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Defining Moment: Will California End Its Money Bail System?

“The current cash bail system is the modern equivalent of a debtor’s prison,” says California State Senator Bob Hertzberg. “It criminalizes poverty, pure and simple.” BY JIM CROGAN

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A nationwide movement that began 53 years ago to reform the pretrial incarceration and money bail process has finally reached the legislative committees and political bargaining tables in Washington and Sacramento. Reform advocates – including legislators, prosecutors, attorneys, judges and grassroots organizations – contend that the use of a money bail system for pretrial release is unfair to the poor and unsafe for the public.

In 1964, then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy told the Senate: “Every year in this country, thousands of persons are kept in jail for weeks and even months following arrest. They are not yet proven guilty. They may be no more likely to flee than you or I. But nonetheless, most of them must stay in jail because to be blunt, they cannot afford to pay for their freedom.”

Kennedy’s efforts helped pass the Criminal Justice Act of 1964 and the Bail Reform Act of 1966, which created a presumption of release before trial for most federal defendants, and mostly did away with the money bail system in federal proceedings. But not for local and state jurisdictions, which account for most of the country’s jail population and in which the money-bail system still controls the release of defendants, dangerous or not. Only two countries, the U.S. and the Philippines, currently use the money bail system, according to California legislators.

Four months ago California State Senator Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) introduced the California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017 — identical pieces of legislation (Senate Bill 10 and Assembly Bill 42) that would phase out excessive money bail systems statewide for most misdemeanors and some nonviolent felonies. And this past March, Los Angeles-area Congressman Ted Lieu introduced the No Money Bail Act of 2017 in Washington.

Median bail in California is $50,000. If an arrestee uses a bail bond agent, he or she has to pay the agent a nonrefundable 10 percent for release – in the case of the median bond, that’s $5,000. Even bail for many misdemeanors can run over $1,000 – still beyond the reach of many indigent defendants. This results in poor defendants spending weeks or months in jail awaiting trial, causing the loss of jobs, homes, cars and in many cases, the family’s primary breadwinner.

According to a report issued by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), more than 62 percent of county jail inmates are awaiting trials or sentencing, translating into about 46,000 Californians on a daily basis, say Hertzberg and Bonta. Most remain in jail because they can’t afford bail.

“The current cash bail system is the modern equivalent of a debtor’s prison — it criminalizes poverty, pure and simple,” Hertzberg told a December news conference when he and Bonta introduced their legislation.

“In many cases,” added Bonta, “if you have enough money to pay your bail, you can get out of jail regardless of whether you are a danger to the public or a flight risk. But if you’re poor and not a flight risk or a danger to the public, you are forced to stay in jail, even when the charge is a misdemeanor. That’s not justice.”

Ato Walker of San Jose shared his own story at that same press conference.

“I was falsely accused of something and went to jail for five days,” Walker told reporters.

“My bail was $165,000 initially and through the arraignment my bail got to be down to $85,000,” he said. “And that’s after I had hundreds of letters of support from people in my community saying I was a decent human being…but still inside the courtroom the district attorney said it seems like he’s a threat to society and the judge went with that.”

Walker was released, he said, when his mother, a retired U.S. Postal Service worker, came up with the 10 percent he needed to pay a bail agent.

A choked-up Walker, who was there with his young son, said he recognized he would have had to stay in jail. “If my mother had not stepped up and taken money out of her retirement account … [she did] that so I could be there to support my family.”

When Walker eventually went to his pretrial proceeding, he said, the charges against him were dropped. But his mother lost the money she had to give a bail agent to get him out of lockup.

Walker said he appreciated the support that he got from his family and the community, but that he knew that many poor detainees don’t have that support and he wanted to publicly thank the politicians who are trying to change the current bail system.

Bonta and Hertzberg are heading a coalition of support that includes Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, the American Civil Liberties Union, Californians for Safety and Justice, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Essie Justice Group, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Service Employees Union International, California, and others.

Instead of relying exclusively on a money bail system that forces people to pay nonrefundable deposits to private companies, Bonta and Hertzberg are seeking a system that follows the lead of the federal government, the District of Columbia’s local courts and a number of other states that have already reformed their systems.

Those systems rely mainly on pretrial services and assessment examinations to cut down on the pretrial jail population, thereby saving tax money, increasing rates of court appearances by detainees who have been bailed out and protecting the public by refusing bail to inmates deemed a danger to society or a flight risk, no matter how much money they have.

Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) a coauthor of AB 42, said at the December news conference that research has shown that “prisoners held two or three days are 22 percent more likely to fail to come to court.”

The proposed legislation, as currently written, will require counties to set up a “pretrial services agency that would be responsible for gathering information about newly arrested persons, conducting pretrial risk assessments, preparing individually tailored recommendations to the court and providing pretrial services and supervision to persons on pretrial release.” It also:

  • Provides for the use of “unsecured appearance bonds,” by which defendants agree to pay a specific amount if he or she fails to appear in court.
  • Gives reminders to defendants about upcoming court dates, and helps with transportation, if needed. Money bail options are included in these bills, provided the bail is the “least restrictive necessary to assure the appearance” in court, and the court must conduct an inquiry to determine the defendant’s ability to pay the bail.
  • Enables prosecutors to file a motion for pretrial detention and precludes people from being eligible for pretrial release if they are charged with a capital crime, a felony involving violence or sexual assault, or if the person’s release would likely result in harm to others, or if the person had threatened harm to others.

Hertzberg’s bill passed through the Senate Public Safety Committee by a 5 to 1 vote in early April and is headed to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Bonta’s version of the bill receives a hearing Tuesday in the State Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety.

The cost to house California inmates averages about $114 per day, according to the PPIC. In Los Angeles the average cost for Fiscal Year 2015-2016 was slightly more than $178 per day, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which reports that about $797 million – or 24 percent of the department’s total budget – goes to operate the county’s jail system.

There’s been no study done in L.A. County regarding how many inmates remain in its jail system because they are too poor to post a money bail, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Nicole Nishida.

Based on the experience of other locales, Bonta said, he’s learned that most nonviolent offenders will show up for their court appearances and not commit additional crimes after they’ve been released from jail without posting a money bond. “I also learned that over 50 percent of the jail cells were being taken up by people who couldn’t pay bail,” Bonta said, noting that the current money bail system is “clearly discriminatory against the poor and people of color.”

In addition to a mandatory pretrial risk assessment examination, Bonta told Capital & Main, he’s also open to using ankle monitoring systems and even small bail amounts — for example, $100 — as a very last resort.

Beth Chapman, the wife and business partner of the reality TV bounty hunter, Duane “Dog’ Chapman, has testified before a federal Court of Appeals panel that “People are not in jail because they’re poor. They are trying to paint a picture that all poor people are languishing in jail, and it just isn’t true.” She has also appeared in Breitbart News interviews on the subject of bail reform, which the right-wing site has connected to plots allegedly hatched by billionaire George Soros and others.

Beth Chapman with husband, Dog the Bounty Hunter (L): “People are not in jail because they're poor."Beth Chapman with husband, Duane “Dog” Chapman (L): “People are not in jail because they’re poor.”

