EPISODE 25 – LATINE OR LATINX

In our twenty-fifth episode, we chat with Madison Felman-Panagotacos, a researcher and doctoral candidate in the Spanish & Portuguese department at UCLA. Madison tells us about her teaching Latine instead of Latinx during her seminars for language students at UCLA, and how terms like “elles” can and do make a positive difference for non-binary people in the Latinx community. Check out the article we refer to from the New Yorker at this link: Who Are You Calling Latinx? And find Madison on Twitter at @mad_tacos_.

J.T.

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California left in Ashes by Suburban Expansion built on Decades of Exclusion and Criminalization of the Poor

What if I told you that in California working Black and Latina single mothers will be slapped with the bill for the untold millions in damages from the latest fire season in communities where they’re largely relegated to occupy space only as nannies or security detail? And what if you then learned that all of the discretionary or “unrestricted” social money for public goods supposed to be set aside for community development–not to mention emergencies such as COVID-19–in South Central Los Angeles and other impoverished, formerly red-lined geographies, are those which stand to lose the most from preventable fire emergencies? This is exactly what is happening in the “Golden state.”

As days of lungs ensnared in smoke in Los Angeles turn into weeks of suffocation, it might almost feel like all of California has been taken hostage by a force of wicked nature. But it would be more accurate to say that the city, and indeed the state’s fates have been sealed by real estate corporations and obsequious governments, whose ill regard for natural and cultural limitations, and whose collusion in land theft, “separate but equal,” police states, redlining, white flight, and now gentrification intermingle like a Fiesta salad of colonial residue, which tastes just as it looks: like heaps of ashes from a darkened sky over the “final frontier” that is–or that was–the Golden State.

Governor Newsom is correct to cite a “climate damn emergency” in his assessment of ‘this moment,’ but still fails to situate climate change within the observed history and present state of corporate control over millions of acres of formerly public lands, largely still unceded by Native peoples in California but retained by companies like Pacific Gas & Electric and other private corporations, whose executives have profited immensely from fire hazards, pollution, publicly funded subsidies and insurance coverage, and more than anything: the mass removal of poor people and even their natural, sacred geographies for the sake of racialized expansion projects such as suburbia.

While the most expensive damage from the latest preventable fires have mostly impacted suburban enclaves developed by real estate moguls away from inner cities, the present state of high alert and toxic air quality for communities across the Western hemisphere emphasizes how fire hazards are not–and never have been–relevant only to isolated suburbs.

Moreover, as urban space continues to rise in density at the direction of real estate firms and not that of working-class communities, there are likely more fires on the way to big cities like L.A. After all, it was only six years ago that smoke from the so-called Da Vinci apartments choked the skies above downtown Los Angeles and the nearby Pico-Union and Westlake neighborhoods, the latter of which has historically been prone to fire disasters as a result of outdated building and fire codes, not to mention lax enforcement from L.A. city inspectors on landlords over safety. While a taxi driver was arrested for allegedly starting the fire at the Da Vinci complex and sentenced to fifteen years behind bars, the blaze was also attributable to corporate exceptionalism to the rules when developer Geoffrey Palmer failed to install key fire prevention measures to keep the complex from incinerating so rapidly and threatening other nearby structures.

In 2016, in a blazing example of belated, half-hearted watch-dogging from local government, Mike Feuer, the District Attorney for the city of Los Angeles sued Palmer for $20 million dollars for violating the city’s fire codes. Yet just one year later, Feuer settled for only $400,000 of that demand, or the equivalent of a small fine for the billionaire’s coffers, which another attorney for Feuer’s office called “an excellent result.”

Moreover, Palmer’s Da Vinci complexes were back in business as soon as 2015, offering non-rent controlled 746 square feet apartments for a minimum of $2,000 dollars a month to overlook the city’s sprawling tent encampments below the complexes. From 2013 – 2015, the city of Los Angeles alone saw an additional 1,300 people added to the streets. Today, there are more than 41,000 people without shelter atop the sidewalks and freeway underpasses of L.A., that is, according to LAHSA’s official estimates, which are always an under-count.

