in Mexico. While Mexican immigrants represented the largest migrant stream, the 1965 act’s removal of discriminatory national origins quotas opened up new sources of immigration that contributed to an increasingly diverse metropolitan region. Los Angeles experienced rapid growth during the 1980s with immigrants from Central and South America and Asia, particularly China and Korea. In 1980, whites accounted for 68 percent of the county population, African Americans represented 12.6 percent, Latinos 27.6 percent, and Asian and Pacific Islanders represented 5.8 percent. By 1990, whites represented 56.8 percent of the population in the county, while blacks represented 11.2, Latinos 37.8, and Asian and Pacific Islanders represented 10.8 percent. Los Angeles had quickly become a world city.[6]

Local officials and law enforcement doubled down on fears of immigrant invasion, often describing undocumented Mexican immigrants as a drain on the region’s social services and a strain on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime; thus, expanding the ability of the police to target migrants.

Growth in immigration coincided with a series of economic crises during the 1970s. Recession and unemployment followed the 1973 oil crisis, and the Los Angeles region’s manufacturing base experienced a significant decline upon losing tens of thousands of jobs over the decade. Despite global economic forces and U.S.-backed counterinsurgency wars in Latin- America that forced Mexicans and Central Americans to flee to American cities where they faced low-wage and exploitative labor conditions where local and national media blamed immigrants for the economic crisis. The Los Angeles Times fanned such fears and attributed local budget woes on immigrants and even published negative stories like one with this headline: “Aliens Reportedly Get $100 Million in Welfare.” Local officials and law enforcement doubled down on fears of immigrant invasion, often describing undocumented Mexican immigrants as a drain on the region’s social services and a strain on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime; thus, expanding the ability of the police to target migrants.[7] Rather than an accurate reflection of the immigrants who came to Los Angeles due to economic dislocation or fleeing violent conflict, the police viewed them as potential criminals and a threat to social order. In the process, the policies established by the LAPD to manage the growing immigrant population between the 1970s and 1990s linked immigrants with criminality.


From Immigrant Crime Victims to Criminal Aliens

Tension between the LAPD and both Mexican-American residents and Mexican immigrants increased during the early 1970s, significantly due to a pattern of police harassment and abuse. Police and city officials feared that immigrants would lose trust in the police and become reluctant to report crime. If officer discretion to enforce immigration law was limited, officials reasoned that immigrants would be willing to approach the police when they were victims of crime. Recognizing the problem, Chief Ed Davis issued Memorandum Number 9 in 1970, which made it so that “arrests for illegal entry [to the United States] shall be considered subordinate to police activities directly related to the interests of the people of Los Angeles.”  Such language, however, left officers with significant discretion. Two years later, Davis strengthened the limits on officers with Special Order 68, stating that “officers shall not initiate police action where the primary objective is directed toward discovering the alien status of a person.” But the policy still allowed officers to contact INS to determine the status of a person involved in criminal investigations. It also did not prevent officers from making arrests based on status. It merely emphasized that “arrests for illegal entry should be considered less important than other police activities.” While narrowing discretion, the reforms aimed to soften the image of the police in immigrant neighborhoods and incorporate residents into the fight against crime.[8]

However, in the mid-1970s, the LAPD and city officials worried that an element within the undocumented population was responsible for a rise in crime. A survey conducted by the Hollenbeck Area commanding officer used police data to examine the connection between “illegal” immigrants and “alien criminals.” It specified that “a high percentage of crimes in Hollenbeck Area are being committed by members of the illegal entry faction.”[9] While recognizing that many undocumented immigrants were hard-working and industrious, motivated to make a better life for themselves and their families, the report also framed the “illegal alien” as a criminal threat. LAPD and city officials pointed to a department study of three immigrant neighborhoods (Hollenbeck, Harbor, and Rampart) after INS sweeps to support claims that undocumented immigrants were responsible for rising crime rates.[10] Deputy Mayor Grace Davis reported the following: “During the sweep, repressible crimes fell 32 percent in Hollenbeck, 17.4 percent in Harbor, and 18 percent in Rampart.” Essentially, “Although there were a number of variables involved in these statistics, they do tend to indicate a correlation between the sweep of undocumented aliens and the decrease in crime.”[11]

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Many law enforcement personnel and city officials advocated for greater cooperation with the INS to contain undocumented immigrants. “In view of the severity of the social and economic problems generated by the illegal alien element in our society,” an LAPD report explained, “the recommendation was made that the Department actively cooperate with the Immigration and Naturalization Service by arresting illegal aliens solely for their unlawful status and releasing them to the Immigration Service for immediate deportation if these individuals were not involved in criminal activity.” Despite pressure to broaden officer discretion, the report concluded that Special Order 68 should remain policy because police cooperation with the INS threatened the department’s crime-fighting mission, which relied on the support and trust of the Mexican community.[12]

Fears of the impact of growing numbers of immigrants on crime rates and police resources influenced the LAPD’s stance on immigration law enforcement. Although recent studies have shown a negative relationship between immigration and crime, the LAPD often linked immigrants and crime and even drug trafficking in particular.[13] Chief Davis reported to Attorney General Edward H. Levi in 1976 that illegal aliens brought a surge of crime and “added to the dope problem” in Southern California.[14] When taking into consideration the potential growth of the immigrant population, the police estimated (from a speculative survey of officer opinions) that undocumented residents would account for 18.7 percent of crimes committed in the city. The department’s Illegal Alien Committee argued, “Whether this crime level extrapolation is higher or lower than the actual is not as significant as the fact that any crime committed by an illegal alien should not be occurring in the City of Los Angeles.” In other words, undocumented immigrants were a criminal threat that the LAPD was increasingly unable to contain. As the committee summarized, “there are increasing reports of illegal alien involvement in crime, including street gang activities, narcotics trafficking and usage and organized criminal activities.”[15]

The LAPD employed statistics to mobilize fears that undocumented immigrants would have a detrimental impact on the department’s resources and ability to fight crime. A 1977 LAPD Illegal Alien Committee report warned of a wave of undocumented immigrants predicted to reach over one million by 1981. The LAPD used the number of “illegal aliens” to reinforce the claim that the department was underfunded and understaffed, especially in relation to other departments across the country. Based on per capita expenditures, the LAPD reported that the cost of providing police services to illegal aliens was $37 million annually. The department lamented how the ratio of officers to residents (“‘thin blue line’ of police coverage”) was 18.6 percent less than “commonly accepted” in terms of accounting for undocumented aliens in the said population. If fully counted, the number of undocumented immigrants in the city would reduce the officers per 1,000 people from 2.63 to 2.14. To make up for the difference in ratio, the city would have to hire 1,703 officers at an annual cost of nearly $60 million. The committee warned that an already woefully understaffed police force was even more weakened and under-resourced than previously thought. As Deputy Mayor Grace Davis concluded in testifying to Congress, “the undocumented aliens do cause a substantial drain on police resources.”[16]

The burden of immigration enforcement on police resources led the LAPD to push for a federal crackdown on undocumented immigration. Chief Davis called for a shift in national policy away from “benign neglect” wherein federal law enforcement did not interfere in state or local immigration enforcement, to a more rigorous federal enforcement of border laws and efforts to reduce the incentive for immigrants to come to the United States. The LAPD’s Illegal Alien Committee also recommended intensified enforcement of immigration laws when undocumented immigrants were suspected of criminal activity. “In special problem areas of the City where illegal aliens are inordinately contributing to the crime rate, vice or gang activities,” the committee further explained: “intensified enforcement by Immigration and Naturalization personnel should be requested for the purpose of removing deportable alien criminals.”[17]

Demands for more federal resources to combat immigration did mean that the LAPD’s Illegal Alien Committee recommended removing the department from policing immigrants altogether. The Committee also made recommendations to expand the department’s ability to contain immigrant crime and broaden officer discretion. Alongside requests for the hiring of more officers to contain the illegal alien crime surge, the committee proposed a surveillance project to monitor undocumented immigrants involved in criminal activity. They believed that maintaining a database of file cards on known criminal aliens would allow easy identification of deported aliens who “upon their reentry, [can] be arrested for a felony violation of the U.S. immigration laws.” The creation of an “alien criminal” category fueled a surge of public fears on the topic of undocumented immigrants as the source of rising crime and enhanced the department’s discretionary authority of exclusion to control and contain undocumented immigrants within the framework of non-enforcement of immigration law.[18]


Police Discretion and Limits on Immigration Enforcement

For all the efforts to limit local enforcement of immigration laws in order to gain the trust and cooperation of the city’s immigrant population, the LAPD continued to carve out discretionary authority to target “criminal aliens” and to collaborate with INS agents as part of its crime-control and order-maintenance prerogative. As Chief Davis reported to Mayor Tom Bradley in 1976, INS officials “agreed to assist the Police Department in deporting career criminal illegal aliens who are identified by this Department.” In return, the LAPD could “assist his Department [INS] by publicly calling attention to the illegal alien problem.”[19] Department officials planned joint actions with the INS. Over the course of three days in September 1974, for instance, the LAPD and INS conducted a Joint Crime Suppression Task Force in Rampart Division. Officers justified their participation (which resulted in 428 arrests) based on evidence that “arrest after arrest has repetitively demonstrated that many illegal aliens are members of the criminal element within the City of Los Angeles.” The LAPD claimed that officers targeted only vice and narcotics violations while the INS agents enforced immigration laws.[20] Such collaboration with the INS represented police enforcement of immigration status by another means.

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When immigrant rights activists claimed that the department routinely violated its policy related to the non-enforcement of immigration status violations, Chief Davis responded that the LAPD neither targeted undocumented immigrants nor cooperated with the INS. Davis asserted that when he became chief in 1969, nearly 25 percent of felony arrests were for illegal entry but, “I said, ‘Let John Mitchell (then U.S. Attorney General) enforce these laws.’ We have no obligation to enforce federal laws.” Davis acknowledged that his officers observed INS raids to ensure public safety and made sure that they did not assist INS officers in making arrests.[21]

Police presence during INS raids was not only common, but also suggested that the LAPD approved (and at times participated) in enforcing immigration law. Testimony at hearings held by the Los Angeles County Bar Association in 1974 on the Deportation and Removal of Aliens highlighted police collaboration with INS and enforcement of immigration status violations. For example, one individual recounted a 1974 raid in which uniformed police officers accompanied plainclothes INS agents to raid a bar on 7th and Wilshire. The predominantly Latinx clientele was made to exit the bar one-by-one and show legitimate proof of legal status to INS agents as LAPD officers stood by. Based on such testimony, the Bar concluded that the LAPD’s cooperation with the INS was widespread, intentional, and created a climate of fear in the Spanish-speaking community.[22]

When INS residential raids ramped up in 1979, city officials criticized the racialized assumptions of the arrests and demanded clarification of the limits of local enforcement of immigration law. In response, the Board of Police Commissioners adopted a formal policy instructing officers that immigration status alone was not a basis for arrest. Newly-appointed Chief Daryl Gates claimed the reform signified a change from an era “when our officers engaged in wholesale arrests of illegals, merely for their immigration status.”[23] Gates, recognizing the continued need for immigrant cooperation with the police to fight crime, established a nationally significant policy in 1979 that further officer discretion in the realm of policing immigration status, which came to be known as Special Order 40. “It is,” Special Order 40 affirmed, “the policy of the Los Angeles Police Department that undocumented alien status in itself is not a matter for police action.” Under Special Order 40, officers were directed to enforce the law in an equal manner regardless of “alien status” because of the need for immigrants to report crime and cooperate with the police. While the policy operated to protect the immigrant crime victim, it left the ability to arrest the “criminal alien” intact.[24]

The use of these categories reinforced boundaries of citizenship based on racialized assumptions of illegality and criminality that would be hardened as the LAPD associated Latinx immigrants with the rise of drug crime and gang violence in the 1980s.

By the early 1980s, city officials believed Special Order 40 effectively limited police power to ensure cooperation from the city’s growing immigrant communities. A briefing memo to mayor Bradley, for example, praised LAPD policy in relation to undocumented immigrants. “The L.A.P.D. is progressive with respect to our policy regarding the local enforcement of U.S. immigration laws,” the memo stated. “This policy is sensitive to the principle that effective law enforcement depends on a high degree of cooperation between the department and the public it serves.”[25] Yet Special Order 40 divided immigrants into the law-abiding and the criminal. The use of these categories reinforced boundaries of citizenship based on racialized assumptions of illegality and criminality that would be hardened as the LAPD associated Latinx immigrants with the rise of drug crime and gang violence in the 1980s.


Policing a City of Immigrants Amid the War on Gangs and Drugs

During the 1980s, law enforcement officials emphasized the problem of the criminal alien as a law-and-order threat to reassert officer discretion and to expand police authority to enforce immigration law. In order to demonstrate compliance with Special Order 40, LAPD officers portrayed undocumented immigrants as the source of rising crime, especially narcotics and gang activity.[26] The Rampart Division Narcotics Task Force, for example, found that out of more than two thousand drug-related arrests in 1986, 78 percent were undocumented immigrants and, at the time, “much of the crime involving undocumented aliens is gang related.”[27] Police argued that since gang crime and drug violence represented a threat to law-abiding residents, officers required greater discretion to arrest and remove the criminal alien element.

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Despite reassurances that the department adhered to Special Order 40, during the mid-1980s, the INS district office cooperated with local agencies to identify and remove undocumented immigrants involved in drug and gang activity. Gang activities section commander Robert Ruchoft launched a program in conjunction with the INS to deport undocumented immigrant gang members. Accompanied by a four-man INS team, specialized anti-gang CRASH units also circumvented Special Order 40 by focusing on immigrants involved in gang violence. “We don’t arrest people for being illegal aliens,” a department spokesperson stated, “but it is a pilot program in our campaign to obliterate violence by gangs.” The INS agents made arrests while on patrol with LAPD officers because, according to Ruchoft, “we know who they are, and where they are, and the criminal activities in which they are taking part.”[28]

Joint LAPD-INS efforts to deport criminal aliens suspected of being involved in gang activity often relied on the use of immigration status to justify arrests. Blurring the lines between crime control and immigration control enabled officers to legitimize arrests that may have violated Special Order 40. Deportation, for example, often occurred even if LAPD officers were unable to charge the individual with a crime. “If a gang member is out on the street and the police can’t make a charge,” assistant district director for the INS John Brechtel explained, “we will go out and deport them for being here illegally if they fit that criteria.” Deputy Chief Bernard Parks praised the task force because using deportations allowed “our officers to concentrate on gang members in another fashion.” Police, according to Parks, could remove undocumented gang members from the streets without having to bring criminal charges against them.[29] In effect, the LAPD used the war on gangs and drugs to reassert their authority to police immigrants within the specialized framework of Special Order 40.

However, sweeps aimed at finding and deporting undocumented drug dealers and gang members relied on dragnet policing that reaffirmed racialized views of illegality. For example, during a three-month operation in the summer of 1985 called Retake the Streets, the LAPD arrested more than 1,700 people in an anti-drug sweep. Deputy Chief Clyde Cronkhite reported that 63 percent of those arrested were “illegal aliens,” mostly originating from Mexico and El Salvador. Cronkhite suggested that such widespread policing of undocumented immigrants whom, he believed, were at the center of a growing drug trade, “will continue until they get the message, ‘You come to Los Angeles to sell drugs, and you’ll be in big trouble.’” The anti-drug sweep relied on close cooperation between LAPD officials and INS agents who met with residents in the target area to address fears of blanket arrests based on race or ethnicity.[30]

As the police used their authority to target “criminal aliens” as the source of gang violence and drug trafficking, they reaffirmed a connection between racial identity and illegality.