Capital & Main’s repeated phone calls for comment to the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, a trade group Beth Chapman heads, were not returned. The organization’s website, though, warns in red letters that “The bail industry is under attack!” Capital & Main’s calls to another bail-bonds trade organization, the California Bail Agents Association, were also not returned.

Jeff Clayton is the executive director of the Lakewood, Colorado-based American Bail Coalition, a 10-year-old trade association representing insurance underwriters of bail bonds across the country. In California, he said, all bail bonds must be underwritten by an insurance company.

Clayton told Capital & Main that nationwide, the bail bond industry is a multibillion dollar business and that lobbying efforts against the California and House versions of bail reform are in full swing. He insisted the vast majority of bonds issued help guarantee that defendants would show up for court.

Clayton acknowledged that there were problems related to the top 10 percent of bonds issued to defendants who could be dangerous or flight risks, and to the bottom 10 percent of indigent defendants.

He said that the industry would be open to working with legislatures to fix those problems, especially regarding misdemeanor defendants.

Clayton also said there were discussions underway with Hertzberg and Bonta’s offices on their proposed bills and that he felt confident that a “viable compromise,” which would maintain the money bail process in California, could be worked out.

Ted Lieu’s previous No Money Bail Act died in the House last year. His 2017 version is short and straightforward. It would prohibit the payment of money as a condition of pretrial release in any federal case. (Federal judges can still order property bonds as a condition of release.) It would also amend the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to make any state that did not reform its bail system within three years of passage and signing of this law, ineligible for funding under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program.

In Fiscal Year 2016 California received more than $28.9 million in JAG awards, with more than $10.7 million going to counties and cities, and more than $18.2 million going to the California Board of State and Community Corrections, according to Lieu’s office.

“Some conservatives and libertarians have shown interest because reform will save tax money and the bill is flexible on how states can handle the reform process,” Lieu said. “Kentucky is a very red state and yet they have instituted reform measures in their bail system.”

The U.S. Justice Department, under former President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, also weighed into the debate over bail reform, filing friend-of-the-court briefs in several cases in Georgia and Alabama in 2015 and 2016 — calling money bail systems that continue to jail defendants because they are poor unconstitutional. Civil rights division attorneys filed court papers stating categorically that “bail practices that incarcerate indigent individuals before trial solely because of their inability to pay for their release violate the Fourteenth Amendment.” Justice Department attorneys also stated, “Fixed bail schedules that allow for the pretrial release of only those who can pay, without accounting for the ability to pay unlawfully discriminate based on indigence.”

Washington, DC’s local courts have the most experience using a pretrial release system that is based on inmate assessments rather than money bail. Cliff Keenan is the director of DC’s Pretrial Services Agency, a federally funded, independent entity within the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency charged with formulating release recommendations and providing supervision and services to defendants awaiting trial. His office handles some 22,000 cases a year, including 4,000 felonies and 17,000 misdemeanors.

Keenan told Capital & Main that the District stopped using any money as a condition of pretrial release in 1992, when a new Bail Reform Act mandated that defendants would receive a hearing with 24 hours of their detention to determine their release status. The act’s reforms have also enabled judges to hold defendants without bail, Keenan said, “if they were determined to be a flight risk or a danger to the community or to witnesses in their case.”

While there have been failures, Keenan pointed to his office’s latest published figures showing that “91 percent of released defendants remained arrest-free while their cases were adjudicated; 98 percent of released defendants were not rearrested for a crime of violence while in the community pending trial; 90 percent of released defendants made all scheduled court appearances and 88 percent of released defendants remained on release at the conclusion of their pretrial status.”

New Jersey, the most recent state to reform its former money bail release system, began its new system in January. Elie Honig, New Jersey’s Director of the Division of Criminal Justice, told Capital & Main the bail reform process began in 2014 and first required a vote to change the state’s constitution so that dangerous criminals charged with non-capital crimes could be held without bail after their arrest.

“The reforms have focused more of our attention on dangerous cases – and in those cases prosecutors are fighting hard for detention without bail,” Honig said. The first report on the impact of the state’s reforms is due by the end of June.

New Jersey’s new system uses a computerized Public Safety Assessment (PSA), six-point tool to quickly issue a score for each defendant based on various risk factors, including the seriousness of the alleged crime, and the defendant’s criminal and court history. The PSA tool, Honig said, was not the endpoint but a starting line for determining whether a defendant could be safely released. The state’s pretrial services agency is then charged with providing a full assessment of a defendant’s risk for release before a judge determines the final outcome.

The new law also mandates a speedy trial system for defendants, Honig continued, requiring that a detained defendant must be arraigned within 90 days of his or her arrest and the case brought to trial within 180 days.

Neither L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey nor the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles would comment on any of the pending bail reform legislation offered by Lieu, Hertzberg or Bonta. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Nicole Nishida told Capital & Main it was “too early [for the sheriff] to comment on this [California legislation] since the language is still being finalized by Senator Hertzberg and Assemblyman Bonta.”

So far, law enforcement opposition includes the Association for Deputy District Attorneys, the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association several uniformed-officer unions.

“I don’t expect Lieu’s legislation to go anywhere,” said the American Bail Coalition’s Jeff Clayton. “States make more money off [taxing] the bail bond industry than they would lose in JAG grants, so I don’t think you can coerce them into making reforms.” Besides, he said, “Cash bonds are tools that judges can use to insure that justice is done. You want to give judges more tools, not take them away.”

Despite a Republican-controlled House and Senate, and the election of Donald Trump as president and a Justice Department now overseen by a hardline conservative, former Alabama U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, Congressman Lieu remains optimistic about his bill’s prospects.

Echoing Bonta and Hertzberg’s assertions that a money bail system was patently discriminatory against the poor and people of color, Lieu noted that there are more than 450,000 people nationwide now sitting in jail — many if not most of whom are there just because they can’t afford to post bail. “America’s criminal justice system isn’t just broken,” Lieu said, “it violates our nation’s core values.” BY JIM CROGAN

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Podcast

LISTEN: How Two African-American Entrepreneurs Are Determined To Change Diets In The Black Community

On the latest episode of “The Bottom Line” podcast, Naturade’s Claude Tellis and Kareem Cook share how their own families’ experience with diabetes has spurred them to promote healthy eating options.

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Many entrepreneurs pride themselves on solving some sort of “pain point” for their customers. But as Claude Tellis and Kareem Cook, the co-owners of health-products provider Naturade make clear, some pain points are a lot more serious than others.

“I had an uncle that went into the doctor, wasn’t morbidly obese or anything, lived in Louisiana and . . . the family was faced with, ‘Do we amputate both of his legs or not?’” Tellis told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “He never made it out of the hospital. He died, and he was about 55 years old.”

Another uncle, says Tellis, who serves as Naturade’s CEO, “was faced with losing a couple toes.” Eventually, “they had to take his leg from the knee down.”

In the African-American community, dealing with this grim loss of life and limb—often brought on by diabetes and peripheral arterial disease—has become disturbingly routine. “You just kind of grew up with insulin in the refrigerator,” says Cook, Naturade’s chief marketing officer.

