For the last couple of days, we’ve written about the physical damages our community has sustained in the unrest of the last week, along with the speedy work of cleanup and repair being undertaken by our local businesses. While physical damage is disturbing and expensive to repair, however, the path to healing and future growth is even more complicated on the human side. On Sunday, May 31, the Mid-City West Community Council – which represents the Pan Pacific Park area, site of Saturday’s initially peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, and the larger Fairfax district where violence raged later on Saturday afternoon and evening – convened a special (online) meeting to begin the healing conversations, and to begin exploring how the community can move forward and become a safer and more welcoming place for all of its residents, stakeholders, and visitors.
Unlike most Neighborhood Council meetings, with lengthy agendas and highly structured voting items, this session had a much looser outline, with no specific votes planned in advance (and none taken during the meeting). Instead, MCWCC President Scott Epstein told the Buzz later, “Most of all we knew we wanted to be responsive to our community in a moment of crisis. The agenda items were designed to be broad to facilitate idea generation about how we move forward as a community and a city. The intention was for the language to allow for immediate action if necessary but also set the stage for later action.”
So both board members and community members – many still raw and sleep deprived from Saturday’s events – were provided with time and space to relate their feelings and experiences, and to make suggestions for moving forward.
First of all, almost everyone who spoke at the meeting expressed profound sadness at the violence that shattered the community…but also newfound hope at the immediate response of the community, where many people came out as soon as the curfew was lifted early Sunday morning to start cleaning up.
Many at the meeting shared the initial sentiments of Don Duckworth, executive director of the Melrose Avenue Business Improvement District, who said both the damage and then seeing neighbors out helping clean up so early in the morning were “a tearful experience for me.” The faster the local merchants are back in business, he said, the better it will be for everyone.
MCWCC board member Henry Van Moyland echoed Duckworth’s praise for the community’s early-morning efforts. Fairfax and Melrose, the streets hardest hit the night before, he said, are the “jewels in our community” and we want them back as soon as possible.
Board member Will Hackner, who said there was a fire and gunfire at a store next door to his home on Saturday night, said he was out helping his neighbor at the store until 1:30 a.m.
And board member Michael Schneider called it “Probably the scariest night of my life,” with what he said were about 40 people using the street in front of his home as a staging area for looting activities – heading out to grab merchandise from vandalized stores and returning to their cars with stolen goods.
In short, though, most seemed to agree with board member Arnali Ray, who attended the initially peaceful protest at Pan Pacific Park for several hours on Saturday afternoon, and said, simply, “My heart is just broken for so many reasons.”
Although both board members and members of the audience were still dealing with strong feelings, many also offered very specific suggestions for the board to consider, moving forward. The suggestions were both short-term, to help both the phyiscal and business community recover, and longer-term, to specifically increase efforts to make sure all members of the community – especially African Americans – feel safe at all times in that community.
Addressing business recovery, Duckworth said the BID could use the MCWCC’s assistance in helping the Melrose Trading Post, the Sunday flea market at Fairfax High School, to reopen…and with securing city council support for new crosswalks in the area.
Other suggestions included spotlighting and promoting specific local businesses in the MCWCC’s newsletter, possibly extending the existing Melrose BID to also cover Fairfax Ave. (or starting a new BID for Fairfax), buiding partnerships with various city departments to bring specific services to the neighborhood, starting an official MCWCC “Broom Groom Team,” and also encouraging everyone throughout the neighborhood to just grab a broom in the next few days and pitch in with the cleanup. And while Epstein said there probably wasn’t time to organize an official MCWCC cleanup event (since the work was getting underway so quickly already), he said the Council could help publicize any events that neighbors might organize on their own.
A More Welcoming Community
Looking further into the future, however, the suggestions for creating a more welcoming community for African Americans in particular included facilitating discussions between white and non-white stakeholders, with one community member noting that white residents need to learn more about how to listen to their non-white neighbors, and more about how they can help.
“This is a strong opportunity to get momentum out of yesterday’s events,” said one speaker during public comments, who also suggested creating new public spaces to facilitate community conversations.
But board member Hackner said the most important issue is helping people to understand the issues black residents are facing. He also noted that a number of neighbors he spoke to earlier didn’t want to attend the MCWCC meeting because they thought it would just be about physical cleanup and rebuilding. But he said it’s critical to activate the voices of those who don’t usually participate, too…and suggested something like a mural or other community art project as something that might draw in more new people.
Relationships with LAPD
The inclusive community discussion turned quickly to the historically troubled relationship between the LAPD and black residents, who have long experienced the police as a more threatening than reassuring presence.