Joint operations blurred the line between legitimate police raids based on evidence of criminal activity and immigration raids focused on apprehending unauthorized immigrants. “But when the INS and Police Department conduct joint raids, the operations necessarily become immigration raids,” the Latino Community Justice Center’s (LCJC) Antonio Rodriguez stated in response to a 1989 raid. “They may apprehend some criminals, but they target and capture in their net many innocent persons who are taken prisoner by INS agents if they are undocumented.”[31] As the police used their authority to target “criminal aliens” as the source of gang violence and drug trafficking, they reaffirmed a connection between racial identity and illegality. In effect, local law enforcement policed the boundaries of citizenship. Responding to the growing number of immigrants during the 1980s, the LAPD operated on racialized assumptions of illegality and created new avenues of supervisory discretion and criminal categories to circumvent policy restricting enforcement of immigration status.


The War on Crime as Immigration Control

When the families of some twenty-six undocumented immigrants were held hostage for $1,000 each by smugglers in a South Central “drop house” contacted the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) in June 1990, they reignited debates about the proper limits to the LAPD’s cooperation with INS. Later, CARECEN reported the hostage situation to the LAPD and within hours eight LAPD officers rescued the hostages. While the smugglers escaped, the immigrants’ ordeal continued. In the name of helping those victimized by smugglers, the LAPD turned them over to INS for deportation.[32] Chief Gates, engaging in misdirection to shift attention from the consequences of the raid on the undocumented immigrants to the smugglers, claimed the department was engaged in rooting out illegal smuggling operations. “This department makes absolutely no effort to seek out undocumenteds in responding to calls for service and otherwise protecting people in Los Angeles,” Gates argued. “But, when we are confronted by serious criminal actions involving feloniously conspiring to violate the laws of the United States, kidnapping, hostage taking, threats of great bodily harm, extortion and bondage, we cannot look the other way.”[33]

If the LAPD hoped cooperating with the INS would help stop smuggling operations, their actions undermined the immigrant community’s faith in the police. The Board of Police Commissioner’s Hispanic Advisory Council criticized the department, calling the actions a “flagrant violation of policies” for handling undocumented immigrants and could lead to a potential deterioration of the “positive relationship” with the Latinx community. One Los Angeles Times editorial entitled, “How to Make Allies Into Enemies,” suggested that in order to maintain the trust of the immigrant community police officers had to ensure that immigrants recognize the difference between the LAPD and INS. But the LAPD’s actions did little to allay the fears of the Latinx community.[34] “The feeling in the immigrant community,” stated Madeline Janis, executive director of CARECEN, “is that the police and the INS are the same thing and that they have no recourse if they’re victims of a crime.”[35]

Cooperation between the LAPD and INS allowed the police to circumvent both the spirit and letter of Special Order 40. Protest from immigrant rights groups, such as CARECEN and the Coalition for Human Immigration Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), demanded an end to police cooperation with INS.[36] The publicity led to city council hearings on the department’s immigration policy. Councilman Michael Woo responded to the department’s actions with a proposal that the LAPD should not “assist or cooperate with any Immigration and Naturalization Service investigation, detention, or arrest procedures.” Woo was concerned that the actions of officers in the June raid threatened the status of Los Angeles as a “city of refuge.”[37] Councilman Richard Alatorre and Woo proposed new guidelines because, “Those crimes [against immigrants] go unreported for one simple reason: people are afraid of being turned over to the INS.”[38]

Chief Gates opposed the new restrictions. He claimed the regulations “would seriously endanger our ability to ensure public safety in the city.” While the chief expressed understanding of the concerns raised in the council motion, which would have barred police cooperation with an INS investigation, detention, or arrest except in service of a search warrant or arrest, he defended the expansive discretionary authority of the LAPD: “I believe all residents of Los Angeles are best served,” Gates explained, “when its Police Department is able to work cooperatively with all segments of government to provide for the public’s safety.”[39]

Framing immigration control as crime control enabled extensive cooperation between police and INS. As the council’s Public Safety Committee learned, the LAPD’s cooperation with INS agents was widespread and included handing children, victims of crime, and people arrested for minor misdemeanors over to INS.[40] The Council approved a motion recommending the department clarify the limits of Special Order 40 and the police department’s relationship with the INS. The recommendations centered on ensuring narrow discretion by leaving “little room for interpretation by individual officers.” Yet the changes were not meant to “prevent the LAPD from upholding its responsibilities to enforce the law.” The proposals reiterated that arrests should not be made based solely on alien status and the police should not turn arrestees over to the INS “EXCEPT for felony, drug or gang (STEP Act) Misdemeanors.”[41] The recommended clarifications to LAPD policy, in other words, continued to recognize the “criminal alien” category, which ensured the police authority to target immigrants and cooperate with the INS.

Concern for the ability of the police to ensure safety by arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants outweighed demands aimed at limiting police power and discretion. Although, the motion meant to clarify and update departmental policy to limit officer discretion surrounding arrests based on “alien status,” it did not remove the police from questions related to immigration status. Even after the efforts of CARECEN and liberal city council members to limit the actions of the police in the realm of immigration law, suspected undocumented immigrants were routinely arrested and turned over to the INS.[42]

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Policing Race and Citizenship Today

The LAPD’s policing of immigrants and cooperation with INS during the 1980s and early-1990s contributed to distrust between immigrant communities and the police. Programs aimed at enhancing collaborative efforts between the LAPD and undocumented immigrants who had been victims of crime worked at cross purposes with the department’s reliance on racialized categories of illegality and criminality to target immigrants for arrest and deportation during the war on drugs and gangs. Community relations programs and initiatives to provide equitable police services to Latinx communities required narrowing officer discretion on the street in order to enhance the LAPD’s ability to work with communities to combat crime. But the department’s construction of the “criminal alien” category developed an alternative means for the police to expand its authority by enforcing immigration status violations during an era of rapidly changing demographics.

Although the LAPD remains committed to Special Order 40 and the non-enforcement of immigration status, the history of the LAPD’s policies regarding immigrants is instructive during an era of intensified ICE raids and requests for the help of local law enforcement agencies.[43] Even as LAPD policy narrowed officer discretion to police immigration status and nominally refused to collaborate with the INS during the 1980s and 1990s, department officials turned to areas where they retained authority to contain the perceived threat that the rapidly growing immigrant population posed to the city’s social and racial hierarchy. The police attempted to square their ability to work with immigrant crime victims to combat crime with efforts to expand their authority by targeting the criminal alien. In the process, the police contributed to the construction and enforcement of racialized categories of citizenship that even today continues to delineate who has access to the full benefits of political and social membership in American life.


Notes

[1] Ana Gonzalez-Barrera and Mark Hugo Lopez, “U.S. Immigrant Deportations Fall to Lowest Level since 2007,” Pew Research Center, 16 December 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/12/16/u-s-immigrant-deportations-fall-to-lowest-level-since-2007/.

[2] Miriam Valverde, “What You Need to Know about the Trump Administration’s Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policy,” Politifact, 6 June 2018. https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2018/jun/06/what-you-need-know-about-trump-administrations-zer/; The Editorial Board, “Trump Keeps Implementing Incompetent Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policies. He Also Keeps Losing in Court,” Los Angeles Times, 11 July 2018. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-trump-child-separation-20180711-story.html.

[3] The question of cooperation between ICE and local police departments is complicated. Public statements of refusal to cooperate with ICE are often contradicted by the policies stated in operating manuals. Joel Rubin and Ruben Vives, “Immigration Arrests in L.A. Spark Fear, Outrage, but Officials Say They Are Routine,” Los Angeles Times, 10 February 2017; James Queally, “Police Departments Say They Don’t Enforce Immigration Laws. But Their Manuals Say Something Different,” Los Angeles Times, 12 April 2017.

[4] Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power (London: Pluto Press, 2000); Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017).

[5] Natalia Molina, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Doris Marie Provine and Roxanne Lynn Doty, “The Criminalization of Immigrants as a Racial Project.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 27 (2011): 261-277; Christopher Lowen Agee, The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-1972 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[6] U.S. Census, 1980; U.S. Census, 1990; Phil J. Ethington, W.H. Frey, and D. Myers, “The Racial Resegregation of Los Angeles County, 1940–2000,” Race Contours 2000 Study (University of Southern California and University of Michigan, 2001); Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 227-239.

[7] On economic crisis see Jordan T. Camp, Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016), 104-5; James C. Hankla letter to Each Supervisor, “Impact of Undocumented Aliens on Los Angeles County,” 23 December 1985, folder 4, box 980, Papers of Edmund D. Edelman, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California (hereafter EDE); Ruben Castaneda, “Studies Paint Confusing Picture of Illegal Aliens,” Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 12 January 1986, folder 4, box 980, EDE; CJM letter to Ed Edelman, “Comments about Illegal Alien Costs to County and Revenues Generated,” 23 January 1986, folder 4, box 331, EDE; “Aliens Reportedly Get $100 Million in Welfare,” LA Times, 27 January 1973, sec. Part I; Roger Waldinger, “Not the Promised City: Los Angeles and Its Immigrants,” Pacific Historical Review 68 (1999): 253-272.

[8] Edward Davis, “Special Order No. 68: Illegal Entry Arrests,” 24 November 1972, folder 18, box 29, Frank Del Olmo Collection, California State University, Northridge, Urban Archives Collections, Northridge, California (hereafter FDOC).

[9] E.M. Davis, “Pertinent Matters of Interest in Police Affairs,” 31 March 1974, folder Mayor’s Report 272 through 279, box B-2272, LAPD Bureau of Special Investigations, Los Angeles City Archives, Los Angeles, California. See also Joint Crime Suppression Task Force, “Los Angeles Police Study of Impact of Illegal Aliens on Crime in L.A.—Ramparts Division Case Study,” 3 September 1974, HV 7595.L71j, Vertical Files, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Library (hereafter USCIS).

[10] Community Relations Section Office of the Chief of Police, “Illegal Aliens: Composite Profile,” January 1975, folder 19, box 29, FDOC.

[11] “Testimony of the City of Los Angeles before the House Subcommittee on State, Justice, Commerce and The Judiciary of the Appropriations Committee,” 24 February 1978, folder 10 box 115, Grace Montanez Davis Papers, 39, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, University of California, Los Angeles (hereafter GMDP).

[12] Community Relations Section Office of the Chief of Police, “Illegal Aliens: Composite Profile.”

[13] Graham C. Ousey, and Charis E. Kubrin, “Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Contentious Issue,” Annual Review of Criminology 1 (2018): 63-84.

[14] “Crime Surging Over Mexican Border into U.S., Chief Davis Says,” Los Angeles Times, 24 October 1976, sec. PART ONE.

[15] The Illegal Alien Committee, “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources: Briefing Paper Prepared for Staff Officers’ Mini-Retreat,” January 1977, folder 1, box 36, Urban Policy Research Institute Records, Southern California Library, Los Angeles, California (hereafter UPRI).

[16] The Illegal Alien Committee, “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources”; John Kendall, “L.A. to Have Million ‘Illegals’ by ’81 at Present Rate: Police Study Calls Peaceful Image False L.A. May Have 1 Million Illegal Aliens by 1981,” Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1977, sec. PART II; House Subcommittee on Appropriations, Undocumented Aliens: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, 1978, 276; Peter J. Pitchess, “The Impact of Illegal Aliens on Los Angeles County A Compendium Compiled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” April 1977, Vertical Files: California Illegal Aliens California, USCIS; Grace Davis, “Testimony of the City of Los Angeles before the House Subcommittee on State, Justice, Commerce and The Judiciary of the Appropriations Committee,” 24 February 1978, folder 10, box 115, GMDP.

[17] The Illegal Alien Committee, “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources.”

[18] “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources”; Patt Morrison, “Illegal Aliens Blamed for Increasing Crimes: Officers Compile Data on Gangs of Transient Burglars RISE IN ILLEGAL ALIEN CRIME,” Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1977, sec. PART II.

[19] Edward M. Davis, “Pertinent Matters of Interest in Police Affairs, Attachment 1, Part 1,” 25 July 1976, Notebook #1, box 2276, Police Department Records/82, Los Angeles City Archives, Los Angeles, California.

[20] Joint Crime Suppression Task Force, “Los Angeles Police Study of Impact of Illegal Aliens on Crime in L.A.-Ramparts Division Case Study,” 3 September 1974, HV 7595.L71j, USCIS.

[21] Immigration Coalition, “Plight of Undocumented Immigrants in America,” 7 February 1977, folder 8, box 23, Herman Baca Collection, MSS 649, University of California, San Diego, The Library, San Diego, California; Kenneth Reich, “LAPD Doesn’t Go After Illegal Aliens, Davis Says,” Los Angeles Times, 27 November 1975, folder 18, box 29, FDOC.

[22] Ad Hoc Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, “Public Hearings on the Deportation and Removal of Aliens,” 18 December 1974, folder 12, box 123, GMDP; Los Angeles Bar Association, “Report on the Deportation and Removal of Aliens,” 1976, folder 19, box 115, GMDP.

[23] Evan Maxwell, “LAPD Eases Policy Toward Illegal Aliens: Officers Won’t Question Status Except in Serious Crimes,” Los Angeles Times, 21 March 1979, sec. PART II.

[24] Daryl F. Gates, “Special Order No. 40: Undocumented Aliens”, 27 November 1979, folder 17, box 29, FDOC.

[25] Rose Ochi letter to Tom Bradley, “Attached Briefing Memo. Also Attached for Background – Immigration,” 16 April 1981, folder 10, box 2175, Mayor Tom Bradley Administration Papers, University of California, Los Angeles Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, Los Angeles, California (hereafter MTBAP).

[26] United States General Accounting Office, “Criminal Aliens: INS’ Enforcement Activities – Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives,” GAO, November 1987.

[27] Los Angeles City Task Force on Immigration, “Interim Report of the Los Angeles City Task Force on Immigration,” April 1987, folder 13, box 1172, MTBAP.

[28] Jerry Belcher, “Police Launch Program Against Illegal Aliens: L.A. Seeking to Deport Gang Members,” Los Angeles Times, 5 September 1986, sec. Part II; Richard B. Dixon letter to Each Supervisor, “Projects to Identify Alien Drug Offenders,” 15 May 1987, folder 13, box 331, EDE; United States General Accounting Office, “Criminal Aliens: INS’ Enforcement Activities – Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives,” GAO, November 1987.

[29] Stephen Braun, “U.S.-L.A. Task Force Deports 175 With Ties to Drug, Gang Activity” Los Angeles Times, 12 April 1989, A3.

[30] Leonard Greenwood, “1,700 Arrested in LAPD Anti-Drug Sweep,” Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1985, sec. Part II; United States General Accounting Office, “Criminal Aliens: INS’ Enforcement Activities–Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives.” GAO, November 1987.

[31] Antonio H. Rodriguez, “L.A. Police and La Migra—an Overbearing Partnership,” Los Angeles Times, 18 July 1989.

[32] Hector Tobar, “27 Hostages Turned Over to INS After Police Rescue,” Los Angeles Times, 16 June 1990, sec. Metro; CARECEN, “What Is CARECEN?,” 1990, folder 2, box 1164, MTBAP.

[33] Daryl F. Gates, “Statement by Chief Daryl F. Gates Re: Undocumented Being Held Hostage,” 19 July 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP.

[34] Hispanic Advisory Council, “Newsletter,” December 1990, folder 7, box 1169, MTBAP; “How to Make Allies Into Enemies,” Los Angeles Times, 15 August 1990, folder 9, box 1170, MTBAP.

[35] Hector Tobar, “27 Hostages Turned Over to INS After Police Rescue,” Los Angeles Times, 16 June 1990, sec. Metro.

[36] CHIRLA, “Stop the Cooperation Between the Police and the INS,” 16 October 1990, folder 9, box 1170, MTBAP.

[37] The Los Angeles City Council passed a limited sanctuary policy in 1985 in response to the growing number of refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. Hector Tobar, “Woo Seeks Curbs on INS Cooperation: Law Enforcement: His Proposal Follows Incident in Which L.A. Police Rescued 27 Illegal-Alien Hostages and Turned Them over to Federal Agents,” Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1990, sec. Metro News.