And so Tellis and Cook have set out to combat this crisis by helping underserved populations—especially those in black neighborhoods—eat better. Their vehicle for sparking change is Naturade, which they acquired in 2012 for $8 million.

Although the Orange, Calif., company is nearly a century old, Tellis and Cook have revamped it completely, including introducing a new product that is now their No. 1 seller: VeganSmart, a plant-based meal replacement that is high in protein, low in sugar, and full of vitamins and minerals. Its suggested retail price is $35 for 15 servings.

“What we really wanted,” says Tellis, “was something that had Whole Foods quality that could be sold to a Walmart consumer.”

To achieve that vision, they’ve built the brand methodically. Step one, Tellis says, was making sure that vegans bought in, so that “people when they look online will see that there’s an authenticity and there’s a rigor” to what’s being offered.

From there, they handed out VeganSmart at Wanderlust yoga festivals, aiming to attract a hip, upscale crowd. This helped advance a “premium viewpoint of the product,” Tellis says.

Finally, there came the last step: bridging into urban America. To catch on there, they’ve adopted an influencer strategy, tapping rappers like Styles P and Da Brat and professional basketball players to promote VeganSmart. (Grant Hill, soon to be inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, is an investor in Naturade.)

The result is a profitable company that is now selling into, among other retailers, both Whole Foods and Walmart—just as Tellis and Cook had planned it.

Not that any of this has come easy. The duo, who met as Duke University students in the early 1990s, have played in the health-food space for more than 15 years now.

Their first venture, launched in 2002, was a vending machine company called Healthy Body Products, which supplied nutritious snacks and drinks instead of junk food and soda. The business won contracts with the Los Angeles Unified School District, but it was difficult to scale. So Cook and Tellis ultimately sold the venture—but not before gaining some insight into what it takes to persuade those in the mainstream to eat right.

At one point, they brought in actor Michael Ealy (then fresh off one of the Barbershop films) to talk to the students about the importance of maintaining a good diet. “One of the biggest things we learned in our first business was how to make it cool,” Tellis explains.

And, of course, if that doesn’t work as a motivator, there’s always a second message to fall back on. “Everyone wants to be cool,” says Cook. “And no one wants to die.”

You can listen to my entire interview with Tellis and Cook here, along with Bridget Huber reporting on Impact America Fund’s efforts to help improve low- to moderate-income areas, and Karan Chopra laying out what small rice farmers in West Africa can teach American business leaders.

The Bottom Line is a production of Capital & Main

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HEALTH

Reports Say Mental Health Services Act Working, But a Few Changes Needed

Californians passed the Mental Health Services Act to transform and expand the reach of the state’s mental health services. A problem, some mental health advocates say, is that the state doesn’t give much guidance on how a county should spend its dollars.

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There’s good news and bad news to be found in a trio of recent reports on the effectiveness of California’s Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). Experts in the field say the findings can be distilled down to this: Money is no longer the issue and the state needs some innovative outreach solutions and a more effective statewide leadership structure to scale up innovative outreach solutions from one county to the whole state.

Voters passed the MHSA, or Proposition 63, in 2004. Spearheaded by then-state Senator Darrell Steinberg, it imposed a one percent tax on Californians earning more than $1 million to transform and expand the reach of the state’s mental health services, including psychiatric care, substance-abuse counseling and permanent supportive housing. MHSA mandates that counties spend 80 percent of the funds on community services for people in immediate mental health crisis and 20 percent on prevention and early intervention. But beyond the 80/20 split the state doesn’t give much guidance on how a county should spend its dollars. And that’s part of the problem, some mental health advocates say.


An audit found that counties had left $2.5 billion in MHSA funds on the table — of which $231 million should have been sent back to Sacramento in the 2015-2016 fiscal year.


The good news: A report released by RAND Health in March shows that at least one county is a success story for expanding access to care. Commissioned by Los Angeles County and covering a period from 2012 to 2016, it’s the first independent analysis of the MHSA’s effects at a county level. RAND found that nearly 130,000 young people – from birth to age 25 – had received MHSA-funded early intervention and prevention treatment by L.A. County. The study also showed that 88 percent of those people, who were determined to be “at risk” but showing no significant sign of mental illness before treatment, remained basically symptom-free in the year following treatment.

RAND also found that during the same period roughly 25,000 children and adults living with serious mental illness had benefited from treatment through full-service partnerships. The study showed that full-service partnerships significantly decreased the overall rates of homelessness.

Debbie Innes-Gomberg, deputy director for Los Angles County’s Department of Mental Health, told Capital & Main, “For me, [the study] was heartening. Children were interacting more with their peers, they had better family relationships, they were doing better in schools. All of the markers that you’d want to obtain happened.”


“There’s also NIMBYism and stigma. I’ve been to hearings in different counties where constituents are yelling with passion about not allowing a crisis care unit in their neighborhood.”


“One of the best features of the MHSA,” she added, “is the money that goes to our Full Service Partnership programs, where there is a low-staff-to-client ratio and intensive outpatient services. People can be seen every day or in emergencies, and that includes people coming in and out of jail, [or who are] homeless, children, youth in juvenile justice and foster care.”

The not-so-good news: A February audit found that California counties had left $2.5 billion in MHSA funds on the table. And of those unused funds, $231 million should have been sent back to Sacramento in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. The audit partly blamed the California Department of Health Care Services, which it said had “not developed a process” to recover the unspent MHSA funds.

The bad news: A March report published by the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF) found some serious gaps in the treatment of mental illness in the state. It concluded that a significant number of adolescents and adults at the lower end of the economic spectrum still don’t receive the mental health treatment they need. and have poorer health outcomes.


“Bureaucracies by their nature are supposed to be stable. But in mental health care, some risks need to be taken.”


Caroline Teare, associate director of High-Value Care at CHCF, said that her organization’s report’s findings did not indicate a failure of the MHSA, but rather a massive, long-term deficit in care for mental illness. “It’s going to take a while to catch up,” Teare said.

She pointed to another recent report compiled by CHCF that showed a behavioral health workforce poorly matched to the California populations in need. “We don’t have enough psychiatrists, and not enough in the pipeline. And in big cities, psychiatrists are more likely to see patients on a cash basis. So you can have insurance and find it hard for anyone to take it.”

Maggie Merritt, executive director at the Steinberg Institute, said the MHSA has been “a game changer” for mental health but that leadership and standardization were needed at the state level.

“L.A. is different than Mono County and they have different needs, so flexibility is good, but not 100 percent flexibility, especially in the area prevention.”

Merritt, who worked with Darrell Steinberg on crafting Prop. 63, noted that “There’s also NIMBYism and stigma. I’ve been to hearings in different counties where constituents are yelling with passion about not allowing a crisis care unit in their neighborhood.”

Adrienne Shilton, the Steinberg Institute’s government affairs director, agreed, and pointed to several possible legislative fixes in Sacramento, including Senate Bill 1004, which would mandate that counties spend a portion of prevention or early intervention funds on early psychosis and mood-detection programs, college mental health outreach, or childhood trauma prevention and early intervention.

