A protester holds a sign in front of L.A. City Hall

The Future of the LA Times Depends on Disowning White Supremacy

In November 2016, the world found itself reeling in shock and disappointment that an anti-intellectual, openly racist talk-show host could clinch the hearts and minds of a decisive portion of the electorate to seize the White House. From New York to Los Angeles, newsrooms and editorial chiefs-of-staff across the U.S. conceded they largely failed to take seriously the power of race-baiting among the U.S.’s predominantly white “swing” voters, and promised to be more comprehensive in their political coverage going forward. But four years later, with the threat of a second Trump term on the horizon, in Los Angeles, a clear unwillingness to condemn white supremacy from the L.A. Times shows just how much our intelligentsia still has to learn.

At the height of unrest in Minneapolis and later Los Angeles, when businesses shuttered and police sirens shrieked through nights of “curfew,” the L.A. Times published headlines decrying broken shop-windows and damaged property, with photos of mostly Black and Brown Americans under arrest and awash in turmoil. Meanwhile, on all of the “big five” social media platforms, many saw a different story playing out: window-breakers and vandals were not simply random Black or Brown people, but more often masked, white agitators, so-called “anarchists” with professional training, and Trump supporters exploiting police forces spread too thin attacking unarmed protesters. From L.A. City Hall, Mayor Garcetti responded with armed forces to the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters, and once again exposed “democracy” in our city as little more than a poster-board term for government and police organization more ready to defend racial hegemony here than to supply local hospital workers with protective personal equipment in the fight against a global pandemic.

When it came to coverage of these events, or their retelling, scores of people ‘on the ground’ relied on Twitter updates from citizen journalists such as the team at L.A. Taco and StreetWatch L.A., and not on the L.A. Times reporting staff. The biggest reason for this is simply because of the Times’s reputation as an “objective” source, which most experts today agree is just a stand-in term for “coverage without reference to race.” Such coverage by default is not objective reporting for racialized groups, who consistently bear the brunt of police and state violence, but it also plays a major part to obfuscate officials’ roles in acts of violence against such groups.

Consider that Eric Garcetti was originally elected to office in 2013 by only 12.3% percent of L.A. county’s registered voters. Despite such a weak show of support, when protests in L.A. were blamed for damaged property, Garcetti became the commander of an LAPD force that arrested more than 2,700 unarmed protesters in three days, and which at one point jammed those protesters into crowded buses at the height of the worst uncontained respiratory pandemic in over a century.

Garcetti’s mass arrests were an offense against the democratic ideals of free speech and the right to assembly in Los Angeles. But along with Michel Moore and Alex Villanueva, respectively official “chiefs” of the LAPD and the L.A. County sheriff’s department–and backed by Governor Newsom’s National Guard–Garcetti re-branded military law as “curfew.” As the city entered an otherwise undefined legislative realm during the unrest, this euphemization rather easily undermined any notion of democracy in the second largest city in America. Yet the curfew acted not just as a terror for youth, elderly and disabled citizens everywhere who had nothing to do with BLM protests, but also as a restriction on all residents in L.A. County, whether in the city proper or in its suburban respites. The L.A. Times board needed to call this “curfew” out as unacceptable, but instead chose to mostly just “retell” the story, offering virtually no commentary on the larger implications of a military-police state abetted by a “curfew.” Similarly, during coverage of the unrest, the paper relied heavily on officials’ accounts and narratives over the events of the day, even as everyday citizens had far more evidence of aggressive tactics by the LAPD against them than vice versa regarding the danger posed.

Garcetti’s decision to disperse protesters in Los Angeles with SWAT teams and the National Guard also placed him in the same ideological camp of the president despite any “liberal” status. The L.A. Times would thus not have been wrong to juxtapose the way in which whether officials wear red or blue ties, during civic unrest, the vast majority of them side with the state, and by extension, the state’s enforcement of white supremacy. Consider that just a few weeks before the civic unrest the same L.A. Times board published a strong statement lambasting L.A. City Hall’s dirty corruption schemes as exposed by the FBI. Yet smothering protesters’ rights to free speech and assembly with batons and smokescreens was also a dirty corruption of every one of our constitutional rights. Is the editorial board waiting on the FBI for the green-light to make a statement on this?

In any case, renouncing police brutality and white supremacy is not as hard as the editorial rooms may believe. Remember that the very phrase of “white supremacy” itself is not an attack on white people, just as “police brutality” is not an assault on individual police officers. These phrases are observed facts of the structural realities that continually marginalize and criminalize non-white communities in Los Angeles and cities across America. The numbers and stories and data on this have been relayed ad naseum. Yet they still need to be referenced so long as they’re facts on the ground, including from L.A.’s largest paper.

