Each episode of Netflix’s new documentary series, Dirty Money, depicts an instance where money is valued over everything else. As a whole the series makes it impossible not to feel that modern society is being held hostage by a sinister group of greedy robber barons who pilfer from the poor to line their gilded pockets. If the love of money is the root of all evil, these are the gardeners who nurture their sins with overwhelming avarice.
Everything from the air we breathe to the pills we pop, to even the syrup we put on our pancakes (more on that later), is fair game in the quest for riches. The series starts with an episode that drives home this theme firsthand for executive producer Alex Gibney.
Arguably the most accomplished documentarian working today, Gibney (who directs this first episode as well) reveals that his wife’s purchase of a Volkswagen diesel was fueled by the promise propagated by the company that owning that car helped the environment. But a band of consumer activists discovered that the promise of cleaner air had taken a backseat to profit. Volkswagen had secretly installed a kill switch to cut off the environmental controls in each car once it is put in drive, the activists found, making it a vehicle for delivering poisonous fumes the moment the wheels start turning.
Throughout the series, Gibney et al focus on one particularly egregious entity to represent how that particular industry picks profit over people — describing Volkswagen, for instance, as ironically and knowingly “gassing the masses.” In “Payday,” the focus is on one particularly predatory lender who charges unsuspecting and struggling working people ridiculous markups buried in fine print. “Cartel Bank” reveals that HSBC bank knowingly laundered money for the drug cartels, indirectly leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths south of the border. The best of the bunch is “Drug Short,” a shocking tale of how Wall Street short sellers exposed a cowardly drug company, Valeant, systematically raising drug prices with no regard for the ailing who used their products. Director Erin Lee Carr imbues the episode with the human cost of greed, and it makes one realize that Big Pharma and its abuses alone could be the subject of its own series. The only outlier is “The Maple Syrup Heist,” a badly directed tale (lots of close-ups of highlighted words in documents!) about Quebec’s maple syrup monopoly, and emerges as sort of a cross between Fargo and Frontline, but not as good as either.
Many of those exposed in Dirty Money take the “everyone else does it” defense. While that may be true, it doesn’t make their actions any less despicable. The dirty misdeeds chronicled here underscore just how insidious and pervasive the grab for cash all around us is. Which makes the final episode, titled “Confidence Man,” so fitting. Ably directed by Fisher Stevens, it exposes one of the greediest, most dishonest and most corrupt figures in modern business. In great detail, it shows how a spoiled rich kid lied and cheated his way into the public consciousness and then parlayed that into fame and celebrity. But unlike in the other episodes, the crook in question does not get his due. In fact, the opposite happens, as we see Donald Trump ascend to the highest office in the land. The story of Don the Con serves as a sober and ominous denouement to the series, highlighting how we are now living in a world where the currency of our existence is cash over care, profit over people, money over everything. Dirty Money is a rare feat, a series that is, for the most part, profoundly riveting, reflective and relevant.
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A Combative Immigrant Fights Her ‘Ironbound’ Destiny
Born in Poland and brought up in New Jersey by an immigrant mom who cleaned houses for a living, playwright Martyna Majok has fashioned her experience into a compelling feminist work.
In American theater, as in life, not all voices receive equal airtime — one reason why Martyna Majok’s pitch-black dramedy about a Polish-born factory worker/cleaning lady is so poignant and arresting. The play, first produced by New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in 2016, is currently running at the Geffen Playhouse under Tyne Rafaeli’s direction.
Majok’s insightfully written, unabashedly woman-centered tale is set at a bus stop in a squalid industrial neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The central character is a hardscrabble female survivor. We first meet combative, down-on-her-luck Darja (Marin Ireland), an immigrant, in 2014, as she confronts her live-in lover, Tommy (Christian Camargo), over his sexual liaison with the wealthy woman she works for. Vulnerable beneath his swagger, Tommy pleads remorse and begs Darja not to leave him, to which she responds with an unsentimental demand for hard cash — money she needs to track down her missing wayward son, a drug addict. The pair negotiate; in the end, sexual attraction and codependence best rage and resentment, and they lock in fierce embrace, each extending a finger to the intrusive honks of passing motorists.