[38] Hector Tobar, “Proposed Curbs on LAPD Fought,” Los Angeles Times, 31 July 1990, p. B1, folder 18, box 29, FDOC; Richard Alatorre and Michael Woo, “Motion,” 20 June 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP.

[39] Hector Tobar, “Proposed Curbs on LAPD Fought,” Los Angeles Times, 31 July 1990, p. B1, folder 18, box 29, FDOC; Hector Tobar, “Gates Opposes Bar to Police, INS Cooperation,” Los Angeles Times, 22 June 1990, sec. Metro News.

[40] Public Safety Committee letter to Los Angeles City Council, “INS-LAPD Memo,” 13 November 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP.

[41] Los Angeles City Council, “Motion Adopted Relative to Modification of Los Angeles Police Department’s Cooperation Policy with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Its Treatment of Undocumented Persons,” 15 November 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP; Public Safety Committee letter to Los Angeles City Council, “INS-LAPD Memo,” 13 November 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP; “Fact Sheet – Background on the Los Angeles Police Department’s Relationship and Collaboration with the Immigration & Naturalization Service,” 1990, folder INS-Police Cooperation Declarations & Testimony, Carton 1681, RG #5, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Records, Stanford Green Library, Special Collections, Stanford, California.

[42] Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, Criminal Aliens in the United States (Washington: 1993), 22-23; Edward J. Boyer, “Immigrants Sent to INS by Police, Suit Alleges,” Los Angeles Times, 8 May 1991, sec. Valley.

[43] Southern California Public Radio, “LAPD Chief Beck: ‘Immigration Is Not the Job of Local Law Enforcement,’” Southern California Public Radio, 16 November 2016, http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2016/11/16/53089/lapd-chief-on-policing-immigration-policy-trump-pr/.

  • This essay is adapted from the forthcoming Max Felker-Kantor, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

 

Max Felker-Kantor is an American historian specializing in areas of race, politics, and the carceral state. He is the author of Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), and currently teaches American and African American history at Ball State University.

Copyright: © 2018 Max Felker-Kantor. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Howard Thurman and the Arc of History in San Francisco

Paul Harvey

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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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.[3]

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.”[4]

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.

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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.” [5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.”[8] 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.[9]

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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.”[10]

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.[11]

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.” [12]

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.[13]

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.”[14]

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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.[15]

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.[16]

“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.”[17]

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.[18]

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.”[19] 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.”[20]

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.

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Notes

[1] Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1981), 98-9.

[2] Ibid., 141-42.

[3] “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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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).

[7] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 24.

[8]  Dixie and Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World, 167.

[9] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 31.

[10] Thurman to Alfred G. Fisk, 19 May 1944, in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, vol. III, The Bold Adventure, September 1943—May 1949 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015): 64.

[11] Howard Thurman, “Commitment,” in For the Inward Journey: The Writings of Howard Thurman, ed. Anne Spencer Thurman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 13.

[12] Inward Journey, 13, 21; Thurman, “The Fellowship Church of All Peoples,” Common Ground 5 (Springs 1945): 29-31, reprinted in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, III: 125-27.

[13] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 44-45, 47.

[14] Thurman, With Head and Heart, 160-61.

[15] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 52.

[16] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 70.

[17] Footprints of a Dream, 97.

[18] See the Howard Thurman Listening Room at http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/virtual-listening-room.

[19] From Inward Journey, 280.

[20] “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.

Copyright: © 2018 Paul Harvey. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Reviews

Black Bruin Stories

2

Jackie Robinson, 1940. Photo courtesy of ASUCLA Photography.

Nickolas Hardy

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.

Johnson-Black Bruins.indd

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Johnson discusses Jackie Robinson’s “Black Belt” Georgia background (p. 7) and Tom Bradley’s Texas roots (pp. 18-19).

[4] 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.

Copyright: © 2018 Nickolas Hardy. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

ArticlesPhotography/Art

RE-Present

Contemporary tile fixes intermingle with original adobe construction to maintain the romanticized notions of the Spanish Missions at Mission San Miguel Arcángel.

Matthew Gush

Years spent exploring the Americas and documenting Pre-Columbian civilizations’ remains eventually brought my work back to Southern California. Through my travels I saw how advanced these societies had become, only to be confronted with the complications that few knew about or understood. Growing up in Whittier as a product of California’s public school system, I inherited the notion that American History started with a blank slate at 1492 and in fourth grade received the romanticized indoctrination of the Alta California mission system. It wasn’t until I started grappling with the colonial underpinnings of this continent that I realized my work with the past segued from the historical to the contemporary—colonization significantly accounting for why these societies were destroyed and why their legacies continued to be suppressed.

My subsequent exploration of the Alta California missions system exposed layers of complexity and irony. How could Mission San Antonio de Padua, sitting so rustically idyllic in the rolling green hills of central California, be the home of a mass grave of Natives? How could these architecturally simple yet striking places be the vehicles of cultural destruction and, ironically, salvation? How does Junípero Serra propagate such a sprawling system, yet harm the people he was trying to save? How do we understand the pain and suffering inflicted in and around these missions, yet still celebrate modern Quinceñeras or weddings in them?

It is easy to be seduced by the romanticized façades of these places, but even more important to understand their complexities and relevance for understanding contemporary California, the land where we dwell. Native history and the missions matter: from the role the missions played in the destruction of Native lives and culture during the Spanish conquest and colonization of Alta California, to the mission revival, and their function as expressions of faith today. We must look at these places and understand their complexities and contradictions, in hopes of more critical conversations that might serve as vehicles of understanding California.

Mission Soledad, with its simple yet poignant architectural lines, was a nexus for the subjugation of indigenous coastal peoples.

Visitors to Mission San Juan Capistrano explore the ruins of the mission church that was destroyed in an 1812 earthquake.

Native inspired flower and nature motifs decorate the mission walls at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

Shining midday sun illuminates the gardens planted around Mission Santa Clara de Asís.

Votive candle offerings burn in Mission Santa Cruz’s church.

Modern traffic streams by Mission San Luis Rey de Francía.

The first of the Alta California missions, Mission San Diego de Alcalá opens for an evening mass.



Note

This photographic essay is part two of a diptych on the Alta California missions. For part one, see Matthew Gush and Robert M. Senkewicz, “Seeing California’s Missions Today.”

 

Matthew Gush is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. His work focuses on Pre-Columbian Native America and chronicles interjections of Colonial Empires. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.

Copyright: © 2018 Matthew Gush. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Articles

Is Boyle Heights “Worth Saving”?

Image 7

1st and Boyle, the sun sets over the Boyle Hotel at Mariachi Plaza. Photo by Flickr user Salina Canizales.

Alfredo Huante

During the early 1970s in Boyle Heights, decades before the neighborhood came under public limelight for its fight against gentrification, residents pressed city planners to ensure the Mexican barrio was preserved within the Boyle Heights Community Plan. As part of planning director Calvin Hamilton’s citizen-planning efforts, Community Plans were rolled out throughout Los Angeles to reverse the historic top-down planning practices, which in Boyle Heights had led to a significant loss of housing stock. Industrial expansion,[1] followed by intensive freeway construction during the 1940s through the 1960s, rendered countless city blocks repurposed by planners for land uses other than housing.[2] Through his work preparing the Boyle Heights community plan, the city’s first Chicano planner, Raul Escobedo, helped preserve the barrio’s existing stock of inexpensive housing and sought to protect it against expanding downtown redevelopment. This essay examines how discussions over the future of the barrio have persisted over decades among city officials and residents since the 1960s and 1970s.

In urban sites across the postwar U.S., strategies and solutions addressing “blight” gave points of frequent contention between working class residents of color and local civic and business leaders. For the latter group, “blight” entailed a combination of physical, social, and economic conditions that all worked cohesively to inhibit the economic growth or development of an urban area or community.[3] Where some references to blight alluded to substandard housing, dilapidated structures, and depressed property values, others signaled the presence of poverty and “related social problems.”[4] Despite the broad definitions, the remedy of urban renewal aimed to ameliorate social, economic, and physical conditions in these neighborhoods. Over time, as public criticism to urban renewal projects increased, local government strategies to address blight varied. For example, after being labeled as areas reflecting blight, residents of Bishop, Palo Alto, and La Loma (collectively known as Chavez Ravine) and Bunker Hill all experienced removal through the demolition and clearance of “slum” housing. In contrast, despite receiving a similar appraisal by city officials, Boyle Heights was considered eligible for “conservation and rehabilitation” by city planners.[5] While part of the broad power of urban renewal projects, this lesser known component cast Boyle Heights as redeemable without demolition—thus savable from the threat of blight. Yet the question of whom would benefit from the subsequent upgrading of the community remained an ongoing debate.

Image 8

Photo by Flickr user Chris Pickel.


Community Planning in Los Angeles                                                                      

Arriving in L.A. during the early 1960s, Planning Director Calvin Hamilton had been recruited by Mayor Sam Yorty to, for the first time in city history, bring the city’s varying land uses under one coherent, city-wide general plan. However, shortly after he began the massive overhaul of city planning, the 1965 Watts Riots took place and captured the urban imagination. For Hamilton, these events underscored the need to include historically excluded communities of color into citywide planning efforts. Reflecting on the impact of the Watts Riots, one city planning official noted the event had, “[shook] to pieces the image of a gay, carefree Los Angeles… and jolted… Angelenos into an awareness of their city’s urbanhood.”[6] However, planners were not the only group re-conceptualizing the role of marginalized groups in planning. Civic groups such as the Community Relations Conference of Southern California (CRCSC) fought to pressure planning practices to include “racial and ethnic minorities, youth, the elderly, renters, the disabled, health and welfare groups, human relations and housing groups.”[7] Together, these efforts compelled planners to assess the enduring impact of postwar racial segregation and counter it with newfound innovative community planning efforts.

Community plans, then, were developed to break away from conventional top-down planning approaches and include otherwise overlooked Angelenos in the process. Although citizen participation in neighborhood planning was readily encouraged in predominantly white, non-blighted neighborhoods, community plans functioned as the first efforts to solicit and collect barrio residents’ input in city planning processes. In this way, these initial community plans and the background reports they generated began to serve as important records of collective community participation in city-led planning efforts. Moreover, these documents function as important artifacts to evaluate relationships between communities of color and city planners over time. Indeed, this relationship has remained a constant site of tension, directly shaping quality of life for communities of color in Los Angeles.

Image 5

Photo by Flickr user Paul Narvaez.


“Boyle Heights is Worth Saving”

Despite variations in discourse and approaches towards urban blight, addressing blighted places remained a priority for local political and business leaders. Shortly after the construction of Dodger Stadium broke ground on the site where Chavez Ravine once stood,[8] the then councilmember for District 9 (which included Boyle Heights), Edward R. Roybal, observed blight remaining as “one of the most insidious problem[s] confronting the cities of our nation.”[9] Business leaders similarly viewed blighted areas as issues of primary concern for their perceived negative effects on the economy, labeling such locales as “festering sores on the body politic.”[10] In the context of an enduring consensus over the need to relieve blighted areas, the declining popularity of urban renewal by demolition encouraged planners to rethink conventional approaches and thereby consider efforts such as rehabilitation and citizen-oriented planning.

With memories of invasive freeway projects and the razing of neighboring barrios remaining fresh in the minds of many, planners’ citizen-centered approach made for a hard sell for residents of Boyle Heights.

Identified by the L.A. Community Analysis Bureau as one of the most blighted areas in the city, city planners sought to reverse blight in Boyle Heights through competing processes of rehabilitation and community planning.[11] With memories of invasive freeway projects and the razing of neighboring barrios remaining fresh in the minds of many, planners’ citizen-centered approach made for a hard sell for residents of Boyle Heights. As a local resident and Chicano, city planner Raul Escobedo became a cultural broker for the largely white city planning department and their planning endeavors in Boyle Heights. Escobedo’s work on the Boyle Heights community plan utilized his planning expertise, as well as his connection to the cultural and political context of the Chicano movement fifty years ago. One of which was a necessary relationship to include residents’ input for the Boyle Heights Community Plan.

Despite initial mistrust for city planning efforts in their community, Escobedo successfully encouraged barrio residents to participate in significant numbers, in part, by validating their fears of displacement and, simultaneously, providing insight to the citywide planning processes. Residents’ concerns were recorded as part of the community plan prepared by Escobedo and included issues related to protecting Boyle Heights from encroaching downtown development and safeguarding the neighborhood’s inexpensive housing stock for existing and future working class residents. Similarly, Escobedo utilized the legacy of exclusion inherited by Boyle Heights to contextualize Boyle Heights residents’ fears, concerns, and demands to his city planning colleagues. As the Chicano city planner bridged these two distinct worlds, residents also attempted to make sense of new citizen-oriented planning in the context of concurrent projects that sought to transform planning on a citywide basis and, simultaneously, redevelop downtown.

Image 4

Mayor Eric Garcetti launches Volunteer Corps event in Boyle Heights, 25 October 2014, via Flickr.

In 1973, residents like Rosalio Muñoz noted that “both the City and County of Los Angeles are presently completing new [plans] which call for further development of this new cosmopolitan center [including] plans to redevelop the surrounding neighborhoods to accommodate projected workers and shoppers for the [downtown area].”[12] For Eastside residents like Muñoz the development of downtown and the surrounding areas threatened existing barrio land uses, as he expressed, stating that “all of this [planned] development has been and is projected to be right on top of what is already the most ideal urban setting for the Chicano.”[13] Such responses to city planning were common in the political imagination of residents who held fast to memories of Federal bulldozers of urban renewal that had disappeared neighboring Mexican barrios. A year after Munõz shared his perspective on citywide planning, Francisco Mendoza argued that the community plan offered “a way of preparing [Boyle Heights] for the outright attack and displacement of thousands of people.”[14]

Despite this hesitancy, efforts by Raul Escobedo and Boyle Heights residents succeed in composing and introducing a community plan reflective of community members. The final community plan allowed veteran city planners to recognize the barrio’s significance as “the only viable economic alternative as to where [families of limited income] can afford to live.”[15] Moreover, Escobedo’s efforts convinced his senior planning colleagues to alter plans to demolish old housing stock and, instead,  preserve it. To ensure the character of the community into the foreseeable future, Escobedo recommended residential areas be rezoned to the lowest residential density. Affirming these recommendations, the planning director concluded that “the continued involvement by community residents proved, indeed, that Boyle Heights is worth saving.” In a sense, this conclusion not only expressed the value of saving Boyle Heights from blight, but also saving it from downtown redevelopment.

However, by the time the Boyle Heights Community Plan was adopted in the late 1970s, downtown redevelopment took precedence as the Federal government moved away from investing in cities and neoliberalism took hold within the urban political economy. In 1975, Bradley had warned Angelenos that in the absence of intense redevelopment the downtown core would fall victim to the “urban cancer” of blight.[16] In the 1980s, Bradley followed through on his promise of revitalizing the area and the planning department followed suit by prioritizing its redevelopment, and by abandoning staff and resources to develop community plans and similar citizen-driven projects. For barrio working class and residents of color of Eastside who were often renters and immigrants, the Tom Bradley administration’s move away from community plans re-instilled concerns over future displacement.

Image 2

Photo by Flickr user Paul Narvaez.


Defending Boyle Heights

Since downtown development became the priority over community planning, city planning had remained out of sync with local residents’ concerns. Community members continued to fight for safe streets, improved schools, and adequate city services, even as political leaders advanced policies that regarded Eastside barrios as blighted and populated by politically apathetic residents. Examples of this would be the selection of East Los Angeles as an appropriate site for a prison and Vernon as a suitable location for a hazardous waste incinerator. Viewed as having direct negative effects on the quality of life in their respective neighborhoods as well as Boyle Heights, these two projects were subject to community protests. Led by Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) and religion-based community allies, the ensuing social movement that took place during the mid to late 1980s challenged city and private developers’ policies and practices, which continued to link communities of color with land uses detrimental to residents’ health and safety.[17] In 1996, this grassroots type of activism continued through the organizing efforts by residents of the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village public housing projects. Here, women demanded the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) promise the provision of low-cost housing units for displaced residents who wished to remain in the housing community.[18] While organizing efforts secured a higher number of affordable housing units that would have otherwise been constructed by HACLA, the demolition of the Pico-Aliso public housing community resulted in a net loss of low-cost housing units. Both MELA and the women of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village housing project transformed conventional narratives of their neighborhoods from “blighted” to dignified residential areas populated by citizens who were on a mission to secure a healthy environment for all families.