Merritt said SB 1004 would provide some statewide strategy and guidance for spending the previously unused dollars. “The bulk of that [unspent money] fell into that prevention and early intervention innovation area,” she said. “We know the need is there. But counties have struggled, and there isn’t that statewide communication channel saying, ‘Here is what the best practices are,’ ‘Here are the outcomes and here is what we can be doing.’”

Another bill in Sacramento, SB 1125, introduced by Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), would allow health clinics to bill Medi-Cal for physical and mental health treatments during one visit.

Shilton said SB 1125 was one way to address a bigger picture to make sure the “brain is treated with the same urgency as physical health.”

Innes-Gomberg said the disparity of care outlined in the CHCF report could partly be solved through more innovative outreach efforts. “The opportunity exists to present mental health services as a mental wellness, or some way for people to not fear these services, and not fear the government, because these are government services.”

To that end, Innes-Gomberg said L.A. County would be using the surplus dollars from MHSA to pay for outreach using technology and “culturally relevant solutions.” That could mean paying for a community concierge in public schools, using volunteers or paid professionals as “cultural brokers” to get the word out about services in Latino communities.

Toby Ewing, executive director of the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, also supports SB 1004 and says it and other possible legislative fixes should help the government perform a tricky balancing act between care standardization and the incentive to innovate.

“Bureaucracies by their nature are supposed to be stable,” he said. “But in mental health care, some risks need to be taken.”


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Culture & Media

Concert for Martin Luther King Jr.

The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles’ Wednesday concert reflects on M.L. King Jr.’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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Bobbi Murray

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Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

Today, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by an assassin’s attack in Memphis. The social justice leader had traveled there to support a strike by sanitation workers, who toiled long hours in sweltering heat for abysmal pay — a workforce that was virtually 100 percent black and whose work status would later be described as “the lowest of the low” by a former Memphis city council member.

“Fifty years ago, Dr. King was organizing with sanitation workers demanding a decent living wage, safe working conditions and recognition of their humanity and dignity,” William D. Smart, a former organizer of Los Angeles port truck drivers and the current CEO and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southern California, told Capital & Main.

“Today, we are organizing with L.A. Port warehouse workers and truck drivers with the same demands.”

Smart is part of an April 4 celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hosted by the SCLC and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest African-American-majority orchestra in the nation. The Wednesday concert event reflects on King’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

It connects solidly with present-day events in the multi-choral work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.

The piece is performed in seven movements to mark the final words of seven unarmed African-American men killed by police or vigilantism.

“As we commemorate Dr. King’s sacrifice,” Smart said, “it’s not beyond us [to know] that while some progress has been made, [it’s] not nearly enough, so the struggle for economic and racial justice continues.”

Event tickets are free but may be scarce now that supporting organizations have been distributing them for the past several days. Doors open 5 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, with a silent tribute at 6:01 p.m. The program starts at 7 p.m. Contact ICYOLA for tickets at 213-788-4260 or www.icyola.org


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Society

Why Has Los Angeles’ DA Been Slow to Expunge Old Pot Convictions?

As San Francisco and San Diego counties moved forward with automatic resentencing for old cannabis-related crimes, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office balked — saying, in effect, that people with convictions were on their own.

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Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey with interim L.A. County Sheriff John Scott, in 2014. (Photo: AP/Nick Ut)

Up to a million Californians have been convicted of crimes that may no longer exist. Those convictions remain on their records, however, and removing them — especially in Los Angeles County — may take years. Proposition 64, the voter-approved 2016 ballot measure, legalized the recreational use of marijuana and reclassified most state-level felony cannabis offenses as misdemeanors. Some misdemeanors were reduced to mere infractions.

This change in the law means that many of those who have a cannabis conviction on their records are eligible for resentencing. Some are even eligible to have old convictions expunged. The chance to remove or reduce existing criminal convictions represents an opportunity to erase an obstacle to finding steady employment or stable housing.


Resentencing past pot offenders can be long and complicated, taking time and money that many people dealing with life after their convictions don’t have.


But now comes the hard part. Prop. 64 allows those convicted of a cannabis offense to petition a judge to have their old convictions reexamined. However, like most procedures in the criminal justice system, resentencing can be long and complicated, and takes time and resources that many people dealing with life after their convictions simply don’t have.

“Even under the new rules, there are still a lot of barriers for folks who have been affected by the criminal justice system,” said Eunisses Hernandez, a policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance in Los Angeles, a group that advocates for the rethinking drugs as a health and non-criminal issue. “Where do you get a copy of your criminal docket? Will you be charged for getting copies of that document? What other documents do you need? Attorneys can charge people $2,000 to do an expungement, but lots of folks don’t have those resources.”

Consequently, while there may be as many as a million cannabis-related convictions eligible for resentencing in California, state statistics show fewer than 5,000 people initiated the process statewide during the first year of the new cannabis rules.

District attorneys’ offices in San Francisco, Alameda and San Diego counties have indicated their willingness to proactively comb through old cannabis conviction records. This review of records means that people with previous cannabis-related convictions in those jurisdictions will see their convictions reduced or expunged automatically.

But as San Francisco and San Diego counties moved forward with automatic resentencing, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office balked. On February 2, District Attorney Jackie Lacey issued a statement saying, in effect, that people with convictions were on their own. Her statement also said that those most affected by these convictions should petition the court “rather than wait for my office to go through tens of thousands of case files.”

Lacey’s problem is one of scale. There are wildly varying estimates of marijuana convictions that should be expunged: San Francisco authorities have identified nearly 5,000 felonies alone, dating back to 1975, and Lacey’s office estimates that 40,000 felonies have been recorded in Los Angeles since 1993; L.A.’s public defender’s office claims there are about 200,000 felony and misdemeanor convictions in the county eligible for expunging. Going through those old case files and evaluating whether they qualify for resentencing or expungement takes time and resources that might not be immediately available.

Less than two weeks after Lacey issued her statement, however, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion announcing that it intends to take steps towards the meaningful criminal-justice reform provided under Prop. 64. That motion, pushed by supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis, instructs several county agencies, including the district attorney’s office, to collaborate and draft a plan for addressing the thousands of cannabis-related convictions in the county, as well as ensuring greater equity in the ever-evolving landscape of legal cannabis.

“The war on drugs led to decades-long racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests and convictions,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said when the motion passed. “We have a responsibility now to seek widespread reclassification and resentencing for those with minor cannabis convictions on their records, including the destruction of court records for youth.”

At the February board meeting, Supervisor Solis said she understands that “the district attorney’s office has concerns and some hesitation. The DA prosecuted more marijuana-related cases than any other jurisdiction in the state of California, and going through those case files would take a lot of time … I would urge our own DA to expand its role in helping people get their records expunged, and help them get their second chance in life. I believe that this board will support those efforts.”

Following the supervisors’ action, Lacey’s office revised its public posture, telling Capital & Main in an email:

“In response to the board’s motion, the District Attorney’s Office is committed to working with the Public Defender’s Office and other county departments to create an equitable solution that will make it easier for people seeking to reduce or dismiss prior convictions involving marijuana to get the legal relief to which they are entitled under Proposition 64.”