Scene 2 flashes back to 1992 and a more tender exchange between Darja and Maks (Josiah Bania), her Polish first husband and the father of her child. Maks is a musician, and the conflict between the couple revolves around his desire to relocate to Chicago to pursue art and fame — a move that makes Darja fearful (better the hell you’re living in now….). So, Maks departs on his own, leaving Darja to an uncertain and, and as it turns out, far more purgatorial future.
That fate manifests later, in 2006, when (in this production’s finest, most memorable scene) a teenage hustler, Vic (Marcel Spears), happens on a bruised and bleeding Darja, lying under a bench after a beating from her abusive second husband. A rich kid out at night sowing down-and-dirty oats, the youth is appalled by Darja’s appearance and wants to help. But Darja, who doesn’t know how to say thanks, rejects this offer of assistance, though she desperately needs it — till Vic points to the moon and offers a gift of surprising generosity.
Ironbound, which claims its title from a slum area in Newark, offers an illuminating portrait of a vulnerable, volatile woman most middle-class Americans would probably never look twice at. Yet Darja is no fool; despite being a stranger in a strange land, with limited language skills, she understands how the capitalist system operates to her disadvantage, and what she must do to get by. Her actions and choices, made in anger, fear or frustration (she sets fire to her fornicating employer’s clothes), work against her.
Ireland, who commanded the role to accolades in New York, performs with energy and commitment (her character never leaves the stage) but without the fresh edge that must have brought down earlier houses. Some of that may have to do with Camargo, with whom she has the most stage time. As with Darja, Majok has drawn Tommy as a complex ambivalent figure, but instead of exploring why this two-faced lothario still needs Darja to be his woman, the actor storms about, relying on heated dialogue and comic gesture to define his role.
Bania, who also reprises his role from the original production, is warm and likable — and especially on target in moments when he pleads with Darja to let him have his dreams. Spears’ glowing performance as a compassionate youngster determined to aid an abused, beleaguered stranger is the evening’s highlight.
Born in Poland and brought up in New Jersey by an immigrant mom who cleaned houses for a living, Majok has written about what she knows, fashioning her experience into a compelling feminist work.
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., West Los Angeles; ; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through March 4.
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Union Staffers: Time’s Up, L.A. Times
The L.A. Times newsroom remains in a state of siege. Tronc has established an alternative editorial team for its shadowy “Los Angeles Times Network,” and has declined to explain to Times staffers what its intentions are for this new enterprise.
Workers at the Washington Post won their first union contract in 1937, the year the Hindenburg crashed and burned. New York Times staffers got theirs around the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In the first years of the 20th century, the owners of the Los Angeles Times not only crushed union opposition at the paper, but turned their hometown into the most rabidly anti-union big city in America. For over 100 years, the Los Angeles Times‘ newsroom remained a bulwark against organized labor, maintained by below-the-masthead editors and reporters, as well as by management.
So why did L.A. Times staffers choose to unionize last month by a vote of 248-44?
During her 41 years as a journalist and three decades at the Times, Bettina Boxall had never worked in a unionized newsroom. Until last year, the veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on environmental and water issues would have kept working at an open shop if given a choice. “My father was a military officer, and no members of my family were ever in a union,” she tells me, “and watching them from afar — unions haven’t had a great reputation.”
When Boxall began at the Times, it was certainly a patriarchy, but a patriarchy rolling in profits and exceedingly generous when it came to employee compensation and job security.
In recent years, corporate mismanagement and merciless cost-cutting began to soften Boxall’s stance. Now the bosses had nothing to offer and seemed to be taking everything away. Accrued vacation time? Gone. The 401(k) plan? Raided by a profane real-estate mogul who drove the company into bankruptcy. Layoffs and buyouts pared down the newsroom from 1,200 to around 400 – sending thousands of years of journalistic experience out the door.
