The following writing places another recent loss of life in “Virgil Village” within the context of the ongoing changes through our community, among vecindades all across Los Angeles, and across major cities everywhere in America. In a picture of the collage of the memorial and candlelight vigil, one of the writings can be found to read:
“fuck white people.“
On seeing that note, while I couldn’t endorse the statement, I could trace immediately where its sentiment came from. In 2018, with the prevalence of smartphones, videos, and the news flowing trough these mediums, there’s been an increased attention to everything absurd everywhere, but by far there’s been growing attention to what’s called white privilege in America, or the way white people have access to rights and space that non-whites don’t, which has had the effect of dramatically transforming how communities everywhere in this country perceive their standing in a way not seen since at least the radical 1960s.
The most concerning effect of these changes has been the increased backlash from white America to the scrutiny of white privilege, including the rise of white supremacist groups, their gatherings, and the networks developed by these phenomena.
Young people across America with even remote access to smartphones have been able to access information about these ‘backlashes’ through different lenses like those of the meme, the Facebook video, or the hashtag, to see repeatedly how the institution of white privilege plays out daily in the United States. News-clips of police unfairly targeting Black and Brown bodies, or news-clips of rhetoric slandering immigrants, the religion of Islam, and others, show daily how white America continues in its penchant for hating on others.
The message has been clear and consistent through each of these data, so that if there’s ever any doubt in a young person’s mind about the racialized power dynamics of the United States, the evidence is ubiquitous: white people’s ‘rights’ are first and above all. A law of the land. And because these power dynamics are daily made known, the great divide they create between “us and them” encloses itself around young people to a degree and frequency unseen for generations through this country.
‘It’s us versus them.’
In pueblos like those of our communities, this problem is only compounded, not because of these data pervading over screens, but because of data on the street, in the gentrification of the urban neighborhoods that our families and their predecessors were once only relegated to.
Let us be totally clear here: the neighborhood which makes up these blocks, like neighborhoods all through East and South Los Angeles, took generations to develop in the particular ways that they have been. That is, going as far back as the 1930s, the neighborhood has always lacked a certain type of quality due to the certain groups of people who were known to live here, which is to say Black, Brown, and Asian people, many with special needs, and other ‘minorities’ dealing with the ‘lower-rung’ economics that often came with starting or restarting a life in L.A. in the 20th century. As outsiders, the majority of these groups were discriminated against or merely ‘forgotten’ by the city’s, and by extension, the country’s leadership.
This is why, for example, in the late 1940s and 1950s, the 101 Freeway, among others, tore its way through East side neighborhoods to open up a path for more of Hollywood’s commuters to get to downtown Los Angeles and Santa Ana–because the people on the East side were Chicanos and Asians of humble means who would simply have to get out of the way; it is also why the same freeway tore its way through our own vecindad in that process–because the people of our neighborhood–the Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and others–were also people of humble means who would simply have to get with the program or get lost.
Half a century later, from 1998 – 2000, that same humility of means for the people of la vecindad played a major part in why the local police force, the Rampart division, saw a grand total of 70 of its police officers indicted for decades’ worth of charges on corruption when its special task-force, the ‘CRASH‘ or ‘Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums’ unit, was found to have perpetrated scores of unprovoked shootings and beatings of our youth in their patrols through our neighborhoods, the planting of evidence and framing of those same youth, LAPD stealing from the department, LAPD perjury, and more.
Twenty years later, of the 70 officers implicated by the investigation into Rampart’s ‘CRASH‘ unit, only five of those officers are known to have been terminated as a result of the findings; the humility of means of their victims in these crimes has much to do with those numbers.
There is also a ‘flip’ side to such histories: the fact is that through each period before today’s, to any discrimination against the character of a people there has also been a resistance and opposition.
In Rampart’s case, two years after the indictment of its CRASH unit: “Defense attorneys [were] still scrutinizing thousands of convictions that might have been tainted by Rampart wrongdoing, and plaintiffs’ attorneys [were] awaiting settlement decisions in a hundred and fifty lawsuits and claims against the city.”
In the 1950s, when it came to the construction of the freeways in East Los: “Residents did fight back, flooding public meetings and picketing construction sites. But unlike the mostly white and politically powerful neighborhoods that killed plans for a Beverly Hills Freeway, L.A.’s Eastside couldn’t stop the bulldozer. By the early 1960s, all seven of the planners’ freeways crisscrossed the community.”
And in a similar spirit of resistance, the oldest ‘gang’ in Los Angeles, the White Fence gang of the Boyle Heights area, was formed in the 1940s as a way for Chicano youth in that part of The City to defend themselves against their white counterparts when the latter targeted and attacked them without penalty from law enforcement. To be sure, the documented Zoot Suit ‘Riots’ of Los Angeles in 1943 speak precisely to how this played out.
We are of course not in the 1940s or 1950s anymore, but these periods are still relevant to us not only because of the parallels between them and the state of violence in the U.S. against its ‘others’ today, but also because of their legacy for both white and nonwhite Angelenos when it comes to occupying spaces in proximity to one another today, as we do increasingly in the 21st century.
For historians of Los Angeles, then, or for anyone with an interest in how the city came to be, and how it is still coming to be, there’s a responsibility to make these histories and others known.
