Tag: Politics

Articles

LA Oil Noir: Genre, Activism, and Spatial Justice in a City Made by Fossil Fuels

Miranda Trimmier

Sometimes it’s hard to see the shape of the story you’re being told. As I understood it, the plot points laid out by my then-lover Bill went like this:

The earthquake itself wasn’t scary. It was strong enough to wake him up and send a wheeled chair skittering across his bedroom floor. The windows rattled in their panes. The neighbor’s dog howled. A few seconds later the whole thing was over and Bill went back to sleep.

But by the next day, the story had morphed into something sinister. Something was off, Bill complained over the phone. It hadn’t even been earthquake weather beforehand. Listening from a grey morning in New York, my brain snagged on the claim. Southern Californians swore that a sunny, queasy-still air preceded earthquakes, but the phenomenon wasn’t real. Unsure of what it meant to say a not-real phenomenon hadn’t happened, I steered Bill to another subject. How was work? His nurse’s union was in the middle of an anti-fracking campaign, calling out the public health risks of the Los Angeles metro area’s more than 5,000 oil wells.[1] I had never lived somewhere where oil was drilled, but it was 2015, and climate change demanded that I pay more attention to fossil fuels. And so Bill provided an entry point into a political conversation I was trying to join for myself. I followed the ups and downs of my lover’s work as though they were my own.

The campaign was also key to Bill’s earthquake story, though it took some more clues to figure that out. I bumped into them while browsing LA oil news. In the past year, there had been a lot. First came the articles that wondered whether three earthquakes were connected with the fracking residents swore was happening at Inglewood Oil Field. Though seismologists said no, the plot points read uncertainly enough. The cracked curbs and building foundations in adjacent neighborhoods. The much-hyped new study linking fracking with earthquakes in Oklahoma. The oil company’s claim that they hadn’t “recently” fracked the field, plus the fact that, at the time, they weren’t legally required to disclose jobs. One resident said she wanted answers but didn’t “know who[se] to trust.” I guessed that the oil company-sponsored report, which certified fracking safe at Inglewood and blamed nearby damage to slope instability caused by rainfall,[2] wasn’t especially comforting.

And then there was the 10,000-gallon oil spill in the middle of the night in Atwater near Griffith Park. Videos shot creeping close-ups of the oil as it blanketed the concrete, and reports lingered on an evacuated strip club in a way that suggested something archetypically sullied was going on.[3] Other news stories adopted the same tone as strange happenings unfolded around town. In oil-producing neighborhoods, children suffered chronic nosebleeds, adults were plagued by migraines, and garden plants withered and died. At Redondo, Manhattan, and Hermosa beaches, armies of sticky tar balls washed up on the sand, so many the city closed them down for clean-up. Though an observer might guess tar balls are the result of the more than 100,000-gallon oil spill about 100 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara a couple weeks earlier, a Department of Fish and Wildlife rep urged calm. The public should reserve judgment until tests could trace the oil’s “fingerprints.”[4]

With a bit of research, in other words, the scattered stories began to feel less scattered. Eventually an arc of sorts emerged, a narrative chain linking Bill’s earthquake to “natural slope instability” and bloody noses and oily fingerprints. The narrative sounded paranoid and shadowy, like a noir, and Angelenos seemed to be voicing it without especially meaning to. As I began to connect fossil fuel politics to my everyday life, I felt pulled in, too. What did it mean to tell an LA oil noir? What could a New Yorker, observing from three thousand miles away, bring to the plot? I’d see how it all played out.

**

Los_Angeles_CA_-__An_Oil_Well_in_Every_Yard_(NBY_432173)

“Los Angeles CA — An Oil Well in Every Yard,” unknown date 1900-1909, DPC7775, Detroit Publishing Company Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.

For most cultural critics, noir begins with German expressionism, detective potboilers, and the Hollywood film set. But that history, while in some respects correct, downplays the local politics that forced the genre to the fore.[5] At the turn of the 20th century, real estate boosters sold Los Angeles as a sunny paradise, a place where everyone might own a home and some land. Sometimes those profits involved oil; prospectors had struck it in Whittier, Montebello, Richfield, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Santa Fe Springs, Torrance, Dominguez, Inglewood, Seal Beach, and Wilmington.[6] For a time Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply. Real estate ads teased buyers with the promise of instant liquid wealth. Postcards featured derricks against hopeful, rosy skies. A person didn’t even need to own land to get in on the boom. Every day, free chartered buses drove hundreds of Angelenos to an oil field-cum-investment opportunity. Under a big-top tent, they were treated to music and hot dogs and invited to become fabulously rich.[7]

It wasn’t long before the mood began to turn. Oil flowed between property lines, so a legal precedent called “the rule of capture” gave rights to whomever sucked it up first. Prospectors and producers rushed up derricks everywhere, crowding streets, homes, and beaches without thought to the people living nearby. If drill jobs loosed a gusher that slopped crude, shale, and sand on Signal Hill houses, that was the collateral damage of a cutthroat business. Same went for the river of burning oil that blazed for six hours down a Long Beach thoroughfare, the explosion that set 2.25 million barrels aflame and smoked out the sun in Brea, and commonplace accidents that sent oil rushing into the ocean, slicking city harbors with a four-inch layer of crude.[8]

If this devastation didn’t sour people, the corruption did. Many residents had invested in flat-out fraudulent stock. The most infamous scam was run by C. C. Julian, who leveraged new print and radio media to offer “Gold Bonds” to “Mr. Thoroughbreds” smart enough to smell a deal.[9] When the company collapsed, robbing 40,000 LA residents of $150 million, the subsequent investigation uncovered a knot of scandals and touched off a spree of cover-ups and revenge. Scores of prominent bankers and businesspeople had profited, and a grand jury indicted fifty-five of them, but, after bribes to DAs and jurors ruined the first trial, the rest of the charges were dropped. For months, LA residents woke to a daily stream of shady Julian news. A former exec lived a lavish European life while on the run from police. A man lost his left eye in a melee at a company shareholder meeting. And a banker at the center of the pools was shot dead during the fifth trial mounted to hold him accountable for his crimes. The banker, a once-beloved philanthropist, had $63,000 in his pocket at the time of his death.[10]

Enter the noir novel, which deployed what urbanist Mike Davis calls a “transformational grammar”[11] to comment on the state of the Southern California dream. Sunny days became earthquake weather. Single-family homes became claustrophobic prisons. City patriarchs became a criminal overclass, crooked and poisonous and prone to fits of violence. A century later, it’s easy to read the genre as fantasy instead of a stab at realism in a particular time and place. It is easy to forget that every noir is an LA noir, and every LA noir is touched by the seep of oil.

**

In the early days of my investigation, I often felt obtuse: too clumsy to be the detective at the helm of a noir. I was nothing like Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of eight of LA writer Raymond Chandler’s novels. Marlowe has a quick wit and a sharp tongue and drinks to forget the sleaze he’s seen. Chandler developed his own suspicion at Dabney Oil, where he worked for 13 years, first as a junior accountant and then, after catching his boss embezzling, as the department head. Eventually he rose to vice-president. The work fascinated him; it let him study all manner of bad behavior. He learned to spot the abuses of the people passing through his company, and became obsessed with anticipating cheating in other areas of his life.[12] But he never forgot the industry that jaded him first. When Dabney finally fired him for alcoholism, he started working on The Big Sleep, a drama that swirls around the corrupt Sternwood family, who’d made a fortune in oil.

Noir conveys much of its narrators’ wariness through setting and atmospherics. Interior spaces are shabby and cramped, or nauseatingly opulent, or suffused with their inhabitants’ truculent neuroses. Outdoor spaces are ominous no matter the weather. Even the LA sun is a sign of trouble. Early noir writers portrayed it as oppressive, suggested that a fundamental violence simmered beneath. Chandler paid special attention to climate. Earthquake weather and the Santa Ana winds haunted his characters’ days and served as symbol of a city in physical, psychic, and moral decline.[13] In The Big Sleep, oil infrastructure does some of this work. Derricks show up in key scenes at the beginning and end of the book. Chandler describes them as stained and falling apart. They stand near tepid pools of dirty water. They dribble out last dregs of oil or stand stilled amidst a litter of rusted drums.[14] Eventually Marlowe discovers that one of the Sternwoods killed a man and buried him in the family oil fields. The site summed up an entire fallen city. “Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you,” Marlowe says in the book’s final lines. “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”[15]

For disillusioned Angelenos, identifying the nastiness became a favorite narrative stance. After Hollywood popularized noir in the 1930s and 1940s, the genre resurfaced regularly as a way of shooting down buoyant city myths. In the 1960s, Joan Didion processed the Manson murders with an anxious noir slant. In the 1970s, Roman Polanski used the form to explore corrupt water politics. In the 1980s, Bret Easton Ellis brought noir to bear on malls and materialism.[16] The literary theorist Lauren Berlant says genre provides “an expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.”[17] Certainly this was a good way of describing what I saw noir doing in LA. What struck me was the subtlety with which the dynamic surfaced. Bill blipped about earthquake weather, a sidewalk looked buckled, a nose dripped a bit of blood. The story shaded into paranoia, but from one angle, for just a second. Blink and you could miss it.

On one trip to Los Angeles, I almost did. Time had passed and life had changed since my first oil noir. I’d moved from New York to Tucson, and Bill had cut me loose. Still, my friends Andrew and Paige lived in town, too, so I visited and the three of us went tooling around in Andrew’s car, a light-lemon vintage Mercedes with crisp leather seats. The car was a sort that can only exist in Southern California, and I felt the same about our morning. We’d spent it drinking coffee and eating panaderia pastries and watching scrub jays swoop into his winter garden, a space filled with persimmon trees, succulents, and trailing flowered vines. As Andrew put Stevie Wonder in the tape deck and eased onto the freeway, I threw my arm out the window and said what I thought we all had to be thinking: God, the weather was nice.

Hmm, said Andrew, unconvinced. He didn’t know. Sometimes all the sunny weather struck him as oppressive.

 

**

Views_of_oil_fields_around_Los_Angeles_LOC_2006627695

Forncrook, C.S. and E. M. Views of oil fields around Los Angeles, Map, 1922. 2006627695, Library of Congress, Washington DC, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g4361h.ct001874

 Early LA was also terrible for labor. Besides open land and oil, boosters touted a cowed workforce as a signature Southern Californian perk. One of the most powerful, Colonel Harrison Grey Otis, used his business connections to lockout and blacklist union members with the help of local police. Otis considered himself at war with the labor movement and waged it on the ideological front, too, filling the L.A. Times, which he owned, with open-shop vitriol. Across Los Angeles, Otis helped set the tone. The city’s workers, branded “rowdies,” “ruffians,” and “pinheads,”[18] were treated like dirt.

LA oil workers got no special relief. They labored at a hazardous job. Men were burned to death by steam lines and fires. Others fell from the tops of derricks, or fainted from fumes and drowned in oil tanks covered by a thin layer of tarpaper. At least one had his arms pulled off when they got caught in a machine.[19] During World War I, California oil workers had won concessions, including better wages, a switch from 12- to 8-hour days, and union negotiating rights. But by the early ‘20s, oil companies hit back, forcing union members to sign yellow-dog contracts or be fired. 8,000 oil workers in Central California went on strike,[20] but the effort failed. Wages dropped drastically across the state, and industry workers didn’t regain a toehold until well into the ‘30s.[21]

Blocked in economic channels, labor leaders poured energy into political organizing. In places like Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Torrance, union organizers threw events, founded broadsheets, and turned out voters in the push to regulate oil. They also formed coalitions with residents and conservationists, at times gathering under the umbrella of newly formed property owners’ associations.[22] In a Los Angeles disenchanted with oil, the language of property and property values became a major way residents fought back. When one oil company proposed new wells near downtown LA, the Wilshire Community Council called it “inimical to the esthetic development of the city as a home-owners’ haven.”[23] In a noir-ish oil landscape, real estate was becoming central to the complaint.

**

THUMS Island(s) at sunset

Center for Land Use Interpretation, THUMS islands (Island Grissom) at sunset, 2010.

Andrew’s genre slip was apt, because we weren’t only cruising. Earlier that morning, I’d convinced him and Paige to join my investigation, to ride along on a two-building tour. We took the car down the I-10, headed north on La Cienega, and arrived on busy Pico Boulevard to our first site.

The meters in front of the building were all open, so we parked at random and got out for a look. Ivy climbed the windowless stone walls. The door was industrial-looking and locked. From the center of the otherwise low structure rose Cardiff Tower, trimmed elegantly in white. The architects who built it in the late ‘60s hoped people would think it was a synagogue serving the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jews. In this they were somewhat successful. It was hard to imagine that the building hid forty oil wells, at least until we walked around to the side street and read the gold placard warning about carcinogens. And stopped long enough to notice the mechanical humming coming from inside. And caught a whiff of the faint but acrid smell. Paige scrunched her nose and tongued the roof of her mouth in disgust. “Ugh,” she said, “You can taste it.”

A mile and a half down Pico, the Packard Drill Site pretended to be an office building. Inside, a moveable derrick tracked around on a mechanical grid between fifty-one wells.[24] Apparently, it lacked a roof. Before leaving home, Andrew and Paige and I had pulled up satellite photos and gaped into a weird shadowed hole. Once onsite we did as at Cardiff: We circled, stopped, listened, sniffed. Landscaped palms and jade plants described neat swaths in the front and along the sides. The glass-doored entrance revealed a dusty, shuttered public lobby display. In back houses abutted it a cozy 125 feet away.

Some thought Cardiff and Packard a sign of progress. The buildings were examples of an odd class of camouflage architecture that evolved in the mid-twentieth century as LA residents pushed back against oil drilling. Perhaps the strangest of these structures were the Astronaut Islands in Long Beach. Also known as THUMS — for Texaco, Humble, Union Oil, Mobil, and Shell, the oil companies originally partnered there — the Astronauts were made of hundreds of tons of quarried rock and several million cubic yards of dredged harbor mud and sand to serve as offshore drilling sites. After the derricks and pipes and tanks went up, the THUMS planning team brought on Joseph Linesch, who’d helped design Disneyland, to hide the purpose of the place. He opted for palms, decorative towers, a waterfall, and a series of sculpted concrete walls to ring the island. At night, spotlights bathed the walls in brilliant neon hues.

The Astronauts were closed to the public. I knew because I’d trawled the internet trying to figure out how to visit. As a back-up, I packed a pair of binoculars, and, after dropping Paige and Andrew back at home, took them out with my rented car as dusk fell. By the time I reached the Long Beach shoreline, it was dark and had begun to rain. I found a parking lot on the harbor and pointed the binoculars out my windshield at the islands, which glowed a foggy pink and orange. Under the clouded night sky, they reflected a phrase I encountered over and over in my research. In contrast to the spectacular violence of the early 20th century, LA oil production was now hidden in plain sight.

**

 

Los Angeles is a famously fragmented place; as one oft-quoted quip has it, it is “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”[25] Early oil development played a central role in making this so. Many neighborhoods and suburbs grew up around drilling or refining sites or as residential communities for workers. Oil revenues allowed some of them to incorporate separately from Los Angeles, while cheap oil gave them further independence in the form of power plants, paved roads, and fuel for cars. I felt it while trying to tour more after THUMS. I started the morning in Beverly Hills, site of a derrick hidden under a shell decorated with children’s art; then watched rusted pumpjacks bob along the fences of the Inglewood Oil Field; then stopped to see rigs looming over houses in West Adams and University Park. In between I took wrong turns, stopped for directions, and inched painfully along in a rush hour that never seemed to end. By the time I was casing the perimeters of the giant refineries in Wilmington, I had passed through five independently incorporated towns, traveled thirty-five miles, and driven away a significant portion of the day.

Homeowners associations helped fragment Los Angeles, too. If early groups helped restrict oil production, many were also obsessed with another agenda: locking Black and Asian residents out of their blocks and streets. Over the course of the ‘20s, homeowner activists helped establish 95% of housing stock within LA city limits as white-only. Mike Davis calls this period the “white-supremacist genealogy” of what would become “[t]he most significant ‘social movement’ in Southern California…[:] affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.”[26] By the middle of the 20th century, that movement had gained incorporation laws and zoning rules to pursue a whole host of demands. At times the new tools were wielded to racist, classist, anti-busing and anti-renter and English-only kinds of ends. At other moments they were used to stand down corporate developers and win environmental regulations. As their political power grew, homeowners expanded their attention to a scattershot list of small-scale NIMBY concerns. They fought against mini malls, diamond highway lanes, a fancy bistro, the shaving of a hill, and, in a campaign that galvanized a thousand activists and left a local councilman branded a “Dog Nazi,” dog owners who let their pets shit in a park.[27]

The jumbled protests shared a tone. It saw threat everywhere and betrayed an often-inflated, noir-ish sense of risk. By the ‘80s, local politicians learned to bow to the homeowners, or at least fake it lest they get kicked out of office, and middle- and upper-class concerns came to dominate LA politics just as state- and federal-level neoliberal policies were hitting working-class communities of color hardest. The results were predictable. Helped along by homeowner noirs, neighborhood-based inequities grew and compounded in risk and resources.

The pattern was obvious in the metro landscape I’d been investigating. Though a full third of LA-area residents lived within a mile of a drilling site, more protections were won, and safety standards more strictly enforced, in affluent and majority-white neighborhoods than in working-class neighborhoods of color. The faux buildings at Cardiff and Packard — elaborate compared to the beige walls that hid oil operations elsewhere— were one example of the accommodations wealthy residents had won. Others included limited drilling hours, restrictions on trucking, lower-polluting electric drills, weekly emissions tests, 24-7 noise monitoring, and dedicated community liaisons.[28]

Contrast that with University Park in South LA, whose residents are mostly working-class and of color; in 2010, when the AllenCo oil site began emitting dense, obvious fumes, it took them years to get heard. Sometimes the air smelled like petroleum, other times like fruity chemicals. People got nosebleeds, migraines, and stomachaches. Then Monic Uriarte was out taking photos for a photography class with her daughter Nalleli and found the gate to the beige-walled compound ajar. Uriarte hadn’t known anything about what was behind the walls; now a worker showed them around, touring past oil pipes and oil tanks and signs for toxic gas. The worker gave Nalleli a baby food jar filled with water and a heavy, sinking layer of crude. Oil and water don’t mix, he said: She should take it to school to show the other kids the site was safe.

And so the University Park investigation had begun. Uriarte talked to neighbors, and they talked to more, and soon they’d hooked up with Esperanza Community Housing and launched a campaign. Residents flooded the regional air quality complaint line with messages while Esperanza researched AllenCo and interviewed people about their symptoms. Together they dropped banners, held protests and press conferences, and, because AllenCo leased their land from the Catholic archdiocese, sent a video starring Nalleli to the Pope. They dug up record of hundreds of environmental violations and learned that AllenCo had upped production 400% around the time the fumes showed up. Still it took three years before an L.A. Times exposé and a visit by then-Senator Barbara Boxer forced the city to act. They shut the site down, but the damage was done. A set of more long-terms threats had been seeded. Though their nosebleeds and stomachaches were gone, University Park residents had a heightened risk of cancer, reproductive anomalies, and other illnesses. Chemical exposure had left Uriarte, for one, without a sense a smell.[29]

Many critics have called out the history of the noir protagonist, how most have been middle-class and white. That fact is not abstract. It trails consequences for everyday space and behavior; it is tangled in the inequalities of mundane, material LA. An oil executive, speaking to West Adams activist Richard Parks about their local drilling site, illustrated the reality with terrible, careless ease. West Adams residents are also predominantly working-class and of color, and when the activist relayed his neighbors’ complaints, including a day where the site rained a mist of oil on the entire surrounding block, the oil exec shrugged. “Look, this isn’t exactly Laguna Niguel,” he said, meaning a well-off beach community.[30] In the landscape of the Los Angeles oil noir, West Adams didn’t register in the plot.

**

Like the University Park activists, I didn’t stay clumsy. In time, I became my own Marlowe, ready with a meticulous mental map of policies, perps, and case studies. But my competence only mattered so much. However good one gets at reading noir, the story is always fragmented, its through line hard to grasp. Information in a Marlowe novel is imparted, in the words of cultural theorist Frederic Jameson, like “glimpses through a window” and “noises from the back of a store.”[31] This quality was heightened by the secretive realities of oil production. Industry reps stonewalled and gaslit. In Beverly Hills, where a camouflaged derrick pumps oil next to Beverly Hills High School, Venoco loosed a sharky legal team on a thousand-some graduates who’d developed rare cancers, discrediting their class-action lawsuit.[32] In Porter Ranch, which sits beside an oil field and giant gas storage facilities, SoCal Gas downplayed the size of a massive gas leak and said science hadn’t “definitively” found gas dangerous.[33] In Wilmington, whose toxic concentration of oil refineries have led to abysmal health outcomes for residents, Warren E&P gave out gas gift cards as a paltry gesture of remuneration.[34]

Porter Ranch Protest

Porter Ranch Protest, photo by Elijah Hurwitz. Courtesy of Hurwitz

Changing production techniques muddied the informational waters, too. Los Angeles’ oil fields are old and over-pumped. To stay profitable, companies fracked and acidized, shooting sand and chemicals into wells to force the dregs out. A quarter of wells used some enhanced technique, and the government agencies tasked with overseeing them showed neither the will nor the ability to keep up.[35] Residents had little help if they wanted to know what was going on. In West Adams in 2015, a church group called Redeemer Community Partnership filmed volunteer Niki Wong staked out beside the beige wall of the local oil site. “It’s like 6:35am,” Wong said to the camera quietly, crouching, as birds chirped the morning awake. “We got a tip that they’re going to be doing an acidizing maintenance job.” Two to four tankers, each filled with five thousand gallons of chemicals, would soon be driving through the neighborhood. By law Freeport McMoRan, the site owners, had to give neighbors just a day’s notice for the job, but Wong had kept tabs and organized a group to rapid-respond. When the tankers rolled towards the site, they planned to mass up into a blockade. In the video, Wong pointed above her head to a surveillance camera she’d been ducking, then looked down to catch a text on her phone. “Oh, shoot,” she frowned. Freeport had cancelled the job.[36]

There were still other layers of obfuscation at work. When a site stopped serving oil companies, they could simply sell their land and whatever responsibility it might entail. At Inglewood Oil Field, site of the earthquake rumors that made Bill paranoid, owners PXP Oil funded their study showing fracking to be safe and soon after, perhaps tired of answering to resident concerns, sold their holdings to Freeport McMoRan. For their part, Freeport McMoRan held the fields for a stint before palming them off to Sentinel Peak Resources, which had been buying up sites around LA.[37]

15226111610_d265f89d1f_k

Allenco Oil site. Photo by Sarah Craig. Courtesy of Craig

And that was just the fate of active wells. Responsibility could be an even murkier question for the metro area’s thousands of abandoned wells. Near downtown, the Edward Roybal Learning Center, a high school, was built on top of nineteen old wells and surrounded by hundreds more. Many were capped before the ‘50s, when government agencies first created rules for doing so, and workers stopped them with anything they could find: garbage, rocks, telephone poles. School construction took two decades, and even costly remediation didn’t fix the site’s problems. Around the school grounds, imitation lampposts vented the methane that kept belching from the wells. But some days fumes still filled campus, and some days students and teachers still got headache-y and sick.[38]

These were the sorts of rabbit holes one fell into when sleuthing around the oil industry. Eventually, even dedicated detectives were likely to get lost. It had happened to me, but the real story lay with longtime LA residents. “We never know what is going on,” Lillian Marenco, who’d lived in West Adams for thirty years, explained through a megaphone to a gathered crowd. Though Wong’s stakeout hadn’t worked, the protest went on as planned. A few dozen people marched and carried signs and sang a call-and-response song. Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Then they gathered for a press conference. “If they just come to get the money and leave us with all the nuisance,” Marenco asked her neighbors and the press, “Then what is the benefit of my community? I wonder.”[39]

**

Back home in Tucson, I kept poking around online. The 2015-2016 Porter Ranch gas leak was especially easy to learn about; for the four months from the moment the leak was discovered to when it was plugged, the story had gotten tons of coverage. Many stories cited a video taken looking down into the foothills where the leak had been found. Taken by the activist group Earthworks,[40]  the video deploys a straightforward transformational grammar. At first it’s a regular LA day: just sun, hills, cars. Five seconds later, the camera switches into infrared view and you are watching a thick cloud of — something billowing over the exact same spot. The film toggles between the two frames in chunky cuts. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Even without context — knowledge of the size of the leak and the methane and benzene and other toxic compounds billowing everywhere — the image is unnerving. With context, it is a precise and succinct depiction of the mystery of living next door to the oil industry. How that cloud might be invisibly menacing you. The video struck me as an ingenuous oil noir.

But, whatever its strengths, the genre hadn’t yet lived up to its more radical political promise. This was true of the noir of books and films as well as the noir that filtered into oil activist storytelling. Historically speaking, its stars had been too white and middle-class, its sense of injury too stuck on property and other individually minded dreams, its understanding of power too piecemeal and vague. Historically speaking, it had fashioned a politics from eerie atmospherics and an impoverished sense of what geographer Edward Soja called spatial justice. In my online wanderings I found a GIS map[41] that captured it well. The map uses black dots to represent active oil wells in the LA metro area, to unsettling result. As I scrolled around, zooming in and out, the city looked riddled with bullet holes. Some well-off neighborhoods were shot up, in danger, making a lie of the kind of activism that treats oil production like a quality-of-life annoyance. On a map shaped by that activism, these endangered neighborhoods sat beside poorer neighborhoods that were under full-on siege, buried under and erased by wells.

DOGGR LA Co Oil Well Map

Well Finder, Screenshot, California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), formerly Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98398/12

That tension echoed in Porter Ranch, which became a flashpoint for local environmental justice advocates tracking disparities in oil industry protections. The neighborhood’s affluent residents garnered local and national attention and secured concessions other neighborhoods hadn’t gotten, including relocation to hotels on SoCal’s dime.[42] At times their public testimonies reflected the homeowner-activist playbook and its class-bound complaints. People fretted about property values. They lamented disrupted Christmas plans and the expense of nannies hired when parents got migraines.[43] In the face of a giant, dangerous leak, some residents dramatized the real injustice of their situation as that of lost middle-class normalcy.   

Still, there seemed no reason noir couldn’t be more politically astute. Chester Himes used it to express the nightmarishness of being a Black longshoreman in the 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. The sometimes-Communist writers of early noir films smuggled in the occasional systemic critique. And I was sure that other examples lurked in literary and filmic back catalogues. But it seemed less important to unearth those than to hear the new noir insights brought forth by those battling LA oil today. They could be found everywhere, including in Porter Ranch, where neighborhood activists in noir-ish gas masks carried signs that amended an early slogan, Shut It Down, to the more spatially capacious Shut It ALL Down. A protester named Matt Pakucko pushed the thesis further, called out the lopsided attention trained on his neighborhood: “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer …. Do they get relocated? No. Because it’s a poor neighborhood.”[44]

Further insight came from STAND-LA, a coalition formed to agitate for citywide drilling standards. Esperanza Community Housing was a member and brought its experience in University Park, which it read through the lens of economic and health justice. In an interview about the campaign, Esperanza director Nancy Halpern Ibrahim complicated the point. Though they’d suspected the company was fracking, they didn’t know the technical specifics and were sure it would take forever to find out. And so, though the specter of fracking drove oil rumors across the city, they took AllenCo’s deception as baseline, didn’t fixate on the injustice of being lied to, and kept health at the center of a simpler message on traditional drilling.[45] To these new noir suggestions — transforming stories about property into stories about collectivity, treating corporate dishonesty not as shocking betrayal but as systemic truism — the West Adams video added one more. After Niki Wong’s stakeout dramatized Freeport McMoRan’s secrecy, it noted that most of the information that had been discovered came from resident photos and reports. Here was an edit to one of noir’s most beloved premises: There was no such thing as a solo detective; there were only many.

Another update peeked out during a 2015 strike at the Tesoro Refinery in Wilmington. A worker named Melissa Bailey told a journalist that she’d just worked twelve to fourteen hours nineteen days in a row.[46] For another article, colleagues explained how they survived such grueling schedules: with coffee, energy drinks, and sugary snacks.[47] That plus fatigue left them dazed and drunk and led to injuries, which workers often hid so as not to miss out on safety bonuses. The practice was called, viscerally, “bloody pockets,” conjuring a sinister work atmosphere while offering a reminder that fields and refineries and storage plants didn’t just have neighbors. They were also populated with workers.

A final noir revision surfaced in Culver City, a small town incorporated in the middle of Los Angeles. Culver City sits beside the Inglewood Oil Field and is part of a Community Standard District, a special zoning designation whose drilling regulations were celebrated as the region’s most stringent. The 2008 planning text that brought the district into being opens with a legalistic preamble that defines fifty-eight words whose meanings Inglewood owners might dispute. The words include “drilling,” “fluid,” “derrick,” “well,” “gas,” and “oil.”[48] The anticipation of a doublespeak so fundamental begged a conclusion that in the end took ten years to gel. In 2018, Culver City launched a study to figure out they could legally shut their portion of the oil field down. The town’s vice-mayor cited a long history of damage at the field, then said it sat atop a fault that was due a big earthquake any day.[49] In the unequal landscape oil had made of the Los Angeles metro region, Culver City had been a privileged squeaky wheel. But if a more radical approach to land use could surge up around it, the logic of their gambit would be powerful. Zoning isn’t enough to limit harm to residents’ health, that logic says. The drilling would have to stop.

**

“We are invested not only in talking about what we don’t want but also in making the case for a meaningful, just transition,” Nancy Halpern Ibrahim told me over the phone. I’d called to hear a about Esperanza and STAND-LA’s work moving forward, and, though I felt silly relating the flimsy anecdote that had propelled me to her work in University Park, Ibrahim wasn’t fazed. After an hour of her own rambling — “I don’t speak in sound bites,” she said, appealingly not sorry — we’d reached what seemed the conversation’s upshot. She and coalition colleagues had convinced the mayor’s office to form a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department, which opened in 2019; given its oil history, they thought, Los Angeles had nationally relevant ideas on how to transition away from oil. What would become of the department remained to be seen, but we’d scaled out to an essential question: not just how Los Angeles could overcome its spatial injustices, but what that fight had to do with those elsewhere.

I wondered about that, too. For the moment, my encounter with Inglewood and West Adams and Porter Ranch seemed to be wrapping up, and the task seemed to be to turn towards the rest of the maps I shared with others. I thought of my dad’s family in Texas, where the oil stories to be reckoned with had less to do with noir than the lure of the rich oilman as hero and villain. In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, where some friends had been spending time, the myths of the Western frontier lived on. And though it was less obvious which genres bound fossil fuel politics in New York and Tucson, I knew I didn’t have to dig alone. As in LA, my two homes were surely peopled by activists who might help teach me the plot.

Notes

Author’s note: Thanks go to Morgan Adamson, Aaron Bady, Stefano Bloch, Bill Gallagher, Raquel Gutiérrez, Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, Andrew Knighton, Ava Kofman, Ruth Nervig, Paige Sweet, and workshop participants in UA’s creative nonfiction program. 

[1]            James Sadd and Bhavna Shamasunder. “Oil extraction in Los Angeles: Health, Land Use and Environmental Justice Consequences” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)

[2]           Zahira Torres and Laura Nelson. “Baldwin Hills-area quakes not linked to oil operations, experts say,” LA Times. 3 May 2015. See also Carlos Granda, “Baldwin Hills resident concerned fracking may be causing earthquakes,” ABC7 News. 4 May 2015; “3.5 earthquake rattles Los Angeles,” LA Times. 12 April 2015.

[3]           “Raw Footage: 10-K Gallon Oil Spill in Atwater Village,” NBC Southern California, 15 May 2014; Ashley Soley-Cerro, 10,000-Gallon Crude Oil Spill Prompts Evacuation of L.A. Strip Club,“ KTLA 5, 15 May 2014; Jason Wells. “10,000-gallon crude oil spill in Atwater Village looked ‘like a lake,’” LA Times. 15 May 2014.Village

[4]           Carly Dryden. “South Bay beaches remain closed as officials investigate source of apparent oil spill,” The Daily Breeze, 28 May 2015. See also Kelly Goff and Gadi Schwartz. “Beaches Closed Due to Mysterious Petroleum Globs,” NBC Southern California, 27 May 2015; Veronica Rocha. “Tar balls in South Bay: Beaches closed until further notice,” LA Times, 29 May 2015.

[5]           Mike Davis. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Verso, 1990), 36-7.

[6]           Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization’: Oil in Southern California,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 3, p 285; “Fred Viehe. “Black Gold Suburbs: The Influence of the Extractive Industry on the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1890-1930.” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 8 No. 1 (November 1981), p 6.

[7]           Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oils, Stocks, and Scandal during the Roaring 20s. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 37-9.

[8]           Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil’: Popular Opposition to Oil Development in 1920s Los Angeles.” Environmental History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr. 1998), 192.

[9]           Tom Hiney. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), 58; Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 40.

[10]         Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 213-257.

[11]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[12]         Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 51-7.

[13]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[14]         “The Oil Pumps in The Big Sleep,” https://www.shmoop.com/big-sleep/oil-pumps-symbol.html.

[15]         Quoted in Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 69.

[16]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 44-5.

[17]         Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[18]         Dennis MacDougal, Privileged Son: Otis Chandler And The Rise And Fall Of The L.A. Times Dynasty. (New York: Hachette Books, 2009), 46.

[19]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization,’” 287.

[20]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough: Los Angeles Workers, 1880–2010. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 98-9.

[21]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough, 99.

[22]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil,’” 197-202.

[23]         Sarah Elkind. “Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 82 (June 2012), p 86.

[24]         This visit took place in 2017; Google Maps now lists the site as closed, though I found no news stories to confirm or give detail.

[25]         This quote is often attributed to Dorothy Parker; it is actually a distortion of Aldous Huxley, who called LA “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis” in his 1925 book Americana. Adrienne Crew, “Misquoting Dorothy Parker,” LA Observed. 22 August 2013. http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2013/08/misquoting_dorothy_parker.php

[26]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 153.

[27]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 184-204.

[28]         Community Health Councils. “Oil Drilling in Los Angeles: A Story of Unequal Protections,” (Los Angeles, 2015). http://www.climateaccess.org/sites/default/files/CHC-Issue-Brief-Oil-Drilling-In-Los-Angeles.pdf

[29]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019; Barbara Osborn, “When Regulators Fail,” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)

[30]         Barbara Osborn, “‘How are these Chemicals being used?’” Drilling Down, 18.

[31]         Quoted in Cornelius Fitz. “disclosing being – on raymond chandler: the detections of totality by fredric jameson,” 3am Magazine. 6 December 2016. http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/disclosing-raymond-chandler-detections-totality-fredric-jameson/

[32]         Joy Horowitz. Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School. (New York: Penguin Books, 2008)

[33]         Jane Yamamoto. “Outrage Builds in Porter Ranch Over Gas Leak,” NBC Southern California. 12 December 2015.

[34]         “Warren E&P, Wilmington.” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/wilmington.html

[35]         Molly Peterson. “Oil and gas regulators admit to massive oversight failures in new report,” KPCC. 8 October 2015. https://www.scpr.org/news/2015/10/08/54934/oil-and-gas-regulators-admit-to-massive-oversight/

[36]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary,” 2015. https://vimeo.com/133806931

[37]         Kaitlin Parker. “Concerns arise as Inglewood Oil Field plans for increased activity,” Intersections South LA, 4 January 2012; Susan Taylor, “Freeport-McMoRan Sells Inglewood Oil Field to Sentinel Peak,” Culver City Crossroads via Reuters. 14 October 2014.

[38]         “Echo Park Wells,” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/echo-park-wells.html

[39]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary”; Susan Abram. “How These Neighbors Took On The Oil Company In Their Backyard And Won,” Huffington Post. 27 July 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/oil-drill-site-protest-california_n_5d3911a0e4b004b6adbab9c6

[40]         Pete Dronkers. “SoCalGas Aliso Canyon, CA,” https://earthworks.org/blog/what_i_saw_in_porter_ranch/

[41]         DOGGR Well Finder. https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98384/12

[42]         Laura Bliss. “L.A.’s Slow-Moving Oil and Gas Disaster,” City Lab. 3 February 2016. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/02/california-porter-ranch-gas-leak-oil-environmental-justice/425052/

[43]         Elijah Hurwitz, “Poison Ranch: The Porter Ranch Gas Blowout,” Pacific Standard. 5 May 2016. https://psmag.com/news/poison-ranch-the-porter-ranch-gas-blowout

[44]         Sarah Parvini and Tony Barboza. “No relief in sight for Porter Ranch residents,” LA Times, 3 December 2015. Proquest. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.library.arizona.edu/docview/1738673342?accountid=8360&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo

[45]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019.

