One thing I tend to encounter is stories of how we become American.
I met a Lyft driver recently named Aldo. He’s from Guatemala and came here 30 years ago, at 14, escaping civil war.
He doesn’t want anything to do with Guatemala, he told me.
He went back for the first time not long ago, and couldn’t stand it. There’s no rule of law. “Nobody follows the rules,” he said. “You can’t just drive along peacefully like this. You gotta be aware of these other drivers running redlights. Motorcyclists coming up to rob you.”
I’ve heard the greatest stories from Lyft drivers. I met the brother of the champion of Mongolian BMX racing one time. Another was a Vietnamese screenwriter. A third was a Dreamer.
As Aldo and I drove along, he extolled the virtues of the Kia Optima hybrid, how he’d lived peacefully with his family in South Gate for eight years until his landlord married a Colombian woman and she started causing problems.
He told me he’d adopted his wife’s children — she was legally changing her name from Maria de la Luz to Lucy — raised them and they are now grown or growing. That he contracted polio when he was born and walks with crutches.
In Guatemalan, he couldn’t go back to his old neighborhood because he might not be able to leave it. He also couldn’t stand the smells in the outdoor markets.
So he came back from his visit home, and is getting his U.S. citizenship next year. And when he does he’ll change his name to Batman’s alter ego.
“I’m American,” he told me. “Everybody knows him.”
Great columnists possess one common trait: They’re all newspapers reporters at heart. They sometimes opine on the day’s news, but they usually leave 24-hour news punditry to others.
Instead, what they most believe in is going to talk to the neighbor, the cop, the pastor, or the taco truck owner. Reporting, true and straight. Nothing like it for burning away crud and getting to a joyous kernel of veracity.
That’s what Mike has done as a columnist. He combined that instinct with a deep knowledge of his native town.
Today, awash in the sewage of 24-hour news, we too often confuse columnists with pundits. They are not the same – at least the best columnists aren’t.
The best columnists help you understand where you live, often by pointing out the tiniest corners of the town that you realize only later that you were dying to know about. Mike did that.
It’s not that they don’t have opinions. Columnists’ job, in part, is to have opinions. But these opinions should be based on the relentless collection of facts, not on ideology. Mike did that.
Sadly, we Americans prize pundits, who are cheap, as everyone has an opinion; we don’t want to pay for columnists and thus we are poorer for it. We have too many of the former and one less of the latter today.
Mike and I met when I began my stint as the Record’s crime reporter. He took me around to meet the cops and others that would make up my daily rounds for the next four years (1988-92). That first night we drove to south Stockton where a car had plunged through a house and landed on a woman sleeping in her bed. I’d never known that to happen, but in Stockton I covered another dozen of those.
In a year or two, they made Mike a columnist. We sat across from each other for a couple years, as he churned out terrific snapshots of the corners of the town, of its politics, its neighborhoods filled with Cambodians, Sikhs, Michoacanos, blacks, and the whites of north Stockton and east Stockton – which were then two separate planets.
We covered the horror of Cleveland School together, where a drifter showed up in January 1989 with an AK-47 and killed five kids and wounded 30 more.
We were part of a staff then that I believe the best I ever worked with – young reporters, eager to cover the world, growing with experience, and set loose on a town that was full of stunning, beautiful, crazy, terrible stories.
Mike and I got along because we recognized in each other a kindred spirit: we were both born to be reporters. We’d have been miserable and failures in any other profession.
It helped Mike, too, to that Stockton is one of the great American cities. Integrated, roiling, common-sensical, a lot of problems and a lot of heart.
As Mike writes: “It’s the drug addict in recovery. The Hmong in adult education class. The millennial who wants to live in a high-density downtown community. Filipinos digging out their history to restore their lost narrative.”
Mike got out of the office and told their stories and many more. That’s what great columnists do.
I don’t go in for nostalgia much. The Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, for example, seems a sad place to end up, because it means you and what you created are antiques, dead.
So last night, when I went to the resurrection of The Palomino nightclub (for one night only) in the San Fernando Valley, I was wary.
The Palomino, until its closing in 1995, was part of the roiling, ethnically based music scenes that spawned in Los Angeles in the decades before the Internet and changes in the music industry and club world made such conglomerations rare.
Music is created in a time and a place by people from both and eventually they all pass, and only the records remain, which I figure is good enough.
The excuse for last night was to hold a benefit for a new pop-art museum – Valley Relics. Really, though, it was a chance to remember.
But instead of wallowing in the past, a dozen or more singers showcased the beauty of the music created at The Palomino. True, there were a few too many speeches about how great things were back when. But what I’ll take with me is a raw and simple sweetness, intensity, and longing in the music that I don’t associate with oldies, nostalgia shows.
Three monster backup bands, including one led by guitarist James Intveld, who got his start at The Palomino, were worth paying to see by themselves; his band included the tremendous Marty Rifkin on pedal steel.
Last night, I was finally able to see Rosie Flores, who rocks as hard as anyone. Jim Lauderdale was impeccable and has a voice that, if anything, has improved with age. I first heard him on an anthology album called A Town South of Bakersfield that I found sometime in the early 1990s and was my introduction to LA country.
Most unexpectedly, Gunnar Nelson, of the heartthrob band Nelson, and son of TV-teen-idol-turned-country-act Rick Nelson, showed up to play a Dylan song and two by his late father. He told the story behind his dad’s hit, “Garden Party,” which Rick Nelson wrote after playing a Madison Square Garden oldies show, only now he was playing hippie country music and the crowd hated it. He wrote the song and its chorus (“You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”) in response. Never knew that story. The song took on a power and poignancy I’d never associated with it until his son played it.
(I’ll admit to not knowing until today that Intveld’s brother, Rick, played in Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band and both were killed when the band’s plane crashed in Texas in 1985.)
A slide show on a wall reminded us that the great days of The Palomino were the 1970s and into the 1980s. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Those were great years for music scenes in L.A., and thus for the clubs where they found their legs.
In the late 1970s, legions of white punks in Hollywood created their own scene, complete with clubs but also halls rented for DIY shows. That was followed in the mid-1980s by black kids from Compton creating beats in their garages on SP 1200 drum machines, birthing gangsta rap. Not long after that, the narcocorrido scene emerged in the newly forged Mexican-immigrant enclaves of South Gate, Bell, Huntington Park, Lynwood southeast of L.A., growing from the music of Chalino Sanchez, who was murdered in 1992.
