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Neighborhood Justice Program: Smart Justice through Community Involvement

Almost 120,000 misdemeanor crimes are reviewed for criminal filing by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office each year. This high volume of cases, coupled with reductions in court resources, make it nearly impossible to consider each person’s situation individually.

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Vivian Rothstein




“I liked the basic idea of restoring communities and people by way of community decision-making and involvement. I liked the idea that infractions occur for a variety of reasons, not just because someone is a criminal or sociopath.”

–  Neighborhood Justice Program volunteer Alex Shinn



Almost 120,000 misdemeanor crimes are reviewed for criminal filing by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office each year. This high volume of cases, coupled with reductions in court resources, make it nearly impossible to consider each person’s situation individually.

“Countless studies show that our habitual assembly-line representation, ineffectiveness and retributive-oriented outcomes for offenders, with little or no focus on rehabilitation, threaten the very notion of ‘justice’ and increasingly undermine the public’s trust and confidence in our courts,” states a January 2016 report from the City Attorney’s office.

Today a criminal conviction for even a nonviolent misdemeanor could endanger a college scholarship or make renting an apartment or landing a job difficult to impossible – huge barriers for a young person finding their way.

Enter the Neighborhood Justice Program (NJP), a “smart justice” strategy to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates, launched in early 2015 by City Attorney Mike Feuer. As Assistant City Attorney Jose Egurbide explains, the program, aimed at those who have committed a non-violent first offense, “is not dealing with a habitual criminal, but an individual who made a bad choice and is able to move forward to rehabilitation.”

Assistant City Attorney Jose Egurbide

Assistant City Attorney Jose Egurbide

As NJP volunteer Alex Shinn sees it, “Sometimes a small infraction is a cry for help. Someone might be drowning in issues at home they can no longer handle, so in anger and frustration (at no one in particular) they steal something from Target or Home Depot and get caught. They don’t know why they did it. They don’t know what they were thinking at the time. We [volunteer panelists] then find out that their wife was just diagnosed with cancer and they just lost their job and they’ve lost faith in whatever they had believed in. As a former lawyer, I know these people are not helped by the justice system. They are punished. Which adds to the ‘bad things’ that are happening in their life. And puts them further away, not closer, to being able to cope, productively, with what is crushing them.”

“The design of the NJP is a hybrid of things already going on elsewhere – mediation style conferences, community courts, healing circles,” according to Egurbide, who heads the program. “We took all of the models and merged them into one,” that would work locally. Described by Egurbide as a “three legged stool,” the program brings trained community volunteers together with a participant (the person who committed the crime), a neutral mediator and possibly the victim for a discussion of the harm done to the community and concrete ways it can be remediated. Participation is totally voluntary for all parties, confidential, and, when completed successfully, no criminal charges are filed.

“We’re on the front end of the (criminal justice) system. Before the case is filed we have the opportunity to focus on rehabilitation, education, instead of [intervening only] at the end after more misdemeanors and felonies,” says Egurbide. “We’re disrupting the pipeline [into jails and prisons] and intercepting the cases early enough in the process that we’re saving a lot of money” while being more effective, he continues.

Funded through grants from The California Endowment and the federal Department of Justice, the NJP is open to adult, first time offenders willing to take responsibility for their actions. They are given a chance to voluntarily participate before any charges are brought against them. Over two thirds of first year participants were 18-39 and reported household incomes of $20,000 or less. Over 90 percent successfully completed the obligations agreed to with their program panelists, and only two percent re-offended in the next 6 months.

Program volunteer Shinn explains that through NJP participants “learn the impact of their infraction on the victim (institution/community/person). They might have to attend a class and do community service – not community labor, but service – hopefully something they can relate to, something of meaning. They might have to write a reflective letter on what they were thinking when they committed the infraction. And on occasion we have required they have counseling. I like the systemic approach. It moves us towards solving larger social issues, within a context” explains volunteer Shinn.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer

With now close to 200 volunteers citywide (of which this writer is one), City Attorney Mike Feuer says his office is looking for volunteer panelists “who are geographically diverse, believe in the principles of restorative justice, have empathy, are solution oriented, and combine practicality with sensitivity in understanding their community and its needs.”

Emphasizing that “it all starts at the top,” Egurbide credits City Attorney Feuer, formerly the head of the poverty law center Bet Tzedek, with his commitment “to injecting procedural justice and fairness into the criminal justice process.” “One and a half years later,” Egurbide explains, the NJP program “is a national model which now has 9 locations [across the city]. As Mike says, we’re being agents of change.” For his part Feuer sees the NJP program as a centerpiece of his vision for the City Attorney’s office that, with additional resources, could expand dramatically.

