Black-Latino dialogue begins “beautifully” at community issues forum

Hundred-degree heat pressed resolutely on the walls of Mercado la Paloma’s meeting room Saturday morning, but inside, a collective commitment to honesty kept the South L.A. Power Coalition’s first-ever Black and Latino Community Issues Forum cool.

Around 70 people attended the forum, in spite of warnings that the event would fail to create the respectful dialogue it hoped for.

“No one wanted to talk about these issues. We had threats, pressures, warnings leading up to this,” said Koyaki Jitahidi, one of the event’s organizers and a member of the Ma’at Institute for Community Change. “We had a similar workshop in May, and it got contentious; there was arguing, shouting. People said, ‘maybe we shouldn’t do this, maybe it’s too soon,’ but we’ve got all this stuff going on right now,” like Los Angeles’s spring redistricting and elections in November and March. “We can’t wait.”

Rhetoric: Disenfranchisement and empowerment

The forum marked both African and Latino culture in its opening statements. Moderators greeted attendees in English, Spanish, and Swahili. Then they led people in a power clap, a United Farm Workers sign of solidarity, and a Harambee chant, which cries the word “harambee,” Swahili for “all put together,” seven times.

imageRosalie Peterson of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment raises her fist in the Community Issues Forum’s introductory Harambee chant.

Moderators Carlos Montes and Dr Maulana Karenga each spoke about the history of black and Latino unity in the Americas before discussion of present community issues began. Montes, whose Chicano-Latino activism began with the Brown Berets in the 1960s, harkened to black-brown coalitions in the unified Third World fighting U.S. imperialism during the Cold War. “When we were attacked, we supported each other,” he said.

imageModerators Carlos Montes and Maulana Karenga analyze a participant’s comment before responding to his question.

Much of the morning’s rhetoric reflected its organizers’ backgrounds in radical and even militant activism. Karenga, chair of the African Studies department at California State University, Long Beach and creator of the pan-African holiday Kwanzaa, headed a black nationalist group that competed with the Black Panthers in the 1960s. That group, The Organization Us, maintains an office near Leimert Park.

“We struggle like this because together we will win,” said Karenga. “We are soldiers on the battlefield for something better… and we must talk often and productively with one another.”

Two participants in the South L.A. Power Coalition’s forum greet each other with a handshake and an embrace.

imageTwo participants in the South L.A. Power Coalition’s forum greet each other with a handshake and an embrace.

The community’s challenges

But cooperation is hardly as rosy as the facilitators described it in theory. Thandi Chimurenga, a freelance journalist, broached the black community’s concern that often Latino police officers, not just whites, commit violence against blacks.

Chimurenga called specifically on Latina women, addressing them as “mis hermanas,” to react to those killings in solidarity with their black neighbors.

“I need to hear a human cry from the community, and I need it to be translated into English and in Spanish. When a black person is murdered, I need to hear a human voice,” Chimurenga said. Scattered applause and encouraging murmurs followed.

In response, SLAPC member Blanca Cruz said Latinos who join the police force often become “rasa” – people who oppress their own people. “Cops… represent the oppressive system,” she said, no matter what ethnicity they claim.

Karenga hypothesized that the police department plays on historical neighborhood rivalry and uses Latinos against blacks. If so, “this is a battle strategy conversation. They’re trying to destroy our unity,” he said. “We must not let our oppressor” – that is, traditional white centers of power – “be our teacher about who we like, who we trust, or who we let across the border,” he said.

Also, reminded Montes, many in the Latino community have denounced Sheriff Lee Baca.

Another pertinent comment touched on the South Central Neighborhood’s Council recent resolution against the disproportionate rate of black student suspensions at Santee Educational Complex. Just 5 percent of Santee’s students are black, but 23 percent of them were suspended in 2011-2012, CityWatch LA reported (

Ron Gochez, a history teacher at Santee and vice president of the SCNC, addressed the problem as one of black-brown unity: rather than allowing the majority group (Latinos) to dominate the minority (blacks), both must come to a place of cultural understanding.

As a long-term remedy, Gochez proposed institutionalized ethnic studies programs in L.A. schools. Educating black and Latino students about their shared history, particularly during civil rights and labor movements, could help reduce inter-group violence and animosity.