Although community plans have been dismissed as powerless planning documents they represented, in the case of Boyle Heights, the opportunity to reverse the historic tide of top-down planning and bring historically excluded communities into the city planning fold presented itself for the first time. Community plans also expanded planning processes to engage community residents by hiring culturally and politically informed planners to help connect to the community residents—in this case, Chicano Planner Raul Escobedo. As a result, residents interpreted community plans as an occasion to achieve political inclusion. In doing so, residents maintained a commitment to a multitude of strategies that would ensure community-wide improvements in the quality of life. In a local weekly, local resident Francisco Mendoza argued, “This [community] plan is only one thing that we have to defeat or change for the benefit of not the rich, but for the working people in our community. Those are only some of the reasons for uniting against the attacks and the exploitation of our community, and of all the working people which produce this country’s wealth.”[19]

Image 1.jpg

Mariachi Plaza, Boyle Heights, via Flickr user Paul Narvaez.

Presently, as community plans throughout Los Angeles undergo their scheduled updates, the history between these planning projects and their relationship to marginalized communities provides beneficial insights for politicians, planners, and residents alike.

First, the historical context underscores how local histories remain ever-present in the political and social landscape in which residents live their daily lives— an awareness quickly lost in public debates regarding the future of the neighborhood. Second, foregrounding this history acts as a temporal touchstone for barrio residents across generations to assess how contemporary needs in the barrio have changed or remained the same over time and how they have rearticulated strategies for inclusion. For example, inexpensive housing options, and affordable rents in particular, are increasingly scarce in today’s housing market—an issue identified in city planning documents since the early 1970s and one that has progressively worsened. In evaluating the community plan processes, it also illustrates how activism and community involvement in local politics was part of a protracted struggle for the complete cultural and political inclusion of Latinx communities since fifty years ago—and one that continues to the present. Finally, considering the Boyle Heights Community Plan in relation to the long history of political disenfranchisement in Los Angeles barrios reveals the enduring power relations, which inform contemporary discussions of neighborhood change, even if these power relations go unacknowledged or at times denied.

Presently, the barrio remains a largely renter-oriented neighborhood at seventy-five percent since the community plan was adopted, rendering a majority of the population vulnerable to rising rents and real estate speculation often complementing gentrification.

Current debates[20] regarding gentrification in Boyle Heights, then, bring barrio residents’ longstanding concerns over displacement into the present day. Boyle Heights’ history of providing inexpensive housing for working class (often immigrant) residents continues to be targeted, presently by gentrification and an ever-tightening housing market. In a post-Great Recession context, renters disproportionately share the cost-burden of rising housing costs across the nation.[21] In Los Angeles, the lowest-income renters are severely cost burdened, paying up to seventy percent of their income for rent.[22] Presently, the barrio remains a largely renter-oriented neighborhood at seventy-five percent since the community plan was adopted, rendering a majority of the population vulnerable to rising rents and real estate speculation often complementing gentrification.

City-led efforts to save affordable housing and the working class character of Boyle Heights in the face of downtown redevelopment has continued for so many decades that contemporary activists are picking up the “anti-displacement-baton” with local groups such as Defend Boyle Heights. Planners and activists seeking to curb the influence of downtown development on Boyle Heights and similar working class barrios could benefit from revisiting the history of activism in the barrio and its legacy within and outside traditional avenues of political participation. In 1974, when Mendoza shared his trepidation over community plans and their limits, he nevertheless called on his neighbors to defend Boyle Heights. Doing so, he argued, the following: “every man and woman, working or not, [needs] to come to the aid of [the] community, we need the young, the old, the owner, the renters, we need to unite.”[23]

Taking into consideration the history of planning approaches in communities of color thrown into relief, the protracted fight for economically-accessibly housing in Boyle Heights continues to bespeak its importance to its deeply passionate residents. Early in the post-Civil Rights era, city planning in Los Angeles gestured towards inclusionary policies and practices to meaningfully include marginalized citizens into the planning process, yet overarching policies of exclusionary land uses prevailed even if political inclusion improved. With downtown redevelopment jumping the L.A. River into Boyle Heights, ongoing discussions and framing over anti-displacement movements are better understood within this history of dispossession.

Image 3

Photo by Flickr user TravelingMan.

 

Notes

[1] Rodolfo Acuña, A Community Under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos, East of the Los Angeles River, 1945-1972, Chicano Studies Research Center Publications (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1984), 101.

[2] Gilbert Estrada, “If You Build It, They Will Move: The Los Angeles Freeway System and the Displacement of Mexican East Los Angeles, 1944-1972,” Southern California Quarterly 87 (2005): 287-315.

[3] David F. Beatty, Redevelopment in California (Point Arena: Solano Press Books, 2004), 97.

[4] Calvin Hamilton, “Urban Renewal,” speech, Junior Chamber International Community Development Conference, 28 October 1966.

[5] Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission, “Environmental Development Guide,” October 1970.

[6] Anne V. Howell, “Oikoumene—Los Angeles Style,” Los Angeles Planning Department, 2 December1968.

[7] Irv Burleigh, “Fight Brews Over Who Should Take Part in City Planning,” Los Angeles Times, 6 December 1973.

[8] Thomas S. Hines, “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism: The Battle of Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, 1949-1959,” Journal of Urban History 8 (1982): 123-143.

[9] Edward R. Roybal, “Report on the Urban Renewal Seminar in New Haven Connecticut,” 7 August 1959.

[10] Southern California Research Council, Migration and the Southern California Economy (Los Angeles, 1964), 70.

[11] Strategy for City Survival, Los Angeles, 1970. For an overview of the Community Analysis Bureau see Mark Vallianatos, “Uncovering the Early History of ‘Big Data’ and the ‘Smart City’ in Los Angeles,” Boom California, 16 June 2015, https://boomcalifornia.com/2015/06/16/uncovering-the-early-history-of-big-data-and-the-smart-city-in-la/.

[12] Rosalio Muñoz, “Save the barrio now,” Eastside Sun, March 1973.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Francisco Mendoza, “Boyle Heights Plan Given Airing at All Nations Tonight,” Eastside Sun, September 1974.

[15] Los Angeles City Planning Department, “Boyle Heights Community Plan Adopted,” News Release, 14 August 1979.

[16] Tom Bradley, “Blight is the Only Other Alternative,” Los Angeles Times , 12 October 1975.

[17] Mary Pardo, Mexican American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Communities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).

[18] “The Women of Pico Aliso: 20 Years of Housing Activism,” Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (blog), 25 May 2018, http://alianzacontraartwashing.org/en/coalition-statements/the-women-of-pico-aliso-20-years-of-housing-activism; Hector Becerra, “Building Confidence in a New Project,” Los Angeles Times, 23 August 1988.

[19] Francisco Mendoza, “Boyle Heights Plan Given Airing at All Nations Tonight,” Eastside Sun, September 1974.

[20] Times Editorial Board, “Boyle Heights anti-gentrification activists hurt their cause by making it about race, rather than economics,” Los Angeles Times,.20 July 2017, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-gentrification-boyle-heights-race-20170721-story.html.

[21] “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2017,” Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 16 June 2017, http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/harvard_jchs_state_of_the_nations_housing_2017_0.pdf.

[22] “Los Angeles County Renters in Crisis: A Call for Action,” California Housing Partnership, May 2017.

[23] Francisco Mendoza, “Boyle Heights Plan Given Airing at All Nations Tonight,” Eastside Sun, September 1974.

 

Alfredo Huante is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Southern California. He earned his Master’s in Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. His work engages racial inequality, racial formation, and land use, particularly related to gentrification.

Copyright: © 2018 Alfredo Huante. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

Articles

Field of Dreams

Soccer-1

Romeo Guzmán

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Luisa Mountains, San Luis Obispo feels idyllic. The Salinas and Chumash tribes were likely attracted to the region’s Mediterranean climate, the gentle fog, ocean breeze, and streams from nearby mountain springs. Throughout the centuries, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans found this Central Coast region to be an ideal setting for their agricultural exploits. Now, as the Fall settles in, tourists flock to the area to marvel at its seemingly endless rows of grape vines.

As the sun begins its slow descent, seventy-three-year-old Aurelio Sánchez looks down upon a perfectly trimmed bed of green. This field has been watered and cared for by human hands. But Aurelio is not here to care for the lawn. He drove up from his home in Southern California to watch his grandson, Alex Sánchez, play soccer. He is joined by his wife Berenice, his son Juan, and Juan’s wife and children. They are surrounded by incoming California Polytechnic State University students. Wearing green-and-yellow t-shirts, the freshmen look casually at the pitch. A few of them might recognize the head coach, Steve Sampson, and understand his impact on U.S. soccer at the collegiate, professional, and international levels. Sampson, they might remember, was an assistant coach for the U.S. Men’s 1994 World Cup team and head coach for the team during the 1998 World Cup in France. They won’t recognize Aurelio Sánchez or give much thought to the Mexicans in the stands or on the pitch. This is understandable. If Mexican migrants’ contributions to the U.S. economy, to its cultural richness, and to its values are continually ignored, why should their impact on sport be any different?

However, the growth of soccer in the United States since the 1960s has been deeply intertwined and connected with the history of soccer in Mexico. After the founding of professional soccer in Mexico in 1943, the game slowly became the nation’s favorite pastime and began to spread throughout the country. Aurelio, like other migrant futboleros of his generation, brought their love of the game to the United States and helped alter its sporting landscape, particularly in Southern California. The game helped to foster unique soccer communities in Mexico and the United States, and was instrumental in facilitating migration between those two countries. By following Aurelio Sánchez, we can trace futbol’s arrival in Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its growth and popularity in the mid-twentieth century, and the rise of futbol community-making in Southern California from the 1960s to the present.

Despite Mexicans’ unconditional and (at times) unrequited love for futbol, the game is not native to Mexico. It is a transplant. European companies and workers brought the game to Latin America and Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In Mexico, workers employed in industries managed by British companies organized teams and leagues in cities like Pachuca, Mexico City, Puebla, and Orizaba. British clubs founded the Liga Mexicana de Football Amateur Association where they established the first formal competition in 1902. Slowly, French, German, and Spanish migrants formed teams and competed against these British footballers. In 1912, Mexican-born players joined the league with their squad Club México.[1]

In 1918, the game arrived to La Experiencia, a small town on the outskirts of cosmopolitan Guadalajara and Aurelio’s place of birth. One single street connected the entire town. The street brought people in and guided them out. Resembling a neatly organized grid, streets ran north, south, east, and west, both above and below La Experiencia’s main corridor. Just outside the city’s gates, residents used their hands to till and organize the land and to turn cotton into textiles. The Spanish owners of the textile factory Compañia Industrial de Guadalajara and local farmers found the close proximity to a river gorge and open space to be favorable and productive.

It was here, on vacant land, that workers from the factory tried to play this new game.[2] Rather than having a level playing field for the ball to roll, these new athletes had to contend with small mounds of land. The goalies were charged with guarding and protecting a simple line on the ground. The conditions of the field matched the workers’ lack of skill and knowledge of the game. To move the ball up the field and towards the opposing goal, players used their entire bodies to physically hit others who were in their path. It was from these humble origins that La Experiencia gave birth to Club Imperio, one of Guadalajara’s first and most competitive amateur adult teams.

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Aurelio Sánchez, goalie. Atlas, 1967.

In the following two decades, factory owners and community members dedicated their financial resources, time, and energy to Club Imperio. The Spanish owners of this factory provided the club with invaluable material support and resources. The factory paid for the first team’s uniforms, furnished impressive facilities, including showers and dressing rooms for both home and away teams, and provided team players with a monthly salary. The company also used its position as an employer in creative ways. In the 1932-33 season, Club Imperio returned to primera fuerza (the highest division) after a few years’ hiatus. In an effort to put forth a strong showing, the starting eleven players were permitted to leave work early every Tuesday and Friday. For their part, players and community members provided both intellectual and material resources. In 1919, Antonio Santacruz Chávez, who played for Club Colón before arriving to Club Imperio, brought a new level of commitment and experience to La Experiencia. He provided players with knowledge of the game, as well as the official logo and colors for Club Imperio, which he borrowed from Centenario, a club that no longer existed. Retired players and aficionados donated their time and knowledge by coaching not just the first team, but also Club Imperio’s youth teams.

Larger macro historical processes aided these local efforts. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the state embarked on an ambitious project to educate peasants, workers, indigenous groups, and other popular classes.[3] For the state, sport was a vehicle to reduce alcoholism and other social ills, to foment and sponsor nationalism, and to promote the physical, moral and intellectual growth of its citizens. “It’s a primordial way,” claimed one Mexican official, “to create a nation of healthy, sane, and enthusiastic men…. Sport is a panacea for vice and mischief and a creator of good character and strength of a community.”[4] The state worked diligently to promote and disseminate sport. In 1923, the state created a department within the Secretary of Public Education to oversee sports.[5] During President Lázaro Cárdenas’s administration (1934-40), the state succeeded in adding numerous physical activities to both primary and secondary education. In 1941, the nation’s Juegos Deportivos Nacionales de la Revolución attested to the growing importance of sport as well as futbol.[6] Between 7 and 17 November, twenty-two teams from twenty-two different states all played as they tried to put the ball in the back of the net.

It is within this local and national context that Club Imperio impressively grew in many ways. From 1924 until the founding of the Federación Mexicana de Futbol (FeMexFut) in 1943, the club consistently fielded competitive teams to play in Guadalajara’s highest amateur division. For example, in their first year in the second division (1927-28) they came in first place and earned the right to move up to “primera fuerza” and play against powerhouses like Guadalajara and Atlas. While they did not join these two teams in FeMexFut, they continued to play against them in the name of friendly games well into the 1960s. The club also succeeded in expanding their player pool. In 1935, the club fielded teams in six different divisions, including a youth team in the “junior” category. By 1946, the club had enough children to create their own five-team youth league.

The simultaneous growth of the game nationally and locally is best captured in the town’s annual holidays and quotidian rhythm. National celebrations such as Día de la Independencia and Cinco de Mayo included a futbol game. In fact, patriotic activities like parades and plays were structured to support and highlight the forthcoming match. Throughout the year, players and workers gathered at the local pulqueria and barbershops to discuss their team’s performance. They carefully analyzed their team’s victories, as well as their defeats and ruminated on their favorite player’s skills.

Futbol was implanted deeply into the community, spreading to both formal and informal spaces. Aurelio’s introduction to Club Imperio occurred in the space between labor and leisure and during the community’s most important markers of time. Like other families, the Sánchez family housed their cows and agricultural field just outside the city gates, near Club Imperio’s dirt pitch. To harvest the maize, Aurelio’s father cut down his field and neatly stacked the stalk in the form of a pyramid. A young five-year-old Aurelio climbed to the top of this stalk pyramid. From above, he witnessed Club Imperio’s first team engage in “unos partidazos” (amazing games). As he sat there watching Club Imperio represent La Experiencia, he said to himself, “One day I am going to play there.”[7]

As he sat there watching Club Imperio represent La Experiencia, he said to himself, “One day I am going to play there.”