It turns out, however, that L.A.’s lame attempt at reining in Palmer was just one in a long list of Los Angeles officials’ rapid forfeiture of land to real estate firms without so much as a whimper, the result of which quickly forced into being cities like Malibu, Santa Clarita, and many more predominantly white enclaves, despite often being literally against mountainous terrain, and by extension, against the recommendations of sustainable planning experts.

Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear (1998) documents key points of this history of L.A. officials yielding to the mighty developers’ expansionist dreams. Among several examples of how L.A. officials approved the city’s infamous “de facto” segregation over decades, Davis analyzes how twenty years prior to the mass gentrification of the Santa Monica mountains for the sake of Malibu–which was once home to tens of thousands of Chumash people–the urbanism firm EDAW reported that a then-projected 405,000 additional homes to the area would be ill-advised:

“They pointed out that Malibu, apart from major problems with earthquakes, flooding, and landslides, also had a fire history ‘unique in intensity, devastating in effect, and heightened during Santa Ana wind conditions.”

Twenty years later, the Malibu fire in 1993 proved this point, costing over $500,000,000 adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars, which, along with the Northridge quake in 1994 in the “de facto” segregated white valley, sucked up more state and federal dollars than the battle worn streets of South Central Los Angeles from less than two years prior. Davis noted even then:

“The fate of inner-city areas of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake vividly illustrates how people of color are doubly punished by natural and political disasters. The first casualty of the temblor was any residual official interest in economic recovery efforts and job creation in the neighborhoods traumatized by the 1992 riots. Rebuilding the Valley supplanted ‘Rebuild L.A..'”

Nearly thirty years after Malibu’s predictable smoldering, smoke now consumes streets from Los Angeles to Portland as bruised sunlight stares ominously from above, and you can bet Geoffrey Palmer to the tune of a billion dollars that the predominantly Black, Latino and also impoverished white communities laying unhoused, behind prison bars, and under police surveillance across the “Golden State” will be the same ones whose affordable housing and decarceration are again postponed due to elected representative spinelessness before Palmer and his contemporaries.

The state’s latest ineptitude during this fire season, like its hackneyed safety nets amid the pandemic this last half year, is thereby proof that the present struggle against police violence is not separate from the state’s conscription to unnatural catastrophes developed by corporate bottom lines one year after the next. In other words, the same annual budget that strains firefighting from “saving” precariously built structures in fire-prone areas is also the one which provides LAPD in South Central L.A. and across its immigrant communities with zealous field-days; but while the former present billions in damages that will cost the state’s public schools, public transportation, and hundreds of thousands of Californians without access to secure housing, the latter’s only threat is a skin color and some variant inflection of Inglés that continues threatening California’s intransigent white supremacist order.

As present-day neighborhoods like those in Malibu and Santa Clarita were built on top of the ruins of decimated Chumash people, whose residents now live in heightened anxiety every September through November, the past has not yet passed. Today, while Hollywood celebrities have access to same-day testing for COVID-19 as the poor are ordered to wait until they have a fever to show for it, inheritors of the Golden state’s tragic love affair with real estate moguls will watch as another generation of public “leaders” call for rebuilding California’s white suburbs with more expenses on the working poor, including through increased policing, displacement, incarceration, and thus shutting out or banishment.

The only conceivable way out at this late stage in the game is for more citizens to stand against such manufactured inequality by supporting movements across the soot-worn Golden state for tenants’ rights, for affordable homes instead of sweeping zones, for prison abolition and police defunding, and for community investment led by communities rather than parasitic billionaires. There is no alternative to this latter option; we are already living in the alternative, blanketed in ashes.

J.T.

EPISODE 24 – LISBETH COIMAN

In our twenty-fourth episode, listeners meet Lisbeth Coiman, an Afro-Venezuelan poet and author of I Asked the Blue Heron: A Memoir (2017), which yours truly reviewed for the new page on PATREON. Coiman shares with listeners about growing up in Venezuela during the “Latin-American boom,” her thoughts on Hugo Chavez, leaving Venezuela for Canada, and taking yet another sojourn through the United States, where she eventually makes her way to Los Angeles. Our discussion also touches on Coiman’s mental health battles in her later adult life, as well as the loss of her best friend and mentor. A truly special session for listeners, especially those interested in the Latin-American diaspora.