For millennia communities have come together to address misbehavior and violations of trust by tribal members. The goal was not to discard and shun the violator but to bring the person back into community norms of behavior and accountability. Based on the premise, as Feuer describes it, “that people and communities can be redeemed,” it’s an effort Los Angeles sorely needs.


For more information and an NJP volunteer application visit!njp/c1f6x


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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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2017: The Year in Photos, Part 2

Today we continue our look back at 2017 through Capital & Main’s photos and stories.

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In “Hard As Nails,” Bobbi Murray reported on the small but determined movement to rid nail salons of toxic chemicals. (Above photo: Joanne Kim)

Steve Appleford interviewed and photographed pro- and anti-Trump protesters during an anti-immigration demonstration on the Laguna Beach boardwalk.

In our “Fire and ICE” series, Robin Urevitch interviewed ICE detainees about allegations that they had been brutalized while in custody at the Adelanto Detention Facility.

David Bacon’s photo essay, “Coachella Rising,” looked at the twilight years of aging farm workers and the toxic terrain of the Salton Sea region.

“Are Your Jeans Ethical?” asked business reporter Jessica Goodheart, as she explored a new breed of American garment maker devoted to the fair treatment of employees and stewardship of the environment. (Photo: Pandora Young)

For the first time in its history, California’s State Fair acknowledged the role played by farmworkers in producing the state’s agricultural wealth. David Bacon reported and photographed government and labor leaders cutting a ribbon at the fair’s farmworker history exhibit.

Sasha Abramsky examined California’s skyrocketing rents — and the grassroots movements pushing back against them. Here Richmond City Councilmember Melvin Willis (right) spreads the word about renters’ rights. (Photo: Barni Ahmed Qaasim)

“What the Final Moments of Homeless People Can Teach Us,” written by Amy DePaul and photographed by Gema Galiana, described the lives and deaths of 10 Orange County homeless people.

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The Holiday Season: A Long Night’s Journey Into Light

Winter festivals emphasize family and home, core strengths of every society. In our communities we guard ourselves against the long darkness. We hold out signs to one another that we can withstand these worst of days.

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Rev. Jim Conn




Advent calendars used to be quite popular. Now they’re fairly difficult to find, and I imagine not many people bother with the old custom associated with them. But my wife Susan and I have had one that we’ve used over and over for years, until now.

The calendars were invented by German Lutherans in the 19th century as a journey of preparation for the birth of Jesus on Christmas. The “calendar” is actually a large artist’s rendering of some scene. It might be a European ideal of Bethlehem or a quaint mountain village blanketed in snow with a church at its center. In recent versions, the picture is likely more secular – a small, snow-covered New England town with Santa, his sleigh and reindeer flying overhead, or a family gathered around the Christmas tree in a rather well-appointed living room that most of us don’t have.

On the picture there are a random series of windows numbered from one to 24. Each day, beginning on December 1, the faithful open one small window. Each opening displays a seasonal symbol behind it: a candle, a star, an animal or a wrapped gift. Each is a surprise, a precursor to the Great Surprise. In recent years the calendars seem to have fallen into a kind of Disneyesque kitsch. You can even buy Advent calendars with a piece of chocolate behind each window.

This fall, as Susan and I traveled in northern New Mexico, we discovered a different calendar. Instead of New England, it pictured a pueblo characteristic of the architectural style of the Southwest with, of course, a church at its center – the indigenous culture with an overlay of Spanish colonial religion. Instead of presenting only images, each window includes a few words. A drawing of a road runner reads “Personal Integrity”; a hanging bough of chile ristras says “Hard Work”; a pictograph of a lizard, “Living One’s Creed”; a pueblo pot contains the word “Justice.”

Pictures and words are a unique contribution to the Advent calendar tradition. But the words remind us that all of the festivals of this season carry values. In their several ways they not only help those of us in the northern hemisphere get through the longest night of the winter solstice, they embody moral principles – virtues – that guide a society toward survival and sustainability. Overtly they bring light – like the Hindu tradition of Diwali – as the daylight dwindles. Below that, these festivals carry meanings.

A rabbi friend reminded me this year that Hanukkah was a tale made up by the rabbis as an alternative to the bloody saga of the brutal victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks. The reality of the war so horrified the survivors that Jewish spiritual leaders replaced it within another story. They literally created a narrative that could celebrate the unexpected and transcendence — but built around a flame that kept burning.

The African-American festival of Kwanzaa also carries values that sustain and empower a community. The festival begins on December 26, and each day for a week people light a different candle. Each one refers to an underlying value, like “cooperative economics” and “collective purpose.” People not only use these symbols in their homes, they gather with others to light the candles together and rehearse their meanings.

