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HBO Looks at America’s Abortion Divide

Tracy Droz Tragos’ documentary, Abortion: Stories Women Tell could be pared down, but it is often powerful and the struggles of the women it depicts are not easily forgotten.

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Deborah Klugman




Produced and directed by Tracy Droz Tragos, the HBO documentary Abortion: Stories Women Tell shares the experiences of women living in the Bible Belt and coping with unplanned pregnancies. The film is unlikely to change the thinking of firm believers on either side of the issue, but for viewers whose opinions waiver, who are unsure of the morality of abortion or are unclear about the motives behind it, the film will be educational and illuminating.

Tragos grounds her documentary in her home state of Missouri, where one abortion clinic serves the entire state. While Missouri has some of the most draconian restrictions in the nation, it’s hardly alone in limiting abortion access. Since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, over half the states have enacted some form of restriction.

In September 2014, the burden on Missouri women coping with an unwanted pregnancy was compounded when the state legislature overrode Governor Jay Nixon’s veto to pass a law mandating a wait period of 72 hours between the initial consultation for an abortion and the actual terminating procedure (with no exceptions for rape and incest). This meant that women who had already driven hours from their home for their first appointment needed to return three days later before anything was done. Practically speaking, this not only intensifies patients’ trauma but creates a special burden on working women with children and single mothers (who are in the majority among the people whose stories are recounted here).

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos

Much of the documentary is shot at Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, just over the state border, where many women travel for their procedures — among other reasons, to avoid the three-day waiting period. The interviewees include the clinic’s staff: Erin, the doctor (pregnant herself at the time the film was made), the nurses, the receptionists, the escorts (who act to shield the patients from protesters) and a female security guard. Many have personal histories that have brought them to a place where they continue to work under great emotional pressure from their families and the community at large. That pressure is constant; there’s never a moment when one or more pro-birth protesters are not heard outside the clinic calling down God’s judgment on the women and their medical providers.

To frame the situation, Tragos opens with an enthusiastic pro-birth rally being swept away by then-Missouri Speaker of the House Tim Jones, in which he sounds a triumphant note of victory in the fight to do away with all clinics – not only in Missouri but, via “a ripple effect,” throughout the United States.

Besides Jones, the documentary features other prominent pro-birth activists including Susan Jaramillo, a statuesque blonde woman who has had three abortions herself but now actively opposes them, maintaining that the experience cannot help but irrevocably damage a woman and cover her with shame. (Now a devout Christian, Jaramillo has written a book, How God Rewrote My Heart). Another religiously devout pro-birther, Kathy Forck, laments, “I can’t believe that I am a citizen of a country that says it’s okay to kill a baby.” A third, Reagan Nielsen, is a student activist who recruits other students and whose verbal altercation with an articulate pro-choice advocate at a Planned Parenthood conference encapsulates the ideological clash between pro-choicers who maintain that a woman’s circumstances should be a relevant factor in her decision, and anti-choice activists who don’t.

But the filmmaker’s main focus is on the abortion-seekers. First among them is Amie, a divorced mother who works 70 to 90 hours per week as a server and bartender to support her two children, and is now pregnant with a third. In some ways the film’s linchpin because she’s the patient we get to know best, Amie’s choice to terminate has to do with her finances — the virtual impossibility of carrying through with the pregnancy while continuing to work and take care of her family. In later interviews, we learn more as she opens up about her anger, her aloneness, her wanting to reach out to women in similar circumstances — and her struggle to combat the feelings of shame that she rationally understands are unwarranted but that filter, in despite her best efforts to ignore them.

Other women seek abortions for different reasons: Monique, because her husband viciously abuses her, or Chelsea, a churchgoer whose deformed fetus had no chance of survival. Like Amie, many speak of their sense of isolation and of being judged by others. Yet most firmly believe their choice is for the best. A “journal” Erin keeps in the clinic is available for anyone to write in — and they do. Sometimes the doctor peruses it, and the comments — in one way or another a self-affirmation — inspire her to keep at it despite the mounting obstacles involved.