“We need a vigorous multiculturalism, and I don’t mean food, fashion or festival,” Karenga said. “We share responsibility. We must practice reciprocal solidarity.”

Finally, thinly veiled calls to political action bubbled under the forum’s ideological surface. Two City Council candidates and a City Controller candidate addressed the crowd. But March’s election will be the first decided by new council district lines.

Black councilmembers have represented District 9, which encompasses much of South Central L.A., since 1963.

Gochez, who is running for the seat, encouraged residents to choose the person who could best represent both black and Latino residents.

Jitahidi also stressed unity in his closing remarks. District 9 cannot belong to a distinct group, he said.

“We’re not trying to be the best Democrats or the best Republicans or the best decline-to-state voters. We’re trying to kill the status quo” by continuing to elect “brave and courageous leaders,” Jitahidi said.

The SLAPC has not yet declared support for any candidate in L.A.’s March elections.

“Next time, we’ll need more time”

Long before polls open, however, the forum’s attendees must start working, Jitahidi said in his closing remarks. SLAPC officers cut off the line of attendees waiting to speak after more than 80 minutes of questions and suggestions. Still, only about a third of the forum’s participants addressed the crowd.

One of its final speakers requested monthly meetings. The crowd replied with fervent nods and a few supportive whistles.

Arnetta Mack, another organizer of the conference, affirmed these plans. “It was good for a first attempt,” she said. “Next time, we’ll need more time and more space.”

One Afro-Latina member of Karenga’s Organization Us, Hasani Soto, expressed the importance of educating community members in conversations like these. In identifying with both cultures, Hasani said she shares both groups’ knowledge and responsibilities.

“We need to study more, and not just TV or radio. We need to read more,” Soto said. “If we don’t do the studying and we don’t have the dialogue, the issues will still be there.”

Still, though, Soto was delighted by Saturday’s attempt. “It was excellent. It was beautiful,” she said.

However, Kahllid A. Al-Alim of the Park Mesa Heights Neighborhood Council warned that, to be effected, the forum needed to maintain organization.

With so many nonprofits and political activist organizations working on such a variance of issues, “This could be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen,” Al-Alim said.

Jazz and hip-hop seek compromise in Leimert Park

The Regency West Supper Club is a mainstay in old Leimert Park. Its shimmering gold napkins, thick scarlet carpet and flickering tea candles illuminate decades of famous visitors, which earned the neighborhood national renown in the 1960s and 70s for its jazz, blues and African art traditions.

These customs still thrive in iconic institutions like blues bar Maverick’s Flat and arts consortium The World Stage. And the Supper Club still hosts the Living Legends Jazz Series, which brings jazz’s elders back to Leimert Park every summer. The next show will take place Aug. 30. image

But the venue on 43rd Street only tells half the neighborhood’s story. Leimert Park’s new generation, now in its early 20s, includes rappers and Twitter accounts. Storeowners say teenagers and 20-somethings are absent from Dengan Boulevard on weekday afternoons, but they flood the town center on Thursday nights for hip-hop open mic Project Blowed and on Sunday mornings for the community’s monthly Art Walk.

If the jazz generation will let them, then these young musicians are ready to make Leimert Park their own.

“I’m one of those people that actually want to see Leimert Park… get renovated, if you will,” said Jamaal Wilson, a Leimert Park native who released his first rap album, The Cool Table, in March. Wilson is a 21-year-old junior studying psychology at the University of California at Merced. “I want to see it come up with the times and kind of embrace the hip-hop community a little bit more and just get a bit more new and current.”

Changes in Communication

Community Build tried to implement one of those changes in January. Its weekly community meetings considered a proposition for public Wi-Fi access in Leimert Park Village, where historic shops line Dengan Boulevard and a small fountain gurgles in the center of the park.

Community Build reviewed the suggestion for a few weeks, but has tabled it indefinitely.

“If Wi-Fi is something they want, it’s easy for them to get,” said Eddie North-Hager, who founded the neighborhood’s online forum, Leimert Park Beat. “If businesses think it’s worth the money, I bet they’d do it. But if you’re shopping for clothes or a hat or gifts at Zambezi [Bazaar], who’s going to need Wi-Fi?”