Solstice gathering, Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley. (Photo: Tim Ereneta)

These winter festivals emphasize family and home, core strengths of every society. They also underscore the importance of community and the reciprocal nature of people sharing, giving and receiving. They are public events – from the bonfires of Diwali to the lights that line our major streets to Posada processions and caroling on street corners. In our families and in our communities we guard ourselves against the long darkness. We hold out signs to one another that we can withstand these worst of days. That together, we humans can go on.

After all, the music of the season and the cards that fill our mailboxes carry constant messages of this hope. They say:  love, peace, hope.

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Labor & Economy

Report: Cash Bail System Hurts Poor and Communities of Color in L.A.

A UCLA report says the state’s money bail system takes “tens of millions of dollars annually in cash and assets from some of L.A.’s most economically vulnerable persons, families and communities.”

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(Photo detail by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“Many people don’t even have $100 in the bank, so paying 10 percent to a bond agent means that money won’t be going toward rent or food.”

In advance of a legislative battle over reforming California’s cash bail system, a new report shines light on which Los Angeles communities pay the most bail and by how much. The Price for Freedom, published by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, analyzed arrest data from 2012 through 2016. The authors concluded that the money bail system takes a “multi-billion dollar toll that demands tens of millions of dollars annually in cash and assets from some of L.A.’s most economically vulnerable persons, families and communities.”

Using the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s misdemeanor and felony bail schedules, researchers discovered that bail set for more than 374,000 people arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for misdemeanors and felonies over that five-year period was $19.4 billion.

Bail agents typically charge seven to 10 percent of the total bail; money going to bail bondsmen, whether upfront or through installments, is nonrefundable, even if defendants are found not guilty or have their charges dropped by the prosecutor.

The Bunche Center study also found that the cash bail system disproportionately affects lower income Angelenos and communities of color. During the period covered by the study, black Angelenos paid bond agents $40.7 million in non-refundable fees — 21 percent of total fees paid to bond agents in a population that represents only nine percent of the population. Latinos paid just over $92 million, and whites just under $38 million over the same period. Figures for Asian Americans were unavailable to researchers.

The Bunche Center study is the first comprehensive look into the size and impact of the bail system in the city of Los Angeles. Researchers plan to release a similar report for Los Angeles County in 2018, saying that the numbers they compiled should show lawmakers what’s at stake in the escalating debate over cash bail reform.

Comprehensive legislation to eliminate California’s bail system failed in the Legislature this year. Twin bills, Senate Bill 10 authored by Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), and Assembly Bill 42, authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), would throw out the California bail schedules and mandate counties to conduct pretrial assessments to determine whether a defendant poses a safety threat to the community or a flight risk. The bills would also mandate counties to develop plans to ensure low-risk defendants show up for their court dates. Bonta and Hertzberg have vowed to bring back bail reform legislation early in 2018. And their efforts have the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has said “inequities exist” in the system, and of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who cited the state’s bail system as “unsafe and unfair,” and created a working group to recommend changes.

UCLA Professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, one of the authors of The Price of Freedom, told Capital & Main that her study showed 70 percent of the bail amount levied went unpaid, and as a result 223,366 people remained behind bars until their arraignment.

“Many of these people don’t even have $100 in the bank, so paying 10 percent to a bond agent means that money won’t be going toward rent or food. If the breadwinner stays behind bars, the family suffers from lack of income.”

And it is most often female family members who, when they are able, engage bail agents. A 2015 study led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that incarceration takes a toll on all family members through debt, mental and physical ailments, and severed family ties.

For Isaac Bryan, a graduate researcher in the UCLA Department of Public Policy and a co-author of The Price of Freedom, the issue of cash bail is personal. Eight months ago he received a call from a bond agent saying that a family member had  been arrested for alleged property crime and drug possession. The bail was set at $25,000, and would he be able to cover it? As a struggling student, Bryan didn’t have the 10 percent upfront fee.

Supporters of cash bail say it ensures defendants will show up to court. If they fail to appear, they forfeit their bail money. Critics answer that only works when an arrestee puts up the entire bail amount. If they pay a bail agent, they lose their down payment regardless of whether they show up. The agent is on the hook for the rest of the bail.

Bail reform advocates also point to a 2017 report, Selling Off Our Freedom, published by the ACLU and the nonprofit Color of Change, which showed that much of the money collected by bail agents goes to big underwriters, including Japan-based Tokio Marine and Toronto-based Fairfax Financial, and that insurers offload most of the risk to bond agents.

Efforts to reform the cash bail system have met strong resistance from law enforcement, prosecutors and, not surprisingly, the bail industry, whose representatives say that eliminating cash bail would pose considerable harm to the public.