To address this, several people suggested that MCWCC consider supporting the People’s Budget, an alternate city budget proposal that would significantly reduce the level of funding for law enforcement and divert it to more supportive social services. (The city currently allocates 54% of its budget to law enforcement.)
Ray said she would also like to see community members join together and do more self-policing, which could help build a sense of community and improve safety without police intervention.
Another suggestion, from board member Ivan Salas Orono, was to facilitate new meetings and discussions in which people of color can talk directly to LAPD about their concerns. Salas said the board should also find out how it can learn more about incidents of police-related racism and how to monitor them, as well as more about how to keep people of color safe in the community.
Salas suggested that MCWCC form a Human Rights/Racial Justice Committee to address these issues, and Epstein suggested that at least some of the conversations could probably be facilitated by the Council’s current Public Safety Committee. But Epstein said that however it’s accoplished, we should definitely use the current events as a “wakeup call,” and examine suggestions from Black Lives Matter and other groups already speaking out.
Ray agreed that the existing committee could tackle some of the issues, but also said the board also needs to be very specific about that mission, and it should be reflected in the committee’s title and agendas.
Thao Tran, who chairs the MCWCC Public Safety Committee, noted that the group does tend to see the same people and issues at its meetings every month, and needs to find a way to pull more people in. She said the commitee really needs residents to “lean in” and participate proactively. Tran said she initially got involved with local police issues, and joined LAPD Wilshire Division’s Community Police Advisory Board because she was “pissed” at the police…and encouraged others to do the same.
Epstein agreed that the CPAB is a good option, but also noted that it tends not to be very “transparent,” and is not promoted well, so people don’t know when it meets, what it does and how to get involved. He suggested conveying those this feedback for improvement to LAPD, and Tran agreed, saying that at the very least, people should be able to type their address into LAPD’s website and find their Senior Lead Officer, which they cannot do currently.
Board Member Mitchell Jacoves noted that the CPAB was born as a result of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, as a means of helping police and community members get to know each other. He agreed that the CPABs’ current websites are poor (and said they’re also now all coordinated by a single consultant, so individual stations and committees can’t even post their own content, which doesn’t help)…but he also said CPAB is still important because the police really do need to hear what the neighbors have to say, and it’s a good way to get to know our LAPD officers. (The Wilshire CPAB meets on the third Thursday of every month, currently via Zoom.)
Despite all the suggestions, however, other board members offered some broader perspective. Linda La Rose noted that there were many conversations of the kind suggested above after the 1992 riots, but then “conversations disappear and people go about their business.” She said the MCWCC needs to figure out how to keep the momentum going for the long term, and really reach out to all the diverse populations in the area…which is, admittedly, doubly hard at the moment because of the COVID-19 crisis.
Board Member Taylor Holland, who is both African American and originally from Minneapolis (so has been mourning events there, too, this week), choked up and noted, through tears, that while everyone’s suggestions were well meant, “People don’t need right now to sit in a room talking to LAPD about why we need to be seen as people.” She also pointed out that the extreme vulnerability some white neighbors felt during Saturday’s violence is how many black people feel every day. And she said said that while some people felt safer when the police showed up during the disturbances, others felt threatened…and that she and other black residents won’t necessarily feel safe either in the new opens spaces and conversations board members spoke of creating. In fact, Holland said, she often feels intimated even when police officers simply attend neighborhood meetings. “What we need is more people awake to this privilege they have,” she said. “Not just pushing more “kumbayah.””
Holland’s was the most impassioned speech in a fairly passion-filled meeting, and her words landed strongly with her fellow board members, several of whom thanked her wholeheartedly for her honesty.
Yesterday, after the meeting, Epstein expressed satisfaction with Sunday’s discussion, saying “I think in moments like these it’s absolutely essential that our community members feel that local government is listening, and that they can be a part of the process to build positive change. I believe community members received that message yesterday, and I’m proud of the open, honest, and respectful discussion that occurred.”
“We did not pass any motions or take any concrete actions,” Epstein summarized, “But we did identify a number of ideas that Mid City West may end up pursuing, including drafting a Community Impact Statement weighing in on the city’s draft budget, hosting community discussions regarding police violence, commissioning a mural, and creating an Ad Hoc Committee specifically focused on making sure the African American community feels safe and welcome in Mid City West. I’m sure we will be having discussions about these and more ideas in the coming months.”
[Note: the Buzz also spoke further with Taylor Holland the day after the meeting. You can read more about her thoughts for moving forward here.]