Mark Twain copied a friend’s remark into his notebook: “I am not an American; I am the American.” That is a claim—to be the American, the exemplary or representative American—that very few Americans could plausibly make. Twain himself could. Benjamin Franklin could and did. Abraham Lincoln could but didn’t, though admirers made the claim for him. Surely some number of others could, too. But among all Americans past or present, no one could make such a claim more compellingly than Frederick Douglass.
Like his country, Douglass rose from a low beginning to a great height. Like his country again, he won his freedom in a revolutionary struggle, by his own virtue and against great odds, and he matured into an exemplar of universal liberty, admired the world over. And like his country, finally, Douglass the individual was divided by race.
Unlike America, Douglass could hardly think of himself as “conceived in liberty.” But even in this respect—especially in this respect—he represents a larger American promise. The son of a white slaveholder and a black slave, Douglass became, along with Abraham Lincoln, post-Founding America’s most important exponent of the natural-rights argument summarized in the Declaration of Independence. Pursuant to the same principles, he became America’s most prominent representative of the aspiration toward racial integration, reconciliation, and uplift.
One must emphasize: he became that. It didn’t come naturally to him. To become the great apostle of those aspirations, Douglass had to overcome a sentiment about and among black Americans that is recurrently present in U.S. history, powerful in his day and again in ours—the feeling or conviction that to be black is to bear an identity antagonistic to American identity.
This sentiment received its most memorable expression from W. E. B Du Bois, now a larger presence in the minds of many educated Americans than Douglass. Du Bois wrote, in the most famous passage in his book The Souls of Black Folk, that as a black American, “one ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring idealsin one dark body.”
In his younger years, Frederick Douglass felt that psychic dividedness every bit as acutely and painfully as Du Bois did. In an 1847 speech, Douglass askeda troubling question and provided a dispiriting answer. Speaking for black Americans as a class, he asked: “What country have I?” He answered: “I have no patriotism. I have no country.” Then 29 years old, for nearly his entire life recognized in American laws only as an article of property, Douglass here lamented that even as a legally free man, he had no country that honored and protected him, no country to which he belonged and none that belonged to him.
He made that speech at a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, an association founded by America’s leading abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. In 1847, Douglass was a faithful Garrisonian. When he declared his profound alienation from the country of his birth, he was rendering a personalized expression of what was standard Garrisonian doctrine.
What alienated the Garrisonians from America, most of all, was their opinion that the U.S. Constitution was decisively pro-slavery. Garrison near the beginning of his career calledthe Constitution “the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth.” From that premise he drew what seemed to him the necessary inference. “Henceforth,” he announced in 1845, “the watchword” of abolitionists must be disunion: “NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!”
According to William Lloyd Garrison, then, the destruction of slavery required the destruction of America—of the American constitutional union. And in 1847, that was Douglass’s position, too. Given Douglass’s life experience, there is nothing very surprising in this. What issurprising, though, is how quickly and decisively he came to reject the Garrisonian position. Douglass launched his own abolitionist newspaper in early 1848, and after spending a few years reading and rethinking, he announced that he had come to reject the Garrisonian doctrines of disunion and the pro-slavery Constitution.
His turnabout came partly for prudential reasons. First was the realization, as he put it in his speech on the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott ruling, that “it would be difficult to hit upon any plan less likely to abolish slavery than the dissolution of the Union.” The disunion strategy would strengthen, not weaken the forces of despotism in America. Again from the Dred Scott speech:
If I were on board of a pirate ship, with a company of men and women whose lives and liberties I had put in jeopardy, I would not clear my soul of their blood by jumping in the long boat, and singing out no union with pirates. My business would be to remain on board.
Even among slavery’s adversaries, the Garrisonians were not alone in wanting to jump ship. The counterparts to Garrisonian advocates of disunion were black advocates of emigration, led in the 1850s by Douglass’s sometime friend, colleague, and rival, Martin Delany. Emigrationists were never a majority of black Americans, but their arguments gained influence in those periods when the prospects for freedom and equal rights appeared especially bleak.
The decade of the 1850s was such a period. So Douglass felt the need to respond to the Garrisonians and the emigrationists, and an invitation from the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society provided the opportunity. The occasion was the commemoration of Independence Day in 1852. Douglass’s Fourth of July oration, which has been called the greatest of all abolitionist speeches, presents his fullest reflections on the meaning of America and on the question Du Bois would pose a half-century later—the question of black identity in relation to America.
It’s a very complex speech. Douglass biographer David W. Blight aptly compares it to a symphony in three movements. One way Douglass divides the speech is temporally, as its sections move from past to present to future. Another way is by sentiment: he begins with a somewhat cautious, reserved expression of hope, then shifts to outrage mixed with something approaching despair, and concludes with a more confident expression of hope. A third mode of division appears in his adoption of three distinct perspectives: he considers the Fourth as it appears to white Americans, then as it appears to black Americans, and finally from a universal or fully integrated perspective.
For much of the speech, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Douglass had joined Delany in the black-nationalist camp. First addressing the white members of the audience, he told them, in effect, this is how your national holiday appears to you. He addresses them in a chain of second-person pronouns: not our but “yournational independence”; “your political freedom”; “your fathers”; “your nation.” The driving spirit seems little different from what animated his 1847 renunciation of patriotism. While admiring the “revolutionary fathers,” he yet declared: “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”
Coming to the present, he excoriated post-Founding America: “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
Perhaps the worst of the nation’s crimes, to that point, was the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850—“that most foul and fiendish of all human decrees,” Douglass called it, a law that “stands alone in the annals of tyrannical legislation.” For free black Americans, the effect was essentially to legalize kidnapping, leaving many to conclude that there was no protection by law for them anywhere in the U.S. What followed were upsurges in pro-emigration sentiment and in actual emigration.
Douglass fully understood that sentiment, but he believed it to be self-destructive and rejected it repeatedly over the course of his career. He understood, too, however, that the case againstemigration, like the case against disunion, had to be buttressed by a case forAmerica. He concluded the July Fourth oration, as he concluded virtually all his speeches, with an expression of hopefulness.
This was not mere wishfulness. Douglass thought hopefulness in America was rational—grounded in evidence and reason—in part because of America’s Founding. America’s revolutionary fathers were “brave men,” he remarked. They were “great men”; they dedicated the country to eternal principles. Against the Garrisonians, also against those debauched (as Lincoln put it) by John Calhoun, he maintained that the Founders’ Constitution was not pro-slavery; it was “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.”
The case for hopefulness required that and more. At the conclusion of the Fourth of July speech, Douglass said something particularly interesting about the further grounds of his hopefulness. “A change has now come over the affairs of mankind,” he said. Developments in the modern world, crucially enabled by modern philosophy, were making slavery increasingly impossible.
“The arm of commerce,” he continued, “has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.” We are living in an age of commerce and enlightenment, he believed, and those developments were closely related.
So monstrous an injustice as slavery could only survive in a condition of seclusion, and in the modern world the seclusion it needed was becoming impossible. “No abuse,” said Douglass, “no outrage . . . can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.” Douglass believed what Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine believed: the principles of natural right held irresistible power for minds uncorrupted by interest, and freedom of speech, if properly protected, would propagate those principles throughout the world.
Douglass was a strong believer in the power of speech. This was a man who almost literally talked his way from the bottom to near the top of American society. But he didn’t think speech was all-powerful, and he didn’t think that the fostering of a healthy sense of American identity was merely a matter of persuading people, white or black, to believe in American principles.
To cultivate a genuine sense of American identity requires more than agreement with its principles. It requires a sense of belonging and affection. It requires a loveof America as one’s own. On this point and others, Douglass was a good American disciple of John Locke.
In Locke’s well-known reasoning, we own our own labor, and we own what we make. This can apply, however, not only to material property but also to political and patriotic affiliation. What Douglass wanted to teach his fellow citizens, his black fellow citizens in particular, was that we can buildAmerica, and in building or rebuilding it, we can make it our own. We can improve it by our labor, he argued, culturally and morally no less than materially. And to do this, we need first to improve ourselves. We need to cultivate what he called the “staying qualities,” fostering a faith in ourselves and our country. This is why hopefulness is a moral imperative, for Douglass, and why a spirit of alienation is so dangerous.
We are now just over 200 years from Frederick Douglass’s birth. In remembering him, we must certainly say today what he said in 1852: Our business is with the present. Republics, he liked to say, are proverbially forgetful—most importantly, forgetful of their own first principles. We live, as Douglass lived, in a period when the first principles of American republicanism are increasingly neglected and even maligned.
We live in a time when many Americans have forgotten our principles, or never learned them, or learned to revile them; when many young people, young men especially, grow up in the belief that they have no grounds for hope for their future and no reason to identify with their country; when many of our educational institutions have become purveyors of alienation and disintegration, teaching that America is an evil, hateful society and that speech to the contrary must be vilified and suppressed.
At such a time, as we search for models of understanding and inspiration, it is a vital imperative for us to recover the moral and political vision of Frederick Douglass. In the long history of African-American political thought, there is no more forceful proponent of the cause of integration, and there is no more insightful analyst of the varieties and dangers of national and racial disintegration.
“No people can prosper,” Douglass reiterated late in life, “unless they have a home, or the hope of a home”—and “to have a home,” one “must have a country.” America, in Douglass’s abiding vision, was black Americans’ proper home, their only realistic alternative and also the locus of their highest ideals. By its white and black citizens together, America must be cherished and perfected as a genuine home for all, not merely by the accident and force of necessity but as an object of rational and sentimental identification. For Douglass as for Abraham Lincoln, their common country was, through it all, the last best hope of earth.
The richest state in the richest country in human history is on the edge of physical, fiscal, and moral collapse
The cold open to a horror movie
In the movies it’s called a cold open. The film jumps directly into the story before the title sequence or opening credits. In horror movies the cold open is often a familiar scene in which something or someone is slightly off: The haunting figure walking down the street in an otherwise picture postcard small town, the eerie sound emanating from the woods at the edge of the idyllic farm.
A man named Ronaldo was the cold open of what I have come to call my journey to the fire. I met him on side of the highway somewhere north of Fresno on November 23, 2018. I was driving up Route 99 through California’s central valley on my way to Paradise to survey the Camp Fire burn zone and potentially interview survivors. I didn’t know it yet, but the three-day trip would change my life, my career, and my perspectives on what’s happening in my beloved home state. In many ways my encounter with Ronaldo set the stage for everything that has followed.
It was the kind of dreary, drizzly morning that in most people triggers the hibernation instinct, the desire to curl up at home with a book, a cup of coffee, a loved one. Instead, Ronaldo was slogging through mud and undergrowth along the side of the highway holding a slapdash bindle as if it was 1930. The ground fog muted his orange shirt; he looked almost spectral amid the washed out colors.
Like the trip itself, I don’t know what compelled me to pull off at the next exit, backtrack, and pull to the shoulder to offer him a ride. He seemed not even to notice me as I walked up to him while cars, buses, and eighteen wheelers roared past. I couldn’t imagine walking 20 yards along that road much less whatever distance he had traveled.