[46]         Haya El Nasser. “Striking California oil refinery workers demand better safety, wages,” Al Jazeera America, 4 February 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/4/workers-strike-at-california-oil-refinery.html

[47]         Tiffany Hsu. “At L.A. oil refinery, striking workers vent about long hours and stress,” LA Times. 26 February 2015. https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-refinery-strike-20150227-story.html

[48]         Los Angeles County Department of Planning. “Baldwin Hills Community Standards District” p 8. http://planning.lacounty.gov/assets/upl/project/bh_title22.pdf

[49]         Christian May-Suzuki. “City Council meets to continue discussion on Inglewood Oil Field,” Culver City News. 18 July 2019. https://www.culvercitynews.org/city-council-meets-to-continue-discussion-on-inglewood-oil-field/

 

Miranda Trimmier is from Milwaukee, lives in Tucson, and writes about land-use politics. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has published with Places JournalThe New InquiryTerrain, and other outlets.

Copyright: © 2020 Miranda Trimmier. 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

Yemeni Farm Workers and the Politics of Arab Nationalism in the UFW

Neama Alamri

Growing up in the Central Valley, the history of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez loomed large. When teachers in school incorporated him into our history lessons, many of the students were already familiar with the impact he and the farm worker movement had on the lives of farm workers in California. Yet, despite being born and raised in the Central Valley, as a Yemeni American, I didn’t always identify with the history of the UFW which primarily focused on the experiences of Mexican and Filipino laborers. It was not until my father shared with me that he attended Chavez’s rallies during his time picking grapes near Delano in the 1970s, that I began to discover the role Yemenis played in the UFW. My father’s stories unlocked for me an entire history of Yemenis in the Central Valley and their experiences in the farm worker movement.

The UFW and the farm worker movement led by Cesar Chavez has been well documented and has allowed historians to explore the successes and failures of perhaps the most well-known labor movement in United States history.[1] There has been an effort from both scholars and public institutions such as the National Parks Services to improve public history on the UFW and address many of the misunderstandings within this history by engaging in public storytelling through academic scholarship, historical landmarks, and even children’s literature.[2] Following in the path of this work, this article begins with my father’s stories in order to explore the history of Yemeni farm workers in the Central Valley and their involvement in the UFW throughout the 1970s. For those familiar with the farm worker movement, the inclusion of Yemenis is limited to the death of Nagi Daifallah, a young Yemeni immigrant and UFW organizer killed by a deputy sheriff in Lamont, California. Not often discussed, however, is the fact that during Nagi’s funeral march in August of 1973, Yemenis decided to carry a portrait of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a leader of anti-colonial Arab nationalism. Based on an oral history with my father as well as archival material that has been largely ignored, including Nagi Daifallah’s papers, this article contextualizes why Yemenis turned to Arab nationalism and the impact it had on the UFW’s social justice platform. By exploring the life of Nagi and other Yemeni farm workers, this article looks at this understudied chapter in the UFW’s history to argue that because of their Arab and Muslim identities as well as invocation of anticolonial Arab nationalism, Yemenis had a complicated relationship with the union that disrupts the narrative of a multicultural movement.

My father, Mohamed Alamri, immigrated to the United States from Yemen in the summer of 1975. He first arrived in Dearborn, Michigan where there existed a large Yemeni community, thousands of whom were working in Detroit’s booming auto industry for companies like Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Less prominent in numbers, yet growing each year, was the community of Yemenis in California, which everyone in Dearborn told Mohamed was where you can find the “real money.” Driven by the motivation to find a job that could provide the most for his parents and siblings back in Yemen, Mohamed hopped a plane to California. The first job he landed was in Poplar, a small town 70 miles south of Fresno, picking grapes. Mohamed recalled how the other Yemenis at the labor camp laughed when he arrived dressed in a tie, button-down shirt, and slacks. Growing up in Yemen and hearing of America’s wealth and luxury, he wanted to look his best. Yet, after a long day toiling under the summer heat, Mohamed quickly learned that working in the fields of Central Valley was not very different than village life in Yemen.[3] 

Mohamed photo

Mohamed, right, after a day’s work in Poplar, CA. Courtesy of author

 Mohamed joined thousands of Yemeni farm workers who found work in the fields from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s. Due to lack of official records, it is unclear exactly how many Yemeni farm workers there were during this period, but estimates range from a few hundred to over five thousand.[4] Yemenis migrated within three major agricultural regions within California: the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and the Imperial Valley. [5]   Migration cycles began with the April asparagus harvest in Stockton, and then moved to the southern end of the valley in the Delano-Porterville-Bakersfield area for the grape harvest until the end of November. Then, many Yemenis moved to Arvin or Coachella where the grapevine-pruning season began. They eventually returned to the Delano-Porterville area to complete more grapevine pruning and remained in that area until the next migration cycle.[6] Like other farm workers, Yemenis faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. They were, however, seen as desirable by employers. As growers were faced with the increasing resistance and union organizing amongst Mexican and Filipino workers, many were eager to employ Yemenis whom they believed were docile and “easier to control.”[7] The growers did not anticipate the fact that not only would Yemenis organize alongside the UFW, but were also equipped with radical politics inspired by events in Yemen as well as their Muslim and Arab identities, differentiating them from their Mexican and Filipino counterparts.

For my father and many other Yemenis who grew up in the context of decolonization and revolution in Yemen, the UFW’s emphasis on social justice was both identifiable and appealing. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of tumultuous political changes in former North and South Yemen. With the spread of Arab nationalism inspired by Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as anti-colonial movements throughout the world, North and South Yemenis were inspired to challenge systems of power. In 1963, the National Liberation Front was established in South Yemen in order to decolonize the British Protectorate of Aden.[8] Meanwhile, in North Yemen, military rebels fought to overthrow the ruling monarchy at the time and establish a republic. In 1967, South Yemen successfully decolonized Aden, ending over a hundred years of British imperial presence in the region, and became a Marxist regime known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. A year later in 1968, North Yemen overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Yemen.  The wars in South and North Yemen as well as the end of British colonization in Aden, led to a deterioration of Yemen’s economy. With many families facing poverty, Yemen’s largest economic export became its labor force, consisting primarily of men. Although Yemenis had been migrating for work beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, the 1960s and 1970s saw large scale labor migration of Yemenis to other parts of the world, including Britain, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the United States. The 1965 Immigration Act, which ended restrictive immigration policies, increased Yemeni immigration to the United States.  By the 1970s, many of the Yemenis arriving in the United States worked in automobile factories in Detroit, Michigan, steel plants in Buffalo, New York, and agricultural farms across California. The experiences of Yemeni immigrants in California were reflective of many of the experiences of Arab immigrants who arrived post-1965. Yet, unlike other Arab immigrants, primarily from Lebanon and Syria, who arrived in the early twentieth century, Yemenis who came to the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s were predominantly working-class and Muslim.[9]  While many Arabs in the U.S. prior to the 1960s had been racialized as white, the intersection of class and religion racialized Yemeni immigrants as non-white, “other” minorities.

Alongside increased employment by growers, there are several reasons why Yemenis came to California. Many came to the U.S. with agricultural experience in Yemen already, as families usually owned a few acres in which they grew and harvested their own food. Following the wars in Yemen, however, a decline in national resources and limited economic opportunities pushed most families to rely on foreign imports. Another strategy included sending relatives, usually young men, to other countries for work in order to earn money for the entire family. In the mid-twentieth century, the booming California agricultural industry offered immediate employment opportunities to many young Yemeni men who came to the U.S. with some agricultural experience in hopes of supporting their families back home. Another channel by which Yemenis came to California was a credit system established by Trans World Airlines (TWA). The system was allegedly backed by growers to help expedite travel for immigrants, predominantly young men from Yemen. Although not Mohamed’s experience, based on testimonies from UFW volunteers and the few secondary sources available, there are speculations that growers themselves funded the travel to bring groups of young men from Yemen to work.[10] Through this system, a relative or friend residing in California paid a $100 deposit with a cosigner in Yemen for a plane ticket from the TWA costing $800 with the condition that upon arrival the worker would pay the beneficiary back. While providing loans to help travel from Yemen was common between Yemenis, the involvement of the TWA in facilitating this communal practice was unusual. Yemenis who came in through the TWA credit system arrived in the dozens and essentially went straight from the airport to the hiring halls. A spokesman representing a group of workers would initiate applications for social security numbers so the workers could begin working as soon as possible.[11] There are several discrepancies between the numbers provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service records which reports 380 alien Yemenis registered in 1974 as opposed to the numbers given by the TWA office in Los Angeles which reports 100,000 in the decade leading up to 1974.[12] This discrepancy indicates the possibility that the number reported by TWA were of undocumented Yemenis.

Yemeni farm workers faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. Similar to other farm workers, the conditions for Yemenis were inextricably linked to the exploitive system established by the growers. Faced with the precarities of being a low-wage laborer and immigrant, it was no surprise, then, that the UFW appealed to Yemenis. Beginning in the late 1960s, there were at least 500 Yemeni UFW members, although the numbers were likely higher.[13] The UFW offered Yemenis a platform to advocate, assert their presence, and gain resources. Amongst many things, the UFW worked to provide Arabic translators for Yemeni workers, halal food in the labor camps, as well as access to health care. While health issues such as tuberculosis and respiratory infections were common among farm workers, many Yemenis suffered from schistosomiasis, an intestinal infection caused by contact of parasites in water endemic in Yemen. The UFW tested and treated hundreds of Yemenis.[14]

While the UFW was accommodating to needs of Yemeni workers by providing them with services, the invocation of Arab nationalism also threatened the UFW’s platform and reputation amongst supporters. Throughout the first half of the 1970s, the peak of Yemeni immigration to California, Yemeni farm workers were present for some of the most successful as well as contentious years of the UFW.[15] As the UFW fought to sustain their success following the 1970 historic grape contracts, Yemenis were a strategic group to mobilize.  The UFW hired several Yemeni organizers in order to reach out to the Yemeni community, many of whom only spoke Arabic.[16] Some of these organizers included: Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah. Saeed Mohamed Al-Alas a UFW organizer from Aden, the capital of former South Yemen, organized with the UFW in the early 1970s and was the lead organizer for a funeral march in Porterville honoring the life of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.[17] Ahmed Shaibi who was also South Yemeni was hired by the UFW in 1977 and served for the union for several years before opening the first local chapter of the Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee in Delano in 1982. Lastly Nagi Daifallah, whose untimely death profoundly impacted the trajectory of the union, was also a union organizer.[18]

Like Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah, those with a background in social justice activism in Yemen, including anti-colonial and Arab nationalist ideologies, became involved as organizers the UFW. While these ideologies had origins in the context of political changes in Yemen and the Middle East, they were not mutually exclusive from the issues Yemeni farm workers faced in the Central Valley. Yemenis invoked these political identities as a way to assert themselves as immigrants in California, as well as, define their involvement in the farm worker movement. One example of this was a funeral march for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ardent leader of Arab nationalism, that was organized by Yemeni farm workers in Porterville.  On October 1, 1970, after Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack, local Yemenis planned a funeral march in his honor. Nearly one thousand Yemeni farm workers in Porterville attended a funeral march to mourn the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Led by a drummer, marchers carried an American flag alongside the United Arab Republic flag and a portrait of the late President Nasser covered in a black veil.[19] In an article of the union’s newsletter, El Malcriado, documenting the event, Yemeni UFW organizer Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas stated, “Nasser has been a father to us. He was the only great leader we had. He brought all the Arabs together, began economic programs, and threw the British out of Egypt. He was really interested in the people.”[20] Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement on Nasser discussed three political projects: Arab unity, economic justice and lastly anti-colonialism. All of these things contextualized Mohammed Al-Alas’ involvement in fighting for farm worker justice in California. When asked why he remains in the Central Valley he replied, “Where else could I do as much for my countrymen?”[21] Evident in Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement, and for many other Yemenis, politics rooted in Arab nationalism and decolonization were not separate from their identities as UFW supporters and immigrants in the Central Valley. Highlighted in the union’s newsletter, the inclusion of  Yemenis in the movement in the early 1970s helped boost the union’s reputation for multicultural social justice, particularly at a time when Filipino farm workers became disillusioned with Chavez’s leadership.[22] Yet, the turn to anti-colonial Arab nationalism radicalized Yemenis in a way that was illegible to the UFW’s mission.

0770_236500001

Chavez, center, marching with Yemeni activists, Delano, CA, 1973. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Three years later, in August of 1973, the portrait of Nasser would be carried once more, this time to mourn the death of Nagi Daifallah. Nagi’s death occurred in the midst of combative union politics between the UFW and the Teamsters, police violence against workers, as well as police and grower collaboration. On July 29, 1970, the UFW signed what would come to be known as the historic grape contracts, ending the five-year-long grape strike and boycott that began in Delano and marked the first collective bargaining agreement for farm workers in California. The UFW’s fight for farm worker justice did not end there, of course. In the summer of 1973, as the UFW’s three-year grape contracts came up for renewal, strikes took place again after growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters union without an election. Thousands of strikers were arrested, and hundreds suffered injuries at the hands of law enforcement.[23] On the evening of August 13, 1973, a group of farm workers and UFW volunteers and organizers stood outside a café in Lamont, California. Deputy Sheriff Gilbert Cooper arrived on the scene to arrest picket captain Frank Quintana on charges of disturbing the peace. Several workers began to protest Quintana’s arrest; among them was a 24-year-old farm worker from Yemen, Nagi Daifallah.[24] Upon protest of Quintana’s arrest, Sheriff Cooper began harassing Nagi. As Nagi attempted to run away, Cooper swung a metal flashlight at his head causing severe injuries to his spinal cord.[25] Nagi was left to die on the pavement. While harassment by police was a common reality faced by strikers, workers, and UFW organizers, the death of Nagi sent shock waves through the union and deeply impacted the trajectory of the farm worker movement. On August 17, 1973 over 7,000 Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino mourners gathered at the Forty Acres union field office in Delano, the “cradle” of the farm worker movement to attend Nagi’s funeral march.[26] Yemeni farm workers, UFW volunteers, organizers, and Cesar Chavez himself, marched in silence alongside Nagi’s casket in solidarity against the violence and systemic oppression perpetuated by agribusiness. Chavez spoke very highly of Nagi who was an organizer for the union and was deemed a martyr for the movement.

Facing a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, Nagi’s death brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities in solidarity, if only for a moment. His death provided an opportunity for the UFW to emphasize that the movement was for all immigrants and people of color. In his eulogy statement for Nagi Chavez highlighted his immigrant identity stating that “Nagi had come to this country from his native Yemen looking for a better life” and “gave himself to the grape strike and the struggle for justice for all farm workers.” Yet, the picture of Nagi painted by Chavez and the UFW portrayed him as simply a passive victim of his circumstances. In his eulogy, Chavez stated how Yemeni workers were, “the latest group of people to come to California to be exploited by the California growers” and that “most of them, like Nagi, were young men in their early twenties, they were unusually shy, of slight frame, Moslem, spoke no English, and live in barren labor camps.” [27] By characterizing the movement for all immigrants and people of color, Chavez answered to critics at the time who accused the UFW for being ethnocentric by prioritizing Mexican workers as well as being too Catholic-based. It also addressed critiques that the UFW was too dependent on white, middle class volunteers and advisors.[28]

However, the characterization of Nagi as “unusually shy,” portrayed him as a passive victim as opposed to the political activist he was. Beyond the dominant narrative which focuses solely on Nagi’s death, the writings and letters he left behind for his father offer a look into his experiences working in the fields and being involved with the UFW.  In actuality, when Nagi became a UFW organizer he already had experience in political activism back in Yemen. Nagi, originally from North Yemen, became politically involved at a young age. While going to school in Aden (South Yemen) during British occupation, Nagi publicly stood against the British as well as the North Yemeni government, which resulted in his imprisonment for some time. As a young man, Nagi was arrested for pulling down both the British flag and the North Yemen flag in an act of protest while attending a college in Aden.[29]  Furthermore, based on letters he wrote to his father, it was evident that rather than being shy and inexperienced, Nagi  had a keen understanding of how power and exploitation was operating within agribusiness. In a letter to his father, Nagi wrote:

Dearest father, you will be amazed at this which I am writing to you in this letter about the prisons for workers in American, and (when I) tell you how much an agriculture worker suffers and endures in terms of severe ill-will from the landlords of ranches. These workers live in encampments that resemble military barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and a massive barrier of governmental agents, who forbid anyone from contacting the workers, or even conversing with their friends, except by signals, or when they are completely outside the camp, where they are far from the police. The landowners do not permit the workers to work in agriculture, except under laws the ranch-owners impose on them, with less than legal wages and insufficient safety precautions for the workers.[30]

He vividly paints a picture about the life farm workers, comparing the labor camps to prisons and war camps. He discusses grower exploitation of workers through, not only controlling their wages, but also by limiting access to services and communication and purposely putting them in unsafe conditions.[31] Nagi, like other Yemeni workers, also understood his oppression in both local and global ways, comparing his experiences in the Central Valley to those of living under an oppressive regime in Yemen.

125_73DF_6530001raw

Funeral ceremony for martyr Nagi Daifullah. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

The inclusion of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s portrait during Nagi’s funeral march represented this understanding that politics in the Central Valley were inseparable from global politics, like Arab nationalism. Alongside Nasser’s portrait, Yemeni workers carried flags representing the United States, Yemen, and the UFW, but it was Nasser’s image that would prove to be the most controversial. After Daifallah’s funeral, Chavez received several letters from supporters who were extremely disappointed to see Nasser, whom they viewed as an extremist and anti-Semitic, associated with the UFW and the movement.  One example was a letter dated September 17, 1973 from Nate Bodin, President of the Local 800, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, of which the UFW was an independent affiliate.[32] Bodin wrote to Chavez expressing disapproval at the inclusion of Nasser’s image, a man he compared to “Hitler or Porfirio Diaz [sic].”[33] Bodin attached the image from the funeral march with Nasser’s portrait, which was published in The Los Angeles Times. He first pointed out how Local 800 has financially supported the UFW and then requested the UFW produce a statement regarding the Nasser portrait:

We know you to be a man of great courage and honesty. We know that unity among people of good-will is crucial. We applaud your efforts and wish you well with all the resources we can muster. However, we would like to have a statement from you regarding the above matter. We would like to know how you stand regarding the use of the representative of a people (Nasser) who have been in our opinion, misguided. We think the choice of ‘hero’ was a poor one for this sad occasion.[34]

These letters demonstrated that the portrait of Nasser, a leader of Arab nationalism and Palestinian liberation threatened the UFW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO, an organization that boosted the union’s platform nationally. The decision to include Nasser spoke politically to the connections Yemeni workers made between social injustices abroad with the injustices they faced as farm workers in the U.S. However, it put Chavez and the UFW in a very tough situation and threatened the union’s support from pro-Israeli organizations as well as Jewish American religious leaders. Based on a social justice platform rooted in American civil rights discourse, the UFW was not prepared to take on global politics of Arab nationalism nor the question of Palestine.[35]  It became clear that the presence of Yemenis alongside the portrait of Nasser, was not only illegible to this platform, but challenged the very possibility of a truly multicultural movement.

In response to Bodin’s letter as well as letters from other disappointed supporters, Chavez and his assistants wrote back attempting to diffuse the situation. In these letters, Chavez invoked Nagi’s victimhood and martyrdom in order to depoliticize the presence of Nasser’s portrait and continue positive relations with the angry supporters.[36] In one of these letters Chavez wrote:

Nagi’s death and his funeral procession were deeply personal events for thousands of our members. As a movement, we were both mourning his loss and standing in solidarity with his family. If you can place yourself in that very personal context I think you will understand why no one in the farm workers union can, in retrospect, cast negative reflections on what happened during the Nagi’s funeral march.[37]

It is evident that while Yemeni farm workers chose to march with the image of Nasser in expression of their political identities as Arabs and the UFW did not object to this, Chavez and his leadership, on the other hand, were not prepared to be associated with a pro-Palestine Arab leader. The controversy over Nasser’s portrait demonstrated the ways in which the UFW navigated between communities and conflicting definitions of social justice in order to uphold the portrayal of an inclusive, multiethnic farm worker movement. When Daifallah was killed and deemed a martyr of the movement, the UFW opened its arms to the Yemeni community. With the Yemeni community now on Chavez’s side, however, the UFW’s position on global issues such as the question of Palestine, suddenly mattered. While the death of Nagi Daifallah brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities on the basis of a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, it also highlighted the ways in which solidarities can be complicated and difficult to maintain. The visibility of Yemenis at Daifallah’s funeral and the controversy surrounding Nasser’s portrait revealed the complicated space Yemenis occupied within the movement.  My own father’s experience demonstrates this as well. [38]

My father, Mohamed, proudly recalled attending Chavez’s rallies and being a UFW member. He told me that after all these years, he even saved his union card. After scrimmaging through some old boxes to find the card, we discovered he was actually a Teamsters member, a rival union to the UFW notorious for implementing scare tactics and even physical violence against workers.[39] Although Mohamed aligned with the UFW ideologically, he remembered that in order to keep his job he had to join the Teamsters, which was the case for many workers.  My father’s memory of the union card is in many ways symbolic of the complicated relationship Yemenis had with the UFW. The notion that Yemenis had a place in a union of other immigrants of color seemed ideologically sound but often lacked substance. In reality, the presence of Yemenis highlighted the complicated, sometimes tense, interactions between ethnic groups, both outside and inside the UFW. This is not to say that solidarities never existed between Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino workers in the UFW, but rather that a celebratory or simplistic narrative obscures this complicated history.

The history of Yemeni farm workers expands the farm worker movement’s narrative and uncovers the role that Yemeni American activists had in U.S. labor movements. However, we must avoid simple additive history in which marginalized groups are just added into narratives. A few years back, I attended a UFW event and was approached by a woman with a rather confused look her face that asked: “So what do you have to do with all of this?” I knew exactly what she had meant, she was curious as to what a Muslim, Arab American woman possible had to do with the histories of the UFW. I explained to her that my father when he first immigrated to the U.S. from Yemen had worked as a farm worker and that I am now researching the history of Yemeni involvement in the UFW – but, I felt this explanation was simply not enough. There is the sort of obvious connection Yemenis have with this movement like having been present, attending Chavez’s rallies, and engaging in organizing.  Simply put, they were there. But beyond simply inserting Yemenis in this history, we must interrogate the broader historical significance of these narratives. This includes asking why Yemenis have been marginalized within this history. Part of the answer is that numerically speaking, there simply were not as many Yemeni farm workers during that time compared to the majority Mexican and Filipino laborers. However, the other reason why Yemenis have been overlooked has to do with how their engagement with Arab nationalism disrupted the UFW’s mission.

By 1982, there were no Yemeni UFW organizers. In that same year, Ahmed Shaibi, who had formerly organized with the UFW, established the Delano chapter of the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC). Shaibi saw a dire need for an organization that focused on the specific needs of the Yemeni community. Shaibi estimated that Arabs inhabited nearly 90 percent of labor camps in Delano and yet, there was nowhere they could go for social services. This was particularly challenging due to language barriers Yemeni workers faced and the lack of translators who spoke Arabic. However, the promise that the ADC had for Yemenis in the Central Valley never reached its full potential. By 1985, the same year that Palestinian American Alex Odeh, the West Coast regional director of the ADC, was murdered by a bomb planted in his Santa Ana office the ADC in Delano was defunct.[40] The closing of the Delano ADC was most likely a direct reaction of Odeh’s murder, as many Yemeni and Arab American activists feared the consequences of political activism.

During the same time the ADC closed, the majority of Yemenis who worked as agricultural laborers left the fields for other jobs.  Many of them found occupations in major California cities such as San Francisco as janitors, opened grocery stores, or returned to Yemen. Today, many Yemenis own small businesses in the same cities that they originally worked in as farm workers. Asking my father about his initial years in the U.S. as a farm worker unraveled an entire history of Yemenis in the UFW that I otherwise would not have known because it is not recognized in the official narrative or visibly present in the archives. This signifies the importance of building new archives as marginalized stories live on through the people around us, sometimes those closest to us.

The experiences of Yemenis in the UFW is an important chapter in the history of the Central Valley’s Yemeni community, a population that has significantly grown in numbers in the past few years. These stories contribute to the historiography of rural California and multiracial communities in the Central Valley. Alongside the history of other immigrant groups in the Central Valley including Mexican, Filipino, and Punjabi laborers, the experiences of Yemenis underscore how the local is deeply intertwined with global politics like Arab nationalism. The history of the Yemeni American community matters now more than ever. As Yemeni Americans face increasing restrictive immigration legislation and xenophobic rhetoric, this history is a reminder that Yemenis have long been a part of U.S. history, despite not always being recognized.

Notes

[1] See: Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, (London: Verso, 2011); Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press,2012); Ana Raquel Minian, “‘Indiscriminate and Shameless Sex’: The Strategic Use of Sexuality by the United Farm Workers.” American Quarterly (2013, Volume, 65.1): 63–90.  2013; Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

[2] Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment,” National Park Services U.S. Department of the Interior, (Fall 2013).; Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, (Bridge and Delta Publishing, 2018); Ray Rast, Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment, with multiple co-authors. San Francisco: National Park Service, Pacific West Region, 2012.

[3] Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.

[4] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.;”Voices from the Heartland: Young Yemeni Americans Speak,” Middle Eastern Resources Online.  http://www.mearo.org/yemeni-americans/san-joaquin-valley.php

[5] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[6] Juan J. Sanchez and Solache Saul, “Yemeni Agricultural Workers in California: Migration Impact,” Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Records, Bulk 1968-1995, box 18, folder 14, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University, Stanford CA.

[7] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[8] Robert Stookey, South Yemen: A Marxist Republic in Arabia, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982).

[9] Gregory Orfalea, The Arab Americans: A History, (Northampton: Olive Branch Press, 2006), 153

[10] Marcia Aronson, “My Involvement in the United Farm Workers of America 1973-1978,” Farm Worker Documentation Project

[11] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 206-207.

[12] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” 208.

[13] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California.”

[14] Clinic Program for Arab Members,” 9 March 1973, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego.

[15] Matthew Garcia, 15.

[16] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.; Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.

[19] “Morning March Here For Nasser,” 30 Sept. 1970, Porterville Recorder, Porterville Public Library; “Nasser Buried, Mideast Sad,” 1 Oct. 1970, Porterville Recorder.

[20] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker,” 1 Nov. 1970, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Matthew Garcia, 103-105.

[23] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, 100

[24]15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA.

[25] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Nadine Naber, “The Yemeni UFW Martyr,” Middle East Research and Information Project, vol. 44 (Winter 2014).

[26] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 62.

[27] “UFW Martyrs: Nagi Daifallah,” United Farm Workers,  www.UFW.org.

[28] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, (University of California Press, 2014), 127

[29] United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[30] Chris Hartmire Personal Papers, Retrieved from Miriam Pawel; Arabic version is from United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[31] Ibid.

[32] In 1972, the UFW was officially affiliated with the AFL-CIO and created a national executive board. This was also when they changed their name from United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) to United Farm Workers of America, known simply by their acronym, “UFW.” The affiliation with the AFL-CIO boosted the political platform of the UFW nationally. See Matthew Garcia, “Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-217

[33] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[34] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[35] In my dissertation, I explore Nagi’s funeral march as well as the 1973 October War with more depth. Chavez, for example, received many requests to take a stance in support of the state of Israel and eventually decided to issue a statement of support which received criticism from many UFW members and supporters. The UFW’s support of Israel also hurt their relationship with the Black Panther Party which had been Pro-Palestine from their founding. See Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 163.

[36] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[37] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[38] Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

[39] Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 99.

[40] Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.; Delinda C. Hanley. “Arab Americans Demand Answers in 1985 Slaying of Alex Odeh,” The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 32.9, Dec. 2013

 

Neama Alamri is completing her PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at UC Merced and will be finished by May 2020. She will continue to work on her book project, “Long Live the Arab Worker: A Transnational History of Labor Activism in the Yemeni Diaspora,” which examines how Yemeni workers and activists, throughout the 20th century highlighted the connections between local challenges in the diaspora with global politics of empire.

Copyright: © 2020 Neama Alamri. 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

The Politics of Living and Dying

Rachel Grace Newman

Lupe Gómez migrated to California from a small town in Zacatecas, Mexico when he was very young. It might seem that he chose to make his life north of the border, where he went to college, became a U.S. citizen, and established a business (86). But as he took these steps to settle in the United States, he was also building connections to Mexico. He became active in hometown associations (HTAs), migrant organizations that raise funds to make improvements in the communities they left behind. In 2009, as a migrant candidate, he ran for a congressional seat in Zacatecas’ state legislature. Affiliated with Mexico’s right-wing Partido Acción Nacional, his campaign focused on “education and development,” promising to create jobs to reduce the need for people in his state to emigrate (87). Gómez described himself as an anti-establishment figure: in his words, he was “a humble ranchero who left Zacatecas a long time ago and now has returned to do things better than today’s politicians” (89). His opponents argued that Gómez’s long absence from his home state had eroded his identity as a Zacatecano and left him “out of touch” with everyday politics (90). Gómez lost the election, which was widely criticized for corruption and irregularities, but he promised to continue to seek office in Mexico (91). As recently as 2018, he was running for a federal deputy position, again as a migrant candidate, with the newer political party Movimiento Ciudadano.[1]

Though Lupe Gómez is not a household name, his story has periodically appeared in California and Mexican media over the past twenty years. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times ran a profile of Gómez with the title “Expatriates are True Patriots in Mexico.” [2] The phrasing catches the reader’s attention because it inverts a commonplace that migrants leave the homeland behind and betray their country of origin in doing so. But in Adrián Félix’s portrayal of Gómez in Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants (Oxford University Press, 2018), the Zacatecano features not as a surprising or strange case but as an example of a broader phenomenon that Félix calls “the thickening of transnational citizenship.” Mexican migrants, he argues, “simultaneously cultivate cross-border citizenship claims” both in the country where they were born and raised and in the United States, where they work and raise the next generation (3). Transnational citizenship can “thicken” over the course of migrants’ lives, especially in our current context. In the past generation, institutional and legal changes have made it increasingly possible for Mexicans in the United States to be civically and politically active on both sides of the border. Naturalizing as a U.S. citizen no longer requires Mexicans to renounce their status in Mexico. It is now legal, though practically difficult, for Mexicans abroad to vote in Mexican elections. And there are new laws in Mexico that seem to embrace the transnationality of Mexican citizens outside the national territory: there are government programs that match funds raised by migrant HTAs, as well as recent provisions for electing special migrant candidates such as Lupe Gómez. Félix focuses his work on the subjectivity of the transnational citizen living in this age of institutional transformations. He asks how Mexican migrants today make choices that thicken their web of formal and sentimental ties and expand the scope of their political struggle beyond national boundaries. More specifically, he considers how migrants’ political choices are made in the context of violent, racist hostility in the United States and exclusionary apathy in Mexico. How do they imagine and struggle for their vision of the future in this unforgiving transnational setting?

9780190879372 (1)

The book is organized around three stages in what Félix calls the “migrant political life cycle,” with chapters documenting the process of naturalizing as a U.S. citizen, the campaign strategies and policy objectives of migrants seeking political office in Mexico, and the bureaucratic and emotional intricacies of repatriating the bodies of deceased migrants for burial in their hometowns. The life cycle is an evocative metaphor to capture the changing nature of migrant politics over the course of individual trajectories. In each process examined in the book, migrants come into contact with Mexican or U.S. state institutions, but the author’s focus is on the ways that migrants experience and talk about these encounters. Félix’s relationships with his informants were built over years of his involvement in migrant political activism and as a teacher in citizenship classes (5-6).

Although migrant political activism has long garnered scholarly interest, Félix offers a novel approach by expanding the focus beyond HTAs and U.S.-focused migrants’ rights struggles. This book shows that naturalization and postmortem repatriation, clearly not instances of organized, grassroots activism, are nonetheless sites of where citizenship is “enunciated” and “embodied.” Migrant candidates supported by clientelistic political parties in Mexico, such as Lupe Gómez, expose what Félix calls “the contradictions of transnational citizenship”: while their visibility as political candidates engages progressive or leftist observers, their platforms and affiliations can be unappealing (86). He asks readers to reconsider rigid understandings of national citizenship that assume that migrants’ political engagement in Mexico is a sign of disengagement in the United States, and vice versa. In terms of concrete practices of citizenship and more abstract expressions of belonging and identity, Félix finds simultaneity and complexity.

In the chapter on U.S. naturalization, he argues that this moment of “political baptism” does not indicate a migrant’s assimilation to U.S. dominant culture or renunciation of Mexico. Migrants instead articulate the desire for the practical benefits of U.S. citizenship for themselves and their families. Félix emphasizes the context of xenophobia and racism in which migrants make choices about seeking a new political status. U.S. citizenship can shield them from deportation (although the certainty of citizenship has eroded since Félix’s book went to press), but naturalized citizens are not protected from perennial assumptions of foreignness and illegality on the part of the white supremacist state (and a sizeable part of the U.S. public). Given this, many Mexican migrants express their loyalties as did one of Félix’s informants: “When I see the American flag, I feel joy, but I don’t feel the same way as when I see the Mexican flag. I think that even if you become a [U.S.] citizen, you will never stop being Mexican. No matter what you say in the oath” (48-49).

IMG_0376

The humble monument to the migrant in Jerez, Zacatecas, erected in 2002 by the mayor’s office. Courtesy of Adrián Félix

Félix then turns to a group of Mexican migrants who seek political office in the country of their birth. These politicians are virtually all naturalized U.S. citizens and registered Democrats, with prior experience in migrant civic and political organizations, who are also affiliated with Mexican political parties across the ideological spectrum. There is a paradox, for Félix, in this form of transnational citizenship: though U.S.-based migrant activism is broadly progressive and often radical, when activists become candidates, they become cogs in a political machinery that is “notoriously corporatist” (57). Félix suggests that the leftwing Mexican parties that could coherently adopt a radical pro-migrant agenda cannot actually deliver the votes to elect a migrant candidate. Instead, the elected migrant officials he interviewed belonged to the establishment parties, particularly the rightwing Partido Acción Nacional. A follow-up study could show how things have changed since a newer “antisystem” party (Morena) has taken over the political establishment, having ascended to power with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018 (7).

By definition, life cycles conclude with death, and Félix pays attention to the choices migrants make around end-of-life rituals in a chapter on postmortem repatriation. Those choices are spiritual and personal, but they are also deeply political. “At least for a considerable subset of migrants, who very well may have been settled in the United States for decades, cross-border loyalties live on and often materialize after death,” he writes (133). The desire to be buried in one’s native land is hardly unique to Mexican migrants, but Félix shows that this particular wish is widespread and culturally significant in the diasporic Mexican community. He recounts stories told in conversations with rural Zacatecanos about their transnational maneuvers to bring family members back to their hometowns for burial. Community members contribute to the expense of postmortem repatriation. This commitment to a smooth farewell means that the dead do not always travel alone. In one story, a young migrant murdered in Colorado was returned to his rancho by a co-worker, and in another, no fewer than 52 family members, filling an airplane, accompanied the body of a migrant going back home (127). Migrants’ desires for a posthumous return are tepidly supported by the Mexican state, but resources are distributed as a form of humanitarian aid that is inconsistently allocated (122). The migrant family network and transnational community are the most important support systems for postmortem repatriation.

As Félix concludes, “Mexican migrants are tenaciously transnational, defying the border in life and death” (141). After three decades of scholars documenting evidence of migrant transnationalism, Félix’s finding might seem unsurprising at first. But by calling attention to migrant tenacity, he draws readers’ attention to the many barriers to acting or feeling transnationally that migrants struggle against and shows how they do so at an intimate scale. The bureaucratic hurdles of naturalization demean Mexican nationals even as they are formally admitted to the citizenry. Yet migrants overcome those hurdles to obtain a legal status that can produce tangible improvements in their lives. The Mexican state has its own ways of including migrants only to show that they do not and cannot really belong, as migrant candidates have discovered as they seek to effect change from within, navigating mainstream Mexican party politics. To be a politically active migrant requires determination, and his revelations about U.S. and Mexican institutional mechanisms of exclusion indict political elites on both sides of the border.

