Trying to spin failure, Mike Bonin sends out bizarre fundraising email

Less thank a week after a homeless man died on the streets of his district, Mr. Bonin has settled on a strategy of doublespeak, obfuscation, and attack

MAR VISTA – There’s an old saying that the definition of chutzpah is the man who murders his parents then asks the court for sympathy because he’s an orphan. Today, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin displayed his own version of chutzpah with a fundraising email in which he once again lashes out at his own constituents and other Angelenos for having the temerity to point out the failings of his stewardship.

Last week a video that captured him turning his back on a mentally ill homeless man who was starting a fire went viral. It exposed not just the reality of the ongoing homeless crisis in Los Angeles, but also the reality of the city’s elected officials and their response. It captured in 90 seconds what Angelenos have suspected for two years, that the people we elected to handle the crisis are out of their depth, lost, and increasingly inconsequential to the spiraling catastrophe they themselves created. The homeless man was arrested two days later for brandishing a large hunting knife and threatening passersby (LAPD case no. 191422115).

Mr. Bonin already responded to the negative publicity last week by attacking his own constituents. Through a spokesman (Mr. Bonin himself has yet to speak publicly on the issue) he told local blog Yo!Venice, “It is shameful that opponents of bridge housing in Venice have manipulated the incident and turned into a right-wing smear attack, aided by talk radio shock jocks and internet trolls.” On his personal Facebook page, Mr. Bonin redoubled his attacks, dismissing the concerned citizens who captured the videos as, “People who have filmed, photographed, mocked and sometimes taunted people living on the streets,” and called them trolls.

High political discourse, Mike Bonin-style.

This is the same elected official who previously argued, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.”

This morning’s email continues Mr. Bonin’s desperate efforts spin his way out of the inescapable facts captured in the videos, and the undeniable realities on the streets of his district. Using his own failures to try and raise money with a self-pitying email is Mr. Bonin’s ultimate act of chutzpah. He pleads for donations to help him fight reality – or rather, what he calls “an unprecedented onslaught of bizarre and baseless attacks.” Apparently three different videos capturing the same shameful scene, an elected official abandoning one of the most vulnerable members of society while that person endangers himself and his community, constitutes a “bizarre and baseless attack.”

Is it “bizarre and baseless” to assert that Councilman Bonin has all but lost control of the myriad problems and crises in his district, and that everyone is suffering every day as a result?

This week in CD11

The reality is that the carnage continued unabated in the week since the videos hit social media. There was crime, chaos, and death on the streets of Councilman Bonin’s West Los Angeles district, particularly in Venice Beach and Mar Vista. Mr. Bonin, too busy attacking average Angelenos and using his own failures to raise campaign money, has remained thus far remained silent on the issues that are threatening to destroy his councilship.

Last Friday night, three days after Mr. Bonin’s encounter on Culver Boulevard, a homeless individual died at a small encampment that has formed next to the Mar Vista Post Office on Venice Boulevard. According to people living in the camp Nicolas Newberry overdosed on heroin. There was dispute among camp inhabitants as to whether it was accidental or intentional, and the death remains under investigation with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.

Homeless people living in Mar Vista scrolled messages on the Post Office wall near where the body of Nicolas Newberry was discovered Friday night

In conversations with a number of those residents, however, there was no dispute that Councilman Bonin has been MIA as the crisis spirals. Newberry’s body was discovered nearly a week ago and yet there’s been nary a word from the councilman’s office. One would think that a tragic, avoidable death would elicit a response, that Mr. Bonin would acknowledge Newberry’s passing.

The camp’s inhabitants described Newberry as a generous, gregarious individual. They said he had begun transitioning from male to female. They described him as an inveterate jokester, and said that he had recently starting asking people to refer to him as “Tits.” Newberry’s death – which was not reported on the Citizen app – is another tragic example of the continuing downward spiral in Los Angeles’s Council District 11.

Mr. Bonin’s silence helps explain why several people at the encampment, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the city, blamed Mr. Bonin for allowing the camp and dozens more like it to fester. “He’s lost control,” said one last night. The fact is that the very people Mr. Bonin constantly claims to be championing have come to view him as a central part of the problem (check back with the all aspect report for in-depth interviews with camp inhabitants about the changing dynamics of homelessness in L.A. as officials continue to lose control).

There was a reported violent assault at the camp less than 15 minutes after we left.

