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Uncanny Valleys: Notes on the Future of Los Angeles
The following article first appeared in print in Salvage #9: That Hideous Strength, our Autumn/Winter 2020 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
Before us, the flood
During the winter of 2019, the Los Angeles River looked, freakishly, like a river. Paved under and over in 1938 to control flooding, it has spent most of the past few decades looking more like a meek trickle winding its way through a concrete ravine.
During January and February of 2019 though, the river came back to life. These are the wettest months in LA, which is to say it may rain a few days. In a city that most months barely sees half an inch of precipitation, you notice when it rains for eight weeks straight. The sunny seasonlessness that draws people to Southern California reverses. And the river that spends most of its existence suspended in slabs and pilons returns to its form of strong, frigid rapids, indifferent to the inert cement alleyways meant to contain them. Time restarts.
Local meteorologists stepped into the fray of performed journalistic shock to remind us that in fact such hard rain isn’t unprecedented in LA. Even floods every twenty or so years are to be expected. Yes, it appeared out of the ordinary, but this was largely due to the severity of California’s fifteen-year, record-breaking drought. Which, incidentally, was officially ended by the winter rain.
Toward winter’s end, the Los Angeles Times ran an article warning of ‘the other big one’, not quake but mega-storm. Or ‘ARkStorm’ as the US Geological Survey calls it. Breathlessly described as ‘a rain of biblical proportions’, the article quotes climate scientists who point to massive floods that have inundated the arid region in the past, as they did in the 1860s and 1930s.
So far, so grim. But the article’s primary focus was on just how unprepared the Los Angeles area would be for such an event. The Whittier Narrows Dam, built in 1957, sitting just to the west of LA proper, no longer meets ‘tolerable risk guidelines’. Meaning that an ARkStorm would easily overwhelm the dam. Catastrophic flooding would flow south through Compton, Downey, Pico Rivera, and other heavily populated and largely working-class areas, all the way down to Long Beach. A weather disaster on par with Katrina or Harvey, taking place in the most populous county in the United States.
The fires are closer to the front of most Angelenos’ minds, however. In 2017 and 2018, Greater LA area saw the worst fires in its history. The Woolsey fire of 2018 took out over 1,500 homes in Malibu, including those of Hollywood’s most celebrated. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian hired their own private fire brigade to keep their mansion safe. Lady Gaga, Gerard Butler, Miley Cyrus; all of theirs burned down. They’ve been rebuilt though. They’re once again waiting for the day when they will be defended against the flames by conscripted prisoners (a practice that has existed in California since at least World War II).
Compared to this, and to other parts of the state, 2019’s fire season was relatively mild. Seven hours north, in the Bay Area, blazes literally jumped bodies of water to consume whole towns like Vallejo. Back in LA, it was the Getty Fire that grabbed the most public attention, named so because it started just a few hundred yards from the location of the famed Getty Art Collection. Newspapers reassured us that the priceless art was safe.
So were all the areas wealthiest residents, though it would seem they forgot to let the help know. The morning that the flames began to lick the edges of Brentwood, housekeepers, nannies, and gardeners (many of them undocumented) were left stranded. Some arrived for the day by bus or rideshare, hiking up the hills out of fear they would lose their job, only to find their employers absent, ash falling from the red sky, no way to escape the encroaching wall of fire. All, mercifully, found a way out.
This was before the pandemic. Before Covid-19, before a quarter million dead nationwide, a tenth of them in California, before every city could be compared to DeFoe’s plague journals. At first, it seemed that California governor Gavin Newsom and LA mayor Eric Garcetti – both Democrats – might be a voice of sanity against Trump’s blundering exterminism. By the summer, that sheen had faded, their own fealty to commerce apparent. Newspapers celebrated the governor’s shelter-in-place order, but gave little coverage to his cuts to state Medicare funds.
In April, LA County became one of the first in the nation to offer free and publicly available Covid-19 testing. In July, the busiest testing center in the city at Dodger Stadium was closed without warning. The reason? Major League Baseball was back, and the Dodgers were playing an exhibition game.
In Eric Garcetti’s mind, there is always a game to play, and Los Angeles should be the first playground. He and LA’s most powerful aggressively courted the 2028 Olympics. In 2017, after every other prospective city withdrew their bid – thanks in part to the havoc the Olympics will bring – Garcetti swooped in and snatched them up, without any input from voters.
‘For their propaganda, it’s always the same’, says LA resident Jonny Coleman. ‘They say “it’ll put us on the map”. LA has been “put on the map” twice before for the Olympics. It’s the entertainment capital of the world, it’s not an obscure city. So this time around when they use that line it seems particularly hollow. But when they say it now they mean they want it to be a global tourist destination, a jet set, fun, party, AirBnB weekend. That’s what the subtext is to me’.
The pandemic caused Garcetti to waver not one iota. Not even after the delay of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021. Modern sport-as-spectacle has a knack for sniffing out zones of slowly-unfolding disaster. If London, Beijing, Rio, or Los Angeles last time around are any indication, the 2028 Games will leave behind a more unequal, more commodified, more militarised city.
‘Want to understand the 1992 LA riots?’ asks sportswriter Dave Zirin. ‘Start with the 1984 LA Olympics’. If the acquittal of the police officers who put Rodney King in the hospital was a catalyst for this famous uprising, then the deep-set causes of poverty and racist policing were exacerbated by the ‘84 Games. These were the first Olympics that were privately financed, arguably when they became the neoliberal bonanza they are today. Zirin writes:
[T]he Olympics weren’t a glorious affair for everyone. [Police Chief Daryl] Gates kept calm by expanding his infamous police gang sweeps (later immortalised in the NWA video for ‘Straight Outta Compton’) and keeping entire areas of the city, especially South Central and East LA, under conditions of military occupation. Politicians and judges conspired to revive old, anti-syndicalist laws to jail masses of black youth, though the overwhelming numbers of people arrested were never charged.
While the 70,000 jobs created by the Olympics had evaporated by the time the 1990s recession hit, the transformation of the police into an occupying army intensified. Using federal funds, the LAPD armed itself with flashbang grenades, armored vehicles, military-grade helicopters and other accoutrements familiar in the age of militarised police. Laws were passed criminalising homelessness. Unhoused residents were rounded up by the thousands, their belongings confiscated, and incarcerated through the duration of the Games.
When the city was announced as the host for 2028, Garcetti said ‘Bringing the Olympics back home to LA gives us the chance to imagine what our city will look like a decade from now’. But ‘a decade from now’ is just two years shy of the IPCC’s point of no return for the warming of the planet and an increasingly dire ecological danger.
Garcetti’s climate program, meanwhile, is to make Los Angeles carbon neutral by 2050, twenty years too late. If it is difficult to imagine what this city will look like then, that’s because whole swathes of the planet – including large urban areas – will be uninhabitable. How many unhoused will be corralled onto buses outside the Memorial Coliseum while the opening ceremonies proceed inside? How many prisoners will be press ganged into defending the volleyball teams from the firestorms approaching Santa Monica Beach? Will the Long Beach Entertainment Center dry out from the previous winter’s floods before the BMX competition? Imagining the 2028 Olympics is to imagine endless combinations of revelry and cataclysm.
Underneath this huge, haphazard conurbation, the ground is always shifting. The floods, the fires, even the earthquakes; all are a reminder of how deadly futile it is for a metropolis to arrogate itself above nature, particularly as the cycle between dryness and deluge becomes more erratic.