Abortion: Stories Women Tell isn’t uniformly gripping; at 93 minutes, it could be pared. Sequences that document the workings of the clinic — the receptionist taking phone calls, for example, or the conversation between doctor and patient in an examining room, are of minimal interest (especially if you’re someone who’s been there yourself, or knows someone who has.) A slow, mournful soundtrack (by Nathan Halpern) accompanies much of the film, and at times gives it a ponderous and self-conscious feel. A few of the interviews could also be pruned.

But other sequences are powerful. If you’re pro-choice, the intensity of the pro-birth people, as individuals and in a group, is almost terrifying to observe. Against that backdrop, the struggle of women like Amie who are fighting for their dignity and their future emerges in clearly delineated and compelling focus, and is not easily forgotten.

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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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Culture & Media

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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Charles Davis




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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Charles Davis




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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Politics & Government

Scenes From Los Angeles’ Women’s March

Photojournalist Joanne Kim captures the sights of Saturday’s Women’s March in downtown L.A.

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Approximately 300,000 people gathered in and around downtown Los Angeles’ Pershing Square Saturday for the 2018 Women’s March. Their signs and banners spoke to a variety of issues that also included climate change and immigrants’ rights. From Pershing Square protesters took to Olive and Hill streets, Broadway and Spring Street towards Grand Park and City Hall. Many held signs focused on encouraging women to vote and run for office.

Many young women and girls took to the streets with their mothers and grandmothers. One young girl sat on her mother’s shoulders holding a sign with a woman’s fist in the air declaring, “We Rise.” Kimberly Castro, from South Gate, California held a sign in support of Planned Parenthood. “Being around everyone makes me feel powerful to make a change, and that all together we do have a voice,” she said.

Across from City Hall, a group of Trump supporters gathered in a small counter-protest. “Go back to Mexico!” screamed one of the Trump supporters. Wendy Rodriguez, whose mother is from El Salvador and father is from Honduras, shouted back, “Go back to your country!” Another young woman waved a sign at the Trump supporters that read, “Anything you can do I can do bleeding.”

All photos by Joanne Kim

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Still Learning From Martin Luther King Jr.

50 years after his death, Martin Luther King Jr.’s teaching on nonviolent direct action are as relevant as ever.

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Rev. Jim Conn




About a year ago, sometime between the feelings of depression that followed Trump’s election and his inauguration, an old activist friend – and occasional Capital & Main contributor – contacted me. Vivian Rothstein had traveled to the South to register voters during the civil rights movement, and she thought it was time again to focus on non-violence as a way of resisting what was floating to the surface in America. She meant not only white supremacy, but what many activists recognize in Trump’s authoritarian tendencies: a threat to democracy itself. Would I join a small group of people to offer trainings in nonviolent resistance, including civil disobedience?

I agreed, and teamed up with a few others who have spent most of their lives practicing some form of nonviolence. We shared Rothstein’s belief that training people from faith communities in the protest tradition was timely and could be effective political work. In the time since, we have developed a course and taught it in a handful of congregations – even to a couple of activist groups beyond the religious community.

What I did not expect from this experience was a re-immersion in the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. It turns out that preparing for and leading these trainings has become an on-going learning opportunity. We have re-read parts of King’s writing, like the “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” chapter from his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. We’ve watched documentaries about his life, as well as a great segment on the Nashville sit-ins from the PBS documentary series A Force More Powerful. We have dug into serious questions from participants in the trainings, like what about nonviolence and the Holocaust?

We’ve been guided to much of this material by Andy Moss, a retired professor who taught peace studies for many years, and we each bring our own life pathway to nonviolence and civil disobedience. When we read King’s “Pilgrimage” chapter, I recognized my own intellectual journey. He and I had read the same theologians and philosophers, gone through similar questions, rejected the same dead ends – but he was a decade ahead of me in this academic workout.