Approaching him I noticed a construction site a half mile or so behind him. It was a viaduct for the planned California bullet train. The project is a decade behind schedule and tens of billions over budget, and has for many become a symbol of all that is broken, corrupt, and dying in the Golden State. Indeed, the backdrop was grimly appropriate: A construction site for California’s $90 billion train to nowhere rising through the polluted air like some post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland, framing a homeless wayfarer.
I offered Ronaldo $20 to take his picture. He agreed. Afterward I gave him a ride to the next town. In the car I tried striking up a conversation but it quickly became clear that he was developmentally disabled. So I let him be, driving wordlessly as together we watched the scenes of decline and decay pass outside while a haunting tune called “Paris, Texas” by Ry Cooder played on the radio.
I let him off at a truck stop near Madera so he could at least get some food and maybe someplace dry to sleep. Hopefully. As I eased toward an onramp I glanced in the rear view mirror. Ronaldo had made it all of 20 feet, laying down on a bus bench and pulling his tarpaulin over his head as the mist swirled around him. It was the last I saw of him.
This is life in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. Outside of war it’s difficult to recall a great civilization that careened toward total collapse so fast.
A long, strange trip
I didn’t know what was pulling me to the raw wound of the Camp Fire, what woke me at 5am and set my course 400 miles north. To this day I still don’t. I had no friends in the town, no connections except as a Californian and a human being. I’d yet to publish anything as a journalist and didn’t have a press badge – I was hoping my California bar card and a little blarney would allow me into the burn zone itself.
Along with millions of other Americans, for days I had watched video after video on social media of people fleeing through the flames, a binge watch in a hellish alternate reality. By the time firefighters and Mother Nature snuffed the last of the flames 153,000 acres had burned along with some 19,000 homes and buildings. 52,000 people had evacuated. At least 88 were dead, some having succumbed in or near their cars when evacuations ground down into gridlock.
The place tugged at me like something supernatural – which is how many of the survivors I would meet described the fire itself. The night before I made the spontaneous drive north I watched two particularly powerful videos on Facebook. The first was posted by a man named Mark who filmed the sheer chaos of the evacuations. Gridlock forced him to reverse course a half-dozen times, by which time he was repeating over and over, “This is it, man, this is it. I’m a goner.” Fortunately he survived.
The second was filmed by a woman named Avalon Kelley. Avalon, her husband Rocky, and their cat Loki drove through a sea of flames hundreds of feet high. Avalon narrated the four minute video and there was something in her voice – an almost inhuman combination of terror, grief, and disbelief – that lodged in my mind like a red hot spike. She sobbed as she watched the inferno devour her friends’ and neighbors’ homes in minutes, sometimes even seconds, while Loki mewed mournfully in the background and Rocky, a Vietnam combat veteran, offered what reassurance he could from behind the wheel. I was as moved by the sound of Avalon’s voice as I was shocked they made it out alive. Their home, needless to say, did not.
I didn’t know what I was going to find in the ashes of Paradise. Nevertheless, the 72 hour journey would transform my view of the place five generations of my family have called home. Or, perhaps more accurately, it brought into consciousness and stark relief truths that had lurked in my subconscious for years.
The death of hope, the triumph of despair
Driving half the length of the state that November day I didn’t cover more than a handful miles at a time without passing a homeless camp, a tent city, a shantytown. People relieved themselves in broad daylight, shamelessly exposed toward the highway as families in cars and minivans passed. Others lay on the hillside shoulders as still as the dead. Given the numbers of homeless people who perish in California every year it’s entirely possible a couple of them were.
I stopped for a fill-up and road snacks on the outskirts of the agricultural town of Turlock. Behind the gas station convenience store was a neighborhood of decaying single family homes whose backyards were occupied by campers, trailers, and RVs. I wandered over to the fence and sure enough families were living in them. Children played in the mud amidst decomposing garbage. The scene was reminiscent of a refugee camp in a war-torn country, or a survivalist camp after an extinction-level event. It’s how millions of people eke out their lives in the Golden State.
These days most everyone in the state, for that matter most people in the country, know that the central valley is far from unique. Some of the world’s worst slums have formed and metastasized from San Diego to Siskiyou, nightmarish places where mental illness, drug addiction, infectious diseases, and crimes of every imaginable (and unimaginable) sort are daily realities for millions of men, women, and children.
Officially, there are 151,278 homeless people in California, nearly half the nation’s total in a state that accounts for 12% of the population. It’s the kind of too-precise number that obscures an even more dire reality: According to an independent 2014 analysis by The National Center on Family Homelessness at the National Institutes for Research as many as 500,000 children experienced some form of homelessness in California in 2013. That was seven years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. Other studies bear out similar conclusions.
As many as 15% of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District experience homelessness in a given year – roughly 75,000 kids. Kids who when the 3pm bell rings go to emergency shelters, motels, even cars and RVs. That number has jumped by 25% in the last three years. Many of those children will grow up to lead lives not all that different from Ronaldo’s. Or worse.
As a whole California’s schools, once the envy of the country, have like so much else descended into decay. Today California has some of the worst public education systems in the country, with nearly half of the lowest performing individual schools. Meanwhile teachers’ unions rake in millions in dues and dole out millions in campaign contributions to politicians content with an educational system that qualifies as a crime against humanity. In 2017 barely a third of students the the LAUSD met or exceeded math standards and fewer than 40% did so in English Language Arts. In poorer areas like Compton the rates were 6.6% and 11.8%, respectively. The state’s high schools routinely graduate thousands of seniors who are functionally illiterate – young adults starting their life’s journeys without the ability to so much as fill out a fast food job application.
When you consider these numbers and these realities, California’s homeless crisis, and Ronaldo’s plight, become easier to explain.
Failing the future
When I first started tutoring Leon* in February 2019 he was living with his mom, older sister, and two older brothers in a nondescript homeless shelter in Inglewood. He was 14 and going into seventh grade. Despite the fact that he reads at a third or fourth grade level and can’t do multiplication beyond the number five his school routinely awards him honor roll status.
Leon loves music, computers, and video games. He dreams of a career as a music engineer. I quickly learned he has a mischievous side and is a bit of a prankster. He also loves history. Whether Genghis Khan or Easter Island, the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, he couldn’t get enough during our all-too-brief weekly sessions. He has a remarkable ability to focus: Give him a set of math problems and the world vanishes until the last one’s solved. It’s a thing to behold. One day I gave him a set of 10 problems on the computer. After nearly ten minutes I asked him how many he had left. “Eight,” he replied. My heart sank until I glanced at the screen and realized I’d made a mistake: I’d given him 30 problems, not 10, and he was grinding away with fierce determination.
Leon’s ability to focus is all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He and his siblings take different routes to school everyday because in their neighborhood patterns are dangerous. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after his best friend was killed in a random drive-by when they were both eight. They were playing in his friend’s front yard when a car pulled up, two men leaned out and sprayed the lawn and front door with bullets. Leon says he didn’t actually see the bullet hit his friend as they dove to the ground, but what difference? The killers were never found, his friend’s murder joining the nearly 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A. Leon would talk about the demons he sometimes sees at night. They crawl out of the air ducts and window cracks in the small two room apartment he shares with his family. He said they’re the ones that killed his friend. He keeps them at bay by praying.
After six months working together, through no fault of his own Leon broke my heart: His mom got a part time job in the baggage department at Long Beach Airport and the family moved away. I arrived for our regular Thursday session to learn they were gone. Of course my heartbreak was selfish, yet it exemplified another persistent issue: California children with no sense of place, much less the kinds of stability and security that are essential to development and learning.
In a very real sense the state’s political class has abandoned millions of children (except their own, of course, who are safely ensconced in $50,000 a year private academies). In the process they have abandoned the future to broken lives and government dependence – which may be the very point. Children like Leon grow up to be adults like Ronaldo – that is, if they don’t end up in prison. Either way their broken lives are extremely profitable for what many call the Poverty Industrial Complex.
The stark reality is that California’s political class depends on suffering and human misery. It is their sustenance. If they were to save our schools and solve our homeless crisis many thousands of government bureaucrats – not to mention armies of lawyers, consultants, nonprofits, and other white collar professionals – would have to find real jobs. And we can’t have that.
Fleeing the fire on broken roads
Forty miles north of Sacramento you hit Yuba City. From then on you’re in mountain country, though the mountains themselves are another forty miles to the north and east. It’s one of those invisible California thresholds where little changes except the feeling, and maybe the air. You start to see more heavy agricultural equipment both on the roads and working the fields, a few more Bible passages on billboards and shunted tractor trailers beside the road.
On this trip Yuba City also functioned as another kind of break point, one that marked the edge of the fire zone. What had been occasional whiffs of smoke over the last hundred miles became a permanent sort of suffocation and the air turned a several shades darker.
Yuba City was also where I saw the first RVs, campers, and overloaded cars filled with families fleeing the fire. A slow trickle quickly became a flood of vehicles of every imaginable sort. Some of the refugees flew defiant American flags, others flew San Francisco 49ers or Sacramento Kings pennants. Many had home made signs in their windows with home addresses and lists of family members’ names. A battered and charred blue F-150 pickup had a sign in the rear window with a single word: Gone.
I use the word “refugees” advisedly, for these folks were no longer evacuees. Evacuees are temporarily displaced people who fully plan to return home. In contrast, refugees know that all is lost. As a Californian I had seen evacuees over the years: From previous fires, floods, or earthquakes. My own family once evacuated our home in West Los Angeles in 1983, when I was eight years old and a fire threatened Beverly Glen Canyon.
The difference between evacuees and refugees manifests on people’s faces. Evacuees look terrified and alert. Refugees look defeated and resigned.
The conditions of the roads didn’t help their escape. Along with our schools and our social safety nets California’s infrastructure is collapsing. A May 2019 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state an overall C-. The report also noted, “Googling ‘water main breaks’ in California will unfortunately yield a very long list of infrastructure failure stories covered by the media, and many more occur every day that don’t receive media attention.” Meanwhile, California – birthplace of the freeway – has some of the most decrepit roads in the country. Driving on those roads costs Californians $61 billion annually in congestion-related delays, accidents, and increased vehicle wear and tear. It will cost $150 billion over the next decade just to to bring the system back to a state of good repair. Yet instead of spending money to mend the roads on which 40 million people rely cities and the state are spending billions on trains and buses no one rides and bike lanes that serve vanishingly small cohorts of overwhelmingly young white men.
Meanwhile, state testing has revealed high levels of lead and other contaminants in the drinking water of 17% of public schools. According to a previously undisclosed report by senior officials at the California State Water Resources Control Board more than 1,000 water districts, accounting for more than one in three statewide, may be failing to deliver potable drinking water. These reports come on the heels of stories last year out of south Los Angeles, where the Sativa Water District in Compton became California’s very own Flint, Michigan. At least 678 dams are considered to be high-hazard potential. In February 2017 the Oroville Dam collapsed, forcing the evacuation of more than 180,000 people.
Human beings have been building and maintaining roads, bridges, and dams for millennia, yet here in the wealthiest place on Earth officials can no longer accomplish those basics of civilization. In California, potable water increasingly is a luxury.
As I neared Chico and the flood of refugees became a veritable tsunami all of those potholes and cracks felt like insults added to the grievous injuries Camp Fire survivors already had experienced.