Now, a contagious disease has been added to the mix. No, climate change is not directly responsible for Covid-19, but the widening of the metabolic rift, the destruction and further alienation of human society from its surrounding ecology, is bound to unleash all manner of pathogens for which the human immune system is wholly unprepared.
The city of late-late capitalism – of which LA is a prime example – plays a role less Promethean and more Lovecraftian: prone to release forces utterly indifferent to human life through its recklessness and myopia. But unlike Lovecraft’s vision, in which this calamity was summoned through the agency of the poor and racialised, it is the poor and racialised who bear the brunt of it, quite independent of, and often in opposition to, their own agency. Real-life disaster runs along the fault-lines of subjugation and dispossession. Each new shudder in Los Angeles, each broken dam and crumbling piece of infrastructure, uncovers another unresolved moment in Southern California’s annals of colonialism and revanchism.
This violence libidinally spills out of Los Angeles; its failures are easy fodder for screenwriters and directors. Some of the most iconic films remind us how royally we have screwed it all up. We have our misappropriation of water relayed back to us in Chinatown, our police corruption in Training Day, our destruction of world-class public transit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Then there are the more ominous examples: Blade Runner, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, an endless supply of punk songs, pulp novels, and deliciously schlocky B-movies. Hell, this is a city that not too long ago offered up the option of the Terminator as Governor. The state ate it up, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man best-known as the robotic emissary for Armageddon, ran it for eight years.
It’s not just that paradise and catastrophe exist side-by-side in this weird cluster of valleys. It is that one will frequently fill in for the other, creating the uncanny feeling that they are co-constitutive. Here’s Mike Davis in his Ecology of Fear:
No city, in fiction or film, has been more likely to figure as the icon of a really bad future (or present, for that matter). Post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, overrun by terminators, androids, and gangs, has become as much a cliché as [Philip] Marlowe’s mean streets or Gidget’s beach party. The decay of the city’s old glamor has been inverted by the entertainment industry into a new glamor of decay.
Davis’ use of the term ‘glamour’ is significant. As John Berger observed, glamour is indicative of a society that has started toward democracy but stopped halfway. The upshot of this is that glamour is not ‘merely’ a question of aesthetics but of ideology. Specifically the way in which it weaponises our own imaginations against us, foreclosing certain avenues and possibilities, enfeebling our ability to even think in terms of democracy. Furthermore, if LA’s role in the subjugation of immigrants, the poor and unhoused, or the generally unwanted is any indication, it would seem that the logic of ‘glamour’, ‘success’, the culture industry, however you wish to frame it, plays a far greater role in re-imagining the city as fortress.
The difference between now and the late 90s, when Davis first wrote his diagnosis of the city, is both quantitative and qualitative. The crisis has brought out neoliberalism’s authoritarian fangs. ‘Disaster capitalism’ no longer stalks in the background; it bears down on us, raising specters of dwindling resources and whole populations locked in and/or out. If Covid-19 has hit any point home, it is the inextricability of Los Angeles’ fate with the fate of other mega-cities. Can we think of LA’s fires without thinking flames bearing down on Sydney and Melbourne? Or our floods without images of a drowning Jakarta? If the subtitle of Davis’ excellent book was ‘Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster’, then most Angelenos no longer need to imagine quite so hard.
Sure, it feeds our macabre self-indulgence, our hunger for ruin porn. But there’s a problem. Namely that, at the end of it all, people fucking live here. Maybe we can’t afford to leave, or maybe it’s a perverse stubbornness that sees something tarnished but beautiful here (this author is both). Maybe it’s simply that we grew up here: it’s our home, we are used to it. But we are not, for the time being, by choice or otherwise, leaving.
We are also, counterintuitively, homesick. Whether we’ve bunkered in our apartment or have been saddled with the ignominious label of ‘essential worker’, our habitations of this bizarre, wonderful city have been cut off. Even the sites and locations traditionally swamped with tourists have been emptied, and it has been nothing if not eerie. As we’ve reemerged and attempted to re-occupy space, we haven’t always liked what has been waiting for us.
Most visions of LA leave out its restive populace, as if we are milling around the edifice rather than its ultimate creators. Even some radical versions of this city simply lump us into undynamic and undifferentiated hordes. In 1959, the Los Angeles branch of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) produced a pamphlet called ‘A Municipal Program for Los Angeles’.
Given the weight of McCarthyism, it’s impressive this pamphlet was published at all, let alone that it argued a radical vision for the city while it was being decisively transformed into a laboratory of post-war privatisation. The LA Communists had always been a heretical and rebellious lot, unorthodox in their approach, which explains how they could be the political home to such original thinkers as Angela Davis and Dorothy Healy.
Nine years prior to the pamphlet’s publication, a statewide referendum had put severe restrictions on the construction of public housing, and LA had voted for it by a wide margin. In the lead-up, newspapers had called the very notion of housing as a human right ‘a socialist plot’. The ‘red car’, a comprehensive system of public trolleys that connected the central city to the suburbs, had been torn up to make way for the exploding freeway system, both enforcing segregation and leading to the smog-choked skylines that would hang around for decades.
The CP pamphlet argued for the expansion of both public transit and affordable public housing. It also argued for comprehensive job and education programs, taxing the city’s rich, an end to systemic racism and for violent cops to be held accountable. Though overly-brief and simplistic, the pamphlet had as its end a reimagined Los Angeles in which the city’s culture could be democratically reshaped, and ‘to leave the tinsel and fairy-tales to Disneyland’.
All good, basic, social democratic demands. But how do these demands become substantive demands rather than words on a page suggested as demands? Whence do they become reality? What social force can make them so? And how would these demands find purchase in it?
The pamphlet ends with references to ‘a people’s coalition’ of labour and civil rights groups, but the Communist Party of 1959, then reeling from the Khrushchev revelations, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, had not had a sharp sense of how a class might coalesce for some time. The push and pull of constitution and re-constitution, the reach for the class to find coherence even as it is fractured and pushed to the interstitials of urban life; these had in practical terms become foreign to a thoroughly bureaucratised party.
What was missing was in fact dramatically expressed just six years later when the LA neighborhood of Watts exploded. What started as a spontaneous protest against the LAPD’s brutalisation of black motorist Marquette Frye in August of 1965 turned into a six-day uprising that included over thirty thousand residents – mostly black and poor – and did over $300 million in damages.
If programs like the Communist Party’s were meant to inspire a different, ostensibly de-commodified and de-carceralised vision of the city, then to sections of the New Left the uprising in Watts provided an example of how the actual movement of the urban subaltern might make such visions concrete. In the pages of internationale situationniste, the French situationists celebrated the uprising and argued it provided an example of how the city might be repurposed, pulled away from the dead time of capital and empire. Pointing out that rioters left most homes in Watts undisturbed in favor of looting businesses, the situationists likened the pilfering of consumer goods to Native American potlatch, dubbing such actions intrinsically anti-capitalist.
The situationists also, in opposition to wooden, static, old left conceptions of class and movement, saw in Watts the revolutionary potential of those outside the traditional categorisations of ‘the proletariat’. Frances Stracey, examining their characterisation of Watts, writes that they saw it as proof of the ‘proletarianisation of the world’. Taking a cue from the French Marxist group Socialisme ou Barbarie, the situationists saw anyone dispossessed in the urban commodity economy as proletarian, regardless of whether they could be considered workers.