All of these had in common a lot of young folks who were initially ignored by the recording industry and mainstream radio, and who thus learned to make their own records and promote them on their own, selling them in swap meets and outside shows.
Meanwhile, out on Lankersheim in the then-largely white San Fernando Valley, The Palomino attracted huge stars of country music – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Tom T. Hall, Marty Robbins, Kris Kristofferson. But the club was also a magnet for young musicians who came to LA from all over to play country music. Some of the best country music in America was created there.
The Palomino offered what all music scenes must have: A venue for young artists and bands to aspire to, a place to hone, to be heard and discovered. Dwight Yoakam was an opening act there. The club was also a hangout for young actors and stuntmen in the film industry.
So last night was a good night. In the end maybe I was affected by some bit of nostalgia. The night made me yearn for the days when I was going to the Hong Kong Café and watching the Germs, the Plugz and the Go-Gos on the same small stage. (I think I once went to The Palomino – can’t remember any more – but I do know that back then a trip to the 818 was, for me, almost like a trip to another country, so it didn’t happen much.)
Today, from what I can see, the era of the L.A. music scene is largely dead. My take is that the Internet has made music so easy to create that the industry has fragmented into a million little pieces and no sufficiently large critical mass of fans, clubs, and media attention can form around a small group of artists doing daring new stuff. Everything’s so diffuse. Listen to KCRW and you rarely hear the same band – they just cascade by.
I’m sure someone will correct me on this. Maybe I’m not paying as much attention as I used to.
But going out to dive clubs where daring music is played doesn’t seem quite the thing it once was. Without the clubs as centers of community where fans can see musicians and musicians can improve – like, in their day, the Hong Kong Café, El Parral, and The Palomino – it’s hard to imagine that kind of musical effervescence repeated.
Which is not to say new stuff won’t come along – it just may not happen in a community the way it once did.
Today I learned that the Orchard Supply Hardware store near me is closing.
Some 4300 people* are losing their jobs. A chain of growing and seemingly profitable hardware stores, serving well their communities, is being liquidated.
OSH, as it’s known, has 99 stores in California, Oregon and Florida. If you don’t live in those states, you may wonder why this matters to you. But it does.
For this is not about globalization, or low-skilled immigrants stealing 4300 jobs. Instead it’s Wall Street; it’s about a few rich guys who need to make their numbers.
When I talk about Dreamland, I often say that our opiate epidemic grew from our destruction of community, in many ways, all across America. The demise of Orchard Supply Hardware, announced last week, is the kind of thing I’m talking about.
OSH was a place where the community came, where people bought things with which they built their homes and yards.
The store had a rare combination in hardware these days: great customer service and smaller stores. That meant you could actually find the things you needed. This earned it $600 million in sales last year. OSH, which is owned by Lowe’s, was expanding.
OSH is a chain but people I know feel like it’s their local hardware store. I didn’t buy hardware anywhere else. With all the crappy chain stores and chain restaurants we Americans have to tolerate stomping all over our country, here was one that people actually wanted to shop in, and felt close to.
It seemed that behind OSH was a creative idea: position it as an alternative in a world where customers are moving away from big box stores they have to drive for miles to get to. Smaller stores, easier to get to, alert and knowledgeable staff.
Sadly, Lowe’s backed off this inventive positioning of OSH in July when it hired Marvin Ellison as CEO.
You may wonder: What about that record makes this guy worth hiring anywhere?
You may wonder: What company looking to rebound in this retail environment would hire anyone from JCPenney?
Another question that may occur to you is, why does Lowe’s feel in such a hurry to boost its stock price? Well one reason, apparently, is that a big chunk of Lowe’s stock has been purchased by Bill Ackman, an activist hedge-fund investor, who is hankering for change and wanted Ellison.
Here’s why: Ackman’s hedge fund once had $20 billion, but as investors have pulled out amid its poor performance, the fund now has only $8 billion. Of that, he’s betting $1 billion on Lowe’s stock to rise, and quickly, to staunch the investor exodus. (For more, watch this CNBC interview.)
Thus, Forbes wrote, “The Lowe’s clock is ticking. And with Ackman as the timekeeper, Marvin Ellison is a man in a hurry.”
First idea: liquidate a growing and seemingly profitable chain of stores and its 4300 employees. Double down on big-box retailing just as consumers are rejecting it.
Mind you, this has nothing to do with improving the long-term viability of Lowe’s as a business.
But I guess if I’d lost as much money as Ackman has, I’d be in a hurry to earn it back, too.
Still, you know, Ackman and Ellison might take a moment. Common folks are paying the price: the employees, the contractors and communities that rely on those stores.
In corporate America — as we’ve swooned over it, exalted it, praised its wealthy leaders for making themselves lots of money — the clear hunchI have is that, really, a lot of the fellows at the top are not that good. It’s mediocrity on parade a lot of the time, insulated from results, from any whiff of merit pay, and from the consequences of their failures, particularly as they are felt in towns across America.
I spoke to a guy at my OSH store who said he had worked for the company for 20 years. Here’s how he was told the news: On the afternoon of Tuesday last, company officials suddenly shut the store, escorted the remaining customers out, assembled the staff, and let them know their jobs were ending; the store was closing Oct. 20.
“Today you’re Orchard Supply Hardware. Tomorrow you belong to liquidators,” he said they were told.
Within a couple days, “Everything Must Go” signs were all over the store.
You may wonder: How is that okay?
Here’s Ellison: Lowe’s is “developing plans to aggressively rationalize store inventory, reducing lower-performing inventory while investing in increased depth of high-velocity items. Exiting Orchard Supply Hardware and rationalizing inventory are the driving force behind the changes to Lowe’s Business Outlook.”
So they’re going to stock stuff that sells well. Brilliant idea.
But why does that mean OSH must close? Why not sell it to someone who actually gives a damn about Americans and their communities, and who has the creativity and energy to run such a company?