I soon learned that the survivors fleeing south were the luckier ones: They had somewhere to go. Thousands of others were less fortunate, relegated to campsites like the one in a field behind a Lowe’s in downtown Chico. Hundreds of tents and other makeshift shelters turned the rough ground into a literal refugee camp, the kind of scenes you’d expect to see in places like Cameroon, not California. Yet again my attention was on the children. They played muddy games of soccer and tag in the smoke filled air (in yet another insult, as the field continued to fill with families in tents a light rain converted the ground into a sticky mud). It is unknown how many Camp Fire refugees remain homeless today.
In yet another sign of the times the camps at Lowe’s and elsewhere already had attracted criminals and vagrants who preyed on the helpless. Suffice it to say the local police and Highway Patrol were otherwise occupied, leaving the refugees at the malcontents’ mercy.
Here and there were a few bright spots, if they could be called that. In contrast to the myriad failures of the state’s political class, private companies, charities, faith groups, and organizations like the Girl Scouts were providing food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials. Some were from out of state: A truck loaded with clothing sported Oregon plates, and a van full of food had tags from Oklahoma. In the ashes of one of the worst disasters in California history the only sign of government activity was a FEMA trailer.
As I pulled onto the aptly-named Skyway Boulevard and began the final climb to Paradise, the Spotify app played “Nowhere to Run” by Martha Reeves and the Vandalls. Hauntingly, the computers seemed to know where I was headed: The soundtrack to the rest of the afternoon included the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and “Ticking Bomb” by Aloe Blacc.
Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide
Entering the town of Paradise was what it must have been like to drive through Hiroshima on August 7, 1945. I kept thinking of that sign in the pickup’s window: Gone. Amidst the devastation the atmosphere, and the world, felt a hundred times heavier. Everything pressed in, the air, the smoke, the sights. Even the sound, or rather the lack of it, seemed to have a physical presence. Time and space seemed somehow contorted, folded upon themselves. There’s an almost complete absence of color in burn zones, everything washed out in sepia: The ruins of buildings and houses, the burned-out cars, the hills, the trees, the sky.
Then there was the smell: Along with the people who lost their lives many thousands of wild and domestic animals perished in the fire, leaving behind the hideous, unmistakable odor of death. It would hang on my clothes, my skin and hair, and inside my car for weeks after I returned home.
I was still several miles from Paradise itself when I passed the fist burned-out cars. The traffic got so bad during the inferno that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were forced to abandon their vehicles and flee on foot. At least half a dozen people burned alive in their cars.
We’re from the government, and we’re here to help
Ronald Regan famously quipped that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Perhaps the biggest revelation from my journey to the fire was learning the role the California state government, the Butte County Association of Governments, and even some leaders in the town itself played in created the perfect conditions for people to become trapped as they fled. The Camp Fire was not the first time fire evacuations had bogged down in these mountains. During the 2008 Humboldt Complex Fire, evacuations in many parts of Paradise and the neighboring town of Magalia similarly gridlocked.
The situation prompted an investigation and report by the Butte County Grand Jury. Among the Grand Jury’s main recommendations were that the county widen the shoulders and turnouts along existing evacuation routes, of which there are only three, clear vegetation the Skyway between Chico and Paradise, and add a new evacuation route to the north by paving an existing gravel road from Magalia to Butte Meadows.
Inexplicably, in September 2009, the Butte County Board of Supervisors called the grand jury report “not reasonable.” A couple years later the county actually narrowed dozens of miles of roads throughout Paradise. Without a hint of irony officials named the initiative “Livable Streets.” The three major evacuation routes, Skyway Boulevard, Clark Road, and Pearson Street, all were narrowed in places. The county also installed center medians, sidewalk bulb-out’s, bollards, and other traffic obstacles throughout the city, supposedly in an effort to make the streets more inviting for bicyclists and pedestrians.
After the fire officials implausibly claimed that the reductions – called “road diets” and obstacles had no impact on evacuations. Then Mayor Jody Jones told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t believe that [the changes] really mattered.”
The survivors I spoke with had quite a different take. An emergency room nurse who described fleeing on foot when traffic came to a halt said, “Even before the fire we wondered what in the Hell they were thinking.” Many people said that traffic in town had gotten so bad after the changes that they started calling it “Paradise’s 405” in reference to the notoriously congested Los Angeles freeway. During the frenzied evacuations many of these new choke points became what one Cal Fire captain described to me as “kill zones.”
Far from learning the tragic lessons of the Paradise road diets California is imposing hundreds of similar changes to evacuation routes statewide, part of an effort to combat climate change by discouraging people from driving. Some call it a war on cars. This summer, as another swarm of fires engulfed the region, the roads remain narrowed. Indeed, a recent picture in the L.A. Times showed traffic bogged down on the Skyway during the current fires (the picture, shown above, has since been removed).
It’s impossible to know how many people in how many towns are being put at risk because of these ideologically motivated projects. A study conducted by a San Francisco-based traffic analytics company called StreetLight Data has identified dozens of communities statewide that already have limited evacuation routes relative to their populations. Many are considering or have implemented road diets already. For example, in the Marin County city of Mill Valley plans to replace two of four lanes on part of a main evacuation route, East Blithedale Boulevard, to make way for bicycle lanes, widened sidewalks, and other obstacles. In the even of a fire thousands of people will have to negotiate the new obstacles as they evacuate.
California is a time bomb
Virtually no one I spoke with in Paradise that November weekend, and no one I’ve spoken with since, believes the official death toll of 88 from the Camp Fire. Most people believe it is substantially higher, perhaps by several times. When I asked a Cal Fire captain back in Chico about it later that Friday evening, he just shook his head and said, “I can’t talk about it,” before walking away. His thousand yard stare said everything. A survivor named Patricia Clark, an emergency room nurse who presumably had seen it all before the fire, broke down in tears on the phone as she described seeing at least three people burn to death in their cars as she ran through the flames. A survivor named Chuck Keogh posted a video to Facebook showing at least five charred bodies in and near cars (warning: graphic content, viewer discretion highly advised).
The Camp Fire was triggered by faulty transmission facilities. Pacific Gas & Electric, the region’s quasi-public energy provider, recently agreed to a $25 billion settlement with victims, cities, and insurance companies related to the Camp Fire and others.
But these fires are going to happen no matter what. So far this year some 4 million acres have burned, by far the worst fire season on record (though an average year by historical standards – before white settlers arrived as much as 12 million acres burned annually). While the political class blames climate change the fact of the matter is their own policies are as much to blame. Environmental radicalism so dominates policy that logging and other vegetation thinning measures are little more than quaint memories. Old fashioned greed also plays a central role, as lawmakers and officials continue to encourage and even subsidize development in wildland urban interface zones, placing millions of Californians at risk. And the political class’s obsession with bicycles and mass transit means more and more evacuation routes will be severely limited in coming years.
A reckoning is coming to California. More than half the state’s residents (and nearly two thirds of young people in the state) say they would leave if they had the chance. If not for immigration the state would have lost population over the last 20 years. Unchecked spending, particularly in the form of generous pay, benefits, and retirement packages for government employees, has put the state on the hook for some $1.5 trillion in unfunded future liabilities. That means it’s only going to get more difficult, if not impossible, to spend the money needed to save our schools, repair our infrastructure, and prevent mass casualties in future fires and floods. Forget about planning for the future: California increasingly is sliding toward a pre-industrial state of anarchy.
Every bad policy decision, every ounce of corruption, and every example of rank incompetence from California’s political class was on full display during my journey to the fire. As I traveled back south, joining the endless caravan of refugees, I wondered if my beloved home state already is beyond salvation.
Passing through Fresno I scanned the highway shoulders for Ronaldo. He was nowhere to be found. Like a million other Californians he had simply vanished into the abyss. On the other side of the freeway an elevated bypass for the bullet train was under construction. It was already covered in graffiti.
I couldn’t make out the words, but it occurred to me that only one would have made sense: Gone….
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Officials including Governor Gavin Newsom were behind outrageously expensive efforts that only made the crisis worse
“The plan produced by the Ten-Year Planning Council is both a blueprint and a bold step toward a new and revolutionary way to break the cycle of chronic homelessness.” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, June 30, 2004
“This crisis has been more than a half century in the making, and this Administration is just getting started on solutions.” Governor Gavin Newsom, October 19, 2019
“This Bring L.A. Home plan initiates a 10 year plan to end homelessness in Los Angeles County.” Bring L.A. Home final report, co-authored by Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, April 2006
“We can cut this problem in half in five years. And in 10 years we can end life on the street.” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, March 2018
Advocates for changes to California’s approach to homelessness were disappointed last year when the Supreme Court denied certiorari in City of Boise v. Martin. The petitioners in that case sought to challenge a 2018 Ninth Circuit ruling preventing cities from citing or fining people for camping in public spaces overnight unless alternative shelter is available. In reality, even though more than a dozen cities in the western U.S. urged the Court to take the case, like all petitions to the high court review was always a long shot.
Nevertheless, it was viewed as another setback as California’s homeless crisis continued to spiral with no end in sight. In Los Angeles public anger erupts routinely and with increasing frequency on social media, at community events, and at town halls hosted by city councilmembers. It spawned an effort to recall Mayor Eric Garcetti and prompted calls for the resignations of Councilmembers including Mike Bonin and Paul Kerkorian. Mr. Bonin has all but stopped appearing in public outside of carefully stage-managed events.
In fact, officials in Los Angeles and across California have been failing for far longer than most people realize. In 2018 Mayor Garcetti promised to end chronic homelessness in ten years. The pledge came on the heels of his 2014 pledge to house all of the city’s homeless veterans, first by 2015 and then 2016 (he eventually scrapped the timeline). Back in 2013, during his first mayoral run, Garcetti vowed to end chronic homelessness in ten years. Likewise, upon assuming office as Mayor of San Francisco in 2004, Gavin Newsom pledged to end homelessness in that city within – wait for it – ten years.
California’s political class has not lacked for grand plans, all of which seem to fall under the ten year category. Mayor Newsom’s pledge was accompanied by the formation of a “Ten Year Plan Council” comprised of 33 local leaders. Advocates criticized the body for being too heavy on political insiders and light on subject matter experts. Nevertheless, they released their Ten Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness in July 2004.
Likewise in 2004, the City and County of Los Angeles convened their own “blue ribbon commission” called Bring L.A. Home, to study homelessness and recommend workable solutions. Like San Francisco’s Council the 60 members comprised a who’s who of ensconced city insiders and power brokers, including Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Jan Perry, Mike Feuer, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, then LAPD Chief William Bratton, and Antonio Villaraigosa.
The result of Bring L.A. Home’s efforts was a report released in April 2006. As in San Francisco the authors promised “a 10-year campaign to end homelessness in Los Angeles County by setting forth a broad range of strategies that address a multitude of issues related to homelessness.” They declared, “Nothing of the magnitude proposed by this Plan has been attempted before in Los Angeles.”
It turned out that nothing proposed by the plan was attempted, either. Today the website https://www.bringlahome.org redirects to what appears to be an Indonesian consulting firm (caution: possibly unsafe website). Email and telephone inquiries to several members of the blue ribbon committee were not returned.