The situationists may have been over-adjusting, perhaps even condescending, but not by much. Muddled into their grand theoretical sweeps was a notion much more thoroughly fleshed out by Lefebvre, Harvey, Neil Smith and Setha Lowe, as well as recent debates around social reproduction. If communists are preoccupied with who produces, then it is our responsibility to interrogate who produces and reproduces the city, integral as it is to the dominance of the value form. The modern working-class, writes David Harvey,
is characterised by insecurity, by episodic, temporary, and spatially diffuse employment, and is very difficult to organise on a workplace basis. But at this point in the history of those parts of the world characterised as advanced capitalism, the conventional factory proletariat has been radically diminished. So we now have a choice: mourn the passing of the possibility of revolution because that proletariat has disappeared, or change our conception of the proletariat to include the hordes of unorganised urbanisation producers … and explore their distinctive revolutionary capacities and powers.
We might say then that what is needed is a kind of synthesis between the Communist Party and situationist critiques of LA. In this framework, urban rebellion isn’t merely ‘symptomatic’. It is active and immanently transformational. Even the most spontaneous eruption illustrates the dynamic between commodity and carcerality. No white suburban enclaves without police repression, no Disneyland without Watts. Anyone concerned with a future for LA inevitably must imagine it in revolt, as we do Hong Kong, Beirut, Santiago, Port-au-Prince. The question then is where, between the city’s glittering edifice and the stolen Tongva land it sits on, this kind of explosion can be found.
The crowd and its moving parts
Since its opening in 2015, the Broad Museum has become a recognisable LA landmark. This is not necessarily a good thing. Yes, it is a free art museum in a city where most similar institutions charge an entrance fee, but the fee is sneakily taken elsewhere.
Inside, the works of Warhol, Koons and Lichtenstein hang inertly from the walls, but the outside is more memorable. Architecturally, the Broad fits perfectly in Downtown, which is to say it matches all the other buildings that pointedly refuse to match. Though it was designed to complement its Frank Gehry designed next door neighbor the Walt Disney Concert Hall, its bright white ‘honeycombed’ exterior and boxy shape create the impression of a world cordoning itself off. Like so many contemporary art museums, its pretense is of a world suspended above time, airily triumphant, and therefore clumsily authoritarian.
On 15 December 2018, that pretense is punctured: 50,000 red shirts, placards, and megaphones noisily bob on the streets around the museum. In a little less than a month, Los Angeles teachers will be on strike. They will hold mass rallies, picket every single school, and demonstrate in front of Mayor Garcetti’s home. Today, all 30,000 of them are marching, along with roughly 20,000 of their supporters. And they have surrounded the Broad because billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, he who funded and named the museum, is a major backer of school privatisation.
Broad has spent millions stacking LA’s school board with advocates of publicly-funded, privately-run ‘charter schools’. His museum, much like charters themselves, took millions of public funds to be built. Broad – both the museum and the man – represents the entanglement of what Nizan Shaked calls ‘the corporatisation of the art world’with the wider project of the revanchist city.
The teachers have been working without a contract for over a year in the nation’s second-largest school district. Superintendent Austin Beutner claims, in predictable fashion, that ‘the money isn’t there’ to give teachers a pay rise or preserve their healthcare, for smaller class sizes, to ensure that every school has a nurse and librarian.
The teachers’ union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, is also making broader demands of both the school district and the city. They are demanding an end to ‘random’searches of students for weapons and contraband, which in practice over-target Black and Muslim students. They also are demanding that Los Angeles make good on its promise as a ‘sanctuary city’ by setting up a defense fund for immigrant students and their families. Also, that more affordable housing be built in the district and that schools include more greenspace.
These city-wide demands have positioned LA teachers as a unifying force in the defense and transformation of the city. Disparate struggles are drawn together in support of the teachers, solidarised. Magally Miranda Alcazar argues that the teachers strike exemplified Massimiliano Tomba’s notion of ‘insurgent universality’, a universality springing organically from the collision of varied subaltern contingents.
‘My conversations with a dozen participants in the course of the strike underscored this point’, writes Alcazar. ‘The rallies, pickets, and home demos were a space of encounter between different sectors of the Angeleno working class’. On this march in December, alongside the red shirts, the UTLA placards and banners, there are immigrant rights organisations, socialist groups, tenant unions, feminist and anti-racist activists, radical arts collectives, workers centers. Truly a cross-section of LA’s left and working class, moving from their respective temporal experiences into multiversal convergence.
The LA teachers strike is the largest link in the chain of ‘red for ed’ rebellions in the US, a wave of protests and work-stoppages that has stretched through Chicago, Nashville, Denver, Oakland, and whole states like West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky, North Carolina. In each of these strikes, community members organised alongside teachers to fill in the gaps left in a community’s functionality. In West Virginia families met to assemble thousands of sack lunches so that kids don’t miss the meal they would otherwise get at school. In some cities, supporters raised tens of thousands of dollars to make sure teachers don’t fall behind on rent.
In Los Angeles, street vendors will offer free food to strikers. Fire fighters will drive their trucks to picket lines. People take the day off work to block scabs from entering schools. In the strike’s final days, teachers march from their own schools to one of LA’s many luxury hotels, where employees, represented by UNITE HERE, are also striking. In late January, after a week on strike, the city will cave to most of the teachers demands: a rise in pay, smaller class sizes, immigrant family defense funds, alternatives to random search of students.
This strike animates the city for a week, and the march in front of the Broad highlights its fault-lines. Mass gestures like these reverse the aestheticisation of politics, if only briefly, by dramatising the conflict between two opposing notions of how life in Los Angeles should be organised, and by whom. Insurgent universality vs. the aggrandising fortress. Space is rearranged, transformed, made more pliable and responsive, its future more an open question, no longer necessarily at the whim of those who would have it as their theme park.
Each of the threads tugged on by this strike challenge notions in themselves of how this city is used and arranged, the shape of our participation within it. Though they rarely achieve this kind of explosiveness, they nonetheless contribute key parts of an alternative telos.
Until 1915, El Sereno was known as Bairdstown. Only with the absorption of the independent municipality into Los Angeles did it become known as El Sereno. The most literal translation of the name is ‘serene place’, but the Spanish name was intended more as a tip of the hat to colonial Spain than to anything smacking of Mexico.
Racist housing covenants prohibited Chicanos and virtually anyone of Mexican descent from living in El Sereno. In 1938, ground broke in the construction of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, just a few miles away. By some estimates, this was the first modern highway in America, and certainly the first in Southern California, shortening the drive between Downtown LA and Pasadena. Residents of heavily Mexican neighbourhoods like East LA and Boyle Heights were displaced. Still, El Sereno remained, in practice, a whites-only zone.
In 1948, the landmark Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer finally declared redlining illegal. Today, El Sereno is almost 80 per cent Chicano or Latino. Like most neighbourhoods in LA, gentrification hovers over it, and the highways still play a role in displacement.
On 14 March 14 2020, two days before Newsom’s shelter-in-place order came down, two unhoused activists – Martha Escudero and Benito Flores – occupy two vacant homes in El Sereno. They are accompanied by friends and supporters, and Martha’s children. They carry flowers and signs that read ‘Housing is a human right’, ‘This house is a home’.