There was just one problem. While Aurelio loved soccer, he was not comfortable with the ball at his feet. “I wanted to pass the ball,” he reflected during our oral history. “But I couldn’t do it; my feet would get stuck.” A casual encounter forever changed Aurelio’s relationship with the ball and with the game itself. As a five-year old, Aurelio walked down La Experiencia’s cobbled streets with a soccer ball, where an elderly resident of the neighborhood gestured for it. As soon as the ball hit the man’s foot, he pushed it forward and yelled, “here it comes” before taking a shot at Aurelio and the imaginary goal, a common pastime for urban and suburban players. Ignoring the cobbled street and its unforgiving hardness, a young Aurelio dove and stopped the shot. The man took another shot and again Aurelio dove. After this brief exchange, the man was convinced that Aurelio’s place was between the goal posts. He told Aurelio, “You are a goalie.” He then proceeded to take him to the nearby field for a pick-up game to test his newfound theory.

Aurelio played for Club Imperio throughout his childhood. When he was a young teenager, however, he had been hired to drive a bus throughout Guadalajara and joined his new employer’s futbol team. Yet his absence from Club Imperio did not last long. In order to mitigate an opponent’s home-field advantage, teams regularly held games at a neutral playing site. Teams even negotiated who would referee the game. In one case, they played a tough team and used Club Imperio’s pitch as the neutral site. Aurelio played particularly well in a hard-fought 3-1 victory and drew the attention of Club Imperio’s coaches. He returned to the fields of his childhood and to Club Imperio, helping them win three championships in the early 1960s. His success with Club Imperio drew the attention of the coaches at Selección Jalisco, an all-state team that competed against other state teams. With this new team a young Aurelio traveled to play in places like Mexico City.

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Migration and movement is endemic to competitive soccer and players often have to relocate or commute long hours to take advantage of playing opportunities.[8] This was the case with Aurelio. After a few successful seasons with Club Imperio and Selección Jalisco, Aurelio was offered a contract to play with a second division team named La Piedad, in Morelia, Michoacán. While excited to play professionally, this entailed perseverance and sacrifice. It took Aurelio four hours to get to practices and home games.[9] The salary didn’t make things that much easier. After paying for transportation to the city of Morelia, Aurelio was often left with just two pesos to cover the rest of his daily expenses. To make the most of his budget, Aurelio and Reyes Torres (the team’s central defender and a native of La Experiencia) ate lunch by the river, where local merchants sold vegetable broth for 50 cents. Aurelio’s struggle paid off. In 1967, after a few years of grinding at La Piedad, Aurelio was picked up by Atlas.

Not only was Atlas located near Aurelio’s home, in Guadalajara, but its roster was also filled with players from La Experiencia. Between the first team and the reserves, there were a total of eleven players from the small llanero community on the outskirts of Zapopan. During his time at Atlas, Aurelio was the first-string goalie for the reserve team and found his way into the starting line-up for the first team on five occasions. Despite his best effort, his first season ended with an unfortunate outcome. Management let go of its three goalkeepers: the first-string goalie, along with Aurelio, and Javier Quintero.

After Atlas, Aurelio was presented with two promising opportunities, both of which required him to leave Guadalajara. Ignacio “Gallo” Jáuregui, Monterrey’s coach, came to La Experiencia and invited Aurelio to play on his squad. Aurelio enthusiastically agreed, but told Jáuregui that he needed to check in with his family about migrating to Monterrey. Rather than excitement, Aurelio’s mother felt disheartened and distraught by the possibility of her son leaving their home. Under these conditions, he felt obliged to stay. Instead of Aurelio, the Monterrey coach signed Javier Quintero, another native of La Experiencia. Quintero, known as “El Loco,” went onto to have a spectacular career with Monterrey. In another instance, it was his mom’s health that prevented a return to the professional ranks. After a successful training stint with club Morelia, the team offered Aurelio a contract. The team was scheduled to play the following Thursday and Saturday, and asked Aurelio to present himself on Tuesday to sign paperwork to make his place on the team official. Aurelio took advantage of the long weekend break to go home to Guadalajara. As the sun rose that Monday morning, Aurelio neatly packed his clothes and cleats and headed to the bus station. He boarded the bus and inched closer to returning to the professional ranks of Mexican futbol, only to be notified by a resident from La Experiencia that his mother was not well. She had a heart attack, from which she never recovered and died shortly thereafter. Aurelio lost his mom and his opportunity to play for Morelia.  

Aurelio only played one season with a first division team, but it was through professional soccer that Aurelio met his wife Berenice and migrated to the United States. By the 1960s, La Experiencia and Club Imperio produced many professional futbolistas which led to the formation of an intimate community of professional, amateur, and retired players. Jesus “El Chita” Aldrete is perhaps one of La Experiencia’s most beloved players. He came up through Club Imperio’s youth ranks and became a central fixture in Atlas’s squad. During the 1950-51 season, he helped Atlas win their only Liga MX championship. In 1967, when Aurelio was playing for Atlas, the Aldrete family honored their daughter Berenice’s fifteenth birthday with a quinceñera, a young woman’s traditional coming-of-age party. When they returned from their game in Toluca, several players attended the party. Aurelio decided to go straight home. However, a few days after the party, Aurelio and one of Berenice’s cousins were lounging outside the Sánchez’s home when they saw Berenice walking down the street with freshly cooked tortillas. “Look, Aurelio, look! Don’t you like my cousin Berenice?” Without looking at her, Aurelio disapprovingly shrugged and noted that Berenice was too young. “No, look at her,” the cousin insisted. Aurelio did. In response to this attention, Berenice tripped and her carefully wrapped tortillas hit the floor. Aurelio and the cousin wanted to help her up, but she left before they could cross the street. A few days later, Aurelio ran into Berenice and expressed his desire to be her boyfriend. She responded with hesitation. Rather than insisting, Aurelio told Berenice that he had a game in Guatemala and that she could give him an answer when he returned from his trip.

Berenice welcomed Aurelio back to Guadalajara with good news. Aurelio’s excitement was quickly met with the anxiety of asking Berenice’s father for permission, a tradition and near-obligatory act in small towns throughout Mexico. Jesus “El Chita” Aldrete was more intimidating than most fathers. He was respected and loved throughout Jalisco, but especially in La Experiencia. As a central defender in his futbolero days, Aldrete made a career out of thwarting the opposing team’s advances and unequivocally stamping out any and all threats. For the suiter, the defender’s appearance was as formidable as his skills on the pitch. Jesus Aldrete, according to Aurelio, “had big eyebrows, like the devil.” Aurelio decided to follow Aldrete. He sat next to the former central defender, but at a distance in case Aldrete decided to kick him. “Your daughter and I like each other and we want to ask you for permission to be boyfriend and girlfriend,” Aurelio uttered. “Yes, okay,” the central defender responded and then proceeded to give the following instruction: “You can talk on the corner, in front of the house, or at the door of the house.” Fall 1970, just after Mexico hosted the World Cup, Aurelio and Berenice were wed in La Experiencia’s church. A year after they were married, Berenice gave birth to Juan Carlos, their first of three boys.

Atlas later facilitated Aurelio’s migration to the United States. When the club let Aurelio go after the 1967 season, they handed him his remaining salary, some paperwork, and one particularly important piece of paper. During his time with Atlas, the club scheduled a game in San Francisco, California and acquired Visas for all its players, including their second-string goalie. Atlas, perhaps in a gesture of gratitude and solidarity, asked Aurelio if he wanted his Visa.[10] Aurelio never imagined he’d migrate to the United States, but he took the Visa and saved it until 1971 when he left Guadalajara for Southern California.

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Migration to “el norte” was nothing new, as a brief historical sketch of the twentieth century demonstrates. The Mexican Revolution, economic opportunities created during World War I, and the absence of farm labor after the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, created the “push” and “pull” factor. This wave of Mexican migration was augmented by the temporary worker program known as the Bracero Program (1948-64). Grower’s demand and disdain for adhering to labor laws outlined in the bi-national agreement helped foster undocumented migration. Historians estimate that 4.6 million workers migrated to the United States during this period. However, the end of the Bracero Program did not end the desire to migrate to the United States. Indeed, the post-1965 era saw an increase in illegal migration. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Celler Act) sought to eradicate xenophobia and racism from immigration policy by establishing quotas for the Western hemisphere. However, these quotas dramatically reduced the legal avenues “to accommodate the long-established flows,” and had the unintended consequences of increasing undocumented migration. For example, in 1981, approximately 101,268 migrants entered legally compared to 357,788 undocumented crossings.[11] With the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, close to three million residents gained legal status. In short, by 1990, close to 22.4 million Mexicans were living in the United States.[12]

This former professional soccer player joined hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who migrated to the United States during the Bracero Program and the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Aurelio’s generation was born as futbol was successfully battling baseball and boxing for the coveted position of Mexico’s favorite sport. Because he was born just one year after the founding of Mexico’s professional league, Aurelio and those born in the preceding decade had the opportunity to imagine and fill Mexico’s professional ranks. His generation also enthusiastically packed Guadalajara’s Estadio Jalisco when it was constructed in the 1960s and welcomed the world’s best players, including Pele, to Mexico for the 1970 World Cup.

By the 1960s, Mexicans had spent decades migrating to the United States and returning to Mexico for brief visits, for a season or two, permanently, or for their retirement. In the process, they created networks across the U.S.-Mexico Border. Children from La Experiencia were born into a community with a rich and deep history of soccer. It was these futbol roots and their networks that provided them the opportunity to imagine new futures across Mexico, as well as the United States, and the world. When Aurelio’s generation crossed the U.S.-Mexico Border and arrived to new lands, they found solace on the pitch and used the game to form new communities.[13]

Indeed, migrant futboleros created a robust soccer community, one that was a result of communal ties. The formation of new leagues across Southern California and divisions within those leagues attested to the growth of soccer in Southern California during the 1960s and 1970s. In an article for La Opinion in 1976, the Mexican-born sports writer Alfonso Arias explained that José Capuccetti founded La Liga California (The California League) because officials and referees of La Gran Liga discriminated against Mexican teams and players. In its inaugural year, the California League had seven teams and was composed almost exclusively of Mexican born and Mexican origin players (ninety-eight percent). By 1976 the league had five divisions—mayor (senior), primera (first), segunda (second), reservas (reserves), and juvenile (youth)—and more than one hundred teams. Moreover, Mexican and Latino leagues spread throughout Southern California.[14]

For Aurelio (as well as other migrant futboleros), his identity as player and migrant was complementary. The game structured leisure time and provided moneymaking opportunities both on and off the field. When he arrived to the San Gabriel Valley in 1971, the owner of the amateur team Tecolotlán (which was named after the town in Jalisco) paid him $1,000 to guard his team’s goal posts for the season. The team’s center defender worked as a foreman at a potato chip factory and provided Aurelio with a job. For many migrants, soccer enabled them to explore and map their neighborhood, parks, schools, and even cities.

As these male migrants became more settled, they brought their wives and children from Mexico and had children here in the United States. Aurelio, for example, brought Berenice and Juan from Mexico after a few months of living in the United States; and Berenice gave birth to two more boys here: Cesar and Hugo. Migrant futbolistas affectionately transmitted their love for the game to their children. Under the best of circumstances, these Mexican and U.S.-born children inherited their parents’ playing skills. These Mexican-American children formed part of the new and emerging cohort of soccer players. During the 1970s and 1980s, soccer caught fire across white suburbs and gave birth to the now colloquial and ubiquitous noun “soccer mom.” These migrant and American soccer universes rarely collided. Competitive and elite soccer, whether in the form of club teams for youth players or college for young adults, was restrictive and exclusionary. However, Aurelio and his son Juan found a way to navigate this American terrain with some fortune. After playing in Whittier Narrows Park in the California League’s youth league, Juan played for Club Santos, a travel team based in the affluent suburb of Walnut. The club team waved the fees, but the Sánchez family still had to cover expenses related with travel, such as hotel accommodations. By playing club soccer, he learned that there was “something outside of high school, outside of Pomona.”

Under the best of circumstances, these Mexican and U.S.-born children inherited their parents’ playing skills. These Mexican-American children formed part of the new and emerging cohort of soccer players.

From this new horizon Juan envisioned attending college and playing soccer there. After graduating from Garey High School in 1989, he played at California State University, Los Angeles for Leonardo Cuellar, the former Mexican National Team player and Pumas standout. Cuellar himself migrated to the United States as a professional athlete when he was signed by the San Diego Sockers of the North American Soccer League in 1979. After a successful collegiate experience, Juan went on to play professionally in Mexico and the United States, before becoming the men’s head coach at Mount San Antonio Community College. As a community college coach, he created pathways for first-generation college students and migrant children who would otherwise not attend college. His team naturally succeeded on the field as well. By recruiting and developing local talent (predominately players of Mexican heritage), he has become one of California’s most dominant community college soccer coaches. For the last fifteen years, Juan Sánchez and his coaching staff have led players to ten final four appearances and five state championships.

Mexicans’ preference for baseball, basketball, and boxing during the first half of the twentieth century have reflected the popularity of these sports in Mexico, as well as their popularity in the United States. As Chicano/a scholars have argued, American educators, religious leaders, and other reformers, saw sport (especially baseball and basketball) as a vehicle to Americanize Mexican children and youth. In his pioneering work on soccer in the Midwest, Juan Javier Pescador shows how Mexicans formed teams as early as the 1940s. However, because there were not many Mexican teams, they played in leagues formed and dominated by European migrants. Moreover, these first teams were predominately composed of Mexican migrants and not Mexican-Americans.[15] That slowly began to change at the beginning of the 1960s. Coverage of the sport in La Opinion, a Spanish-language Los Angeles-based newspaper, reflects these changes. During the 1940s and 1950s the paper’s cursory coverage of futbol tended to focus on international competitions, such as professional leagues in Mexico, Latin America, Europe, and the Copa del Mundo. The majority of ink in U.S. papers was dedicated to American football, baseball, and boxing, yet in the 1960s they started writing about the soccer leagues in Southern California, as well as listing games and reporting scores between teams with names like Tepatitlán, Michoacán, Marte, Imperio, Oro, Atlas, and San Bernardino.[16] By 1976, it not only reflected on the history of these leagues and their contribution to California culture, but lauded the efforts and achievements of migrant futboleros and U.S.-born Mexicans who made it onto Southern California’s college teams and into the professional ranks of U.S. soccer.

As the California Polytechnic State University students shuffled in their seats during that evening, Fall 2017, Aurelio sat quietly and intently looking down onto the field. His eyes carefully observed each team’s movements and formations, as well as his grandson’s vital place within this intricate system. As I sat next to Aurelio and his family, I thought of a young Aurelio sitting on top of a maize pyramid watching Mexican players do battle on a dirt pitch. I tried to imagine La Experiencia’s soccer pitch in the 1940s, the Estadio Jalisco during the 1970 World Cup, the humble fields of the San Gabriel Valley during the 1970s, and those of Whitter Narrows of the 1980s. Like other migrant futboleros of his generation, Aurelio formed part of a transnational soccer community that connected the history of the game in Mexico to its growth in the United States. They form a vital, if often ignored, part of the United States’s soccer history and roots. As the world prepares for the 2018 World Cup, it would behoove us to think about how we might celebrate and integrate the United States’s migrant soccer communities into U.S. soccer.

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Aurelio’s son Juan Sánchez. Anaheim Splash of Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL).


Notes

 * An earlier version of this paper was presented at Harvard and Simon’s College’s conference, “Reinforcing, Crossing, and Transcending Borders: Soccer in a Globalized World,” Athens, Greece, 4-7 September 2017. The author would like to thank José Alamillo and the anonymous reviewer for their feedback and suggestions and the Sánchez family for sharing their personal archive.

[1] For a more detailed history of futbol in Mexico see Javier Bañuelos Rentería, Cronicas del futbol mexicano, vol. 1 Balón a tierra (1896-1932) (Mexico City: Editorial Clio, 1998); Joshua H. Nadel, Fútbol! Why Soccer Matters in Latin America (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2017); Juan Javier Pescador, “Los Heroes del Domingo: Soccer, Borders, and Social Spaces in Great Lakes Mexican Communities, 1940-1970,” in Mexican Americans and Sports: A Reader on Athletics and Barrio Life, ed. Jorge Iber and Samuel O. Regalado (College Station:  Texas A&M University Press, 2007).