The same day as this most recent tragedy in our neighborhood, the White House made a press release dated for May 21, 2018 entitled What You Need to Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13. The memo references President Trump’s State of the Union speech, when he called upon as his guests the parents of two young women who were killed in Long Island, New York by alleged gang members, whose son’s death the president proceeds to list handpicked details of for his audience.
The memo then follows this account with brief mention of other cases and selected details from their records as to how alleged gang members behind them carried out their crimes. It is a thinly veiled form of propaganda designed to rile up support for an official dehumanization of youth identified as ‘gang members.’ But rather than hailing from an ‘alt-right’ website or some neo-nazi’s basement, the statement is listed as the official position of the executive branch of the United States.
Of course, the memo is from the office of a president who just last summer had the audacity to claim after the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, which cost Heather Heyer’s–a Jewish woman–her life, that between the white supremacists whose intention it was to attack and the counter-protesters who defended themselves from their assaults, there were “good people on both sides”.
It’s likely that the youth at the heart of our community’s most recent loss, like most of the people in the neighborhood, did not hear about the memo, but it’s also likely that over the last year and a half in particular, he and several of his peers did hear about the litany of racist, misogynist and ableist put-downs from the president who as a candidate for executive branch promised to ‘build a wall’ between the United States and neighboring Mexico, as if there isn’t one there already.
Yet even through the days of the president’s candidacy and on through his administration’s memo last week, neither his uninspired words nor those of his staff could actually so much as graze the curb of the street that my peers and I stand on, let alone graze us; they are words made for televisions we turned off years ago for having nothing to do with our day to day means of survival. It is the histories on which such statements are built that do and have had a lasting impact on our communities, however. Jeff Sessions looks to be John Wayne in the 21st century, but this time the natives are gang members.
It is a central concern of this writing that in the city of Los Angeles in the 21st century, many of the natives of the neighborhoods here are so-called ‘gang members’ and that their families, who have made life through the intersections of their barrios daily and over decades, now find themselves increasingly cornered by an enemy of far greater proportions than any other clique in the gentrification of la vecindad.
The influx of middle-class types making their way through these blocks, who’ve never encountered Latinos and others like them before, is sanctioned by the state and seemingly immutable.
To be clear: I’m not implying that the youth whose passing this writing discusses was any kind of ‘gang member,’ although he may have been perceived as such. What I am pointing out is that in occupying a space in this neighborhood the youth was part of an environment which for decades has been considered ‘less than’ worthy of many of The City officials’ time and concern, if not only worthy of contempt by many of the city’s police forces. Furthermore, I am also not implying that the newcomers of the neighborhood view la vecindad in this diminished light, but I do believe it’s important that they be aware of how this has been the case for communities here since before World War II.
As with the freeways in the 1950s, the redevelopment of the neighborhood by means of its gentrification happened quickly, that is, in our perception of it, and with such normalization from the city’s leadership that it can be difficult to understand or interpret altogether, but because it’s taking place at the same time that the hordes of data aforementioned make their way through so many of our screens, one sentiment seems to make perfect sense in it all:
In a recent essay for The Atlantic on the increasing inequality characterizing America, writer Matthew Stewart reflects on just why people might feel so much resentment towards his class, which is upper ‘middle-class’ and overwhelmingly white.
“We live in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, have shorter commutes, receive higher-quality health care, and, when circumstances require, serve time in better prisons. We also have more friends—the kind of friends who will introduce us to new clients or line up great internships for our kids.”
It has circulated throughout the neighborhood that the shooter who took the life of the youth referred to in this writing was a white man acting in self-defense. It’s a damning circumstance to consider under the context, but one can see how the color of a man’s skin when he takes the life of another ultimately changes nothing about how the latter’s loss will be felt.
One can also see, however, the way in which to the young people who have just lost their friend, everything–including the presidency, the policing, and the gentrification which is welcomed by so many of the local ‘elected’ officials whom are supposed to represent them–all actually adds up to place them, the youth, in defense.
This was the case in the 1950s when the residents of Boyle Heights stood against the freeways. It was a defense of their neighborhoods. And it was even true in 1943 just as well, when Black and Chicano youth in Los Angeles defended themselves against the Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome projected onto them by the Navy’s sailors at that time.
The fact of the matter is that many of the lives of the youth in our neighborhood are in danger; even if they and their families have made their way through these intersections for several lifetimes, they are all at the risk of being displaced. It’s a subtle form of the warfare of wealth, but warfare nevertheless against the character of their humble means like that which their predecessors saw. And in resisting that warfare, as I do in solidarity with my peers all throughout Los Angeles, it does not mean it’s time to prepare for 1992’s Los Angeles to make its way through these streets again.
Rather, it means that all of the members of our community, old and new alike, need to seek an end to the collective violence inflicted on our respective communities together, with the shared goal of transforming the current trend of redeveloping our streets only to displace our families into redeveloping these streets for the purpose of coalition-building with families.
It’s only in this way that all of us–from the so-called ‘gang members’, to the Senior citizens, to the children with special needs, to the single mothers, to the young professionals from far away starting over in L.A. and more–will be able to share the endless intersections between us in true harmony, honor and respect, and free of the great division that is so frequently trying to be enforced upon us.
I am willing to stand for it. Indeed, I have to. But I know I’m not the only one who is willing to do so and that gives me hope: we can and have got to do better together, Los Angeles. But the work begins now. Every day another future depends on it.