It’s true that calling out such facts ‘on the ground’ should prove difficult for a historically white-owned and white-led paper, especially considering that ownership for decades rested on the Chandler family, an anti-union and pro-white elite dynasty. But it’s for this same reason that acknowledgement of the facts on the ground will be even more fruitful for the paper’s future.

During the height of protests in Washington D.C., when the lights of the White House went dim, Trump and his allies tucked into a bunker, presumably hiding from the “thugs and rapists”–as the administration is fond to label non-white communities–too close to the gates of the White House. In fact they were Black, white and more protesters assembled en masse for Black Lives Matter, and against policies that see mostly white men at both the lowest and highest levels of government consistently face almost no accountability for crimes against the public. In Los Angeles, a similarly multi-ethnic mass has spent the last few months organizing and pleading with officials, looking to have their concerns and proposals meaningfully addressed, only to find at nearly each turn elected officials who are unwilling to meaningfully commit to anti-racist policies and anti-racist budgets. This leaves only the “the fourth estate” to show leadership.

If newsrooms and editorial boards like those of the L.A. Times are serious about an informed populace for a democratic republic, they need to take an active position against the power structures threatening these ideals, including white supremacy. They must do so through consistent anti-racism, including anti-racist stances in their coverage, in their opinion section, and in scrutiny of elected officials’ decisions when they support policies that reinforce racial hegemony. This is not just a matter of what’s been trending on Twitter, but the proven way to hold some of the most powerful actors in our cities and states accountable for their actions.

Taking a stance will not be entirely new or completely innovative, either. In Burlington, Vermont, for example, where the population is more than 85% white, the city recently declared racism a public health concern, which is a good starting point for policy. In turn, continuing to do the opposite, or to remain “objective,” has damaging effects, and only keeps the paper’s credibility and readership low, particularly with non-white communities, a grave concern given the majority non-white demographics of L.A. County. But the fact is that the paper’s low readership has well to do with the impoverishment faced by Black and Brown communities in Los Angeles; it’s not easy for a single mother, for example, to subscribe to the daily news when her first concern is food for her family and keeping a roof overhead. Yet she and millions more like her live here, and the city depends enormously on their labor. Our paper needs to show it truly grasps this.

It’s also true that actively addressing white supremacy each time it rears its head, including in the actions of our local and national officials, will likely to turn some people away. But leaving this battle for scholars and communities of color to keep waging by themselves ‘on the ground’ reeks of the indifference and elitism of the Chandler paper. Moreover, the distinction between ‘just policy’ and policy in defense of racialized hegemony is as important in this election cycle as the distinction between “rebels” and the treasonous, pro-slavery armies they actually were during the civil war.

Less than a century before that war, a small band of white men were written into the nation’s history books as courageous and impeccable ‘founding fathers’ who freed ‘us’ from tyrannic Redcoat soldiers, and who produced the laws of the land which govern millions of citizens to this day. It’s now self-evident that much was omitted from those history books, and that such omissions continue to have consequences. The L.A. Times can thus not afford to continue omitting the legacy of white supremacy from its coverage, just as it cannot afford to ignore the demands for equity made most recently by the paper’s Black and Latinx caucuses. In the same way that Biden has been beckoned to do with his campaign, the paper’s leadership has more than a responsibility to stand in defense of a progressive and inclusive agenda. It has an active interest in it; the future readership of the paper is still waiting to have its concerns meaningfully addressed. It falls on the fourth estate to fill the void. The time is now.

J.T.

Hollywood Presbyterean Hospital in East Hollywood, Los Angeles

Three Months After Shut-down, L.A. “Reopens” while both COVID-19 and LAPD Budget Remain Uncontained, Posing the Greatest Risk to Black, Latino and AAPI Communities

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 86)

As of the evening of June 11th, according to the L.A. County Public Health Department, Black, Asian and Latino communities still represent more than 70% of 2,629 deaths from COVID-19 in L.A. County, while whites represent 29% of deaths. The numbers might seem commensurate with these groups’ share of the total population in L.A. County, but as before, they are actually still an under-count and not indicative of the whole picture.