Officials like Messrs. Newsom and Garcetti have been failing for nearly two decades
When Bring L.A. Home released its report and recommendations, Eric Garcetti was president of the City Council. No one other than Mayor Villaraigosa himself was better positioned to turn words into action. Yet nothing happened. No new housing was built, no programs launched. Now, fifteen years later, Mayor Garcetti rarely goes a month without a new, equally grandiose plan.
The road to Hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions. Bring L.A. Home and San Francisco’s Ten Year Plan were nothing if not ambitious. The Chair of San Francisco’s Council, the consummate insider Angela Alioto, declared, “For the first time in the twenty years that I have been in public life, I feel the united excitement, the electric energy, the profound intelligence, and the strong will to end chronic homelessness in our great City.”
Likewise, L.A.’s blue ribbon commission said, “In the last twenty years, bold initiatives to end homelessness have come and gone.” Ironically their plan quickly joined that sad retinue, as the city’s approach to the issue devolved into a money grab by officials complete with allegations of impropriety, nepotism, and outright fraud (an excellent 2012 article in CityWatch by then-mayoral candidate and current president of L.A.’s Public Works Commission Kevin James highlighted some of the abuses).
Then again there’s good cause to question whether the reports themselves, and the individuals behind them, were serious. L.A.’s plan was replete with gauzy lingo that belied an underlying lack of focus, much less specific actionable steps. Indeed, much of it consisted of virtually incomprehensible bureaucrat speak: We must build, support and develop funding and legislative strategies for 50,000 new units. As a matter of urgency, we must create at least 11,500 units of housing targeting homeless families and individuals earning less than 30% of the area median income (AMI) and 15% of AMI, including 4,900 units of housing linked to services and 2,845 units made affordable through tenant-based deep subsidies. We cannot be complacent, however, as we need to develop an additional 38,500 units of housing targeting homeless families and individuals earning less than 30% and 15% of AMI, including increasing from 4,900 to 21,000 the number of units of housing linked to services and from 2,845 to 12,452 the number of units made affordable through deep tenant-based subsidies.
If you can translate that, please email us.
Moreover, consider that over a decade later, with none of the units proposed in Bring L.A. Home having been built, voters in the City of Los Angeles approved Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure to support 10,000 new units in 10 years. That works out to $120,000 each, compared to the 2008 Plan’s anticipated $165,000. Apparently, officials thought that in ten years construction costs in L.A. had dropped by 30%. Of course, Angelenos know now that the actual costs are averaging more than $500,000 per unit, with some projects potentially exceeding $700,000 per unit.
Worse, in October of last year Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin released a damning report that concluded, “Not a single bond-funded unit of homeless housing has opened since voters approved the bond measure three years ago.” His office followed up with an update this summr. And if the units end up costing on the low end of $500,000 each it would require $18 billion to house all of the city’s 36,000 homeless. That’s nearly twice the city’s total annual budget. To house all 59,000 homeless people in the county would cost nearly $30 billion.
Suffice it to say, these are not real numbers. They are no more real than the math found in Bring L.A. Home all those years ago. Meanwhile, according to San Francisco’s 2004 Plan there were an estimated 15,000 homeless people in the city by the bay that year. Last year there were at least 17,500. And the conditions in which homeless people exist statewide continue to deteriorate, in many places reaching downright post-apocalyptic scenes on a regular basis.
While the political classes in L.A. and San Francisco are the worst offenders, they are tragically far from alone:
In 2006 the City of Sacramento released a Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. The homeless population in that city has continued to increase, including a 20% spike in 2017 alone.
In 2006 Marin County issued a report called “The Next Decade: Marin County’s Ten Year Homeless Plan.” Nearly ten years later the Marin County Grand Jury released a report entitled “Homelessness in Marin —A Call for Leadership.” That report concluded that County-wide efforts were “unfocused and disorganized due to a lack of collaboration between the County, the cities, and the service organizations.” A subsequent 2018 “progress report” concluded, “This Grand Jury sees homelessness as a continuing and urgent problem in the County worthy of reconsideration” (Marin did report a drop in its official homeless population last year).
In 2006 Alameda County released a report called Everyone Home, which “outline[d] a reorientation of housing and service systems to end chronic homelessness within ten years and significantly reduce housing crises for these vulnerable populations in Alameda County over fifteen years.” Over the last three years Alameda has led the state in the rate of increase in its homeless population.
Numerous studies have concluded that California’s official homeless numbers, based on federally-mandated annual counts, are highly suspect. The true numbers are significantly higher. To cite one of myriad examples, a 2014 report from the National Center on Family Homelessness at the American Institutes for Research estimated that 526,708 children were homeless for any amount of time in California in 2013. One in four Californians live in Los Angeles County, suggesting that as many as 131,677 children experienced homelessness in L.A. that year, or more than three and a half times the total number of reported homeless that year.
As the cliche goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. While not strictly accurate it’s an excellent description of conditions in California. How many more chances will Californians give to the same failed leaders?
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Property owner captured video of St. Joseph Center staff dropping the woman and her belongings
On Monday afternoon the owner of The Wood Restaurant in Culver City filmed two staffers from the nonprofit St. Joseph Center appearing to drop off a wheelchair bound homeless woman and her belongings in his parking lot.
The lot is big enough for about 20 cars. It’s private property and the restaurant is closed temporarily due to the coronavirus economic shutdown, so no one else was around when owner Demetrios Mavromichalis happened to stop by (disclosure: Mr. Mavromichalis is a personal friend). As he started filming, one of the staffers called their manager, who offered to speak with him. He refused, not wanting to share a phone with a stranger in the coronavirus pandemic. He said that they remained in the parking lot for about an hour, mostly on their phones, then loaded the woman and her possessions back into the van and left.
Ironically, the parking lot is where Mr. Mavromichalis hosts food giveaways by Nourish L.A., a youth-driven grassroots organization that provides families in need with healthy, restaurant quality food. Every Sunday lines of cars stretch many blocks down Washington Boulevard. According to the program’s director they feed more than 1,000 people every week. The organization’s efforts recently were the subject of a New York Times feature.
On the video, when Mr. Mavromichalis asked the St. Joseph Center staffers why they were leaving the woman on his property, the female staffer can be heard saying, “We have offered shelter and everything to her but she declined it at the last minute. We tried to take her somewhere else and she’s just like ‘leave me here.’ She had a shelter to go to and she turned that all down. She literally declined it. Everything was set up [for her].”
The telephone number for the manager to whom the employees referred Mr. Mavromichalis has gone straight to voicemail for the last 48 hours, and she has not returned messages. However, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit provided the following statement:
[A]t no time was this client going to be left or just dropped off. I spoke to our outreach team Director, and the situation was that the client had been in a motel for over two months, and we needed to move her, but she refused to go to the new location at the last minute. It was communicated to her that we couldn’t continue to pay for that motel, but we could take her to a shelter. The woman became irate and asked to get out of the car. To deescalate the situation, our outreach team stopped the car and let her out as she requested. Since she was in a wheelchair, it was better to let her out somewhere safer than along the street or curb until she calmed down. When she refused to go along with the team, they called their manager to ask what they should do. They were told to bring her back to the motel, and the manager would try to work something out for her to stay longer. Our staff was able to secure another motel, and that is where she is now. We are continuing to work with her and hope to find her permanent housing with her voucher.
Dierdre Robinson, VP of Marketing & Communications, St. Joseph Center
On the video the woman did appear to be in emotional distress, though she claimed she didn’t turn down shelter. She said a motel voucher was available and the room was “wide open.” When Mr. Mavromichalis told her the staffer said she had turned down shelter she said “bulls**t.” Eventually she said she wanted to “get away from” them because they “weren’t doing the right thing.”
The situation, and the competing stories, raise more questions than they answer. Most obviously, if the St. Joseph’s staff were trying to deescalate things why did they also unload the woman’s belongings, including two bags they placed next to a dumpster? Why did they park the van – which did not have St. Joseph logos or other identifying markings – at the back of the large parking lot, and in the position they did?
In a subsequent email Ms. Robinson explained that St. Joseph Center has “limited funding for motels due to the cost so clients are only able to stay in motels a relatively short period of time.”
The nonprofit is funded by tens of millions from city and county sources, as well as foundations and high net worth individuals. Are they still stretched thin? How often are St. Joseph’s clients downgraded from motels to homeless shelters or the streets? And if staff were able to secure another motel on such short notice that same afternoon, why didn’t that happen in the first place?
The situation raises another issue: Starting about five years ago videos of ambulances dropping homeless patients on sidewalks and in camps prompted outrage throughout L.A. In 2018 Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation prohibiting hospitals from releasing homeless patients onto the streets. No such law applies to nonprofits.
To be sure, one of the central challenges of L.A.’s and California’s homeless crisis is that in all too many cases individuals are unwilling (or unable) to accept shelter. That’s a big part of the reason so many shelter beds go unused every night. A significant portion of the homeless population suffer from mental illness that makes it all but impossible for them to exercise sound judgment, or even free will. Many more are addicted to drugs or alcohol and are unable or unwilling to abide by rules inside. And some simply prefer life outside and have no interest in shelter or services.
A May 2018 investigation by KPCC radio determined, “Reviews conducted at 60 shelters funded by [Los Angeles County] last year found more than half — 33 — were not filling all of their beds. Overall, LAHSA-funded shelters had a 78 percent utilization rate, well below the 90 percent required in their contracts. Monitors also found that 25 of those facilities were failing to meet the minimum standards required by their contracts to get people off the streets for good.” The report added that in many cases the conditions of the shelters themselves are deterrents, citing “Rats, roaches, bedbugs, and mold.”
Still, it has long been clear that the city’s network of nonprofits is falling short despite generous funding from public entities, private foundations, and high net worth individuals. Their budgets balloon while the crisis gets ever worse.
Indeed, public records reveal that St. Joseph Center is swimming in cash. According to IRS Form 990 filings the organization received more than $130,000,000 in funding between 2010 and 2018. In that span its annual receipts increased from $7 million to more than $25 million and the CEO’s salary almost doubled, from $126,250 to $240,570. In comparison middle and lower class Americans saw their salaries increase by barely 13%, representing a net decrease when factored for inflation.
Its funding sources are diverse. In 2017 St. Joseph Center received more than $11.3 million in public funds from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) through Measure H. In 2018 it received nearly $10 million. Since 2005 St. Joseph Center also has received millions in funding from Culver City, often in the form of no-bid contracts. Last year the nonprofit received a $5 million grant from Jeff Bezos’s Day One Fund for its eleemosynary work.
These numbers are difficult to square with the spokeswoman’s statement that St. Joseph Center could no longer pay for the homeless woman’s motel room.
The nonprofit seems less generous with its rank and file: According to Glassdoor, case managers and regional coordinators make just $39,000 a year. About half the employee reviews are negative, referring to mismanagement, lack of transparency, and misappropriation of funds. An anonymous current employee wrote, “Employees are taken advantage of for their good nature and asked to work in unacceptable working conditions at offsite locations with no air conditioning, no break space, 1 toilet for all staff, and no parking.” Even many of the positive reviews complain of low pay, high case loads, and lack of support from management.