(NOTE: A Lowe’s spokeswoman emailed me this morning (8/29) with this response to the columns, saying that OSH was not profitable:
We are working hard to make this transition as smooth as possible for our associates and our customers. We will be retaining our associates through the store closure process and are encouraging them to apply for open roles at Lowe’s stores, where they will receive priority status. Associates will receive job placement assistance, and we will be providing eligibility for severance. 86 percent of Orchard locations are located within 10 miles of a Lowe’s store.
The decision to exit Orchard was based on the need to focus growing our core home improvement business and deploy our capital to more profitable projects. Orchard’s 2017 earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) was a -$65 million on sales of approximately $605 million.*)
Instead, Marvin Ellison, escaping JCPenney, decided within less than two months to close 99 stores and lay off 4300 people.
All because? Well apparently Bill Ackman has lost a lot of money in bad investments.
As I’ve traveled the country, I’ve learned that the cost of losing Main Street has been incalculable – yet we bow to the free market as if we have no choice. That’s what’s happening here.
The good news? Lowe’s stock price has gone up a few bucks – so I guess we can all breathe easier.
This move will harm Lowe’s in the long run. I know sales are going online, but hardware will always be different. Customers need that contact with sales staff who know their stuff. Even contractors say that. (See a video about contractors’ opinions on OSH closing.)
OSH formed in 1931. Many years later it was bought by Sears, whose glory days were well behind it, looking to spruce up its home-improvement position. Owned finally by a hedge fund, Sears apparently did what Sears is now known for as a hedge-fund property – it muddled through. (Read an LA Times story here.)
Finally, it spun the company off, but not before saddling it with enormous debt. Naturally, that debt crushed OSH into bankruptcy within two years. This is how Business Insider described it:
“In 2005, Sears Holdings – by then run by hedge-fund guy Eddie Lampert – announced that it would extract a special dividend of $450 million out of OSH, and that OSH would borrow the money to pay this dividend.
“In January 2012, in typical private-equity manner, the now heavily indebted OSH was spun off to the public; 18 months later, in June 2013, OSH, buckling under this debt that Sears Holdings had put on it, filed for bankruptcy.”
In bankruptcy, OSH was bought in 2013 by Lowe’s, which, under then-CEO Robert Niblock, did some great things. Above all, it remodeled OSH stores. Funny what happens when you invest as if for the long run. The staff now seemed motivated. The store came to life; so apparently did the chain. In Pasadena, it became one of the city’s biggest sales-tax generators.
Until that day in July when OSH’s parent company hired a guy from JCPenney at the behest of a hedge-fund owner losing money in a bull market.
You may wonder at it all.
If so, here’s a petition to make yourselves felt. Please share it, and this article, if you like it.
(Correction: I originally noted the number of OSH employees as 5400. A Lowe’s spokeswoman informs me that the correct number is 4300 and I’ve made that correction throughout.)
To understand Ojeda’s importance, it’s important also to understand that the Mexican Mafia is neither Mexican nor was it, for many years, a mafia, strictly speaking. It is a prison gang, controlling Latino gang members in the state prison system. It took its name as a way of inspiring fear in others. Ojeda was part of that formation early on, as well as the spread of the Mafia’s influence across the state prison system.
The Mexican Mafia had no connection (until recent years) to the underworld in Mexico. Its members were, to begin with and for many years, like Ojeda’s, Mexican-American, who spoke only halting Spanish, if any at all, and whose families had been in the United States for generations.
For many years, in fact, the Mexican Mafia only ran prison yards and its influence was barely felt outside those walls.
But in the early 1990s, all that changed. The man who ushered in that change was Peter “Sana” Ojeda, a long-time member of the Mexican Mafia who had grown up in Orange County.
Ojeda, who was then on the streets, organized a meeting of O.C. street gangs at El Salvador Park in Santa Ana, filmed by law enforcement, during which he stood on bleachers dressed in a black-and-white long-sleeve shirt and told them all to stop with the gang killings and the drive-by shootings. He urged them to tax drug dealers in their neighborhoods as a way of funding neighborhood defense.
This stunned many in the Mexican Mafia, and they began to follow his lead, often using emissaries to organize meetings from San Bernardino and Pomona out to Elysian Park in Los Angeles, where one of the biggest meetings was held.
The Peace Treaty, as all this came to be known, sounded great. Gang leaders doing what law enforcement could not. But it evolved into something sinister and lasting: A system whereby gang members would indeed tax drug dealers in their area and funnel the proceeds to Mafia members, many of whom were in prison for life.
This taxation system far outlasted the Peace Treaty and is still in place today across Southern California, described in dozens of federal RICO indictments and in interviews I’ve done with dozens of gang members.
It amounts to the only regional organized crime syndicate that Southern California has ever known.
Taxation transformed Latino street gangs from scruffy neighborhood territorial entities into money-making ventures, though these were often fairly rag-tag. It gave career criminals, doing life terms in prison, access to a labor force — youths on the street who would do their bidding and admired them the way little leaguers look up to major league ball players. The Big Homies, as they were known on the street, could change life in a barrio with only a few words smuggled from prison in microprint on small pieces of paper.
It’s worth noting that their organizations on the streets, too, were often inept, bumbling, hampered by limited communications, by greed, envy, betrayal, rumor and gossip and drug use, as well as the constant return to prison of anointed emissaries of incarcerated Mafia members. One trial I sat in on involved a mafia member trying to organize three gang members to kill a rival, a man who rarely drove but was often walking in his Pomona neighborhood. Dozens and dozens of cellphone calls on how to do this and it still didn’t happen.
But Mafia taxation changed a lot about Southern California street life.
For a decade, Latino street gangs became the leading race-hate criminals in Southern California, a culture that grew from orders by many members of the Mexican Mafia that gangs should now rid their areas of black street gang/drug sales competition. As they were interpreted on the street, far from direct Mafia control, those orders often became directed at any black person, and thus in some neighborhoods campaigns were waged to get all black families to leave, which included murder, firebombings, assaults, racist graffiti and more.
Taxation made Mexican Mafia members equal in many communities to the town mayor or city council, at least with when it came to their ability to affect life in those areas. Now with the obedience of thousands of gang members on the street, many of whom were too young to have ever laid eyes on the incarcerated men they were obeying, Mafia members could, and did, ignite crime waves from maximum-security cells merely through letters smuggled from prison or via liaisons who transmitted their orders to the street. They drained city budgets, mangled lives, and forced young gang members to commit crimes that landed them in prison for life. I’ve interviewed several young men in such situations.