“Bail bond is of no expense to the taxpayer,” said Zeke Unger, owner of Lil’ Zeke’s Bail Bonds in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. “But if you let defendants out, not only do they have no motivation to go to court, you’ll have to invest in manpower to keep track of them while they’re out.”

Cash-bail advocates also point out that agents help defendants, who otherwise could not afford to do so, exercise their constitutional right to bail. But the question reformers ask, and what’s at the heart of the reform debate is: Why should freedom be determined by a person’s bank account?

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior campaign strategist for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice and a contributor to both Selling Off Our Freedom and The Price for Freedom reports, said that cash bail is supposed to make sure people return to court, but because of the high bail, in many cases, “it’s a way of keeping people in jail. Bail is not supposed to be a punishment. Right now the bail system is wealth-based detention.”

“We know that people of color are over-policed and over-represented in jails,” she added. “These reports show one more piece of the scale of economic drain of the criminal justice system on those communities.”

Across the U.S., states and courts are starting to rethink their cash bail systems. Earlier this year, New Jersey implemented an overhaul in its bail structure, and New Mexico is deciding how to address a voter-backed bail reform measure. In July, an Illinois judge ordered the reform of the bail system in Cook County, which includes Chicago. Now defendants who cannot pay bail and pose no flight risk or danger to the public do not remain behind bars before trial.

At the federal level, Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill to encourage states to reform the practice of using money bail as a condition of pretrial release in criminal cases.

Supporters of cash bail may see the reform writing on the wall, at least in California. Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, told Capital & Main that, although his organization will continue lobbying to fight the abolition of cash bail in Sacramento, it might acquiesce to some reforms.

“Bail is set way too high in California right now, and without the bail industry hardly anyone in the state would get out,” Clayton said. “Even bail on misdemeanors is higher than for felonies in Colorado. This market imbalance needs to be corrected and doing so wouldn’t have a big impact on us.”

Bail in California is set by a schedule for each crime, but varies county by county, though judges have the discretion to alter the bail amount. The Selling Off Our Freedom report found that bail amounts as late as the 1980s were much lower than today, and many people arrested for felonies were released without paying bail. That report also showed that, nationally, between 1990 and 2009, the share of arrestees required to post money bail grew from 37 to 61 percent, and the share of releases depending on bail bond companies doubled in that same period. The report said bail bondsmen and the insurance industry used high crime rates to bolster their argument for laws requiring bail, and lawmakers bought that argument.

Clayton added that sensible reforms could simply do away with bail for minor crimes that don’t present a public danger, like loitering, which often impact homeless and low-income people. “We shouldn’t detain a person who can’t make bail for longer than [what] the actual sentence might be. A 60-day sentence on a fine-eligible offense doesn’t make any sense.”

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Homeless for the Holidays

New federal data show that America’s homeless population has increased for the first time since 2010.

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Today is National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day, a seasonal moment to remember that these final weeks of the year are no holiday for thousands of our fellow Americans. (New data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reveal that last year “Los Angeles had the largest number of individuals with chronic patterns of  homelessness, with 19 percent of the nation’s chronically homeless individuals.”

This infographic, created by Rutgers University, provides some of the starker facts of life facing the homeless.

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Boyle’s Heights: A New Book by the Founder of Homeboy Industries

Fr. Gregory Boyle’s book includes stories of young parents who have figured out how to manage jobs and child care, and enjoy their kids even if the parents themselves didn’t have much of a childhood.

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Bobbi Murray




“Homies inhabit their truest selves once they are on the receiving end of tenderness.”

Father Gregory Boyle doesn’t exactly credit the Los Angeles homeboys and homegirls he’s worked with for 30 years with writing his book Barking to the Choir-The Power of Radical Kinship. But he makes it clear that their voices are what the book is about and opens giving props to the homie who came up with the title.

Barking to the Choir vividly expresses Boyle’s passionate perspective that “homies inhabit their truest selves once they are on the receiving end of tenderness.”

In Boyle’s view, that goes for all of us.

It’s easy to think it’s a book about gangs and “the gang experience.” Boyle, after all, founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program in the world, has testified before Congress on the issue, received the California Peace Prize and was named a 2014 Champion for Change by the Obama White House.

It is not a book about gangs.

Boyle is the author—the scholar who references Jesus along with Buddhist monks Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Wolfe.

But it’s the voices of the homeboys and homegirls that supply the most affecting words. Heart-breaking, harrowing or very frequently laugh-out-loud funny, they lead us through Boyle’s story of a community and relationships that connect him with “the tenderness of God.”

Barking to the Choir is loaded with spiritual references that may even be accessible to and moving for the non-churched reader. The stories that weave the book together—all brief anecdotes—bring us into some very hard lives but can take us from tears to guffaws within a page.