J.T.

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A police cruiser is stopped at a light on Sunset boulevard and Vermont avenue.

Know your Neighborhood: Being Policed in Los Feliz vs Silver Lake vs East Hollywood

Over a five year period, from 2012 – 2017, the Million Dollar Hoods (MDH) project compiled data for estimated costs of arrests by both the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department (LASD) across neighborhoods, community college areas, Metro subways and bus lines in L.A., and more.

Data taken from LAPD show areas where people were arrested from 2012 – 2017, how many days those people were detained, and “price tags” for booking and detainment, which is to say the costs for time that people spent under arrest at LAPD stations before arraignment or release.

Data taken from LASD took into account home addresses–when available–of all people booked into jail by the sheriffs from 2012 – 2017, which are not shown in the data set for obvious reasons, as well as the total number of days those people spent incarcerated, and the average daily cost of their time within the L.A. County Jail system, which is the largest jail system in the whole United States. Additionally, the data set for LASD’s arrests shows the level of alleged offenses by detainees, or whether detainees were held for misdemeanor or felony charges.

The following are a set of statistics taken from the MDH project for the Los Feliz, Silver Lake and East Hollywood areas in Central L.A., which show major disparities between which racial groups are policed in any given area, as well as between expenses accrued for people arrested in different areas even while those areas just walking distances from one another.

Beginning with Los Feliz, over a five year period, the LAPD spent at least $607,237 to cover costs for 1,333 people arrested there, whose time in detention amounted to 2,642 days. During that same time, the LASD spent at least $272,892 for 133 people arrested in Los Feliz, and whose collective time detained amounted to at least 1,737 days. Together, the LAPD and LASD’s costs for arresting and jailing people in Los Feliz amounted to at least $880,129 for 4,379 days of jail time from 2012 – 2017.

Also keep in mind that in Los Feliz, as recently as 2008, the median household income was $50,793, about the same as the amount for L.A. County at the time. Not surprisingly, while Blacks made up just 2.2% of the population of Los Feliz, they showed up as 13% of those arrested there, or nearly six times their demographic share. Latinos, who made up for 14.2% of the population, appeared as 25% of those arrested by LAPD in the area. By contrast, whites, who made up 67% of the population in Los Feliz, accounted for about 40% of arrests by LAPD there.

In the Silver Lake area, over a five year period, the LAPD spent at least $641,943 to cover costs for 1,313 people arrested there, whose time in detention amounted to 2,793 days. During that same time, the LASD spent at least $331,673 for 149 people arrested in Silver Lake whose time detained totaled over 2,142 days. Together, the LAPD and LASD’s costs for arresting and jailing people in Silver Lake amounted to at least $973,616 for 4,935 days of jail time from 2012 – 2017.

As recently as 2008, the median household income in Silver Lake was $54,339, also about the same as the amount for L.A. County at the time. Similarly to Los Feliz, while Black people made up just 3.4% of the population, they accounted for over 14% of those arrested by LAPD there, or over four times their demographic share. Latinos, who comprised just over 35% of the population, accounted for 52% of those arrested by LAPD in the area. Whites made up 43% of the population in Silver Lake, but accounted for only 25% of arrests by LAPD there.

Less than a few square miles from Los Feliz or Silver Lake, the most vulnerable geographic area in the vicinity proves to be the most policed. Over a five year period, East Hollywood saw more expenditures for policing and jail time than Los Feliz and Silver Lake combined and multiplied twice over. The LAPD spent at least $3,454,495 to cover costs for 6,852 people arrested in the area, whose time in detention amounted to a jaw-dropping 15,030 days, or three times the rate of time in jail for those arrested in either Los Feliz or Silver Lake. At the same time, the LASD spent at least $1,487,910 for 516 people arrested, whose time detained totaled over 9,981 days. Together, the LAPD and LASD’s costs for arresting and jailing people in this area amounted to at least $4,942,405 for 25,011 days of jail time from 2012 – 2017.