In the days following, a dozen empty houses will also be occupied by unhoused residents of LA. The action is dubbed ‘Reclaiming Our Homes’. Every house they occupy is owned by California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Caltrans bought more than 400 homes in El Sereno, Pasadena, and South Pasadena in anticipation of a proposed extension for the 710 Freeway. The six-mile tunnel would necessitate bulldozing all of them.
In 2017, thanks partially to the resistance of local residents, plans for the tunnel were finally scrapped. Caltrans, however, still owns the houses. About 160 of them are empty, in some cases entirely boarded up. Residents describe some of these neighbourhoods as ghost towns.
Talking with labour journalist Sarah Jaffe, Escudero says that Covid-19 was ‘the spark that lit everything up’. Covid-19 did not cause LA’s housing crisis. One could argue that it pulled back the veil, but even then, one would have to be oblivious to miss the tent cities and encampments that have grown in size and number over the past several years.
An estimated 60,000 people sleep rough in Los Angeles. A walk down Skid Row will reveal how bad the crisis has been. Here thousands of people sleep in tents, tarpaulin lean-tos, or just on the sidewalk. The gleaming skyscrapers of Downtown, some of which are still under construction, are visible from just about every curb. Before the pandemic Skid Row had no regular access to shower facilities, and irregular access to a single public bathroom. Residents were subject to frequent sweeps in which; under the guise of concern for public hygiene, sanitation workers and police officers will confiscate belongings, including sensitive documents, medications, and identification.
At the other end of this crisis is the cost of housing. For every unhoused person who has spent months or years on the street, there are hundreds over-burdened with rent, one paycheck away from being unable to keep their landlord at bay. Housing is the most contested political issue in California. In 2016, LA voters passed Measure HHH. The referendum mandated the construction of thousands of housing units to get 10,000 homeless people off the street. To date, not a single unit has been built. In the fall of 2018 a statewide referendum was held on Proposition 10, which would have lifted California’s ban on cities’ ability to impose rent control. It lost statewide but carried the day in Los Angeles.
In late 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill limiting annual rent increases to 5 per cent, part of what he calls his ‘Marshall Plan for affordable housing’. This is meaningful, a victory even, but also completely inadequate when more than half of all renters are ‘rent burdened’, meaning they pay more than a third of their income in rent. In her article ‘101 Notes on the LA Tenants Union’, organiser Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal argues that when ‘Newsom calls his plan for housing incentives a ‘Marshall Plan’,we shouldn’t ignore the Cold War–era anticommunism within the metaphor’.
To the Los Angeles Tenants Union, even phrases like ‘the housing crisis’ mystify the truth: that there is plenty of housing, but its use for profit prevents it from being filled by those most in need. In LATU’s view, the real crisis is of tenant rights. It is a subtle but powerful corrective. When we talk of gentrification ‘ruining neighborhoods’, what we mean is the rending of the social bonds that we associate with neighborhoods. Denying someone a home also denies them of the stability needed to form these bonds. Alienation, atomisation, and all the mistrust that accompanies them, follow.
In El Sereno, Reclaim Our Homes gains a large amount of local support. Escudero recounts to Jaffe conversations with her new neighbors who have long despaired the empty homes on their streets. ‘The neighbors tell me this is also a safety issue for them because they become drug houses. One, they were cooking meth, and it burnt down … So we’ve been seeing a lot of support from the neighbors. They say, “Thank you that there is a family here now”’.
The Reclaimers also gain support from across community and activist groups around LA. Members of Democratic Socialists of America’s Los Angeles chapter and LATU attend the small rallies in front of the reclaimed houses. UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl also attends. ‘We need to fundamentally reimagine our society’, he tells reporters. ‘We cannot have vacant, publicly owned houses without people living in them, when thousands of people are on the street.’
Caputo-Pearl’s words point to the contradiction of neoliberal public space. Or, more specifically, the ‘pseudo-public’,that which is ostensibly in public hands yet remains inaccessible. In practice, this makes the public domain an addendum to the privately-owned rather than its own distinct sphere.
An added contradiction is introduced when domestic space becomes a factor. The argument, always cruel and snide, is that the unhoused’s attempt to create domestic space is fundamentally a violation of the sacred division between public and private, ignoring that this line has already been blurred many times over. Sanitary and health conditions are always brought up, and in such a way that essentially equates the unhoused with disease itself. In the winter of 2018, a freak Typhus outbreak in Los Angeles was blamed, without any proof whatsoever, on the residents of Skid Row.
This precarious, liminal existence is, among many other factors, makes LA’s unhoused population uniquely vulnerable to police harassment, as well as the Covid-19. In this respect, the disappearance of genuine public space – space that is accessible to the public, which in various forms can meet both domestic and community needs, kept safe from private encroachment – constitutes a public health crisis. In the bourgeois mind, the virus is indistinguishable from the undesirable. When that’s the case, ‘taking care of the crisis’ can euphemistically mean many things.
In the days after California announced its lockdown, Garcetti places a moratorium on the sweeps of homeless encampments. He also, in conjunction with Newsom, rolls out ‘Project Roomkey’. On paper, it’s a worthy program: the state will pay for empty hotel rooms to house the unhoused. With close to a hundred thousand hotel rooms in LA County, and with tourism grinding to a halt, it should be easy to get all of LA’s homeless population into a safe, clean, comfortable place to live.
Months later, the state government has paid for 15,000 hotel rooms across California, enough to house maybe a tenth of the state’s unhoused population. Only half of those rooms are occupied. In LA, roughly 4,000 of the city’s 60,000 have a new roof over their head.
Jonny Coleman has been trying to stop the LA Olympics since they were announced in 2017. The name of the coalition he helped form makes this bluntly clear: NOlympics.
‘They’ve been selling LA’s future as being this vapor-textured, clean future with no poor people’, says Coleman. ‘That’s the literal visualisation they’re trying to sell, where they do these architectural mockups where they put fireworks in the sky above a stadium that doesn’t exist yet, and it’s all airbrushed.’
This vision looks to steamroll virtually every aspect of working-class life in LA. NOlympics has the endorsement of a wide and diverse collection of other groups. They range from LATU to the DSA, from Black Lives Matter to the Sunrise Movement, to Veterans for Peace, to the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party. There is also a notable presence of community-oriented groups campaigning against gentrification or for more neighborhood services: LA Community Action Network, KTown for All (based in Koreatown), Crenshaw Subway Coalition, Ground Game LA. NOlympics’ work has never been just about getting the Olympics out, but also supporting the autonomous struggles represented by these different groups.
‘The Olympics touch so many aspects of urban life. Our focus has always been how it impacts housing and homelessness, racism and policing. So it’s constantly a balancing act between supporting our coalition partners and our own long-term vision. Most of these groups have their own long-term vision as well, so they’re trying to do that same balancing act … Most of our messaging is around the Olympics but so much of the day-to-day work that a lot of people don’t see is across these lines.’
One of these coalition partners, Ground Game, has been particularly active in fighting to keep communities minimally maintained throughout the pandemic. Along with People Organised for Westside Renewal (POWER), Ground Game is a founding member of the Covid-19 Mutual Aid Network Los Angeles. Tim Hayes, a member of Ground Game since its inception in 2017, has been heavily involved in the Mutual Aid Network. As they tell me, the need for a network such as this was immediately apparent as LA locked down.