Of 66,941 active coronavirus cases reported by the department, L.A. County Public Health Director, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, has pointed out that there is still a disproportionate rate of death for ethnic minority groups:

The death rate among Native Hawaiians & Pacific Islanders is 52 deaths per 100,000 people. And among African Americans the death rate is 33 deaths per 100,000 people. For people who identify as Latino and Latinx, the death rate is 32 deaths per 100,000 people. For people who are Asian, the rate is 23 deaths per 100,000 people, and for whites, the death rate is 17 deaths per 100,000 people…We also see that people who live in areas with high rates of poverty continue to have almost four times the rate of death for COVID-19.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County Public Health Director

In my native East Hollywood neighborhood, the County is tracking a total of 254 cases, with 38 deaths from the disease so far, while the adjacent Silver Lake neighborhood is tracking a total of 221 cases, with 14 deaths from the disease so far.

But as startling as the numbers for a “natural disease” like COVID-19 in Los Angeles may be, they still fall short of another galling statistic for the county. In an L.A. Times report published earlier this week, data showed that since 2000, more than 78% of people killed by police in L.A. County–98% of whom were shot to death by police officers–were Black and Latino, overwhelmingly males between the ages of 20 and 39 years.

As protests of Mayor Garcetti’s police budget continue into this weekend, then, I wonder if another budget for Los Angeles has actually gone less noticed: The L.A. County sheriff department, which employs roughly as many boots on the ground as LAPD–just under 10,000–and almost 8,000 civilians on staff, was only recently approved by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors for a budget of $3.5 billion through 2020 – 2021.

The L.A. County sheriff’s department patrols cities as close as East Los Angeles & South L.A., and as far as Lancaster and Castaic. The location of their patrol is highly significant since, according to the L.A. Times report, the neighborhoods with the highest number of fatal shootings by police are cities such as Compton, Inglewood and East Los Angeles, home to large minority populations, and where L.A. County sheriffs partner with LAPD to police civilians.

The L.A. County sheriff’s department also runs the L.A. County Jail, which oversees more than 17,000 people, where 80% of inmates are Black and Latino.

Similarly to their counterparts at LAPD, however, they actually seek more taxpayer dollars for their services, and may even have loftier ambitions than what LAPD’s longed-for $150 million raise would suggest. According to the L.A. County sheriff website, the department actually needs $400 million more than the $3.5 billion that the L.A. County Board of Supervisors has recommended for fiscal year 2020-2021.

At 18,000 staff members, the budget the L.A. County sheriff’s department seeks for 2020-2021 would amount to more than $216,000 a year for one staff member. At present, it is $194,000.

To be sure, with these numbers and more projections to consider, only a few things are clear:

At the beginning of the crisis due to coronavirus, there was much we did not know about the disease, no federal guidelines for states regarding testing sites or containment for COVID-19, and much confusion about the best course of action.

Three months later, there is still much we don’t know about the virus, no federal plan in place for testing or containment strategies, and now a litany of discussions about our racialized and punitive society proving more confusing than not for many. As the battles continue, more confusion will ensue, but I believe the time for a break, if not a breaking point, is upon us, Los Angeles.

J.T.

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Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 29

Over two weeks since The L.A. Storyteller reported that COVID-19 arrived in the East Hollywood and Silver Lake neighborhoods, the L.A. County Public Health department reports that 54 cases have been recorded in the former, while 86 cases are documented in the latter.

This can mean one of two things: either these communities have taken seriously each precaution to socially distance, or there are far more cases than are being recorded even while availability of testing has increased, with the latter still failing to provide a better overall estimate of cases.

I actually believe that both scenarios are true; during every visit to the grocery store, I’ve seen people following closely each protocol for safer shopping, and I believe that long after this crisis, they’ll continue to do so. And while testing hasn’t been as prevalent as in South Korea, where the government was testing up to 12,000 people a day at one point, symptomatic or not, L.A. County has set up a transparent process for those in need at covid19.lacounty.gov/testing.

I believe that due to the precautionary measures that have been taken, as it happened in China, where the pandemic began, a two month window for dealing with the novel coronavirus is what’s looking to be in store for Los Angeles as well. Dr. Ferrer said as much herself during her press briefing today, which also included translations in Español and հայերեն:

“Every day we’re getting closer to being able to see a time when more people are going to be able to go back to work and there will more places that are going to be open. We’re never going to be able to go back to exactly the way it was before COVID-19, but we are moving towards being on the other side of this pandemic.”

While I know that many people out there are exhausted from being home, and also critical of our government’s response and repeated warning system, which they are right to be, I’m still motivated by the collective response so many of us have taken part in, including that of many of our elected officials. For it’s shown a lot about just how much we’re capable of when we decide to create change as one planet, one village, one people; that we can still do it after all. As Dr. Ferrer noted in her remarks:

“It is working and I hope you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished along with everyone else.”

J.T.

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