The goal, looking forward, is for the district attorney’s office, working with several other county agencies, to have a plan ready for the supervisors to consider by June. But exactly how the county is going to do that remains an open question.

“It would be best if the DA would take responsibility and reduce or reclassify the 40,000 marijuana felonies that currently exist in the system,” said the Drug Policy Alliance’s Hernandez.

For Jonatan Cvetko, founder of the cannabis advocacy organization Angeles Emeralds, “the best thing would be if people just get a nice letter in the mail saying, ‘Your record has been expunged. Have a nice day.’ Considering that San Francisco and San Diego are taking that route, there’s no reason in the world why Los Angeles County cannot be following suit.”


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Two Years of Official Silence Since a Controversial Inglewood Police Shooting

Los Angeles’ district attorney has had the violent deaths of Kisha Michael and Marquintan Sandlin under review for 477 days and counting.

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Remembering Kisha Michael. (Photo: Jason McGahan)

Kisha Michael was shot 13 times and Marquintan Sandlin eight times
as they sat in their car.


Two years ago Inglewood, California police officers shot and killed 31-year-old Kisha Michael and her friend Marquintan Sandlin, 32, after initially finding them unconscious and sitting in a stopped car on Manchester Boulevard.

Trisha Michael, Kisha’s identical twin, marked the February 21 anniversary with a sidewalk memorial at Manchester and Inglewood Avenue, where the deaths occurred. She and a dozen supporters adorned the pavement with prayer candles, a bouquet of red roses and protest signs with photos of Kisha Michael and Sandlin.

The circumstances that led police to fire on Michael and Sandlin remain shrouded in secrecy.

“It’s two years, and no justice has been served,” Trisha Michael said. “There’s no talk about it. It’s all on the hush-hush. A lot of stuff isn’t being said.”

As Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s review of the shooting enters its 16th month, Michael says the once high-profile case has faded somewhat from public memory.

Attorney Milton Grimes: “If you shoot someone who’s not threatening you, that’s a homicide.”

Police discovered Michael and Sandlin unconscious in a stopped car early on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016 shortly after 3 a.m. The couple, both single parents, had been on a night out together. Trisha Michael says they were dating at the time and that it’s possible that after a night of partying both passed out.

Michael, in the passenger seat, had a gun in her lap, authorities say.

Police cleared the area of bystanders and blocked the sedan in front and back with police vehicles. Mayor James T. Butts told NBC4-TV that officers then “spent about 45 minutes attempting to rouse the occupants and to de-escalate the situation.” In 2017 the Los Angeles Times reported that Butts “would not corroborate that account to a Times reporter.”

Authorities have not said whether Michael or Sandlin reached for or touched the gun, or if the car they were in ever drove toward an officer. A statement from a coroner’s report notes only that “an unknown exchange occurred.”

Milton Grimes, an attorney representing Michael’s family in a lawsuit against the city, has received hundreds of pages of reports from the city and says there is no evidence to suggest Michael or Sandlin ever posed a threat to officers. “And if you shoot someone who’s not threatening you, that’s a homicide,” Grimes said.

Michael was shot 13 times and pronounced dead at the scene, while Sandlin, the driver, was shot eight times and pronounced dead a short time later at a nearby hospital. An autopsy recovered projectiles from at least two and as many as three different types of firearms–a shotgun, handgun and possibly a rifle–from Michael’s body. Grimes says witnesses reported that police fired as many as 100 shots at the pair in the car.

Toxicology tests later showed the blood-alcohol levels of both were above the legal limit, and that Michael had traces of methamphetamine in her system, which the coroner’s report said can be used to treat attention deficit disorder and obesity. Sandlin’s autopsy showed no drugs other than alcohol in his system.

In May 2017, Inglewood announced it had fired the five officers involved in the shooting, a move that brought renewed attention to the case and led legal experts to interpret it as an admission of guilt.

“That’s the thing about this case that gets my attention,” said Ambrosio Rodriguez, who worked on officer-involved shootings during a 13-year career as a deputy district attorney in Riverside County and is now a defense attorney in private practice. “Although the DA’s office hasn’t made a final decision as to criminal liability, the city on its own decided to let go of these officers through their own investigation that they haven’t released to the public. This is the old way of doing things, and Inglewood hasn’t caught up to the times.”

Through a spokesperson, Mayor Butts, a former Santa Monica police chief, declined to comment for this story. Kema Decatur, the deputy city manager, referred questions to City Attorney Kenneth Campos, who did not return phone calls.

Melanie McDade-Dickens, executive assistant to Mayor Butts, referred any questions about the city’s 15-month internal investigation of the shooting to the district attorney’s office. “This case is no longer with the city of Inglewood,” McDade-Dickens said.

The district attorney’s office has had the case under review since Nov. 8, 2016. Greg Risling, the district attorney’s office spokesman, said in an email, “Our office has been engaged in supplemental investigation since that time.”

A protocol the DA’s office uses in investigations of officer-involved shootings calls for the investigating agency to hand over all relevant reports within 90 days, “absent unusual circumstances.” It took the Inglewood Police Department 261 days to submit this case for review.

Under the same protocol, the DA’s office ordinarily issues a report of its findings within 60 days, with an exception for “where additional investigation is required.” The DA has had the police shooting of Michael and Sandlin under review for 477 days and counting.

Investigations longer than two years are not unheard of, said Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Though the length of the DA’s investigations of officer-involved shootings may vary, the outcomes have been uniform under Lacey and her predecessor, Steve Cooley. Public records show Lacey reviewed 441 officer-involved shootings during her first five years in office — between December 3, 2012, and November 28, 2017. She filed criminal charges in just one, against an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer who shot and killed a man in a 2015 bar fight.

Cooley reviewed 343 officer-involved shootings during the final four years of his tenure, public radio station KPCC-FM reported in 2015. None of the officers was charged with a crime. If the Inglewood officers are charged, they would be the first charged for a shooting that occurred while on duty since 2000.

Trisha Michael, who pressed Inglewood officials for a year to release information about her sister’s death, has taken part in weekly protests since last fall outside Lacey’s office.

At the sidewalk memorial for her sister, Michael admits the long wait for a decision is difficult, and she isn’t overly confident Lacey’s review will result in charges.

“But I’m going to keep pushing for Kisha,” she said. “I’ll never stop until these officers find their day in court.”


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A New Documentary Unspools the Life of Malcolm X

Most people know that Malcolm X began his public career by calling for black separatism. Lost Tapes: Malcolm X reveals surprising details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist.

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Photo by Ed Ford

At the end of the Smithsonian Channel’s Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, Ossie Davis delivers a stirring eulogy for Malcolm X, the fallen Muslim minister and human rights activist. “And we will know him then for what he was and is,” Davis intones, “a Prince – our own black shining Prince!”

The haze of history has obscured some of the finer details of this remarkable leader’s life, one cut short by assassination at the age of 39 in 1965. Schools go into far greater detail about the life and times of another spiritual leader, Martin Luther King Jr., but in the shadows behind King’s narrative lurk remarkable stories of a prince that have been largely ignored. That’s why this episode from The Lost Tapes documentary series rises above almost anything available in mainstream media.