Boyle draws us in through profiles of those in the Homeboy community—some 10,000 have gone through its job training and placement process, recovery programs and tattoo removal essential to getting that job—helping us see it through his soulful lens.

Ramon, a gang member working at Homeboy Bakery, was the guy who created the book title, not that he knew it at the time. He was in a little trouble, had been late for work, missing his shift some days. He waved Boyle off when the priest approached him after co-workers recommended an “attitude-ectomy.” “Don’t sweat it, bald-headed,” he told Boyle. ”You’re barking to the choir.”

The expression combines “barking up the wrong tree”–and “singing to the choir.”

The book is full of such inventive phrasing—seizing the language and shaping it to your will.

“And that’s what got the camel to fall,” said one homie, explaining how a broken refrigerator put him over the financial edge after all the food spoiled—the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Boyle is intent on breaking down the “otherness” that separates the mainstream middle-class in L.A. and other cities from poorer, browner neighbors not too many miles away.

Financially stable people can say don’t sweat the small stuff, he explains, but lacking a bank account, a reliable car, being a few bucks short on buying diapers tips you toward disaster. “Being poor means living in a continual state of acute crisis,” Boyle says. “That’s something they have to endure every day.”

He doesn’t dodge the pain of families that have lost children to gang life. He has buried 222 young people taken down by the violence. The book details the efforts of the mothers who have struggled to bring about change and who hold rallies to collect guns and throw them away.

Boyle grew up in affluent Hancock Park, in an intact family of seven siblings miles from Boyle Heights. Gang life was not even a notion. “No hopeful kid has ever joined a gang. Not now. Not ever.”

Instead, he introduces us to the young man who described at a conference how his mother pressed his hand on a stove-top burner until the flesh charred. That was to teach the boy not to play with matches. “Nothing can render a person more of a stranger to himself than the unspeakable things he was forced to endure when young,” Boyle writes.

Such stories run throughout the book, crisply and briefly told—you don’t need much detail to get the picture. Or to get a sense of the effects of multi-generational poverty and how it figures into the brutality and neglect he describes—the parents who had no parenting and have no resources to attend to their own kids.

There are also stories of young parents who have figured out how to manage jobs and child care, and enjoy their kids even if the parents themselves didn’t have much of a childhood.

None of it is abstract or sociological. We meet people with real names and lives. Boyle strives to present a complex portrait—including a story about the mother who approached him at an awards event to say she hated him and his work; her son had been killed by gang violence.

As the director of a non-profit agency that serves “a trauma-informed community” he is well aware of a need to bridge “the distance between direct service and structural change.”

His aim is not to romanticize the poor, but “to see ourselves in kinship with them.”

Boyle covered some of this ground in his best-seller Tattoos on the Heart, but in this book his reach seems to be greater, and he shares more of the spiritual influences and practices that sustain him and connect him to the genuine joy and love he finds in his work and his community. And his community is our community.

Our community. That’s his point.

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How L.A. Helped Its Homeless During the Wildfires

During Los Angeles County’s recent wildfires, local organizations that aid the homeless have been working overtime to help those in need.

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A Santa Rosa evacuation center during Northern California's October fires. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

The devastating impact of wildfires exploding across swaths of California is captured nightly in dramatic television footage. Largely unseen, though, is how those same fires affect Los Angeles’ growing homeless population, many of whom have abandoned menacing urban streets for the relative safety of woodland encampments.

Fires that consumed parts of Northern California in October destroyed thousands of homes and put many already homeless residents in the path of danger. The story is no different in Southern California, and local organizations that aid the homeless have been working overtime to help those in need.

Colleen Murphy, coordinator of outreach at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authorities, told Capital & Main that her agency started working to locate homeless encampments the second they learned the fires had started. She knew there were only so many beds in so many shelters they could use, so they had to redouble their efforts to make sure they found space for everyone.

“One of the things that was a little challenging at the time was that L.A. opens up winter shelters on December 1, and some of the winter shelters were pretty close to the fire area,” Murphy said. “So we were also trying to navigate whether we needed to close the shelters, because that is normally where we would send people.” Their winter shelters were closest to the Rye Fire near Santa Clarita, and in Pacoima near the Creek Fire in the hills above Sylmar. Luckily, none of the shelters the organization needed had to close due to the fires, and they were able to help find beds for the homeless they could locate.

Patrick Justice, an outreach coordinator for LA Family Housing, said he sent support teams to known homeless encampments in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys as quickly as he could. He estimated that hundreds of homeless individuals were in evacuation areas. “Some of the encampment locations were directly in the fire evacuation zones,” he said. Reaching those people wasn’t always easy, because sometimes routes to these locations were blocked by the fires. “There were areas we weren’t able to get to right off the bat,” Justice said. “We had to find alternative ways in.”