Ojeda was a contemporary of the pioneers of the Mexican Mafia (he’s far lower left in this photo). Among them was Joe Morgan (standing above him in the photo), whose story is also fascinating. Morgan was a Serbian-American who grew up in Boyle Heights/East LA and became culturally Mexican-American, and helped found the Mexican Mafia. Morgan died many years ago.
Ojeda was the last surviving member of that generation of the Mexican Mafia, made a member in 1972 in Tehachapi. Here’s a photo of him from those years (top right).
Throughout his life, but especially following the Salvador Park meeting, he would remain a household name in the Southern California Latino street-gang world. Meanwhile, he was in and out of prison.
In 2016, he was convicted a final time of conspiracy, largely on the basis of testimony from a former protégé, and sent to prison for 15 years, which most people figured was a life sentence.
But his control over Santa Ana and much of Orange County Latino street gang life seemed to me mostly unquestioned. So, too, his reputation as the Godfather of Orange County.
Los Angeles has seen gang violence plummet in the last decade.
Some of the reasons why were on display in two federal criminal conspiracy cases announced this afternoon at a press conference at the L.A. office of the U.S. Attorney.
The cases involved the Mexican Mafia prison gang controlling drug taxation and trafficking in two places: The LA County Jail, largest jail in America, and in the city of Pomona.
The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang that runs the Latino gang members in the state’s prison system. About 25 years ago, it extended that power to the streets, ordering those gang members to tax neighborhood drug dealers and funnel the proceeds to MM members. Drug taxation thrives and amounts to the first regional organized crime system in the history of Southern California.
One case involved a Mafia member who controlled drug trafficking in the entire jail, according to the indictment: Jose Landa-Rodriguez, who grew up in East LA, a member of the South Los gang. He’s apparently been in county jail for many years, during the reign of the now deceased Lalo Martinez, a controversial MM member. Through those years, and after Martinez died, Landa-Rodriguez allegedly grew to control the drugs entering and for sale across the jail system.
Inmates not with the Mexican Mafia had to get his permission to sell. Only way to do that was by funneling a third of their product to the gang — hence the name of the case, Operation Dirty Thirds — then waiting while Mexican Mafia associates sold the stuff. That’s one way of controlling your competition. Violators were often beaten. That’s another.
They were helped, prosecutors allege, by Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, a local attorney whom investigators say helped facilitate the trade, passed notes back and forth between Mexican Mafia associates, and that kind of thing. They were also helped by a slew of go-betweens who would get arrested with drugs in their bodies.
The other indictment involved a Mexican Mafia member named Mike Lerma, who has controlled Pomona for many years from his cell in solitary confinement at Pelican BayState Prison maximum lockdown. Crews of members from 12thStreet, Cherryville and Pomona Sur street gangs were working together under Lerma’s command, the indictment alleges. The indictment alleges Lerma’s crews did kidnappings, robberies, identity theft. These are Pomona gangs that have harbored animosity against each other for years, but have repressed the urge to go after one another due to orders from Lerma, according to officers I spoke with.
(Btw, I briefly met Mike Lerma one time, in his cell in Pelican Bay State Prison. We were separated by Plexiglass and he was cooking a cup of cocoa on his hotplate in his pale-yellow concrete cell where he spent 23 hours of every day. He was small, a wan and bent fellow, wearied by years on solitary confinement. From behind the glass, he waved, said how you doing? I said fine.)
The mafia’s system has forced gangs to abandon what made them local neighborhood scourges because it leads to unwanted police attention.
“Years ago, they were about turf,” said one. “Now they’re about protecting their business.”
For decades, they waged wars over turf. They defended street corners, parks, markets, apartment buildings like they actually belonged to them. They were very much street gangs, and their activity — graffiti, shootings, car jackings, simple hanging out through which they did their recruiting — blighted working-class neighborhoods across Southern California.
These days, though, they are absent. They have retreated into the shadows. Doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. Just that they’ve disappeared from the streets, no longer are out in public, damaging neighborhoods that can least afford it, spraying up mom-and-pop markets. Homicides are way down because gangs don’t have easy rival targets to shoot at. That’s one reason anyway. In Pomona, the once-notorious Sharkey Park – from which Pomona 12thStreet earned its name the Sharks (members often had shark tattoos) — hasn’t had a shooting in who knows how many years. Some Pomona cops at the press conference couldn’t remember the last one. As if to exorcise the past, the park has been renamed Tony Cerda Park, in honor of a Native-American activist and tribal leader; pow-wows are held at the park.
Gangs are just not evidence in Southern California. It’s a remarkable, profound change in culture and crime, and one that benefits cities, neighborhoods, and working-class residents most of all. Parks are once again places for kids to play. This is part due to dictates in the underworld, from organizations like the Mexican Mafia, who want their business protected.
But it’s also due to an unprecedented amount of collaboration among law enforcement. In the 1980s and 1990s, this didn’t exist. Agencies fought each other for credit, turf, budget, as the gangs grew fierce and brazen. But the last decade or more has seen a remarkable change and that too you could see at the press conference.
At the press conference, cops of all stripes assembled to thank each other for working together. The feds thanked the locals. The locals thanked each other and the feds.
“I want to give special thanks to our law enforcement partners,” said Pomona Police Chief Mike Olivieri.
(For the record, apart from Pomona PD, that includes the FBI’s San Gabriel Safe Streets Task Force, the LA County Sheriff’s Department, ATF, the DEA, Ontario Police Department, the IRS Criminal Division, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Division.)
“Today’s action is not an isolated event. Southern California law enforcement is united in its fight against violent criminals and street gangs,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, continuing the theme.
I’ve been to a dozen of these gang-conspiracy press conferences and I always like it when they thank each other. Because it wasn’t always that way.
Speaking with a prosecutor outside the press conference, we marveled at the change and wondered how the trauma of the 1980s and 1990s might have been avoided had this kind of collaboration been more common
In 2011, I went to the graduation of the Citizens Academy at LAPD. This is a 10-week academy the department offers to the community to familiarize citizens with how officers do their jobs.