There were other violent incidents in Mar Vista and Venice last week. On Saturday, a man was stabbed on the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue (LAPD case no. 191422302). According to crimemapping.com, there were fourteen car break-ins, six assaults (including four with a deadly weapon), six burglaries, five thefts, four stolen vehicles, and three robberies. And these are just the crimes that made it into the official system; the true number likely is substantially higher.

In response to the video and subsequent media coverage Mr. Bonin has lashed out at his constituents. Through a spokesman, he told local blog Yo!Venice, “It is shameful that opponents of bridge housing in Venice have manipulated the incident and turned into a right-wing smear attack, aided by talk radio shock jocks and internet trolls.” On his personal Facebook page, Mr. Bonin doubled down on his attacks, dismissing the concerned citizens who captured the videos as, “People who have filmed, photographed, mocked and sometimes taunted people living on the streets,” and dismissed them again as trolls.

This is the same elected official who previously argued, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.”

There were other violent incidents in Mar Vista and Venice in the week after he tried downplaying the incident. On Saturday, a man was stabbed on the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue (LAPD case no. 191422302). According to crimemapping.com, there were also:

  • 15 car break-ins
  • 6 assaults (including 4 with a deadly weapon)
  • 6 burglaries
  • 5 thefts
  • 4 stolen vehicles
  • 3 robberies.

These are the data from a single week in a small part of Mike Bonin’s district. And these are just the crimes that made it into the official system; the true number likely is substantially higher.

In light of this data, and people’s experiences on the streets of CD11, is it “bizarre and baseless” to suggest that Mike Bonin is out of his depth?

By organizing a homeless camp clean-up, a Virginia activist accomplished for free in one day what L.A. hasn’t been able to do with billions and years

(VAN NUYS, CA) – September 21, 2019. Dozens of volunteers spent Saturday cleaning trash from a homeless camp. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

The stench of the homeless camp hits you from blocks away. It’s an indescribable combination of decay, decomposition, detritus, and death, the kind of odor you would associate with a third world slum or a World War I battlefield. It invades your nostrils even through a protective mask. After a few minutes you’re wearing it on your clothes, your shoes, your skin. It stays with you long after you leave.

Yet as suffocating as it is the stench doesn’t prepare you for what you see inside the camp itself. Even for Angelenos, who have become tragically accustomed to such scenes, the encampment on Oxford Street in Van Nuys shocks the conscious. For a hundred feet the garbage is piled shoulder high. Every step is hazardous: Rats and mice scurry in all directions, shards of glass litter the ground, and broken meth pipes are common. There are decomposing rodent carcasses amid piles of dog, rat, and human excrement. Walking through the camp one tries not to consider how many infectious diseases may be present. This is the place some 50 people call home.

Despite the hazards, dozens of volunteers from all over Los Angeles converged on the camp on Saturday to clear away thousands of pounds of garbage. Starting at 7a.m. they put themselves in harm’s way to accomplish a task the City and County of Los Angeles seem incapable of doing: They cleaned up a homeless camp. In the process they helped the neighborhood, local businesses, and the camp’s inhabitants themselves, some of whom joined the effort. By early afternoon the place was unrecognizable. The clean-up’s organizer, Scott Presler, said they had hauled away 50 tons of garbage.

(VAN NUYS, CA) September 21, 2019. By the end of the day the camp was unrecognizable. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Walking through the thrum of activity, one cannot help but ask why the Garcetti administration and City Council cannot accomplish the same feat, given the billions of dollars they’ve spent over the last five years. How is it that untrained citizens, armed with nothing but shovels and moxy, can do more to help our city than the people supposedly in charge of it? Why hasn’t anyone in city or county government hit upon the idea of organizing mass volunteer clean-ups like the one a private citizen put together from three thousand miles away?

The volunteers came from all over the southland and reflected the region’s diverse character. There seemed to be a little bit of everyone. One man said he’d taken the bus to the camp, while a woman rolled up in brand-new Mercedes. Teenagers worked alongside members of a church group in their 70s. One woman said that she and her boyfriend had left their Orange County home at 5a.m. so they could arrive in time to join the first wave. One camp resident walked back and forth between the far end of the camp and the dumpster, hauling two shopping carts’ worth of refuse at a time with dogged determination.