These depredations brought long-standing inequities into starker relief, and sharpened focus on new ones. “Women are paid less than men,” Boxall says. “I know that for a fact. And the long-standing Metpro program [for young minority journalists] has turned into a source of cheap young labor.”
The climate of oppression and fear at the paper came not only from Chicago-based Tronc, the newspaper conglomerate that now owns the Times, but from the top of the masthead. More than a year ago, in Los Angeles magazine, I chronicled the excesses of former editor and publisher Davan Maharaj — the paranoia, the interference with investigative pieces and behavior that had helped turn the newsroom into a hostile work environment for women.
Until he was placed on unpaid leave because of allegations about past sexual improprieties, Ross Levinsohn, the Times’ CEO and Maharaj’s successor in the publisher’s chair, pursued an agenda of click-baiting at all costs. To implement it, he hired Lewis D’Vorkin, who during his career at Forbes and other publications had earned the sobriquet “Prince of Darkness.” D’Vorkin held the post three months until Tronc removed him, following scathing coverage of his misrule. “We’d almost become like an abused family,” Boxall says of the Times newsroom. “We wouldn’t react in an overt strong way. We were passive in the face of anything they did to us.”
At her first organizing rally late last summer, Boxall took the podium and declared to her beaten-down colleagues that she had never signed a unionization card, but she was going to sign one that night. She would become one of the chief organizers of the effort, teaming with younger colleagues like 30-year-old data journalist Anthony Pesce, who had made the first call to the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America in 2016, and had championed the unionization drive from its inception.
Boxall believes that the massive job cuts of the past two decades actually made victory easier – the union advocates only had to convince a majority of 400 staffers, not of 1,200. The chronic instability of newsroom and business leadership – with publishers and editors coming in to make big changes and then packing up their offices seemingly as soon as they arrived — may have made the paper more dysfunctional, but it also ensured that there would be no company standard bearer in the building with the kind of longstanding authority and solid workforce relationships that can be effective at countering a unionization drive.
For their part, the Tronc executives back in Chicago proved no more competent at repulsing a union effort than they had been at choosing leaders to run the Times. It certainly didn’t help that Lewis D’Vorkin put his name on some of the anti-union pleas emailed to a staff that largely loathed him.
The newsroom remains in a state of siege. Tronc has established an alternative editorial team for its shadowy “Los Angeles Times Network,” and has declined to explain to Times staffers what its intentions are for this new enterprise. Many believe it may be used to undermine or bypass the newly unionized workforce. Some say that the Times’ journalistic integrity and their own livelihoods will remain under threat as long as Tronc controls the paper.
Nevertheless, the establishment of the L.A. Times Guild seems to have somewhat dissipated the air of futility, anger and disgust that clouded so many of my earlier conversations with staffers. Boxall likens the feeling to what countless victims of sexual harassment must have experienced during the past year – finding strength in numbers as they confront their abusers after so much silence and disregard.
“We care about the institution of the L.A. Times,” Boxall says, “and we’re concerned about the revolving door and an ownership only interested in profits, not civic duty. Well, time’s up. It’s kind of the equivalent of the #MeToo movement. We’ve had enough of this.”
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Landslide Union Victory at Los Angeles Times
By 11:30 a.m. Friday morning the votes were tallied in the first-ever union vote taken by L.A. Times editorial staffers: 248 in favor, 44 opposed.
All was quiet nine floors above the noisy corner at Figueroa and Ninth Streets in downtown Los Angeles Friday morning. There, in a National Labor Relations Board hearing room packed with spectators, two NLRB staff members began counting ballots in the first union vote by editorial staff in the Los Angeles Times’ 136-year history. (The newspaper’s pressroom has had union representation since 2007.)
L.A. Times newsroom writers and editors who had worked for months building support for NewsGuild CWA representation watched (and tweeted) in silence as the counting began at 10:16 a.m., with union and company representatives present.
By 11:30 a.m. the vote tally revealed a landslide union victory— 248 in favor, 44 opposed. The election had been held in the Times‘ headquarters January 4, but the NLRB count was conducted today to include mail-in ballots.
The room erupted. “The ‘yes’ column was crazy!” said data journalist Anthony Pesce.