This one was for the LGBTQ community, at the department’s training facility at Elysian Park. Entering, I passed a bust of former Chief Darryl Gates. I took a seat and watched the graduation. The valedictorian was a transgender woman, a student at Cal State Northridge. As she spoke, I was struck by the moment. It was an amazing thing, given all the department had been under the man whose statue stood a couple dozen yards away.
I remembered that moment when I heard the news that another L.A. police chief, Charlie Beck, had announced his retirement last week.
The tenure of any chief is complicated, especially in a complicated city like L.A., and crime ebbs and flows from year to year. But it’s important, at moments like these, I think, to reflect on the larger picture.
The LA Times noted Beck was leaving amid “a stubborn uptick in crime” – four years of crime rising. But truth is, that’s only when you’re marking time as having begun in the last few years. And that’s a very short-sighted view, pampered by the new reality, which is this: Crime in L.A. has fallen dramatically, in some cases to levels not seen since the 1960s.
We’re now in the eighth year of fewer than 300 killings. As of mid-December, Los Angeles had registered 271 killings in 2017. For 1967, when the city’s population was a quarter smaller, the city registered 281.
That’s a stunning feat. Even more so because it takes place in a city with a maelstrom of languages, cultures – from Nigeria and Bangladesh to Korea and Mexico – and neighborhoods, not to mention gaping economic differences, rising homelessness and more.
Crucial in all this and equally stunning: Gangs have largely stopped the public behavior that did so much to crush working-class neighborhoods. Families in those neighborhoods don’t face the risk to their children they once did. Business owners no longer have massive graffiti to paint over every month.
Homeowners in black and Latino neighborhoods are now able to unlock the value of their homes – in both sales and home-equity loans – in a way that was impossible a decade ago. Gangs, after all, were always the best rent control.
In several neighborhoods, it’s now fashionable to put up wood-slat fences. They look great, but when I saw the first one I thought it would be a matter of minutes before it was tagged in some way. I’ve seen those same fences unmarred for months now, years in a couple cases. Those wood-slat fences mark a major change of street culture for Los Angeles.
Gangs still exist in L.A. and are involved in criminal activity – though I believe they are far smaller in number than before. But their activity is no longer the public stuff — the drive-by shootings, car jackings, taking over a park or apartment complex etc – that so used to blight and create life-threatening danger in the places they called their territory.
A lot went into all these changes and it’s not all due to Beck or even to LAPD alone.
But the new department is one of the most transformed institutions in California civic life in the last 25 years, as that Citizens Academy graduation made clear. Spend time in any LAPD station watching the officers come and go and you’ll see this very clearly. I think it’s foolish, and short-sighted, to believe that that transformation had nothing to do with the current safe conditions in Los Angeles today.
Any department faces conflict, drama, willful personalities, and rogue officers. It’s a rough job and we ask police officers to be our marital counselors, mental health professionals, our surrogate fathers and mothers, and a whole lot more, as well as our crime fighters.
All that’s the day-to-day.
But when a chief announces his retirement, there are more important facts – and a longer view – to consider.
My 40th high school reunion is this Saturday. I’m going.
I’ve been to all my high school reunions. They’re fun. Kind of weird, awkward at times, but fun. I like to think of them as great social experiments. Seeing where people landed who started more or less in the same spot. Not quite like those 7 Up movies from Britain, but something like that.
I grew up in Claremont, a small college town 35 miles east of Los Angeles. It was a great place to grow up, if you overlooked the milk-chocolate smog covering the huge mountains nearby.
As years passed, I noted that I kept in far greater touch with friends from high school than folks whom I met later in life had kept in touch with theirs. John Kennedy, David Fissel, Scott Edwards, Sara Kaviar, Norman Gee, Paul Rohrer, Arthur Cain, Alison Cain, and a few others. I’ll see a few of these folks, though probably not all. They’re all doing well, scattered about.
With John, I went to my first rock concert: Mountain and Canned Heat at the Long Beach Civic Auditorium. 1974. That was a loud show, and Leslie West and the guys from Canned Heat sure were fat. Canned Heat’s singer wore big blue overalls with the word “Boogie” in rhinestones across the chest.
Around that time I was forming fierce, highly convincing arguments that Leslie West was the world’s greatest guitar player. I had a lot of those kinds of arguments back then. I also argued that Kiss would be a “where are they now” story by the time we graduated.
Years later, I spent a lot of time traveling around Europe playing guitar in the streets and plazas for money with Arthur Cain. That was a lot of fun. Good thing to do.
A few of my high school chums have died. Steve Arena and Phil Cornell passed not long after high school. I wish I could see them again.
One guy I haven’t seen almost since before graduation is Robert O’Conner. We were Buddhists together in a group called Nichirenshoshu Sokagakkai of America (NSA), where we chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
It’s from Japan but was pretty big in the states back in the 1970s when a lot of California suburban kids assumed that any eastern religion was cool and worth checking out. Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner were members.
I started when I had pretty long hair.
For NSA, I cut my hair. For a while I even tried to learn the bagpipes. I was also in a couple pageants – on the outfield of Angel Stadium and once at Dodger Stadium – that looked something like Up With People.
As a Buddhist organization, NSA was wary of appearing too eastern and mystical and weird, so it went the other way, wanting to assimilate into the squarest of American culture. Hence these pageants – dancing to show tunes on the Dodger outfield. For NSA during the USA Bicentennial, I literally marched in a nighttime parade up 6th Avenue in New York City dressed as a Minuteman with a three-corner hat and a suit lined with lights that were battery-powered and lit up in 4/4 time. No lie.
I was a Buddhist from end of my freshman year at CHS to my sophomore year in college, then I quit. I was happy to be in it when I was – helped me weather adolescence — and happy to leave it when I did.
Through Facebook, Robert tells me he’s got a nice husband and career as an artist in Hawaii, all of which makes me feel good. Looks like he’ll be at the reunion, so that’ll be nice.
I played basketball in high school, though not well. I didn’t improve the way I should have. Senior year was a tough one. Had a falling out with the coach, who never could pronounce my last name, but that wasn’t why we had a falling out. He resigned a year or two later, though not because of me. He went on to coach a college team that holds the distinction of being the only team to lose to the Cal Tech basketball team in the last 30 years or so.