[2] To reconstruct the history of Club Imperio I use two main sources: An oral history with Aurelio Sánchez conducted on 10 August 2017; and the following book: Enrique Francisco Camarena, Club Imperio: Treinta años de deporte en la Experiencia, Jalisco, México, Tomo II: Historia General de la vida religiosa, social, artistica y deportiva del lugar (Guadalajara, Jalisco: Talleres Grafica, 1948).

[3] Robust literature exists on Mexican nation-state formation. Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds, Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994); Gilbert M. Joseph, Anne Rubenstein, and Eric Zolov, eds, Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico Since 1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); Mary Kay Vaughan and Stephen E. Lewis, eds, The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

[4] Translation by author. Cited in Dafne Cruz Porchini’s “Formando el cuerpo de la nación: el imaginario del deporte en el México posrevolucionarios (1920-1940),” in El Deporte en el México Posrevolucionario (1920-1940): Formando el cuerpo de una nación, ed. María Monserrat Sánchez Soler (México: Consejo nacional para la cultura, Instituto nacional de bellas artes, Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, 2012) “un element primordial para formar una patria integrada por hombres sanos, viriles y entusiastas…. Se alcanzará sin duda alguna encarnar el arquetipo del hombre del porvernir, fuerte de músculos y sano de espíritu. El deportee s una religion salvadora de los tentáculos del vicio y la maldad, y creadora del carácter y fortaleza de un pueblo.”

[5] Joseph L. Arbena, “Sport, Development, and Mexican Nationalism, 1920-1970,” Journal of Sport History 18 (1991): 350-64.

[6] The National Revolutionary Games included approximately twenty-three different athletic competitions. This included basketball, baseball, boxing, charreria, tennis, golf, polo, volleyball, swimming, futbol, and more. See Memoria de los juegos deportivos nacionales de la revolucion (México: Secretaria de Educación Pública, Oficina de Prensa la Dirección Nacional de Educación Física).

[7] Aurelio Sánchez, interviewed by Romeo Guzmán, 10 August 2017, California State University, Fresno, “Valley Public History: Preserving our Stories.”

[8] Pierre Lanfranchi and Matthew Taylor, Moving with the Ball: The Migration of Professional Footballers (New York: Berg, 2001).

[9] The distance between La Piedad and La Experiencia is approximately 105 miles. Today’s commute by car is about two hours.

[10] I am not sure what type of Visa Atlas, as a sports club, was able to obtain. It might have been a H-1 Visa. Before 1990 foreign athletes applied for the H-1 Visa with “no intention of abandoning residence in their native countries” and required to be of “distinguished merit and ability” and performing a job for which no qualified American was available. See Amy Worden, “Gaining Entry: The New O and P Categories for Nonimmigrant Alien Athletes,” Marquette Sports Law Review 9 (1999): 467-94.

[11] Douglas Massey and Karen A. Pren, “Unitended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America,” Population and Development Review 38 (2012): 1-29.

[12] Betsy Guzmán. “The Hispanic Population,” Census 2000 Brief, May 2000 (U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration), https://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/c2kbr01-3.pdf.

[13] Ethnographic studies on Mexican and Latino/a soccer clubs, illustrate how sport becomes a “third space.” See Marie Price and Courtney Withworth, “Soccer and Latino Cultural Space: Metropolitan Washington Fútbol Leagues,” in Hispanic spaces, Latino places: Community and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary America, ed. Daniel D. Arreola (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004).

[14] Alfonso Arias, “Recordando a los impulsores del futbol en Los Angeles,” La Opinion, 16 September 1976.

[15] See Juan Javier Pescador, “Los Heroes del Domingo: Soccer, Borders, and Social Spaces in Great Lakes Mexican Communities, 1940-1970,” in Mexican Americans and Sports: A Reader on Atheltics and Barrio Life, ed. Jorge Iber and Samuel O. Regalado (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007).

[16] For more on Mexicans and Latino/as impact on soccer in the United States see Ingrid Kummels, “Adiós soccer, here comes fútbol!: La transnacionalización de comunidades deportivas mexicanas en los Estados Unidos,” Iberoamericana, Nueva época 7 (September 2007): 101-116; David Trouille, “Association Football to Fútbol: ethnic succession and the history of Chicago-area soccer since 1920,” Soccer & Society 10 (November 2009): 795-822; Leonard Melchor, “Mexicans in Four Images: Cinema, Self and Soccer in the Creation of Real and Imagined Mexicans,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Los Angeles: UCLA, 2014).

 

Romeo Guzmán is an assistant professor in U.S. and Public History at Fresno State, where he directs the Valley Public History Initiative. He received his Ph.D. in Latin American history from Columbia University. Guzmán is the co-director of the South El Monte Arts Posse. For more please visit romeoguzman.com.

Copyright: © 2018 Romeo Guzmán. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy

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Joseph A. Palermo

The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert Francis Kennedy allows for a moment to reflect on the meaning of that tragic event. Alongside a four-part Netflix documentary, dozens of articles about RFK have recently appeared, some of which raise new questions about the assassin’s motives and whether or not he had acted alone. One historian has tried to place RFK’s killing squarely inside the contemporary U.S. discourse of the “war on terror”; while other commentators cast doubt on the idea that the person convicted of the crime was truly guilty.

The 1968 Democratic primary in California was among the most important elections held in the United States in the 1960s. With its racial and ethnic diversity and its manufacturing, agriculture, technology, and service industries, the Golden State was seen as a microcosm of the nation. The 174 votes of the California delegation that Kennedy won in the winner-take-all primary put him in a far stronger position going into the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August. Kennedy’s victory brought to the forefront the wing of the Democratic party that called for an end to the Vietnam War, supported the struggle for civil rights (including farm workers), and advocated new programs to alleviate poverty. RFK’s California win was a pivotal moment for his presidential bid both practically and symbolically. More than any other state, it was California that cleared a pathway for Kennedy to win the nomination of his party and possibly the presidency that November.

The 1968 Democratic primary in California was among the most important elections held in the United States in the 1960s.

Having written two books and several articles about the life of Robert F. Kennedy, up until now I have eschewed writing specifically about his murder. But as the fiftieth anniversary drew near I felt compelled to spend some time in the California State Archives in Sacramento combing through Los Angeles County Sheriff’s records relating to the time immediately following the assassination, when the accused suspect was in the deputies’ custody. Until now these deputies’ logs languished in the archives unremarked upon even though they contain illuminating evidence regarding the alleged assassin’s motives and demeanor in June 1968.

My aim in this article is not to draw grandiose conclusions about the motives behind RFK’s killing, but to try to capture the drama of the details of one of the most consequential political assassinations in American history, and to reconsider that dreadful event of 5 June 1968 in light of what I found in the archival documents.

RFK-2

Photo 5 from Bayview Branch Archives: Robert Kennedy in Bayview Hunters Point. Photo possibly taken 10 May 1967 when U.S. Senators Robert Kennedy, George Murphy, and Joseph S. Clark visited San Francisco’s Western Addition and Bayview Hunters Point neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.


The Fatal Event in Los Angeles

Packed tightly inside a sweltering ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, several thousand people—as diverse as California itself—were euphoric that their candidate had just won the state’s Democratic presidential primary. When shrieks arose from a far corner of the room, people realized something was terribly wrong. The realization that gunshots were fired wafted through the crowd, followed by the human sounds of panic mixed with disbelief.

Could this really be happening? New York Senator Robert Francis Kennedy, the younger brother of the slain President John F. Kennedy, suffering a similar fate?

An ambulance rushed Robert Kennedy to Central Receiving Hospital (where he received last rites) and then to Good Samaritan Hospital for emergency brain surgery. For three hours doctors endeavored to remove bone and bullet fragments from the base of his brain, after which he lay clinging to life in “extremely critical” condition.

Back at the Ambassador Hotel, police detained a “John Doe” and charged him with four counts of assault with attempt to commit murder. A secret arraignment was scheduled for 8:30 that morning where bail would be set at $250,000.

The John Doe was being treated at the jail hospital for injuries sustained during his apprehension when prosecutors added two more charges of attempted murder.[1] The doctor’s memo stated the suspect’s left index finger had been fractured and he had a sprained ankle, adding: “blood pressure 112 over 70, pulse 80, temperature 98.0, weight 109 lbs.” His height was listed at sixty-two and a quarter inches.[2]

L.A. County Sheriffs knew extraordinary measures were needed to ensure the safety of their charge. Witnesses at the scene had already alluded to the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President Kennedy, who was murdered while in police custody. “We don’t want another Dallas,” someone blurted out when the shooter was being taken out to a police car. The F.B.I. stationed an agent at the Sheriff’s Department to help protect their detainee from those who would do him harm (or from suicide).[3]

Given the intense interest in the shooting of Robert F. Kennedy and what had transpired in Dallas fifty-three months earlier, L.A. County Sheriffs reassured the public they were taking all necessary steps to keep their famous inmate safe.[4] Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess told the press that no prisoner in the history of the country had ever been held under such tight security. “One deputy remains in the cell with the prisoner at all times,” he said, “while another stands outside in the corridor and watches the cell through a small window in the door; and four more deputies are nearby.”[5]

By noontime 5 June, investigators learned the John Doe’s identity from his brother, who believed his gun was used in the shooting. They were holding Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, whose family immigrated to the United States in 1957 “from Jerusalem, Jordan.” A Sheriff’s Department memo stated that his father, Bishara, had returned to Jerusalem in 1959, and his mother, “Marg [sic] Sirhan,” resided in Pasadena and worked at the Westminster Nursery School. “Pasadena police department [sic] records reflect many calls to the home of Sirhans to settle family disturbances.”[6] The arrest report reads:

Sirhan Sirhan 24 Years

Is not a citizen of the United States and to our knowledge has never applied for citizenship.

Graduated from John Muir High School in Pasadena in 1963. Fellow students like him and called him “Volk,” which means wolf in Russian—Name resulted from his participation in a Russian language class at school.

Has been employed as an exercise boy at racetracks and also as a stock clerk in health food store.

His is Christian, not of Moslem [sic] faith, so diet will not present a problem while he is in our custody.[7]

At about two o’clock in the morning on 6 June, Kennedy’s press secretary Frank Mankiewicz read a short statement from Good Samaritan Hospital: “Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968. With the Senator at the time of his death was his wife, Ethel, his sisters, Mrs. Patricia Lawford and Mrs. Stephen Smith, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. John F. Kennedy. He was forty-two years old.”

Death threats and rumors of death threats flooded the L.A. Sheriff’s Department. A woman called saying her brother-in-law was “determined to kill Sirhan and will attempt to do so when he is taken to trial.” Another tip warned that members of the Mexican-American militant group, the Brown Berets, “may attempt to assassinate Sirhan during one of his court appearances.”[8] Sheriffs also heard from postal inspectors who “received an anonymous call from a male identifying himself as an employee at the Terminal Annex to the effect that he had overheard Negro employees in the Annex state that they were going kill Sirhan Sirhan when he was removed from the security of jail.”[9] Another police report noted a call from “an unidentified male” claiming there had “been a bomb planted in the Hall of Justice [in Los Angeles] set to go off at 4:00 p.m. to kill the suspect that shot Senator Kennedy”; “a shakedown of the building is underway.”[10] There was even a rumor that an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union was “going to pass suspect Sirhan a cyanide pill.” [11]

RFK_hospital

On Tuesday, Robert Kennedy had been celebrating his hard-fought election victory in Los Angeles. By Saturday evening he was beneath the ground in Washington.

For unknown reasons investigators sought information about Robert Kennedy’s friend, movie director John Frankenheimer, whose home Kennedy and some of his family members stayed in while he campaigned in southern California: “A confidential informant reports subject is a movie and television producer of some magnitude. Informant dislikes subject because of his means of picking talent used on his shows and the fact that although married, he openly ‘carries on’ with numerous paramours.”[12]

The Sheriff’s Department also took an unsolicited phone call from a woman who spoke about Mr. Sirhan stalking Kennedy: “On the day preceding the assassination of Senator Kennedy, a young man, whom she recognizes as Sirhan Sirhan, accompanied by a young lady came to the headquarters and represented himself as a member of the Kennedy Headquarters in Pasadena. He was asking information on the Senator’s schedule…. She and another employee can describe his female companion and can identify her.”[13]

About thirty-five hours after his arrest, Sheriff deputies checked out two books from the public library, which Sirhan Sirhan had requested: The Secret Doctrine by H.P. Blavatsky and Talks on ‘At the Feet of the Master’ by C.W. Leadbeater.[14] The next day the Los Angeles Times explained to its puzzled readers that Blatavsky was a Russian-born founder of the theosophical movement who died in 1891, and “Leadbetter’s 522-page book, published in 1923, is a critique of ‘At the Feet of the Master,’ a theosophical work by Jiddu Krishnamurti published in 1895.”[15] The esoteric reading habits of the young alleged assassin (who multiple press accounts called “swarthy”) only fueled public speculation about his motives. The news story led an educator who was familiar with the works from the English Department at Eastern Michigan University to send Sheriff Pitchess a letter imploring him to look into the possibility that “you are dealing with a ritual murder, which the defense might easily use to prove insanity of some sort, religious compulsion, etc.”[16]

At midday on 6 June, Kennedy’s body, inside a casket of African mahogany, left Good Samaritan Hospital in a blue hearse with a cortege of nine limousines and motorcycle police escorts. After the twenty-mile freeway ride to LAX, several hundred onlookers watched as the Kennedy entourage boarded an Air Force 707 jet that President Lyndon B. Johnson provided. Jacqueline Kennedy and Coretta Scott King joined Ethel Kennedy on the plane.

After a four-and-a-half hour flight, the plane touched down at La Guardia Airport in New York at 8:58 p.m. From there a hearse and thirty-four cars slowly made their way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Over the next forty hours, 151,000 people, some of whom waited for up to six hours in ninety-degree heat, made the pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s to spend a few seconds filing past Kennedy’s casket.

The following morning, a grand jury of fourteen women and eight men convened at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles for a daylong hearing. They heard testimony from twenty-two witnesses before indicting Sirhan Sirhan on one charge of first-degree murder and five counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder.[17]

On Saturday, 8 June, there was a nationally televised funeral service with Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and other U.S. officials as well as foreign dignitaries in attendance. At the close of the forty-five-minute ceremony, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the thirty-six-year-old youngest sibling of the Kennedy clan who had lost all three of his older brothers, quoted from RFK’s June 1966 South Africa speech as well as from his remarks when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. He closed his eulogy, voice cracking: “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

After arriving at Penn Station, Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin was rested on a bier inside a black-curtained funeral carriage at the back of a twenty-one-car train bound for Washington, D.C. He would be laid to rest near his brother’s “eternal flame” at Arlington National Cemetery. News accounts estimated that a million people had lined the tracks and crowded into stations along 226 miles of railway to bid Kennedy a final goodbye. At the gravesite in Arlington, after a brief burial service, Ethel Kennedy was given the folded American flag and her husband of eighteen years, with whom she had ten children with an eleventh on the way, was interred. On Tuesday, Robert Kennedy had been celebrating his hard-fought election victory in Los Angeles. By Saturday evening he was beneath the ground in Washington. 


The Deputies’ “Lettergrams”

The short “lettergrams” L.A. County deputies filed on carbon forms at the end of their shifts (roughly the size of a half-sheet of paper) reported any and all communications with inmates. While the nation was coming to terms with the consequences of this demur young man’s monumental act of violence, working-class Sheriff’s deputies served as his gatekeepers to the outside world.