“I had this urge to laugh and cry—we had been working towards this for months,” said copy editor Kristina Toi. “This was a day we all knew was coming but at the same time it felt like it was never going to come.”
The Los Angeles Times is owned by Tronc, formerly Tribune Publishing Company. Editorial staff argued that Tronc management has challenged both working and journalistic standards, causing tumult at the top and eroding pay and benefits. Tronc’s chairman, tech CEO Michael Ferro, took a $5 million consulting fee for himself late last year, and the company also paid $4.6 million for him to use a private plane over seven months. “That $9.6 million could have been used to hire more than 70 reporters,” Steven Greenhouse, a former longtime New York Times labor reporter, wrote in an email to Capital & Main.
If Tronc executives continue trimming the size of the L.A. Times‘ newsroom, Greenhouse said, the resulting product “could result in an accelerated loss of subscribers, whether digital or paper. And any further reduction of the editorial staff will be bad for the citizens of Los Angeles,” who count on the coverage of neighborhoods, City Hall, Sacramento and Washington. He called the vote “an emphatic statement that the staff “wants more of a voice in the future of the newspaper to which they’ve devoted so much of their talent and energies.”
It will take about a week to get formal NLRB certification, Pesce said. Union activists don’t expect ballot challenges from Tronc management and will begin surveying the newsroom to determine member priorities. “After that we need to move right into bargaining,” said Pesce.
In a statement, Tronc expressed support for the outcome, despite emails and leaflets it sent out during the Guild’s organizing campaign opposing the union:
“We respect the outcome of the election and look forward to productive conversations with union leadership as we move forward. We remain committed to ensuring that the Los Angeles Times is a leading source for news and information and to producing the award-winning journalism our readers rely on.”
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People Will Talk: An Intriguing Premise Can’t Save This Dystopian Play
In Sam Steiner’s futuristic play, a new law limits conversation between people to 140 words a day. How will they get around this ration?
Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Sam Steiner’s 85-minute two-hander, comes packaged with an intriguing premise and the technical expertise of two of the L.A. theater community’s most established artists. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to compensate for an opaque, meandering script and uneven performances by actors understandably at sea with the flummoxing dialogue.
The play poses the question: What happens to relationships when a repressive government rations the number of words that can be spoken each day?
In the story, Oliver (Philip Asta) and Bernadette (Brynn Alexander) are two lovers who already have problems communicating even without the law’s interference. We first meet them rendezvousing at a pet cemetery, concerned that their relationship will be discovered by others (although why this would imperil them remains unclear). Bernadette is a family lawyer, an attractive gal with attitude who is not fully cognizant of her sense of privilege. The more down-home Oliver adores her nonetheless, and mostly absorbs her putdowns. When he does challenge her, he does so falteringly lest his comment provoke more rejection.
The play is structured as a series of short, cryptic interchanges, with transitions signaled by a loud startling sound (designer Cricket S. Meyers) and accompanying flashes of colored lights (designer Matt Richter) strategically embedded around the proscenium floor. At some point — but notably not at the beginning — the characters discuss an impending law that will limit conversation between themselves and with others to 140 words a day. They explore ways to get around this mandate: tapping on the floor using Morse code, for example, or consolidating two or more words into a single utterance. Other scenes portray Oliver confessing to Bernadette his involvement in anti-government protests, which she disapproves of, especially as they involve his contact with a former girlfriend.
These sequences furnish welcome, albeit scant, context to a piece that promises to be intellectually and/or politically involving but isn’t. Steiner never bothers to supply background details about the oppressive regime his characters are valiantly trying to cope with, nor does he apply a comprehensible chronology to either the narrative’s political thread or its personal one. The cryptic interaction between Oliver and Bernadette remains pretty much the same both before the law is implemented — somewhere in the middle of the script — and after. This makes for a frustrating evening at the theater, all the more disappointing as the basic idea here is so promising, given the current administration’s predilections to stifle controversy and criticism.