In telling these stories, Félix also opens up new avenues for additional studies of migrant politics. Félix makes clear that his informants are not meant to be statistically representative of the diverse population of Mexican citizens in the United States: most people we meet in the narrative hail from Zacatecas, are “mestizo” (of mixed indigenous and European heritage), and are legal permanent residents or naturalized U.S. citizens. Mexican migrants to the United States are a highly diverse group that today includes members of indigenous communities and people coming from states whose migration histories do not stretch back as far as that of Zacatecas; these migrants are far less likely to have a path to legal status of any kind. These differences matter a great deal when looking at cross-border mobility: as Félix recounts, undocumented family members of deceased migrants in the United States cannot go to Mexico to accompany the body or attend the funeral (127). Though women appear periodically in the narrative, Félix notes that the exercise of transnational citizenship is always gendered. Félix is careful not to generalize from male migrant experiences. While many migrant women naturalize as U.S. citizens, migrant political candidates in Mexico are overwhelmingly male. Among migrant bodies repatriated to Mexico, women’s cadavers are underrepresented (111-112). His brief vignette about a young Mexican woman, based in Las Vegas, who sought political office in Mexico only to be targeted by misogynistic vitriol, suggests that there are many more migrant experiences to document to render the full repertoire of transnational citizenship. Félix’s book will be an important touchstone for the scholars who take up that work.

Notes

[1] http://pulsodelsur.com/noticias/quiero-ser-la-voz-de-millones-de-migrantes-radicados-en-estados-unidos/

[2] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-jul-01-me-46794-story.html

 

Rachel Grace Newman is a Lecturer in the History of the Global South at Smith College. She earned a Ph.D. in International and Global History at Columbia University. She writes about education, inequality, and migration in twentieth-century Mexican history. Her website is rachelgnewman.com.

Copyright: © 2020 Rachel Grace Newman. 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/

Postcards Series

The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


 

san pedro2 (1)

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Jennifer Carr

Whenever I go out with my father anywhere in San Pedro, we inevitably run into someone he knows, from his school days (a long time gone), from the Cabrillo Beach Polar Bear Club, or from years of work spent on the harbor. That’s when San Pedro, with a population of 56,000, feels like a small town.

My dad, now a retired longshore worker and marine clerk, Locals 13 and 63, remembers faces better than names, and a casual—someone who takes jobs out of the casual hall and isn’t a steady at a particular dock—comes up to my dad as we sit down for burgers on Gaffey Street, asks, “Jack, you still down at Pasha Stevedoring?”

“Retired three years now,” my dad says, and I can tell he’s searching for the name to go with the face. But names don’t always matter, because there are now two workers from the waterfront in one place, two brothers in the union, which means they can have a full conversation in the shared language of the docks.

The San Pedro Bay Port Complex, comprised of the combined Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, makes up the ninth largest port in the world (the top eight are all in Asia). Realizing its potential value, Los Angeles annexed San Pedro as a part of the City of Los Angeles in 1909, and the complex has since been given the moniker (and a National Geographic Channel show along with it) America’s Port, since it handles more than forty percent of all containerized cargo that enters the United States. However, this distinction has an uncertain future with the dredging and widening of the Panama Canal, the fully-automated barge port in Louisiana, or the megaships that can carry over 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit containers. These container ships have a beam of about 193 feet—compared with the 100-feet bow-to-stern total length of the San Salvador, the flagship galleon of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who in 1542 became the first European to scout the San Pedro Bay, inhabited by the Tongva, whose settlement in the bay was named Kiinkenga.

APL Terminal (1)

Courtesy of Jennifer Carr

While waiting for our burgers, the longshore worker tells us, “I only get out three days a week now—work is down because of tariffs. There are no slabs at all.” Because I’m the daughter of a former longshore worker/marine clerk, I know that slabs are hunks of steel made from ingots rolled out on a belt in lengths between thirteen and forty-four feet, weighing between ten and twenty-seven tons. I know that the 1960 Modernization and Mechanization Agreement enabled containerized cargo, a move that prevented the union from rejecting any future technological advancements in the port but simultaneously negotiated the union’s ability to be trained on and operate the new technology. I know that my dad first got his start on the docks in 1959, just out of high school, and used a 9-inch metal hook to unload cargo onto pallets. I know the rhythms and the cadences of waterfront speak and its hopes and losses by heart.

The trade war is affecting everyone who isn’t currently pulling a retirement pension or already in the ground. A trade war means fewer ships in the harbor, fewer gangs called up for a shift—“Only two gangs ordered per ship!” our new friend tells us while we wait for our burgers, “And only two foremen now each for the day and night shifts, when before there were five!” I see both my dad’s relief at being out and guilt over getting the best deal out of his last contract before retirement.

Work on the waterfront has always been a tenuous balance between the members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union—my dad’s union—and the shipping companies represented by the maritime association. Bloody Thursday honors the flashpoint of the 1934 West Coast Strike that involved scabs and hired goon squads beating up (and shooting) striking union members, killing two of them. It’s now commemorated every July 5th with a harbor shutdown and branded t-shirts. In 1960, the Modernization and Mechanization Agreement meant that companies could containerize cargo, reducing physical labor, but that the union had to handle the movement and stowage from ship to dock. The union would have to be allowed the chance to modernize with the technology. In 2002, there was the weeks-long lockout after the union was accused of a slow-down, during which the union leveraged its power to negotiate a favorable contract with the association representing the shipping companies (despite George W. Bush invoking the Taft Hartley Act as a means to weaken the union, attempting to render them unable to strike); in January of 2015, I marched alongside my dad and thousands of other ILWU families in support of the union’s contract negotiations; and earlier in 2019, the union rallied once again to protest shipping giant Maersk’s addition of 130 robotic vehicles to replace human-operated machines to sort and move cargo on the docks. A lopsided agreement was made; though the union can be trained on the new automation, jobs will still be reduced, and the union has been leveled a devastating blow. It’s not the Matrix or Skynet—but there’s a real fear that in two generations, with automation potentially replacing most of the workforce, there will be few who know what it meant to work on the waterfront. Reactions range anywhere on the spectrum between hysteria to excitement, depending on which side of the labor vs. management debate you’re on.

ILWU Strike Signboard 600dpi (1)

Courtesy of Jennifer Carr

As for now—we don’t know what’s going to happen. Maersk uses microchips in the containers and even on the docks, plugged into robots to do the work my father spent hours of his week planning out. He’d come home, dusted yellow with spray chalk from marking steel slabs and coils, marking the yard for placing the steel slabs, coils, and plywood to be loaded onto trucks or rail cars, double checking bills of lading, somehow sorting cargo the way a conductor guides a symphony or the Sorcerer Supreme bends the world at his will.

The waterfront is the true official language of San Pedro, which otherwise has been a pidgin of Spanish, English, Croatian, Italian, and Japanese since Juan Domínguez was given the land grant by Spain for ranching in 1784 (and the subsequent US takeover of California after the Mexican-American War). Phineas Banning, an immigrant from the East Coast, dredged the harbor in 1871 to make it deep enough for ships to pass through, and two years later, as California State Senator, used government funds to build the first breakwater. My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Croatia (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire), found his way to San Pedro in 1914 in his purse seiner, The Agram, after freezing on the waters of Puget Sound. San Pedro looked similar to the Adriatic coast, Catalina Island a more distant Krk, the harbor town a larger iteration of Crkvenica and Rijeka. Familiarity and echoes of home bays and fishing communities drew most of the families that came to San Pedro during the twentieth century.

The stories of San Pedro are woven out of fishing nets, metal hooks, and family recipes. San Pedrans also retain their ties to cultural heritage—many of my friends still return to Croatia every summer—but even stronger is the Pedro heritage. Families remember who fished on the Sea Scout between 1950 and 1959, or how many owners the John R. had. The first boat my grandfather owned was also the first all-steel purse seiner on the coast, The Paramount. Starting in the 1930s, he spent months at a time off the Galapagos Islands fishing tuna, dropping off loads in Mexico, then motoring south again for another load. During World War II, he and the rest of the fishing fleet took turns patrolling the coast for submarines, then scooping up every last sardine and anchovy from the waters—whatever could be put in a can, stowed in musty holds, or shipped to the fronts. When the fishing dwindled, the men moved onshore, but not too far, from the boats to the docks, cargoes of bananas from Brazil, coffee from Colombia, sugar from Hawaii, cowhides from wherever it was the cowhides came in from. Bales of cotton loaded on pallets, hand-stowed, hand-offloaded, hand-sorted, with steel hooks in the hand to move the pulleys, separate the loads, throw the cargo onto trucks or railcars.

Some symphonies are played with violins and cellos and flutes—my family created them with hooks and pallets and the rhythms of human automation, smooth, choreographed, memorized, inherited. Water is in our blood and our bones, and our steps pulse with the low hum of the cranes that lift and pull cargo the way the moon pulls the tides and the way we pull stories from salt.

San Pedrans are wary, not necessarily of progress, not necessarily of being left behind, although that is a concern, but worse, of being erased altogether.

There’s a hole in my heart where Canetti’s Seafood Grotto used to be, down in the throat of 22nd Street, tucked behind the fish markets. It was an archive that sold fish, but the real draw was the characters inside, human libraries reciting their daily litanies, rimes of not-so-ancient mariners who didn’t measure days with coffee spoons but instead counted years by fishing boats: again, who fished on which boat and with whom, who partnered, who owned outright, was it longlining tuna or nets of sardines or anchovies or ligni—squid—conjured to the surface of the ocean with spotlights. After my grandfather died, I worked at Canetti’s for a time, absorbing the stories of other grandfathers, imbibing the sounds the way others who grieve sniff items of clothing. In the age of computer automation, this worked as a different kind of neural network, the individual stories binding us all in one greater story.

After sixty years, Canetti’s closed up shop, the larger-than-life Joe Canetti retired, and like my grandfather and so many others, he is now gone, lost to the tides of time. Canetti’s fish tacos and sandwiches were famous, but my dad and I often switched up our orders to get their burgers, a greasy-spoon diner type of burger, and the closest we can replicate (though still aren’t quite the same) we’ve tracked down to a sandwich shop on Gaffey Street. And here, just like at Canetti’s, the pulse of the harbor carries us to another thread of the collective story of the waterfront.

The man at lunch on Gaffey Street mentions a name I know, says this worker got laid off because work was so slow, and now had to take jobs out of the casual hall. “And he’s a good worker, too.”

Dad at work 1994 (1)

Jack Carr at work, 1994. Courtesy of Jennifer Carr

A good worker. Akin to the title of Sorcerer Supreme, it’s the highest compliment you can give someone on the waterfront. Though it may sound Bolsheviky, the good worker plaudit is an apolitical mark of distinction that is carried down generations. At Canetti’s, people would recall good workers who had been dead for ten or twenty years. Prime table position was given to Ray Patricio, one of the “best bosses” to ever work down at the harbor.

My dad is one of the good workers, a trait that imbued every part of his life. “You know how lucky you are?” his coworkers would tell me at holiday parties or the occasional run-in at Canetti’s, the movie theater, the Target parking lot. My dad’s vice president (on the management side) said on multiple occasions that he’d retire when my dad retired. When my dad did retire—at the age of seventy-five—two workers filled his position. Fifty-seven years he spent on the waterfront. Eight-, ten-, sometimes fourteen-hour days. In that time, he clocked in almost twenty orthopedic surgeries, his body given over wholly to the job.

Having a good worker in the family is a sense of pride. I didn’t earn it, but it sticks to me, a benediction, a membership card for respect. It’s the story that has framed my entire life, just like my grandfather’s story framed my father’s.

The port complex currently provides 190,000 jobs to human beings who pay taxes, buy homes, shop locally, send their kids to little league and soccer. Automation will change the complexion of the entire town, and it’s already changing. San Pedrans look around at places like this sandwich hangout on Gaffey Street, wondering which of us gentrification will bump off first. Without the language of the waterfront and the people who speak it, what will happen to the rest of the town? Losing this language is personal. It’s akin to losing my grandfather all over again.

Now, perhaps, is the coda, but maybe not. Maybe as the workers shift to fit themselves into the narrower machinations, they’ll forge new shapes and new rhythms that will be just as beautiful, though different, perhaps a little melancholic. The stories will go on, and there will be enough of us left who know even a few words of the old language to tell the stories of those who have come and gone: break bulk, hooks, casual cards, A books, long on hours, a good worker, the best worker, my grandfather, my father, my father. I repeat it like a prayer, a chronicle of what was, saying it often so there will be no end to the echo.

Jennifer Carr frequently explores how our jobs reflect or inform our identities, and what happens when the jobs are threatened by time, automation, and politics. Her work has recently appeared in Baltimore ReviewOrigins Journal, and Panorama Journal, among others. Though she sometimes regrets not getting her union card, she loves teaching creative writing at Chapman University and spends the rest of her time as a ghostwriter. In the gaps, she is completing her novel set on the Los Angeles waterfront.

Copyright: © 2020 Jennifer Carr. 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/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
Articles

Following the Moniker Trail: Hobo Graffiti and the Strange Tale of Jack London, Skysail, and A-No. 1

Susan Phillips

Figure 1.

Railroad shed on the Southern Pacific Line, Red Bluff, California. Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

In his book The Road, Jack London describes his experiences living as a hobo. From hopping trains, begging, and doing time to writing graffiti, London’s book recounts his experiences traveling across North America in the 1890s. During this period, London was known by several monikers, including Frisco Kid, Sailor Kid, and Sailor Jack due to his work on ships and his home in the Bay Area of California, near San Francisco. Based on London’s 1894 diary and experiences, The Road describes encounters with fellow hobos, wanderers, gypsies, lawmen, and trainmen, as well as his adventures with Kelly’s Industrial Army, a migratory group protesting unemployment and labor issues in the United States. Within this rich backdrop, London writes about the importance of tramp communication. While London’s writings about the Klondike and other topics put him on the literary map, his hobo writings remain lesser known.[1]

Hoboing or tramping was rooted in post-Civil War infrastructural, railroad, and urban development.[2] Distinct traditions of cultural expression emerged among both hobos and railroad workers in the mid-to-late 19th century that followed the wake of railroad construction. References to hobo graffiti from this period are well known in literature, but less is known about works documented in photography, or carvings that survive at various sites around the United States. After finding a wall of intact hobo writing in Los Angeles in 2000 dated 1914-1921, I began research into the topic across a broader geographical range and during an earlier time period.

Figure 2

Oakland Red in Los Angeles, California, 1914-1921. Oakland Red utilized a negative lettering style that would have been customarily rendered in hobo carvings and is still used in contemporary graffiti today. The letter “W” below his name may indicate his westward direction of travel.

Analysis of hobo graffiti—or any graffiti for that matter—necessitates an embrace of the tension between conjecture and empiricism. Graffiti can be tricky analytical ground. The self-sequestering nature of hobo populations has led to everything from academic erasure to a surrounding literature that toggles between meticulous observation and extreme lack of rigor. In his writing about hobos, for example, musicologist Graham Raulerson says that, in part due to their Wobbly philosophies, hobos tend to mistrust linear notions of history in favor of a “more spontaneous, place-bound view of time…partly because of the centrality of boredom and waiting in the hobo lifestyle.”[3]

Enter graffiti—craft of boredom and icon of lives temporally and physically in between. Graffiti is a singularly well-suited device for analyzing hobo and other fringe groups. It’s a self-produced medium of expression defined by absent authors, idle time, and encoded evasions. For these reasons, graffiti remains a neglected but particularly useful form of primary source data that can be analyzed across multiple historic circumstances.

In the 20th century United States, urban graffiti has been one manifestation of what it means to claim space on the part of fringe populations. Taking over city-space is often less overtly political than it is a key ingredient in what I think of as “soul survival.” By this I mean that graffiti is not only used in functional ways that insure the physical survival of marginalized people. Writing graffiti also does something bigger: it feeds the internal self on a steady diet of insider status, special knowledge, and the communal joy in one another’s company. The importance of that usually outweighs whatever direct benefits come from the messages themselves.

Figure 3

Surviving hobo carvings at Medford, Oregon’s Medford Railroad Park. Original photograph by Tony Johnson taken before the building’s restoration. Note the initials “CCC” which may have stood for the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal programming.

Even before the 1890s and well past the 1920s, hobo graffiti was the equivalent of what more common graffiti tagging is today—the main kind of subcultural writing inscribed in public locations other than on bathroom walls. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, hobos had created styles of writing directed at one another that were placed in or near rail yards, on wooden sheds or water tanks, under bridges, on sewer trestles, or sometimes on residential dwellings, fences, or other structures. For hobos, writing or carving monikers was a way for a transient population to remain connected despite the unpredictability of clandestine railroad travel, a lack of telecommunications, and frequent incarceration. Carved or written traces stayed in place, acting as clues for other hobos as to the past and future locations of the writer. That was the functional part. The messages also meant that people were connected, that they had a place, and that they were part of something, even when they had been rejected from everything else. Soul survival.

Popular understandings of the “hobo code” fixed most prominently in the American imagination are largely limited to unsubstantiated, self-referencing accounts of an intricate system of communication across the hobo ranks, most commonly associated with the depression era. Comparatively little attention has been paid to the more prolific, simpler, and corroborated forms of writing on the part of hobos at the turn of the century. In his work on hobos and Jack London, John Lennon argues that it is not enough to consider what London “wrote” but what London “did.” I wish to take this impulse one step further by analyzing hobo graffiti not only through literary texts on the subject, as has been the case in the past, but through the actual marks that hobos themselves created. So far, no treatment of this phenomenon has looked to actual graffiti marks in order to analyze this subject. And while surviving hobo graffiti is rare, pockets of it remain around the United States, along with photographic documentation of writings that no longer survive.[4]

Using graffiti to analyze hobo practices does not eliminate the tension between conjecture and empiricism. However, graffiti provides a productive nexus between the two that can drive more informed lines of questioning, empirically grounded research trajectories, links to specific archival and historical materials and, ultimately, the creation of more reliable forms of knowledge. Graffiti, and what I think of metaphorically as “following the moniker trail,” tells us where to look and the sorts of questions we might ask. As with many kinds of folkloric materials, graffiti is a playful form of evidence due to its illicit nature and absent authors. Jeff Ferrell writes that traditional methodologies are inadequate to the task of studying fringe, transient populations as whole. Hobo history, he argues, is a case study in “ambiguity and absence” and requires methods that match the ethos of insider communities. [5] The grounding graffiti provides is invaluable for a topic that has been plagued by assumptions, misinformation, and romanticized mythologizing.

Contemporaneous with London, Leon Ray Livingston, better known as “A-No. 1,” claimed to be the most famous hobo in the United States by the beginning of the twentieth century. He had travelled across the world, purportedly logging over 500,000 miles on just $7.61.[6]  He recounted his journeys in over a dozen books. A-No. 1 was a hobo tagger extraordinaire. He had carved his moniker all over the United States: in boxcars, on walls, on water tanks, on fences. He once served a five-month sentence in a San Francisco jail for carving his moniker into the wood of fancy hotels and bars. A lifelong rambler, he is credited with consolidating the entire system of hobo communication through his publications. Despite his romantic writings on the subject, he urged kids on the road to avoid the tramp life and often paid their return fares home. Dozens of newspaper accounts detail his graffiti-related escapades. Despite his notoriety in the early twentieth century, Leon Ray Livingston is today a relatively unknown figure.

Figure 4

Cover of From Coast to Coast with Jack London showing a photograph of Leon Ray Livingston and Jack London. A-No. 1 Publishing Co., 1917.

Even lesser known is the relationship between Jack London and A-No. 1. In his book From Coast to Coast with Jack London, Livingston described a series of farfetched adventures with London as a young man. In the book, Livingston hopes to return London home to the Bay Area, to cure him of a life of wandering. From Coast to Coast was published just one year after Jack London’s death with the permission of London’s widow, Charmian London. A-No. 1’s account, though entirely fictitious, was later made into a 1973 film, Emperor of the North, which starred Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. [7] Both the book and film cemented the false impression that the two had hoboed together, but archival evidence definitively refutes this notion. They did eventually meet and maintain a relationship until London’s death, but this was long after either of them was on the road. While A-No. 1’s accounts are full of exaggeration, his stories communicate a passion for the road and its problems and abuses.

London’s and Livingston’s accounts of the system of graffiti communication are in close alignment, and their core descriptions of this practice are supported by ample photographic documentation of hobo writing from this same period. Before introducing a key site of California-based hobo graffiti, I want to position that work within the broader history of trail and town marking in the United States and Europe to contextualize the pre-cursors of hobo graffiti, including vagabond marking, frontier identity, and colonial expansion.

Pioneers, “Gypsies,” Beggars, and Thieves

Several forms of what might be called “trail marking” pre-date the culture of hobo writing that developed in the nineteenth century. First is the practice of carving out the west as a frontier landscape by marking trails beginning in the seventeenth century on the part of pioneers and colonizers.[8] Individuals with Anglo and Spanish surnames left names, dates, and messages in places now named for the graffiti on them, such as Pioneer Register in Utah, Signature Rock in Wyoming, Inscription Loop at El Morro National Monument in New Mexico, and Register Cliff or Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail. These “pioneers” following westbound or northbound routes carved either on pristine desert rock or next to the in-situ rock art of indigenous populations as a form of claiming or communion. In addition to carved letters, early pioneers sometimes left trail markings in tar—axle grease from their wagon wheels. Pioneer graffiti is aberrant in its association with what would become a dominant population but very much in line with people using graffiti to mark waypoints on a journey. The project of westward expansion and trail marking continued into the twentieth century and is carried forward today by contemporary hikers following some of the same routes.

A second example of trail marking that acts as a precursor to hobo graffiti is the polar opposite of the pioneer graffiti above. These are the sometimes-mythologized codes in the US and Europe associated with fringe populations that were not tied to property, and that were connected to work in a way that was like the people at stake—itinerant. The history of this type of code writing is linked to wandering and labor, and to how vagabonds, tramps, “gypsies,” or travelers, and what were called “the roving unemployed” created interconnections despite their continual movement. [9] Early accounts of this practice exist among Romani people in Europe, for example, and scholars of the subject describe the way Romani would scatter grass or leaves, or arrange sticks in certain ways that gave meaning to the raw landscape. Romani also marked houses with so-called “chine” codes that judged the inhabitants and their habits to note where opportunities might be profitable or work welcome. Paola Toninato argues that

Nature supplies the Roma with a ‘semantic space’ onto which they can symbolically ‘inscribe’ the ephemeral messages conveyed via their non-alphabetic graphic practices. This semantic relationship with nature enables the Roma to survive among the non-Roma by providing them with a separate communication system and thereby a means of distinguishing themselves from the non-Roma.

Toninato pulls from various sources, including ethnographic accounts from the mid nineteenth century.[10]

A type of coding similar to the Roma chine codes was also utilized among non-Roma English and Scottish beggars and thieves. For example, John Camden Hotten’s 1865 The Slang Dictionary includes a chapter entitled “The Account of the Hieroglyphics Used by Vagabonds.” Hotten details the manner in which English tramps would not only mark doorsteps or other areas with signals, but also affix paper maps to tramp lodging house interiors in order to provide neighborhood, street, and house determinations regarding these areas or their inhabitants. Hotten includes a reproduction of one such map along with an explanatory key (see Fig 5). He notes that the widespread “English practice of marking everything, and scratching names on public property, extends itself to the tribe of vagabonds.”[11] In other words, Hotten describes a generic graffiti tradition at that time in England, which makes the contents and placement of the writing, rather than the generic practice of writing, an insider as opposed to outsider practice.

Figure 5

Cadger’s Map with an “Explanation of the Hieroglyphics.” From John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, 1885.

In the cases above, the notion of migration or movement is key, wherein people use graffiti to claim space for different reasons, to leave messages for one another, and use writing to anchor themselves temporarily in place. In the first case, graffiti associated with pioneers and colonizers helped to create a vision of the west as a blank slate. In the second case, the unknowns of towns for wandering populations inspired marking traditions that were both functional and that signaled reciprocity within disempowered populations. Because all of the above people were in motion, these examples of graffiti practices counter the ephemerality of movement and outsider status with concrete symbolic productions.

 Hobo Culture

Hoboing was initially a post-Civil War phenomenon. The Civil War had helped to develop railroad lines to carry troops, and the post-War era accompanied the shift from an agrarian to an industrialized economy. So-called “tramping” transformed from a largely foot-based, walking endeavor with the development of the railroad, which expanded opportunities for long-range travel. The Civil War had both absorbed the ranks of existing wanderers and created many more by simply shoving people post-war into a world that had undergone significant transformation. This shift caused a generation of individuals to take to the road—people who could no longer find their place economically or socially, and who sought out opportunities where the newly built railroads could carry them. They soon developed a culture of the road shared among fellow travelers. Much of the travel was structured around itinerant work opportunities, and a network of so-called “jungles,” or hobo camps, soon developed across the U.S. and Canada. The boom in the tramping population aided the building of roads, bridges, railroads, houses, buildings, water infrastructure, and sewer lines. Hobos partially made up the labor for these endeavors, and had on again off again relationships to municipalities and law enforcement.[12]

Several excellent scholarly accounts depict hobo social groups this period, including Nels Anderson’s 1923 sociological-practitioner classic The Hobo, Todd DePastino’s Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America, Tim Cresswell’s The Tramp in America, and John Lennon’s Boxcar Politics. [13] Analyzing everything from the road to hobo sexual practices, this scholarship is rich in aspects of the culture and includes some references to carvings and monikers. Complimenting this work are many first-hand accounts of hobo life, including most notably the writings of Jim Tully and Josiah Flynt, as well as A-No. 1 (Leon Ray Livingston) and Jack London.[14] Among these, A-No. 1’s works are as questionable as they are prolific. While Nels Anderson, for example, discounts the writings of A-No. 1 as exaggerated and unpopular among an insider hobo readership, he also bases his entire discussion of nicknaming on A-No. 1’s work.

Little is known about hobo practices of marking towns and cities other than the “fake folklore” versions of the mythologized hobo code one can find on the Internet.[15] The most simplified versions of this use some of the same symbols as did the cadger’s code or Romani Chine codes above, and for the same purpose. In an early text from the United States, detective, spy, and author Allan Pinkerton describes a hobo code that he indicates is derived directly from these earlier traditions—and that was popular among multi-generational begging families with roots in “the old country.”[16]

Pinkerton is a complicated figure in American history. He was a spy during the Civil War and a slave abolitionist whose house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. He also engaged in union busting, particularly by exposing union corruption among the railroads. His writing exhibits a street-worthy judgment of tramping and its life of hard knocks, but he is unexpectedly sympathetic to the cause of tramps due to his own experiences tramping as a youth. He approaches the culture as someone who wishes to rectify the misunderstandings surrounding it. In his 1878 book Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives, Pinkerton describes what he calls “mendicant freemasonry” on the part of tramps to help them find a pathway, to rely on one another not to start from scratch, and to get the lay of the land before entering a new town. Pinkerton writes that:

Among this class every possible art and device is resorted to. Charts of the country, showing the best routes for travel, and of cities, designating the most benevolent neighborhoods, are common. This same class have a regular system of operation. In the cities they beg during the winter, and when summer comes, one of a party will start out in advance and “work a route” as a peddler or tinker. In this way, as he stops at nearly every house on a designated route, he will have learned the character of the inmates, whether they are benevolent or rude, and he seldom takes his departure without leaving some pre-arranged sign to indicate to him who follows after, just where, and where not, to make application. These scamps become such keen and correct judges of people and surroundings that they scarcely ever commit an error; and if one could read the hieroglyphics upon door, steps, gate, fence, or tree, which is usually laid to the chalk or jackknife of the bad boy of the neighborhood, they could ascertain just what opinion was had of them by the tramps who have passed that way.[17]

Pinkerton stops short of deciphering specific codes utilized in this practice, saying that “deciphering these symbols is simply impossible.”[18] Groups would routinely change the signs in order for others not to take advantage of their labor. Without providing specific descriptions, Pinkerton describes only a generic tradition linked to earlier European practices that communicate about conditions on the road and the temper of towns where police were on the prowl or where inhabitants might trade labor for food or a place to sleep. Like Hotten’s example before him, Pinkerton’s account is difficult to substantiate as a singular source of unverifiable information.

It is almost certain that tramps in the United States left some sort of signage on fences, signposts, post boxes, and so forth in towns and urban centers—and the contents of the simplified codes in European and U.S. cases are startlingly similar. There are simply too many stories and nostalgic remembrances to discount it entirely. But little direct evidence exists of this practice aside from the kind of unsubstantiated writing in which Pinkerton engages, some newspaper accounts, references in literature, and the memories of people who grew up seeing such marks.

As with many hobo practices, this sort of signage has been most subject to fabrication. Graham Raulerson writes that in general, since World War II, “the concept of the hobo has trended toward mythology.”[19] In his exploration of hobo graffiti, John Lennon argues that he has never found convincing evidence of an advanced symbolic system among hobos, but rather a strong tradition of names, dates, and directions: “Although it seems reasonable that some hobos could have used common symbols – especially in populated urban centers – to communicate certain information, my research has shown that hobo graffiti is comprised of much more basic materials: monikers, dates, and logos.” Giving examples from Jack London, writer and hobo Jim Tully, and hobo composer Harry Partch, Lennon discusses the need to “remove hobo graffiti from a pedestal of a sophisticated language system that supposedly revealed a secret coded history of hobos. Instead, these writers’ examples place hobo graffiti within the larger overall history of graffiti, where wall markings are about illegally emplacing a name on property, symbolically stating their presence as a member of minority subculture.”[20]

As Lennon observes, hobo graffiti has been subject to uncritical circulation, especially via the Internet, but comparatively little grounded research. I have never seen a firsthand photograph or example featuring any symbols said to be part of the hobo code.[21] Each time I have been introduced to a new site with surviving hobo writing or its documentation, I wonder whether it might contain evidence of this practice, but so far I have encountered nothing remotely similar to it. A skeptic’s view of this phenomenon is supported due to the amount of surviving hobo graffiti whose contents are not linked to such practices. Seen another way, however, the places and media that hobos would have used to create coded markings—such as fences or sign posts marked in chalk or charcoal—were less likely to survive than the carving they produced on wooden sheds or fences.

Hobo Graffiti

As argued above, the mystique of the hobo codes has eclipsed the well-documented, prolific writing practices in which hobos engaged at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this period, hobo graffiti was the equivalent of what more common graffiti tagging is today—the main kind of subcultural writing inscribed in public locations other than on bathroom walls. Carved nicknames, or monikers (sometimes written as “monicas”), were based on personal characteristics and places of origin, and hobo writers often included dates with arrows and letters (N, S, E, or W) indicating the direction of travel. They placed these writings in or near rail yards, on wooden sheds or water tanks, or sometimes in hobo jungles under the shelter of bridges or in other locations near the railroad. The basic hobo equation of a nickname, a direction signified by an arrow and sometimes place name, and the date would become a foundational graffiti tradition in the United States in the twentieth century.

Figure 6

Earliest documented hobo carving by Montana Slim, dated 1875, from Red Bluff, CA. Montana Slim indicates that he is bound north on April 11, 1875. There is a discrepancy between this graffiti and the official recording of the building’s construction in 1880.

For hobos, writing or carving monikers was a way for a transient population to remain connected despite the unpredictability of clandestine railroad travel, a lack of telecommunication, and frequent incarceration. Carved or written traces stayed in place, acting as clues for other hobos as to the past and future locations of the writers. Hobos created a society of insiders through nicknames and special knowledge that included a tradition of clandestine writing as well as distinctive forms of dress, song writing and storytelling traditions, and other forms of carving, such as potato or wood carving, that might earn a modest income.[22] Hobos also created a unique community of practice with intimate knowledge of train schedules, methods of hopping and riding the rails, tricks to avoid police or railroad “bulls,” and the uncanny ability to earn the sympathy of kind-hearted housewives. “Sit down” dinners, handouts, or care packages acted as counterweights to police brutality and targeted incarceration that were frequent companions to hobo life.

Montana Slim’s carving in the image above hosts a discrepancy between the carved date 1875 and the recorded date of this building’s construction in 1880. The graffiti casts doubt upon the officially recorded date not just because of the presence of the 1875 carving, but because of one key piece of contextual information: The Southern Pacific Line to Red Bluff was completed in December 1871.[23] This date of completion makes Montana Slim’s northbound journey in April of 1875 possible, and it provides a potential new construction date for the building that would support a place to query the veracity of official documents. Graffiti and official records are equally reliable and equally full of error. To render these two forms of recording equivalent flips power hierarchies on their heads by questioning information entered into official records and by considering in the same breath what is carved by the hands of fringe populations.[24]

Following the Moniker Trail

Jack London first tried hoboing in the summer of 1892 at sixteen years of age.[25] After getting his feet wet with mostly local trips, he began a cross continental journey in 1894 when he was eighteen. During these periods, he first went by the monikers Frisco Kid, Sailor Kid, and, in 1894, Sailor Jack. London wrote of the moniker tradition in his 1907 memoir The Road, which recounted his travels in 1894:

Water-tanks are tramp directories. Not all in idle wantonness do tramps carve their monicas, dates, and courses. Often and often have I met hoboes earnestly inquiring if I had seen anywhere such and such a “stiff” or his monica. And more than once I have been able to give the monica of recent date, the water-tank, and the direction in which he was then bound…I have met hoboes who, in trying to catch a pal, had pursued clear across the continent and back again, and were still going.[26]

Both Jack London and Leon Ray Livingston wrote of “following the moniker trail” of people with whom they sought to connect. A-No. 1 recounts two stories of chasing missing boys across the country by following out their monikers. Jack London wrote of his desire to link up with a man named Skysail Jack. London had heard that Skysail shared his own Bay Area origin and had worked in the harbor—hence the distinctive appellation so similar to London’s own. London imagined they would get on famously together:  “I was a ‘comet’ and ‘tramp-royal, so was Skysail Jack; and it was up to my pride and reputation to catch up with him. I ‘railroaded’ day and night, and I passed him; then turn about he passed me.”[27] In his treatment of the hobo in U.S. culture and literature, John Lennon describes London’s tale “as a hyper-masculine competition where there were neither prizes nor even rules—just who could get farther ahead of the other”—all “marked by a trail of graffiti left in each other’s wake.”[28] To me, London’s pursuit of Skysail always reads as full of longing—he recounts a series of missed opportunities, all signaled by carvings, that ultimately indicate the loss of potential male communion as opposed to competition. For London, Skysail’s carvings were simply not a good enough stand in for the real person: “Skysail Jack and Sailor Jack – gee! if we’d ever got together.”[29]

My own version of following the moniker trail began inadvertently in 2000. I was with a group of friends in 2000 looking for historic graffiti in Los Angeles. Tommy Maron, artist Chaz Bojórquez, Ben Higa and I had formed a team whose quest was to find older graffiti in the city. One day, we hit pay dirt, finding an intact wall of hobo graffiti under a bridge just above the confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco. The wall included names such as Kid Bill, Chito the Tuscon Kid, Harden, Kid Smith, and Oakland Red, with dates from August 1914, July 1919, or 1921. Over a decade later, I realized that the wall included one notable name: A-No. 1. I had thought the name was Spanish, for Año, and had thus read over it for many years without realizing its significance. After I gave a presentation at the Autry Museum of the American West on behalf of the L.A. History & Metro Studies Group of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the news of A-No. 1’s name and the hobo wall in general generated national and international media attention. It all came as a bit of a surprise, especially so many years after the initial find.

The news coverage put me in touch with people who wanted to recount childhood memories or who wanted to tell me about places they knew of that might have similar markings. One of those people was Joel Reinhard of Red Bluff, California. Reading the news coverage about A-No.1, Reinhard contacted me regarding a photo archive of hobo carvings that had been documented by amateur photographer Robert Ranberg in 1969. Upon Ranberg’s death, Reinhard had recognized the importance of these images along with a 16mm film of hobo carvings. He literally plucked them from the trash heap and then turned them over to the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society, where they remained in storage for several years. I travelled to Red Bluff to meet with Reinhard, eager to see the collection. Upon viewing slides and film, I was surprised to recognize some of the names carved onto the walls—including several monikers Jack London refers to in The Road. These included Buck Kid, Midget Kid, Skysail himself, the date 1894, and one of London’s own monikers, Frisco Kid. I eventually helped to digitize these materials for the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society and spent a great deal of time analyzing the photographs and film and their contents.