In the aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Sirhan Sirhan disclosed no interest in voicing any grandiose purpose for his crime. Under California law at the time, if convicted, he could be sentenced to death, which was an incentive not to sound like his actions were premeditated. The majority of the “lettergrams” are routine and institutional, but a few hint at the assassin’s state of mind:

[12 June 1968]

Between 8:00/PM and 9:26/PM I was in room 7058 with I/M [inmate] Sirhan. During this time I/M Sirhan conversed with me about religion. The conversation was light and in generalities.

I/M Sirhan appeared to be rested and in good spirits. Deputy Culver interviewed, stated inmate discussed religious symbols “Egyptian Cross,” “Swastika as cross put to evil use,” [handwriting illegible]

Respectfully submitted,

Dep. William R. Culver #3308[18]

Sirhan generally stayed quiet but when he chose to speak it was about far reaching topics. Under the subject heading “Communication with I/M Sirhan, Sirhan B. #718486” another deputy writes:

[13 June 1968]

During my tour of duty, 3:30/PM-1:30/AM, this day I discussed the following subjects and topics with I/M Sirhan: The French Problem & the gravity of the situation. The essential elements of college & subjects now being offered. Los Angeles & like sister cities, the weather, smog problem & the necessities of automobiles. . . .[19]

On several occasions, Sirhan asked deputies about what the news media were saying about him, but he refrained from using his newfound notoriety to impart any formal statement about his political motivations. He didn’t talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Kennedy’s pro-Israel views, or his own burning desire to kill RFK that was widely publicized after police found diaries in his bedroom where he wrote repeatedly: “RFK Must Die! RFK Must Die!” Sirhan’s jailhouse disposition was a far cry from the young man who filled spiral notebooks with passionate calls for Kennedy’s death.

In fact, Sirhan comes across as being rather listless with little interest in articulating any public statement at all, even after killing a world-famous political figure:

[13 June 1968]

While on duty in I/M Sirhan’s room between 3:30/P and 11:30/P, the only communication between I/M Sirhan and myself was when I/M ask [sic] me if there was still a lot of publicity in the newspapers concerning his case. I replied that I didn’t know as I hadn’t read the newspapers lately.[20]

Another “lettergram” states:

[13 June 1968]

I entered room + [sic] I/M Sirhan said “Good morning Mr. Davis I haven’t seen you for a couple of days! Have you been off?” I answered Yes. I/M “None of the other deputies are talking to me. I notice none of you are wearing name tags, whats up [sic]. New orders from Pete?” I answered No I don’t think that’s it.

I/M “What are the papers saying about me?” I answered I don’t know, I don’t have time to read them. I listen to the news on T.V. in the evenings. If you are curious why don’t you by one? I/M “Naw, I don’t really want to know.”

Respectfully submitted,

Dep. Davis #219 Daywatch[21]

Throughout the “lettergram” records, Sirhan behaves as a model inmate; he respectfully refers to each deputy as “Mr.” and sounds genuinely interested in their lives. His demeanor was no different than any other twenty-four-year-old inmate in the L.A. County Jail who had just made a terrible mistake.[22]

Sirhan_lettergrams


The Provocateur

On the day Sirhan was indicted, an anti-Israel provocateur from New York City named John M. Lawrence, who headed a small left-wing group called “Federated Americans against Israeli Racism” (F.A.I.R.) sent him a letter on F.A.I.R. letterhead. For Mr. Lawrence at least, Sirhan’s motives were clear: “Our pro-Arab political organization extends our friendship to you in your time of trouble. We are proud of you personally for that part of the showing you made establishing you have great heart for the suffering Arab peoples in and about Palestine. We, of course, regret that in your political naivety, you foolishly used the method of assassination.”[23] Lawrence pledges his assistance: “We want you to know that in us, in F.A.I.R., you will have loyal friends. We want to be in touch with you to be of all the help we can in your hard days ahead. To us you are a soldier in the cause of justice for the Arab people who in good faith made a bad judgment.”[24] He concludes his first of many letters to Sirhan: “Day by day the militancy of the Palestinian freedom fighters grows.”[25] A subsequent letter included a money order for an unspecified amount.[26]

Four days later, an ally of Lawrence’s from New York, Dr. M.T. Mehdi, who was the “Secretary-General” of the “Action Committee on American-Arab Relations,” also inserted himself into the case by issuing a press release where he, like Lawrence, directly tied the killing of Robert Kennedy to U.S. Middle East policy:

Sirhan Sirhan is a Christian Palestinian refugee whose people have been either killed, or expelled or subjugated by the Zionist Jews. It was morally wrong on the part of Senator Kennedy to submit to the pressure of the Zionist and promise sending fifty jet fighters to Israel so that more Israeli Jews might kill more of Sirhan’s people and occupy more of Sirhan’s home…. Senator Kennedy is in a very real sense an indirect victim of Zionism.[27]

Mehdi would go on to write a tendentious one hundred-page essay on the subject that was published later in 1968 titled, Kennedy and Sirhan: Why?

Enclosed with Lawrence’s 7 June letter were three copies of F.A.I.R.’s amateurish newsletter, “Insight.” “Restore Palestine to the Arab People” and “For a Unified and Progressive Arab Nation” are the slogans on “Insight’s” masthead. In the February 1968 edition Sirhan possessed, F.A.I.R. vows never to “abandon its basic principle of calling for the abolition or nullification of the Jewish State and government of Israel.” An article therein recounts the “Deir Yassin massacre” of 9 April 1948 where it claims “254 Arabs—men, women, children and even babies—were slaughtered in cold blood, and their bodies dumped into a well…. Remember Deir Yassin! Remember that Jewishism is Nazi barbarism!”[28]

So impressed with F.A.I.R.’s vote of confidence and the content of “Insight,” Sirhan asked deputies about how he might reply:

… At 12:16/PM Sr. Dep. Montague entered room to remove subj. [sic] plate (noon meal) upon subj. request. Sr. Montague asked subj. if he was finished eating and subj. replied “Yes! Thank you!”

At 12:35/PM subj. asked me “How much does it cost to send a telegram to New York?” I replied that I did not know. Subj. was reading the newsletter (Insight) when he asked about sending (the cost) a telegram [sic].[29]

This “lettergram” of 13 June is the first glimpse within the Sheriffs’ logs that Sirhan had any feelings about what the reaction to his deed might be in the Arab world. At 2:30 that afternoon, he wired a Western Union telegram to F.A.I.R.’s office at 57 West 10th Street, New York:

Respected Sirs: Grateful for $ [sic] enjoyed “Insight” Please send more issues. Anxious about Mideast reaction. Sirhan 718486[30]

Obscured by fifty years of reporting and commentary on the RFK killing, Sirhan chose to transmit his first communication to the outside world to a fringe anti-Israel group in New York City. And he didn’t want the public to know about it:

[13 June 1968]

On this date at approx [sic] 12:40/P I/M Sirhan asked “Can the contents of this telegram be kept from the press?” I assured him that I felt this could be done. In I/M Sirhan’s presence, I stated to Sr. Dep. Montague, “He wishes that the contents of this telegram be kept from the press.” Sr. Dep. replied, “Sure.” When the door was closed again, I/M Sirhan said to me, “You’re a good man, Mr. Greene.” I smiled and said nothing.[31]

Apparently wanting to learn more about Lawrence and F.A.I.R., the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department obtained newspaper clippings from New York. One covered an action Lawrence had held a few weeks earlier at New York University where he set up a table in front of Loeb Student Center to distribute anti-Israel materials that provoked a violent reaction from students. “Lawrence, a regular fixture of the Village,” the Washington Square Journal reported, “set the table up at 11:30 a.m. During his 10-hour stay, he moved almost directly in front of Loeb after some students burned a few of his pamphlets, took some pro-Arab buttons, and tore pamphlets and signs that called for Arab revenge on Israel.”[32] The local newspaper estimated that at its peak, a crowd of one hundred people surrounded the forty-six-year-old and he called police, who set up a barricade to separate his table from the angry students. (Lawrence had previously sued NYU after a similar action when he was forced to remove his table.)[33] The whole event seems to have been aimed at little more than baiting NYU students.

Sirhan had every opportunity to share his political views with the public, but he preferred to keep his mouth shut and his contacts with F.A.I.R. hidden. On 14 June, Jack V. Fox, an editor for United Press International, sent Sirhan a list of seven questions with spaces for him to furnish written replies. Given U.P.I.’s worldwide distribution, this was Sirhan’s chance to display his solidarity with people back home in Jordan and Jerusalem. But U.P.I. got nothing from him.[34] The inspiration he gleaned from the “Insight” newsletters filled with anti-Israel invective prompted him to send a telegram, suggest Sirhan’s politics were more sophisticated than he let on.

 


Sirhan Opens Up

Some of Sirhan’s dialogues with deputies were ponderous, proving the twenty-four-year-old community college student liked to talk about big ideas and contemporary events. One deputy’s log from 14 June describes discussing “the evolution of man and mankind’s beliefs, the current French crisis and the impact on America and how laymen see it, the Southeast Asia escalation and the questions both pro and con presented by Americans.”[35]

One report stands out from the other “lettergrams” and is noteworthy for its length and detail summarizing a colloquy Sirhan had with an African-American officer, Deputy T.I. Greene, where he expressed empathy with the civil rights movement:

Subject: Sirhan Sirhan; Conversation With

At approx [sic] 11:35 A [sic] on 6-14-68, I had occasion to relieve inside Sirahan’s room. After a period of approx 5 minutes silence, he referred to a pile of publications on the floor and asked, “Have you read any of these?” I replied, “No I haven’t.” “I thought that’s why they were out there, so you could read them before giving them to me,” he smiled. I assured him that I had not seen them. He said he wanted me to read something—sorted through the pile, and handed me a publication containing an article of Malcolm X’s visit to the Arab land. The article hailed Malcolm as a great leader and mentioned how he experienced no discrimination, how the Arab was for the Blackman [sic], and that they supported each other (words to that effect). After reading the article I set it down and said nothing. He asked me, “What do you think of the present Black movement?” I told him, “I’m for it.” He said, “Good.” and seemed pleased to hear that.

Next he asked, “What do you feel about Malcolm X?” I said I thought he was a great leader. “You damn right he was,” replied Sirhan and seemed even more pleased than before. With this he pulled another publication from the pile and turned it to another article for me to read. This one was about the Blacks in New York wearing the African costumes, etc. and mentioned identification. I read it and sat it down on the bunk. He wanted to discuss the articles but I just smiled. He smiled also and said, “I understand.” However within a very short moment he asked, “What do you think about Stokely Carmichael?” I told him that I knew Stokely. (I really don’t) He lit up like a X-mas tree and asked several time, “Personally,… personally?” [sic] To this I smiled and lowered my head.

The next question he asked me was, “Have you ever read or do you know an author named Fromm?” and tried to recall his first name. I asked him if he meant Eric Fromm? He said, “yes, yes, that’s the one!!” [sic] He asked me about some other writer who’s [sic] name I can’t recall.

During the time the dialogue was broken by the lunch that was brought into the room. Regarding the demeanor of the servers he asked, “Why do you think they are being so nice to me?” I shrugged it off as “Just following instructions.” He looked at me again with that funny smile.[36]

The provenance of the two-and-a-half-page, hand-written text is that of a standalone chronicle necessitating more detail at the request of a supervisor. Three days later, Inspector R.C. Welch disseminated a memorandum to his deputies clarifying how they should interact with their famous inmate:

All conversations conducted with subject Sirhan Sirhan by the Deputies on duty shall be at Sirhan’s initiative. Deputies shall give noncommittal answers to questions and make no attempts to elicit information through the prolongation of a conversation.[37]

Thereafter, there are no subsequent records of Deputy Greene having any interactions with Sirhan. The discussion Sirhan sparked up with the black officer in an almost pedagogical way proves his keen awareness of the ongoing social struggles of 1968.


Clemency for Sirhan

Eager to interject himself into Sirhan’s case, either to try to co-opt it or draw free publicity from it, Lawrence reemerges 21 June, announcing the formation of an “Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan.” He decried newspaper accounts that Sirhan’s lawyer might pursue an insanity plea. In prose that is somehow both breathless and turgid at the same time, he accused the counsel of “inciting xenophobic anti-foreigner statements from hatemongering elements in the United States to seek to cause schisms in the Arab-American community now uniting to support a clemency appeal for Mr. Sirhan, and to create antagonisms between the peoples and governments of the Arab states and of the United States.”[38] Lawrence was likely reacting to reports that Sirhan’s lawyer sought a psychiatric evaluation of his client.[39]

To drum up support for clemency, Lawrence sent out press releases to the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Free Press, and to the left-wing radio station KPFK in Los Angeles protesting the “prejudicial conduct against” Sirhan.[40] F.A.I.R. and the “Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan” defended Sirhan’s constitutional rights and conjoined RFK’s killing to the struggle of the Palestinian people (something Sirhan had not done publicly). M.T. Mehdi was listed as a co-sponsor. Lawrence’s rambling, eleven-page, single-spaced letter to Sirhan extolling the committee includes a thumbnail history of the United States. The tone of the letter is heuristic, as if to arm the young assassin with a defense of his deed grounded in history.[41]

When The Washington Post published a front-page story about Sirhan on 24 June 1968 by the journalist George Lardner, Jr., Lawrence was apoplectic and wasted no time firing off a blistering rebuttal on behalf of the “Organizing Committee.” He mailed a copy to Sirhan:

We condemn [the article] as part of the neo-McCarthyite, gutter-tactic campaign being waged by U.S. press media, long partisans of the Jewish racist cause of immolating the rights of Palestinian Arabs, to defame and degrade Sirhan B. Sirhan for the real purpose of demeaning the cause for justice for the Arab people.[42]

John Lawrence ridiculed any attempt to pursue a “diminished capacity” defense (even though such a legal tactic was probably the only way to save Sirhan’s life), and refers to Sirhan alternately as a “Palestinian freedom fighter,” a “moderate Christian Socialist,” and an “anarchist.”[43] It seems Lawrence would be just as happy if the state of California made a martyr out of Sirhan and he flattered him with bizarre historical comparisons:

Sirhan B. Sirhan is the Arab-American prototype of John Brown. As John Brown murdered three U.S. troops to seize weapons to help set free the slaves, and by his act awakened the American conscience against the brutalities of slavery and government suppression of the “Underground Railroad,” so Sirhan, with equal political naivety has foolishly, if successfully, struck his blow for Palestinian Arab freedom. Sirhan B. Sirhan is the Arab cause prototype of the workingman who assassinated President McKinley in protest against McKinley’s avowed policy to increase the brutality and terror against organizing workingmen….[44]

In The Washington Post article, a copy of which was held in the L.A. Sheriff’s files, Lardner had interviewed some of Sirhan’s neighbors and co-workers at a health food store. He had been employed there for seven months as a $2-an-hour stock clerk and delivery boy. They all seemed to agree that Sirhan had “wonderful manners” and was generous, even once paying the bill for an elderly customer who couldn’t afford his groceries.[45]

But some of them spoke about another side of the young Pasadena resident. “He had this attitude of rebellion against society,” the owner of the store, John Weidner, told Lardner. “Most of all, he was anti-Israel,” Mr. Weidner’s wife, Naomi said. She recalled a conversation where Sirhan vented his bitterness about the June 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors and grew angry when Mrs. Weidner brought up Nazi atrocities against the Jews during World War II: “Don’t you think the Jews can be cruel?” he asked. “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else, not even my parents”; he disclosed that as a young boy he had seen an Israeli soldier mutilate an Arab woman.