Oh well. I still love the smell of wood-floor gyms. I still play basketball and I’m teaching my daughter, who’s 10.
Unlike most folks at the reunion, whom I suspect are close to grandparenthood, I’m just getting started in the fatherhood game. I’m liking it, though.
When I was young, Claremont was a guitar mecca. This was due to the influence of the 1960s/1970s, the five colleges in town, and a local music store: Claremont Folk Music Center, where I took my first guitar lessons (folk music, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”) from Dorothy Chase, who owned it with her husband, Charles. Ben Harper is their grandson.
(Claremont also had one of the first In-N-Outs, which taught us all what good fast food is.)
Claremont had(s) David Lindley and one of Emmylou Harris’s lead guitar players, whose brother was my guitar teacher later, after I learned to bend notes, which changed my life entirely. After I was taught that bending guitar notes was possible (Jimmy Reed, “Bright Lights Big City”), it seemed to suggest all kinds of things might be bent as well.
It wasn’t long before I was listening to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality on our family’s old record player over and over. And from there, many years later, to George Jones and Sun Ra. Guitar-note bending will do that.
I think I probably knew 20 people who played guitar. I kept playing, though not well. Three chords, maybe a minor 6th. Enough to play Rolling Stones songs. (Never a major seventh, though. I can’t stand that chord. Ever heard “Color My World” by Chicago? That starts with a major seventh.)
Anyway, the best guitar player in my class was a guy named Pebber Brown. Maybe I’ll see Pebber this reunion. When I want to, I can watch him teaching and shredding away on Youtube.
Another guy, Martin Maudal, played some wicked drums in a band with Pebber, but now he makes guitars: Maudal Musical Machines. I think I’ll see Martin. Also, a guy from my class named Robert Elhai is a composer and writes soundtracks, last I heard anyway. Jim Earl and Barry Lank once had a pretty hip comedy duo. They were in my class – that’s Claremont High School, 1977.
Sid Robinson is a city councilman in Upland. We’re about that age now where some of us are city councilmen, or supervisors, or principals, or something in charge.
All in all, not a bad production for one high school class – and I’m leaving out a lot of folks.
I’ll be interested to see whether any of the girls I had crushes on show up. I remember, though, that that was a tormentingly large group, so probably some of them won’t. Not sure if my old girlfriend will or won’t.
Actually, I don’t know who’ll show up. Of course no one wants to go to a high school reunion on parole or something. A guy from the CHS year before mine aimed high and ripped off a Brinks Armored Car of $1 million. Very successful at his chosen trade, he was never seen again. So reunions tend to be kind of self-selecting. But then the really successful folks often have moved far away, so there’s that balancing it all out. Karen Huffman, our homecoming queen, ended up, last I saw her many years ago, as a curator at the Getty Museum. How many schools’ homecoming queens that you know ended up curating exhibits at major museums?
My grandfather, an illegitimate kid abandoned by his mother and thus an outcast in his Spanish village, always wanted to go home to show all the folks who’d treated him poorly that he’d made it in America, all by himself.
But the Depression, World War II, and the distance from Pennsylvania to Spain kept him from doing it. He (on the right in the photo) died in the 1950s, never having gone back.
I know that family reunions are huge business in Appalachia. That’s because so many have left the region, gone in search of work, yet don’t lose the connections to back home. Many go home every year, sometimes for months. West Virginia’s family-reunion business is massive, I was reading someplace. Same with Kentucky’s. Literally people do not lose touch with the place they left 50-60 years before.
So I have something in common with them.
Same with Mexican immigrants.
Years after high school, I lived in Mexico for a long time where I learned that they have their own version of these reunions – realizing yearly what my grandfather wanted to do just once but never could. They would return to their home villages for the annual fiesta, and throw huge parties, come dressed in fancy clothes. Usually it was the migrants who could afford to spend a lot of money who would go home. You didn’t want to go home poor-mouthing it. I remember they didn’t tell too many people back home about how hard they had to work to earn that money. (Mexican cops got used to shaking these folks down as they drove home. Highway 15 along Mexico’s Pacific Coast was a treasure-trove for cops.)
All that makes me think that the urge to go home and see everyone you grew up with is pretty universal – particularly if life’s been good.
ONE FINAL NOTE: That urge is a big reason why poor guys in Mexico get into drug trafficking. The kind of money you can make and the rep you develop are great ways of showing others back at the local fiesta how really well you’ve done, and of having other guys envy you, and of getting all the girls to want to talk to you. Especially if you’re buying beer for everyone in the plaza.
So maybe a high school reunion is really just like some get-together of local Mexican drug traffickers or an Appalachian family reunion.
The city will register only 280 homicides for all of 2015. That would seem sad, and for 280 victims and their families and friends, it most certainly is – I can say this as a reporter who has covered hundreds of murders in his career. I know how murder can destroy not just one life, but the lives of the surviving family as well.
To understand, however, why that number could actually be encouraging news, a remarkable event, you need the context. Here’s some:
Pitched as a 10 percent increase, 280 homicides is actually the city’s third lowest homicide figure since 2000 and part of a drop in crime that has been going on since roughly 2007. In fact, apart from 2013-2014, the city hasn’t had that few homicides since 1967, when L.A.’s population was a third smaller than it is today (roughly 2.4 million people then compared with 3.8 million today).
You’ll remember, perhaps, that in August there was a collective freak-out at the increase in homicides that month. I thought folks should have maintained some calm and context, and dealt with it seriously and professionally, which is what it appears LAPD proceeded to do. The rest of the year saw monthly homicide numbers fall again.
My guess is that in a heavily armed culture, and a very large city, we won’t see homicides dropping to, say, 200 a year. So it’s possible that we’re at about the lowest crime levels a city the size of L.A. can reasonably produce. I’d love to be proved wrong, but barring a deep change in our permissive gun culture or a massive tax increase doubling the size of the LAPD, I’d bet against it.
If those numbers crept up consistently year after year, that would be cause for great concern. But at this point, if crime figures rise 10 percent, or drop by that much, from one year to the next, it’s worth understanding and addressing with calm and context — but not frothing over.