It also took me a few more years beyond his life before I was fully committed to a nonviolent way of working. Caught up in the fervor of the late 1960s, I could not grasp the totality of life that nonviolence meant. As one of our team members, Abby Arnold, puts it, nonviolence is “three-fold: a philosophy, a spiritual practice, and a strategy.” I got the thinking part. I understood the strategies too. It took longer to get the inside-out part.

A life committed to nonviolence goes deeper than political activism or social change. It requires an interior life seeking a well-spring of motivation beyond anger, rage, or raw power. It requires a consistency between the inside and personal and the outside and public parts of our lives. I’ve known activists who will walk a picket line for all manner of peace and justice issues, but whose own personal relationships are bitter crucibles of conflict, hostility, even violence.

Studying King emphasized another issue for Elissa Barrett, also part of the teaching team: reconciliation. When the Montgomery bus boycott ended in victory over segregation, King preached that blacks should not flaunt their success at white people.  Boycott leaders even printed and distributed leaflets to blacks using the buses again to curtail their glee. This resolve came from a belief that it’s not people who are evil, but a system that maintains injustice and in which white people participated. It was justice the boycott won, not a defeat of people.

In stressing this point, the team shares stories of polarization bridged through gestures of reconciliation that follows conflicts. When the first car wash in America agreed to a union contract for its workers, community advocates took the management a potted plant as an affirmation that a new relationship between workers and owners could grow in that place. We also leafleted local congregations to let people know there was now a place to clean their cars that treated workers fairly.

Of course many Americans did not think of King’s voice as reconciling. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, a reminder that his teachings on nonviolence were so powerful that some people thought he had to be killed. His murder took place in Memphis, where King had joined a campaign for the rights of sanitation workers to form a union and receive fair wages.

Now this administration threatens the very existence of unions. Low-wage workers feel the sting of flat or stolen wages, even as deportation hangs over many of their heads. Democracy itself may hang in the balance. In such times as these, we know of no more effective way to meet injustice than re-immersing ourselves in King’s life and teaching people resistance through nonviolence.


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Negotiating Trauma: How Susan Burton Gave Discarded Women a Tomorrow

Chances are you’ve never heard of Susan Burton. Yet her A New Way of Life organization has provided shelter and services to thousands of formerly incarcerated women and their children.

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All Photographs by Joanne Kim

Susan Burton overcame six felony convictions and incarcerations to create and run one of America’s most successful social programs.


Is everybody decent!?” Susan Burton yells as she ascends a flight of stairs. She is giving a visitor a tour of one of her five Los Angeles houses that provide havens for women returning to society from California’s prisons.

She knocks on a bedroom door that’s half ajar and peers inside.

“You ain’t trying to catch the worm, huh?” Burton says to a woman still in bed.

“No I am,” the woman mumbles.

“You lying here. It’s 10 o’clock in the afternoon. You gotta go get the worm!’

Burton moves on and walks into an empty, freshly painted room. “We need to get pictures on the wall,” she mutters to herself.

Every room has a bed and dresser for each of its occupants, usually two to four in a room, and the walls are painted bright colors. Burton reveals that the grays and greens of prison are purposely avoided. One bed in each room is usually left free for the sudden arrival of a released inmate or space for visiting kids.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Susan Burton. Yet to thousands of people, she has been a savior. A 2010 CNN Hero, Burton has written a book chronicling her remarkable life, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women. In it, Burton, 66, documents how she overcame six felony convictions and incarcerations to create and run one of America’s most successful social programs. Since its founding in 1998, A New Way of Life has provided shelter and services to thousands of formerly incarcerated women and children. Far more than a housing agency, it has evolved into an inspiration for change and a beacon of hope to women who have been largely discarded by society.