Director Jen Bloom does a respectable job of engendering dynamic from the two characters’ interaction, but it’s not enough to sustain interest. Jessica J’aime’s costumes enhance Bernadette’s appeal as a come-hither-but-not-too-close kind of paramour. Her performance is satisfactory if a bit stilted. Asta brings a good deal more substance to the vulnerable working-class Oliver, and together they generate an appropriate chemistry.
Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through February 11. www.2centstheatre.com or (323) 960-4420.
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L.A. Times Staffers Await Union Vote Tally
Thursday’s vote by Los Angeles Times editorial staffers to choose or reject unionization was overseen by the National Labor Relations Board at the paper’s downtown building and Orange County offices.
Thursday’s first-ever union vote among editorial staff in the 136-year history of the Los Angeles Times was hailed as a landmark event by other news media observers, although it appears that the voting itself was a fairly low-key affair.
There had been a buzz of activity, along with rising tensions between management and the union effort in the weeks leading up to the daylong January 4 vote, which was overseen by the National Labor Relations Board at the downtown building and Orange County offices.
Union newsroom supporters had met with fellow journalists to discuss what the on-the-job priorities of editorial staffers might be and distilled a list of negotiation goals. There were phone calls to editorial staff to beef up union support and pro-union signs sprang up around the newsroom.
Management of the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by Tronc, sent out an anti-union eblast to its reporters touting the newspaper’s history and implying that workplace flexibility would be threatened by a collective bargaining structure, and that the union couldn’t guarantee pay hikes or protections against layoffs. It was not the first such email and matched the messaging in management-distributed flyers.
Despite that, one Times writer, speaking on condition of anonymity, described voting day in the Times Spring Street headquarters in anti-climactic terms.
“There was no line, really. I think I heard that at 10 o’clock on the dot [when polls opened] there was a bit of a line. It took 10 seconds to vote. You just marked an X, Yes or No, behind the curtain then dropped your ballot in the box.”
Given that slightly over 350 staffers are in the bargaining unit and eligible to vote in two locations (and some by mail-in ballot), there was little potential for a stampede. Observers included a National Labor Relations Board officer, a NewsGuild-CWA union agent and another representing management.
Thursday evening, pro-union staffers who had been involved in the organizing retreated after work to Birds & Bees, a nearby watering hole, no doubt to relax a little after the past months fight and discuss next steps — outside media were not invited.
The drama now will lie in awaiting the results, not due until the mail-in ballots are counted and the NLRB announces the results on January 19.
There had been some skepticism in the newsroom, the Times staffer said, but “the opposition hadn’t organized. So, it’s tempting to think, Oh well, it’s going to be overwhelming [for the union], but I just don’t know. I can’t predict — I wouldn’t assume it’s a done deal.”
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L.A. Times: Will Union Vote Conk Tronc?
Today, over 350 Los Angeles Times reporters and editorial staff will vote on whether to allow NewsGuild CWA to represent them at the famously anti-union company.
Editorial staffers say they have been driven to unionize by a management that has undermined both working and journalistic standards.
Co-published by The American Prospect
Los Angeles Times readers who have been unaware of the paper’s endless management turmoil and policy changes can always view the damage in its print edition. Thinner news sections, a dwindling number of bylines and the wrap-around advertising that disguises the front-page all hint at the ongoing upheaval at the top.
Front-line reporters who bear the brunt of the turmoil have organized a union drive in response. As the Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee announced in an October 24th 2017 letter signed by 44 editorial staff: “We wanted to stem the flight of talent and halt the steady erosion of pay and benefits.”
It’s the first time in the famously anti-union paper’s history that editorial staff members have taken such a step — driven, they say, by a management that has undermined both working and journalistic standards. (The Times’ press operators are represented by the Teamsters union.)
Today, over 350 Los Angeles Times reporters and editorial staff will vote on whether to allow NewsGuild CWA to represent them. About 70 percent of the newsroom signed union authorization cards, organizers say. Voting takes place at the Times‘ downtown headquarters and at its Orange County offices, with observers in place; some remote employees will submit mail-in ballots. The National Labor Relations Board will release the results January 19.