Figure 7

Kid Wing plus initials. Photograph by Robert Ranberg. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

A great deal of beautiful lettering appears on the wall—the word “Portland” carved in Old English font, creative letterforms, various monikers and hometowns, and two carved birds. The most prolific carver was Kid Wing, who also wrote his full name, Wing Foey. Wing Foey was related to an original Chinese family in Red Bluff. The Foeys still make their home there, including Bill Foey, a prolific author and artist who was interested to find out more about his Uncle Wing. I was able to meet with Bill after a presentation for the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society in summer 2018. Because Bill’s father and grandfather had children at older ages, Bill is just the third generation beyond the founding members of the Red Bluff Foeys. At one point Kid Wing carved “Import Tokay” next to his name, referencing the cheap wine in which hobos might partake. Broken bottles of Tokay wine appear in the final cuts of Ranberg’s film, and Bill Foey believed that his Uncle Wing may have struggled with substance abuse. Kid Wing’s story, recounted here in only a cursory manner, hints at a more complete picture of hobo life during the latter 1800s and early 1900s.

Figure 8

“Frisco Kid.” Film still taken from 16mm film by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Other keystone carvings bring the tale back to the somewhat complex relationship between London, Skysail, and A-No. 1. In 1892, 1894, and 1905, respectively, each of these individuals seems to have carved their monikers into a wall off the sheds along Red Bluff’s Southern Pacific Line. Prolific hobo graffiti writer Tex-KT (Tex King of Tramps) carved his name there too, probably much later, making it a veritable wall of hobo graffiti superstars. One of London’s road-kid names appears as well: “Frisco Kid” was a moniker he used in the summer of 1892 when he was taking baby steps in freight hopping. There is no way to attribute this mark to him definitively.[30]  But the other writing on the wall does settle one minor discrepancy associated with London’s work. While recounting his pursuit of Skysail in The Road, London confused the dates, writing that Skysail carved his initials on 9-15-94. But London transcribed that as being October 15, 1894 instead of September of that year. Richard Etulain notes that this is a mistake on London’s part, but he doesn’t tell us how he knows this.[31] One piece of evidence in favor of that interpretation comes from the walls themselves.

In October 1894, a crew of hobo notables passed through Red Bluff, leaving their names together on the wall. One of them was Skysail, who appears along with carver Den. Brook. (Den. is for Denver; I am unsure why a period appears after Brook), Midgit Kid (whose name appears in the image above as Miget Kid), Scoty Sho. (meaning unknown), Colo. Slim (for Colorado Slim), Det. Kid (for Detroit Kid) and Sailor YT (YT is occasionally used in hobo writing but I have been unable to determine the meaning). This carving indicates that the crew was southbound by the depiction of a large letter S, along with the date 10/16/94. This date makes it impossible for Skysail to be in Canada pursued by Jack London just one day earlier, and lends credibility to the interpretation that London’s Canadian pursuit of Skysail took place in September. It’s a small example of the way that graffiti can both complicate temporalities and settle them through an altogether different kind of evidence, constructed by hobos themselves.

The year 1894 was the same year as London’s journey, and the year of Kelly’s Army/Coxey’s Army, in which London participated and about which he wrote. The October date would have been after the army disbanded in August of that year after their months of organizing and the march on Washington as labor protest.[32] The October 1894 date works well temporally and geographically based on London’s pursuit of Skysail through Canada that he recounts as taking place that September, a few weeks earlier.

Figure 9

“Skysail” and friends, 10/16/94. Red Bluff, California. Film still taken from 16mm film by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Graffiti invites conjecture, which begs the question about how to distinguish the suggestive from the empirical. One can hint at connections that remain unsubstantiated—such as Jack London as the Frisco Kid on the wall in Red Bluff. But the best graffiti analysis blends conjectural statements with more definitive ones—such as a group of hobo monikers appearing on a wall and whose “noms-de-rail” Jack London subsequently writes of, including Buck Kid, Midget Kid, and Skysail himself.

After his return from tramping in 1894, London wrote about a hobo youngster in a series of stories entitled “The Frisco Kid” and “The Frisco Kid Comes Back” in which he captured some of the linguistic parlance of hobo road kids of the time. He penned these stories while still in high school and utilized the appellation that he himself had taken on in his early travels. While it is impossible to definitively link the carving of Frisco Kid to London’s own hand, the dates, geographic location, and proximity to other characters of which London writes add veracity to this interpretation. In this case, the tension between empiricism and conjecture is productive as opposed to mythologizing. The questioning that emerges from it is connected to historical events and archival data as opposed to guesses that lead to further speculation or self-referencing conclusions.

In the case of A-No. 1, his own fictitious representation of the association between him and Jack London has muddied the analytical waters surrounding their relationship for nearly a century. After London’s 1907 publication of The Road, A-No. 1 had admired the famous author from afar and eventually penned a ten-page letter to him. A-No. 1’s reason for writing was his concern for the plight of tramps in the convict lease system—a practice he compared to slavery that targeted northern tramps and tramps of African American origin in the Southern United States. Livingston attempted to enlist the help of London, whom he considered had the ear of the public and could possibly galvanize change around this issue. While convict leasing may have been the stated reason for the correspondence, my guess is that A-No. 1 simply wanted to connect to London, whose work wound up inspiring Livingston’s own literary career. He wrote: “Perhaps you have heard of me many a time while ‘rambling’ up and down ‘lines’ and across lots. I am known everywhere under the ‘monika’ of ‘A-No. 1.” This letter began their relationship long after their hobo years had ended. They did meet in person eventually and maintained a relationship until London’s death. The archival information related to their story evidences somewhat of an uneven relationship between the two, and a bit of a wet-blanket reception regarding the idea of a piece on convict leasing on London’s part. But A-No. 1 continued to correspond with Jack and then with Charmian London after Jack’s death. He eventually gained permission from the widow to write From Coast to Coast.

A-No. 1 accidentally got on Charmian London’s bad side after Jack’s death. In a letter to her, A-No. 1 described his publication plans in From Coast to Coast that seemed to include a mention of alcohol in conjunction with Jack’s name. Then, in attempted praise for Mrs. London, A-No. 1 suggested that she, Charmian, might have had a hand in some of Jack’s writing.[33] Charmian did not take kindly to either suggestion. On June 10, 1917, she wrote: “My dear Mr. Livingston (A-No. 1): I am going to give you a scolding, and I am sure that you will feel that I am justified.” She admonished him never, ever to write about Jack in association with alcohol, to change the electrotype of his forthcoming book at any cost, and never to insinuate that anyone penned Jack’s works but Jack himself. After this tirade, Charmian threatened A-No. 1 in a post-script: “be careful of what you say about JL now.” If she were “nasty,” she might choose to give up the entire story about him and Jack not actually being companions on the road. A-No. 1 must have had that kicked-in-the-gut feeling we’ve all had from time to time. He plead misunderstanding and begged forgiveness via telegram from Erie, Pennsylvania to Glen Ellen, California.[34]

Figure 10

A-No. 1, 1905. Red Bluff, Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

As complex as life can be, the walls offer a welcome simplicity. For all the drama of A-No.1’s relationship with Jack and Charmian, for all the unrequited longing between Skysail and Sailor Jack, graffiti cuts life down to its bare essentials. Complex stories are always behind the statement “I was here.” In this case, the “here” turned out to be Red Bluff.  In 1905, A-No. 1 came through town, leaving a trail of carvings in his wake.[35] While London, Skysail, and A-No. 1 were never on the road together in the conventional sense, they actually did wind up together, on this one wall, on this one shed, off the Southern Pacific Line in Red Bluff, California. London, Skysail, and A-No. 1 were connected in place but disconnected in time. The walls held convergence nonetheless.

The buildings where these carvings resided burned down in 1969, shortly after Robert Ranberg filmed and photographed them. Ranberg’s documentary work puts the unassuming Northern California town of Red Bluff on the map as one of the most significant sites of hobo writing in the United States.

Figure 11

In between the two sheds in Red Bluff. Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Hobo Legacies in Contemporary Graffiti

Hobo writing is often given a nod in compendia that attempt to chart the history of graffiti in the United States, but the specifics of its impact are seldom elaborated.[36] Turn-of-the-century hobo graffiti directly influenced at least two contemporary graffiti genres: gang graffiti and freight train moniker writing. Below, I review hobo influences on gang writing in Los Angeles (the example I know best), spend some time with the widespread and wildly popular genre of freight train graffiti known as moniker writing. I then touch upon hobo connections to contemporary New York style graffiti that has now spread across the United States and globally.

Gangs and hobos occupied similar social spaces in their day. They were subject to hostile news media treatments, police brutality, mass incarceration, and public ostracism. Turn-of-the-century hobo associations with Wobbly labor groups linked hobos to paranoid discourses regarding anarchism and socialism, which further vilified their forms of sociality, political potential, and collective living. Similarly, gang youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s were subject to a paranoid gaze due to their social groups and distinctive clothing. They were said to be ripe for Axis exploitation and reminiscent of bloodthirsty Aztecs or wolves hunting in packs. They constructed neighborhood space differently, and they were legally penalized as collectivities rather than as individuals.[37]

Figure 12

Examples of negative lettering in hobo carving (Jule Kid and EW) from Red Bluff (c. 1890s); by Harpys gang in Los Angeles, 1990s; by graffiti crew LOD (non-gang), 2019.

In Los Angeles, gang members co-generated graffiti stylistic conventions alongside hobos in the early twentieth century. From the turn of the century through the 1940s, connections to hobos on the part of Latino and other youth occurred in the environs of the Los Angeles River and other waterways, where gang members had direct connections with hobos and visual access to their graffiti as well as materials for writing: railroad tar, railroad spikes, and occasional flares. Gang members in the late 1940s frequently wrote in tar, which had been a common hobo medium, and before that a pioneer writing medium. Gang members also adopted several hobo stylistic elements, such as arrows, pluses, quotations, or sometimes scrolls to surround their compositions. As with hobos, gang members took on monikers—nicknames—as part of marking out elements of landscape. And like the hobo term “moniker,” the name gang members used for nicknames—the placa—meant both the name itself and the graffiti form of the name.[38] Some hobo practices – such as drawing arrows, the backward “N,” the use of negative lettering, and even use of the term “Crip” – remain in use in gang graffiti and contemporary graffiti forms today. And my sense is that at least some of the angularity of early gang writing must have been inspired by hobo graffiti that was initially carved. Hobos had a stylistic influence on gangs in cities like Los Angeles that seems to have carried forward through today.

Another contemporary graffiti tradition directly influenced by hobo writing is freight train moniker writing, which has its initial history in the graffiti of railroad workers. Hobos and trainmen were both produced by the same factors: the Civil War, the shift to an industrialized society, urban development, the expansion of the frontier, and, of course, the construction of the North American railroad. Within this context, twin and opposite brotherhoods developed—like a Cain and Abel, though it was hard to tell who was the evil one and who was the good one at times. Hobos could be seen as either hard-luck cases or parasitic opportunists, and trainmen as either hardworking souls or sadistic bullies. Much of the time, they were both. Tramps and trainmen were subject to similar kinds of media paranoia. Union membership was contentious in its early days because of the way that it undermined capital accumulation. Railroad fraternities held the trappings of secret societies and union labor was fundamentally in opposition to bootstrapping or rugged individualism—ideologies hobo lifestyles also violated. At the same time trainmen, hobos, and the railroad itself symbolized other core American principles of freedom, movement, frontier, and the value of hard work. Even as opposites, both groups were simultaneously reviled and revered.

For both railroad workers and for hobos, waiting was part of the primum mobile of graffiti production. For railroad workers, waiting came in the yards. There would be a flurry of work, and then nothing. This fallow period became a creative nexus. Workers had the medium at hand, a sequestered place to write, and the time to do it. Railroaders were prolific writers, creating what they called “chalk marking,” “writing,” or “boxcar art.” They didn’t use the word moniker—even though the rail tradition that gave birth to what we know now as the moniker tradition. Moniker was a hobo word. The chalk markings of railroaders helped to express other aspects of the world of labor—getting a nickname, jockeying for position, dealing with subordination, being tied to the drudgery of the job, navigating union politics. Railroaders through time wrote a great deal on various surfaces, as well as on the trains themselves. In so doing, they created the inversion of what happened with hobos. Switchmen or car knockers who performed inspections with chalk in hand would stay in the yard and write on train cars. The marks they produced would then travel without them, while hobos frequently left graffiti near railroad locations as they themselves travelled.

At some point in the latter part of the twentieth century, these two opposed brotherhoods of hobos and trainmen gave birth to a third brotherhood, that is sometimes called the “folklore brotherhood.” In this contemporary brotherhood, freight hoppers (would-be contemporary hobos), railroad workers, and other people interested in trains or art are engaged in co-producing this tradition. In his book, Mostly True, Bill Daniel writes that: “The rail tag was born the bastard child of two warring parents; the working stiff and the shiftless wanderer. […] This duality is manifested in the astonishingly elegant and modest drawing modality that tramps and rail workers have spent the last 100 years co-evolving.”[39]

Figure 13

Moniker’d 11-17 by Anarchy Cat. Photograph by the artist, with permission from the artist.

Contemporary moniker writing consists of an insignia written in paint stick usually with a saying of some kind, the date, and select additional information. Moniker writing today was carried through from the turn of the century to today by a few key railroaders, including Bozo Texino, Herbie, JB King, and Colossus of Roads (some of these names represented more than one individual writer).[40] Their work developed into a recognizable rail-based graffiti art form with national and international devotees and a robust following on digital platforms such as Instagram. So-called “benchers”—people addicted to freight train writing of all kinds—document these marks as they roll by on lumbering freights. As documentarians rather than producers, benchers create zines and digital video compilations, and at least some of them use analogue means to circulate their productions to those with like-minded interests. Today, moniker writing mostly involves people who choose to be part of it rather than those who are using the markings as a creative outlet based on their labor or social position.

Javier Abarca writes that many accounts of contemporary moniker writing ideologically link this practice to 1930s depression-era hobos, while ignoring “the phenomenal hobo roaming and graffiti culture that developed in the late nineteenth century.”[41] Despite changes within the culture, the moniker practice remains based in its original context and continues to be practiced by graffiti-writing communities, which in this case continues to include both tramps and trainmen whose traditional graffiti practices are rooted in deeper history.

In all its guises, graffiti counters the tension between ephemerality and permanence. This tension is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be part of graffiti-producing communities. That liminality of the in-between drives carving in place while wandering, or writing on trains that are moving while workers stayed put.

In the United States, major graffiti traditions have emerged during times of significant economic transformation. Hobo culture and the hobo writing system developed during the transition from an agrarian society to an industrialized society in the nineteenth century. In case of contemporary writers, the emergence of graffiti that began on New York subways in the 1970s bridged the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society. Javier Abarca further traces the linkages between the New York style contemporary graffiti and hobo writing. Both, he says, are based in the subversion of an alienating capitalist environment, both make use of nicknames and networks of communication based on the graffitied name, and both incorporate the ethos of going “all city,” of getting one’s name up in a way that can stand apart from the person. Linkages to the hobo tradition included intimate understanding of transportation systems and urban infrastructure, knowledge of which is still relevant among contemporary graffiti writers regardless of their city of origin. Writes Abarca, “as a carrier of names and as a carrier of people, the giant and alienating train detourned into a vehicle for fantastic, free mobility is at the core of both moniker writing and New York graffiti.”[42]  As with “moniker” and “placa,” the “tag” represents both the nickname and the graffitied version of the name.

Though much of the above treatment remains preliminary, ample evidence supports the role of hobo graffiti as a keystone graffiti genre with ongoing influences in graffiti practices today.

Conclusion

In writing graffiti, people through time have carved out pathways for survival through economic changes, created alternate forms of livelihood and sociality, and nurtured the camaraderie that has seen writers through the physical and emotional challenges of the road, of poverty, or of neighborhood life in places whose violence stems as much from law enforcement as from internal sources. Soul survival. As with most graffiti–centered subcultures, hobo groups directed their messages toward themselves. In the process they created rich genres of expression with aesthetic and grammatical sensibilities that that influenced subsequent graffiti traditions.

In California, hobos provided the link between traditional American folk culture and contemporary street culture. During the so-called “tramp era” at the turn of the twentieth century, hobos took on monikers and developed a form of written communication that shared information about identity, location, and travel. The basic hobo equation of a nickname, a direction signified by an arrow and sometimes place name, and the date would become the foundational graffiti tradition in the United States in the early twentieth century.  In cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Sacramento, this culture of the American road directly informed nascent traditions of gang writing. California cities with hobo influences and emergent gangs helped to incubate some of the earliest forms of street culture in the United States.

In his books, A-No. 1 writes about the “lure” of the tramp life. To some degree, his musing on the subject holds true today. People in the United States and abroad feel a visceral sense of connection to the hobo mystique. That lure has accompanied widespread circulation of ungrounded stories and mythical understandings regarding hobo life. At the same time, a well-elaborated practice of hobo writing connected to firsthand documentation and literary references provides fodder for heretofore under-examined aspects of hobo life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Graffiti is an untapped form of primary source data that brings further clarity to several aspects of hobo culture, including the lives of notable individuals such as Jack London or A-No. 1. It also offers scope and purpose to hobo written communication. Analysis of hobo graffiti also opens further lines of questioning and necessitates deep cushioning within archival, historical, infrastructural, and narrative contexts. As examined above in the case of Red Bluff, California, hobo carvings give shape to the kinds of questions to which scholars can seek answers in order to extend reliable flows of information. Due to its absent authors and ephemeral nature, graffiti is never a wholesale solution to speculative problems—in fact the opposite is true. A degree of ambiguity is one of the delightful things about graffiti research and an important reminder of the tentative nature of knowledge production in general. But the ambiguity in this case is generative. It invites further inferences but in a manner that is both informed and fabled. In the cases above, graffiti provides a unique lens into an obscure practice by helping to ground questions as well as caution answers.

Notes

[1] With thanks to: Javier Abarca, Thomas Chambers, Owen Clayton, Bill Daniel, Bill Foey, Devon Hanofski, Tony Johnson and the Medford Railroad Park, Carol Mieske and the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society, Becky Nicolaides and the USC-Huntington Metro Studies Group, Robert Ranberg, Joel Reinhard, and Charles Wray. Jack London, The Road (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1907); Richard W. Etulain, Jack London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1979). Some segments of this material were previously published in Susan Phillips, Javier Abarca, and Thomas Chambers. Tramp Directories, Noms-de-Road, and Unwritten Codes: A Souvenir of Hobo Graffiti (Madrid: Urbanario, 2017).

[2]Tim Cresswell, The Tramp in America (London: Reaktion Books, 2001); Todd DePastino, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Mark Wyman, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).

[3] Graham Raulerson, “A Fountainhead of Pure Musical Americana: Hobo Philosophy in Harry Partch’s Bitter Music,” Journal of the Society for American Music 11/4 (2017): 454.

[4] John Lennon, “Trains, Railroad Workers and Illegal Riders.” In Jeffrey Ian Ross (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art (2016), 27-35; John Lennon, “Can a Hobo Share a Box-Car? Jack London, the Industrial Army, and the Politics of (In)visibility” American Studies (2007 48/4): 7. Charles and Michael Wray and Devon Hanofski have (separately) conducted the most thorough investigations of hobo sites in the United States, and they have identified and documented multiple sites across numerous states.

[5] Jeff Ferrell, Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), 73.

[6] Leon Ray Livingston, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1, America’s Most Celebrated Tramp (Erie, Penn.: The A-No. 1 Publishing Company, 1910).

[7] Leon Ray Livingston, From Coast to Coast with Jack London. (Erie, Penn.: The A-No. 1 Publishing Company, 1917). The Robert Aldrich film is Emperor of the North Pole (20th Century Fox 1973).

[8] Stephen Benz, “A Grave on the High Plains.” River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative (2017 17/1):135-141; Stanley B. Kimball, Stanley B. 1988. Historic Sites and Markers along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988; Timothy Rostov Urbaniak, Historic Inscriptions of the Northern Plains: Identity and Influence in the Residual Communication Record (University of Montana, Ph.D. Dissertation, 2014).

[9] Eric Monkkonen, (ed.) 1984. Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790-1935. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984): 2.

[10] George Borrow, The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies of Spain. London: Murray 1841); Paola Toninato, Romani Writing: Literacy, Literature and Identity Politics. London: Routledge, 2014), 59.

[11] John Camden Hotten, The Slang Dictionary (London: Piccadilly, 1865), 29.

[12] Monkkonen, Walking to Work; Kelly Lytle Hernández, Kelly Lytle, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[13] Nels Anderson, The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1923); Cresswell, The Tramp in America; DePastino, Citizen Hobo. John Lennon, Boxcar Politics: The Hobo in U.S. Culture and Literature, 1869-1956 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).

[14] Josiah Flynt, 1891, “The American Tramp,” Contemporary Review (60/August 1891); Jim Tully, Beggars of Life (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1924); Livingston, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1; London, The Road.

[15] Richard M. Dorson, Folklore and Fakelore: Essays Toward a Discipline of Folk Studies (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976); Alan Dundes, “Nationalistic Inferiority Complexes and the Fabrication of Fakelore: A Reconsideration of Ossian, the ‘Kinder-und Hausmärchen’, the ‘Kalevala’, and Paul Bunyan,” Journal of Folklore Research (22/1, 1985): 5-18.

[16] Allan Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives (New York: Carleton and Co. Publishers, 1878), 57.

[17] Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps: 57-58.

[18] Ibid, 58.

[19] Raulerson, Graham. 2011. The Hobo in American Musical Culture, x.

[20] Lennon, “Trains, Railroad Workers, and Illegal Riders,” 34. Several authors note the confusion between genres of hobo graffiti and railroad moniker art produced by railway workers. Mistaken impressions about authorship abound in the history of graffiti.

[21] Charles Wray and Devon Hanofski, mentioned in footnote 5 above, have similarly indicated to me that they have never encountered first-hand evidence of such markings in their explorations of hobo sites in the United States. Personal communication via email, April 3, 2019 (Hanofski). Personal communication via telephone, April 4, 2019 (Charles Wray).

[22] Laura M. Addison, ed. No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meanings of Tramp Art. (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2017).

[23] Erle Heath, Seventy-Five Years of Progress: An Historical Sketch of the Southern Pacific: 1869-1944 (2014). Accessed on April 2, 2019 at http://www.cprr.org/Museum/SP_1869-1944/

[24] In my work on Hollywood sound stages, I have encountered similar temporal discrepancies between graffiti and recorded dates of construction and concluded that the graffiti were the more reliable source that created a more nuanced history of the site in question.

[25] Etulain, Jack London on the Road. Earle Labor, Earle. Jack London: An American Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013);

[26] London, The Road, 68.

[27] Ibid, 123.

[28] Lennon, Boxcar Politics, 33.

[29] London, The Road, 68.

[30] I emailed Earle Labor about the find and Labor said, despite there being no way to know for sure, that the mark was “highly likely” to be London’s. Personal communication via email, August 22, 2017.

[31] Etulain (1978) includes a map with specific dates but doesn’t cite where his knowledge of the dates comes from. Because they are not included in London’s tramp diaries, which end in April, this leaves the mistake open to interpretation. Thanks to Owen Clayton for pointing out this discrepancy.

[32] Carlos A. Schwantes, Coxey’s Army: An American Odyssey (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985).

[33] Letter from Livingston to Charmian London, Utah State University Jack and Charmian London Collection.

[34] These materials are housed at Utah State University’s Jack and Charmian London Collection at the University Libraries.

[35] A-No. 1’s visit is corroborated by a 1910 newspaper article about him, which references his previous 1905 visit to town. “World’s Greatest Tramp Was in Town,” The Red Bluff News, August 25, 1910.

[36] See for example Caleb Neelon and Roger Gastman, History of American Graffiti (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

[37] Mauricio Mazón, The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation (University of Texas Press, 2010).

[38] Bill Daniel first pointed this similarity out to me regarding hobo monikers.

[39] Bill Daniel, Mostly True, second edition (Microcosm Publishing, 2012), 1.

[40] See Bill Daniel’s film Who Is Bozo Texino? The Secret History of Hobo Graffiti (2005) for the best treatment of this genre of moniker writing.

[41] Javier Abarca, “Foreword.” In Susan Phillips, et al Tramp Directories, 8.

[42] Abarca, Foreword, 10.

Susan A. Phillips has studied graffiti, gangs and the U.S. prison system since 1990. She has published two books: Wallbangin: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. (Chicago, 1999) and Operation Fly Trap: L.A. Gangs, Drugs, and the Law (Chicago, 2012), and co-authored a small volume on hobo graffiti in 2017. Phillips was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow in 2008 and received a Harry Frank Guggenheim research grant in 2005. She has been in residence twice at the Getty Research Institute—most recently in 2016. Her new book, The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti, will be published by Yale University Press in fall 2019. Phillips received her PhD in anthropology from UCLA in 1998 and is currently a Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pitzer College in Claremont.

Articles

Dream Interrupted

Kevin_Starr

Peter Richardson

With his book series, “Americans and the California Dream,” Kevin Starr did as much as any single author to frame the way we think about California history. Published between 1973 and 2009, the eight-volume series was monumental in its scope and ambition, yet organized by a single trope. Like most dreams, the California one resisted precise definition. But Starr skillfully deployed this metaphor to shape and direct his sweeping account. Over time, his approach became the default way to conceptualize California culture.

Although popular, Starr’s series was not immediately embraced in academic circles. “By the time my second volume appeared,” he noted in 2007, “the New Historians had made their appearance, and I was on the verge of being out of favor…. I stayed out of favor for approximately a decade and a half.”[1] As academics shifted their sights to issues of race, class, gender, and environmental despoliation, Starr’s narrative risked the charge of Whig history, with its inexorable march toward progress and enlightenment. But as Forrest G. Robinson has argued, Starr’s historiography was “profoundly religious,” more baroque than Victorian. Far from denying California’s legacy of violence and iniquity, he presented it as a story of sin, atonement, and redemption. The possibility of redemption, in turn, kept the dream alive and underwrote Starr’s durable optimism.[2]

At first, Starr’s series unfolded in chronological order, with most volumes focusing on a decade or so of the state’s history. That pattern was disrupted after the 2002 publication of Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950. Instead of proceeding to the 1950s, Starr jumped ahead to Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003, the only volume not published by Oxford University Press. He returned to form with Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-63, the final volume in the series. Although he continued to write books, he left a gap of almost three decades in the middle of his signature series. He passed over the late 1960s in silence. Likewise, he wrote nothing about the 1970s and 1980s, which author David Talbot later called San Francisco’s “season of the witch.”[3]

When asked about the gap, Starr had a stock reply: Whoever wrote the book about the 1960s should call it Smoking the Dream.[4] When pressed for a serious answer, he mentioned his distance from that era’s major themes. “I am currently finishing the final volume of my ‘Americans and the California Dream’ series,” he said in 2007.

It covers the period 1950 to 1963. The very fact that I am ending what has been my life’s work as an historian with this date speaks for itself. Intellectually, psychologically, socially, even politically, I was formed by the 1950s.… I will leave it to future historians to deal with the mid- and late-1960s, the 1970s, even the 1980s.[5]

BookSkyline

Starr’s decision, however, does not quite speak for itself. Historians usually write about periods that have not shaped them personally. In the same interview, Starr speaks at length about his own formation and predilections but never quite explains his reason for avoiding almost a quarter century of eventful California history. His indirection suggests another reason for the omission in what he calls his life’s work as a historian.

Yet if the temporal gap in Starr’s series seems mysterious, we need not speculate about his views of that period. In fact, he wrote copiously about those decades—not as a historian, but as a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. Churning out more than 5,000 words per week between 1976 and 1983, Starr made it perfectly clear where he stood on the issues of the day, especially in San Francisco. Indeed, his articles hint at, but do not definitively establish, his reason for avoiding that period in his series.

Starr’s path to the Examiner was unusual. He grew up in San Francisco, living from age ten to fifteen in the Potrero Hill Housing Project. He attended St. Boniface School in the Tenderloin and, for one year, Saint Ignatius High School. After majoring in English at the University of San Francisco and serving in the U.S. Army, he earned a Ph.D. in English and American Literature at Harvard University, which he recalled as “a magical and nurturing place.”[6] Widener Library’s vast California collection inspired him to write about his native state. “I thought, ‘There’s all kinds of wonderful books on California, but they don’t seem to have the point of view we’re encouraged to look at—the social drama of the imagination,’” he later told the Los Angeles Times.[7] In 1973, Oxford University Press published his critically acclaimed dissertation book, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915.

Instead of pursuing an academic career, Starr returned to San Francisco, wrote speeches for mayor Joseph Alioto, and was appointed city librarian in 1974. His decision to work for Alioto was consequential. The wealthy Catholic lawyer was a Democrat, but members of the so-called Burton machine—most notably Phillip and John Burton, Willie Brown and George Moscone—considered Alioto a threat to their progressive coalition. When the ILWU, the radical longshoremen’s union, endorsed Alioto’s 1967 mayoral bid, an angry Phil Burton threw his support behind Jack Morrison, Alioto’s opponent. “We’re going to shove Jack Morrison’s bald head up Alioto’s ass,” Burton told an ILWU representative.[8] In fact, Alioto sailed to victory and was reelected in 1971. He ran for governor in 1974, but lost to Jerry Brown in the Democratic Party primary. When Moscone edged out conservative supervisor John Barbagelata in the 1975 mayoral race, the Burton machine finally captured City Hall. By that time, the coalition included gay and environmental activists as well as labor unionists, racial and ethnic minorities, and white progressives.

StreetView

Shortly after Moscone’s victory, Starr began writing for the Examiner, which had served as the Hearst Corporation’s flagship publication for decades.The Monarch of the Dailies” was still a political force in the city, but its influence was shrinking along with its market share. In 1965, it signed a joint operating agreement with the more popular San Francisco Chronicle, whose executive editor, Scott Newhall, had regarded the Hearst newspapers as “something evil” designed to stupefy the masses. Newhall wanted to produce a very different kind of publication:I figured the Chronicle had to be successful, and the city had to have a paper that would amuse, entertain and inform, and save people from the perdition of Hearstian ignorance.”[9] When it came to hard news, however, the Examiner considered itself the scrappy underdog. “We were the No. 2 paper in town with declining circulation,” recalled former editor Steve Cook. “But the spirit on the staff was sort of impressive—we actually thought of ourselves as the better paper in town, we thought we could show our morning rivals how to cover the news.”[10]

Soon Starr was writing six columns per week, including a Saturday article devoted to religion. Most of his columns featured the city’s cultural activities and personages, but Starr also took the opportunity to shape his public profile. He presented himself as a conservative Catholic intellectual, a San Francisco version of William F. Buckley Jr., whom he frequently praised. In one column, he described himself as “a conservative neo-Thomist Roman Catholic with Platonist leanings and occasional temptations towards anarchy.”[11] He also wrote about the challenges of that identity in San Francisco:

It’s not easy to be a conservative. It’s often lonely to be a thinking conservative. And to be a thinking conservative in San Francisco can frequently be an even more difficult and isolated condition…. Here in San Francisco such left-liberal opinions have coalesced into a rigid inquisitorial orthodoxy—an orthodoxy now reinforced by political power—that brooks no opposition whatsoever.[12]

The “political power” Starr had in mind was likely the Burton machine. With Moscone in City Hall, Willie Brown in the Assembly, and the Burton brothers in Congress, that machine was shifting into overdrive. Yet Starr clearly thought that San Francisco was moving in the wrong direction.

PhilBurton

Proposition T, which voters approved in 1976, reinforced Starr’s misgivings. By substituting district elections for citywide races, that measure reduced the power of downtown business interests and boosted the electoral prospects of neighborhood activists. Months before the first district elections occurred, Starr suspected that the new arrangement could usher in “a large number of alienated, left-wing nuts, hostile to the private sector, determined to dismantle anything in San Francisco that doesn’t conform to their pseudo-proletarian, paranoid world-view.”[13] He might have been channeling Alioto, who championed downtown interests, but the intensity of his anti-left rhetoric was notable. In the end, the switch to district elections benefited Harvey Milk and Dan White, who became supervisors in January 1978. Milk won in District 5, which was centered in the gay Castro neighborhood, while White represented District 8, which included the white, Catholic, and decidedly unhip neighborhoods on the city’s southern border.

Starr weighed in on other issues as well. In an interview with Moscone, another former Saint Ignatius student, he asked, “Don’t you feel you’ve been too partisan as mayor, firing all the Alioto commissioners and appointing only people from the left-liberal spectrum?” Moscone replied, “Like a lot of people from old-time San Francisco stock, you’re a little paranoid over changes in this city.” Starr also defended Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that capped increases in property tax rates. Later, he bemoaned the predictable cuts to the arts and library budgets that followed its passage. He called the city’s refusal to restrict pornography to certain neighborhoods “a form of sexual molestation.” The hippie movement, he claimed, peaked in 1967 with the Human Be-In. The Love Generation “had nothing and no one to love—love truly, that is, in a spirit of ecstatic self-surrender and ardent sacrifice.” In another column, he noted that the city had grown slack and facile: “We are feeding ourselves on the stale husks of Aquarius when we should be nourishing ourselves on the good bread of moral renewal and social realism.”[14]

In May 1978, Starr produced a series of articles on left-wing political violence, which he equated with terrorism. It was all the more surprising, then, when he argued that Patricia Hearst, whose family owned the Examiner, should be pardoned for the bank robberies she committed with the Symbionese Liberation Army after they abducted her. Hearst, who was defended by an expensive legal team, had avoided murder charges by testifying against her abductors and former comrades. Many observers regarded her trial and its aftermath as an example of preferential treatment for wealthy defendants, but Starr turned that notion on its head. For him, the media heiress was nothing less than a political prisoner, and his argument appealed directly to his audience’s class and racial resentments:

If she were born poor, or born to minority parents, she would be free today—free to reassemble the shattered fragments of her life. Patricia Hearst is a political prisoner. She is a prisoner to the envy of those who do not like her class, her race, her family. She is the victim of a dark, obscure ritual that reveals something hideous in the collective American psyche—something that ignores justice in a headlong rush to indulge base envy. Patricia Hearst is a political prisoner of the politics of class resentment.[15]

Following a coordinated campaign on Patricia Heart’s behalf, President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979. Two decades later, President Clinton pardoned her despite the strong objection of Robert S. Mueller, III, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, who noted that Hearst had expressed no remorse for her crimes.

PattyHearst

Most of Starr’s columns were anodyne, but he was capable of full-throated moral outrage. In one column, “Sodom-by-the-Sea,” he decried what he called San Francisco’s “hedonism touched by malevolence.”

On weekends the Lear jets swoop into the airports of the Bay Area, disgorging groups of affluent thrill-seekers. They cruise the town in Roll-Royces, here for weekends of unusual sex. Men, women, boys, girls, S & M, B & D, whatever—they quicken their jaded appetites through the sheer virtuosity of their excess, consuming bodies, cocaine, booze, in an onrush of perverted exuberance.[16]

In Starr’s view, this perversion led to even worse outcomes: “Violence is always lurking in the underlife of Sodom and Gomorrah; for when the consumption of bodies exhausts itself and still there is no satisfaction, then comes the killing rage.” Even worse, local politicians encouraged that descent into vice.

Assemblyman Willie Brown, Jr. recently put out an open invitation for the gays of America to flock to San Francisco. Supervisor Harvey Milk reiterated the invitation recently on national television. I understand these gentlemen’s political motivation. More gays means more votes. But I abhor the idea of turning San Francisco into one big bathhouse, gay or straight.