A New Way of Life Resident:
“If it weren’t for this I’d be on the street
or back in prison.”

Before Burton could become an angel, however, she had go through hell. Sexual abuse started at age 4. First it was her aunt’s boyfriend, then an older male neighbor whom she met selling cookies for the Woodcraft Rangers, a group similar to the Girl Scouts. A Christmas Eve gang rape resulted in her first child at the age of 14. Fifteen years later, Burton’s life was shattered when her 5-year-old son was run over and killed by a van driven by an off-duty police officer. Burton retreated onto despair, turning to drugs to dissociate herself from the trauma of her tragedies.

After becoming an alcoholic and crack addict, Burton became trapped in a vicious cycle of incarceration. Her catch-and-release tale was similar to those of millions around the country. Unceremoniously dropped off in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, Burton had no tools or resources to make it in a world without bars. Most states make it nearly impossible for felons to make it back on their feet. Hundreds of categories of jobs, as well as many public housing agencies, are off limits to those with records. Securing employment and housing, which are among the requirements to regain custody of their kids, is made even more difficult without necessary documents like state-issued I.D. cards, which are destroyed when entering prison. It was a chance, pejorative comment from a correctional officer on her sixth (and last) release from prison that sparked her evolution into an agent of change.

“He said, ‘I’ll see you in a little while,’” Burton recalls. “It was daunting and scary to hear that. And he said, ‘There’s no jobs for you out there. The only job you’ll ever have is in a prison.’”

A friend told Burton about the CLARE Foundation recovery center in Santa Monica. She was accepted — and instantly thunderstruck by the disparity in services afforded her in this upscale community, compared to those available in her neighborhood.

“I had get-well help served to me like in a buffet at a restaurant,” she remembers. “It was like having the best waitress and waiters come and serve you your food, and when you’re finished with one part of your meal, they take the plate away and they take the fork and knife away, and then they bring you clean ones. I went to therapy like that. I went to dental services like that. I went to medical services like that. I went to AA meetings like that. It was like another world.”

Every bedroom in the shelters has a bed and dresser for each of its formerly incarcerated women. Walls are painted bright colors — prison  grays and greens are purposely avoided.

Later, while working at a job as a home care worker, she devised a plan inspired by the CLARE Foundation, and after a year had saved $12,000 to make that plan a reality. She bought a small bungalow in South Los Angeles and started A New Way of Life. As newly released inmates stepped off buses near Skid Row 19 years ago, Burton was waiting to greet and offer them a sanctuary to begin their life anew. As she started to run out of savings, someone suggested she start a nonprofit. Before long she was off and running, becoming a modern-day Harriet Tubman with a string of five safe houses for society’s outcasts.

But there soon came a harsh epiphany.

“I thought that if women had a safe place to go, that would be everything they needed to restart their lives,” she recalls. “But we soon realized It didn’t matter how hard or committed the women were in completing their tasks, there was still a box they were put in. They couldn’t get their children back. They couldn’t find employment. They couldn’t even receive food stamps.”

Aukilia, who has been at A New Way of Life since August, 2017.

Burton got to work, organizing and advocating to change bad policies.

“Some of the laws that have been changed have just been bad laws,” she says. “Not giving women who have had drug crimes food stamps? That was a bad law. Having people check a box on employment applications? That was a bad law. The disparity in sentencing was a bad law. Taking people’s babies away.”

So she partnered with the University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Law in 2006 to look at how they could reverse the institutional obstacles confronting former inmates. An in-house free legal clinic was created that in the last decade has provided pro bono assistance to thousands seeking relief from the burden of criminal histories, expunging criminal records and offering access to occupational licenses. Burton also reached out to companies for donations and now runs a distribution center that provides over $2 million dollars in household goods yearly. Thanks to her, over 3,500 formerly homeless individuals have gone on to establish their own living spaces. 

Jannie’s youthful looks belie the fact that she served 28 years for killing a man who, she says, jumped on her niece.