(VAN NUYS, CA) September 21, 2019. Residents of the homeless encampment joined in the clean-up. This man spent hours hauling shopping carts full of refuse to the dumpster. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

In the face of the overwhelming human misery confronting them the volunteers displayed a hearty esprit de corps as they donned hazmat suits and masks and waded into the mire. At one point a woman screamed and jumped as a rat tried to run up the leg of her suit. Her scream turned to laughter as her fellow volunteers good-naturedly mimicked her motions. They briefly seemed to be dancing.

The generosity on display was overwhelming. People brought pizzas and donuts, boxes of bottled water and juices. The hazmat suits, masks, and shoe covers were donated. Javier Perez, owner of Perez Disposal in Granada Hills, provided a large roll-off container along with a hauling truck and a Bobcat mini tractor. By noon he said that his crew already had hauled the container to a nearby landfill twice, both times filled to the top with 30 cubic yards of trash. When asked how much the day was costing his business Mr. Perez shrugged and replied, “About $3,000. But who cares? It’s the right thing to do.”

A camp resident named Robert, who described himself as the camp’s “sentry, city councilman, and mediator,” said the day was the happiest since he arrived five months ago. “Living like this,” he says, pointing to his tent where his girlfriend was cleaning up, “I get so tired. So tired. But today gives me hope. I mean, look at these folks. They don’t have to be here. They don’t have to spend a Saturday away from their families to help us out. But here they are. God bless them.” As he talked a spider crawled across his face and around his right ear. He didn’t even notice.

Clean-up organizer is a controversial figure

It may surprise Angelenos to learn that the clean-up’s organizer isn’t from L.A. He isn’t even from California. Mr. Presler is a Washington D.C. native who lives in northern Virginia. Even more surprising (to Angelenos) is that Mr. Presler, who is gay, is an avid Trump supporter and conservative activist. When he’s not organizing homeless cleanups he’s sponsoring and leading voter registration drives around the country. Yet using only with Twitter and Facebook he was able to accomplish more in a few hours than the Garcetti administration accomplishes in a year. He says that over the last few months he’s organized two clean-ups in Baltimore, as well as in Virginia Beach and Newark. He has one planned in Philadelphia in two weeks. He said that he was drawn to the Van Nuys camp in particular after hearing that there are a number of veterans among the inhabitants. Both his father and grandfather are retired Navy officers.

(VAN NUYS, CA) September 21, 2019. Conservative activist and clean-up organizer Scott Presler. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Mr. Presler has received negative coverage because of his politics. After his first Baltimore clean-up in early August, the Baltimore Sun ran an op-ed suggesting the event was a political publicity stunt designed to embarrass U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. The paper dismissed the clean-up as, “not really that remarkable of a concept,” and huffed that, “Mr. Presler’s presence in Baltimore reinforces the tired image of our failing urban cores.” Angelenos (and probably more than a few Baltimoreans) might respond that, well, yes, it does. Because that image is accurate.

Mr. Presler previously worked with a group called ACT for America, which the Anti-Defamation League has called the largest anti-Muslim group in the country. In past interviews Mr. Presler said that as a gay man he was motivated to address Islamic extremism after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida (the killer had sworn allegiance to ISIS and targeted the gay venue). In 2017 NPR reported that Mr. Presler cancelled a planned event in Arkansas when he learned that the organizer was a white nationalist. He has since distanced himself from the group.

To be sure, if Mr. Presler knowingly associated with a hate group he should be accountable. The mere fact that he helped organize events like the “March Against Sharia” will churn some stomachs.

Yet considering what he has accomplished in L.A., Baltimore, and elsewhere on behalf of homeless people of all races and creeds it would seem forgiveness is in order as well. In speaking with Mr. Presler, you don’t get the impression of a man who’s out to marginalize, malign, or divide. He speaks passionately and sincerely about his desire to help people. “This isn’t about politics,” he says. “I consider the clean-ups to be apolitical.” Moreover, it’s hard to square claims of bigotry with the diversity that was on display at Saturday’s clean-up, and the diversity of the camp residents his efforts helped in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the country. If Mr. Presler is a bigot, he’s not very good at it.

It’s tempting to search for a broader significance to the fact that a full-throated Trump supporter and conservative activist did more in a day to help the homeless in Los Angeles than the city’s progressive elected officials manage in a year. And perhaps there is. But that’s a conversation for another time.

For now, the story is the dozens of Angelenos who spent a Saturday in withering heat quite literally shoveling excrement to help their fellow human beings. They weren’t serving meals at a soup kitchen; they were risking their health, even their lives, in one of the worst places in Los Angeles. All to help people who’s names they will never know. That’s worth dwelling upon in these hyper-divided times.