By 2008, the median household income for East Hollywood was $29,927, or nearly half of that of L.A. county at the time. Blacks made up just 2.4% of the population, but still accounted for 13% of those arrested by LAPD, once again nearly six times their demographic share. Latinos made up for just over 55% of the population, but accounted for 65% of those arrested by LAPD. Whites, who made up 24% of the population of East Hollywood, accounted for 13% of those arrested by LAPD there.

Additionally, in all three neighborhoods, males made up more than 3/4ths of those arrested by LAPD, while females accounted for 1/4th of those arrested. What’s also true is that at least half of the charges filed against people by the LASD were misdemeanors, though it should be noted that even misdemeanors on people of colors’ records can prove fatal for their chances at employment. Furthermore, as noted by the folks at MDH regarding their research methodology for these data:

“While the County Auditor-Controller calculations include variable costs (like staffing costs, travel and supplies), overhead costs, utilities costs, and accounting adjustments, our calculations only include variable costs. As a result, our estimates may be interpreted as conservative (emphasis mine): they do not include costs associated with building facilities and keeping the lights on, administrating the jail system as a sub-unit of county government, providing health care, or interfacing with the law enforcement and court systems.”

Even statisticians will admit that no data set tells the whole story, but the MDH project’s data allow communities to consider just how many taxpayer dollars go yearly towards disproportionately jailing not only people of color, particularly Black and Latino people in Los Angeles, but those within just a handful of areas inside of L.A. County.

In particular, communities within the areas of this comparison can now consider the disproportionate level of jail time and detention costs for arrests in East Hollywood, where more than 52% of the Asian and Latino communities who make up almost 3/4ths of the area are “foreign-born,” compared to the amount of costs and jail time for arrests in neighboring Los Feliz and Silver Lake, which are substantially whiter neighborhoods. Clearly, the state has a concerted interest in continuing to target Blacks, Latinos and working class immigrants wherever they may be clustered in Los Angeles, which also happen to be the groups which have seen the least amount of support for housing, education, and fair employment in Los Angeles over the 172 years since the state of California was forcibly taken by the U.S. from Mexico.

As if to add insult to injury, in a sheriff’s document online listed by the MDH study, the front page informs readers that their department’s motto is “a tradition of service since 1850.” Clearly, such “service” refers to a very different entity than the one so many tend to imagine when they think of this “Golden State.”

J.T.

Who is your Neighborhood, the team behind two back to school parties in East Hollywood, is Now Official

It’s true! Quien Es tu Vecindario–also known as Who Is Your Neighborhood–or the team behind two Back 2 School parties in the LACC area for two consecutive years, is now an official “non-profit” corporation for arts and education in East Hollywood registered with the state of California, entity number C4612184.

The organization is the first non-profit in East Hollywood founded and led by members of the community born and raised in the community of immigrant single mothers and families. Following completion of our first fund-raiser, the team will begin work on our first grant application for opportunity programming with the L.A. County Department of Art & Culture. Goals for programming this Fall include an online book club for the neighborhood, homework help for teens, and forums for families in our community during these trying times.

Keep up with Quien Es tu Vecindario online, and please don’t hesitate to reach out with any lines of support. To be sure, as with our “unofficial” events before any non-profit lingo, we do not need a lot of money. We just need a lot of ganas!

J.T.

This fire season will show there is no limit to our leaders’ stupidity

The fire season seems to arrive earlier and earlier every year, and becomes fiercer, more destructive, and more indifferent to the fact that there are cities and towns in its way. There are currently more than 560 fires burning through the state, most of which have only appeared in just over a week. Most are concentrated in the north and central parts, but southern California isn’t exactly being spared. A large handful of blazes are scattered throughout Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego Counties. They are smaller, but smaller is always relative.

The worst fires are up north, in the counties sold to the world as “wine country,” and too complex, diverse and breathtaking for any tourism pamphlet to capture. These are the locations of the LNU Lightning Complex and SCU Lightning Complex Fires. (The term “complex fire” describes a cluster of component fires that started out as separate but have converged and/or are converging to create one massive mega-blaze. Reporters and fire departments will sometimes refer to the component fires by their own name, such as the Hennessey Fire near Vacaville, which is part of the LNU Lightning Complex.) Already, the LNU is the second largest wildfire in California state history, the SCU is the third largest.