‘A lot of the folks who came to us at first were furloughed, had lost their jobs or had their hours cut dramatically. As things have moved on we’ve seen more people who are still employed but aren’t making enough money, or are incredibly food-insecure to begin with. We also had a lot of people reaching out to us on behalf of their community, saying their entire building might need help. Or they were living in a public housing building and knew fifty to a hundred people who needed access to food staples. We had a lot of folks who were severely immunocompromised and were housebound’.
Ground Game and NOlympics reflect how dramatic the growth of the LA left has been. Both were founded in 2017, the same year that DSA began to grow into a large, young, radically quarrelsome organisation of over 75,000. Coleman is also a member of DSA-LA, and says that the flourishing of socialist politics has helped NOlympics thrive. He also credits the arrival of LATU in 2015 and the initial wave of Black Lives Matter in laying the groundwork for NOlympics to embed itself in LA’s communities. Ground Game, for its part, emerged out of the left-wing city council campaign of founding member Jessica Salans.
The nature of LA’s crisis in social reproduction necessitates that groups like the Mutual Aid Network have as wide a reach as possible. At the same time, their inability to feed or house everyone who needs it calls into question whether mutual aid can be apolitical. Yes, the work of the Mutual Aid Network revolves around the distribution of aid, be that in the form of cash assistance or groceries, providing people with medical care and linking them with social services. It also disseminates information to recipients about what to do if they cannot pay rent. ‘DO NOT MOVE OUT’, the leaflet reads. ‘As a tenant, the biggest piece of leverage you have is that you are occupying your unit’. It also contains info regarding safely communicating with neighbors, forming what they call ‘neighborhood pods’, and reaching out to LATU if a rent strike is necessary and viable.
‘We’ve gotten to a point where we can’t meet a lot of the extreme needs’, says Hayes. ‘We’ve come to the conclusion that LA needs more social workers, we need more of a safety net. We’ve had to be very honest with ourselves about how much our volunteer operation can do … We made a decision very early on that if someone came to us asking for direct cash assistance because they wanted to pay the rent, that we would in fact encourage them to go on a rent strike. We would connect them with LATU or the Eviction Defense Network.’
This rhizomic model of organisation – close links of formal and informal cooperation, knowing when another group is better positioned to take on a specific struggle – is perhaps the LA left’s biggest strength. It is quite common, examining LA’s diverse left ecosystem, to see an overlap in membership. A DSA-LA member will also be an organiser in Ground Game, while another Ground Game member may be active in the LA Tenants Union, meanwhile LATU members may be collaborating with NOlympics’teacher members who are also members of UTLA where they will also involve Black Lives Matter or Street Watch, and so on and so on.
‘Our project has always been long-term’, says Coleman. ‘Because it’s not just about the Olympics, it’s about housing and gentrification and policing. And it’s about anti-capitalism, about sharpening people’s politics. That’s been a lot of my work since Covid. Some people have had a lot more time to do organising’.
The ethos of care, strong as it may be, is bound to encounter a wide gap in LA. It will need to grapple with its own disjuncture between intent and reality. Prefigurative politics can only be prefigurative if they are prepared to impose themselves in spaces where they don’t already figure.
For the past forty-five years most (though not all) of Los Angeles’ mayors have lived at Getty House. Built and later named for George Getty II, heir to the Getty oil fortune, the Tudor Revival home was granted to the city in 1975. Its large windows peer out over manicured hedges and wrought iron gates, gazing at the other homes in the tony Windsor Square neighborhood as if to say ‘you are all equally magnificent, but I am just magnificent’.
It’s about 2pm, and several cars are idling near the Getty House. Most have signs taped up in their window or on their doors: ‘On Rent Strike’, ‘Cancel the Rent’, ‘Fuck Garcetti’. It is 1 May. Calling May Day a ‘celebration’ in this plague year is inappropriate. Instead, it’s a day when people who can’t pay rent are demanding relief.
‘This was when we were still doing car protests because of social distancing’ says Jacob Woocher during a conversation in July. Woocher is a member of LATU, DSA, and People’s City Council, all of whom are supporting this action. ‘After Black Lives Matter we realised we were able to do it open-air and still be pretty safe. But the good thing about car protests is they’re fucking loud!’
At 3pm, the action starts. A few hundred cars begin circling the block at the Getty House, honking, chanting, blasting music at as high a volume as their blown-out stereo speakers will allow. In front of the mansion, a small, masked, socially distanced group of organisers stand with banners and bullhorns.
Just a few blocks away in Koreatown, the deprivation and hardscrabble are evident: tent encampments, overpriced and tiny apartments, landlords who refuse to do so much as buy residents a roach trap. A five-minute walk back to Windsor Square through the surrounding Hancock Park area would lead you to believe that LA’s golden age of film never ended. Many of the same houses that share the block with Getty House are recognised historic landmarks, built with the riches of philanthropists and film producers. The sprawling lawns, spacious driveways and meticulously preserved architectures are enough to make one feel that there is room at the top for anyone who wants it. But of course, this pretense only exists because those at the bottom are kept off-site.
‘LA is such a segregated city’, says Woocher. ‘It’s so easy for people who live here to completely forget about the fact that people are struggling to pay rent, who are at risk of eviction. We wanted to make it so that they can’t avoid it.’
Early on, around the time Garcetti and Newsom were talking up Project Roomkey, they also announced what would come to be referred to in the media as an eviction moratorium. It was anything but. Garcetti’s media savvy allowed him to spin it as such. ‘What it actually does is say you can go in front of a judge and prove to them that you’ve lost your income because of Covid-19. Let’s say that works, let’s say you can get a lawyer and that the judge says ‘yeah, okay your landlord has to let you stay’. Your landlord can still charge you rent! Which means after several months you’re going to owe that much rent to them. Then they can evict you’. Today’s protest is demanding much more than a hollow eviction moratorium, more than a rent freeze. They are demanding rent and mortgage payments be suspended for the duration of the pandemic.
Credit where credit is due: LATU know how to disrupt space, to make the neglected into something worth fighting for and to force that which floats above consequence back down to earth, at least for a bit. In 2018, 200-plus mostly Latino residents of the South Burlington Avenue apartments in Westlake, organised in LATU, carried out the largest rent strike in LA history. Though the buildings’ owners were able to carry out a small handful of evictions, after six months of non-payment they relented, rescinding their imposed rent hikes that had ranged anywhere from 25 to 40 per cent.
The East Second Street Tenants Association in Boyle Heights, also organised through LATU, held out for twelve months without paying. Their rallies included raucous and festive performances from mariachi musicians living in the building. The Exposition Tenants Association in south LA – again, LATU affiliated – struck in early 2018, and won, at one point literally bringing their demonstrations to the doorstep of their landlord’s sprawling home. They shouted that if there wasn’t room in their apartment building, then perhaps they and their families should move into his mansion. To the members of LATU, buildings, structures and architecture are not meant to dominate over people, but the other way around.
To the edge of the rift
The construction of the Arroyo Seco was an opening shot. The mid-twentieth century is dotted with moments in which the shape, feel, and meaning of this city were callously redefined. The breakneck construction of highways through the Greater LA area built a literal barrier isolating poor communities and people of color. In 1955, Disneyland opened in Anaheim. The park could only be built by first mowing down an orange grove, about as symbolic an act as you can get. The eviction of the Chavez Ravine’s final residents to put in Dodger Stadium came in 1959. In 1961, the final Red Car train was shut down.