“She is persistent, dynamic and strong,” the group’s associate director, Tiffany Johnson, says of Burton. “God has wrapped a unique set of skills into this one woman to be able to touch multitudes of women in ways that most people can’t.”

Ingrid Archie, another senior staff member, agrees. “I think Susan saw that some resources were offered in other communities as a common right,” she says, “but in her community people were being criminalized and families ripped apart. She is providing a solution to a problem that everybody was sweeping under the rug. She helps you take responsibility and ownership for yourself and your future.”

In the largest bedroom of one of Burton’s houses, a woman named Aukilia sits on the bottom bunk, readying herself to attack the day. Her story is typical in its complexity. A couple of years ago she was asked by someone to deposit checks into her incarcerated boyfriend’s jail account.

“I was so loaded. I was high, under the influence,” she explains. “I said, ‘Yeah, sure, free money, I’ll do it.’”

Jannie: “This program is amazing.”

She was arrested two years later for bank fraud. Typical of the draconian laws that help propagate the modern prison complex, each check carries with it its own separate charge. So she is facing 120 years in prison. But A New Way of Life has given her hope, allowing her to pursue a GED and her dream of going to cosmetology school while she awaits trial.

“It’s beautiful here. You go to your meetings. You get up and you do your chores. You do what you’re supposed to do and everything’s great. If it weren’t for this I’d be on the street or back in prison.”

Her roommate Jenny has just finished her night shift at Foster Farms, a job A New Way of Life helped secure. Her youthful looks belie the fact that she served 28 years in prison for first-degree murder, for killing a man who, she says, jumped on her niece.

“I think it would have been difficult had I gone anywhere else, but Miss Burton and her staff and the ladies here welcomed me and made me feel special, made me feel like this is my home. I’ve been doing great ever since. This program is amazing.”

“Unconditional love, no judgment,” Aukilia chimes in.

“But I ain’t no joke either,” exclaims Burton, who has been hovering just outside the door. She is flashing a tough face, which she does often, but her kind eyes and a slight smirk give her away.

The women laugh and shake their heads in agreement.

“I don’t save women,” Burton says.
“I provide opportunity.”


Susan Burton’s houses shelter anywhere from four to seven women, with most staying anywhere from nine months to two years. If she runs out of space, Burton works with a network of thousands of beds in the county that provide sober living, and she is known to pay out of her own pocket to provide relief for a woman in need. Her passion and dedication have engendered remarkable results. She estimates that 80 percent of those who go through her program have not returned to jail and are employed or in school, an impressive record in light of the American prison system’s traditionally high recidivism rate.

“I don’t save women,” Burton says. “I give them an environment that allows them to heal and thrive and begin to pull themselves up. I provide opportunity. They have to work the opportunity.”

Burton makes it a point to provide individual attention to each woman’s needs. But how does one continue that as the movement grows? And how does the work continue after she is gone? Add to that the colossal systemic legal and bureaucratic obstacles facing her constituency, and the future may be the biggest challenge Burton faces. She hopes that a new generation of women will carry on her crusade. Women like Tiffany Johnson and Ingrid Archie.

Johnson had served 16 years of a life sentence for second-degree murder when she walked through the doors of A New Way of Life in April 2010. She quickly found a job but soon realized that no matter how well she did it, her criminal record excluded her from upward mobility. So she returned to work at A New Way of Life and today, as the organization’s associate director, serves as Burton’s right-hand woman.

“If you are consistent people can depend on you,” Johnson says of both Burton and the group.

California’s Proposition 47, passed in November 2014, reduced six felonies to misdemeanors, but for ex-cons to have their pasts expunged, they must request that their records be changed. That’s Archie’s mission. A former prisoner herself, she is the organization’s Prop. 47 specialist and came to A New Way of Life in 2006, driven by her passion for fixing a skewed system.