According to public records the public funds St. Joseph Center has received were for programs including “Homeless Prevention for Single Adults” and “Partnering with Cities to Expand Rapid Re-Housing.” The nonprofit has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the City of Los Angeles for efforts including “efforts to find permanent housing for homeless city residents.”
Yesterday, at least, it appeared St. Joseph Center did not meet those obligations.
Note: We contacted the woman, Shawna, and she gave permission for us to use her pictures. This story is developing. Check back for updates.If you have information related to the homeless woman and/or St. Joseph Center, please contact email@example.com
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There’s capitalism, crony capitalism, and as of 2020, COVID capitalism. Since the coronavirus crisis shut down the U.S. and global economies the world’s billionaires have seen their net worth increase by an incomprehensible (to mere mortals) $637 billion. That’s in barely six months. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos leads the pack with an estimated increase of nearly $50 billion. It would take the average American employee – who according to the Census Bureau makes $48,672 a year – more than 986,000 years to earn that kind of money (sliced another way, over the past six months Mr. Bezos has made $182,149 per minute). And there’s no letup in sight. According to many estimates he will become history’s first trillionaire well before 2030.
Jeff Bezos deserves to be a billionaire, a few times over. In Amazon he’s built one of the half dozen most successful and transformational companies in a generation. Millions of Americans of all stripes benefit from not just the company’s online retail platform but offerings like Amazon Prime, Amazon Home Video, Whole Foods, and the Washington Post. Much of the Internet itself depends on Amazon Web Services, used by other tech companies like Netflix, Adobe, Airbnb, and Lyft. Even rivals like Facebook and Apple are dependent on Amazon’s cloud computing services for some of their core retail offerings.
But in the COVID era Mr. Bezos is playing a rigged game. With the closure of large and small traditional retailers Americans, not to mention the rest of the world, have little choice but to purchase many necessities online. Unknowable thousands of those businesses won’t ever come back, making much of the shift effectively permanent. Arguably it amounts to the greatest transfer of wealth in human history, and it’s happening at a head spinning pace. Moreover, since Amazon had a two decade head start as the go-to online retailer it’s all but impossible for new online competitors to catch up, much less challenge the company’s dominance.
Mr. Bezos isn’t just playing on an uneven field: His competition have been forced to cede the contest entirely. He’s just running up the score.
Putting it bluntly, Jeff Bezos doesn’t deserve his COVID windfall. While some 50 million Americans have filed for unemployment he personally has benefited from what contract lawyers call an act of God. That $50 billion is not the result of competition and superior products and services. Amazon hasn’t come up with new ideas or innovations, it’s just kept on keeping on. Yet the company’s second quarter profits were double last year’s. That’s not supply and demand. That’s not even a free market anymore. It’s COVID capitalism. It doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence that Mr. Bezos has gained roughly $1,000 per unemployed American.
To be sure, captains of industry have long benefited, often handsomely, from historical moments that inflicted suffering on the masses. In World War II aerospace executives got rich in part making bombers and fighters that played a part in the deaths of millions. But at least no one ever doubted whose side they were on: The young men flying B-17s into Hell knew that Bill Boeing’s name on their yokes meant they had the best fighting chance American industry could produce. When those four thunderous Pratt & Whitney Hornet engines spooled up they knew every ounce of domestic ingenuity literally was at their fingertips.
In contrast Mr. Bezos is watching the zeros spool up in his bank account. He’s not at the forefront of public health efforts like the Gateses, nor establishing nonprofits and charities to help those most devastated by the pandemic and economic shutdown – the working poor, struggling middle class families, the small business owners who’ve been forced to shut down as he cleans up.
Jeff Bezos is the most conspicuous but not the only example of COVID capitalism. Mark Zuckerberg’s accumulation ($28.7 billion and counting) is in its own way more unseemly: He’s benefiting from countless millions of families who’ve been unable to celebrate birthdays, weddings, graduations, funerals, religious services, and other life events. People are spending hours more time on Facebook each day not because the platform has adapted and changed and offered something better, but because they have no choice. There’s an emotional component to Facebook that doesn’t exist with Amazon, yet as with online retail people don’t have alternatives right now. The same can be said of Eric Huang of Zoom (enjoying a relatively modest $7 billion so far), perhaps the luckiest billionaire of all in terms of timing. Meanwhile Elon Musk ($13.6 billion) is the most inexplicable: Even as the domestic auto industry craters into a historic slump from which it will take years to recover Tesla’s stock continues to reach new record highs.
Nor is it a matter of these companies being in the right place at the right time. In a very real sense circumstances (with a solid assist from governments) have made Amazon, Facebook, Zoom, and other tech giants the only places to be during these times.
The new billionaire class aren’t just watching their net worth increase like the odometer on the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: There’s an increasing recognition that they’re shoving it in people’s faces. As documented in a Vanity Fairarticle last week, they’re throwing lavish parties, snapping up real estate at historic rates, and even jetting from place to place to stay in areas where coronavirus numbers are lowest. Meanwhile, Joe and Jane America worry whether they can keep a roof over their families’ heads and prevent their children from falling behind educationally. It makes the Gilded Age look like the 1950s.
It is worth noting that there is another category of billionaires that soon will benefit from the pandemic: Institutional real estate investors who are eyeing the coming wave of foreclosures. The likes of Blackstone are positively salivating at the prospect of millions of homes going to auction in the coming months and years as individuals and families fall irrecoverably behind on their mortgages. They’ve already formed hydra headed LLCs to obscure their activities.
Today’s tech titans are household names because they built companies and in some cases created new technologies that benefit the masses. Of course, they didn’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts: As Adam Smith famously observed, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are in their own way every bit as ruthless today as J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie were in their day.
As President Teddy Roosevelt demonstrated sometimes it is necessary for the greater good that the government, and the people, prove equally ruthless. It’s time for a billionaire COVID tax. To paraphrase former President Barack Obama, “They didn’t earn that.”
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As anyone not living under a rock knows by now, Cuties is a French movie that purports to explore society’s sexualization of teen and preteen girls and the alienation modern social media and smart phone driven culture imposes on them. In the process the Netflix movie subjects five young actresses, including the extraordinary star Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi, to the very indignities the makers claim they condemn. Cuties has once and for all obliterated the lines between art, commerce, and exploitation. Those involved in making it are either the least self-aware people on the face of the Earth or the most guileful.
The movie is indefensible, period, as was Netflix’s marketing campaign. The original ad for Cuties featured four barely clothed preteen girls in sexually provocative positions. Netflix apologized for the ad but is defending the movie itself. That alone is pretty much all you need to know. And no, you do not need to watch the movie to condemn it, just like you don’t need to watch a woman being sexually assaulted to condemn sexual assault.
Cuties is as inevitable as it is repugnant. We’ve been headed in this direction for at least 50 years. The casting couch at last has come for the children. The only possible response to Cuties by normal human beings is, “I need a shower.”
Actually, I feel the need to douse myself in rubbing alcohol, pour acid into my eyes, and leap off my balcony. For I have watched Cuties. Or rather, I watched as much of it as I could stomach, which amounted to about fifteen minutes. With lots of fast forwarding.
In that span I saw 12 year old girls do the following: Twerk (of course), simulate sexual intercourse, simulate masturbation, simulate fellatio, simulate cunnilingus, simulate orgasms, suck on various objects, spank themselves, spank each other, grab their crotches (so much crotch grabbing), spread their legs, grab their chests, grab their backsides, grab each other, grind on each other, and…you get the idea. In one scene, where four barely-clothed girls dry hump a stage while simulating hand jobs, I’m fairly certain I had a minor stroke.
Fifteen. Freaking. Minutes.
In real life, preteen and “tween” girls take nude photos of themselves and engage in sexualized behavior because that’s what society tells them to do to be accepted. That’s bad enough, to be sure. The difference between girls’ sexual behavior in real life and in the make-believe of Cuties is essential: The former is largely confined to children’s own social circles (albeit in many cases vast online social circles they comprehend dimly if at all). In contrast, Cuties is made expressly for an adult audience. Consider: Netflix gave the movie a TV-MA rating. The same adults who made a movie in which preteen girls star openly acknowledge that movie is inappropriate for preteen and even teen girls to watch. Let that sink in a moment.
Of course Hollywood, with strong pop culture assists from the music and fashion industries and the intellectual cover of academia, has sexualized women and girls from its very inception. As Michael S. Rosenwald wrote in the Washington Post in 2017, “it is worth remembering that this intolerable behavior has been tolerated in showbiz as long as there have been bright lights.”
It has not just been tolerated, it’s been rationalized and normalized. To many in Hollywood pedophilia is just another sexual orientation. Several years ago I was at a Passover Seder at the home of a powerful Hollywood agent. At one point in the evening the subject of Roman Polanski came up. I made what I thought was the obvious-as-water-is-wet observation that he got away with drugging and raping a 13 year old, and that he should be forced to return to the U.S. and serve his time. From the reaction around the table you’d have thought I’d just defended Adolph Hitler. In Hollywood Polanski is the victim, you see.
To many in Hollywood a 40 year old man forcing vaginal, oral, and anal sex on a drugged, barely conscious 13 year old girl is merely expressing his version of normal, and who are the rest of us to judge? Never mind that no child that age can possibly consent to sexual activities in any meaningful way even if they aren’t drugged.
Which raises another deeply troubling question about Cuties: Did these girls have any clue what they were actually doing? Or were they, like generations of young actresses before them, simply trying their best to make the adults in the room happy by doing what they were told to do?
It’s not idle speculation. Hollywood history is rife with stories of adults essentially tricking kids into participating in scenes that, had the kids known what was really going on, would emotionally or psychologically devastate them. A famous example is Stanley Kubrik’s interpretation of The Shining. Not wanting to terrify the 5 year old actor, Danny Lloyd, who played Jack Nicholson’s and Shelley Duval’s son, Kubrick and everyone involved in the movie told him it was just a story about a family living in a hotel. Of course, in that case the director was shielding the child. Nevertheless it’s a good example of how adults in Hollywood can manipulate not just the reality on screen but in the real lives of actors. With children it’s particularly easy.
It isn’t the subject matter – the sexualization of women and especially young girls is a crucial topic that deserves all the attention society can muster. It isn’t even the story. Children doing inappropriate things while trying to act like adults is one of the oldest stories in time.
It’s how the movie makers decided to frame and shoot the scenes. Every dance scene devolves into close-ups of scantily clad, twerking and humping 12 and 13 year old crotches, backsides, and midriffs. In countless shots the girls’ heads and faces aren’t visible, a technique most would associate with pornography. Scene after scene, shot after shot reduces the girls to their bodies. The movie literally demands that you spend long moments staring at sexually provocative prepubescent bodies (unless you fast forward the bejeezus out of the thing like I did). Worse still is the rhythm: Every time you start to feel a connection with the characters, much less engagement with the plot, the movie unloads with more twerking, more humping, more simulated sex, more half-naked kids.
Imagine the scene directions the children were given. Great take, kids! Let’s do it once more, only this time I want you to really spread those legs for me. That the director is a woman somehow makes it worse.