North-Hager estimates that 75 to 85 percent of Leimert Park residents at least have an email address. And Leimert Park Beat has 1,475 registered users – more than 10 percent of the neighborhood’s population, according to the L.A. Times’ Data Desk.

But most of Dengan’s famous shops haven’t entered online conversation. Zambezi Bazaar, for example, doesn’t have a website – just a Facebook page it updates about once a month. Eso Won Books, which does have a website, started posting on its Twitter account regularly at the end of February.

imageDrummer Al Williams, one of the Living Legends Linda Morgan (second from right) celebrated in April

The jazz community is also largely offline. When Linda Morgan, 50, assembled the first Living Legends Jazz Series in 2010, she featured 11 artists at four concerts. Three of them showed up in Google searches that summer.

“If you’re not using technology, it’s really hard to describe,” said Ben Caldwell, who toes the line of Leimert Park’s generational divide. The 66-year-old founded KAOS Network in 1984 to teach film and music production. Since then, he has been leading teleconferences, burning CDs and spreading videos online before any of those practices were commonplace. But most of his peers are unenthusiastic about technical innovation.

“It can be tough for me, and I like computers,” Caldwell admitted. “But unless you were raised in that [technological] world, you probably won’t use it. And then, the old world dies around you while the new world takes over.”

But Morgan said some of her series’ performers, who she fondly calls “my legends,” reject the changes Caldwell described altogether.

“One of my legends was so outdone with all the photography at a show that she was like, ‘I don’t want to take another picture in my life.’ I can’t allow that to happen,” Morgan said. “This year I have legends like Gerald Wilson, who’s 92. I don’t want them overwhelmed.”

Out of respect for the performers, Morgan tailors her monthly Supper Club shows to their wishes. But to reach young audiences, Morgan also makes all her legends Facebook fan pages and works with their families to secure copyrights for their music. If families are unable or uninterested, she does the work herself – meaning she still manages 22 Facebook pages and owns dozens of domain names.

This year Morgan turned the project into a nonprofit. Eventually, she wants to televise the concert series and open a museum.

“They’ve given so much to the music that we need to make sure that their legacies continue – and not only that they continue, but that they’re protected, promoted and preserved,” Morgan said. “That’s the only way the next generation of hip-hop is ever going to know anything about them.”

“The Newness that is Hip-Hop”

Leimert Park’s median age is 38, and most of Morgan’s audience members are older. “Legends” must be 65 or older to perform in the series. At the same time, though, Morgan wants to hire a young, Internet-literate staff to help her put these records and biographies online. She hopes their work will inspire a whole generation of sign-ups for piano, saxophone and drum lessons.

More than digitizing their parents’ records, however, Wo’se Kofi hopes his peers will fuse jazz traditions with their own. The 24-year-old son of an African dance instructor and African drummer already uses their rhythms in his rap songs.

“The funny thing is, everything in hip-hop comes from that beat, you know? That’s the ancestor. Drums are our ancestors,” Kofi said.

But it’s not only possible for rappers to honor their roots, Kofi said. It’s necessary. At its birth, rap was about cultural pride. Only in recent decades did lyrics become degrading and divisive.

“When people first started rapping, rap had more of a revolutionary aspect, more of a change, more of a substance,” Kofi said. “I feel like the younger generation kind of lost a sense of culture and a sense of togetherness. We just have to find a culture in general, something that we are all unified [in], something that is already in us. We are a revolutionary culture. Or we should be.”

But even if the hip-hop generation embraces their jazz roots, Wilson worries that their elders won’t reciprocate that respect.

“I feel as though they aren’t reaching out to the young hip-hop community. Whenever somebody thinks of Leimert Park, they want them to think it’s the jazz epicenter,” Wilson said. “It’s not really recognized for jazz music anymore and I think that is kind of rubbing them the wrong way, maybe, and they haven’t embraced the newness that is hip-hop.”