Progress likes to believe it doesn’t leave a scar. Under capitalism it can’t help but do just that. Each time it tries to paper over trauma and danger it simply makes its environment more vulnerable to disaster. If you know where and how to look, you can easily find the places where Los Angeles is courting catastrophe, where the slumbering Old Gods are being poked with a stick.
Most psychogeographic inquiry shuns the automobile. The mandate for ludic spatial discovery cannot stand the idea of private transportation that cuts human beings off from one another. Los Angeles leaves you no choice. It dares you to attempt this discovery without the prism of the car, to stop, unlock your doors, get out and dwell with a place’s contours, human rhythms and histories.
Start at the La Brea Tar Pits. The park, the museum, the kitschy statues of Columbian mammoths; all serve to obscure the profound indifference in these pools of liquefied fossil. The pretense is that we, the visitors, are the culmination of a 10 to 20-million-year process, with ultimate control over it. Deep time as tourism.
The noxious smell of the pits reminds us otherwise. So do the pools of tar and natural gas that leak up through the sidewalks. It’s been known to happen, often with destructive consequences. In 1985, a Ross Dress for Less several blocks away from the pits exploded after pockets of methane collected in its basement. Nobody was killed, but twenty-three people were injured.
Keep driving, west on Wilshire, to the corner of Fairfax, to Johnie’s Coffee Shop. Built in 1956, it was named an Historic-Cultural Monument by the City of LA in 2013. Its colorful angularity is exemplary of ‘Googie’ style architecture, that sleek aesthetic which, in the middle of the century, anticipated the comfort and efficiency of the atomic age.
Now the style reads more raygun gothic, an abandoned future, the tomorrow that never came. No fewer than two Hollywood movies – Volcano and Miracle Mile – used the diner as the location where Angelenos learn of the city’s imminent demise. Other (better) films have also used it as a location: Reservoir Dogs, The Big Lebowski, American History X. In 2016 Johnie’s closed its doors, though its owners still rent it out for one-off events.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign took Johnie’s as its Los Angeles headquarters. Today, it is still occasionally used by left-wing groups as a meeting space. Black Lives Matter and Medicare 4 All signs hang in its window. One of its walls has been repainted as a mural of Sanders. Though the sign still says Johnie’s, the space is most commonly referred to as ‘Bernie’s Coffee Shop’.
Turn left on Fairfax, go south. Keep going south. Past the Santa Monica Freeway in Baldwin Hills, where Fairfax merges into La Cienega, you’ll notice one of the 550 nodding donkey oil pumps that dot the hilly landscape. There are oil fields all over Los Angeles – including in Beverly Hills and, not surprisingly, near the La Brea tar pits. What makes this one unique is that, while the pumps in Beverly Hills are hidden from residents’view in windowless buildings, those residing near the Inglewood Oil Fields can see them right out in the open. Air quality in this area is among the worst in LA County. Those living within a mile of the oil field are 50 per cent Black, 15 per cent Latino.
In 1963, the Baldwin Hills Dam collapsed. 250 million gallons of water rushed out of its reservoir. The flood killed six people and destroyed sixty-five homes. Investigations determined that the collapse of the dam was primarily caused by shifts in the ground brought on by the extraction of hundreds of millions of barrels of oil over the past four decades.
The disaster provoked Los Angeles city government to rethink how it stores its water. The dam was not rebuilt. Instead the reservoir was filled in, and a large recreational park was built on top of it. Though there is no longer any apparent risk of disaster from ground subsidence, there are two active geological faults just to the south. The oilfield’s current operator, Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP), has recently started hydraulic fracturing at the field’s southeast corner. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, PXP denies any connection whatsoever between fracking and fault movement.
Just to the south of the Inglewood Oil Field is Inglewood proper. An independent city, it is one of the most heavily Black regions in the Greater LA area, one of the few places where African-Americans coming west during the Great Migration weren’t redlined out of. It is also, due to its relatively cheap space, attractive to the tech boom. Plans to build a new arena for the Los Angeles Clippers are moving forward. SoFi Stadium also opened in the summer of 2020. The most expensive sports stadium in history, it is intended to be the home to both the Chargers and Rams American football teams. The opening and closing ceremonies of the 2028 Olympics are to be held here.
Speaking with NPR in 2019, Tiffany Wallace said that Inglewood ‘is being beautified, but it’s not being beautified for us’. Wallace, along with many others in the city, has been involved in the Lennox Inglewood Tenants Union, an affiliate of LATU. During an online teach-in held by LITU and NOlympics, Wallace said she notices that much of the fanfare going into the new stadium pointedly isn’t for the current residents of Inglewood:
The Rams, the Chargers, the Clippers – all the corporate sports teams that are trying to invade and displace in Inglewood – they don’t have that long of a history in Inglewood … I don’t think a lot of people are fans. And especially in Inglewood, I rarely see Rams merchandise, Chargers merchandise. I feel like people, first of all, don’t have a lot of money. The median income is between $30,000 and $40,000, and $40,000 is on the high end. So people aren’t really buying a lot of that stuff. And also I feel like people are somewhat aware that the Rams and Chargers and the stadiums are part of what’s kicking folks out of the community.
Members of LITU residing in the Inglewood Garden apartment complex – literally across the street from SoFi Stadium – describe familiar tactics from their landlords: refusal to make even basic repairs, putting holes in walls or floors that will remain for months, mold growing in wall-to-wall carpeting.
27 June 2020: members of LITU hold a rally in front of the apartment complex. It is small, maybe a hundred people. But it is also clear who belongs here. The working-class, mostly Black and brown folks in front of Inglewood Garden move and act like they know the place because they do. They would clearly be quite comfortable there if they were treated as human beings rather than just tenants. And if not for the hulking behemoth of steel and concrete right across the street from them. By contrast, SoFi Stadium looks less like a football stadium and more like what an overpaid architect thinks a football stadium looks like: garish and authoritarian. One wonders if it would be put to better use covering the oil fields to the north.
Keep driving, down the 110, through where Los Angeles city limits literally end on either side of the highway, past Compton, Gardena, Torrance and Carson. Arrive in San Pedro.
San Pedro should be its own city. Until 1909 it was, then it was absorbed into the spreading blob of LA. In comparison to much of the rest of the city, San Pedro is distinctly blue collar. The Phillips 66 oil refinery is just over in Wilmington; many of its workers live here. Even harder to miss is the Port of Los Angeles. The busiest port in the country, a full twenty per cent of all cargo arriving in the United States comes in through here, worth more than $275 billion.
Seeing these docks, taking in the massive cranes and stacks of shipping containers, will require a trip down Harry Bridges Boulevard, named so for the Australian-born longshoreman and Communist Party member who helped found the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. To this day the ILWU is one of the most militant and left-wing in the country.
You arrive at Point Fermin Park, close the southernmost point in the city of Los Angeles, gazing out in the direction of Antarctica with nothing but vast ocean staring back, and a steep cliff between you and it. Just west of the park on Paseo Del Mar, in January of 1929, the ground under a row of well-appointed cliffside bungalows began to crumble. Gas and water mains ruptured, engineers noted that houses had sunk by several inches in a matter of months.