Cuties has something resembling a plot, much of which I gleaned from other sources. It focuses on a young Senegalese immigrant in Paris named Amy, played by the extraordinary Abdillahi. When the movie opens she has recently moved with her mother into a housing project in a Parisian slum, where they live in a conservative Muslim household. Her father has returned to Senegal, and we soon learn he has gone to take a second wife. Early in the movie Amy attends a sort of conventicle in which the women in her community make clear that men are dominant and women’s role is to serve them. Amy looks bored and out of place, her face alternatively expressing annoyance, boredom, and amusement at the adults. It’s one of the greatest failings of Cuties that the movie makers utterly failed to develop Amy or any of the other girls as characters their own right.
Not long after moving in Amy sees a neighbor and classmate named Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni) twerking while doing laundry in the building’s basement. In what becomes a recurring trope in the movie our first glimpse of Angelica is her backside and midriff. It’s a solid thirty seconds of sexualized dancing before her face is revealed. Amy is shocked, and slowly backs away from the door when Angelica spots her.
It cannot be repeated enough: When she’s not twerking Abdillahi is positively mesmerizing. When she walks down the hall and stairs from the conventicle to the laundry room she is a wonder of expression. She has the actor’s gift for conveying an entire universe of emotion with a sideways glance.
Later, Amy sees Angelica dancing with three other girls near an abandoned train yard. She resolves to join them, although it’s never made particularly clear why. At first, of course, they fight. The three girls reject the shy, reticent Amy and even chuck rocks at her. But then Amy goes through a sort of hazing, including a scene in which the Cuties shove her into a boys’ bathroom and make her take pictures of a boys’ penis. Because, patriarchy? In order to be accepted she engages in other petty transgressions, such as stealing a cell phone and stealing money from her mother.
Cuties starts to go off the rails when Amy takes a selfie of her privates and posts it to social media, sparking a minor firestorm.
Take a look at the screenshots below, bearing in mind these are 12 and 13 year old children. I averted my eyes as best I could while taking them and I feel disgusting just posting them. It’s a small sampling of what the movie offers. If you think a single one is even marginally acceptable go ahead and register as a sex offender right now, because it’s only a matter of time.
It would have been entirely possible to make this movie without those close-ups, yet there they are, by the score. In fact, it would have been entirely possible to make this movie with legal age actresses. Ally Sheedy was 24 when she played a 16 year old high school student in The Breakfast Club and no one had a problem believing it. Adults have been playing children since time immemorial (here’s a story from last year in the Los Angeles Times about Broadway actors in their 20s and even 30s playing teenagers and preteens). Could the movie makers not at least have found some 18 or 20 year old body doubles?
No, they needed real preteen girls to really simulate sex acts. Because social commentary. The exploitation detracts from the movie itself, not to mention the young actresses, who are astonishing when they aren’t auditioning for the 11pm Saturday shift at the Spearmint Rhino.
The booty and crotch shots dehumanize Abdillahi along with all of them, plain and simple. There’s also a creepy fourth wall break throughout the movie, with the director apparently constantly reminding the girls to look into the camera as sexually as possible. That is, when she bothers to film their faces.
This isn’t a movie about girls in a conservative Muslim community finding a path to, say, college. There is nary a positive adult female role model in the entire exercise, just a progression of stereotypes, which is perhaps the movie’s most misogynistic aspect. In a very real way the movie presents the inverse correlative of the barefoot and pregnant trope, because it pins girls’ fates to their reproductive organs. Protestations aside Cuties’ central message is that a girl’s crotch is her ticket to liberation.
The movie’s other great sin – besides the pedophilia – is that it’s boring. It’s very French in that there are the standard-issue slo-mo scenes overlayed with classical or world music, disconcerting smash cuts, people gazing for long moments into nothing, inexplicable vous nous, and heavy-handed symbolism. Oh, the symbolism. At one point Abdillahi is forced by her mother to cut onions, because, you know, tears. None of it amounts to pathos. The lack of drama isn’t helped by the atrocious English dubbing.
Netflix, which started out as an exciting, innovative alternative to the local video store, has become the McDonald’s of the entertainment industry. Actually, that’s an insult to the Golden Arches. Netflix has become…well, the Netflix of the entertainment industry. They operate on sheer volume, greenlighting hundreds of films, shows, documentaries, specials, events, and other programming every year. There simply isn’t enough top-drawer or even servicable talent on the face of the Earth to sustain that kind of momentum.
In the mad race for eyeballs and dollars in the streaming era it was inevitable Netflix would start scraping the bottom of the barrel. So a-scraping Reed Hastings and his team went, and boy howdy did they find themselves some world-class dreck.
Erm, excuse me: Some world class “art.”
Cuties is the most important movie of the decade – indeed, one of the most important ever – because it finally, permanently, and indisputably reveals Hollywood’s perverse value system (I use the term loosely). A century of sexual exploitation, abuse, and violence against girls and women is now beyond doubt. The only question is why so many people outside tinsel town are defending it.
But that’s a whole other rabbit hole that I don’t have time to explore, because I need another shower.
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Friday evening tweet storm also disparages rank and file L.A. police union that spent more than $45,000 supporting his campaigns
It started in June, when Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, long an advocate for increased policing in his district, jumped on the defund the police bandwagon. He staked a position far beyond most of his colleagues on council (except Council President Nury Martinez, who has had her own problems on the subject) and Mayor Eric Garcetti. He introduced legislation to cut LAPD funding, spoke out against the police, and posted pictures of defund protests, including a flier with the caption “F*** the federal police!” to his personal social media pages. His endgame, a declaration of war on the Police Protective League, the Los Angeles police union, came in the form of the plaintive Friday afternoon tweet pictured above. More on that virtual utterance in a moment.
Politics aside, Mr. Bonin’s constituents found his newfound evangelism on the subject of reduced law enforcement puzzling. He made increasing police resources in his district central to both of his campaigns for city council. As recently as January 2019 he boasted of putting more than 600 new patrol officers on the streets, having pushed to take them off desk duties. Even now his official council website features pictures of him with cops and promises to bring more officers to the Westside. [UPDATE: Mr. Bonin has removed the pro-police pages from his official council website.]
He’s also accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the PPL itself. According to a June 2020 Los Angeles Times story the PPL spent more than $45,000 backing his two runs for council (Mr. Bonin has said he won’t accept any more PPL money or support).
Then there is the inconvenient – for Mr. Bonin – fact of his own experiences with LAPD. According to public records obtained exclusively by The All Aspect Report there were 29 police calls for service to his home between January 2015 and June 2020. According to a department analyst many of the calls – logged in the reports as Code 6 – were made either at the department’s or councilman’s initiative. Additionally, neighbors and constituents have documented at least six instances of police responses to Mr. Bonin’s residence not included in the logs, bringing the total to 35.
For now the records raise more questions than they answer. The biggest questions surround the sheer volume of police activity at Mr. Bonin’s residence. The vast majority of people in upper middle class neighborhoods like his go years or decades without calling the police once. Thirty-five service calls over five years, regardless who initiated them or the circumstances surrounding them, is all but unheard of.
For example, records show that between April 2015 and August 2018 there were 15 “false alarm” calls to Mr. Bonin’s residence. The department analyst didn’t have additional details but suffice it to say either Mr. Bonin has the world’s worst home security system or there is more to those calls. Either way those 15 false alarms must have cost the councilman and his husband a pretty penny: According to the LAPD’s website, the penalty for a first false alarm is $216, assuming the system is permitted. By the fourth offense the penalty rises to $366, meaning all those calls cost more than $5,200. The All Aspect Report has submitted public records requests related to the fines.
There are other oddities in the records. One of the false alarm calls at his house – at 12:53am on June 25, 2015 – is listed as responding to a “government building,” as is a valid alarm call on the morning of June 8, 2017. Two other false alarms, on January 8 and May 24 of 2017, are listed as “acts of nature.” 2019 was a quiet year, with a 16th false alarm call in August 2019 (bringing the total to $5,566 and counting) and a call in October logged as “other.”
There was a spate of calls for service to Mr. Bonin’s home in April of this year. On the night of April 4-5 there were three calls between 11:19pm and 12:39am [UPDATE: Additional information provided by LAPD on August 12 indicates that there was only one call for service to Mr. Bonin’s house that night, at 11:19pm. The others are “administrative actions. We continue to investigate.] There were two more calls on April 7 and April 9, which a LAPD source told The All Aspect Report were “additional patrols.” The most recent calls were May 21 and May 24.
This information came out in response to California Public Records Act requests the All Aspect Report submitted to the LAPD earlier this summer, and to which the department responded last week.
On Friday evening FoxLA reporter Bill Melugin discovered the responses and tweeted about them. He wrote, “A public records request reveals that LA city councilman Mike Bonin, who voted to defund LAPD by $150 million, has called LAPD to his home 8 times since 4/4/20, including to provide extra patrols and protection from peaceful protesters at his house.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Melugin and Fox did not get the entire story, but nevertheless his tweet went viral and sparked a local firestorm. Within hours it had more than 3,000 likes and 2,000 retweets – no mean feat on a Friday evening in the middle of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. Mr. Bonin himself responded about a half hour later. He asserted that of the eight calls since April he only made one: A personal request to the captain of Pacific Division to remove hypodermic needles he alleged were left on his porch (suffice it to say discarded needles are commonplace in his district, but only Mr. Bonin himself can call the captain personally to deal with them).
[UPDATE August 9: The story appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight (Mr. Carlson also did not get the story correct) and even prompted a story in the UK Daily Mail]
Mr. Bonin said that the seven other calls were initiated by LAPD themselves “sending patrols without my request and often without my knowledge.” It’s an odd turn of phrase from a man who used to work as a newspaper reporter: “often without my knowledge.” Meaning, of course, that at least some of those eight calls so far this year, as well as some of the other 35 total calls, were at his request or with his knowledge. It also raises the question why he didn’t turn down the LAPD initiated patrols he did know about. Most importantly, why did LAPD feel the need to patrol his house so often in the first place?
Mr. Bonin’s tweetstorm continued:
Which leads us full circle to the spectacle of a public servant who aspires to the mayorship and beyond, turning a legitimate question of public interest into a full frontal attack on his constituents, along with peaceful protestors, the rank and file of the Los Angeles Police Department, and anyone else with the temerity to disagree with or challenge him. It was an astonishing act of political self-immolation, made even more inexplicable by its gratuitousness.
To be clear: Mr. Bonin himself made his relationship with law enforcement an issue, both because of the number of times LAPD have served him personally and his newly discovered anti-police fundamentalism. Whether or not he called the police or the police provided patrols and checks at their own discretion on those 35 (at least) occasions, is irrelevant. At any point in the last five years he could have called up Pacific Division and asked the Captain for a stand down order. Would have taken five minutes.
Indeed, until seven or eight weeks ago Mike Bonin had that kind of relationship with the LAPD. He was one of the their biggest supporters both in his district and in City Council, as numerous news accounts and even entries on his CD11 web page attest. He could have used that goodwill – or leverage, for that matter – and played a central role in police reform efforts in Los Angeles. He could have been the guy who told hard truths and demanded accountability from LAPD while still showing support for police who despite months of attacks retain the respect of three quarters of the population, including the 81% of Blacks who don’t want police defunded. He could have shown national leadership on the issue and struck a brave, independent course that recognized the urgent necessities of the moment without discarding the men and women who risk their lives every day to keep the rest of us safe.