Wilson said Leimert Park is garnering some clout among his generation of rappers. Neighborhood native Dom Kennedy played at indie festival South by Southwest in 2011 and has appeared on songs with J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. People know him, Wilson said, so they see Leimert Park as a hip-hop epicenter – a young, rapidly expanding one.

“You can almost see and hear the difference between artists that come from the Leimert Park area,” Kofi said. “They’ve been around the cultural aspect of Leimert Park, which was African ancestors, the African culture, people dressing in African clothing… People who grew up around that positivity continued to keep the positive in their lyrics.”

Compromise and Adaptation

Morgan wants to preserve the jazz culture that made the neighborhood famous two generations ago. She and Kofi agree that culture involves more than music, though – it’s about family ties, visual art and a common neighborhood experience, like rebuilding after the riots in April 1992.

“I want it to grow. I want that area to flourish. It’s culturally rich, especially in jazz,” said Morgan, who also gives Leimert Park historical tours on Art Walk Sundays. “I want to keep that whole society going.”

Wilson was born a few months after the riots ended. He belongs to a different era than the places Morgan points out on her tours. But he and Kofi said their generation wants to take responsibility for the neighborhood’s past as well as its future.

“You have these new kids with the new ideas and the new energy, and you have the older people who have worked their whole lives to try to make this a success and to give it a personality and a character,” North-Hager said. “They’re not always going to agree… [while] passing on the mantle of leadership and responsibility and activism.”

Wilson just isn’t sure Leimert Park’s elders are ready to hand over the reins.

“That’s awesome that they pride themselves on their history, but if you don’t adapt, you run the risk of dying,” Wilson said. “And then you take so much pride in your history that you become history. And Leimert Park is too great of a place to become history.”

Walmart workers rally in South L.A.

imageListen to the audio story from Annenberg Radio News:

Dan Hindman has an anniversary this week – with Walmart.

“I’ve worked at Walmart… on the 17th, that’s three years,” he said. To support his son and put himself through school, “I do a little of everything. I do a little LP sometimes, I work electronics, I play management at times… I do it all, dude.”

But despite all this history, he’s not happy about the stores springing up in Los Angeles.

“I don’t live around Chinatown, but if I did, I would tell them definitely not to open up,” Hindman said. “Because I feel if you’re going to open up, you’ve got to treat your people correctly. Walmart doesn’t. Things they promise, they don’t follow through with it. I’ve been promised interviews with different departments. I haven’t seen an interview yet.”

Hindman and about a hundred other Walmart workers met in Los Angeles this week at a national Making Change at Walmart conference. There, they put together a list of demands to present at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Walmart today.

The protesters say their schedules are irregular and they’re not earning as much as Walmart promised. They’re disrespected at work. They want higher wages, guaranteed health insurance and Walmart’s promise that it will invest profits in communities.

But Michael Jones, CEO of the Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce, says that’s what Walmart already does in South L.A. When the store opened about a decade ago, it created more than 500 jobs, most of which went to residents.

“That had a tremendous, tremendous impact. Before that, there were people that were out of work, and they made it happen,” Jones said. “I understand people will talk about unfair wages and things like that, but compared to what? If someone is unemployed, and they’re getting paid even minimum wage, is that an unfair wage? We’ve had a tough, tough economy. People can have some dignity .”

In a statement released today, Walmart said they do offer competitive pay and affordable benefits.

But the workers leaving the conference in L.A. today plan to air their grievances at Walmarts all over the country.

Fannie Mae prepares to sell foreclosed properties in South LA

imageThere’s a house on East Adams Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles where broken windows are covered by cardboard and wrapping paper. Cockroaches crawl in water glasses and a ratty extension cord connecting a generator to a bare fluorescent bulb is stapled to the ceiling.

This house is in foreclosure under Fannie Mae. It’s also home to three families – 17 people total, including 11 children.

“There’s little baby cockroaches crawling in that cupboard. You want to take a souvenir?” Haide Clemente laughed. She’s a stay-at-home mother in this house. Her husband works in a factory, making parts for cars and airplanes.

One of the families had been there for nine years when foreclosure proceedings started last spring. The family says Fannie Mae stopped telling them where to send their rent checks and the lender still hasn’t answered their calls. In September, they stopped paying rent. Their electricity was cut off.