Starr also claimed that “the excesses of sexual exploitation and murder” were “beginning to give San Francisco the sinister ambiance of Berlin during the waning years of the Weimar Republic.” In another column, Starr criticized “the outer fringe of the gay community” for “appropriating the ordeal of European Jewry as the image of themselves.” He added, “There were no bars or bathhouses or Coors beer at Dachau. There were no drag-queen contests at Buchenwald…. In any event, the spiritual successors of the holocaust Jews are not the boys on Castro Street.”[17]

These barbs were not lost on Harvey Milk. In his most famous speech, delivered at the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade, he rebuked Starr by name: “And here, in so-called liberal San Francisco, we have a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner, a columnist called Kevin Starr, who has printed a number of columns containing distortions and lies about gays. He is getting away with it.”[18] Later in the speech, Milk referred to Starr as a bigot and grouped him with anti-gay activist Anita Bryant and State Senator John Briggs, who sought to prevent gays from working in public schools.

Starr’s coverage of conservative politicians was more favorable. His profile of John Barbagelata appeared five days after the Jonestown tragedy in November 1978. Barbagelata had warned his colleagues about Peoples Temple pastor Jim Jones, who was responsible for the deaths of more than 900 persons, including Congressman Leo Ryan, in Guyana. But after Jones mobilized his congregation to aid the Moscone campaign, he was embraced by the Burton machine and appointed to the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.[19] The Jonestown incident furnished a golden opportunity to lambast Moscone, but Starr also had played a role in the Peoples Temple saga. As editor of New West, a Rupert Murdoch-owned magazine launched in 1976, Starr killed a story about Jones after a church delegation persuaded him that the piece would harm their humanitarian work. The revised story ran in New West only after Starr was replaced.[20]

In his Examiner column, Starr only hinted at the Jonestown atrocity. He imagined how Barbagelata, who had suffered a stroke, felt as Moscone “was being feted in the Fairmont Hotel by the people willing and able to pay $500 per plate.”

I wonder if John Barbagelata felt bitter as he lay in his hospital room, his health broken by all those arduous years on the Board of Supervisors, trying to save San Francisco from fiscal prodigality, from ideological politics, from the takeover of city government by self-righteous special interest groups.[21]

In the same column, Starr sympathized with Dan White, who had recently resigned from the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Dan White feels so neglected, so unaware of the value of what he was bringing to San Francisco through his responsible presence on the Board, that he resigns in a fit of fatigue, the combat infantryman paratrooper from Vietnam, discovering that San Francisco politics can be an even more fierce battleground than the Mekong Delta.

ChronicleMosconeMilkMurders

Five days later, that “responsible presence” turned lethal. After White assassinated Moscone and Milk at City Hall, Starr did not suggest that White or the institutions that shaped him—the Catholic Church, U.S. Army, San Francisco Police Department, and the San Francisco Fire Department—might somehow be at fault. Rather, he argued that the entire city needed to atone for its sins.

San Francisco is such a cursed city. Some deep disorder of the soul holds the spirit of San Francisco in thrall, like the loathsome embrace of an evil spirit.… Like the peoples of old, we should take off our vestments of luxury. Wearing sackcloth and ashes, we should anoint our faces with the bloodstained earth that lies beneath us, and, collectively, we should implore the intercession of God, or the gods, or whatever values and ideals we hold sacred. We should beg forgiveness for our sins—sins against the light, sins against each other.[22]

When White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, not murder, Starr criticized liberals for objecting to the verdict; after all, weren’t they responsible for the diminished capacity defense that White deployed?[23] He also assailed the gay community, which had suffered for decades at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department, for the White Night riots that followed the verdict. Moreover, Starr wondered how the police must have felt during those riots: “What feeling of betrayal must have surged through the rank and file as they stood on line, defenseless against an angry mob!”[24]

Starr did not always toe the conservative line. The death of radical author and journalist Carey McWilliams prompted an appreciative article in 1980; later, Starr described McWilliams as “the state’s most astute political observer” and “the single finest nonfiction writer on California—ever.” After attacking Governor Jerry Brown in a column called, “Grow Up, Jerry Brown,” Starr finally admitted his fondness for the former Jesuit seminarian and Saint Ignatius alumnus. He endorsed Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Dennis McNally’s biography of Jack Kerouac. In 1981, he commended the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for their presence and work in San Francisco. He also urged compassion for illegal immigrants, whom he described as “dreamers in the desert.” Those who died trying to enter the United States, he wrote, “had better American dreams than most of us have. They know what we have forgotten—that America is worth everything, if it is worth anything at all.”[25]

In 1984, one year after leaving the Examiner, Starr ran for supervisor. He received endorsements from Alioto, former mayor George Christopher, and Leo McCarthy, the state legislative leader and Burton rival. Starr was also endorsed by the Chronicle and Examiner, which cast him as a centrist. “People do not want to live in a city where there is constant conflict,” he told the Examiner. “Elected officials have the duty to harmonize, but lately they have pitted left against right, the neighborhoods against downtown, and labor against management.”[26]

SF_Bridge_50s

By that time, San Francisco had reverted to citywide elections, and the Board of Supervisors had six open seats. Starr finished a distant seventh. One of his campaign volunteers, Michael Bernick, later identified Starr’s aversion to identity politics and class conflict as a key factor in his defeat.

Throughout his campaign, Starr was both mystified and angered by what he considered to be a pandering attempt to divide the city by race, gender, or economic status. When the various Democratic clubs sent out questionnaires asking for support for their advocacy or projects, campaign volunteers would urge Starr to play ball. But Starr always refused to tell these groups what they wanted to hear. He saw San Francisco through the lens of a “civic culture” by which race, gender, and economic status were secondary to San Francisco as a greater entity.[27]

Much later, Starr wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with a similar message. Newly elected governor Arnold Schwarzenegger should not run an ideological or fiercely partisan Republication administration, Starr argued. “The core principle of the Party of California is that the state—its history and heritage, its environment, its economy, and above all the well-being of its people—is worth imagining, worth struggling for; California represents a collective ideal connected to individual and social fulfillment.”[28] Schwarzenegger sent the article to his senior staff with his approval.[29]

After the failed 1984 campaign, Starr began to refashion himself, California style. Inventing the Dream, the second volume in what his publisher was already billing as a series, appeared in 1985. Four years later, he became a visiting professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California. Five years after that, Republican governor Pete Wilson appointed him California State Librarian, a position he held for a decade. During that time, he encouraged countless projects devoted to California history, including my biography of Carey McWilliams, for which he also wrote a blurb. In 1998, Starr was promoted to University Professor and Professor of History at USC. Over the next twelve years, he produced the final five volumes of his series, a brief history of California, and a short book on the Golden Gate Bridge. Among his many awards was the National Humanities Medal, which President George W. Bush presented to him in 2006.

As Starr’s profile rose, the Examiner columns faded from view. One wonders how he squared that body of work with the dream series. Did his criticisms of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, his sympathy for Dan White, his arguments on behalf of Patricia Hearst, or his role in the Peoples Temple tragedy dissuade him from treating those topics in his books? Perhaps, but the evidence is more suggestive than dispositive. Certainly the tone and temper of his work evolved in concert with his new professional duties. As the dream series unfolded, it began to reflect his sponsorial role at the state library and his emergent academic persona. The result was a new and more expansive authorial self, one that appealed to the state’s aspirations rather than to partisanship or moral reaction. Despite this evolution, or perhaps because of it, Starr declined to revisit the years immediately before, during, and immediately after his stint at the Examiner.

Although Starr didn’t parlay his early journalism into a political career, it groomed him for the work to come, much as his experience at Harvard did. It seasoned him, taught him how to write on deadline for general audiences, and introduced him to public figures and issues he wouldn’t have encountered had he accepted an academic position straight out of graduate school. But there was nothing inevitable about Starr’s achievement. To become California’s foremost historian, he had to overcome setbacks and adapt to changing circumstances. Only by shedding his journalistic persona and adopting a new model of authorship could he become the ardent but politically tempered chronicler of California civilization.

 

 

Notes

[1] Forrest G. Robinson, “An Interview with Kevin Starr,” Rethinking History 11 (2007): 28

[2] Forrest G. Robinson, “Spiritual Radiance, Expressive Delight: The Baroque Historiography of Kevin Starr,” California History 78 (1999/2000): 274.

[3] David Talbot, Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[4] See, for example, Patt Morrison, “Kevin Starr: Making History,” Los Angeles Times, 9 July 2009. http://www.latimes.com/la-oe-morrison11-2009jul11-column.html

[5] Robinson, “An Interview with Kevin Starr,” 23-24.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] David Zahniser and Matt Hamilton, “Kevin Starr, Author of California Histories and Former State Librarian, Dies at 76,” Los Angeles Times, 15 January 2017. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-kevin-starr-obit-20170115-story.html.

[8] John Jacobs, A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 173.

[9] Scott Newhall, “A Newspaperman’s Voyage Across San Francisco Bay: San Francisco Chronicle, 1935-1971, and Other Adventures,” Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1990.

[10] Dan Schreiber, “For the Past 150 Years, the Examiner Has Recorded Life in The City,” San Francisco Examiner, 11 June 2005, https://archives.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/for-the-past-150-years-the-examiner-has-recorded-life-in-the-city/Content?oid=2932866

[11] Kevin Starr, “Class and Contradiction,” San Francisco Examiner, 11 May 1977.

[12] Kevin Starr, “Right Thinking,” San Francisco Examiner, 12 September 1977.

[13] Kevin Starr, “To T or Not to T?” San Francisco Examiner, 6 April 1977.

[14] For the Moscone interview, see Kevin Starr, “Have You Been a Good Mayor?” San Francisco Examiner, 30 April 1977. For his positions on Proposition 13, see his columns on 23 March 1978; 9 May 1978; 20 June 1978; and 24 June 1978. On budget cuts, see “Where Are Our Priorities?” 30 April 1982. On pornography, see “Putting Porn in Its Place,” 19 February 1977. On the Love Generation, see “Beginning of the End,” 2 January 1979. On the city’s moral fiber, see his column on 15 January 1977.

[15] Kevin Starr, “Class Action,” San Francisco Examiner, 16 August 1978.

[16] Kevin Starr, “Sodom-by-the-Sea,” San Francisco Examiner, 26 April 1978

[17] Kevin Starr, “A Lesson in History,” San Francisco Examiner, 6 May 1978. The Coors beer reference alludes to a boycott organized in the Castro by Harvey Milk and organized labor.

[18] Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (New York: Macmillan, 2008), 365.

[19] Michael Taylor, “Jones Captivated S.F.’s Liberal Elite,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 November 1998. https://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/Jones-Captivated-S-F-s-Liberal-Elite-They-were-2979186.php.

[20] Tim Reiterman, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: Penguin, 2008), 325.

[21] Kevin Starr, “Public Service,” San Francisco Examiner, 22 November 1978.

[22] Kevin Starr, “Liturgy,” San Francisco Examiner, 29 November 1978.

[23] Kevin Starr, “The Dan White Verdict,” San Francisco Examiner, 30 May 1979.

[24] Kevin Starr, “The Men in Blue,” San Francisco Examiner, 5 June 1979.

[25] For the McWilliams column, see “An Historical Legacy,” 14 July 1980; Starr’s other compliments to McWilliams appear in Embattled Dreams, pp. 257 and 103. “Grow Up, Jerry Brown” ran in the Examiner on 17 August 1980. Starr touted Apocalypse Now on 24 September 1979; “Walking the Beat,” his review of McNally’s Desolate Angel, ran on 16 August 1979. Melissa M. Wilcox notes his approach to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the negative response from the Catholic Church in Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 44. He expressed compassion for unauthorized immigrants in “Dreamers in the Desert,” which appeared on 13 July 1980.

[26] Bruce Pettit, “Why Starr Seeks S.F. Seat,” San Francisco Examiner, 4 January 1984.

[27] Bernick, “Why California’s Greatest Historian Couldn’t Get Elected in San Francisco,” Zocalo Public Square, 25 July 2017, http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/07/25/californias-greatest-historian-couldnt-get-elected-san-francisco/ideas/nexus/.

[28] Kevin Starr, “Fuse It—Or Lose It,” Los Angeles Times, 16 November 2003.

[29] Miriam Pawel, The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 359.

 

Peter Richardson teaches humanities at San Francisco State University, where he also coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs. His books include No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009); and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, which the University of California Press published in paperback in 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Peter Richardson. 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

From Resourceful to Illegal

Becky Nicolaides

California resides at the leading edge of so many big political issues of the day—immigration, the #MeToo movement, social justice activism, climate change—and we can add another one to that list: Housing. If some believe that the affordable housing crisis looms as the “next big political issue,” California could easily be its poster child.[1] Crisis conditions have swelled for decades. It hits many, many people: the homeless in expanding encampments, their numbers recently reaching epic proportions; millennials struggling to find affordable digs in this jaw-dropping housing market, their searches triggering gentrification in low-income neighborhoods; working families struggling to put a roof over their heads. A recent study by the advocacy group Up for Growth found California leads the nation in housing under-production, falling short by a whopping 3.4 million homes in meeting demand and population growth.[2]

There’s a metric called “housing burden” that reveals a lot. It shows the ratio of housing costs to income. For my recent work on the suburban history of L.A. County from 1945-2000, I gathered data that traced this metric over sixty plus years in the county, and it looks something like the following:

chart

Sources: For 1950-2010, U.S. Census of Population, 1950-2010; for 2016, U.S. Census, American Fact Finder.

This is the kind of data that puts a pit in your stomach if you’re hoping to buy a home one day. I think of it this way: When my father bought our family home in South Pasadena back in 1966, it cost him about three years’ salary. Nowadays, it takes at least eight years’ salary if you’re even that lucky, and don’t hit a housing bubble, a recession putting you out of work, and or other potential macro-economic catastrophes working against you.

In metro areas like Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Silicon Valley, where suburban homes dominate the built landscape, it becomes more difficult to tackle this affordable housing problem. Strict zoning often limits the possibilities for in-filling or densifying built-up areas. Suburbia indeed is a particularly stubborn obstructer. If zoning doesn’t shut down the construction of affordable dwellings—like apartments—irate homeowners of all colors and classes will. They turn out in droves to oppose homeless shelters, low-income housing or Section 8 tenants, continuing a tradition of homeowner politics that’s been around for decades.[3]

Informal housing represents a creative response to the housing crisis, gaining traction in California with the recent passage of laws on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). These measures relax regulations on ADUs—like granny flats, converted garages, backyard cottages, and secondary units tucked away in suburban backyards—making it easier for homeowners to build them and even receive fee assistance.[4] It’s a very decentralized, individualized solution to the housing crisis. Rather than foisting large housing projects on neighborhoods, it throws the initiative to individual homeowners to densify from within. This approach has a suburban feel to it. The units are often hidden from view thus preserving suburban streetscapes, and they’re homeowner driven. It’s a deft solution to a vexing problem exacerbated by the suburban form itself. While it may not solve the housing crisis, it can chip away at it at the very least.

In this piece, I explore one slice of the informal housing story, focusing on the history of garage dwellings from the 1920s to the 1990s. At times, I hone in on South and Southeast Los Angeles, a part of Los Angeles where housing always had a dimension of informality to it, reflecting the strategies and needs of working-class residents struggling to get by. For generations, they maximized the productive potentials of their property to help make ends meet, set within the context of suburbia—towns with single-family detached homes, yards, and families. As the ethnic profile of southern Los Angeles changed, those efforts met with harsher challenges and barriers. In a nutshell, informal housing began as an auspicious opportunity for working-class whites in the 1920s, took on patriotic overtones during World War II, and then was essentially racialized and criminalized by the 1980s when the area flipped from white to Latino. Informal housing was suppressed right at a moment when housing need was exploding. This history reveals how housing policy became entwined with immigration policy at the local level, creating formidable barriers to solving L.A.’s on-going shelter problem.

Urban scholars who have studied informal housing emphasize the diversity and ubiquity of these units, which sheltered elderly parents, grown children, extended family, care providers, and the like. They appear in a variety of class, ethno-racial, and spatial settings, from rich to poor, sprawling to dense. My focus on southern Los Angeles necessarily narrows my gaze onto a population of the lower middle class, working-class, and the poor, who have remained a constant presence in this part of L.A. While it reflects county-wide trends in some ways, in others this story was shaped deeply by local conditions. These suburbs flipped from all-white to all-Latino beginning in the 1980s, a moment when deindustrialization ravaged much of South L.A. This trajectory mirrored patterns unfolding across the U.S., where Latinos migrated right into the “urban crisis,” into cities and suburbs suffering from disinvestment and white flight, seizing opportunity where others abandoned it.[5] In this maelstrom, informal housing was embraced and rejected—all at the same time—and it revealed the ways that suburbia was linking housing and immigration in new and disconcerting ways.


1920s: Working-class roots

In working-class South Gate, Huntington Park, Maywood, Bell Gardens, Watts, and surrounding neighborhoods in Southeast L.A., the streetscapes are suburban and always have been. Homes are modest, maybe squeezed in a little tightly, but they sit in tidy yards and gardens. Many are inhabited by families with children. And the overall physical profile is low-slung, with detached single-family homes, commercial strips, and shopping centers.

When these suburbs were first developed in the 1910s and 1920s, it was an auspicious moment in the history of metropolitan Los Angeles. It was a time when suburbia was an open, accessible, flexible landscape that offered working people the opportunity to become homeowners, practice small-scale homesteading, and in the process achieve a measure of self-sufficiency and independence. In suburbs like South Gate, this openness was created by the affordability of land and the town’s loose regulatory climate that allowed a family, for example, to live in a tent, jerry-build a house, and then raise dozens of chickens behind the house. These practices flourished in subdivisions like Home Gardens and nearby in Watts, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, and surrounding unincorporated pockets—where lots were small and cheap and families, poor. In these towns, the initiative for “development” was thrown to the homeowners who created their own version of sustainable suburbs. Their quotidian practices revealed a powerful ethic of self-reliance, frugality, hard work, and independence. And it gave residents a leg up, a chance to build a nest egg and secure shelter in uncertain times.[6]

South Gate Aerial

The wide-open spaces of early South Gate, March 1926. Ample, cheap land and lax regulation allowed working-class family to achieve a semblance of economic security in the young suburb, by self-building homes and informal structures. Reprinted in Huntington Park Daily Signal, 19 January 1973, p. C3.

This was especially crucial in the 1920s and early 1930s, when L.A. was rabidly open-shop and America still lacked a social safety net. Suburban homeownership became that safety net, in a world where sickness, layoffs, or old age could sink a household. For working-class families especially, the home was a source of economic security, something they could fall back upon in hard times. To squeeze all they could out of their property, they grew fruits, vegetables, and small livestock in backyards, took in boarders, or ran small businesses out of the home. Sweat equity—exerted in suburban yards and homes—became paramount. It gave them access to property ownership free of debt and a cherished economic cushion. In a suburb like South Gate, it was an achievable goal.[7]

Do-it-yourself construction was quite common, with many residents self-building their own homes. Daniel Smith’s family was typical. They constructed a small but sturdy home in 1926, soon after their arrival from Tennessee. During the building phase, they lived in a tent at first, and then a detached garage they constructed. The whole family helped out—including four young daughters—laying floorboards, handing nails to dad, and fetching tools. In a similar way, another Smith family—Frank, Estafana, and two daughters—lived in a modest home Frank built himself, two blocks away from “the sandy banks” of the L.A. River. She was an immigrant from Mexico, he from Germany. In 1920, thirty-six South Gate families were living in garages while building their own homes. The loose regulatory climate of these suburbs allowed these practices to flourish and lent the entire suburban landscape an air of informality. The homes were ramshackle, following few if any building regulations. These were grassroots, bottom-up strategies for grasping a semblance of economic security in insecure times. Especially for the white working-class such informal practices offered a crucial mode of economic sustenance.

wattshome

A modest-frame home in Watts (no date). This dwelling was likely self-built. Photograph by Louis Clyde Stoumen, photo number 00033658, Los Angeles Housing Authority Collection, Los Angeles Public Library. https://tessa.lapl.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/photos/id/1357/rec/1.

Thanks to a host of race restrictions in place, the overwhelming majority of residents in these suburbs were white.[8] Even so, some Mexicans managed to gain a foothold in the early years, in towns like South Gate, El Monte, La Puente, and Azusa.[9] South Gate’s Mexican households included immigrants, second generation, American-Mexican intermarriages, and a small colony of Mexican-born “white” Mormons who had been caught in a decades-long circular migration from the U.S. to Mexico and back again. By 1930, at least 175 residents of South Gate were Mexican immigrants and their kin, many of whomhad immigrated around the 1910 Mexican Revolution. They represented 0.9 percent of the local population. Of these ethnic Mexican households, homeowners outnumbered renters, a remarkable fact given that most of these owners were classified by federal authorities as “alien.”[10] South Gate’s earliest undocumented immigrants thus had managed to achieve home ownership within the suburb’s affordable, open, unregulated environment. Yet for most, that advantage was short lived—by 1940 many had left, possibly deported during L.A.’s 1930s repatriation crackdown, or in search of something better during the Depression. The security that whites achieved through homeownership eluded most of South Gate’s earliest ethnic Mexican families, likely because of their insecure immigration status.

The southern suburbs of L.A. were shaped deeply by these working-class roots, which generated opportunities along with certain formidable challenges. Early residents created towns out of shoddy housing, minimal infrastructure, and loose regulations. Rickety self-built homes, small detached garages, and cheap utilities made up the young bones of these communities. This established not only their physical foundation, but also local traditions of self-building, informality, and the expectations that homeowners could do whatever they pleased to maximize their property’s economic potential. This local culture gave working-class suburbanites a crucial economic edge, and it was built into the DNA of suburbs like South Gate and nearby towns.

 


1940s: Informal Housing as Patriotic Duty

By the 1940s, dramatic changes were afoot. The rise of the New Deal established a social safety net under American families—namely white families—gradually easing those everyday survival pressures. The labor movement gained momentum in Los Angeles and nationally, putting working-class families in a stronger position. And then World War II broke out. In the meantime, the combined pressures of the Depression—when home construction had come to a screeching halt—and the massive influx of defense workers to California created a housing shortage of epic proportions. South Los Angeles especially felt the squeeze, since this was where nearly half of the southland’s defense plants were located. In South Gate, the population spiked from 27,000 to 45,000 during the war. Yet local housing fell far short of need. By 1946, the crisis prompted seventy-five members of veterans groups in South Gate to petition the city council for immediate completion of city-sponsored emergency housing.[11]

This set off a major push to create housing for the millions pouring into California, including servicemen and women, defense workers, and other migrants. One huge initiative was launched by large-scale builders who drew on new federal supports and guidelines to mass-produce suburban homes at unprecedented scales. Los Angeles builders (like Fritz Burns) were pioneers, applying new mass-production techniques to the construction of homes. Developments like Westchester, Panorama City, and Lakewood were examples of this mass-building push to meet the intense demand for housing during and after the war.[12]

Another initiative was to encourage homeowners to convert rooms or garages to rent, a campaign that spread across L.A. County. Officials framed it as a patriotic gesture to help alleviate the housing crisis for homeless servicemen, along with defense workers and their families. In South Gate, the local war housing council put it like this: “Rent your houses to a war worker with children, and be thankful those kiddies are speaking our American language instead of Japanese.” South Gate property owners were urged to convert habitable spaces into actual living quarters, then list those units with a War Housing Center as a “patriotic duty.”[13]

The appeals worked. They spurred local homeowners to convert spare rooms and garages into rentals, a phenomenon happening all over Los Angeles. In 1945, a thirty-one-year-old veteran, his wife, and two kids spent nearly a year living in a garage in nearby Lynwood, with dirt floors and no plumbing or heating.. He claimed that they suffered no sickness because his wife “kept the place as clean as a pin.” In 1946, William Price, a fifty-five-year-old warehouse foreman, and his wife Edna were living in a double garage in South Gate. That same year, a family of four was living in a single garage in South Gate after moving from Oak Ridge, Tennessee where the daughter was “affected by atomic rays.” Another couple (a veteran and his wife)—was living for several months in a single room, “from which they were evicted just a few hours before their baby was born.” Similar stories continued into the 1950s. In 1952, a disabled veteran lived in a small dwelling behind a home in Huntington Park. The same year in the nearby Central Avenue district, a seventy-one-year-old pensioner was living in a garage cited for its “unsanitary conditions.” By 1961, the residue of these practices became clear even in the San Fernando Valley, where hundreds of homes had conversions for rent—garages, spare rooms, and add-ons—a practice that began during the WWII housing shortage.[14] The practice was common in suburban areas across the country, even as far away as Long Island, NY.[15]

 

The popular discourse surrounding these units reflected not just acceptance and praise, but a belief that informal housing was downright patriotic. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of features profiling garage conversions across the southland, from North Hollywood to Arcadia to Palm Springs. These stories offered good housing-keeping style tips on how to design and decorate a garage, complete with floor plans, and they presented the profiled garages as “model dwellings.” The subtext was clear: A wholehearted acceptance of garage rentals, with an appreciation for the resourcefulness of their white tenants who were making the best of a tough housing market. “The garage apartment where Charles Hofflund and his British war bride are living is an excellent example of how ingenuity can triumph over necessity,” declared a 1946 feature. The couple divided a double garage into a bedroom on one side and a living room and kitchen on the other. Through cozy decorating touches, such as pale green wallpaper and maple furniture, the tenants gave their garage “the air and informality of a cottage.” A 1947 article noted the temporary nature of the converted garage and praised its occupant—who happened to be an interior designer—for the cheerful, colorful flourishes she brought to the small space. “There is no feeling of ‘make do’ … of grinning and bearing life in a garage while waiting for building conditions to become more settled. Everything is so ingeniously planned, so adroitly placed and so pleasant to the eye that try as you may you can’t feel sorry for the Faulkners.” In West Arcadia, Dr. and Mrs. Milo Sweet converted a garage into a “liveable and attractive little cottage—all within a matter of less than two months.” With a minor addition, the garage was expanded to accommodate a living room, bath, kitchen, dining nook, and child’s room. “The cement floors were painted an ashes-of-roses tone to blend with the rug…. A needlepoint chair brings all the room colorings together in a Colonial bouquet…. The kitchen in this little cottage is light, airy, beautiful and practical.”[16]

A 1945 feature epitomized the cheerful praise, with the eye-grabbing headline, “A Garage Goes Formal.” The writer described the unit as “very dignified and sophisticated… this garage is frankly elegant with decorator touches that any city apartment might envy.” This was a second home for the dweller, who converted the garage to be closer to work. The Times praised his resourcefulness, and the fact that this was a DIY project all the way. The front door was salvaged from a junk yard, and the living space included a small kitchen, shower, and lavatory. The interior was decorated with red and white striped wall paper, a mirrored dressing table and crystal lamps, giving the space a “surprisingly Victorian atmosphere.”[17] In all of these features, the tone was admiration for the plucky, creative ingenuity of the people doing the conversions, who could serve as a model for others. In this particular context and with these Anglo occupants, garage conversions enjoyed an aura of legitimacy and patriotism.


1980s: Immigrant Suburbia and the Criminalization of Informal Housing

By the 1980s, Southeast Los Angeles experienced another sea change. Factory closures swept the entire southern part of L.A., transforming it from a vibrant center of industrial production to L.A.’s own rustbelt. By the mid-1980s, over 40,000 jobs in the southern suburbs were lost to plant closings and indefinite layoff. South Gate alone lost over 12,500, mostly high-wage union jobs.[18] Not surprisingly, real estate prices plummeted as the bottom dropped out of the local economy. This downturn in prices became a moment of opportunity for home-seeking Latinos. As a result, south and southeast Los Angeles experienced a radical demographic turnover from white to Latino. The entire area essentially resegregated, as the population boomed.

In many of these suburbs, the Latino population included both a small middle class and a swelling cohort of working-class and working poor families, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico, with smaller numbers from Central America and Cuba. In South Gate, from 1970 to 2000 the number of families below the poverty line rose from 7.4 to 17.4 percent of the total population. By 2000, 17,612 people in South Gate lived in poverty, many of them undocumented immigrants.

This human inflow sparked yet another housing crisis in South Los Angeles. While real estate prices had indeed tanked, the existing housing inventory did not come close to meeting the spiking demand for affordable housing. In South Gate, the very suburb was partly to blame for this crisis. In the 1970s and 1980s, local leaders refused time and again to build affordable housing, even when they had the funds to do so. While they went after federal grants to attract business and industry—to fill the gaping hole left by the plant closures—they directed little of those funds to low-income housing, even when that money was earmarked for it. In some ways, leaders in suburbs like South Gate and Bell Gardens used redevelopment money as a sort of “slow growth” tool: build for industry and retail, but not housing, since housing would draw more residents. These policy approaches uniformly backfired, resulting not in a slower influx but in an exploding housing crisis as the local population continued to soar.[19] From 1980 to 2010, South Gate’s population rose from 64,000 to 94,000—and probably even higher because of census undercounts.[20] This dynamic created a new system of housing usage, driven by poverty and immigrant insecurity, that transformed these suburbs into spaces of ultra-high density living where informal housing drove the trend.

In the 1970s and 1980s, L.A.’s southern suburbs entered the third phase of informal housing: An extensive “shadow market” of unpermitted rental units tucked away in suburban backyards and detached garages. Just as previous generations of working-class suburbanites sought to maximize the economic potentials of their homes, many of South Gate’s Latino residents sought to do the same by squeezing all they could out of their properties. This time, it was playing out in the larger local context of economic distress, constricted job prospects, and immigrant poverty. They jerry-rigged small rental units out of detached garages, constructed lean-tos, or otherwise found creative ways to shelter tenants. These practices were enabled by the loosely regulated climate of this working-class suburb—generations in the making—that endured through the 1970s.

Planning scholar Jake Wegmann has remarkably documented the rise of these units in Southeast Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s. He identified two main modes of informal housing: the conversion of existing space, and the addition of new space. These included partitioning a single-family home into multiple separate living spaces, converting garages into living spaces, transforming a home into a bunkhouse for “hot-bedding,” building onto a home in the back, and using a habitable vehicle or structure (like an RV or tool shed) on the property. This was a “deeply participatory” landscape, he notes, created by working-class people facing a brutally tight housing market. There were similarities to South Gate’s earliest working-class pioneers who self-built their homes; the crucial difference was that much of the latter-day working-class population lost out on the ultimate pay-off of everyday discomfort—property ownership.[21]

By the early 1980s, these informal units spread across the southern suburbs. Conditions varied from decent to horrific. In 1981 in Huntington Park, three adjacent double garages along an alley housed ten occupants. The living was rough—an extension cord ran from the front house to each unit, mattresses were spread wall to wall on the dirt floor, and a hot plate and refrigerator served as a makeshift kitchen. While the tenants had a portable television, they lacked plumbing—using a five-gallon can or a laundry sink as a toilet. A Huntington Park building inspector estimated that 50 percent of the suburb’s garage tenants were undocumented immigrants. In Norwalk in early 1981, a “small shed city” was erected behind two homes, consisting of ten metal garden sheds sheltering sixteen families. They jerry-rigged cooking and bathroom facilities in the same structure. In nearby Bellflower, most of the conversions were built by professional contractors and were “quite attractive,” according to a code enforcement office. The situation was more dire in Maywood, where hazardous conditions were reported—from raw sewage running under floors to exposed light sockets. Similar informal housing appeared in many poverty pockets across Southern California—from San Fernando, Pacoima, and Arleta to the north, to Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Long Beach to the south. In 1987, the Los Angeles Times published an expose on these illicit conversions, emphasizing their dire conditions and their tendency to house immigrants. While some scholars emphasize the ubiquity of informal housing—across space, time, and class—this working-class form concentrated especially in the southern suburbs, like South Gate, Huntington Park, Bell Gardens, and Maywood.[22]

In South Gate, the practice was quite widespread by the 1980s. In 1987, an estimated 20,000 people—about 20 percent of South Gate’s population—lived in a converted garage. A conversion, which could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 in the 1980s, might involve installing dry wall, tiles on the floor, and dividing walls for a makeshift bathroom. The garage door was often covered over with dry wall, eliminating that exit and concealing the living quarters if the garage door was opened. Health hazards ran rampant—cold drafts blowing through, poor ventilation, inadequate kitchen facilities to ensure food could be properly cleaned, cooked, and refrigerated, and the absence of bathrooms.[23]

Fueled by this shadow housing supply, the density levels in the southeast suburbs reached astronomical levels by the 1990s thus creating a pattern Jake Wegmann terms, “horizontal density.”[24] Maywood was the most densely populated town in California and among the most crowded in the nation. According to a study by the California Department of Finance, Southeast L.A. contained four of the five densest cities in California, including Maywood, Cudahy, Huntington Park, and Bell Gardens—the first three running ahead of San Francisco. Maywood had 25,083 residents per square mile, compared to 16,927 in San Francisco. Only a handful of cities on the east coast—including the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn—topped these levels. In towns like Maywood, the numbers were remarkable because that density was achieved mostly in one or two-story suburban homes and apartments.[25]

As shocking as it could be, this system of informal housing fulfilled the mutual needs of property owners and renters. For property owners, these rentals helped them make the mortgage payment every month and accrue savings. For renters, it was a survival strategy. Tenants were often undocumented immigrants, many arriving cash strapped after spending hundreds of dollars to cross the border and then ending up in low-wage jobs. For them, a garage rental was a viable option in L.A.’s tight, costly housing market; and the informality enabled them to evade the regulation of an apartment rental. Because everything was under the table, there was no lease agreement, no references were required, and instead of a hefty security deposit, a tenant could move in with just first month’s rent. For some, informal housing was a family-based strategy to provide shelter and pool resources. South Gate code enforcement officer Veronica Lopez estimated that in the 1980s at least 60 percent of conversions were done for family members.[26]

Garage conversion. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Garage conversion. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

This informal housing system created a novel scenario of interclass proximity in suburbia. Contrary to more typical suburbs that excluded the poor, these communities not only housed the poor but did so in the most integrated, intimate way—within the spaces of domestic homes and property. The poor were not relegated to housing complexes or fringe settlements. They were interspersed in backyard garages, rental rooms, and ad-hoc backyard dwellings, physically present in the suburbs’ most private spaces. Despite all efforts to eradicate these spaces, the system persisted and adapted, housing a permanent resident underclass in South Gate. By 2011, South Gate had a comparatively low homeless population, suggesting that this system helped keep people off the streets in some type of shelter, however substandard.[27]

In the 1980s, local leaders in South Gate and some of its neighboring towns launched a massive crackdown on these units. This represented a jarring break with the past in that it was the first time local informal housing was criminalized and heavily regulated. Not surprisingly, it was also identified as an immigrant problem. These measures were part of a broader clampdown on Latino public life in South Gate that was meant to preserve a more traditional Anglo suburban aura that many felt was slipping away. Some leaders behind these campaigns were Latinos, recently elected to local office. The spatial policing that ensued represented a local layer of the state’s apparatus that rendered undocumented Mexicans “illegal” in the context of everyday life. For the first time in its history, local leaders transformed South Gate from a loosely regulated into a highly regulated suburb.

Part of what drove this shift was the intensifying pressure on local jobs, services, and infrastructure, which many blamed on the immigrant influx. Reeling from the mass exodus of factory jobs, intense anxiety over job losses led to scapegoating of Mexicans and “illegal aliens.” In 1984, the South Gate Press ran a front-page story declaring, “Illegal aliens said to take most new jobs.”[28] Strains on local services and infrastructure were likewise blamed on immigrants, whose presence in shadow housing overtaxed water systems, sewers, and the schools. South Gate, in fact, was suffering from massive overcrowding in its schools, which forced the adoption of a year-round school schedule and bussing kids to schools as far away as the San Fernando Valley.[29] Many blamed the school crisis on the housing situation.