Above: Malcolm X in Los Angeles, 1962

Most know that Malcolm, as the dominant star in the Nation of Islam, differentiated himself from King and other African-American leaders by calling for blacks to break off from, rather than assimilate into white society. At the outset, Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, which debuts tonight at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST, and repeats Tuesday, underscores how his incendiary speeches and philosophy sparked both outrage and fear by showing footage from The Hate That Hate Produced , a 1959 Mike Wallace-narrated documentary shown on New York’s educational WNTA-TV that introduced the Harlem minister and the Nation of Islam to a wider (and whiter) audience.

Much of this doc treads on familiar turf: His meteoric rise and popularity, which caused NOI membership to swell exponentially; how Malcolm’s philosophy deviated from other civil rights leaders’, the rift with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad that led to Malcolm leaving the organization. Filmmakers Tom Jennings and David Tillman weave a fine story, thankfully bereft of any narration, using never-before or rarely seen footage to tell Malcolm’s story, only resorting to simple white text on a black background to deliver essential information. The result seems more urgent and intimate, powerful and profound.

But where Lost Tapes really triumphs is in revealing details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist. First there is the matter of Cassius Clay. Few know that the boxer’s conversion to Islam was mired deep in the divisions between Malcolm and the “prophet” Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm had grown to overshadow his mentor, and became a close friend to the charismatic contender. But soon after Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell in Miami on February 25, 1964, and Clay was crowned heavyweight champion of the world, Elijah Muhammad bestowed upon the boxer a Muslim name (an honor Malcolm had not been given) under one condition. The new champion had to end his friendship with Malcolm (something that Ali later publicly admitted was a mistake).

Later, there is an interview in which Malcolm publicly exposes Elijah Muhammad’s fathering of eight children by six underage women who were his personal secretaries. This footage makes it seem more understandable why the NOI allegedly waged such a persistent campaign to kill Malcolm, first unsuccessfully by firebombs and then, purportedly taking down their target in a hail of bullets.

The documentary also chronicles Malcolm X’s personal transformation shortly before his tragic death, which resulted in a revolutionary change in his outlook. After leaving the NOI, Malcolm went on a global spiritual journey that included a pilgrimage to Mecca in April of 1964, where he had a profound epiphany. Malcolm speaks of seeing Muslims of all colors interacting as equals and how the whites he had met there were not like those found in America, that their dedication to God allowed them to believe in the oneness of all people.

Inspired by this trip he started the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism, and promoted internationalizing the plight of African-Americans. This broadening of his views also made him make amends to those he criticized in the past. We see footage of an interview in which he not only forgives black leaders for having attacked him, but also apologizes to all he had ever attacked, culminating in him preaching solidarity and cooperation between leaders.

It’s a huge moment that seems to have been lost as the years have passed, and it makes this venture all the more invaluable.


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Orange County Parents: Change Name of School That Honors Klan Member

There are over a dozen streets, parks or monuments in Orange County named after former Klan members — and one elementary school.

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Uncovering a cover-up: Mike Rodriguez (right) and Ben Van Dyk. (Photo: Gustavo Arellano)

All Mike Rodriguez initially knew, when he Googled “William Fanning Elementary Brea” a few years ago, was that it was a good school in the affluent North Orange County city of Brea. He was interested in enrolling his son there after hearing positive things about its music program from his wife’s cousin.

But Rodriguez’s mind changed when the search results showed a photo of a man standing in front of Fanning’s marquee, dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

The picture accompanied an OC Weekly article I wrote in 2013 titled “Welcome to Ku Klux Kounty!” that documented streets, parks and schools in Orange County named after local pioneers who belonged to the Invisible Empire during the 1920s. I based my research on the era’s OC Klan membership rolls on file at the Anaheim Heritage Center.

One of the names listed? Fanning, a former Brea teacher and school superintendent.

The revelation left Rodriguez “floored.” He and other parents will protest before the Feb. 26 board meeting of the Brea Olinda Unified School District and demand that trustees rename the elementary school.

For now, Brea Olinda Unified is resisting any Fanning name change. A report on the matter commissioned by school superintendent Brad Mason and obtained by Capital & Main dismisses the parents’ concerns as “editorial commentary.”

But Rodriguez is undeterred. “There was a whole dark side of Brea that was still being hidden,” says the Santa Ana Unified School District teacher. “It’s time to uncover the cover-up.”

In August, Rodriguez and other area residents created the Rename Fanning Committee. They pamphleted outside the school. And they dug further into Brea’s past, both online and through the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History at California State University, Fullerton. Rodriguez learned how the Klan once held a majority of the Brea City Council’s seats. That residents had long admitted Brea used to be a “sundown town,” the name given to municipalities that banned African-Americans from its city limits after sunset. And that current residents downplayed the city’s Klan past by claiming the group wasn’t necessarily racist.

The committee’s actions come at a time when local residents are finally, slowly challenging Orange County Klan and Confederate roots. These go deep: OC seceded from Los Angeles County in 1889 with the help of Assemblymember Henry W. Head, who had belonged to the original KKK under Nathan Bedford Forrest.

There are over a dozen streets, parks or monuments in Orange County named after former Klan members. But last summer, the general manager of the Orange County Cemetery District announced he wanted a Confederate monument removed from the Santa Ana Cemetery in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy. (It remains standing.) In November, the Anaheim Union High School District voted to remove any Dixie references from Savanna High School, whose nickname is the Rebels and which used a caricatured Johnny Rebel as a mascot and the Confederate battle flag at school events for decades.

Minutes of the Oct. 9 Brea Olinda Unified board meeting state that Superintendent Brad Mason said he’d asked Linda Shay, museum curator at the Brea Museum & Historical Society, to investigate the Recall Fanning Committee’s claims. Mason did not respond to a request for comment; Shay declined to share the report.

The 12-page study claims that modern-day historical “revisionism” inserts a “bias that is out of context…and therefore and quite often inappropriately judgmental in nature” to past events. Shay wrote that the authenticity of the OC Klan membership list at the Heritage Center “cannot be substantiated,” even though academic papers have cited it for decades and it was donated by longtime Orange County historian and former Anaheim City Attorney Leo J. Friis.

Shay also dismissed the multiple oral histories that mentioned Brea was a sundown town because she couldn’t find proof of a formal ordinance on the city’s website. But she did discover an oral history where Fanning’s son denied his father’s Klan ties, and “numerous sources that claimed Mr. Fanning was a selfless, compassionate and dedicated educator.”

Shay’s findings amuse Recall Fanning members, who are gathered at Fanning Elementary one Saturday morning. “Unless you’re a family member, why are you championing his cause?” asks Wendy Dotan, who has lived in Brea in 13 years. “You have to question the motivation for resistance.”

“They say Fanning wasn’t directly involved with racist acts,” Rodriguez adds. “Well, he was never involved with ending them, either.”