Organizers want a unified voice to formally set work standards so Tronc can’t make unilateral changes to employment conditions — such as the recent policy shift that eliminated accrued vacation days.
“What really kicked this off was, as we’re dealing with this tumult at the executive levels, the reporters are still doing the work,” said Carolina Miranda, who has seen management change at least three times in the three and a half years she has been at the paper.
One pivotal moment came recently when it became public that Michael W. Ferro, the technology entrepreneur and company chairman who changed the Tribune name to Tronc (Tribune online content), flies on a private plane that cost Tronc $4.6 million–$8,500 an hour– in seven months to sublease. The plane is subleased from a Ferro-owned company, Merrick Ventures.
“That tipped wavering [employees] toward the union,” said one L.A. Times journalist who, like most staffers interviewed by Capital & Main, spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to another Times staffer, one incident that roiled editorial staff—and much of the industry–was management’s behavior during a recent stand-off with the Walt Disney Company. Disney refused to provide advance copies or screenings of films to the L.A. Times because of the paper’s two-part series about the cozy business relationship between the city of Anaheim and Disneyland that has garnered the theme park more than $1 billion in “subsidies, incentives, rebates and protections from future taxes.” Disney found the stories unfair.
An L.A. Times staffer cited management’s tepid response as a turning point. National critics associations condemned the ban and threatened to disqualify Disney films from awards consideration. D’Vorkin met with Disney for what it called “productive discussions,” although the Times offered no public defense for the reporting that had sparked Disney’s ire.
Part of the paper and website’s chaos is evidenced in the kinds of cuts and changes in workplace conditions that have become common in newsrooms around the country as publishers grapple with changing technological models and a shifting economic landscape. In Southern California, the LA Weekly’s new owner recently eliminated all but four of 13 editorial staff members; former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano resigned after refusing to cut staff.
“We’re the eyes and ears of the community,” Carolina Miranda said of the pressure to keep reporter staffing levels low. “You need someone writing about the water. You need someone writing about electeds, sitting in interminable City Hall and CalTrans meetings. That’s where the news comes from. It’s important to protect our role in that ecosystem.”
L.A. Times employees describe several more clear turning points in a years-long, accelerating momentum toward unionization. In 2016 the Chicago-based Tribune company, which had acquired the paper in 2000, announced its name change to Tronc, along with its mission as a “content curation and monetization company.”
In August 2017 Tronc fired publisher and editor Davan Maharaj. Newsroom staff hadn’t been that happy about Maharaj’s management style, given his predilection for encumbering and delaying some of the Times‘ best reporting. The staff organized against him after “fabulous journalists, one after the other, kept leaving,” one union supporter said.
The organizers had high hopes that a new editor would promote quality journalism. Then Tronc brought in Ross Levinsohn, formerly an interim chief executive at Yahoo, as chief executive publisher, and former Forbes editor Lewis D’Vorkin, as editor.
The emphasis, Levinsohn told the New York Times, would not be on investing in reporting staff but to expand the L.A. Times on “all platforms.” New management pushed for budget cuts.
Organizers are looking to create a unified voice to set work standards and formally codify them so Tronc can’t make unilateral changes to employment conditions — such as the recent policy shift that eliminated accrued vacation days. They also hope to stabilize the pay structure with a tiered approach that gradually increases pay for new hires as well as to improve health benefits and parental leave policies.
Union contracts also frequently include grievance processes that protect journalists’ freedom to report and write by assuring that terminations are for just cause rather than “at will” whims.
“We hope it will unify the newsroom behind quality journalism instead of watching one person after the other leave,” said one staffer who signed on to the October 2017 letter. The publications that will survive have invested in maintaining quality, she added, citing the Washington Post and New York Times. (Editorial staff from both publications are part of the NewsGuild’s 25,000 nationwide members.)
The Los Angeles Times responded to a request for comment about the union drive via email with a statement from L.A. Times CEO and publisher Levinsohn. “For 136 years, the Los Angeles Times has served the community of Los Angeles and the world with dynamic, important and Pulitzer Prize winning journalism. It is the core foundation of our brand. Whether our newsroom unionizes or not, we will remain committed to ensuring the L.A. Times is a leading source for news and information across all media touchpoints.”