A crackdown ensued. Local leaders launched a spatial “law and order” campaign that built upon prior 1960s city beautification efforts, but it did indeed take things in a more punitive, racialized direction. It deployed the teeth of local regulation and enforcement to codify the strictest land use measures in the town’s history. These rules were meant to ensure a suburb of properly utilized single-family homes and public spaces, and they were implicitly aimed against Latinos who were perceived as the main violators. This spatial crackdown was a broad initiative across the southeast suburbs, with Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Maywood, Lynwood, and Huntington Park initiating similar campaigns against suburban “decay,” “eyesores,” and garage conversions. South Gate’s measures were among the strictest.[30]

In 1981, the city council launched a protracted campaign against informal housing. It began by beefing up the suburb’s enforcement authority around building code violations. An amendment to the municipal building code allowed the city to take violators “directly to a court judge” and re-designated violations to a fine-able “infraction” of the law. Henry Gonzalez, who in 1982 became the first Latino elected to the South Gate city council, carried the momentum forward. In 1983, during his first mayoral term, he began a proactive campaign of spatial policing. It started with a monthly “mayor’s tour” of South Gate, where he and other local officials climbed into a van and roamed the suburb in a quest to “find the ugliest spots in town.” They jotted down addresses in violation of city codes, including illegally converted garages.[31]

A 1983 ordinance sealed the effort by mandating the proper care of local properties. Residents were required to mow lawns, pull weeds, paint homes, keep yards clear of cars, clotheslines, and junk, and refrain from unauthorized conversions. Violators would face criminal misdemeanor charges, with a fine of $1,000 or six months in county jail.[32] The next year, South Gate’s “fight against blight” included ramped up enforcement: A new team of six building inspectors—equipped with shiny, white 1984 Ford Escorts—were empowered to patrol the suburb and issue citations on the spot. This system of spatial policing, adopted by Huntington Park in 1980 and South Gate in 1983, was fairly rare; one Huntington Park official estimated that one in one-hundred cities empowered building inspectors to issue citations, much like a police officer. In 1985, South Gate passed a pre-sale inspection ordinance, which required a city inspection of all homes for sale, a measure expressly designed to combat illegal conversions. It essentially inserted city authority into a private transaction, giving officials a handy means for scoping out violators.[33] This new enforcement apparatus represented a key turning point—property regulation shifted from a reactive system that responded to complaints, to a proactive, well-funded system that sniffed out violators.[34]

Occupied RV. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Occupied RV. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Local debates around these measures reflected a racialized view of informal housing, by those both for and against the crackdown. They shared the view that the prime culprits behind informal housing were Latinos, often undocumented. Those who voiced opinions were mostly Anglos or American-born Mexicans, who felt empowered to express opinions at public meetings. Opponents of the pre-sale law were mostly Anglo realtors who feared the measure would hamper home sales, and long-time white residents who felt the law was an infringement upon their property rights. Dorothea Lombardo, a longtime resident, told the city council, “it was understood by the citizens that the ordinances were intended to keep illegal aliens out of the City but that law-abiding citizens are being hurt by these ordinances.” Lombardo had little sympathy for the undocumented and felt South Gate ought to use the INS—rather than city resources—to crack down on illegal conversions. Such an approach would kill two birds with one stone—eradicating both illegal housing and “illegal aliens.” Councilman Del Snavely voiced the opinion of some white residents that the laws should be selectively enforced—targeting units rented out unlawfully, but “grandfathering in” garage conversions done before 1960 (implicitly, by white residents).[35]

Other opponents saw the new law as a civil rights violation. For example, Gregory Slaughter complained to the city council that inspectors “told him they wished to check his garage for illegal aliens” and he believed “this to be a violation of people’s rights particularly in regard to searches.”[36] Larry Swisher claimed the housing crackdown had deeper implications: “The council wanted to get the illegals out of garages. They avoided saying it…” out of a fear of offending Latino residents.[37] Local officials ultimately showed some flexibility in financial hardship cases—homeowners forced to undo garage conversions—but this forgiveness extended mostly to homeowners not using garages as rental units.[38]

In the eyes of some residents, housing inspection had become a local tool of immigration control, despite the insistence of city officials that they were   “concerned about enforcing civil rights in this community.”[39] The system implicitly used housing code enforcement to regulate undocumented residents, and encouraged neighbors to turn in people they saw violating housing regulations. South Gate set up a hotline, and deployed code enforcement officers, the police department, and building inspectors to follow up on tips.[40] By this point, informal housing had taken a wide pendulum swing in South Gate—begun as a viable survival strategy in the 1920s, encouraged as a patriotic duty in the 1940s, and then fully criminalized by the 1980s, when the practice had become racialized and linked to undocumented Mexican immigrants.

Similar conditions and crackdowns occurred across Southern California—it wasn’t just a South L.A. thing. In the early 1990s, the Los Angeles Times reported on the ubiquity of garage conversions, from Temple City to Simi Valley to South Laguna. In the beach cities of Manhattan, Redondo, and Hermosa, illegal conversions were rampant as rents there skyrocketed. Young adults, single parents, seniors, and the poor lived in garages, like the two illegal units Edward Roszyk added onto his house in Redondo Beach. In another Redondo Beach home, the landlord lined his wine cellar with bunk beds and rented it out to sixteen Latino immigrants. Redondo officials received five bootleg complaints a month in the early 1990s. In wealthy Simi Valley, there were reports of single-family homes sheltering four to five families, and a family of nine crowded into a single converted garage. The crackdowns similarly spread—and many targeted Latino renters. In 1989, the City of Los Angeles clamped down on garage conversions in South Central—for the first time in over twenty years—when Latinos began moving into the area. And clear to the north in Santa Clarita, officials launched nighttime raids in 1991 on illegal garage conversions, targeting that sprawling suburb’s neighborhood of East Newhall, where Latinos were 90 percent of the population. Two members of the Santa Clarita city council were vocal supporters of the raids, hoping they would drive out “illegal aliens.” As one put it, “If we make housing more difficult to find for these people, hopefully, they’ll move on.”[41]

Just two months ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story by columnist Steve Lopez on garage living among LA’s poorest.  Like the Times expose back in 1987, Lopez’s column delivered a powerful emotional punch.  He described how Alejandra and her two children lived in a garage in Pacoima for $900 a month, the small space partionened into a tiny kitchen, main living area, a small bedroom with bunk beds, and bathroom.  The walls were plastered and painted, a cage with chirping parrots sat nearby, and the space smelled of homemade soup boiling on the stove. Modest as it was, said Alejandra, it was better than what she had back in Mexico. The teachers at the local school elementary school claimed that garage living has been on the rise in recent years. The practice and the need, clearly, are still with us.[42]


Moving Toward Solutions

This story shows how policies toward informal housing have varied throughout the years, depending on factors like a particular socio-economic context, depending on who the landlords and tenants were, and depending on who was making such policies. Mexican immigrants were particularly vulnerable targets of housing crackdowns, exacerbating their insecure status via new modes of localized regulation upon everyday life.

Urban planning scholars like Vinit Mukhija, Jake Wegmann, and Jonathan Pacheco Bell have all argued persuasively that we need more flexible policies on informal housing if we ever hope to solve the crushing housing crisis in California and even across the nation. Such policies might support the practice of creating accessory dwelling units by providing resources and guidance for making these dwellings safer through upgrades and fixes. Total prohibition is not a productive approach. Especially in suburban communities, where we must devise ways to utilize land in more economical, efficient ways, informal housing holds immense potential.[43]

As Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris point out in The Informal American City, informality has the paradoxical nature of being both productive and exploitative, and—sometimes both at once. The challenge for policy is to emphasize action that privileges the poor instead of punishing them.[44] California’s new ADU laws are a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. Once suburbanites and their elected leaders grasp the positive potential in informal housing—and the fact that it’s been around in L.A. a very long time—we may move a step closer toward solving our intractable affordable housing crisis.

Occupied Garden Shed. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Occupied Garden Shed. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

 

Notes

[1] Benjamin Schneider, “The American Housing Crisis Might Be Our Next Big Political Issue,” Atlantic CityLab, 16 May 2018, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/05/is-housing-americas-next-big-political-issue/560378/?utm_source=citylab-daily&silverid=MzEwMTkyMzE2NzgwS0.

[2] Madeline Baron, et. al, “Housing Underproduction in the U.S.” (Up for Growth National Coalition and Holland Government Affairs, 2018), https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/336283_2d8fcafe99fa4aa181dc9884864eb750.pdf.

[3] For example, see James S. Duncan and Nancy G. Duncan, Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb (New York: Routledge, 2004); L. Owen Kirkpatrick and Casey Gallagher, “The Suburban Geography of Moral Panic: Low-Income Panic and the Revanchist Fringe,” in Christopher Niedt, ed., Social Justice in Diverse Suburbs: History, Politics, and Prospects (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 31-53. A recent round of suburban protests against homeless shelter occurred in Irvine, spearheaded by Asian homeowners (Los Angeles Times, 1, 25 April 2018).

[4] http://www.hcd.ca.gov/policy-research/AccessoryDwellingUnits.shtml.

[5] Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America,” Journal of American History 101 (2014): 804-31; Llana Barber, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City (London: Verso, 2000).

[6] Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), chapter 1-4.

[7] Ibid., chapter 1.

[8] Ibid., 42-43.

[9] On El Monte, La Puente, and Azusa, see Jerry Gonzalez, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017), chapter 2; Matt Garcia, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). In My Blue Heaven, p. 44, I noted that very few Latinos lived in South Gate in the 1920s. That assessment was wrong. Since that book’s publication, the opening up of the U.S. Census manuscripts for the 1930s and 1940s has allowed me to correct that portrayal along the lines of my description here.

[10] Information on these residents reconstructed from: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. Census Place: South Gate, Los Angeles, California; Roll: 171; Page: 15A; Enumeration District: 1353; FHL microfilm: 2339906. Accessed at Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2002. I cross-checked with additional 1940s records on Ancestry.com—including U.S. Census, Naturalization records, and city directories. On Mormon colonies in Mexico around this time, see John B. Wright, “Mormon Colonias of Chihuahua,” Geographical Review 91 (2001): 586-96; Thomas Romney, Mormon Colonies in Mexico (University of Utah Press, 1938, reprinted 2005).

[11] Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, 220; Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1946.

[12] Greg Hise, Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth Century Metropolis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Greg Hise, “Home building and industrial decentralization in Los Angeles: the roots of the postwar urban region,” Journal of Urban History 19 (1992): 95-125; D. J. Waldie, Holy Land (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005); Barbara Lane Miller, Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945-1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[13] Los Angeles Times, 6 May 1943; South Gate Press, 6, 27 January 1944.

[14] Los Angeles Times, 11 November 1945, 24 July 1946, 8 April 1952, 16 May 1952, 16 March 1961; South Gate Press, 1 August, 3 October 1946.

[15] Jacob Wegmann, “‘We Just Built It’: Code Enforcement, Local Politics, and the Informal Housing Market in Southeast Los Angeles County,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Berkeley: University of California, 2014), 18-23; Tim Keogh, “Suburbs in Black and White: How Jobs Created Inequality in Affluent America” (manuscript in progress); also see Vinit Mukhija, “Outlaw In-Laws: Informal Second Units and the Stealth Reinvention of Single-Family Housing,” in Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 39-45.

[16] Los Angeles Times, 14 April, 15 September 1946, 17 August 1947.

[17] Los Angeles Times, 2 September 1945

[18] Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, 329; Ed Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989), chapter 8; James R. Curtis, “Barrio Space and Place in Southeast Los Angeles, California,” in Daniel D. Arreola, ed., Hispanic Spaces, Latino Places: Community and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 133-136.

[19] Graham McNeill, “Deindustrialization and the Evolution of the Working-Class Suburban Dream in Southeast Los Angeles (1965-1990),” unpublished seminar paper (Claremont Graduate University, 2014), 11-21; William Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles (Point Arena, CA, Solano Press Books, 1997), 85-87; Los Angeles Times, 1 October 1989.

[20] U.S. Census, 1980-2000. Local officials voiced concerns about census undercounts at least since the early 1980s: see South Gate Press, 26 July 1980.

[21] Jake Wegmann, “Research Notes: The Hidden Cityscapes of Informal Housing in Suburban Los Angeles and the Paradox of Horizontal Density,” Buildings and Landscapes 22 (2015): 89-110, Jake Wegmann and Sarah Mawhorter, “Measuring Informal Housing Production in California Cities,” Journal of the American Planning Association 83 (2017): 119-130.

[22] South Gate Press, 29 April 1981; Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 24 May 1987. On the ubiquity of informal housing, see Noah J. Durst and Jake Wegmann, “Informal Housing in the United States,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41 (2017): 282-297.

[23] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 14 March 1985, 24 May 1987; South Gate Press, 29 April 1981, 20 June 1984 (on cost estimates); Veronica Lopez oral history, conducted by Becky Nicolaides, 6 March 2017, South Gate, CA, pp. 7, 15, 17-18.

[24] Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 120-123.

[25] Los Angeles Times, 19 December 1999; Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 65.

[26] Veronica Lopez oral history, pp. 7-8, 11-12, 15, 24-25; South Gate Press, 29 April 1981; Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1987; Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 140-14.

[27] City of South Gate, “Housing Element,” in South Gate General Plan 2035, January 2014, p. 24 (accessed at http://www.southgatecc.org/community/planning-division/). In 2011, South Gate had 199 homeless persons, which represented 0.21 percent of the total population. The L.A. County rate was 0.46 percent of the total population.

[28] South Gate Press, 20 June 1984.

[29] For examples of the extensive press coverage of school overcrowding in this period, see South Gate Press, 16 April, 7, 14, June, 13 September, 8 October, 16 August 1980, 3 January 1981; Los Angeles Times, 9 October 1978, 9 February 1986.

[30] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983.

[31] South Gate Press, 17 January 1981; Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983; South Gate Ordinance No. 1562, 11 April 1983, South Gate City Clerk’s Office.

[32] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983; South Gate Ordinance No. 1562, 11 April 1983, SG City Clerk’s Office.

[33] South Gate Ordinance No. 1651-A, 3 April 1985, SG City Clerk’s Office; Los Angeles Times, 14 March 1985.

[34] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 6 September 1984, 9 February 1986. South Gate budgeted $265,000 in 1984, and $335,000 in 1986 for the enforcement of municipal building codes.

[35] South Gate City Council minutes, 27 May 1986, pp. 3-4.

[36] South Gate City Council minutes, 27 January 1986, p. 7, 10 February 1986, p. 5. Both Lombardo and Slaughter were later elected to the South Gate City Council.

[37] South Gate Press, 25 September 1986 (Box 6, file 14, South Gate History Archive, Weaver Library). Swisher was part of an unsuccessful citizen movement to overturn South Gate’s laws against garage conversions.

[38] South Gate City Council minutes, 23 June 1986. A war of petitions occurred at this point: the pro-crackdown side gathered 121 signatures, those against had 1,000 signatures. The opposition petition was never submitted to the city council because many people who signed did not want their identity revealed (South Gate City Council minutes, 27 January 1986, 24 March 1986), p. 7.

[39] South Gate City Council minutes, January 27, 1986, 10 February 1986, p. 5.

[40] Los Angeles Times, 21 December 1996. For example, one councilman reported on complaints from a resident that “illegal aliens” were living in a garage on their street (South Gate City Council minutes, 27 May 1986).

[41] Los Angeles Times, 11 May 1990, 7 June 1991.

[42] Los Angeles Times, 27 November 2018.

[43] Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014); Wegmann, “We Just Built It”; Jake Wegmann and Jonathan Pacheco Bell, “The Invisibility of Code Enforcement in Planning Praxis: The Case of Informal Housing in Southern California,” Focus: The Journal of Planning Practice and Education 13 (2016), http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/focus/vol13/iss1/10/.

[44] Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City, 9.
Becky Nicolaides is a research affiliate at USC and UCLA. She’s currently working on her third book called On the Ground in Suburbia, which explores how social and civic life evolved in LA’s suburbs from 1945-2000. Her UCLA website: http://www.tinyurl.com/NicolaidesUCLA.

Copyright: © 2019 Becky Nicolaides. 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/.

 

 

 

Excerpts

Protesting Displacement and the Right to the City

Photo Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas.

Jan Lin

Gentrification has increasingly become a significant issue in contemporary Los Angeles, especially in bohemian and so-called “ethnic” neighborhoods like Venice, Echo Park, Chinatown, and Boyle Heights. The Arroyo Seco neighborhoods of Northeast LA (NELA) such as Highland Park and Eagle Rock are significant flashpoints in the urban restructuring process that draws new white middle-class entrepreneurs and residents while displacing established immigrant and working-class people. Highland Park exhibits some features of “gentefication” that involve the participation of middle-class Latino/a residents and business entrepreneurs along with whites in the neighborhood transition process. But Latino/as are more commonly regarded as casualties rather than agents of gentrification as evidenced in the stark experiences of immigrant working class evictions and displacements primed by a hot real estate market driven by speculative flipping and growing corporate investment. Recently the gentrification and displacement frontier has shifted from York Boulevard to the main commercial district of Highland Park along North Figueroa Street and the Metro Gold Line. Here the troubling side of gentrification has intensified as larger developers are converting multi-unit apartment buildings and vacant lots into new market rate housing with the support of city officials and urban planning incentives from the City of Los Angeles.

The neighborhood transition process had been more gradual for decades from the 1970s to the 2000s as pioneering homebuyers, artists, and mom and pop entrepreneurs restored properties and culturally revitalized the NELA neighborhoods that had become disinvested in the wake of suburbanization and white flight. As the revitalization stage gave way to the gentrification stage in urban restructuring, investment accelerated in NELA in the wake of the great recession after 2010, when there was growing entry of speculator-flippers, corporate developers and architects, and governmental housing and urban development programs including transit-oriented development (TOD) and transit villages. The demand-side social agency of pioneers and risk-averse single-family home buyers increasingly shifts to the supply-side forces of capitalist investment and neoliberal public/private partnership.

As the urban growth machine propels gentrification forward in NELA, it exhibits sharpening socioeconomic and racial overtones as immigrant working-class Latino/a families are increasingly threatened with displacement by rent increases, mass evictions, and social uprootedness. Working class households and multi-family networks are even subject to secondary displacement as property transactions and new construction in neighborhood hotspots stimulate broader property value shifts in surrounding blocks and block groups. The creative frontier of urban restructuring in NELA exhibits a growing destructive violence that illustrates what David Harvey describes as capitalism’s tendency to foster “accumulation by dispossession” through privatization of public lands and public housing, slum clearance, property foreclosure and marginalization of the urban poor. He furthermore reflects upon how marginalized and dispossessed people around the world have ignited social resistance and insurgent movements to demand their “rights to the city” as urban inhabitants, despite their lack of property rights.[1]

As the urban growth machine propels gentrification forward in NELA, it exhibits sharpening socioeconomic and racial overtones as immigrant working-class Latino/a families are increasingly threatened with displacement by rent increases, mass evictions, and social uprootedness.

The emergence of the NELA Alliance with their first protest march and demonstration along Highland Park’s York Boulevard in November 2014 seemingly gave public voice to the neighborhood’s opposition to gentrification and displacement, as well as the need for more affordable housing. With their robust calls that “Gentrification is the New Colonialism,” and that “Housing is a Human Right,” the largely Latino/a constituency of the NELA Alliance expressed their frustrations as a disenfranchised minority against the appropriation of its neighborhood homeland and culture by powerful outsiders. They have held organizational meetings, tenant’s rights workshops, panel discussions, testimonials and theatrical events to educate and mobilize the immigrant low-income community. Another organization named Friends of Highland Park emerged to contest the development of a transit village along the Metro Gold Line that neighborhood activists felt did not well serve the immigrant residential and business community. These movements have generated significant journalistic reports in the Los Angeles Times and other major online media.[2]

There is a sense of class struggle amidst the relentless economic violence of capitalism reminiscent of Karl Marx and Frederick Engel’s famous description in “The Community Manifesto” of the global power of the bourgeoisie to revolutionize the mode of production and force the capitulation of the proletariat and their cultural traditions until “all that is solid melts into air.” The production of urban space is crucial to the continued expansion of capitalism, yet this process is full of tension and struggle.[3] The contradictions of urban capitalism as a force of creative destruction has been described by David Harvey and Marshall Berman through epic historical cases. Some of these cases include a few from the public works prefect Baron Haussmann and his destruction of dense working-class neighborhoods to create the boulevards in mid-eighteenth century Paris and power broker Robert Moses and his clearing of dense working class communities in New York City in the mid-twentieth century in favor of bridges, intercity expressways, and the opening up of the suburbs.[4] Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and the malevolence of gentrification is described by Jason Hackworth  as the material and symbolic “knife-edge” of neoliberal capitalism amidst the government retrenchment from the Keynesian egalitarian liberalism of the twentieth century.[5] The capitalist city is a main battleground for neoliberal transition as local governments “roll back” Fordist-era housing programs and social services while “rolling forward” post-Fordist incentives for investment and urban entrepreneurialism.[6] Under neoliberal gentrification we see the opposing clash of capitalist struggle between exchange value interests for investors, property owners and state tax revenues versus use value interests for residents, workers and urban inhabitants.

Taking back the boulevard 1: art, activism and gentrification in nela

Northeast LA (NELA) Alliance members stage their first major action Procesión de Testimonios: Evicting Displacement on 3 November 2014 including mock evictions on twenty-two businesses. Protesters can be seen at left with a realtor crossing York Boulevard to the right (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).


The Troubling Side of Gentrification: Displacement, Root Shock, and Neighborhood Trauma

Less visible than the outward economic signs of gentrification is the social uprooting and traumatic displacement process that takes place behind the scenes after new owners and developers have secured their properties and start vacating residents through dramatic rent increases or direct evictions. Even when eviction is legally implemented with relocation stipends, the monies hardly make up for the abrupt involuntary loss of a home and loss of extended family networks that were built up over the years to help low-income immigrants and minorities share child care responsibilities and confront the economic challenges of urban life. In L.A. neighborhoods like Highland Park, which are on the gentrification frontier, the good and bad aspects of the urban growth machine work simultaneously to display the innovative and cruel nature of urban capitalism as a double-edged force of creative destruction. The housing markets in gentrifying areas like NELA reveal how innovative investors and architects build smart and trendy new housing to attract affluent millennial homebuyers of the creative economy and technology sector while removing working-class immigrant and minority families.

In L.A. neighborhoods like Highland Park, which are on the gentrification frontier, the good and bad aspects of the urban growth machine work simultaneously to display the innovative and cruel nature of urban capitalism as a double-edged force of creative destruction.

The impacts of secondary displacement through increases in property value play out more slowly than primary displacement evictions and high rental increases, but they create financial strains on families that further aggravate the physical and mental health of communities. Financial strain and/or displacement can cause chronic stress-related physical and mental illnesses, including hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. Serial displacement among multi-generational families can lead to a condition of “root shock.” Black and Latino families escaping racial discrimination and political violence carry previous traumatic experiences that can be aggravated by housing displacement.

Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of a community’s multi-family and inter-generational social networks previously built up as emotional and social eco-systems to help low-income minority and immigrant communities survive when confronted by economic challenges and social marginalization. The concept was adapted from the practice of gardening by Dr. Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, to describe the experiences of people she interviewed about their displacement in cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Roanoke, Virginia. She addresses the concept of “serial displacement” or repeated upheavals caused by disinvestment, gentrification, HOPE VI, mass incarceration, and natural disaster.[7] The concept of root shock helps one understand both the effects of displacement and also formulate ways to mitigate urban trauma and community recovery from natural and man-made disasters.

Taking back the boulevard 2: art, activism and gentrification in nela

“El Capitalista” puppet made by NELA Alliance members in silent procession on 12 December 2014 (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).


Friends of Highland Park vs. the Highland Park Transit Village

Transit oriented development (TOD) is a growing tool of urban public policy to stimulate economic development and housing near mass transit stations like the Highland Park stop on the MTA Gold Line. The City of Los Angeles-owned vacant land is operated by the Department of Transportation as surface parking lots and plans gradually progressed over several years for a transit village of three buildings with eighty residential units comprising twenty market rate condos and sixty affordable apartment housing units. The Highland Park Overlay Zone board approved the project in early 2013 and the L.A. Planning Commission granted developer McCormack Barron Salazar conditional usepermits for taller more densely-built housing which then sparked some outcry and debate in the community with regard to the transit village’s size, aesthetics, congestion, and loss of public parking. The L.A. City Council backed the Planning Commission’s decision for higher density and furthermore approved the project to be released from lengthy review of impact on the environment, traffic and city services.

Community opposition to the project organized its campaign as the Friends of Highland Park and was led by a trio self-described as the “three musketeers,” including business leader Jesse Rosas; Lisa Duardo, a fierce speaker with close ties to the arts community; and Lloyd Cattro who is familiar with environmental issues. The movement gained support from respected N. Figueroa Street business leaders like Miguel Hernandez of Antigua Bread, Carlos Lopez of Las Cazuelas Restaurant and William Yu of California Fashion. Duardo attended legal workshops conducted by Advocates for the Environment jointly sponsored by the Sierra Club at Loyola Marymount University. With counsel from land-use attorney Dean Walraff, the Friends of Highland Park retained fiery attorney Vic Otten to file a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit against the transit village. An initial trial court judgment dismissed the CEQA filing. It was reversed by the California Court of Appeal in December 2015, in a decision that set aside the City’s Mitigated Negative Declaration and Notice of Determination and thus required the preparation of an environmental impact review (EIR) that complies with CEQA requirements. Described by Friends of Highland Park as a “David vs. Goliath” victory, the ruling sent City agencies and the developer back to the drawing board. To pay for such legal costs, the Friends of Highland Park fundraised some $30,000 through initiatives at local restaurants and bars, business events, and the NELA Alliance.

Jesse Rosas is the leader of the Northeast Business Association, which represents some fifteen to twenty business owners, a newer constituency than the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce currently led by Yolanda Nogueira that has existed for forty to fifty years, separate from the N. Figueroa Association that represents property owners and the Business Improvement District. Rosas has good business networks through his work on N. Figueroa Street events like the annual Christmas Parade and Highland Park Car Show. He doesn’t believe that the higher-income commuters the transit village would attract will patronize local businesses, which will instead be hurt by two years of construction and the loss of the public parking lots for their long-time customers. He’s highly skeptical of statements from Councilman Gil Cedillo’s office that there will be one-to-one replacement of public parking spots in new subterranean parking since many spots will be dedicated to transit village residents, monthly parking, and commuters. Questions also remain about whether the affordable housing units planned will really be financially viable for low-income households.

Taking back the boulevard 3: art, activism and gentrification in nela

“Housing is a Human Right” projection during the course of silent procession on 12 December 2014 (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).


Eviction Order and Rent Strike at Marmion Royal

Another contentious housing situation emerged right next to the Highland Park Metro Gold Line station at the sixty-unit Marmion Royal apartments. In May 2016, the building sold to Skya Ventures and Gelt Inc., a development company owned by a married couple Gelena Skya and Keith Wasserman, who announced plans to clear the apartments to renovate and rebrand the building as Citizen HLP and increase rents by more than $1,000 a month. Seven families voluntarily relocated, while nineteen were served with evictions. Others felt harassed by water shut-offs. Extended multi-family networks among the tenants are under threat of being broken. The property managers working for the Wassermans, Moss & Company repeatedly told residents they had to leave when their leases expire. The residents were majority working-class Latino/a families and included several Section 8 tenants at risk of homelessness without their housing vouchers. The Marmion Royal was built in 1987 and was not covered by the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which applies to multi-unit apartments built before 1978, limiting rent increases to three percent and requiring landlords to provide relocation expenses for evicted tenants.[8]

On 19 July 2016, a demonstration of about one hundred people was held next to the Marmion Royal apartment building, led by the NELA Alliance. The Occidental College Students United Against Gentrification (OSUAG) also participated. Adolfo Camacho, a resident for three years at the Marmion Royal and thirty years in Highland Park, said six people would be evicted from his household, including four children. His sister-in-law lived in another apartment. Chris Alvarez, who worked at the KTLA television station in Hollywood, said he would likely have to move to Monrovia or Lancaster and endure a much longer commute to his job. He grew up in Highland Park and had lived fifteen years at the Marmion Royal. He said that he and his wife were seven months pregnant and he fretted about moving when she was in her third trimester. He worried that he would be separated from his mother and sister who lived two blocks away during this crucial time. After more testimonies, the participants proceeded to march in the streets chanting, “Save Our Homes,” and “Housing Now,” to the office of Councilman Gil Cedillo where they demonstrated for a while before returning to the Marmion Royal. Erick Berdejo said, “I grew up here. I’ve been here ten years since the age of nine. We’re decent people, we work to pay rent, and for them to tell us we got to move because we can’t afford the rent ‑ that’s wrong!” David Canecho, a resident for twenty years at the Marmion Royal, said “we’re not the only ones in L.A. going through this. I went to high school in Highland Park then to college at Chico State and came back but now I can’t live here. It’s up to us to stand up and stick together!”

With educational workshops and organizational support from the NELA Alliance, the Los Angeles Tenants Union and legal advocacy from attorney Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network, forty-seven of the remaining residents signed a petition to fight their evictions and organize the Marmion Royal Tenants Union. They called for a rent strike to try to pressure the Wassermans into a collective bargaining agreement, putting their rent money into a blind trust while they negotiated with Skya Ventures. Over the next few months demonstrations, testimonials and candlelight vigils helped to publically dramatize the struggle of the Marmion Royal Tenants Union. In August, NELA Alliance sponsored an educational panel at Avenue 50 Studio, an exhibition, a performance and artistic procession through the streets titled, “Dancing Cantos of an Evicted Pueblo.”

Taking back the boulevard 4: art, activism and gentrification in nela

NELA Alliance member Arturo Romo and Lis Barrajas leads other participants in silent procession to La Culebra Park where rites were held burning sage and palo verde to honor the native Tongva who were the original residents of region before their displacement (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).

Fundraising efforts with support from local businesses like Las Cazuelas restaurant helped to raise nearly $8,000 for legal fees and court costs. Some white professional residents came forward to assert they thought management was more willing to negotiate with them on rent increases, giving Elena Popp an avenue to argue for a case of discrimination against the Latino/a and black residents. But in December 2016, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Rupert A. Byrdsong, ruled against a claim of discrimination against five tenants being evicted. The Skya Ventures attorney Jeffrey B. Endler argued that “white people were allowed [to] negotiate, maybe because they were more aggressive” and asked the judge to end the hearing. But Byrdsong allowed the defense to bring in more witnesses before ordering the remaining evictions. Elena Popp implied that there was also class discrimination, saying a representative of Skya Ventures told her the company wanted to bring in “higher-caliber tenants.” But Byrdsong ruled her testimony not admissible since it was akin to a negotiation between the parties. When the hearing resumed, Popp offered a settlement that called on the tenants to leave by 30 January. However, Skya Ventures wanted an earlier date. The firm said it would not ask for unpaid rent. “All we want is possession,” said their attorney Jeffrey Endler.[9]

They do not go down without a fight against their impending dispossession, and they reveal the striking contradictions of the process of urban capitalist accumulation.

The Marmion Royal Tenants Union legal team is appealing the judge’s ruling under the claim it didn’t follow normal procedures of a jury decision. With support from attorney Noah Grynberg of the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action, the legal team is negotiating to consolidate the other eighteen cases. Remaining members of the tenants union vowed to continue their support. NELA Alliance members appealed through neighborhood social networks to find new housing for tenants facing eviction. Candlelight vigils helped to nourish their solidarity amidst the trauma of actual or impending displacement during the Christmas holidays. They staged a candlelight vigil at the residence of Gelena Skye and Keith Wasserman in Sherman Oaks on the evening of 30 December 2016. The evictions proceeded into the spring of 2017, however, and the last tenants were out by June 2017. The renovated building is now called Moxie + Clover Apartments.

The struggles of the Marmion Royal Tenants Union ended with the eviction of the final family in June 2017, but the NELA Alliance has kept up its neighborhood activism as it monitors incipient displacement and eviction situations at other multi-family apartment buildings in Highland Park along the N. Figueroa Street and the Metro Gold Line corridor. NELA activists give their support to anti-gentrification struggles in nearby communities like Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and Elysian Park, which exhibits striking investment and gentrification dynamics associated with lively arts scenes, and proximity to the Metro Gold Line and the campaign to revitalize the Los Angeles River. Interaction between activists in different neighborhoods helps generate a broader organizational capacity and political pressure for addressing homelessness and affordable housing policy in an era of continuing federal retreatment from Fordist-era public housing and social services. In the post-Fordist era, local governments increasingly shoulder the burden through neoliberal mechanisms of public/private partnership. The struggles of immigrant and working-class displacement and eviction in Highland Park dramatize the more troubling aspects of City and County of Los Angeles public policies like transit-oriented development and transit villages to generate new housing that is mainly market-rate and unaffordable for the working poor. They do not go down without a fight against their impending dispossession, and they reveal the striking contradictions of the process of urban capitalist accumulation.

The victims of the redevelopment and gentrification process in Highland Park and their supporters protest their right to the city as a touchstone for social inclusion. They assert their sense of ownership over their communities and rights as urban citizens, a cry and demand for political belonging in urban residency rather than national citizenship. They appeal to the sense of collective and human rights. In the words of David Harvey:

But new rights can also be defined: like the right to the city which … is not merely a right of access to what the property speculators and state planners define, but an active right to make the city different, to shape it more in accord with our heart’s desire, and to remake ourselves thereby in a different image.[10]

Taking back the boulevard 5: art, activism and gentrification in nela

Over 200 NELA Alliance members and Highland Park residents demonstrate at the office of Councilman Gil Cedillo following a solidarity rally with the families of the Marmion Royal Apartments and a march through the streets on 18 July 2016 (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).

  • All photos are by John Urquiza, a Northeast LA photographer and founder of Sin Turistas photography collective that runs classes, exhibitions and community film screenings in Highland Park. He is also photographer and member of the Northeast LA Alliance that leads protests against gentrification, community organizing for tenants’ rights and artistic documentation of social actions for neighborhood change. His website is http://theironyandtheecstasy.me.

[1] David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012).

[2] Tim Logan, “Highland Park Renters Feel the Squeeze of Gentrification,” Los Angeles Times, 21 December 2014, A1; Nathan Solis, “Highland Park Residents Share Stories of Gentrifiation During Saturday Night Demonstration and Vigil,” Eastsider, 15 December 2014,  www.theeastsiderla.com.

[3] Henri LeFebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1974, reprinted 1991).

[4] Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

[5] Jason Hackworth, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).

[6] Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism,’” Antipode 34 (2002): 349-79.

[7] Mindy Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2005).

[8] Doug Smith, “A Flashpoint in L.A.’s Gentrification Drama: Protesting Highland Park Tenants face a Mass Eviction,” Los Angeles Times, 11 October 2016, A1.

[9] Doug Smith, “Judge Rejects Discrimination Clain in Highland Park Evictions,” Los Angeles Times, 14 December 2016.

[10] David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27 (2003): 939-41.

 

Jan Lin is Professor of Sociology at Occidental College. This article is an edited excerpt from Chapter 5 of his book, Taking Back the Boulevard: Art, Activism and Gentrification in Los Angeles (New York University Press, 2019). His stories on neighborhood transition and gentrification and students’ Young Voices features have appeared with KCET-Departures online. This excerpt’s research is drawn from interviews with Lisa Duardo, Jesse Rosas, Miguel Ramos, John Urquiza and Marmion Royal tenants, participant observation at demonstrations and public forums, and newspaper and online media articles.

Copyright: © 2019 Jan Lin. 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

Military Industrial Sexuality

Ryan Reft

In March 1992 the nineteen-year Navy veteran and founder of the Veterans Council for American Rights and Equality (C.A.R.E), Chuck Schoen penned an open letter in the Redwood/Sacramento branch’s newsletter to the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, protesting the military’s ban on homosexuals. While he thanked Powell for rejecting sexual orientation as a security risk, he lamented Powell’s continued stance opposing gay men and women in the military. He informed Powell, “We know how to separate our professional life from our sexual life. We have proven this during the past fifty years, by our honorable service.” Due to an investigator’s discovery of his homosexuality during a security clearance investigation, Schoen had been forced to resign in 1963 or else face a dishonorable discharge. Schoen believed security clearances unfairly targeted gay service members. “[T]housands of investigators spent millions of man hours and millions of dollars ruthlessly seeking out harmless homosexuals,” he wrote Powell. “Even with all their expertise and money, they had only about one percent success rate. All during this time they thought we were the spies. What a costly error based only on conjecture and hatred.”[1]

That same month, then head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and future Secretary of Defense Robert Gates responded to a letter from the William and Mary Gay Alumni Association (WMGAA). President Michael Pemberton and Thomas P. Rowan had congratulated Gates upon his appointment to the directorship of the CIA in December while also raising concerns about the agency’s ability to ensure “equal opportunities for all current and prospective employees.” Gates thanked them for their letter and assured Pemberton and Rowan that the “[a]gency does not reject, disqualify, or assign people, or make any other personal decision on the basis of sexual orientation.” He went on to note that, “Indeed, CIA has homosexuals in its workforce.”[2]

Though the overlapping dates of these correspondences might be coincidental, the motivations behind each were not. Since President Eisenhower’s issuance of Executive Order 10450 in 1953, which banned homosexuals from government employment and labeled them a threat to national security, along with the military’s history of purging gay and lesbian service personnel homosexuals struggled to gain equal rights in the government and the military. Both letters preceded real government reform in this area. The Pentagon enacted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 1993 and two years later President Clinton issued Executive Order 12968, which stated for the first time in an executive order that sexual orientation could not be grounds for denial of a security clearance. Yet gay men and women both within and without the government had long protested what they saw as unequal treatment, including security investigations that delved unfairly into the sexual lives of service personnel and employees. The advances witnessed in 1995, and to a far lesser extent 1993, stemmed from such efforts over the course of four decades, not least among them was the case of Otis Francis Tabler, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident and missiles systems analyst working within the expanding military industrial complex of Southern California.