The homeless population in Los Angeles County has risen by nearly a quarter since last year, a rise traceable to skyrocking rents and stagnant wages according to a Zillow report. There are nearly 60,000 homeless residents in the county, and officials have been struggling to help this vulnerable group of people.

Getting that population into shelter and out of woodland areas protects them and nearby residents. The Skirball fire that destroyed six very expensive homes in Bel-Air and damaged a dozen more was started by a cooking fire in a homeless encampment in a canyon just off the 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass.

As destructive as the blaze was to property in one of the most affluent communities in the country, the fire’s cause “makes a tragic event even more tragic,” Los Angeles Councilman Paul Koretz told the Los Angeles Times. “The saddest thing is that we have so many homeless people,” said Koretz, whose district includes Bel-Air. “And they are everywhere in the city. And that sometimes causes serious problems.”

Los Angeles officials hope to develop ways to evacuate homeless populations in woodland areas once fire conditions—high winds and accumulated dry brush—arise. But Mayor Eric Garcetti said a lot of people could still be missed, given all the hills in the city. “Just like ramping up efforts to try to anticipate terrorist incidents, you can never get to zero risk,” he told the Times. “And I think it would be a mistake to think we could.”

Murphy and Justice pointed to Measure H, approved by voters last March, as being a major help in their efforts to locate homeless encampments during the fires. Measure H imposed a one-quarter percent county sales tax for 10 years “in order to fund homeless services and prevention,” Ballotpedia explained. Murphy and Justice believe the response to the fires would not have been nearly as effective without the funding and services Measure H delivered.

“I think this is showing the importance of Measure H, which pays for outreach coordination and those outreach teams,” Murphy said. In areas like the Sylmar Hills where the Creek Fire broke out, “we were able to mobilize and had the infrastructure to utilize, as well as the actual teams who knew these places,” Murphy said. “That couldn’t have been done without expanded Measure H funding.”

“Seeing the way the county is moving with all of the Measure H funds, we’re starting to see really strong infrastructure countywide and trickling down into these service planning areas,” Justice said. “I was getting a lot of support from the county level. Having that infrastructure is really amazing.”

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Tom Morello: Making America Rage Again

“We’re at a crucial historical juncture, where literally the fate of the planet hangs by a thread,” says rocker Tom Morello. “We are musicians, so our message is in the mosh pit.”

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Prophets of Rage: Tom Morello (right) onstage in 2017 with bassist Tim Commerford (far left) and rapper Chuck D (center). Photo: Steve Appleford.

Tom Morello knows something about Trump Country.  The hard rock guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and, most recently, the rock/hip-hop supergroup Prophets of Rage, grew up in small-town Libertyville, Illinois, nearly an hour outside of Chicago. The mostly white enclave went dependably Democratic in the 2016 presidential election, but it’s still fly-over country, where Morello grew up in the only household among his friends that could be described as politically radical.

He knows there are Trump voters among his listeners and across the Rust Belt that helped send the real estate billionaire to the White House. “The people there are not bad people,” says Morello. “They’ve just been dumped on by both political parties and their towns have been robbed of their jobs, and their kids have been [taken] for awful immoral foreign wars, and they’re looking at a very uncertain future for themselves and their families. So they turn their backs on politics as usual and turn towards a racist demagogue.”

“From our vantage point as cultural warriors, if we’re going to go down,
we’re going to go down swingin’.”

Morello’s politics have remained consistently loud and radical since his youth, drawing inspiration as a musician from both the metal guitar pyrotechnics of Randy Rhoads and the biting punk rock militancy of the Clash’s 1980 album London Calling. With Prophets of Rage, he’s back to spreading the gospel against war and for human rights, for organized labor and environmental sanity — to some very large audiences. The band formed in Los Angeles during last year’s tumultuous election season, with an all-star lineup: Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk from the dormant Rage Against the Machine; with vocals from the rappers Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill; plus Public Enemy’s fiery turntablist DJ Lord.

The new band toured under the banner “Make America Rage Again,” and found an audience ready to hear the old Rage Against the Machine songs performed once more. Last month, the Prophets played songs old and new to thousands of heavy metal faithful at Ozzfest Meets Knotfest in San Bernardino, and this Saturday they face an altogether different crowd at the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas concert at the Forum in Inglewood.

At the beginning of each show, band members gather at the front of the stage to raise their fists in solidarity and defiance, but Morello says they demand no political litmus test from fans, other than, “It’s a No Fascists Allowed Zone.” (Morello did ridicule future House Speaker Paul Ryan when he declared himself a Rage fan in 2012: “He is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”)

“It’s music, first and foremost,” says Morello, 53, who frequently wields electric guitars with the slogans “Arm the Homeless” and “Soul Power” scrawled across the surface. “We set out to be a devastating rock & roll band. That’s Job One. That’s the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. With Prophets of Rage – as with Rage Against the Machine – we strive to make the music compelling, and people of all political persuasions are drawn to compelling music.”