Strategic Action for a Just Economy, or SAJE, opened the house to public visits on Thursday. Executive Director Paulina Gonzalez says there are many Fannie Mae homes like it.

“They have dozens of properties in South Los Angeles, in Southeast Los Angeles, that are in foreclosure. They’re preparing to sell their properties and become equity owners, and we’re here to ask Fannie Mae, is Fannie Mae going to be Los Angeles’s newest slumlord?”

On Monday Fannie Mae announced a plan to let one investors buy whole chunks of houses in cities hit hardest by the mortgage crisis, including about 600 properties in Los Angeles and Riverside.

In California, and maybe nationwide, the Federal Housing Finance Agency will chose one new owner after a rigorous application process.

But Nancy Ibrahim, Executive Director of Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, says tenants also need to know their rights.

“A lot of people tragically end up in a situation like this not only because of Fannie Mae but because of many, many other banks, and they disappear so quickly that we can’t even inform them of their tenant rights.”

For example, SAJE says Clemente’s family accepted two thousand dollars from a “Cash for Keys” program to help cover their moving costs. They could have gotten nine times as much help through government programs. They just didn’t know about them. And Fannie Mae isn’t responsible for that.

Fannie Mae could not be reached for comment by the time of our broadcast.

Mayor prepares LA transit plan

Listen to an audio story by Annenberg Radio News

imageMayor Antonio Villaraigosa conceded Tuesday that the recession has overpowered Los Angeles’ best efforts to hang onto jobs. It will likely take ten years for Los Angeles to offer the same number of jobs it did before the 2008 recession. But he’s confident in the city’s ability to capitalize in the future.

The mayor sees light rail and subway development as the foundation for a robust local economy. Additionally, he visualizes public transportation as a catalyst for economic growth nationwide.

“Now, let me be clear: Transportation is the key to building our own road to recovery,” Villaraigosa told a Town Hall Los Angeles luncheon today. “We must avoid turning the wrong way down a one-way street into a double-dip recession. We’ve raised the money here in LA to build our own road to recovery – but we need the financing from Congress to break ground on that road now.”

Villaraigosa is working with California Senator Barbara Boxer to pass America Fast Forward, a Congressional bill which will increase the Department of Transportation’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan program to one billion dollars annually. Currently, its budget is $110 million each year.

America Fast Forward is modeled on LA’s 30/10 initiative. Undertaken in 2008, this program reduced 30 years of transit development to just ten years, funded by a half-penny sales tax increase and a federal loan. The mayor credited this program with almost 200 million fewer miles driven each year, plus 166,000 jobs over the project’s lifetime.

The rest of the nation, for whom America Fast Forward is designed, will “look to Los Angeles and Southern California, and our new subways, our railways, our roadways and our busways. It will be a catalyst not just for LA but for the nation, if we can adopt America Fast Forward,” Villaraigosa said.

Los Angeles transit is replete with success stories recently, Villaraigosa said: the city is a finalist for a $646 million TIFIA loan, which will allow it to complete the Westside subway system and regional connector lines between East Los Angeles and Long Beach. The second phase of the Orange Line, which already carries nearly five times as many passengers as the city predicted, will extend the rail line to Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. Both developments are 30/10 projects.

Also, Los Angeles will finish synchronizing its traffic lights by 2013. Currently, about 92 percent of lights work in time with one another – “We’re the only city that can say that,” Villaraigosa said. The resultant traffic streamlining will reduce carbon emissions by an estimated metric ton each year.

Finally, the city recently reached its 2005 benchmark of gleaning 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Villaraigosa calls Los Angeles “The only public utility in a big city to accomplish that goal.”

Despite these victories, a jobs crisis persists nationwide. Unemployment in California still hovers around 12 percent. Villaraigosa believes public transit can help rectify that impasse and simultaneously make U.S. cities greener, friendlier and healthier.

“The millions that we invest in transit flow to businesses large and small and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. So let’s make this clear: transportation investment equals jobs,” the mayor said.

Villaraigosa, Boxer, the bipartisan Senate Committee for Public Works and Senator John Mica (R-Florida), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, publicly support America Fast Forward. It will continue undergoing Congressional discussion.