It was a slow decline, but noticeable. Which must have made it feel all the more inevitable. Over the course of several months as many of the homes were moved as was possible. Ultimately the city wasn’t able to save a handful. These ended up breaking apart and plunging down into the rocks.
Now all that’s left of this stretch of Paseo Del Mar is a steep drop-off leading to large slabs of cement jutting out of the dirt. It’s fenced off, and illegal to enter, but locals are happy to point out weak parts of the fence and give you safety advice (there have been in recent years several cases of visitors falling and killing themselves). Even in open daylight, people are walking their dogs, reading and sunbathing on the ruins. Vibrant graffiti covers the slabs, and it is not uncommon to see kids hopping the fence, six-pack in one hand, Bluetooth speaker in the other.
The Sunken City is just one example of what waits for Los Angeles on the other end of disaster, and a mild one at that. Some might say between this and so many other threats, there should have never been a city here in the first place. As if the chapparal quakes at the very thought of maintaining this massive metropolis. It’s not without merit. But it is also true, as the Sunken City also shows, that where there is disaster there can also be re-appropriation, reinvention, fun without permission.
After the flood, the kaleidoscope
Bracketing all of this is the matter of race and incarceration. ‘Worldwide today, wherever inequality is deepest’, write Craig and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, ‘the use of prisons as a catchall solution to social problems prevails – nowhere as extensively as in the United States, led by California where, in turn, Los Angeles dominates.’
This is, after all, where the SWAT team was born – in the aftermath of Watts no less – whose first assignment was to raid the South LA offices of the Black Panthers in 1969. The militarisation in the run-up to the ’84 Olympics and has continued apace since found its roots somewhere. And as the millennium closed, the boom in American incarceration found its hub in California. Through the 1980s and 90s, the state built and opened, on average, one prison a year.
More recently, this construction has slowed and the prison population has declined. Prison abolitionists need not rejoice, though. This shrinkage is due less to a shift in priorities than in how those priorities are followed through. In the wake of the ’92 rebellions, the LAPD faced a severe crisis of legitimacy, particularly after the resignation of its racist chief Daryl Gates one month after the uprising’s end. As the Gilmores illustrate, the LAPD attempted to counter this with a devolution of policing powers. The logic of punition and carcerality have been disseminated into the operation of city and county government. As privatised Los Angeles has increasingly dispossessed its residents – particularly those of color – organised abandonment is replaced by organised violence.
What this looks like can vary. It may be carrot-and-stick social welfare programs that chain the continued availability of what little public housing there is in LA to the willingness to cooperate with police. It might be drug-testing for new hires with criminal records, despite the legalisation of cannabis in 2014. Or it might be the stories we’ve already encountered: prisoners fighting fires, teachers strong-armed into shaking down students, cops playing ‘my hands are tied’ while city employees evict homeless residents.
Turn the whole city into a metaphorical fortress, and it’s only a matter of time before literal fortresses spring up in its midst. In the fall of 2019, Donald Trump came to LA to lambaste liberal indulgence of the homeless. Trump claimed that homelessness harmed the ‘prestige’ of California, right before cutting almost $10 billion from the budget of Housing and Urban Development. He announced plans for a crackdown which would round up the homeless and take to ‘government backed facilities’. During the visit, Trump’s team toured an abandoned Federal Airline Administration building to see if it might be a good fit for such a facility. Months later, Trump returned to LA to meet with officials for the 2028 Olympics. He urged/threatened the city to ‘clean up fast’, and quickly followed up: ‘If they can’t do it themselves … The federal government is going to take it over, we’re going to do it’.
27 May 2020. Over the past two days, mass, militant demonstrations spurred by the police murder of George Floyd have sprung up in city after city, from New York to Louisville to Sacramento. With images of a burning Minneapolis police station populating our newsfeeds, you can sense the anxiety of LA’s establishment, and its police force. Echoes of ’92, of Watts, are easy to hear.
Today, several hundred demonstrators, called into the streets by Black Lives Matter-LA, swarm into Downtown. They march around the Civic Center, and, at around 6pm, take the 101 Freeway. Traffic stops. California Highway Patrol vehicles drive through the crowd recklessly. One protester is sent to the hospital. Demonstrators march back to Downtown and the Hall of Justice.
No arrests are made. But already the vilification has started. Assistant Chief Robert Arcos tells the Times that he’s ‘concerned’, that the protesters ‘have exhibited a significant degree of violence’. With that, violence is defined as something that can be wielded against not just people but property. These kinds of accusations, manipulative as they are, will fly around freely in the weeks to come.
When the Black working class moves in America, earthquakes happen. The reasons are woven into the fabric of the United States by unreckoned histories of slavery, of Jim Crows old and new, of a political and cultural landscape impossible without the reduction of Black human beings to chattel. To criticise a movement for Black lives for property destruction, to deny its legitimacy based on that alone, is to affirm, unwittingly or otherwise, that those same lives are still effectively property. A landscape based on such systematic subjugation deserves to be smashed and reshaped.
Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles has always known this, always recognised that spaces reliant on racism need to have their sanctity popped. Given the role that highways in Los Angeles and elsewhere have played in enforcing isolation and segregation, the disruption of the 101 is both symbolic and practical. In a sense, it exposes the necropolitics undergirding these structures so essential to LA’s maintenance.
30 May 2020. A Saturday. The march today is touching off from Pan Pacific Park. Perched on the southern edge of the Fairfax District, it directly abuts the famed Grove shopping center. Other high-end shops and boutiques are peppered throughout the district, and the average price of a home around the area is $2 million. Beverly Hills is not far. Dr. Melina Abdullah, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles and founding member of BLM-LA will later tell LAist that the choice of venue is ‘very deliberate’.
‘Going to Pan-Pacific Park was absolutely about letting white folks who are from more affluent backgrounds understand or get a little glimpse of what we experience as black people every day’, says Abdullah. ‘White folks who are from affluent backgrounds aren’t going to experience that, but at least they can experience the frustration of not being able to make it through traffic. And so those are the kinds of things that we try to do when we go to affluent spaces that way.’
There is a remarkable sense of fearlessness, as well as mutual support. Entering the park, several tables are set up by high school students and community groups. Some handout free food and water. Others are handing out masks, while still others give away bottles of water and baking soda, for use in case of tear gas. At the baseball field, people climb the cage at home plate to listen to the speeches and hold up signs. There are now two police choppers overhead, as well as a small drone buzzing around, ten or twenty feet above our heads, adding to that hackneyed and tiresome feeling of cyberpunk police state.
On Friday, Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd, was arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers who stood by and watched are still free. It is an attempt to placate, to convince protesters that they have won and therefore consent to the ‘bad apples’ thesis of police brutality. It does not work.
‘We have a right to our rage’, Abdullah tells the crowd at the park. ‘We have a right to our rage and them arresting one officer and then saying that’s justice, that shit doesn’t settle well with me. And it’s about those four officers who killed George but it’s about all these officers including the ones who are standing in our midst.’
By the count of BLM-LA, police have killed more than 600 people during the tenure of Jackie Lacey. Lacey, the first Black district attorney in the history of Los Angeles and the first Democrat elected to the post in twenty years, has yet to prosecute a single cop. She has repeatedly promised to meet with BLM and the families of victims, but has yet to make good on that promise. Over the past few years, BLM has escalated its visible tactics against Lacey. They have held weekly vigils outside the city’s Hall of Justice and crashed fundraisers for Lacey. They have even showed up at her house, the day before elections in March, only to be greeted by Lacey’s husband pointing a gun in their faces.