On the group’s debut album, Prophets of Rage, released in September, songs erupt with wild funk and attitude while confronting ongoing social crises and U.S. political leadership. The music video to “Radical Eyes” is a montage of news clips documenting American history repeating itself across 50 alarming years, while Morello’s guitar wails with eccentric melody and muscle. The song “Living on the 110” examines poverty along a freeway cutting through South Los Angeles, as Chuck D raps: “There’s no end to the poverty, stopping me/You pretend there’s democracy, hypocrisy/This is the reality.”

“This record feels as timely as anything we’ve ever done,” says Morello. “We’re fond of saying ‘Dangerous times demand dangerous songs,’ and we’re in extremely dangerous times. From our vantage point as cultural warriors, if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swingin’.”

The work he did with Rage Against the Machine was distinctive and searing, but Morello notes that the bulk of that band’s career (and all of its recorded output) unfolded during the Bill Clinton administration. The need now for defiance and expression is even greater, he says:

“We’re at a real crucial historical juncture, where literally the fate of the planet hangs by a thread – from the threat of imminent nuclear exchange to the environmental tightrope we are walking, staring into a dark abyss. Each one of us in our own vocation desperately needs to weave our convictions into what we do before it’s too late. We are musicians, so our message is in the mosh pit.”

For the Prophets, that’s also meant spending quality time during their first year together not simply performing concerts, but taking action on the causes they share. During the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the revolution rockers performed a free concert and led a protest march across the city. They also performed on L.A.’s Skid Row and on a stage just outside the prison walls of the California  Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

For the guitarist, it’s a tradition of activism that began with his schoolteacher mom, Mary Morello. He was arrested protesting sweatshop labor conditions at a Santa Monica factory in 1997 and at a 2006 UNITE HERE labor rally.

“There has been a ferocious class war being fought in this country over the last 40 or 50 years, and it’s the rich against the poor,” says Morello, whose family has included union coal miners in Central Illinois. “A crucial part of that war is dismantling the power of labor unions. In the battle of us versus them, that is the most effective way for us to have, share and wield power. They know that, and that’s why they’ve done everything they can to undermine it.”

He came to Los Angeles after graduating from Harvard to follow his hard rock dreams and ultimately found a sound and message through Rage, which delivered radical ideas to mainstream radio (via the hits “Killing in the Name,” “Bulls on Parade,” etc.), won Grammy Awards, toured arenas and went on hiatus soon after a performance protesting the American two-party system outside the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.

He’s called Los Angeles home for nearly three decades, raising two kids here, but warns that California is not immune from the forces roiling the rest of the country. “While it’s heartening to live in one of the few zones in the world where overt racism and homophobia are not evidenced on the streets, we can’t be lulled into any sense of comfort,” he says. “We are really in the fight of our lives during this Trump-Pence regime.”

With the rest of Prophets of Rage, Morello at least has a means to get that message to a broad range of people. They recorded the new album in only a month with producer Brendan O’Brien, working side by side on new songs. It continues on the road.

“Before our first record came out, we had played in front of two and half million people,” he says. “It’s the best of both worlds. We have the gravitas of our histories and then we’re able to draw on the catalogs of Rage and Cypress and PE – but we also have the chip on our shoulder of a new band. We go out there every night to prove ourselves.”

KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, with Prophets of Rage, Muse, 30 Seconds to Mars, Queens of the Stone Age, others. Saturday, Dec. 9. Forum, Inglewood.

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Wells Fargo Plays Scrooge to Atwater Village

Wells Fargo, which spent $281 million on corporate philanthropy in 2016, is choosing to curtail a holiday tree-lighting event — at the very moment it is seeking to generate goodwill in the communities it serves.

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Worker prepares Atwater Village’s holiday tree. (All photos: Jessica Goodheart)

Wells Fargo & Company has decided to evict a popular tree-lighting festival from the parking lot of one of its branches, a move coming at a time when the bank is working to rebuild its image in the aftermath of a scandal involving the opening of accounts for millions of customers without their permission.

The company’s decision riled neighbors so much that they collected almost a thousand signatures on petitions, as well as letters from children, before assembling outside the bank with handmade signs and kids in strollers.

Bank officials told the all-volunteer festival group it needed to buy a $5 million liability insurance policy, one organizer said.