I say this after, again, years as a crime reporter, and fully aware that some areas of the city, and of the region, still have serious problems and that these need attention.
Nor am I saying murder is okay if it’s below a certain number. Just that there are stories we ought also to pay attention to.
The real story is not that crime or homicide rose 10 percent.
The real story is that, while we witness blooms of intercultural savagery around the world, in our region of races, languages, and religions from every corner of the globe, crime has become negligible – a minor part of life and not just for wealthy folks, but, importantly and especially, for working people.
Some notorious headlines notwithstanding – yes, Rodney King, we can all get along and, by and large, in Southern California, we are. In the end, the 2015 homicide figures, as painful as they are for some families, did reflect that.
(Hate crime, btw, is almost nonexistent, certainly compared to the volume and the sheer violence of those crimes in the early and mid-2000s, most of them committed by Latino street gangs against blacks, which you can read more about in a chapter essay that I wrote for this anthology.)
The real story is that this drop in crime began during the country’s Great Recession, and is taking place in a region where poorly paid service jobs have replaced so many good-paying union jobs with solid benefits; where dense apartment complexes have replaced so many single-family homes.
The real story is how many working-class neighborhoods, where murder once stunted life and commerce, are now mercifully at peace, and property values are reflecting that.
This morning I was out on a street that was notorious for its gang in the 1990s. I found it quiet, pleasant, unscarred by graffiti. On the contrary, the houses seemed improved, freshly painted – one of many such neighborhoods all across Southern California.
Later, I was in Lincoln Park, talking with Braulio Garcia, a Mexican immigrant who has owned La Guadalupana Market (pictured above) since 1988. Up to about decade ago, he said, gangs were everywhere in Lincoln Park. A few blocks away is a gang mural, apparently from the 1990s, that lists the members of the neighborhood crew, and giving an RIP to a few friends who didn’t make it. Now, Mr. Garcia told me, he doesn’t see gangs or their graffiti at all.
Certainly lifted my spirits.
So on that note I’ll leave you, while daring to suggest that things are looking up, and hoping, meanwhile, that we have a Happy New Year, one and all.
So the woman apparently swore allegiance to ISIS on Facebook – that’s what AP and others report – meaning she viewed her womb as nothing more than cover. Staying in the US while deflecting suspicion – what better way than to have a child.
Meanwhile, Republicans are talking terrorism. Democrats talk guns.
Both are right.
As this case unfolds, it seems to have more to do with fanaticism than anything else. The real question is, as this fanaticism spreads, should we be complicit in our own demise?
The ISIS connection, I guess, now doesn’t surprise me. This couple clearly had been planning some attack, given all the ammunition (thousands of rounds) and tools they possessed to make a dozen pipe bombs. So her entry into this country should only be viewed with suspicion.
Then, within a few years of returning from Saudi Arabia (home of Wahabi fanatics and the oil that we are addicted to), they’re married, with an infant daughter and, after much late-night work, they choose a holiday party of county employees a few weeks before Christmas to go off, kill people and leave their daughter an orphan.
All of that reeked with something more sophisticated than the typical insane killer a la Tucson or Aurora.
But the guy was a U.S. citizen, mild-mannered, county employee, from a family of at least one decorated US Navy sailor. How many of those are there in our country? Millions.
The question is: How easy are we making it for terrorists to do their job when someone can buy these kinds of assault weapons? That someone bought them for them is no surprise. This kind of straw purchase takes place at Arizona gun shows all the time. L.A. street gangs get their weapons this way, too.
Why is that an easy thing to do? That should not be easy – I see no reason why it should be legal in most cases at all. These guns are designed for the simple mowing down of people. Nothing else. Why don’t we know where each of those guns is and who owns them?
Senate Republicans just voted en masse against a bill that would have prevented the sale of arms to people on the FBI’s terrorism watchlist. That seems irresponsible. Particularly as they don’t appear to have any other solution to this problem, other than the mass arming of every American, a fanatical idea itself, it seems to me.
That is their final solution: A garrison state outside every holiday party and keeping the world out of the country.
Given Paris, Colorado Springs, South Carolina and now this, we are confronting something that combines classic political fanaticism with run-of-the-mill insanity. Mixing one more than the other, depending on the case.
Dostoevsky had some things so say about that in his novel, The Devils, also known as The Possessed – an 1872 novel increasingly relevant to our times. It’s the denial of the individual, of one’s own existence, doubts, intellect, love and connection to others — all that prostrate before some perceived higher cause. At the same time, it’s an attempt to shred, destroy community, the public coming together of human beings.
Southern California has seen this before. The best example I’m aware of is in our street gangs, where nothing short of a brainwashing occurs in kids in their teens, teaching them that their 12-square-block area, their clica, is worth you dying or going to prison for. Hence, they dominated parks and street corners and didn’t pay too much attention to where their bullets flew. Saw that many times.
Heroin addicts display these brainwashed characteristics in devotion to their dope, I’ve noticed.
We saw it, too, in Colorado Springs or South Carolina, where loonies were killing for what they perceived was some higher cause. Even the Tucson guy, who was out of his mind, had some higher calling in mind, even if he couldn’t articulate it in a way any of us could understand.
In San Bernardino, the fanaticism is especially pronounced, of course. Even a womb was employed in its furtherance.
The guy now seems a toady in comparison with the blind devotion of this woman he married – though we can only take that verb with a grain of salt.
What gives greatest pause is the couple’s target. Unlike the targets of previous killings, it’s unclear what a holiday party of county employees has to do with the larger goals of ISIS. Unless, of course, it’s simply to kill the way Americans live, the openness with which we conduct everyday life.
Any target is fine – place or human. That seems the clear conclusion here: sowing fear, shredding community, isolating us from each other.
Question is, then: Given that keeping that attitude out is almost impossible, are we going to be complicit in our demise?
A list of victims in San Bernardino reads like the wondrous cross-section of America that makes this country such a beacon to the rest of the world, so threatening to fanatics (foreign and domestic), and which is under attack by these now daily shootings everywhere.
They were Vietnamese, Latino, white, black, Jewish, Christian, gay, straight. One guy dressed as Santa Claus every year; another guy trained autistic kids to work in the cafe in the center where this happened and volunteered for the Renaissance Faire every year.