“In a precedent setting action, the Industrial Security Clearance Review Office (ISCRO) of the Department of Defense today withdrew its appeal… finding issuance of a Secret-level security clearance to Otis Francis Tabler, Jr., an open, self declared Homosexual, to be ‘clearly consistent with the national interest,’” announced the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. (MSW) in August 1975.[3] Tabler challenged both the federal government’s security clearance system and California state law banning sodomy and “perversion,” thereby opening up new job opportunities for homosexuals in the state’s booming defense industry while also contributing to the fight to eliminate unconstitutional legislation.[4]

Though Tabler’s case unfolded at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard, its success existed as a confluence of factors, individuals, and geography that stretched over the course of two decades. It took the advocacy and activism of Washington D.C.’s foremost gay activist, Frank Kameny, a World War II veteran who for years fought discrimination against homosexuals in government hiring. At the same time, the establishment of the original Los Angeles Mattachine Society by Harry Hay in 1951 enabled Kameny and other activists across the country to establish their own local versions from which to operate while Southern California’s expanding defense industry offered employment and opportunity to carry out new struggles against discrimination. Kameny would cut his teeth in such struggles as leader of the MSW and would bring this experience to bear on behalf of Tabler in the early 1970s.

While often seen as the most conservative of American institutions, the military, the vast defense industry that supports it, and veterans themselves have operated, intentionally and unintentionally, in conjunction to advance the rights of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.

During the 1970s, Los Angeles’s vibrant gay liberation movement inspired Tabler and gradually shaped public opinion toward a more favorable view of homosexuality and, by 1976, a repeal of the state legislation Tabler had challenged. Finally, Kameny and Tabler’s fight to open up the security clearance process for gay men and women preceded the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy by nearly two decades and helped to lay the ground work for President Bill Clinton’s 1995 Executive Order 12968. Over forty years later, Tabler’s battle demonstrates how the intersection of the military, California, and the nation’s capital led to the expansion of opportunity and rights for gay men and women across the nation. While often seen as the most conservative of American institutions, the military, the vast defense industry that supports it, and veterans themselves have operated, intentionally and unintentionally, in conjunction to advance the rights of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.


A Military State, World War II, and California

World War II radically reshaped California. First, it led to a boom in population and a demand for greater infrastructure in nearly every area of urban life from water systems to road construction. Single women, Blacks and Latinos all flocked to cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco to work in defense factories. Men of all races joined the military as a means to demonstrate their sense of patriotism. Minorities tired of dealing with discrimination and second-class citizenship used service as a means to demand equality from a nation demanding that they sacrifice for the war despite existing inequalities.

Women too contributed to the war effort in countless ways. Some by working in the numerous factories that dotted the Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, and San Diego landscapes, while others served in the Women’s Army Core (WACS) or Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVS, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserve). Women’s experiences in the war would lay the groundwork for the feminist movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The war also created the space and opportunity for gay men and women to realize their own sexuality and build community in the process.  The stress of military training, the common purpose of working toward victory in the war and the crucible of combat encouraged camaraderie and trust. For those attracted to the same sex, working, sleeping, and relaxing with one another in gender segregated military environs proved an imperfect yet opportune chance at romance and community.[5]

At the same time, the military cracked down on homosexuality. As Daniel Hurewitz specifies in his 2007 work Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, “The war mobilization laid the groundwork for a national effort to eliminate homosexuals from public life.” Hurewitz further states, “During the war, itself, a host of psychologists and psychiatrists had convinced military leaders that they could help limit the number of soldiers suffering from psychological ailments as a result of the fighting.” Looking to prevent gay men and women from serving, officials questioned recruits about their sex lives as they tried to “weed out” those the military believed to be sexually active labeling them, “mentally unfit.”[6] These kinds of categorizations went far to frame homosexuality as a psychological malady rather than a sexual preference. As demonstrated, the military took the issue of homosexuality seriously, often issuing verbal warnings about Los Angeles’ gay permissiveness. “We were solemnly told that all queers in California wore red neckties and hung out at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, a myth we all accepted,” noted one former Marine and World War II veteran. Such warnings probably helped to pique the interest of closeted service personnel, suggests historian Allan Berube.[7]

image1

Though the armed services targeted men mostly, in the late 1940s and 1950s, after the war, women also came under scrutiny. In the early Cold War military, notes historian Margot Canaday, “the state did not ignore, conflate, or subsume lesbianism, but was instead focused upon it.” Despite women making up less than one percent of the military during this period, the military’s anti-homosexual agenda targeted women in a particular way. “Military officials maintained that homosexuality among women was more disruptive to morale and discipline then homosexuality in men, and they attributed a far higher rate of homosexual activity to female than male personnel,” she concludes.[8]

Simultaneously, the Los Angeles Police Department increased their surveillance of homosexual activity. State law had long considered sodomy a felony, but in 1915 California legislators adopted legislation outlawing fellatio after authorities arrested thirty-one men for engaging in oral sex following a 1914 Long Beach raid.[9] Predictably, officials used such laws largely to regulate homosexual activity rather than that of heterosexuals. Even worse, gay men especially could not count on city police officers for basic protection. “Gay men could not escape the knowledge that the LAPD regarded them not only as laughable, but as ultimate criminals,” note Faderman and Timmons. Despite, or perhaps due to, a growing gay community of men and women, the LAPD viewed lesbians and homosexual men with the utmost hostility.[10]

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the LAPD raided gay bars, surveilled known cruising sites and attempted to entrap gay men and women, all in an effort to persecute patrons. The city attempted to shut down various magazines seen as homosexually-oriented including ONE, Physique Pictorial, and Adam, only to be rebuffed on appeals by the courts all while vendors across the town sold Playboy magazines without incident. No matter how many legal defeats the city endured, it continued to prosecute. “Los Angeles officials expressed their overt intent to continue the persecution of queer texts through obscenity charges,” noted Whitney Strub.[11]

Cinemas too struggled under the thumb of authorities. Venues such as the Coronet (La Cienga Blvd in West Hollywood), the Lyric (Huntington Park) and Vista Theater (Silver Lake) served as gathering places for gay Angelenos. Such venues frequently screened art films with “queer undertones,” writes Strub. In particular, the Coronet played Kenneth Anger’s “Fireworks” in 1957, arguably one of the most provocative queer films of the period. The LAPD filed obscenity charges soon after. In the end, the Lyric and Vista Theaters all endured legal challenges similar to that of the Coronet, which ultimately resulted in closure, even when they emerged victorious on judicial grounds. Yet, when the film Deep Throat achieved national popularity, it too flashed across Los Angeles movie screens and authorities did nothing to prevent it, which further illustrates these pervasive double standards.[12]

Gay panic even served to influence debates regarding the role of outdoor leisure in Los Angeles. The city’s beaches endured accusations of homosexual infiltration. During the 1940s a number of establishments began catering to a homosexual clientele thereby enabling the growth of a notable gay public sphere along a stretch of Santa Monica beachfront between Hollister and Strand. Known as “Crystal Beach” among locals, the area became subject to police surveillance in the early 1950s when a number of gay bars and taverns opened for business. “Now more visible, the perceived threat posed by the gay beach going community was heightened by the Cold War,” writes historian Elsa Devienne, “a time when any challenge to the heterosexual nuclear family model was perceived as a direct attack on American values.” During the campaign for municipal elections in 1955, candidates openly accused the Santa Monica beaches of “fostering and protecting homosexuals.”[13]

Gay panic even served to influence debates regarding the role of outdoor leisure in Los Angeles. The city’s beaches endured accusations of homosexual infiltration. During the 1940s a number of establishments began catering to a homosexual clientele thereby enabling the growth of a notable gay public sphere along a stretch of Santa Monica beachfront between Hollister and Strand.

In the face of such hostility, Harry Hay and others formed the Mattachine Society in 1951 in what was then known as Edendale,—Silver Lake today. Emerging from a milieu populated by bohemians, communists, and homosexuals who shared ideas, strategies, and beliefs, Hay constructed what would become the homophile movement and the Los Angeles Mattachine emerged as its first real organization. It enabled gay men and women to form a community and present a collective identity to a hostile questioning public. “What Mattachine offered was a different kind of camaraderie: non-sexual family camaraderie… that was well organized and increasingly more defined,” argues Hurewitz. “This was camaraderie about sexual desires that was not constituted by those desires… it was new and transformative; it was how a communal identity—a shared self perception—was constructed.”[14]

Government purges contributed to Hay’s motivation notably in the influence that federal policies cast over private sector employment. Having worked for large aircraft manufactures dependent on government contractors for work, Hay realized the chilling effect such policies might impose. Hay’s own supervisors had encouraged him to pursue systems engineering. But Hay, fearing that his support of the Communist Party threatened his ability to receive a security clearance, declined.[15]

In the decade that followed World War II, half of Southern California’s economic growth depended on defense contracts. This dependency meant Hay and others like him faced dismissal from current employment and dramatically fewer job opportunities. At the same time, the Korean War delivered a surge in government spending, particularly in the area of research.[16] Though many defense industry jobs at the outset of the war remained blue collar, the expansion of atomic weaponry, the increased influence of the Air Force, and technologically advanced weapons systems placed a greater emphasis on a college-educated workforce. Hay organized the Mattachine Society, in part as a means to organize Southern California homosexuals in response to wide spread societal discrimination, including impending governmental purges.[17]

Unfortunately, the L.A. Mattachine struggled with internal divisions and Hay would be ousted from leadership within a few years of its establishment. Still, it persisted and inspired the growth of Mattachines across the U.S. and perhaps most importantly the creation in 1961 of the MSW under the leadership of Frank Kameny. Though later eclipsed by organizations in San Francisco and New York, the MSW would be “the leader in the homosexual rights movement.” In its efforts to battle workplace discrimination during the 1960s, the MSW “took the entire gay movement in a new direction,” argues David K. Johnson. To paraphrase John D. Emilio: Kameny spearheaded the new militancy in the homophile movement.[18] Indeed, a decade before Otis Tabler’s hearing, Kameny and the MSW cast a national influence by protesting the Civil Service Commission’s (CSC) hiring practices or organizing Remembrance Day protests outside Philadelphia’s Freedom Hall as a means of recognizing homosexuality in the public sphere. After the famed Stonewall Uprising of 1969, Remembrance Days migrated north to New York where it transformed into the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day and would become known as the Gay Rights or Gay Pride Parade. Ultimately, Kameny’s influence would reach California but only after gutting out legal in battles in the nation’s capital.

image 2


D.C.

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, communism and homosexuality became intertwined as threats to national security. A major congressional inquiry in 1950 explored the “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts” in government and ten years later institutions like the State Department “divided security risks into ‘homosexuals’ and ‘nonhomosexuals’, with the former outnumbering the latter two to one,” noted Johnson. “Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the term ‘security risk’ in fact functioned largely as a euphemism for homosexual.”

In the government’s civil service commission and elsewhere, gay men and women who refused to resign were drummed out on charges of “immoral conduct,” a clause that dated back to the 1800s but most often found usage as a means to target homosexuals. Thousands of employees lost their jobs due to their sexual orientation. New York Post columnist Max Lerner described the policy as a witch-hunt, derisively labeling it the “panic on the Potomac” while senators endorsing the action referred to it the “purge of the perverts.”[19]

Few understood the effects of the policy than WWII veteran, Frank Kameny, who in 1957 was fired from his job in the Army Map Service for being a homosexual. Kameny filed a petition to the Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit Court protesting his firing on discriminatory grounds. It eventually reached the Supreme Court, but the justices refused to hear the case. He would not relent.

Lilli Vincenz, who had been discharged (ironically, honorably) from the Army WAC in 1963 for lesbianism, joined the MSW soon after and described the organization’s single-minded focus under Kameny’s leadership. “The Mattachine Society of Washington is not a social group—but rather an ascetic one,” she wrote to a friend in 1965. “The CAUSE is all and don’t you dare speak of trivial matters like an occasional social get-together.”[20]

By 1961, Kameny had re-established the MSW and used it as a platform to achieve equality in government hiring for homosexuals. From 1961 through the 1970s, Kameny criticized the government’s “war on gays and lesbians” at every opportunity, even picketing the White House and Civil Service Commission Headquarters among other Washington institutions over their policies in 1965.

Aware of Cold War rhetoric depicting homosexuality as subversion and a security threat, MSW members and picketers went to great lengths to demonstrate that while they were homosexuals they deserved the same rights accorded their fellow Americans. They identified as “homosexual citizens,” thereby arguing that one need not reject their sexuality in order to claim the rights of national membership.[21]According to the lone newspaper that covered the April picketing of the White House, ten protesters carried signs that said, “We want Federal employment, Honorable Discharges and Security Clearances,” and “Gov. Wallace Met With Colored Citizens, But Our Government Won’t Meet With US.”[22]

Participants were keenly aware of the risks. Jack Nichols and Elijah Clarke stayed up late the night before making picket signs only to have a roommate warn them about potential violence. “You guys are crazy. People are going to attack you,” he told Nichols and Clarke. Another protester, Gail Green, admitted the biggest fear among protesters was loss of employment. Nichols prevented his partner Clarke from attending since Clarke worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and would likely be fired. Two other participants wore sunglasses in an effort to conceal their identities. [23]

Vincenz, who would appear on the cover of the October 1965 issue of The Ladder picketing the Civil Service Commission, concurred that many of them were “between careers” or could “afford to do it.” Next to her wedding day, “that was the most important day of my life… It was a defining moment for all of us. It was very empowering.”[24] They picketed six times that summer, three times at the White House, once each at the State Department, CSC, and Pentagon. Initially the protests received paltry media coverage. However, by the end of the summer, due to the protests, Kameny and the MSW had developed an effective media strategy that would boost participation and increase coverage of their efforts in outlets such as Reuters and Confidential. Looking back, Kameny claimed the summer of 1965 established a “mindset for public displays of dissent by gay people” which would later make Stonewall possible.[25]

That same year, a legal victory in the U.S. District Court of Appeals forced the CSC to define closeted homosexuals as acceptable employees.[26] Still, Kameny and others remained understandably unsatisfied and California would serve as another key testing ground to push sexual equality further.

Unlike Hay, whose approach to gay rights was rooted in Marxism leading to organizational anarchy, Kameny framed his fight in the context of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the protests of suffragists like National Woman’s Party leader Alice Paul.


Southern California

After World War II, due to its room for expansion, diverse geography, and mild weather, California drew increased military spending. Historian Richard White concluded, “[i]t was as if someone had tilted the country: people, money and soldiers all spilled west.”[27] Los Angeles and Orange County drew new installations and defense industries, the latter particularly in aerospace. By the early 1960s, forty-three percent of manufacturing employment in the two counties was tied to government aerospace contracts. This process persisted into the 1970s, by which time L.A. and the surrounding region “had come to rely to an extraordinary degree upon the related industries of defense aircraft space and electronics,” notes historian Roger Lotchin.[28] Even today, the presence of the military and private defense industries contributes significantly to Orange County’s ranking as the nation’s largest suburban employment center.[29] Simultaneously, the city’s gay population expanded to an estimated 140,000 gay men and women in metropolitan L.A., which was a number that would only expand over the ensuing decades.[30] Government expansion corresponded with demographic growth, by the mid-1950s 250,000 Californians labored as federal workers, which led many to describe the Golden State as a “second U.S. capital.”

image3.jpg

Ironically, U.S. military action contributed to the development of the Mattachine Society. If Harry Hay had refused to enter the “the new discipline of systems engineering” largely because he feared denial of a security clearance due to his communist affiliations and homosexual lifestyle, that did not mean he couldn’t use the burgeoning conflict as a means to recruit for the Mattachine Society. During the summer of 1950, Hay and others canvassed city beaches asking beachgoers to sign a petition protesting the Korean War. Hay believed most people would refuse to sign on to such a radical statement, but it would allow him to introduce a more moderate proposal: the formation of a gay organization. “Then we’d get into the gay purges in U.S. government agencies of the year before and what a fraud that was,” he noted. Ironically, most people signed the petition, but eschewed the idea of a gay rights society. Still, as Johnson notes, by Autumn he had the germ of what would become the Mattachine Society, and it all began on Los Angeles beaches with a discussion of the U.S. military industrial complex.[31]

Unlike Hay, Otis Francis Tabler did pursue systems engineering. Born in 1942 in Hampton, Virginia, Tabler eventually moved to Philadelphia where he graduated in 1963 from the University of Pennsylvania with an Bachelor’s degree in engineering. He moved to Denver where he worked for General Electrics and Martin-Marietta Company until later decamping for Los Angeles in the late 1960s for a position with Logicon, located in San Pedro.

From 1966-1969 Tabler studied missile defense systems at Logicon as a computer scientist, from which position he was granted a Secret security clearance. However, during the first background investigation that led to his clearance, he neither concealed nor highlighted his homosexuality. He briefly left Logicon for employment with another company where he did not return to the San Pedro company until 1971‑ at which point he sought a new clearance. During the new investigation, Tabler openly apprised investigators of his sexuality, telling them “I am an overt, practicing homosexual who prefers to obtain a clearance without concealing his personal life from the investigative process.”[32]

Tabler released an Interoffice Correspondence relating his personal history to his superiors and co-workers. The packet included a psychological evaluation by a former U.S. Air Force psychologist that upheld Tabler’s trustworthiness and reliability.[33] Based on their testimony at his hearing, Tabler’s peers agreed with the report. According to his coworkers and supervisors, Tabler demonstrated considerable skill in carrying out his responsibilities, but due to his inability to secure the necessary security clearance, his talents were not being adequately utilized and the company was forced to let him go as a result. His former supervisor, U.S. Air Force Captain Larry Wayne Kern believed Tabler to be honest, trustworthy, and reliable and said that Tabler had “a specific and unique contribution to make in the field.”[34]

While Tabler mounted his defense, the push for equality of sexual orientation had begun to coalesce to a greater degree than in previous decades. By the 1970s, the gay liberation movement had become a dominant force, one undoubtedly shaped by other social movements of the day. For example, in Los Angeles, Morris Kight founded the city’s chapter of the Gay Liberation Front in 1969.[35]

During the 1960s, anti-Vietnam war militancy exhibited by the New Left, the “counterculture,” and Chicano, feminist, and Black Power advocates inspired gay activists as well. On 12 May 1966, L.A. residents witnessed their first gay parade in history, the “First National Homophile Protest” to end the ban on gays in the military. The protest snaked along a twenty-mile route that stretched from Downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood. Participants carried signs that cajoled onlookers to “Write LBJ Today” and pointed out the fact that  “Ten Percent of all GI’s are Homosexual.” The National Conference of Homophile Organizations had planned demonstrations in five cities across the county, but only Los Angeles held a parade. Unfortunately for organizers, the media paid little attention. The Los Angeles Times declined to cover the demonstration unless reports of injuries surfaced.[36]

Agreement within the gay community regarding efforts like that of Tabler was not universal. Not all members of the Gay Liberation Movement believed that gay men and women should be pursuing employment in fields such as the military or defense industry. The ideology of movements that leaned left of center or in some cases fully left, combined with the residue of the Vietnam War, created an internal debate among activists. Why would an ostensibly liberal, politically aware gay man or woman want to work for a warmongering United States government or the various agencies that were seen as (at best) complicit in domestic and foreign policies that victimized minorities and the poor?

Not all members of the Gay Liberation Movement believed that gay men and women should be pursuing employment in fields such as the military or defense industry.

Others like Richard Gayer, a colleague of Kameny’s and a lawyer who represented numerous gay men and women in security clearance cases, believed such efforts served a larger purpose. Gayer had brought his own case regarding discrimination over security clearances earlier in the 1970s, and also sought Kameny’s aid. He explained the importance of such a struggle years later: “There are some among us who argue that because no one should work for agencies as questionable as the CIA, we shouldn’t litigate anti-Gay discrimination by them,” he wrote. “If the government says that Gays are not to be trusted with sensitive information and are otherwise unreliable, then we are likely to be excluded from any employment (private or governmental) that involves such information or requires reliability and dependability.” Whether or not one supported the military industrial complex was beside the point. Anti-gay governmental policies begat anti-gay policies society-wide, he argued. For Gayer, Tabler and others, it came down to a simple fact: “Gay people, like any other class of citizens, should be free to choose their careers without fear of discrimination as they advance their chosen fields.” The inability to do such reverberated throughout society in ways that further circumscribed life for homosexuals.[37]

During the 1970s, newly aggressive gay organizations and activists began to dominate the movement, such as PRIDE and the Gay Liberation Front Los Angeles (GLFLA), formed to push for a place in the public sphere for gays.[38] “As you may know, Gay Liberation Front Los Angeles has become the center of military resistance for the gay community,” GLFLA leader Mark Lareau wrote Kameny in 1971.[39] The GLFLA viewed Kameny as uniquely skilled in battling discrimination against homosexuals in the military and government, sending him dozens of letters from G.I.s; some from military personnel trying to escape service due to homophobia in the armed services and others attempting to hold on to the career they had built in the military now under threat due to their homosexuality. In other ways, the city’s gay community began to assert itself more openly even opening the Gay Community Services Center in 1971. The intersection of the Vietnam War and the city’s vibrant gay liberation movement made Los Angeles a hotbed of activism.

Swept up in this fervor, Tabler too became politically active, at one point joining forces with GLFLA leader and founder Morris Kight to challenge the state’s anti-sodomy and fellatio legislation. Tabler, along with five others, formed the “Felons Six,” a group that “confessed” to engaging in “oral copulation of each other.” When authorities refused to prosecute them, Kight made a citizen’s arrest in front of the L.A. Press Club and brought them to authorities. Law enforcement continued to refuse to prosecute the group, thereby demonstrating California laws governing the private sexual activity of adults to be baseless. Kight testified on Tabler’s behalf at his clearance hearing and explained that the point of the demonstration was to “create a court test case with which to challenge and hopefully strike down Sections 286 and 288A of the California penal code,” which made anal and oral sex illegal. Since the city’s attorney general declined to pursue the case, the problem remained that as long as the law persisted it could be used against homosexuals in certain circumstances as in the case of Otis Tabler’s security clearance investigation and other gay men and women seeking similar clearances.[40]

With a growing political awareness and having been denied a security clearance earlier in 1973, which resulted in job loss, Tabler appealed the decision and forced an open hearing with the Western Division Field Office of the Department of Defense, the first of its kind in U.S. history. The hearing held over four days in late July and early August of 1974, roughly two months after the “Felons Six” demonstration, at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard revealed a clearance process, at least in relation to homosexuality, beset with contradictions that reflected broader societal biases of the day. Government counsel James E. Stauffer told the Los Angeles Times that “as long as these type of activities are determined to be criminal according to statues and high decisions,” the security clearance program had no choice but to conduct investigations accordingly. [41]

The testimony of witnesses at Tabler’s hearing demonstrated that the government’s enforcement of sodomy and perversion laws proved both selective and discriminatory. Logicon security officer Helga Angela Kuczora testified that Tabler notified her early on of his sexuality, which to her mind demonstrated his insusceptibility to blackmail. She noted that everyone else at Logicon knew about Tabler’s sexuality due to the fact that the presence of an open homosexual in a company of three hundred employees amounted to a “small Watergate.” Kuczora further critiqued the clearance process pointing out “a heterosexual is never questioned as to his sexual preferences.” She herself had engaged in sexual acts outlawed by the state but nonetheless held a Top Secret clearance. “I think the main thing here being that why [a] homosexual’s sexual activities and not a heterosexual’s activities are questioned.” Christian Julia Robinson, who had known Tabler for eight years and even carried on a sexual relationship with him at one time drew similar conclusions noting she had engaged in sodomy and oral sex with Tabler but still had qualified for a Secret clearance.[42]

Even a government investigator testified that officials only inquired about an individual’s sexual history when they were a suspected or an admitted homosexual. Michael Roussel Dupre, a special investigator who had conducted the review of Tabler’s case admitted that he perceived Tabler as “responsible, discreet, loyal, and trustworthy “ and insusceptible to blackmail. He acknowledged that in his experience heterosexuals were almost never investigated for “consensual sexual acts,” but when an allegation of homosexuality was leveled and substantiated that “yes, the holders of security clearances who are homosexuals have their clearance taken away from them.” [43]

Tabler testified on his own behalf. When the government’s lawyers inquired about his sexual history notably any prevalence of one-night stands, Kameny objected, pointing out the same would not be asked of heterosexuals. Tabler told Government Examiner Richard Farr that while he believed in a strong, sound, well administered clearance system, the one he encountered had been perverted by “a very, very mentally disturbed homophobic attitude on the part of the Industrial Security Clearance Review Office and extending all the way up through and into a number of people on Capitol Hill….” In regard to state sodomy laws, Tabler viewed them as “merely words written on statue books. I believe that they do not exist.”[44]

Tabler’s mother added emotional tenor to an already contentious hearing. She made an impassioned plea telling the government that her son was a loyal American and that as the widow of a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran, she loved her country, “But I’m horrified to find out that the Defense Department does not honor the Constitution of the United States.” She then broke down in tears.[45]

The government could not reasonably claim that Tabler represented a blackmail risk. He was an open homosexual. His mother knew, as did all his coworkers; over twenty affidavits from colleagues attesting to this fact were submitted into evidence.[46] Tabler even sent letters confessing to his sexuality and violation of state sodomy laws to the Los Angeles County Sheriff and District Attorney.[47]

Though not a lawyer, Kameny represented Tabler and employed an unorthodox and unconventional approach. His opening statement lasted over ninety minutes. He called the security clearance program bigoted, politically corrupt, and vile. He accused the Department of Defense (DOD) and federal government of conducting a war on gays that both waged “relentlessly, remorselessly and mercilessly.” The homosexual community did not want to fight, but “if they want a war they will get it,” he told the government examiner.[48]

image 4

The case drew welcome publicity. One of the most difficult aspects of the early gay liberation movement related to the mainstream media’s tendency to ignore protests, particularly those of the GLFLA.[49] Tabler and Kameny went out of their way to force the case into the public sphere despite attempts by the DOD to avoid an open hearing. Drawing on his experiences from the 1960s, Kameny successfully attracted local and national media attention. Articles before and after the hearing appeared in numerous outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, The New York Times, The Palos Verdes Peninsula News, and Newsweek, among others. Radio and television also covered the hearing including Radio-News West, KNBC, and KTTV. KTTV broadcast the closing statements of the hearing and the case even garnered attention overseas in London’s Gay News.[50]

Though many of the articles featured headlines such as, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” or “Homosexual Gets Security Clearance,” in a letter to LGBT activist Barbara Gittings, Kameny expressed great satisfaction with the end result. Describing the hearing as “the much publicized California case,” Kameny believed that the “de-facto change in [DOD] policies” represented a real victory. He wrote Gittings, “[T]he war which I started formally about 1959, and which you and I fought together in its more formal stages starting about 1965 has now ended with victory.” Having won triumphs at the CSC and DOD, Kameny believe that two of the three “Federal Government battles going on since time immemorial” had been resolved, leaving the Armed Services as the last hold out. Then again, Kameny’s exuberance obscured the fact that the State Department and intelligence services remained very much resistant and would continue to be so into the 1990s. Still Kameney was correct; the ruling represented significant progress.[51]


Change

At the same time, organizations like the Gay Community Alliance (GCA) formed to encourage Los Angeles homosexuals to “register, vote, and think of themselves as a political force.” The GCA drafted voter slates and campaigned for gay friendly candidates. In 1973, one year after Harvey Milk had become the first openly gay individual in the state to be elected to office, in San Francisco, Burt Pines won election to become city attorney. Though not homosexual, Pines’s victory was due in great part due to his courting of the gay vote. Pines immediately pushed through reforms that more or less ended city prosecution of gay bars and promised that the LAPD would hire qualified homosexual officers.[52] In 1975, Assemblyman Willie Brown wrote the Consenting Adults bill, which passed, repealing “all laws against homosexual acts.”[53] While the LAPD remained hostile under the leadership of Chief Ed Davis, even continuing to conduct the occasional raid, open hostility to the city’s homosexual population had begun to recede. Granted, obstacles remained, like 1978’s anti-gay Proposition 6, but much had improved. Nationally, however, by 1975 only eleven states had decriminalized adult consensual sexual activity between same sex partners. Government officials acknowledged that members of the LGBT community in states with such laws still on the books made approval of clearances for such individuals deemed “more difficult.”[54] The 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, in which by a 5-4 vote the court upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law, demonstrated how deeply embedded such notions were within American society and jurisprudence.[55]

For Tabler, good news followed, although once again not without a fight. On 17 December 1974, government Examiner Richard S. Farr, who had supervised the hearing, ruled in Tabler’s favor, judging him worthy of a security clearance. However, the Department of Defense appealed the decision and even attempted to disqualify Kameny as his counsel. Still, almost exactly a year to the day, the DOD reversed course and dropped its appeal notifying both Kameny and Tabler that it had changed its policies regarding homosexuals.[56]

Tabler became the first openly homosexual person to gain a security clearance. In contrast to his more celebratory remarks to Gittings months earlier Kameny acknowledged in the Mattachine newsletter that much work was left to be done, since now it needed to be determined that such policies would be followed. In addition, the FBI. and CIA conducted their investigations and continued to discriminate against homosexuals.[57] Nonetheless by the 1990s, homosexuals would even be welcomed into the CIA as noted by none other than former C.I.A. Director and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates who in response to correspondence from the William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alliance argued the CIA. did not discriminate and in fact “has homosexuals in its workforce.”[58] Undoubtedly, Otis Francis Tabler’s fight contributed to such developments.

Often the military and its related private defense contractors are seen as inherently conservative institutions. Historians like Lisa McGirr have documented how the growth of the defense industry in Orange County contributed directly to the establishment of the New Right and modern conservatism.[59] Yet, as demonstrated, for all its moral ambiguities, the military industrial complex has also provided a space for resistance and the assertion of rights and community for gay men and women across the U.S. but especially in California.

“Sexual orientation is unrelated to moral character. Both patriots and traitors are drawn from the class American citizen and not specifically from the class heterosexual or the class homosexual.[60]

Tabler’s case and others eventually forced the government to evaluate its assumptions regarding gay and lesbian employees. During the 1985 Senate hearings, FBI and CIA officials stuck to their narrative regarding the susceptibility of LGBT employees to blackmail yet could not muster a single example. In 1991, a government commissioned studied found that of one hundred seventeen documented cases of espionage only six involved gay men or women, and none of those half dozen had committed espionage due to blackmail. The report’s author came to the following comprehensible conclusion: “Sexual orientation is unrelated to moral character. Both patriots and traitors are drawn from the class American citizen and not specifically from the class heterosexual or the class homosexual.[60] In the end, all it took was passionate efforts from a thirty-one-year-old systems analyst in California and a militant World War II veteran in Washington D.C., but the moral arc of the U.S. government finally began to bend toward justice after decades of protest fueled by the aims of reaching a state of love, respect, and acceptance.

image 5

Notes

[1] Chuck Schoen, “General Colin Powell Makes Rash a Rash Statement Based Only on Conjecture,” The Newsletter Veterans Council for American Rights and Equality, March 1992, Service Academies Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alumni Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Craig Anderson, “Discharged veteran, 65, still battles for gay military rights,” The Press Democrat, 11 March 1991, Service Academies Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alumni Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[2] Robert Gates to Michael A. Pemberton and Thomas P. Rowan, 6 March 1992, Folder 3, Box 42, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, 4 August 1975, Folder 9, Box 158, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974.

[5] John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Alan Berube, Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (New York: Free Press, 2000).

[6] Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Oakland: University of California Press, 2007), 232.

[7] Berube, Coming Out under Fire, 123.

[8] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 175.

[9] Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 30.

[10] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 84.

[11] Whitney Strub, “The Clearly Obscene and the Queerly Obscene: Heternormativity and Obscenity in Cold War Los Angeles,” American Quarterly 60 (2008): 381-382.

[12] Strub, “The Clearly Obscene and the Queerly Obscene,” 382, 383, 387, 389.

[13] Elsa Devienne, “Urban Renewal by the Sea: Reinventing the Beach for the Suburban Age in Postwar Los Angeles,” Journal of Urban History, 29 March 2018, accessed 15 May 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144217753379.

[14] Hurewitz, Bohemian L.A., 254.

[15] Stuart Timmons, The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement, (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990), 117-118, 130-31. During World War II, Hay worked on developing a pilotless aircraft at Interstate Aircraft in Los Angeles. He soon moved on to Avion Aircraft where his supervisor made efforts to convince Hay to enroll in Cal Tech to study systems engineering, but his inability to get a security clearance due to his communist affiliations resulted in a career of lower level manufacturing work such as his position at a downtown firm following the war, Leahy Manufacturing.

[16] Margaret O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 202.

[17] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 170-71.

[18] David K. Johnson, “‘Homosexual Citizens’: Washington’s Gay Community Confronts the Civil Service,” Washington History 6 (1994/1995): 62; David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 174, 184.

[19] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 106-7.

[20] Lilli Vincenz to Sister Mary Agnes, 13 October 1965, Folder Personal Correspondence 1965, Box 3, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[21] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 200-201.

[22] “10 oppose Gov’t on homosexuals,” Washington Afro American, 20 April 1965, Folder 4, Box 15, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[23] Brian Moylan, “Pivotal Protest”, The Washington Blade, 8 April 2005, Folder 4, Box 15, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 206-207.

[27] Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 496.

[28] Roger W. Lotchin, Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 65.

[29] Thomas Hill, “The Securitization of Security: Reorganization of Land, Military, and State in the Pentagon’s Backyard,” Journal of Urban History 41 (2015): 76.

[30] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 145.

[31] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 170-171. Several U.S. governmental agencies had begun purging homosexual employees years before the 1953 executive order.

[32] Otis Francis Tabler, Interoffice Correspondence: Request for your support in maintaining my right to hold an Industrial Security Clearance, 4 August 1973, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. The underlined portion of the letter was written by Tabler.

[33] Ibid.; Franklin Drucker M.D., Re: Otis Frank Tabler, 14 November 1972, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[34] Larry Wayne Kern, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[35] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 165.

[36] Ibid., 153-154.

[37] Richard Gayer, Press Release “The Green vs. CIA Settlement–A New Way to Gay Equality,” 25 October 1984, Box 40, Folder 8, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[38] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 170-72.

[39] Gary M. Lareau to Frank Kameny, 11 March 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 3, Box 92, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[40] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 180; Morris Kight, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 1, Box 35, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[41] “Pentagon Opens Security Review,” The New York Times, 4 August 1974; Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974.

[42] Christian Julia Robinson, testimony, 31 July 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 2, Box 149, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[43] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974; Michael Roussel Dupre, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Helga Angela Kuczora, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, 198-99, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Christine Julia Robinson, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, 360, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[44] Otis Francis Tabler, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, 476, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[45] Mary Aull Tabler, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, 46-50, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 166-67.

[46] Ronald Den Hartwick, Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Frank Terrio Cummings, Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Wray Davison Bentley, Jr., Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. These are three examples from over twenty submitted.

[47] Otis Francis Tabler to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 17 December 1973, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Otis Francis Tabler to Honorable Joseph J. Busch, District Attorney, County of Los Angeles, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[48] Frank Kameny, opening statement, i, 30 July 1974, 46-50, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[49] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 177.