Combined, the two complex fires have destroyed more than 600,000 acres and forced dozens of small towns and suburbs to evacuate. Across the state, almost a million acres are now scorched, and by last count at least 119,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes. Whether anything will be left for people to return to after the blazes fade is, of course, a complete unknown. At least five people have died. With an historic heatwave still pressing down on the state, and dry seasonal winds sweeping through, there is no end in sight. We are, after all, just at the beginning of the season. The infamous Santa Ana winds aren’t even expected to get here until sometime in October, but already we’ve lost ground.

Thousand-year-old, iconic redwoods are currently burning like Roman candles. There is good reason that these trees are so emblematic of California’s unique position in the planet’s ecological history. Their beauty and massive size aren’t merely impressive on their own terms. As with any tree, their size testifies to time. In the case of the redwoods, the slow and intricate patterns of nature’s web – so all-encompassing that we take it for granted – are monumentalized. Seeing them before us, we are forced to contemplate how young society is, how temporally small human beings are next to them. Their destruction severs our ties to deep ecological history.

End-times capitalism shrugs at all this. Wildfires are a natural part of California’s ecology anyway, another example of how nature can self-regulate. Climate denialists love to toss this fact out as its own argument, an attempt to discredit the alarm bells. It fails, in its deliberate stupidity, to account for why the conflagrations get worse and worse every year, for the heatwaves unleashed by climate change, to say nothing of the role played by Pacific Gas & Electric’s negligence in some of these fires.

It is not that humans as a whole consider themselves above nature. It is that capitalism arrogates itself as the pinnacle of history, of time itself. The multi-sided domino effects that spill from one realm of crisis into the next – the interconnection between ecology and society that Jason Moore identifies and calls the oikos – are casually compartmentalized and explained away.

Another factor casting doubt over the end of this fire season is California’s fire-fighting capacity. COVID-19 continues to pummel the state, itself an expression of the countless ruptures and fractures in the metabolic rift. While COVID and climate change are separate phenomenons, Andreas Malm and others have argued recently that the same conditions responsible for climate change–the disruptions of delicate ecosystems–also expose human society’s collective immune system to lethal pathogens.

COVID-19 has severely limited California’s capacity to fight the fires. It’s not just sick firefighters or social distancing that hinders the effort. Over the course of the past several decades, the state has become increasingly reliant on the cheap labor of prisoner firefighters. But the complacency and ineptitude of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has turned the state’s overcrowded prisons into festering coronavirus hotspots. Currently there are plans for early release for as many as 17,000 inmates at particularly high-risk for infection, but this is only a fraction of the state’s 115,000 inmates. Regardless, the CDCR has been slow to enact even preparations for these plans; the prison population is on lock-down, which renders the majority of inmates ineligible to fight the blazes for the paltry sum of a dollar an hour. Many reporters saw the quandary coming a mile away.

Many of these same prisoners are watching as walls of fire bear down on them, unable to escape as the CDCR refuses to evacuate facilities. At the California Medical Facility – a prison outside Vacaville specially intended for terminally and chronically ill inmates – officials had moved 80 prisoners into outdoor tents to enable social distancing. Already subjected to the elements, they now are breathing air poisoned by smoke, in turn weakening their immune systems even further as the coronavirus continues spreading through the state’s facilities. The vulnerability of these prisoners presages a wider vulnerability among California’s populace, at least a hundred thousand of whom are now having to seek shelter elsewhere. Canaries, coalmines, so on and so forth.

The inhumanity of this catch-22 is self-evident on its own terms. California, the world’s fifth largest economy, is now tangled in a public health crisis and an ecological crisis of near-unprecedented proportions, unable to pull itself out of one so that it might fight the other, as both feed into each other. Any number of alleviations are at the state’ s fingertips: providing free and adequate healthcare for all, along with a robust tracing system; a universal basic income, or public housing that would allow evacuated residents to relocate, either temporarily or permanently; comprehensive funding (state or federal) for adequate firefighting capacity; releasing non-violent offenders from prisons or, god forbid, shuttering prisons entirely in favor of a justice system that seeks actual restorative justice rather storing human beings like cattle. The kinds of renewals that make history possible.