“Faire teaches us that everyone’s ideas are valid,” one man who knew him told the LA Times. “It gives us a greater understanding of each other and the world in general.”
Quite. The antidote to fanaticism is the Renaissance Faire. I buy that.
Which makes it hard, painful to watch the details of who these people were come out.
Meanwhile, this story continues to mess with our conceptions, including my own.
I’ve covered several of these and I always expect the shooters to be white American men, because so many of them have been.
This time … a mild-mannered US-born killer of Pakistani extraction, living in SoCal suburbia, perhaps radicalized by a trip to Saudi Arabia (What a surprise! When do we wean ourselves from the oil this country controls?). There, he got engaged and somehow got his woman into the country, where she was next seen shooting it out with cops Bonnie and Clyde style after killing and wounding people at a holiday party.
Still my question is: Who has a daughter six months before and decides then that today is just a great day to leave her an orphan? And why/how would you come to that conclusion?
And then why would you think that killing people you work with, who just months before had thrown you a baby shower, is the answer to your torments? If terrorism is your goal, how does taking out a holiday party in San Bernardino, far in every way from power, fulfill it?
Clearly he wasn’t insane, in the way that the South Carolina guy or Tucson or Aurora guys probably were. They were obviously planning something for a long time, with that much ammunition and weaponry on hand – all with an infant in the house. 12 pipe bombs, thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Of course, religious fanaticism is one of the few things that will deny the parenting instinct. So maybe that’s it. Saw a similar kind of fanaticism in Colorado Springs last week.
My hometown of Claremont, California’s own Kaleidoscope was one of the great bands of the late 1960s.
David Lindley and Chris Darrow were two of its mainstays.
My dad bought Side Trips at a street fair at Pitzer College where the band performed, brought it home and we played the hell out of this album for the next five years, until it basically could not be triaged.
Kaleidoscope, like many musicians in town back then, melded folk, bluegrass, psychedelia, Middle Eastern music, R&B, and about two dozen instruments between them.
Makes you realize how rich in musicians, guitar players mostly, was Claremont in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s – due largely to the Folk Music Center and the five colleges, which, apart from CMC, had a pretty rich hippie scene. I remember because I accompanied my dad to a few anti-Vietnam marches when I was like 8 or so. Got a shirt stencil-painted with a clenched fist. Those were the days.
We were from the Claremont that’s south of Foothill, which only people from the town then will understand.
There’s great original music all the way through this record. But the dirge “Oh Death” seems fitting to the season.
Last year, Californians were asked to approve Prop. 47, which made misdemeanors of several felonies.
The idea was to send fewer people to prison and a majority of Californians voters approved it. I wasn’t one of them.
I voted against Prop. 47 for exactly the reason mentioned in a recent op-ed piece in the LA Times: that addicts frequently need the threat of jail or prison to get their minds around the idea of entering rehab.
The threat of prison was, in other words, a rock bottom from which some could achieve recovery.
This comes from interviews with many recovering addicts whose lives were saved by being arrested, by going to jail and facing prison time.
The idea that government or society should play no role in pushing addicts into recovery is foolish, dangerous, too. It does no one any good to remove that threat.
But that’s what Prop. 47 does, to the detriment of folks addicted to drugs, I believe.
The op-ed makes the point that it’s leading to an increase in crime. That may be true. But from my standpoint, having written Dreamland, and seeing widespread addiction to pain pills and now heroin across America, it is the former reasoning that makes most sense, particularly given how horrifying difficult it is for so many to kick their habits.
Prop. 47 couldn’t have come at a worse time. Addicts need any kind of impetus they can get. Unfortunately, for many in California, it no longer exists.
The latest homicide figures in Los Angeles have set off a shriek-a-thon that is weird and seems to me fed by 24-hour-news culture, which is dangerous because it is utterly devoid of context.
I believe in police accountability, smart deployment of officers and using Big Data to analyze crime trends and respond to them. I also believe it is important to hold elected officials accountable on how city resources are used and deployed.
But as citizens, we too have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable. We are duty-bound to get a grip, seek context, not start shrieking for shrieking’s sake.
By using only rates of increase, those who talk about this latest “surge” in crime are avoiding context.
And here it is: The city has had 185 homicides in eight-plus months – an average of about 24 a month. It’s unlikely to maintain that pace, as August almost always registers the highest numbers of homicides and adds briefly to the statistical average. But even if it does, the city will still tally fewer or roughly equal to the number of homicides of any year this century.
That is not to say that LAPD doesn’t need to readjust its force deployment. I’m not a police commander, but if one month shows that kind of increase (41 homicides in August), stands to reason it would require a reassessment.
Nor do I say this to play down what it means to have homicides in one’s neighborhood. I’ve covered more homicides than almost any reporter I know, and I understand more deeply than most, I believe, what they do to a family, and to a neighborhood, to a city. So I do not say this to make light of what’s happened in parts of L.A.
But we too have a duty, a responsibility, to remain sane, to appreciate the stunningly positive story of what has happened to crime in Southern California (and gangs above all), to not start shrieking over every little statistical increase.
And above all, to use context. Context. As a journalist, I can say that without it you are lost.
Six percent of Americans are black men. Forty percent of homicide victims are black men, most by far killed by other black men, though many of the cases remain unsolved.
This kind of impunity is the result not of too much policing but of far too little. Too often police in places like South L.A. are swamped, given the caseload and resources at their disposal. They can make little of each murder case, which, once unsolved, strengthens the culture of impunity and of witness silence, and encourages more murder.
That is the analysis of my colleague at the L.A. Times, Jill Leovy, in her great new book, Ghettoside, based on years of her reporting and research in South Los Angeles.
I’m only a little way into the book, having purchased it only last night. But this already seems like some of the most original, clear, observation-driven thinking on crime that I’ve read in years – and brave as well given the current discourse over policing in the black community.
Here’s some of what she writes:
“…where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. … African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides. Specifically, black America has not benefited from what Max Weber called a state monopoly on violence – the government’s exclusive right to exercise legitimate force. … Slavery, Jim Crow, and conditions across much of black America for generations after worked against the formation of such a monopoly. Since personal violence inevitably flares where the state’s monopoly is absent, this situation results in the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.”