“This school has shown us nothing but love,” says Ben Van Dyk, a history teacher at Servite High School in Anaheim. His son is a first-grader at Fanning. “The name tarnishes that love. It doesn’t represent that inclusion we’ve found here.”

Rodriguez and Van Dyk’s sons chase after a beach ball across the Fanning parking lot. “See that?” Van Dyk says. “They’ve never met until today, and yet they’re playing. In the 1920s, this would never be allowed.”


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Homeless Sue Orange County to Stay at Santa Ana Riverbed Tent City

At the beginning of this year, Orange County announced the simplest of solutions to its homeless problem: It would make living along the Santa Ana riverbed illegal and let the homeless figure out where to go.

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Homeless encampment resident Tammy Schuler walks her dogs beside a row of tents and tarps that line the Santa Ana River bicycle path, near Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly all of the eight homeless plaintiffs once belonged to Orange County’s suburban class.


 

Every day for the past four years, hundreds of thousands of commuters driving north on Interstate 5 just past the 22 Freeway in Orange County have witnessed the growth of something embarrassing to the region: a full-fledged homeless camp. It started with just a couple of people along the Santa Ana riverbed; tents, canopies and other makeshift shelters now line its western bank. About 500 people lived here at the end of 2017, a jarring counterpunch to the perpetually sunny story OC tells about itself to the rest of the world.

The encampment has enraged residents and flummoxed politicians, who ignored for years the warnings of homeless advocates that a housing, economic and heroin crisis would eventually overburden their services and lead to something like this. So at the beginning of this year, the County of Orange announced the simplest of solutions: It would make living along the riverbed illegal and let the homeless figure out where to go.

On January 22, sheriff’s deputies and local police told riverbed residents to clear out — or citations and arrests would follow; about 150 have since left. But earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) that banned any “haphazard, hurried enforcement action in an effort to clear the population” until a February 13 hearing to determine its legality. It came at the request of lawyers who filed a federal lawsuit against the County of Orange, Anaheim, Costa Mesa and the City of Orange on behalf of the Santa Ana-based nonprofit Orange County Catholic Worker and eight homeless individuals. The suit alleges the riverbed evictions are a civil rights violation because the riverbed homeless have no permanent shelter and face indefinite criminalization whether they leave or not.

“Plaintiffs are afraid they will be cited and threatened with citation or arrest again if they leave the area,” the lawsuit reads, “but they now risk arrest or citation if they stay in that area.”

As part of their TRO application, the eight plaintiffs offered Carter written statements to argue their right to remain. “In a case like this,” said lead attorney Carol Sobel, “often the best evidence—and sometimes the only evidence—is declarations from the clients.”

Together, they paint a picture of official neglect in a county that long tried to pretend homelessness didn’t exist. Almost all the plaintiffs allege that law enforcement harassed them toward the riverbed, away from public view. All tried to fall back on the county’s safety nets only to find more solace at the riverbed. All want to remain there until the county offers an actual solution to their plight.

And nearly all once belonged to Orange County’s suburban class. Lisa Bell used to work for Broadcom, the semiconductor company founded by Anaheim Ducks owner and OC mega-philanthropist Henry Samueli. Cameron Ralston ran a printing business out of his mother’s garage until she passed away and her husband kicked him out and kept his tools. Army veteran Larry Ford tried to sleep in a shelter but “left before the morning because the environment…left me feeling unsafe.” Shawn Carroll quit his job working on cars to take her of his parents, then couldn’t find steady work once they died. He currently owns a 2000 Dodge Ram, but is afraid to sleep in it because Garden Grove and Anaheim police “have harassed me in the past about sleeping in my vehicle in their cities.”

The Legal Aid Society of Orange County filed a separate lawsuit Feb. 6 on behalf of seven disabled homeless plaintiffs to also stop evictions. They didn’t include any testimonials, but a passage in the complaint sums up the feelings of activists and homeless alike.

“The County has historically lacked the political will to implement the services identified as long-term solutions to solve homelessness,” it says. Therefore, the plaintiffs “remain on the Riverbed despite the hostile environment created by the County because they literally have nowhere else to go.”


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Is Los Angeles’ Homeless Epidemic Spurring Business Vigilantism?

After an Eagle Rock homeless encampment was dismantled, one business allegedly went a step further by covering the sidewalk with what an employee described as a mix of “half lime and half marking lime.”

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Hazmat clean-up workers at Eagle Rock Lumber & Hardware.

“They took all my shit,” a homeless man said. “I feel like the government wants us dead.”


 

Los Angeles’ inability to arrest a dramatic rise in the number of people sleeping on the city’s streets has allegedly spurred one Eagle Rock lumberyard to coat a public sidewalk with a substance that can burn skin, in an apparent effort to discourage the creation of another homeless encampment in this middle-class community.

When the city on January 30 cleared such an encampment from the sidewalk outside Eagle Rock Lumber & Hardware — part of a clean-up effort occurring across Southern California amid the worst Hepatitis A outbreak since a vaccine was released over three decades ago — the business went a step further: It covered that sidewalk with what one employee described as a mix of “half lime and half marking lime.”

Lime is not to be touched, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends wearing goggles and protective clothing when handling. Contact can result in eye and skin burns, as well as cause the forming of cysts, while inhalation can harm the upper respiratory system.

Marking lime, by contrast, is used on athletic fields and is safe to touch.

L.A. County Fire Dept. Hazmat vehicle at clean-up scene.

The employee, who declined to give his name, citing potential retribution from homeless advocates, claimed the intent was to disinfect and deodorize. The city’s sanitation crew may have removed the encampment outside the business, but it did not leave the area clean. “It smelled like piss and all kinds of stuff,” the man said. Indeed, the day after the sweep feces could still be seen on the sidewalk, alongside a hypodermic needle. “Our customers are complaining.”

But two eyewitnesses maintain that the same employee told them something else, and they suggest a different intention.

Michael Steinborn of Atwater Village was at the lumberyard the morning of January 30, monitoring the city’s cleanup as part of a rapid response team formed by the Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles, to document the dismantling of homeless encampments. He said the employee told him that he “put lye out,” pointing to a stoop on the property, and that he was “gonna pour more all around.”

“It was like he was putting blood meal out for rabbits in a garden,” Steinborn said, referring to a substance used to discourage pests.

Lye can cause skin and eye burns, as well as temporary hair loss, according to the CDC. (Capital & Main is not aware of any test results that show the actual composition of the substance.)

Two views of the affected sidewalk. (Sidewalkher

photos by Charles Davis)

Jenna Steckel, another DSA member, said she too heard the employee promise to spread “lye.” According to Steckel, the man also “told us he had already poured lye on his steps, which he showed us, and there’s nothing particularly dirty about those steps.” That, she argued, suggests the business simply did not want people sleeping there.

Ryan Kelly, an Eagle Rock resident and DSA member, said he arrived at the scene later that afternoon and a white substance had indeed been spread over the sidewalk. “I saw a young woman [walk] through it in flip flops,” he said. “I saw someone walk their dog through it.”

Nearly 58,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County, according to the official 2017 count — a 23 percent jump from the year before, witnessed in the spread of encampments far from the concentrated poverty of Skid Row, the region’s traditional home for the shelterless.