Thanks to Mr. Presler, for a few hours the best of Los Angeles, the best of California, and the best of the United States were on display. If it took a few MAGA hats to accomplish that task, then so be it. Los Angeles is a little bit better off today thanks to Mr. Presler’s efforts. Hopefully he will be back soon.

The children Los Angeles has abandoned

screen shot 2019-01-25 at 12.53.55 pm
A decrepit hallway in an LAUSD building

Leon* is going into seventh grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He’s 14 and loves music, computers, and video games. He dreams of a career as a music engineer. He’s got a mischievous side and is a bit of a prankster. He loves paper airplanes.

He also loves history. Whether it’s Genghis Khan or Easter Island, the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, he can’t get enough. 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.

It’s all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He lives in a homeless shelter in Compton with his mom, three older sisters and older brother. Leon and his siblings are among the estimated 17,000 homeless students in the LAUSD, a number that has tripled in the last three years. Kids who when the 3pm bell rings go to emergency shelters, motels, even cars, RVs, and sidewalk tents.

The numbers are eye-watering.

While overall homelessness increased by 19% in L.A. County last year, child homelessness exploded by 50%. That’s on top of a 50% increase in 2018. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Education as many as 71,727 children experienced homelessness countywide. Even that number may be a significant undercount: According to a study by the nonpartisan American Institutes for Research, in 2014 as many as 130,000 children may have experienced homelessness that year. Moreover, that was five years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral out of control.

130,000 homeless children, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. How does this happen? How have we allowed it to happen? Why do we continue electing the same politicians responsible for creating the crisis, in the vain hope they’ll solve their own mess?

Violence is a fact of life for children like Leon. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after his best friend was killed in a random drive-by when they were eight. The murder is among the nearly 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A. He and his siblings regularly alter the route they walk to and from school because patterns are dangerous. His school is relatively safe, but fights are common. His oldest sister has been suspended multiple times and is now home-schooled. It’s harrowing to imagine how many obstacles he faces just to be a normal little boy. He never will be.

He’s 12 years old, and as a society we’ve given up on him. This is life in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles.

It’s impossible to acclimatize to the new reality in Los Angeles, to normalize to the notion that for children like Leon life isn’t much different from that of a child in a war-torn developing country. For that matter, Leon is receiving a third world education. He’s going into the eighth grade and he can’t define a noun without prompting. He reads and writes at a third grade level, maybe. He can’t do multiplication tables beyond 5 without a calculator.

Yet Leon lives in the world’s fifth largest economy. His shelter is three miles from Playa Vista and the billions being invested in Silicon Beach. A twelve minute drive down Centinela Boulevard might as well be a twelve hour flight.

Again, Leon is tragically typical. LAUSD public education outcomes are among the worst in the state, making them among the very worst in the country. Though California is home to roughly 12% of the U.S. population, it has nearly half of the worst performing schools.

In 2017 barely a third of students met or exceeded math standards each year, and fewer than 40% did the same in English Language Arts. In poor areas like Compton the rates were 6.6% and 11.8%, respectively. LAUSD graduates thousands of high school seniors annually who are functionally illiterate – young adults who lack the skills to fill out a fast food job application.

The state of public education in Los Angeles is all the more troubling given the direct connections between education and poverty. Ending poverty starts with the next generation, with kids who are three and four years old. The public school is the foundation for the community and where you find good schools you find strong communities. Where you see bad schools, you see broken ones. If our city is to ever see a decrease in poverty and homelessness, it will follow a reemergence of our schools in a very profound way.

There are reasons for cautious hope. Even as officials dither, individuals are realizing this is an all-hands moment. People are having conversations they weren’t having even a couple years ago. Hundreds of private organizations, nonprofits, and faith groups are putting resources into the fight. They’re leveraging technology and modern behavioral and cognitive science. They crowdsource and harness social media.

Gerald is a father whose seventh grade daughter is enrolled in a program called School on Wheels, which provides tutors and mentors to homeless children in southern California shelters, libraries, schools, and other places homeless families gather (full disclosure: I volunteer with the program). He says that in the last year or so, services have been more visible.

Time will tell if these efforts will coalesce meaningfully. Whether California writ large will heed a call to action. The futures of millions of children like Leon depend on it.

* Not his real name. Details of Leon’s life have been changed to protect his privacy.