“Revenge is a deep, dark, empty hole that can never be filled. I know that from losing my son.”


Just as A New Way of Life has given support to thousands of those in need, it has provided Burton herself with something just as profound. With a history riddled with misery, it is her port in the storm.

“I negotiate trauma,” she says. “I’ve had to. And A New Way of Life insulates me from the trauma and gives me a bigger meaning and purpose to my life. We’re all here to help and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Before, I never found that something bigger because I was dodging all of the arrows that were coming my way.”

But Burton is no longer dodging. She is moving and shaking, with ambitious plans. A New Way of Life now has 23 employees and survives on an operating budget of approximately $2.6 million raised primarily from grants, individual donations and an annual fundraising dinner. Burton has carefully grown the organization, mindful of the pitfalls of quick expansion:

“I don’t wanna become a people-processing machine. I think the community, the individuality of the way in which we work with people is meaningful, and it brings about success. So if I have these big houses or too many places, then the interaction becomes impersonal.”

Nevertheless, with a growing new generation of activists under her wings, Burton hopes to replicate her system across the country, to not only build an underground network of reentry homes and safe houses, but also civil rights advocacy groups.

But the challenge is formidable. More states. Differing laws. This country’s massive prison complex, with its systemic effects, illuminated so cogently in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, has become part and parcel of modern society.

“We criminalize trauma in this country,’ says Burton. “There should be and could be something different. What I know is [that] revenge is a deep, dark, empty hole that can never be filled. I know that from losing my son. I think one of the most powerful things that happened for me is that I was able to go deep into myself and find a place of forgiveness for all those that had harmed me, and to ask for forgiveness of those I had harmed.”

So how does one make headway in a society that is bent on exploiting over rehabilitating? How does Burton plan to grow her efforts in the future without being swallowed by the system? One way is to not take their money. Burton likes to point out that she works within the community, not within the system.

“I terminated the contract with the system a long time ago,” she says. “Traditional ways of doing and thinking about things doesn’t allow for people to be spring-boarded and supported to realize their dream and purpose. It’s too big of a risk for traditional funding agencies and governments, because you have to have all this proof of who you are and what you do. How do I support people to be able to build that track record where they’re accepted back into society, humanized, treated with dignity and respect, and [where] people are able to realize their dreams? You have to have it bubble-up. I might not be here for the whole bubble, but I’m here to plant seeds.”

To many, Burton is an outlier, a remarkable individual who achieves the nearly impossible. But she strongly disagrees.

“I think the biggest misconception people have about me is that I am this ‘extra ordinary’ person and that I’m different from other people,” she says. “I just believe that there was an opportunity for me, and in that opportunity, I was able to grasp on and grow something. There are so many people where we’ve locked away their talent, their treasures, their love, their dreams…and they are coming back into the community. They just need opportunity.”

Burton has not wasted hers. She is moving forward confidently and with a purpose.

“While I’m no daredevil, I go forward . . . in the face of racism, capitalism, homophobia and all of these things that are a part of what affected us in the first place. The universe will support me in ways as long as I am staying true to universal principles.”

On one autumn afternoon Burton is back where it all started — in the first house she ever bought, in South Los Angeles. Sitting at the dining room table is a visibly upset woman whose long, salt-and-pepper ponytail falls down her back. Burton asks why she is so overwhelmed and, with her voice cracking, the woman laments that she needs a ride to get a driver’s license and there is no way to get where she needs to go in time. She seems like she is about to have a breakdown. Burton looks her in the eyes and says, “Don’t worry. I’ll take you now on my way back to the office, just give me a minute.”

A few moments later, as the two women walk to the car, Burton’s latest resident, who hasn’t been outside of prison since the last century, is overheard saying to herself, “Cars are so nice looking now. Look at how nice they are…” Burton is a dozen steps ahead, full of encouragement. “C’mon now,” she says, “Let’s go. Everything’s going to be alright. We’ll get it done.”

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