Video footage of the November 9 demonstration at the Atwater Village branch shows bank security forcefully shutting the door on protesters. “It just makes no sense,” said community resident Bahar Tolou. A bank of Wells Fargo’s size and influence, she explained, “could figure out some way” to work with the local community and “have this sweet little event that happens for two hours once a year.” The Tree Lighting Festival, which attracted about 1,300 people last year, typically features Santa Claus, fire trucks, children’s activities and local dancers and musicians.

Wells Fargo released a statement Monday underscoring its work to help the group find another site and its commitment to Atwater Village, where the bank has “been a long-standing community partner” and has “actively supported the tree lighting event.”

But the bank stood by its decision to discontinue hosting a gathering that it says was becoming a safety hazard. It “violates our parking lot’s legal capacity limit, closes our business to our customers, and places our customers’ and the community’s safety at risk,” its statement said.

Shelli-Anne Couch, a festival organizer, said the group had offered to hold the event on a weekend so it would not interfere with bank business.

“Had we known back in August, if they’d been forthright and just honest about not using this space, we would have had ample time to shift the event,” Couch said. “But they kept dragging us along. We were left scrambling.”

As Couch spoke, a worker in a cherry picker strung lights around the festival’s focal point, a dusty and towering evergreen that sprouts from a median strip on Glendale Boulevard. The bank parking lot is ideally situated to allow residents a space to gaze at the lit tree from across the street, she said.

Residents’ frustrations also stem from the fact that bank officials offered shifting explanations for why its parking lot could not accommodate the tree-lighting ceremony after organizers met with the company in August, Couch said.

When event organizers proposed moving the tree lighting to the weekend so it would not interfere with customer traffic through the ATM lane, bank officials said the all-volunteer group needed to buy a $5 million liability insurance policy, organizer Courtney Morris said.

“We told them that we would try to secure a sponsor to pay for it, but could not in fact buy the insurance before we even knew if the branch would host,” Morris said. “They seemed to want us to put the cart before the horse.”

Luanna Lindsey, the banking district manager, who has reportedly led ongoing talks with community members, declined to comment for this story. Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

As of Monday, the plan was to hold the tree lighting festival on December 10, from 5 to 7 p.m., on the lot of All’Aqua, an Italian restaurant located next door to the Wells Fargo branch. Its parking lot is a fraction of the size of the original spot, and so organizers had hoped to secure permission to close Glendale Boulevard, a potentially costly move that will be hard to accomplish on short notice.

Wells Fargo, which spent $281 million on corporate philanthropy in 2016, is choosing to curtail this event when it is seeking to generate goodwill in the communities it serves. Wells Fargo revealed in August that it may have created as many as 3.5 million deposit and credit card accounts without customers’ permission over the last eight years. In July, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco approved a $142 million settlement in a class action lawsuit brought over the unauthorized accounts.

Some Wells Fargo critics have speculated that the bank is punishing City Councilman O’Farrell, who represents Atwater Village. O’Farrell filed a motion in March requesting that the city explore options to divest its $40 million holdings from the bank. Wells Fargo’s contract for providing banking services to the City of Los Angeles is coming up for renewal in June 2018. The motion cites the city’s 2015 lawsuit over the sham accounts, which was settled for $50 million in civil penalties, and the bank’s financial support of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline running through a sacred Native American burial ground and the tribe’s water source.

“Any allegation that our decision is related to any specific activity by any member of the L.A. City Council is false,” the bank said in Monday’s statement.

Wells Fargo’s liability concerns related to community events at its Atwater Village branch parking lot predate O’Farrell’s motion.

Last spring, the L.A. Griffith Park Lions Club, which sponsors an annual pancake breakfast, was asked to increase its liability insurance from $1 million $5 million, at an increased cost to the club of $2,700, according Louis Buono, the club’s vice president.

“I just think the property management people don’t want the liability, not that anybody has ever gotten hurt,” Buono said.

James Haydu, executive director of SEE-LA, said he began having conversations with the bank more than a year ago about the need to find another space for an event that has grown over the past dozen years. The Farmers Market, he said, has known “we would outgrow that space.”

Wells Fargo Co. is continuing to host a weekly farmers’ market in its Toluca Lake branch’s parking lot. In June, the bank reportedly allowed tethered hot air balloon rides in its parking lot in Allentown, Pennsylvania at a “Blues, Brews & Barbecue” festival.

The events Wells Fargo hosted at its Atwater Village branch fostered a small-town feeling that can help neighborhoods cohere in a vast metropolis that can often feel isolating, supporters said. “It is a splendid event,” resident Tricia Russo wrote on Facebook.

This year, Couch jumped up from a parking lot wall where she had been sitting and pointed to the tree. “Look,” she said, “they are doing color this year.”

It was just after 4 p.m. and the tree’s newly-installed lights were beginning to glow. “I want to get a shot of that,” she said before snapping a picture of the tree.

Copyright Capital & Main

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