The spread has corresponded with what the California Department of Public Health calls “the largest person-to-person… hepatitis A outbreak in the United States” since 1996, when the vaccine was released. Most of those affected by the virus, spread by contaminated feces, are homeless; 21 people have died.

While L.A. County voters last year approved $1.2 billion in spending on housing for the homeless, and millions of dollars more in services to keep them housed, local authorities have also stepped up their dismantling of homeless encampments. Between January 2015 and July 2017, the city of Los Angeles had swept up 16,500 encampments at a cost of $14 million, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The city also removed over 3,000 tons of trash in that time — before the Hepatitis A outbreak began — and a September 2017 report from the Los Angeles City Controller recommended that efforts to dismantle encampments be increased. But many of those living on the streets say that this trash is their stuff, spurring groups such as DSA to document the cleanings, announced by the city 72 hours in advance, to help that ensure clean-up crews abide by the law.

That mission also now extends to ensuring local businesses abide by it too.

Kelly, part of DSA’s rapid response team, said he called the Los Angeles Fire Department to report the dumping of what he believed to be lye, after consulting with those who had been evicted from the sidewalk in front of the lumberyard. LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey confirmed that a crew was sent out that evening in response to the call. “They spent 22 minutes at the scene,” he said. “It’s not clear what action they took.”

According to Kelly, the fire crew was rather hostile. One fireman “gave us a big speech about how business owners were tired of homeless people defecating and urinating everywhere,” he said. But that fireman also said he would tape off the area and tell the business owner to clean up the sidewalk, an account supported by Steinborn and another member of DSA, Shelby Li.

The substance was still there on the evening of Wednesday, January 31 — with the addition of two orange traffic cones. Those now living across the street were afraid to go anywhere near their former campsite.

“That’s poison,” said Michael Anthony, standing outside of a tent. “That shit will eat your body. Obviously it’s dangerous because they put cones [out].”

But he was more upset with the city than the business. “They took all my shit,” Anthony said. “I feel like they don’t care about us. I feel like the government wants us dead.”

Lye or lime, the government, in the form of a Los Angeles County Fire Department Hazmat team, did come back. Just after midnight on Friday, February 2, spokesperson Randall Wright said, a team was dispatched to “lend some expertise” to the Los Angeles Police Department. He referred all further questions to the LAPD.

The LAPD did not return calls requesting comment by February 5, but last week confirmed receiving reports about the dumping of white powder at the site.


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UN Housing Official Shocked by L.A.’s Homelessness

Nearly 58,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County, according to a 2017 count — up from 20 percent from the year before.

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United Nations’ special rapporteur on housing, Leilani Farha, speaks to homeless man during visit to Los Angeles.

Photos by Charles Davis

“You almost forget you’re in Los Angeles,” Leilani Farha remarked, looking up at a shabby hotel with a cartoon palm tree on its sign — a reminder of Southern California, the dream, in a part of the city better known as a nightmare. Skid Row is a place thousands of people sleeping in tents call home. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on housing, Farha stepped over trash and around the many people camped out on the sidewalks in a quest to better understand this otherworldly America, just blocks from luxury condos.

“I need to understand that world,” Farha had said a couple of hours earlier, Wednesday, at a public forum hosted by the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a Skid Row advocacy group. Appointed in 2014, the human rights lawyer and head of the nonprofit Canada Without Poverty was in town to identify obstacles to the realization of “the right to adequate housing and land.” She received an education, with people from across the region telling her what is like for them to sleep in cars and tents in a place oft-sold as paradise.

The obstacles were readily apparent within minutes: too little affordable housing and too many police.

“It’s not illegal to be homeless,” said Kim Sandoval, “but everything we do is illegal.” Sandoval lives in Orange County, where every city has an ordinance against sleeping on the sidewalks; even publicly feeding the homeless is officially discouraged in some parts of Orange County. The most extreme form of poverty is effectively, if not literally, criminalized — one man testified that he committed a minor crime just so he could sleep legally — in a jail cell.

“I’ve been out here 15 years,” Sandoval said. “Not proud of it. In and out of state [prison]. In and out of county [jail]. I’m also a drug addict who is now slowly recovering. But every day is a fight for me. I shouldn’t have to fight for where I live; where I want to lay my head.”

Sandoval said she’s on a list to receive permanent supportive housing, but that she’s been on it for a year. In the meantime, no landlords want her state-provided vouchers for rent — not when there are plenty of other potential tenants with reliable, expendable incomes in one of the country’s least affordable housing markets. “Everybody has to remember they’re one paycheck away from this,” she said. She sleeps outside a courthouse.

It’s no better by the coast.

David Busch said he has been homeless since 1994. “I’ve slept on the street the entire time,” he said. It’s never been this bad, however. “What we have in Venice Beach is a combination of the two deadliest things toward homeless people in America today: Inflated real estate and high tech.” He noted the presence of companies such as Google, Facebook and Snapchat in the former hippie enclave now called “Silicone Beach.” The increased presence of multinational tech giants has allegedly corresponded with increased police harassment of the homeless.

Busch said he was arrested for maintaining a porta-potty — an arrest that was ostensibly made for reasons of a public health crisis. “We know that here in California we have an epidemic of encampments and along with that we have an epidemic of Hepatitis A,” he recounted. Indeed, between March and October 2017, almost 600 Hepatitis A cases were reported, mostly in San Diego. As PBS reported, in a typical year the state sees just 180 cases.

“The way to deal with homeless people is not to criminalize them,” Busch said. “The way to deal with encampments is to provide us with services: education, food, clothing and shelter.”

In March 2017, Los Angeles County voters approved a ballot measure that was sold as a means to pursue that gentler approach, with a quarter-cent sales-tax hike that would raise over $1 billion in three years to fund services for the homeless, including 10,000 units of affordable housing. But the extent of the problem far exceeds the proposed solutions.

Nearly 58,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County, according to a 2017 count — a 23 percent increase from the year before. “The reason for the number of people living in encampments and in their vehicles is very simple,” Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, testified at the forum. “The City of Los Angeles is 560,000 units short of affordable housing for very low- and extremely low-income households.”

Myers said city officials talk the right talk, while primarily concerning themselves with the wishes of the well-to-do, especially when touting urban renewal that results in gentrification.

According to Myers, instead of treating the presence of thousands sleeping on its streets as an emergency, a city that’s hosting the Olympics in 2028 has “doubled down on its commitment to seizing and destroying people’s property.” The stated reason is cleanliness and disease, but the embraced solution is myopic and cruel, placing “the onus of public health, of alleviating the public health crisis, on unhoused people.”

Farha, who is preparing a report for the UN on informal settlements, shook her head throughout the testimony. After two hours, she’d heard enough.

“How the fuck did we get here?” she asked, apologizing for her profanity. It’s just that, she expained, “the fight is so base. In the frickin’ richest country, a relatively stable democracy, it’s so base — I mean, fighting for the right to sit; fighting for the right to shit; fighting for the right to sleep, in a tent.”

“People are being annihilated here,” she continued. “I have my work cut out for me.”


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