[50] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974; “Pentagon Opens Security Review,” The New York Times, 4 August 1974; “Homosexual Gets Security Clearance”, Washington Post, 2 February 1975; “Gay Liberation,” Newsweek, 3 February 1975; Vernon A. Guidry, Jr., “Pentagon Easing Gay Curbs,” Washington Star, 15 August 1975; Frank Kameny to Gay News, 4 March 1975, Folder 14, Box 34, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[51] Frank Kameny to Barbara Gittings, 31 July 1975, Folder 1, Box 4, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[52] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 215.

[53] Ibid., 180.

[54] Vernon A. Guidry, “Pentagon Easing Gay Curbs,” Washington Star, 15 August 1975.

[55] Michael J. Graetz and Linda Greenhouse, The Burger Court and the Rise of the Judicial Right (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 208-211.

[56] Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, 4 August 1975, Folder 9, Box 158, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Robert M. Gates, Letter to William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alliance, 6 March 1992, Folder 3, Box 42, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[59] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[60] Paul M. Rosa, “Gays and the Security Myth,” Washington Post, 10 July 1998; Theodore R. Sarbin, “Homosexuality and Personnel Security” (Monterey, CA: Defense Personnel Security Research and Education Center, 1991), 25, 30, 32.

 

Ryan Reft is a historian of the modern U.S. in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. He is a contributor to and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology East of East: The Making of El Monte, 1700-2017 and writes regularly for KCET. His work has appeared in the Journal of Urban History, Souls, California History, and Southern California Quarterly among other publications and anthologies.

Copyright: © 2018 Ryan Reft. 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

Greetings from Bakersfield!

Shawn Schwaller

“Greeting from Bakersfield California” reads an early twentieth century postcard touting the various tourist attractions in the city and greater region. Bakersfield is mostly known as the home of the “Bakersfield Sound,” a style invented by country music legends such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the 1950s and 1960s, and as a destination for migrants who came from places like Oklahoma during the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl. It is located in the southern part of California’s Central Valley, a multibillion-dollar agricultural region that provides a significant portion of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Bakersfield was on the frontlines of racism and extremism, and a city located in a county where police corruption and law enforcement official-involved deaths ranked among the highest in the country.

Bakersfield, and Kern County as a whole, is the heart of California’s “Deep South” when it comes to race relations, the immigration debate, and the politics of white minoritization. Unlike the Deep South, where African Americans have faced a long legacy of white supremacy, Latinx peoples who are composed of mostly Mexican-Americans, make up over fifty percent of Kern County’s population. Importantly, the Latinx population faces the brunt of white supremacist and neo-Nazi racial violence, corruption in county law enforcement agencies, and a white working- and middle-class public who openly shared their racist view of Mexican-Americans as they boldly pledged support for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential contest.

In the 2012 presidential election, fifty-seven percent of Kern County’s population voted for Mitt Romney. Four years later, a majority voted for Donald Trump. This is in a state where over sixty-one percent of the population voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Latinx population in the county increased dramatically. Bakersfield, the urban center of the county, is home to approximately 360,000 residents, of which nearly half are of Latinx. Among California counties, it is home to the state’s fastest growing population and much of this growth is due to the increase in the Latinx population.

Despite the undeniable importance and visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement as the twenty-first century took off, the county with the highest number of the kinds of deaths protested by the movement is Kern County, and the victims tend to be Latinx. Between 2008 and 2014, Kern County law enforcement officials killed 3.54 residents per 100,000 on average each year, the highest number among all counties in the U.S.[1] In 2015 alone, fourteen people were killed by law enforcement officials in the county, equaling 1.5 deaths per 100,000. That’s three times the total in Los Angeles County, which ranked forty-fifth in the U.S. During the same year, New York Police Department officers policing the five boroughs—a population ten times larger than Kern County—killed only ten people.[2] While a vast majority of the victims were Latino, most of the deaths came at the hands of white males who compose approximately seventy-five percent of law enforcement officials in the county.

Looking_west_on_19th_Street_at_K._St.,_Bakersfield,_Calif_(73331)_ed_dark

Although protest and candlelight vigils followed these deaths, the lack of a “Latinx Lives Matter” type of movement, or multiethnic and racial alliance against police brutality on a broader level, illustrates the vulnerable state of the population in red California’s urban center.

The high rate of law enforcement-related deaths garnered a national media spotlight and prompted attention from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In December 2016, State Attorney General Kamala Harris and the State Department of Justice began a civil rights investigation based on “excessive use of force and other serious misconduct” committed by law enforcement officials employed in the county. The announcement regarding the investigation failed to mention that most of the victims of this possible excessive force and misconduct were Latino males. Although protest and candlelight vigils followed these deaths, the lack of a “Latinx Lives Matter” type of movement, or multiethnic and racial alliance against police brutality on a broader level, illustrates the vulnerable state of the population in red California’s urban center.

In Kern County, the Latinx population is burdened with worry about not only police brutality, but also racist violence from the general public and anti-immigrant sentiments that place the lives of undocumented peoples in danger of incarceration and deportation. The lack of attention paid to the systemic racism and law enforcement related deaths in Kern County faced by the Latinx population also stems from two other issues. One of these is the fact that race relations tends to be viewed in binary terms as a black-and-white problem. This continues to marginalize Latinx peoples from the broader narrative of race and ethnic relations throughout history, and prevents an accurate understanding of the diverse multicultural society that is twenty-first century California. The second issue is the mainstream U.S. American social and cultural notion that Latinx peoples are only recent arrivals. This misconception stretches even further to wrongfully rationalizing that Latinx peoples have no meaningful history or roots in the present-day U.S., and as such make little contributions to society. The presence of a vulnerable undocumented population, as well as flawed notions of race relations and the Latinx-American experience, fuels a collective inability to bring greater oversight to the law enforcement corruption and systemic racism in Kern County.

Within the first few hundred days of his administration in 2017, Donald Trump sent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials deep into the heart of even the smallest towns in central and northern California to round up undocumented immigrants. Passed in April 2017, Senate Bill 54 classified California as a “sanctuary state” and guaranteed that state resources would not contribute to the detainment and deportation of undocumented immigrants. Elected in 2006, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood had proposed to go against the California state government and make it a “non-sanctuary county.” However, the Latinx community has faced more dangerous and time-spanning social conditions that have threatened their lives and well-being in Kern County.

Law enforcement-involved deaths of Latinx residents of Kern County was not new in 2015. Between 2005 and 2015, most of the seventy-nine law enforcement-involved killings occurred on the southeast side of Bakersfield, which is an area where Latinx peoples are the majority. On the evening of 7 May 2013, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies approached David Silva as he slept across the street from the Kern County Medical Center waiting to get help for bouts of depression. Upon their approach, Sheriff’s officers attempted to wake him up, then proceeded to handcuff him as he woke up, fearing he was on PCP. As Silva tried to stand up, likely in somewhat of a state of shock after being abruptly awoke by Sheriff’s deputies, the officers unleashed a police dog, which bit him thirty times. Sheriff’s deputies then struck him several times with batons, hog-tied him, and placed a shield on his head. Before leaving the scene, Sheriff’s deputies confiscated phones used by witnesses to record their treatment of Silva. After vomiting throughout the evening in custody of the Sheriff’s Department, the 33-year-old father of four stopped breathing and died just after midnight the next day.[3] In May of 2016, Kern County agreed to pay $3.4 million to settle a suit brought on by Silva’s family.

Another one of the more controversial law enforcement-related killings came in November of 2014 when Bakersfield Police Department officers pursued James Villegas in a high-speed chase. After wrecking his vehicle, the 22-year-old Villegas was fired upon and killed by police officers. According to officers on the scene, he approached them in a confrontational manner and reached for his waistband after exiting the wrecked vehicle.

Witnesses of the incident involving Villegas told a different story. At least two witnesses testified that he put his hands in the air after exiting the wrecked vehicle and was waiting for the officers to approach him as they abruptly fired their weapons at him. As was the case with a majority of law enforcement-related deaths in Kern County that occurred both before and after the Villegas incident, the officers who killed him were cleared of any wrongdoing.[4] A few days after Villegas’s death, 200 community members held a candlelight vigil with signs that read such things as, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot.” “We just want to raise awareness,” claimed David Silva’s brother Christopher at the vigil. Silva passionately continued with this strong message: “There’s something very wrong in this town.”[5]

 Silva passionately continued with this strong message: “There’s something very wrong in this town.”

As if the police-related killings in early twenty-first century Kern County were not enough, the disturbing behavior exhibited by law enforcement officials sheds light on a wide range of social and cultural problems in the region’s law enforcement community. Following the death of James Villegas, veteran officer Aaron Stringer entered the coroner’s office, reached under the sheet covering his deceased body, fondled him, and tickled his toes in front of other officers. He then proceeded to twist Villegas’s neck while joking about the human body in the condition of rigor mortis, while stating, “I love playing with dead bodies.”[6]

In what was at the time not made public, the City of Bakersfield paid the Villegas family $400,000 to settle the case shortly after the incident. The Public Records Act allows city and county law enforcement agencies to keep settlements private, but if a member of the public asks for the records they must be provided. In 2017, after requesting records of settlements stemming from possible police misconduct, Bakersfield area news agencies broke a story that uncovered an expensive history of payouts. Between 2010 and 2017, the police department paid out over $5 million to settle cases involving police while the County Sheriff’s Department paid out $22 million.[7] In April of 2018, Sheriff Youngblood was caught on video stating that it was better, from a financial standpoint, to kill a suspect than “cripple” them, “because if you cripple them you have to take care of them for life, and that cost goes way up.”[8] Similar to the investigation launched by State Attorney General Kamala Harris in 2016, Youngblood’s comments were covered in the national media; but the fact that most victims were Latinx was left out. In June of 2018, Youngblood was re-elected as Kern County Sheriff by over sixty-four percent of the population. “I feel good,” stated the sheriff at his election night party held at the legendary Buck Owens Crystal Palace. “This is exactly what we thought would happen. We’re just going to go back to work and serve this community.”[9]

A few years before the Villegas incident, officer Stringer plead no contest to misdemeanor reckless driving and was able to get charges dropped on a 2010 hit-and-run and driving under the influence charge. Stringer, who retired following the Villegas incident, was not exactly a model citizen himself amongst other law enforcement officials. Unfortunately, he was not alone.

Other local law enforcement officials exhibited similar behavior that certainly does not rest within the bounds of what Donald Trump, and other presidents before him like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan referred to as “law and order.” In 2011, Bakersfield police officer Scott Drewry left the department after he was charged with a misdemeanor for throwing a rock through the window of a local business because of a civil depute the business owner had with one of his family members. In July 2012, Officer Albert Smith received a thirty-day jail sentence and three years of probation after he pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of engaging in sex with a prostitute. Smith reportedly engaged in sex acts with at least three local prostitutes while on duty in his patrol car, as well as other undisclosed locations. The court dropped six of the seven charges he faced and Smith resigned shortly before the hearing.

“The 357 other men and women that work at the Bakersfield Police Department are here and dedicated to public safety,” claimed Chief Williamson after the Smith conviction, stating also that “they’re dedicated to serving our community” and “they are committed to going out every day, day in and day out, and putting their lives on the line to keep our citizens safe.”[10] Police and sheriff-involved deaths, incarceration rates that exhibited institutional racism, county and city law enforcement payouts, and criminal activities conducted by law enforcement figures, however, told a different story.

In 2013, former Bakersfield police detective Christopher Bowersox began a ten-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to possessing images of child victims of sexual abuse.[11] In May of 2017, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies Logan August and Derrick Penney pled guilty to conspiring to steal and distribute marijuana. August had participated in numerous drug busts with the narcotics division. After stealing, trimming, and bagging confiscated marijuana, he distributed over twenty-five pounds of the drug at a street price of $15,000. In a video issued to Kern County residents, August claimed “I am sorry” and that “I made a decision based on Satan playing games with me.”[12] August and Penny pled guilty to federal drugs charges, and received three years of probation and 250 hours of community service.

Bakersfield_ed_distort

August and Penney worked with former Bakersfield police detective Patrick Mara and others to steal marijuana from Kern County Sheriff’s office storage facilities between June and October of 2014. Mara began his five-year prison sentence in October 2014 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. His former partner Damacio Diaz started a five-year prison sentence two years later on charges that he accepted bribes from a drug trafficker, sold methamphetamine he confiscated and stole from the department, and filed fraudulent tax returns.

In August 2016, Officer Rick Wimbish and his partner responded to a break-in at a Subway restaurant. Upon their arrival they fired on the perpetrator, twenty-nine-year-old Jason Alderman, as he crawled out of the glass front door he had smashed in. Alderman died at the scene after being struck by seven bullets. After an unsuccessful attempt by the Bakersfield Police Department to confiscate the video camera footage and hide it from the public, it was released and a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Alderman’s family.[13] Alderman’s death was the first officer-involved shooting reviewed by the District Attorney’s office, which prompted State Attorney General Kamala Harris to launch an investigation on law enforcement officials in the county later that year. The most significant difference between Alderman and a majority of the other victims of police-involved deaths is that he was white.

Officer Wimbish, one of the figures who fired on Alderman, was the son of a former Kern County Sheriff and a twenty-five-year veteran of the Bakersfield Police Department. Prior to his encounter with Alderman, he was involved in four fatal shootings in a two-year period, firing with other officers in one instance on an unarmed confidential informant and member of his own department, Jorge Ramirez, during a planned operation. None of these shootings, however, prevented Wimbish from earning a salary and benefits package that totaled $200,000 annually as he continued to work as a police officer, while also instructing other officers and teaching local schoolchildren about the important role performed by law enforcement officials in the community.

In December 2016, Bakersfield police officers fired seven shots at Francisco Serna, an unarmed seventy-three-year-old man with dementia who was taking a walk one evening. They killed him right across the street from his home in southwest Bakersfield. Like the two residents who called 9-1-1 to reports Serna’s supposedly bizarre behavior, police officers mistook a dark colored plastic crucifix he was carrying for a revolver. Following his death, Serna’s family cited that he often took evening walks around the neighborhood to help himself go to sleep.[14] In July 2017, Police Chief Lyle Martin called Serna’s death “unfortunate” and “tragic,” while also stating that the police officer who fired the shots was working within the department’s, as well as state and federal, guidelines. At least six officers approached Serna after he was identified by the neighbors who called 9-1-1 on him, but only one responded to his actions with gunshots.

In addition to the rash of police-involved deaths faced by the Latinx community, incarceration statistics also highlight a broader racist criminal justice system in Kern County. In 2004, Kern County had the highest third strike incarceration rate in the state with 59 per 100,000 residents. Passed by California voters in 1994, Proposition 184 mandated that three nonviolent felony convictions brought a sentence of twenty-five years to life. It was the strictest “three-strike” policy in the country and contributed greatly to the over-population of California prisons, as well as the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Latinx residents. According to a 2004 Justice Policy Institute study, Kern County’s Latinx third strike incarceration rate, at 53.7 per 100,000, was the highest in the state and nearly three times the rate of Los Angeles County.[15] Overall, Latinx incarceration rates in Kern County are nearly double the state rate.

In addition to the systemic racism in the criminal justice system, in July 2017 several civil rights groups including the Dolores Huerta Foundation, reached a settlement with the Kern County High School District regarding a lawsuit which alleged that Black and Latinx students were unfairly targeted for suspension and expulsion. In 2009, the district reported 2,205 expulsions, the highest number in California. This is in a school district where the Latinx population comprised sixty-four percent of the student population.[16] These findings and the lawsuit against the school district illustrate the way in which Black and Latinx students are tracked from the schools to the prisons at a much higher rate than the white community. Between the 1990s and the 2010s, funding for prisons and jails in California rose three times faster than spending on schools, and allotment for higher education in the state remained relatively flat.[17]

Some white county and city residents, like so many other places hard hit by economic changes in the last few decades, expressed belief that a Trump presidency would revive the local economy. At the start of 2016, the unemployment rate in Kern County was over eleven percent more than double that of California as a whole. Likewise, at approximately forty-nine thousand, the median income in the county was nearly twenty thousand dollars less than the state average and one in five families in Bakersfield lived below the poverty line during the 2016 presidential race. Roadways and front yards across the county were lined with Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” signs.

Make_America_Great_Again_hat_(27149010964)_ed_distort

In October 2016, Joe Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, headlined one of the largest pro-Trump rallies held in the county. During his speech, Arpaio joked that President Obama didn’t like him because of his incredibly vocal support of the Birther Movement. The sheriff was widely known to encourage racial profiling by law enforcement figures under him during his time in office in Arizona.

At the very moment he addressed the crowd in Bakersfield, Arpaio faced federal charges that he defied a judge’s order to stop targeting Latinx peoples in traffic stops and other activities conducted by the Maricopa County Sherriff’s Department. In addition to the federal lawsuit, Arpaio also refused to allow the Sheriff’s Department to recognize President Obama’s decision to grant temporary immunity to undocumented peoples who came to the U.S. as children. “They hate me, the Hispanic community, because they’re afraid they’re going to be arrested,” Arpaio boasted in a 2009 television interview, “and they’re all leaving town, so I think we’re doing something good.” [18] “As Arizona has become center stage for the debate over illegal immigration and the civil rights of Latinos,” explained Joe Hagan in an August 2012 edition of Rolling Stone, “Arpaio has sold himself as the symbol of nativist defiance, a modern-day Bull Connor bucking the federal government over immigration policy.”[19] The crowd at the Bakersfield Trump rally numbered in the thousands and was almost exclusively white. President Trump pardoned Arpaio in October of 2017 and in March of 2018, he announced he was running for Senate and vowed to revive the Birther Movement.

Despite the profound level of social divisions in the county and Trump’s highly divisive rhetoric, one Kern County native cited that he would help end social divisions. The same individual argued without providing any examples or context—and without being provoked—that “I cannot stand being called a racist, a bigot. I have nothing against anyone. Don’t tell me what I feel or what I think. I am so sick of that narrative being shoved down my throat.”[20] While many public intellectuals, writers, politicians, and voters pushed the narrative that they voted for Trump because of “economic anxiety,” the talk of ending social divisions did not include people of color in Bakersfield and the rest of the country, just as the slogan “Make American Great Again” struck a particular chord in white identity politics with its implicit embrace of the “good old days” when white male supremacy was even more entrenched in American society than it was in 2016.

Donald Trump’s racist claims that Mexican immigrants were drug dealers, criminals, and rapists during speeches, illustrate that his campaign, as well as the support he received, was based on much more than just “economic anxiety.” Kern County residents expressed sentiments which illuminated the point that their support of Trump went far beyond economic concerns to embrace racist worldviews. Residents in Oildale, a predominantly white and Republican unincorporated suburban community a few miles north of downtown Bakersfield, overwhelmingly supported Trump during his run for office. The community is over 75% white and has a long tradition of racism.

In the 1960s, when African Americans represented a larger portion of the non-white population in the Bakersfield area, white residents hung a sign on the bridge that crosses the Kern River between Bakersfield and Oildale. The sign stated the following: “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in Oildale.”[21] In the mid-1970s, over a dozen black students enrolled at Taft Junior College were escorted out of the southwestern Kern County community by law enforcement officials after they were attacked by a white mob shouting, “Kill the Niggers!”[22] The incident eventually prompted the State Attorney General at the time to launch an investigation regarding the violation of civil rights. This was long before Kamala Harris pushed for the investigation of excessive force and misconduct among law enforcement officials in the county. In Boron, a town east of Bakersfield, three Ku Klux Klan members were arrested in 1981 for burning a cross in the front yard of a black family’s residence and in the 1990s several black motorists were attacked on the streets of Oildale by white residents.[23]

In one instance, the car windshield of a black motorist was smashed by a white woman shouting racist insults. In another, two white residents were charged with federal civil rights convictions for stabbing a black man. Black cab drivers in greater Bakersfield also avoided Oildale in the 1990s, as one reportedly entered a bar to notify a customer of his arrival only to be told, “We don’t like niggers in here.”[24] A watermelon was placed in the front yard of one black family who moved into Oildale and racist literature regularly appeared on doorsteps and in mailboxes throughout the 1990s.[25]

Members of the Chamber of Commerce actively tried to improve the image of Bakersfield in the early 1990s, and many were in denial that places like Oildale were seething with racist hatred. “There’s no more bias here than anywhere else” explained David Brandon of the Chamber of Commerce.[26] “The community is more diverse and more accepting today,” cited North High School principle Bill Bimat, who also explained that “thirty years ago a black couldn’t buy a house, couldn’t work here, and literally would’ve been run out of town.”[27] These civic and business leaders expressed a different reality than the former leader of the Bakersfield chapter of the NAACP in the early 1990s who explained that “if you’re black, you’re always looking over your shoulder,” and also that while there were some good people in Bakersfield, “there are also others who are looking for some hate. For years, it’s been blacks.”[28] While racism against African Americans was prominent in the city in the 1990s despite the level of denial expressed by some white community leaders, from the 1990s onward; the growing Latinx population became the new target.

While racism against African Americans was prominent in the city in the 1990s despite the level of denial expressed by some white community leaders, from the 1990s onward; the growing Latinx population became the new target.

The racist billboards in the 1960s, a cross burning in 1981, and the white supremacist violence of the 1990s, is only the tip of the iceberg. Racism was imported to the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s by whites who migrated to California from the lower Midwest and American South. Klan violence was common on the streets of Bakersfield in the 1920s. Similar to the American South in the early twentieth century, a plethora of local businessmen and politicians counted themselves as members of the racist terrorist organization. The mayor’s office, police departments across Kern County and the County Sheriff’s Office, local judgeships, school districts, and the county board of supervisors were controlled by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Prominent business owners also counted themselves as members of the organization.[29] The power of the Klan in early twentieth century Kern County coincided with a fairly rigid system of public Jim Crow segregation. For example, African Americans could only reside in eastern and southeastern parts of Bakersfield—neighborhoods now home to mostly Latinx peoples—and their children were forced to attend “colored schools.” Working and middle-class white suburban areas, especially those located near the oilfields, were off-limits to people of color, as were oil industry jobs. From the early twentieth century onward, oil companies tended to only hire white employees who lived in segregated all-white communities. Although the industry has gone through cycles of boom and bust, historically speaking these were the best jobs that many white working and middle residents could hope for.

While of course not every Trump supporter during the 2016 election race exhibited xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist tendencies, Oildale was one of those places where Confederate flags flew, and where white nationalist and neo Nazi gangs roamed the streets. White working and middle class residents spoke openly about their racist beliefs.

The population in Bakersfield changed a great deal between the 1960s and the early twenty-first century. Between 1970 and 2010, the Latinx population increased from ten percent to forty-five percent, at the same time as African Americans decreased from thirteen percent to eight percent. Just like the openness in regards to racist beliefs of white residents in earlier decades, some were open about their disliking of the Latinx population while Donald Trump ran for president in 2016. “I don’t like Mexicans. I don’t like them,” cited fifty-eight-year-old Oildale resident Betty Robinson in an April 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times.[30] “To me, if you can’t speak English, why be here? Go back to where you come from,” continued Robison.[31] Robinson’s ignorant comments related directly to, and mirrored in some ways, Trump’s racist comments about Mexican-Americans and spoke to notions of white supremacy in Oildale.

Over the course of just a few weeks in the spring and summer of 2009, three racially motivated incidents occurred in Hart Park, a large public park a few miles east of Oildale. In May of that year, members of the white supremacist group known as the Oildale Peckerwoods pleaded no contest to the charge of violation of civil rights and assault after they attacked a group of Mexican-Americans in the park while yelling racial epithets and white supremacist slogans. The incident resulted in two state prison sentences for assault and violation of civil rights and a misdemeanor assault charge, leaving four people injured. One required fifty stitches. A similar incident took place a few weeks later, leading to two arrests of white supremacists. “Apparently, they’ve picked that park as part of their territory,” claimed Kern County prosecuting attorney Michael Vendrasco, who continued, saying, “they’re not shy about yelling that stuff.”[32] In addition to the three attacks in the summer of 2009, five other race-related hate crimes against Mexican Americans took place in Hart Park between January and June of 2009. It is reasonable to believe that many more went unreported to law enforcement officials.

The content shared on public Facebook profiles of people who identify as Oildale Peckerwoods blatantly illustrate Vendrasco’s statement that members are not shy about sharing their racist beliefs. Specific references to Facebook content, however, were not included in this essay to respect the privacy of peoples concerned, and to prevent any ethical concerns and issues related to authenticity of sources. However, there are concrete examples of white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate in the region’s culture. One example is the acoustic pre-teen folk-pop duo known as Prussian Blue, popular in the early 2000s.

Lamb and Lynx Gaede, the twin sisters that made up Prussian Blue, were homeschooled by a mother who claimed that she was a white nationalist, and that it was her goal to share that part of her life with her daughters. Born and raised in Bakersfield, the duo took the white supremacist and neo-Nazi world by storm in the early 2000s by releasing four albums. Prussian Blue’s lyrical content praised white victory in a racial warfare, white victimhood in a new era of multicultural diversity, and the threat of black violence against white people. In their 2004 song “Aryan Man Awake,” they wax nostalgically about loss of land and wealth among whites that evokes images of the Reconstruction period in American history and the mythical threat of armed black violence ever-present in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. “Aryan man Awake,” sing the duo, “How much more will you take, Turn your fear to hate, Aryan man awake.”

Looking_west_on_19th_Street_at_K._St.,_Bakersfield,_Calif_(73331)_ed_distort2

In an early 2000s interview on ABC’s Dateline, Lamb and Lynx Gaede explained, “we must secure the existence of our people and our future for white children.” The two girls also referred to nonwhite people as “muds” and Adolf Hitler as an individual who possessed “a lot of great ideas.” The girls also shared with the ABC journalist Cynthia McFadden some of ways in which they had fun. Included in this list was a computer game entitled “Ethnic Cleansing,” a first-person shooter game where the player gets to travel around an urban environment posing as either a neo-Nazi, skinhead, or Klansman. They are then tasked with killing African, Latinx, and Jewish Americans who roam the streets making gorilla-like sounds. The game was created in 2002 by the white supremacist organization known as the National Alliance, which also signed Prussian Blue to its recording company, Resistance Records. The young twins also expressed that they enjoyed a game referred to as “dancing around the swastika,” which they demonstrated on their kitchen floor with a swastika composed of black electrical tape.

David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who ran on the Republican ticket for president in 1992 and served as a representative in the state of Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was one of Prussian Blue’s more prominent and vocal fans. After the group opened for him at one event, Duke said they were “examples of what we really want for our kids.” The musical duo also appeared at events with Tom Metzger, the leader of the Southern California based neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization known as White Aryan Resistance (WAR). In an early 2000s BBC documentary on neo Nazism and white supremacy in the U.S., Lamb and Lynx’s mother April said that “they’ve got to start some time,” when she was asked about why she got her children into racial politics at such a young age. The girls were eleven years old at the time of the filming. April also explained, “I think that Lamb and Lynx’s music and their appeal, especially as they just get a little bit older, they’re going to be an example, and they are going to show… how being, proud of your race is something that would be very appealing to young teenage girls. You know, I mean, what young man, red-blooded American boy, isn’t going to find two blonde twins, sixteen years old, singing about white pride, and pride in your race… very appealing.”

April’s father, Bill Gaede, also appeared in the episode of Dateline. When Prussian Blue was formed and began to perform live and release records, he owned a ramshackle ranch off State Route 180 on Elmwood Road east of Fresno. He had a reputation as someone to avoid, despite the fact that his home was about ten feet from the windy road around which he continually fed and ran pigs and cattle with no regard for the fecal matter they left behind, nor the traffic they backed up. The cattle brand for his ranch, which was adhered to the side of his full-size white Chevrolet truck, included a swastika, as did his favorite belt buckle that he wore around town regularly. Gaede was rumored to park his truck near communities of color just to intimidate residents. In 2002, after a tree burl became popular in the Latinx community because if its resemblance to the Virgin Mary, Gaede chopped the tree down and allegedly shouted “You Catholics! There’s your virgin!”[33] In 2012, he started selling his Swastika Brand Honey. He raised the pop duo’s mother in the same fashion as she raised her children, a clear case of the multigenerational nurturing of white racist hatred in California’s Central Valley.

The threat of white supremacist and neo-Nazi-inspired hatred and violence, however, goes beyond intergenerational nurturing, racist attacks at Hart Park, and Prussian Blue to simple matters of life and death. In April 2017, Justin Cole Whittington, a twenty-five-year-old member of the Oildale Peckerwood gang received a fifteen-year federal prison sentence for firing a sawed-off shotgun at a Latino man in his Oildale front yard. The incident occurred on 19 December 2012. Before firing one round at the victim and driving away, Whittington exited a vehicle near the man’s property and shouted the words “fucking nigger” and “get the fuck out of Oildale.” The pellets did not strike the victim, but he heard them pass by his head. He and his family moved out of the area shortly after the incident. Following this, Whittington fired his shotgun from his vehicle at a convenience store owned by a person of Middle Eastern descent. The perpetrator had a “P” and “W” tattooed on his shin and “23” on his stomach to signify “W” for white power.[34] Before the sentencing, Whittington was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse in 2015 after surveillance footage at a local market caught him punching out his toddler and picking him up by the neck.

Kern County’s history of racism and social injustice was around a century old when Donald Trump was elected to office in 2016. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the county was a hotbed of law enforcement-involved deaths and law enforcement corruption. It was a place where Latinx peoples were incarcerated and killed by law enforcement officials more than anywhere else. Not just in California, but in the country. White residents openly expressed their racist distaste for Latinx peoples, which at times turned violent. A new generation of white supremacists and neo-Nazi millennials embraced the uneducated and ignorant view of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Kern County was the southern-most county in California to pledge a majority of votes for Trump and race relations in the region harken back to the Deep South.

Bakersfield_CA_-_sign_ed_distort2

Notes

[1] Conor Friedersdorf, “Police Officers Killed over 610 People in 6 Years,” The Atlantic, 5 October 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/police-in-california-killed-more-than-610-people-over-6-years/407326/ (accessed 1 June 2017).

[2] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Deadliest County for Police Killings in America,” The Atlantic, 2 December 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/the-deadliest-county-for-police-killings-in-america/418359/ (accessed 1 June 2017).

[3] Richard Winton, “Kern County Pays $3.4 Million to Settle a Wrongful Death Suit Against Sheriff’s Department,” Los Angeles Times, 5 May 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-kern-county-wrongful-death-20160505-story.html (accessed 1 June 2017)

[4] Jon Swaine and Oliver Laughland, “The County: The Story of America’s Deadliest Police,” The Guardian, 1 December 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/01/the-county-kern-county-deadliest-police-killings (accessed 2 June 2017)

[5] Steve Mayer and Lauren Foreman, “Police Shooting of Unarmed Man Draws Hundreds to Site,” The Bakersfield Californian, 14 November 2014, http://www.bakersfield.com/news/police-shooting-of-unarmed-man-draws-hundreds-to-site/article_e31835d8-213a-5405-9c5f-c06bda4bdbad.html (accessed 5 June 2017).

[6] Swaine and Laughland, “The County: The Story of America’s Deadliest Police,” The Guardian, 1 December 2015.

[7] Kristin Price, “17 News Investigation: Secret Settlements,” KGET 17, 25 July 2017, http://www.kerngoldenempire.com/news/local-news/17-news-investigation-secret-settlements/772970029 (accessed, 26 July 2017).

[8] AJ Willingham, “Tape shows CA sheriff saying it’s ‘better financially’ to kill suspects than to ‘cripple’ them,” CNN, 10 April 2016, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/10/us/donny-youngblood-kern-county-california-trnd/index.html (accessed 25 August 2018).

[9] Joseph Luiz, “Young poised to retain Kern County sheriff seat,” Bakersfield.com, 5 June 2018, https://www.bakersfield.com/news/youngblood-poised-to-retain-kern-county-sheriff-seat/article_6071837a-693c-11e8-8851-6f98043f8dcd.html (accessed, 25 August 2018).

[10] Jason Kotowski, “Officer Arrested on Suspicion of Engaging in Sex Acts With Prostitutes,” Bakersfield Californian, 11 February 2011, http://www.bakersfield.com/news/officer-arrested-on-suspicion-of-engaging-in-sex-acts-with/article_0f5840f9-e0e0-551d-900f-ee3eebd9353c.html (accessed, 6 June 2017).

[11] Swaine and Laughland, “The County: The Story of America’s Deadliest Police,” The Guardian, 1 December 2015.

[12] Veronica Rocha, “’I am despicable’: Kern County lawman convicted in drug plot blames Satan,” 6 May 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-kern-deputy-drug-plot-satan-playing-games-20170516-story.html (accessed 25 August 2018).

[13] Friedersdorf, “The Deadliest County for Police Killings in America,” The Atlantic, 2 December 2015.

[14] Associated Press, “Deadly Shootings Prompt State Civil Rights Probe of Kern County, Bakersfield Policing” Los Angeles Times, 22 December 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-policing-review-20161222-story.html (accessed 1 June 2017).

[15] Scott Ehlers, Vincent Schiraldi, and Eric Lotke, “An Examination of the Impact of California’s Three Strikes Law on African-Americans and Latinos,” Justice Policy Institute, October 2004, http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/04-10_tac_caracialdivide_ac-rd.pdf (accessed 5 June 2017).

[16] Jane Meredith Adams, “Settlement in Kern discrimination lawsuit calls for new school discipline policies,” EdSource, 24 July 2017, https://edsource.org/2017/settlement-in-kern-discrimination-lawsuit-calls-for-new-school-discipline-policies/585212 (accessed 28 July 2017).

[17] Christopher Ingraham, “The states that spend more money on prisons than college students,” The Washington Post, 7 July 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/07/the-states-that-spend-more-money-on-prisoners-than-college-students/?utm_term=.c5ac2e0e6ef2 (accessed 28 July 2017).

[18] Joe Hagan, “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” Rolling Stone, 2 August 2012, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/the-long-lawless-ride-of-sheriff-joe-arpaio-20120802 (accessed 24 June 2017).

[19] Hagan, “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” Rolling Stone, 2 August 2012.

[20] Brittny Mejia, “Conservative Oildale Could Be A Bellwether of How Trump’s Message Translates in California,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-adv-trump-bakersfield-20160404-story.html (accessed 5 June 2017).

[21] James Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, “Oildale,” http://sundown.tougaloo.edu/sundowntownsshow.php?id=1058 (accessed 25 July 2017)

[22] Michael Essinger, “Kern County: California’s Deep South,” 2011 essay delivered at the “Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide: Settler Colonialism/Heteropatriarchy/White Supremacy” conference at the University of California, Riverside, http://www.academia.edu/1519415/Kern_County_Californias_Deep_South (accessed 13 July 2017).

[23] Essinger, “Kern County: California’s Deep South.”

[24] Mark Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image,” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992, http://articles.latimes.com/1992-08-09/local/me-5918_1_kern-county (accessed 20 July 2017).

[25] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image,” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[26] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[27] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[28] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[29] Edward Humes, Mean Justice: A Town’s Terror, A Prosecutors Power, A Betrayal of Innocence (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1999), 24.

[30] Mejia, “Conservative Oildale Could Be A Bellwether of How Trump’s Message Translates in California,” Los Angeles Times, 4 April 2016.

[31] Mejia, “Conservative Oildale Could Be A Bellwether of How Trump’s Message Translates in California,” Los Angeles Times, 4 April 2016.

[32] Steven Mayer, “Hart Park Seeing Hate Crime Spree,” Bakersfield Californian, 18 June 2009, http://www.bakersfield.com/news/hart-park-seeing-hate-crime-spree/article_417a7502-06be-5a4e-ad6b-878749facfc3.html (accessed 11 June 2017).

[33] Diana Marcum, “Man Says He Cut Virgin Mary tree,” Fresno Bee, 10 September 2002, http://www.religionnewsblog.com/758/man-says-he-cut-virgin-mary-tree (accessed 29 June 2017).

[34] Bill Morlin, “Skinhead Who Fired Shotgun in Racial Assault Gets Prison,” Southern Poverty Law Center, April 12, 2017, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/04/12/skinhead-who-fired-shotgun-racial-assaults-gets-prison (accessed 29 June 2017).

 

Shawn Schwaller received his Ph.D. in history from Claremont Graduate University in 2015, and is currently a lecturer in the Department of History at California State University, Chico. His work engages California history, questions around identity politics, race and ethnic relations, and popular culture.

Copyright: © 2018 Shawn Schwaller. 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/.