A rational society would see these as feasible solutions, however radical a future they may harbor. We do not live in a rational society, however. The only new future harboring is of a state’s inaction becoming only more destructive to human life and dignity.

AB

(Originally published on To Whom It May Concern on August 22, 2020.)

Alexander Billet is a writer, cultural critic, and artist. He is a regular contributor to Jacobin, and his writing has also appeared in In These Times, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, and Chicago Review. He is currently a member of the Locust Arts & Letters Collective, and serves on the editorial board of Locust Review. Find more of his writing at To Whom It May Concern, and his artwork on Instagram.

EPISODE 23 – IT GIRL THOUGHTS

In our twenty-third episode, listeners meet Tricia Lopez, the author of In Time I Will (2020), a collection of poetry, as well as the host of It Girl Thoughts, a podcast by Tricia documenting her work and journey as a 21 year old graduate student in the creative writing program at Mount Saint Mary’s University. We discuss Tricia’s coming of age in the Cypress Park area, L.A.’s Downtown Magnet schools, her matriculation through Woodbury University as a first generation college student, family life, and more. A truly special session for listeners.

J.T.

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I ASKED THE BLUE HERON (2017)

To come to terms with one’s status as a survivor is to relive the moments that nearly ended one’s life. To collect those moments and offer them to the world is to relieve their weight on one’s mind so new possibilities in one’s life may take shape. Lisbeth Coiman, an Afro-Venezuelan poet and writer, has embarked on this process in a particularly relevant reading journey for working-class people in cities like Los Angeles, especially for migrants from Latin America.

All across the streets of central, east and south Los Angeles are people unsheltered, overwhelmingly Black, but also substantially Latino, lying on the curb through summer heat, and lingering like abandoned cattle throughout the day. When I noted to someone recently that according to the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, the official count of people living as such this year was upwards of 70,000, they gave me a higher estimate, which I found more credible: “It’s probably more like 200,000,” they said.

I wonder, for a moment, how many of the 200,000 in Los Angeles are survivors, or people who’ve suffered physical, mental, and other abuse at some point in their lives. In my work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth, I’ve come across more than only a few victims: teenagers whose parents were drug abusers, or teenagers who were molested by their family members at an early age; teenagers with inherent learning disabilities who were clearly discriminated against at schools before they were discriminated against in courtrooms, and teenagers who likely acquired learning disabilities as a result of abuse at home.

Lisbeth Coiman is also a survivor, whose first book, She Asked the Blue Heron, unwinds a mental and emotional journey for the author as she seeks to face a mental health battle on her terms and for her healing, to which the reader is invited. At 239 pages, by means of skillfully arranged, quick-moving chapters, Coiman’s book offers lifelines for any reader maneuvering through their own mental health battles at home, with family members, with lovers, and in the work of building a career. Coiman’s book also traces the process before, during, and after migration, although some notes should be made on the terms of migration today.

Continue reading “I ASKED THE BLUE HERON (2017)”

EPISODE 22 – MIKE SONSKEN, LETTERS TO MY CITY

In our twenty-second episode, we hop on the Zoom call with Mike Sonsken, a one of a kind ‘poet-journalist’ in Los Angeles. We discuss Sonsken’s studying under Mike Davis at UCLA, his first time meeting the former poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez, lessons from Watts’ very own Wanda Coleman, KCET, and much more. A very special session for all of Los Angeles and lovers of storytelling.

J.T.

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EPISODE 21 – SILVER LAKE IS SUSPECT

In our twenty-first episode, we hop on the Zoom call with DJ Swish, a long-time local and East Hollywood aficionado. We discuss Cahuenga Public Library’s special, though sometimes unnoticed status in the community, news of Silver Lake’s recent Police Violence Memorial being taken down, the boundaries between Silver Lake and East Hollywood and their effect on the latter, and more of L.A. facts and fiction. A very special session for listeners.

J.T.