In response to Mr. Melugin’s tweet Mr. Bonin could have said something like, “Yup, I admit it, LAPD has come to my house a lot. Like most people calling the police has been my default, and as a public official with a young son I’m especially sensitive. That said, the last few months have caused me to reflect, and like many Americans I embrace the urgent need for change. We will have difficult discussions in the months and years ahead, and we won’t always agree. But I’m committed to working with my constituents and the incredible people of L.A., including our brave men and women in blue, to make this the best city for all of us.”
Thirty seconds, firestorm avoided, leadership established. Heck, that’s the kind of guy people start thinking of as mayor material.
Instead, Mike Bonin has declared war. On virtually everyone. He had a once-in-a-career opportunity not just to score political points with an increasingly hostile electorate but to show real leadership by doing right by the people of this city. He stepped on that opportunity and – well, complete your own metaphor. This isn’t the first time he’s turned on his own voters. See below for examples from The All Aspect Report and elsewhere. Most despicably, in January of this year he attempted to blame a bomb scare at the then under construction Bridge Home shelter in Venice Beach on his political opponents.
It’s enough to make you wonder how he made it this far. It’s also enough to make you wonder if this guy should have this job anymore.
A final note: The current political moment demands clarity on one issue. Mr. Bonin has not aligned himself with the overwhelming majority of passionate, determined, sometimes enraged protestors demanding real change and forcing long overdue conversations about race in America. By showing support for the likes of street rioters and defund the police – a project of the self-declared radical Marxist group Black Lives Matter, not the movement from which they appropriated the name – he has aligned himself with the likes of the (overwhelmingly white) bomb throwers who spent two months attempting to destroy the Portland federal courthouse. He has aligned himself with the likes of ANTIFA and those who practice violence for the sake of violence. Friday evening’s tweet, his declaration that he is “standing up to the police union,” after 25 years of using law enforcement both personally and politically, settles any doubt as to where his allegiances lie.
For previous examples of Mr. Bonin turning on his own voters, see some of these stories from The All Aspect Report and elsewhere:
LAPD Investigating Pipe Bombs Left at Future Site of Venice Bridge Home (NBC L.A., January 4, 2020) (Mr. Bonin said, “This is an appalling incident perpetrated by a disturbed and cowardly person or persons. If it was meant to slow or halt progress on providing bridge housing, it failed. It is unacceptable and inhumane for people to be living and dying in sidewalk encampments in our neighborhoods. It is imperative that we get people off the streets. We will not be intimated, and we will not back down from providing solutions to our homelessness crisis.”
Developing: At the councilman’s behest a local publication committed a massive ethical breach this week by unpublishing a constituent’s op-ed
Confident people don’t fear criticism. True leaders, in fact, seek it out, welcome it, and learn from it.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin is no leader. His constituents long have known that he’s a machine politician, the kind of person for whom facts and experience, much less criticism, are kryptonite. He lives in the increasingly alternate universe occupied by most of California’s political class, a place in which virtue signaling and political correctness are more real than reality.
As people’s quality of life plummets around his district, as homelessness, vagrancy, and crime spiral out of control, as entire neighborhoods descend into Third World chaos, Mr. Bonin’s track record amounts to a succession of well-documented lies. It’s no exaggeration to say that he has done more harm in a shorter amount of time than anyone ever to have represented Council District 11. Neighborhoods including Venice, Mar Vista, Del Rey, and even Brentwood are unrecognizable from just a few years ago. People die on the streets of CD11 every week, yet Mr. Bonin soldiers on.
It’s getting so bad that telling lies through the media is no longer enough for Mr. Bonin. Now he seems intent on controlling the media itself, or at least the small network of publications that passes for local media these days.
It all started with a flip-flop
During his last election campaign Mr. Bonin made increased policing a central plank, unveiling a “10-point plan” to “get more cops in neighborhoods.” In a January 2017 press conference he said, “Not a day goes by when I don’t hear from a constituent that it has been weeks since they’ve seen a black-and-white unit driving through their neighborhood. Not a week goes by when I don’t hear a complaint from someone that they called LAPD, and it took forever for a unit to come, and in some cases, a unit never came.” He campaigned on the issue through the November 2017 general election (when a paltry 13% of CD11 residents voted for him, but that’s another story).
Increased policing continued to be central to his public messaging through the beginning of 2020. Last summer he boasted on his official city council website that his policies had moved “more than 600 officers” from desk assignments to patrol duty.
What a difference a shift in the political winds makes. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resultant upheaval of anti-police sentiment by some members of the public, it’s become fashionable among so-called progressives like Mr. Bonin to call for reductions to law enforcement budgets. Some even call for the elimination of police departments altogether. Mr. Bonin has heaved himself onto the bandwagon. He also is calling for restrictions (“reforms”) on police conduct, especially when it comes to use of force.
Last week he created a minor firestorm in his district when he posted what appeared to be an ANTIFA flier to his personal Instagram and Facebook pages that included the caption, “F*** the federal police.” He posted the image along with several pictures of protesters holding “defund the police” signs (the pictures were notable for their complete lack of diversity, seas of white fists on a sunny west side street, but again that’s another matter).
Of course, as both an elected official and a private citizen Mr. Bonin is free to contradict himself all he wants. It doesn’t make for good politics much less policy on the ground, but this is America and he can do as he pleases. Mike Bonin’s flip-flopping, however, increasingly crosses ethical lines and calls into question his character and fitness for the office he holds.
On Monday of this week, West L.A. resident and Bonin constituent Allan Parsons decided to call him out on a recent public survey the councilman’s office conducted related to police reform, as well as a June 2020 op-ed Mr. Bonin published with a local West L.A. weekly called The Argonaut. Mr. Parsons wrote an op-ed of his own pointing out methodological flaws and other issues with the survey* and Mr. Bonin’s misleading description of the results in The Argonaut. Called “The Real Results of Mike Bonin’s ‘Reimagining Public Safety’ Survey,” his piece was accepted and published by a local online publication called Yo! Venice.
This apparently got under Mr. Bonin’s skin, and he decided to do something about it. Something egregiously unethical: He (or a staffer) contacted Yo! Venice, an independent media outlet, and demanded they unpublish the story.
Pause to consider the totality of Mr. Bonin’s conduct. First, he concocted a thoroughly unreliable, unverifiable survey on an issue of crucial public importance. This part of his playbook at least is familiar: When he was forcing the hugely unpopular and destructive Venice Boulevard road diet he routinely trotted out fake statistics and surveys. They are designed not to elucidate truth but to validate Mr. Bonin’s position and give it the appearance of public support.
Next, he wrote a highly misleading op-ed based on the survey’s results in a local paper in which he previously has purchased paid campaign advertising totaling more than $3,000. Finally, when a constituent called him out, he used his official position as an elected official to get the story depublished.
That’s representative democracy, Mike Bonin style. This is a person who earlier this year slanderously blamed a bomb scare at the Venice Beach homeless shelter on some of his own constituents and failed to recant and apologize when the facts came out. A person who was caught on video callously walking away from a distressed homeless man – one of the individuals for whom he claims to care so deeply – who was lighting a fire in a street median and putting his hands in it.
It’s no wonder Mr. Bonin doesn’t show his face in his district much these days, at least not outside kaffeeklatsches with wealthy Palisades denizens or stage-managed appearances where he’s flanked by a dozen city officials, his perpetual human shields.
Yo! Venice must account for its decisions
There are a few inviolable rules in journalism. The first is that a publication never unpublishes a story without explanation, and a compelling one at that. As no less an authority on the subject than the Executive Editor of The Atlantic Adrienne LaFrance wrote in 2015, “removing an article from the web is still arguably the most dramatic choice a news organization can make.”
Unfortunately, that’s just what Yo! Venice did. That’s bad enough. Worse is the fact that they did it without independently checking the facts. Worst of all is that they did it s at the behest of an elected official who otherwise would be (potentially) damaged or embarrassed by the article in question. Yo! Venice’s staff apparently got a phone call and did as Mr. Bonin pleaded. That is about as big a breach of journalistic ethics as you can commit (the site did eventually republish the op-ed, but not before the story went viral).
Yo! Venice isn’t just some local rag. It is owned by Mirror Media Group, which describes itself as “a collection of hyper-local media brands.” Its holdings include the Santa Monica Mirror, Brentwood News, Palisades News, Century City News, and one of the city’s most prominent LGBTQ publications, The Pride. In other words, the company dominates local news consumed by more than a million people. MMG typically runs the same stories across multiple platforms, amplifying its editorial dominance. A single Executive Editor, Sam Cantanzaro, oversees all of the companies’ sites and publications.
Ironically, Yo! Venice appears to have repeated its sin, only this time they pulled something of Mr. Bonin’s. On July 30 the site posted an interview with the Councilman in which he discussed topics including police funding. As of this writing the video is not available, though the page and headline remain live.
Along with The Argonaut, which serves a broader community, Yo! Venice is the closest thing Venice and Mar Vista have to a local paper of record. The publication’s website boasts that it is the “#1 Local News, Forum, Information and Event Source for Venice Beach, California.” For better or worse, what they publish (and depublish) matters. That is why the editor and publisher owe the community they serve an explanation. They must answer questions like: Why did they pull a story based – apparently – solely on a politician’s demand? Who made the decision, and who was consulted in the process?
If Mr. Bonin had a scintilla of common decency he would resign and allow his constituents to choose a competent successor. Then again, the end of his political career may be a foregone conclusion: He’s up for reelection in 2022. He will have to stand and defend a track record that by any reasonable judgment is indefensible. In the meantime he can try to airbrush reality all he wants. Truth finds a way.
In the meantime, Mirror Media Group would do well to decide whether it wants to be in the news business or the propaganda business.
*The crux of Mr. Parsons’s op-ed was that it is impossible to verify who took the survey or whether they live in CD11. Based on our experience, we agree. We took Mr. Bonin’s survey on August 6 and found it to be unreliable to the point of absurdity: We completed it using an assumed name, email, and zip code. Indeed, after completing the survey once we refreshed it and tried again with a different assumed identity. It worked again. The survey essentially is useless, yet Mr. Bonin is touting it as proof that his recently discovered anti-police policies are popular. That is called state propaganda.
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Three days earlier, private city “ambassadors” attempted to break up a violent altercation
UPDATE (8/7/2020): The Santa Monica Daily Press reported this morning that Santa Monica police arrested an individual in connection with the stabbing. John James allegedly stabbed an individual who was lying on the ground and then fled. A Santa Monica “ambassador” called SMPD, who subdued Mr. James with a taser after a short chase. He has been charged with attempted murder. The victim was transported to a local hospital for surgery and is expected to survive.
Some Santa Monicans awoke this morning to the now-familiar sound of police cars speeding Code 3 through the city. Their destination was also familiar: Christine Emerson Reed Park, which has been transformed from a place of family gatherings and recreation to the city’s foremost vagrant hangout.