Felix Gutierrez, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who writes about media and racial, ethnic and gender groups, has followed the L.A. Times development for decades as the paper, he said, focused on expanding toward white suburbs and “bypassing other communities. If they had adapted a demographic imperative as aggressively as they grasped the technological, they could be in a different place right now.
“The reporters are closer to what’s happening in the communities than the higher-ups. They should listen to them. I don’t know if they’ll do that without a union.”
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2017: The Year in Photos, Part 1
With the first tumultuous year of Donald Trump’s presidency winding down, Capital & Main looks back at the images and stories we presented over the last 12 months.
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.
“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.
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.
Copyright Capital & Main
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.”
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.
Cornerstone Theater Company Delivers More Food for Thought
Playwright Michael John Garcés’ labyrinthine plot follows two sisters through a myriad of fantastical scenarios involving a mega-corporation that aims to control worldwide food production.
Magic Fruit is the latest (and last) offering in the Cornerstone Theater Company’s Hunger Cycle of nine plays exploring “hunger, justice and food equity issues.” It opens with sisters Tami (Cristina Frias) and Kiko (Rachael Portillo), frantic and bedraggled, stumbling through a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in search of refuge from a shadowy serpentine monster — hunger itself. Their quest for salvation transports them through a myriad of fantastical scenarios in which the prime adversary is a mega-corporation that aims to control worldwide agricultural production. Produced through a partnership of artists and community members, a Cornerstone hallmark, the show features major life-or-death themes, ecological warnings and some spectacular tech — but the story is convoluted and much of the acting too weak to ignore.
Directed by Shishir Kurup, playwright Michael John Garcés’ labyrinthine plot takes inspiration from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In this rather loose adaptation, Tami, a former gang member, and the younger Kiko become separated after Kiko is abducted by the temperamental Queen of the Rain (Page Leong). The spine of the story is Tami’s search to rescue Kiko, which can happen only if she can recover the Queen’s missing heart. This organ (named Corazón and depicted by Bethany Nava in a sparkly blue costume) has been captured by the bad guys, who plan to use her blood to make seeds that require no rain — an enormous plus in a world ravaged by drought.
Page Leong and Bethany Nava.
The main storyline is interspersed with minor characters: a trio of desperate farmers, another threesome of 21st century skateboarders, a triad of gardeners and so on. A rapscallion named Mondiablo (Peter Howard) who works for the company plans to extort the board of directors, but they fire him first. The show’s comic highlight is the Flaming Hot Cheeto (Lee Maupin), a bright-orange, misshapen figure who won’t divulge information unless he’s bitten (beware that one).
The most interesting (and least whimsical) scenes depict the machinations of this Monsanto-like corporation to gain and retain power. Eight actors represent this monolith, whose most vocal spokesperson, curtly played by Bahni Turpin, is suitably and incisively ruthless.
As Tami, Frias provides a strong and likable anchor for the disparate narrative; the world is coming apart around her, and her desperate resistance is charismatic. Portillo, whose character, unfortunately, is off-stage for quite a while, is another strong and sympathetic presence to root for.
But other performances drain the production of energy. Inexplicably, Kurup has cast the major role of Pageni, a free-spirited Native American who befriends the women, with an inexperienced actor (Courage) whose delivery underscores the character’s airheaded blandness. Nava and others also appear to be relative newbies onstage. I understand that, by design, not everyone here is supposed to be professional, but characters essential to moving the action forward should be played by one.
The production’s most striking aspect is the accomplished work of its tech team — most notably video designer Sean Cawelti’s absolutely stunning apocalyptic imagery, but also the intricate sound and artful lighting by John Nobori and Geoff Korf respectively, and the droll imaginative costumes by Meghan E. Healey. It is these combined elements which best relay Magic Fruit’s haunting message.
Cornerstone Theater Company at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 138 W. First Street, Los Angeles; Wed.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 10. cornerstonetheater.org
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