From the Christian village of Taibeh, in what the press called “Israeli-Occupied Jordan,” Sirhan’s father, Bishara, disputed his son’s recollection, stating that he had never been near any Israeli soldiers. Yet three days earlier it was reported in another paper that Bishara conceded that his son suffered facial injuries when an Israeli mortar exploded near him and that he witnessed an Arab woman stabbed by an Israeli soldier.[46] From Lardner’s reportage it appears Sirhan might have simply seized an opportunity to act out when RFK began spending a lot of time campaigning near his hometown. He concludes:

But it seems apparent that resentment of Israel and Robert F. Kennedy’s support of military aid for the country is hardly enough to explain the assassination of which he stands indicted. Virtually every Arab and Arab-American waxes bitter about Israel. There is only one Sirhan Bishara Sirhan.[47]

Lawrence also tried to stoke Sirhan’s hatred toward Kennedy. In another letter he wrote about an “encounter” he claimed to have had with RFK in an elevator in the New York building housing M.T. Mehdi’s pro-Arab group:

I was wearing our pro-Arab button on my lapel, which reads: RESTORE PALESTINE TO THE ARAB PEOPLE. [sic] I told Mr. Kennedy I had heard his Brooklyn College statement and that in time he would find out that there are more people in America for the Arab justice cause then [sic] he knew. In typical Kennedy “smart-aleckism” [sic] he beamed: “Thank you for your support. I appreciate your support.” To this I replied that he would never receive my support, nor those any decent people, for we knew a Machiavellian when we saw one.”[48]

The jailhouse records are bereft of evidence that Sirhan disagreed with any of the opinions or content of the materials Lawrence or M.T. Mehdi sent him.

13096069_10209111220007682_6189415885637481362_n


“Blowback”

The anti-Israel groups purporting to operate in Sirhan’s behalf—F.A.I.R., the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, and M.T. Mehdi’s Action Committee on American-Arab Relations—all sought to bolster the young man’s view of himself as a “freedom fighter” for Palestine. They harped on RFK’s support for giving Israel U.S. jet fighters (even though other presidential candidates in 1968 held the same position) and never missed an opportunity to frame the assassination as an overtly political act, even while Sirhan stayed mum on the subject.

F.A.I.R.’s original statement establishing the clemency committee contains a strident assertion that U.S. actions in the Middle East had led to the assassination. In doing so, the militants from New York had fit Robert Kennedy’s killing squarely into a “blowback” narrative. “The Jewish war on Palestinian Arabs more and more will inevitably be brought to the streets of America to those who in cynical politics nurture it,” Lawrence proclaimed.[49] Yet it’s safe to conclude after a half-century that the RFK assassination had zero effect on the trajectory of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

What Sirhan had done was eliminate Kennedy’s voice in domestic politics at a crucial moment when he was seeking to lead a bitterly divided Democratic Party. Sirhan’s act might have proved irrelevant to U.S.-Middle East policy, but it altered American political history profoundly. Not only did Kennedy’s assassination create a vacuum of leadership at a critical time, it began a decades-long identity crisis for the Democratic Party.

It was no secret that as the senator from New York, Kennedy had championed the State of Israel. He had been a friend of the Jews in Palestine from the time he first traveled there as young man in 1948 and wrote about his admiration for the Tel Aviv Haganah in a Boston newspaper. “The United States and Great Britain before too long a time might well be looking to a Jewish state to preserve a toehold in that part of the world,” he wrote.[50] But Kennedy also strongly defended the United Nations as one of the few international bodies friendly to Palestinian interests. He was committed to the wider mission of the U.N. going back to his law school days when in 1951 he defied the University of Virginia’s racial segregation policies to invite the African-American diplomat Ralph Bunche to speak.[51] We will never know how RFK’s views might have evolved had he lived regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

We will never know how RFK’s views might have evolved had he lived regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Eleven months after RFK’s death, while California Superior Judge Herbert V. Walker was considering whether to sentence Sirhan to life in prison or the gas chamber, Edward Kennedy felt it was the right time for the Kennedy family to comment. He sent the District Attorney in Los Angeles, Evelle Younger, a hand-written letter:

Dear Mr. Younger,

Since this is now a question of clemency and the trial proceedings have been concluded, I feel I can appropriately convey to you, for whatever consideration you believe to be proper how we feel.

My brother was a man of love and sentiment and compassion. He would not have wanted his death to be a cause for the taking of another life. You may recall his pleas when he learned of the death of Martin Luther King. He said that “what we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion towards one another.”

Moreover, he was a young man totally committed to life and living. He stood against injustice, poverty and discrimination for those evils lessened life. He grew to despise war for war denies the sacredness of life. And he had a special affection for children for they held the promise of life.

We all realize that many other considerations fall within your responsibility and that of the court. But if the kind of man my brother was is pertinent we believe it should be weighed in the balance on the side of compassion, mercy and God’s give of life itself.

Sincerely,

Edward M. Kennedy[52]

After weighing the evidence Judge Walker was in no mood to grant Sirhan the kind of mercy Edward Kennedy encouraged. He handed down a death sentence, thereby sparking an automatic appeal. Sirhan was shipped off to languish with the seventy-seven other prisoners then on death row in California’s notorious San Quentin State Prison.

It’s unfortunate the state of California had the death penalty at the time. When prosecutors sought capital punishment, it forced the hand of defense counsels by giving them no choice but to pursue a “diminished capacity” strategy as the only means to save their client’s life. This policy had the effect of essentially silencing the accused and gave an opening for others to fill in the gaps in the narrative with their own interpretations. Senator Edward Kennedy’s call for sparing his brother’s killer might have complicated matters as well, at least symbolically, because his appeal could be seen as outside meddling by a federal official. But Sirhan was a California prisoner, not a federal one; Edward Kennedy’s widely publicized letter had no legal authority. On death row, Sirhan became the most famous prisoner in the California penal system (until the sentencing of Charles Manson two years later).

In June 2013, on the 45th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death, the Canadian historian Gil Troy published an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post arguing that to “honor” RFK’s legacy, we should view his murder as an early act of Arab terrorism on U.S. soil.[53] “The Kennedy assassination tale,” Troy writes, “highlights the high cost Palestinian totalitarian terror has exacted from civilized society. It spotlights the ongoing dangers of ideological anti-Americanism, which continues to mix with anti-Zionism and serve as an ideological glue in the bizarre Red-Green alliance, linking Progressives with regressive Islamists…. To honor Robert Kennedy’s memory most fully, we must see the Middle East conflict more clearly.”

Troy’s argument, which is a mirror image of the “blowback” thesis, contradicts RFK’s legacy as Edward Kennedy presented it in his eulogy and in his 1969 letter to the judge seeking to spare the life of his brother’s killer. Linking Kennedy’s killing to “terrorism” as defined today only legitimizes those who in 1968 gave backhanded justifications for the crime. Both arguments find common ground in yoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy to U.S.-Israel relations.

Fifty years later, it seems inappropriate to wage a “war on terror” in Robert Kennedy’s name, even though the Sheriff’s logs clearly reveal Sirhan was more stridently committed to the Palestinian cause than he let on. The half-century that has passed since that terrible night at the Ambassador Hotel has proven Kennedy’s murder didn’t alter the course of U.S.-Middle East relations one iota. And for all we know Robert Kennedy, had he lived, could’ve become a powerful advocate for a peaceful and just conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Notes

[1] Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sirhan Sirhan Case File 1968-1969 (hereafter SSCF68-69), Operational Log, Wednesday, 5 June 1968, 10:15 a.m.

[2] Memo from Marcus Crahan, M.D., Medical Director, to Peter J. Pitchesss, Sheriff, 5 June 1968, “John Doe—Booking No. 718-486,” SSCF68-69.

[3] Memo from Inspector R. C. Welch (Jail Division) to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[4] Press Release, “Pitchess Explains Security Measure on Sirhan Sirhan,” 6 June 1968. On some early correspondence sheriffs referred to the suspect as “Serhan Serhan,” noting they were spelling it phonetically, SSCF68-69.

[5] Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1968, p. 18.

[6] Undated summary memo held in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sirhan Sirhan Case File, 1968-1969, SSCF68-69.

[7] Second undated summary memo, SSCF68-69.

[8] Intelligence Report (Confidential – Restricted), to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[9] Memorandum, Intelligence Bureau to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[10] Operational Log, Thursday, 6 June 1968, 1:20 p.m. SSCF68-69,

[11] Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-22, General Subject Files-Memoranda, 7-14 June 1968, (hereafter GSFM3-22).

 11 Intelligence Report (Confidential -Restricted), To: File; Activity: Follow Up; Area: Malibu; Subject: Frankenheimer, John Michael, 6 June 1968 (his wife, Ethel, and six of their ten children accompanied Kennedy in California), SSCF68-69.

[13] Memo from Robert F. Trask, Captain Commander, Temple Station, to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 7 June 1968, Subject: “Information on the Female Companion of Senator Kennedy’s Assassin,” GSFM3-22.

[14] Memorandum, H.M. Mear, Lieutenant to G. H. Carlson, Inspector, 6 June 1968 (a third book requested could not be found: Divine Cult of Healing by Manley P. Hall), SSCF68-69.

[15] Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1968, p. 18.

[16] Letter from Roger Staples to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 8 June 1968 (on Eastern Michigan University-Ypsilanti letterhead), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-28, General Subject Files, June-November 1968 (hereafter GSF3-28).

[17] Francine Klagsbrun and David C. Whitney, eds., Assassination: Robert F. Kennedy-1925-1968, by the editors of United Press International (New York: Cowles, 1968), 163. The others who were wounded were: Paul Schrade, a United Auto Workers official; William Weisel of the American Broadcasting Company; Ira Goldstein, a Continental News Service reporter; Elizabeth Evans of Saugus, California; and Irwin Stroll of Los Angeles.

[18] Los Angeles County Lettergram, Deputy W.R. Culver to Inspector Welch, 12 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 1-32, Personal Deputies’ Statements, 12-14 June 1968 (hereafter PDS1-32).

[19] Lettergram, Deputy I.B. Mills #3257 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[20] Lettergram, Deputy Ellison #2350 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[21] Lettergram, Deputy Davis #219 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[22] Lettergram, Deputy D. Bridges #1540 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[23] Letter from John M. Lawrence of “Federated Americans Against Israeli Racism” (F.A.I.R.) 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 7 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-26, General Subject Files-Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, June 1968 (hereafter GSF3-26); Sirhan received the letter on 10 June 1968.

[24]Letter from John M. Lawrence of Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., to Sirhan Sirhan, 7 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[25]Letter from John M. Lawrence of Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., to Sirhan Sirhan, 7 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[26] Letter from John M. Lawrence and Abdeen Jabara (attorney) to Sirhan, 14 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[27] Press Release from The Action Committee on American-Arab Relations, Secretary-General Dr. M. T. Mehdi, 441 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York, 11 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Files-General Subject Files, 3-28; (LASDF-GSF3-28), June-November 1968.

[28] Copies of “Insight,” published by Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., 1 April 1968, (Vol. 1, No. 3), New York, N.Y., Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-28, General Subject Files, June-November 1968, GSF3-28. A copy of Sirhan’s telegram is attached to the copies of “Insight” in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department records. September 1967 (Vol. 1, No. 1), February 1968 (Vol. 1, No. 2), and April 1968 (Vol. 1, No. 3).

[29] Lettergram, Deputy G.D. Erickson #2332 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[30] Copy of Western Union Telegram, Sirhan B. Sirhan to F.A.I.R., 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY, 2:30 P.M., 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[31] Lettergram, Deputy T.I. Greene to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[32] Washington Square Journal, Thursday, 16 May 1968, p. 3, GSF3-26.

[33] Washington Square Journal, Thursday, 16 May 1968, p. 3, GSF3-26.

[34] Letter from John V. Fox of United Press International to Sirhan Sirhan, 14 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, General Subject Files, File 3-28, June-November 1968, GSF3-28.

[35] Lettergram, Deputy I.B. Mills to Inspector Welch, 14 June 1968, Subject: “Communicating with I/M Sirhan, Sirhan B. #718486,” PDS1-32.

[36] Letter from Deputy T.I. Greene to Inspector R. Welch, 14 June 1968, Subject: “Sirhan Sirhan, Conversation With,” PDS1-32.

[37] Memorandum, Inspector R.C. Welch to Concerned Personnel, 17 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[38] Press Release, Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY, John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26. The Committee was comprised of Abdeen Jabara, the attorney for the group from Michigan; Frank Sakran of Maryland; Larissa Nassif of Connecticut; and George Mahshie, Omar Ghobashy, Sayed Farooq, George Aboud, and Majid Tayer, all of New York.

[39] “‘Brain Damage’ Sirhan’s Defense? Top L.A. Lawyer Parsons Takes Case,” Herald Examiner, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26, Russell E. Parsons was Sirhan’s lawyer at the time.

[40] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 21 June 1968, General Subject Files-Memoranda, File 3-26, June 1968, GSF3-26. The letter has nine co-signers representing the committee: Abdeen Jabara of Michigan, Attorney for the group; Frank Sakran of Maryland, Larissa Nassif of Connecticut; and George Mahshie, Omar Ghobashy, Sayed Farooq, George Aboud, and Majid Tayer of New York.

[41] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 21 June 1968, General Subject Files-Memoranda, File 3-26, June 1968, GSF3-26.

[42] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, General Subject Files, June-October 1968, File 3-27, GSF3-27.

[43] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, GSF3-27.

[44] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, GSF3-27.

[45] The Washington Post, “Neighbors Recall Sirhan as Shy, Polite,” 24 June 1968, p. A1, GSF3-26.

[46] “‘Brain Damage’ Sirhan’s Defense? Top L.A. Lawyer Parsons Takes Case,” Herald Examiner, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26. The Lardner article also quotes Sirhan’s employer, Mr. Weidner, divulging that Sirhan had told him his father had been a strict disciplinarian who once applied a hot iron to his feet.

[47] The Washington Post, “Neighbors Recall Sirhan as Shy, Polite,” 24 June 1968, p. A8, GSF3-26. Lardner’s piece also recounted Sirhan’s mother’s story that she believed her son had “never been the same” after falling from a horse on 25 September 1966 while “breezing a filly” when he worked at a racetrack in Corona, California. Sirhan had received a $2,000 settlement in his injury case. It was presumed that the $400 on his person at the time of his address was part of this settlement, which he requested from jail that it go to his mother.

[48] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 23 June 1968, General Subject Files-File 3-27, June-October 1968, GSF3-27.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Joseph A. Palermo, Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (New York: Pearson, 2008), 20.

[51] Ibid. 21.

[52] Undated Handwritten letter from Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy to California District Attorney Evelle J. Younger (ca. 18 May 1969), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-17, General Subject Files, 24 April to 14 October 1969, GSF1969, 3-17. In 1972, when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

[53] Gil Troy, “Understanding RFK’s Assassination as Palestinian Terror,” The Jerusalem Post, 5 June 2013.


Joseph A. Palermo
is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. He has written In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001), Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008), and contributed the essay, “Robert F. Kennedy,” to A Companion to John F. Kennedy, edited by Marc Selverstone (Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

Copyright: © 2018 Joseph A. Palermo. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Photography/ArtReviews

Lynell George Sings Los Angeles

Mike Sonksen

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,[1] 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.”

IMG_1438


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 Redding Live 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.,[2] 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.

DollGarden2


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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Notes 

* All photos courtesy of Lynell George, used by permission.

[1] https://www.angelcitypress.com/products/aila.

[2] David Reid, ed., Sex, God and L.A. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

 

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.

Copyright: © 2018 Mike Sonksen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Articles

Viet Weekends

Thi Bui

Note: The following are reconstructed memories, based on a conversation I had with my friend Christine Pham, who grew up in San Jose in the 1990s. Christine went to Viet school while I did not. Her Vietnamese language skills are far better than mine, but that’s not the only thing.

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VietWeekends2

VietWeekends3

VietWeekends4


Thi Bui was born in Vietnam three months before the end of the Vietnam War, and came to the United States in 1978 as part of the “boat people” wave of refugees from Southeast Asia. Her debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, has been selected as both an Indies Introduce and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title. She is the illustrator of A Different Pond, a children’s book by Bao Phi. Thi was a founding teacher of Oakland International High School, the first public high school in California for recent immigrants and English learners. She currently teaches in the MFA in Comics program at the California College of the Arts. Visit her website at https://www.thibui.com/.

Copyright: © Thi Bui 2018.