Even as city officials have literally physically disabled the park’s playground and basketball courts – because covid – scores of homeless, addicts, and criminals continue to make the park home, gathering in large groups in close quarters all day, every day. They shout, carouse, fight, and blast music at all hours. A continuous progression of people in busted up cars and motorcycles deliver food, alcohol, and drugs. Yesterday morning at around 9am a man was observed climbing out of a car with a bottle of bargain vodka. He took a long swig, walked over to the grass, and promptly passed out. Fights are near daily occurrences. Needless to say, none of them wear masks or practice social distancing.
In other words, Santa Monica’s Reed Park is a petri dish for what’s going to happen across Los Angeles and indeed the country if depolicing becomes accepted policy. Early results are frightening, indeed.
Untrained, unarmed “ambassadors” being asked to break up fights among mentally ill and intoxicated vagrants
A fight among homeless people broke out Monday afternoon. A woman who is a known aggressor among the park’s regulars started screaming at and hitting two men at a picnic table, one of whom already was bleeding. Two other homeless men several times her size tried to calm her down. She struck one of them and he restrained her, at which point two turquoise-shirted ambassadors attempted to intervene, resulting in a screaming argument between one of the ambassadors and the woman. The two other homeless men broke up the fight, one of them standing between the ambassadors and the woman to prevent escalation. This is how things work in Santa Monica these days. Fortunately, no one was hurt worse than the bleeding man.
This was no mere coincidence: Ambassadors are the city’s alternative to a full-time police presence at the park, which residents have requested for years. Moreover, ambassadors are not city employees: They work for a private company misleadingly called Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. The company deploys them in pairs during daylight hours. Inexplicably the contract costs Santa Monica more than $500,000 a year, meaning either they’re the best-paid park ambassadors in the world or someone’s running a scam.
The point is, the lack of a meaningful police presence at a known hive of criminal activity and violence puts everyone at risk, not least of all the homeless themselves. That risk unfortunately became reality less than three days after the fight: The police this morning were responding to a double stabbing in the park. Two homeless people got into a fight, and according to sources one was stabbed in the face and the other in the stomach. While early reports indicated both are expected to survive, homicide detectives arrived on the scene.
To be sure, police are not the ideal response to fights among intoxicated and insane vagrants. The problem is, right now they’re the only solution that even remotely works. As this week’s events prove, unarmed and untrained civilian workers simply are not effective, and often only make situations more dangerous. Unless and until the political classes in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and California craft policies that get the homeless the help they need and in many cases deserve, our streets will continue to devolve into mere anarchy.
This is what happens when a city telegraphs a message of tolerance, even indulgence, to violent lawbreakers. As usual, the people who suffer the most under those allegedly “progressive” policies are the homeless and the lawbreakers themselves. Of course the park’s inhabitants and regulars are a threat to the whole neighborhood, but unlike them other people at least can avoid Emerson Park and minimize the immediate danger.
For the homeless themselves, depolicing is just another fire in the Hell into which people like Gavin Newsom and Kevin McKeown have condemned them.
Author’s note: This column has been entered in the David Foster Wallace “Most Synonyms for the Word ‘Insanity’ Used in a Single Column” Award. Results will be announced August 7, Year of Sally the Salad-Making Robot
It was a long time coming, but it’s finally happened: The State of California has lost its collective mind. Forget covid-19, a plague of lunacy is rampaging through Golden State like a Santa Ana wildfire, only instead of stirling embers it’s dispersing germs of madness. And unlike the virus there’s no vaccine for insanity on the horizon.
Where to begin? Governor Gavin Newsom’s $1 billion deal with a Chinese manufacturer for N95 facemasks is as good a place as any. Domestic companies like 3M and Honeywell make the masks, but the leader of the world’s fifth largest economy contracted with an adversarial foreign power (remember, there are no truly private companies in China – when you deal with a Chinese manufacturer you’re dealing with the Chinese Communist Party). Which, as it turns out, is only the start of the crazy.
The company, called Build Your Dreams, never made facemasks prior to the coronavirus crisis. It actually makes industrial scale batteries as well as electric buses, trucks, forklifts, and other vehicles. At the start of the pandemic its leaders jumped into the suddenly profitable mask-making game. Profit comes easy when you’re dealing with Gavin Newsom: The deal he cut worked out to $3.30 per mask, more than four times the going rate for domestically-made versions. BYD ended up missing two deadlines for federal certification of its masks. Yet rather than kill the deal Newsom granted BYD two extensions, delaying by months the delivery of masks he claims are critical to public health. He tried to hide the details of his bonkers billion dollar blunder from prying eyes, until a public records request by the L.A. Times forced him to release them.
The loco doesn’t even end there. On March 26 Newsom signed a different deal for masks worth half a billion dollars with a company called Blue Flame, and wired the money the same day. The deal felt apart in a matter of hours when it was discovered Blue Flame had been in existence for a grand total of three days. The punchline? Blue Flame’s founders were two Republican political operatives with zero healthcare experience. They now face a federal criminal investigation (at least the state got its money back from that deal).
Meanwhile, as the City of Los Angeles staggers to recover from a devastating month in which peaceful protests for justice metastasized into riots, looting, and violence the City Council announced plans to cut to the police budget. L.A.’s police force is far from perfect but after tens of thousands of lawbreakers overwhelmed the Los Angeles Police Department and reduced large swaths of the city to mere anarchy, it is positively demented to degrade the department’s capacity.
Never mind that Angelenos of all colors and backgrounds were forced to barricade their neighborhoods and take the law into their own hands, nor that minority-owned businesses were hard hit. Never mind that looters and rioters – whom we used to call criminals – attacked innocent bystanders including an elderly man in Santa Monica and a wheelchair-bound homeless man in downtown L.A. None of that matters in this new Cultural Revolution: It’s hey, hey, ho, ho, LAPD’s got to go.
It’s sheer derangement on full display, politicians who’ve never had real jobs in their lives deciding that the way to make the police more just and effective is to reduce their capacity. In the process they’ve reached rarefied heights of hypocrisy: Earlier this month L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez announced plans to cut $150 million from the LAPD budget. A few days later Spectrum News 1 Los Angeles revealed that Martinez enjoyed a 24-hour LAPD security detail outside her home. A spokesman defended the detail, which Martinez cancelled out of embarrassment when it became public, claiming the councilor and her daughter had received death threats. LAPD Detective Jamie McBride, director of the Police Protective League, told Spectrum, “If she was really feeling threatened, then that security detail should [still] be in place.”
In other words, Nury Martinez is full of excrement.
Another L.A. city councilor, Mike Bonin, also supports the defund movement and has called for alternatives to police response for “non-violent” incidents (good luck defining that term with any legal certainty). Ironic, then, that Mr. Bonin has called LAPD officers to his home on numerous occasions. The most recent imminent threat to his safety that he felt necessitated an armed police response? A dozen-odd neighbors peacefully protesting his homeless policy in front of his house. No fewer than twenty officers and a dozen squad cars responded, setting up a perimeter on both ends of the councilman’s block while Mr. Bonin cowered behind his curtains inside.
Never one to walk the walk, on his official city Facebook page he later declared, “We need to stop using armed police officers as a response to every problem….neighborhood disputes, and other non-violent issues all demand a different response.” Just not disputes in his neighborhood.
Then again at least Ms. Martinez and Mr. Bonin aren’t headed to prison, which is more than can be said for their former colleague Mitch Englander. Mr. Englander served on the powerful Planning and Land Use Committee, which evaluates proposed developments in the city. His tale of corruption reads like a bad detective novel, including the envelopes of cash he accepted from developers in Vegas casino bathrooms. Of course there were the hookers, the top shelf booze, the steak dinners, and the casino chips provided gratis by intermediaries for builders with business before his committee.
It being Los Angeles, land of the truly batty, all the deals his committee approved while he was under FBI surveillance continue to roar ahead, further warping the already psychotic southland housing market. Were sweet sanity to prevail those deals would be halted, reexamined, combed over by independent auditors or, better yet, the FBI. But here in Oz there’s no time for such niceties.
Of course, the frenzy is raging unchecked in the Bay Area, too. With the approval of city officials nonprofits in San Francisco have been delivering free alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and other drugs to homeless people living in free hotel rooms under the statewide taxpayer funded “Project Roomkey” initiative. City officials are enabling addicts to continue destroying themselves, with a bay view, delivering booze and drugs to people who are in their situation precisely because they abuse booze and drugs. Officials in Baghdad by the Bay were quick to point out that the deliveries are funded not by taxpayers but individual and group donations, meaning that citizens have gone as nutty as officials.
Meanwhile, the District Attorney in the city that leads the nation in property theft has all but stopped prosecuting property crimes. Because social justice.
Speaking of the D.A., his name is Chesea Boudin and he was raised by terrorists. You can’t make this stuff up: His parents are convicted murderers who were part of a 60s-era radical political group called the “Weather Underground.” Mama and Papa Boudin never left the 60s, as they were convicted for their role in a botched 1981 armored car robbery that left two police officers and a Brinks guard dead (because nothing says political revolution like robbing a bank for cash and murdering innocent Americans). After they went to prison Mr. Boudin was adopted by the organization’s founder Bill Ayers, who’s best known for trying to bomb government buildings. Ayers himself avoided prosecution and boasts about his criminality to this day, declaring “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country”. Mr. Boudin not only has never repudiated his parents’ and mentors’ atrocities, he learned from them: His first job out of college was as a translator for the Venezuelan socialist dictator and criminal Hugo Chavez. Good luck, Frisco!
Of course the plague of madness is particularly insidious in Sacramento. As millions of Californians cling to their homes as the last firewall between themselves and financial oblivion our legislators are about to declare war on homeownership. Barring a miracle last stand in the Assembly they will pass a package of laws bills, which you can read about on the website of an essential nonprofit called Livable California, that will reshape housing in California and devastate thousands of middle and lower income communities (full disclosure: I do legislative analysis for Livable California). The near term result will be a massive destabilization and disruption of what used to be one of the safest investments in the world: California real estate. Over time the laws will unleash gentrification and displacement on a catastrophic scale in communities and neighborhoods.
Like zombies our lawmakers exist in a perpetual state of what Baudelaire called sed non statia, unslakable lust. They lust for control, for it nourishes them, it is all they know. Like religious zealots speaking in tongues they dictate a bizarre gobbledygook of impenetrable parliamentary double, triple, and quadruple speak. And like high schoolers playing model UN they hold 10-hour meetings in which nothing of consequence is accomplished by people who feel themselves Extremely Important. They bend their knees to protestors so clueless in their rage that they destroyed a statute of Ulysses S. Grant in Golden Gate Park in the name of Black Lives Matter. That’s right: In the name of racial justice they destroyed a statute of the guy who defeated the Confederacy.
Rioters also took down a statue of the fictional character Don Quixote, from Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote de La Mancha, the most famous novel from the golden age of Spanish literature. The story centers on an insane aristocrat who believes the stories he reads about medieval knights are actual history. He dresses up like a knight and goes on the road engaging in adventures only he believes are real. Which is the perfect encapsulation of the lunacy rampaging through the Left Coast.
Maybe that’s why the rioters destroyed his statue: The story of a delusional and privileged individual living out his ridiculous fantasies hits a little too close to home.