Speeches wrap at 1pm, and the march starts. By now the crowd is probably 20,000 strong. We flood third street, just south of the park, and head west. Protesters break out spray-paint and start tagging street signs, shopping centers, luxury condos. Even buses and postal vans are tagged as their drivers lean out the window to show support, willfully looking the other way as their vehicles are scrawled with slogans. ‘RIP George Floyd’, ‘I can’t breathe’, ‘ACAB’, ‘Fuck the police’.Considering how often youths of color are targeted by police for being caught drawing graffiti – from Michael Stewart to Israel Hernandez – this is significant. It is being done in broad daylight, and can only be interpreted as an act of extreme defiance.
The march stops at the corner of third and La Cienega. Here is the Beverly Center, an upscale shopping mall with stores for Fendi, Prada, Gucci, and other expensive brands. The crowd takes and knee, and shouts in unison, ‘I can’t breathe!’
The demonstration goes north on La Cienega. Chanting continues. So does tagging. After turning east onto Beverly Boulevard, there is a noted shift in the crowd’s mood. Word starts to travel that police officers are firing rubber bullets at a crowd of demonstrators with their hands in the air back at third and Fairfax. A few minutes later, an unmarked police car drives through a crowd of people taking a knee. The cops have officially gone on the offensive.
The march splits. Billows of smoke become visible. Windows are busted along the high-end shopping district. Same at the Beverly Center and the Grove. Tear gas is launched at crowds of demonstrators, with some hurling the canisters back at the police lines. The cops have definitively lost control of the situation. They retreat strategically, ceding Fairfax to the demonstrators, piling into a few dozen squad cars and taking off in the direction of Beverly Hills. The largest remaining contingent of the march – still several thousand strong – is marching on Rodeo Drive, chanting ‘eat the rich’.
Later that evening, Garcetti imposes an 8pm curfew. He announces the closure of all public Covid-19 testing facilities through the weekend. On Monday, Los Angeles County does the same. Official excuses are concerns for public safety and the like, but it is hard to see it as anything other than punishment, particularly given the disparity in cases among Black and brown communities. Similarly, curfew notices are sent out with little warning, with public transport shutting down immediately, leaving many people – again, disproportionately people of color – stranded.
Sometimes, the metabolic rift can be beautiful. Come mid-March 2019, as the rain dissipated and Los Angeles began to finally dry out, the city watched another flood of nature pass through its limits: a kaleidoscope of more than one billion orange and black butterflies.
They were impossible to miss. Notice one and you notice another five, then twenty, then a hundred, then simply stand agape as they fluttered through a courtyard, by a warehouse, over an unhoused encampment, under a mammoth highway.
A common mistake is to recognise these as monarch butterflies. In fact the monarch population in California, like that of other insects around the world, has been falling sharply, part of the Anthropocenic mass species die-off. These are painted lady butterflies. Like the monarch, they find their way from Mexico to Oregon in their yearly migration. In 2019 they were overwhelmingly numerous for the same reason behind worries for the ARkStorm. ‘The more plants, the more butterflies’,says UC Davis ecologist Art Shapiro. ‘So any year you have a real big bloom in the desert is potentially a big year for painted ladies’.
Calling these March moments ‘childlike’ would be insulting. They are, to the contrary, moments when one is acutely aware of their mortality in sublime form. The tyrannical permanence of disposable shiny objects in Los Angeles is overcome, swirled in an experience that is as gentle as it is ineffable, brought by a lifeform that, within a few months, will be part of the soil. Time restarts.
From the top, painted ladies look similar to monarchs: orange wings with bands of black running through them. But from below, they look more like moths: gray and brown, with muddy, eye-like dots peering out. Depending on which angle you look at them from, they capture either beauty or ugliness, depending on what one considers beautiful or ugly. Both exist in each butterfly and sprawl through the Los Angeles air, as if to remind the city of its chances and contingencies.
It is marvelous to see something so ecologically fragile that refuses to be contained or corralled. How can any border or fence, any police dragnet or gated community, keep something like this in place? They can’t of course. Worth remembering in a city that was on Mexican land just over 150 years ago. Little wonder too that the butterfly so frequently shows up in the iconography of the migrant rights movement.
When it comes to the imaginary of the city, boundaries crossed are the most literal metaphor. They are where its lines and angles begin to blur, giving way to different possible arrangements of space and time. To march, occupy, strike, is to refuse a place’s intended temporality and spatiality, to show how it could correspond to fundamentally different rhythms and uses. It is where, in the act of imagining, the imagined becomes real.
Los Angeles is dotted with these kinds of collective attempts. In some cases, a space’s inhabitants have been forced to transform their surroundings in order to protect them, to more firmly claim them as their own, or to simply survive: the communities that have reached out to the Mutual Aid Network, the homes of El Sereno. In others, it has been the forceful invasion of spaces either deliberately designed to preserve the peace of the middle and upper classes (Getty House, Beverly Hills) or to communicate its dominance (Highway 101). Finally, in the case of teachers swarming the Broad, the floating pomp of ruling-class charity is brought back down to earth, the dispossession it covers exposed for what it is. In each instance, even the most authoritarian space can be made into heterotopia, into spaces of difference and dynamism.
The Black Lives Matter uprising changes everything, the glamor of LA proven deceptively flimsy. At a march through Hollywood on 14 June, streets that had been virtually deserted for the previous two months were now packed with upwards of 40,000 people. Cars painted with slogans roll along at the pace of the march. Some blast music so loud you can feel the ground shake as you walk by. Others have a whole bucket-drum corps sitting on the roof or boot. Along the march route, artists have brought paint and brushes, transforming the plywood used to board up chain businesses into murals of Black struggle. The impulse to remake, to recreate, to re-sculpt the city in something closer to our actual image, is there. Despite decades of repression, it is there. Despite the bleakness of global disaster, it persists.
In June, Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles goes public with what it calls ‘The People’s Budget’, which swiftly gains the backing of virtually every left group in LA. The budget’s first demand is to dramatically reduce funding for the LAPD. Garcetti’s budget allocates a whopping 54 per cent to cops and incarceration. The People’s Budget cuts it down to just over 1.5 per cent.
The budget recognises that in order to decarceralise, it must also decommodify. Funds that once went to the police would now go into rent and mortgage relief, programs to help the unhoused find housing, a city-wide healthcare program, as well as expanded public transportation, libraries and parks. It is a simple, solid, social democratic vision for the city, one that sits nicely in relation to other radical reforms like the Green New Deal and Medicare 4 All. What allows the People’s Budget to take on added political heft isn’t just Covid-19, but the presence of a real movement, the largest urban uprising since Rodney King.
In the months that follow, the protests are not as large as they were. The memory of May and June still sticks in people’s minds, even as it now sits alongside returning threats, news of armed reactionaries and white supremacists attacking demonstrations. In Seattle, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone falters and is shut down by the city. In Portland, Trump has sent federal police to round up protesters, preventing them from committing the egregious crime of defacing a public building. Attempts to reshape the city are, quite clearly, a threat.
In July, Garcetti and Newsom’s paltry eviction protections are lifted, presaging what many people are already calling ‘a tidal wave of evictions’. Around the same time, sweeps of homeless encampments restart.
‘With this wave of evictions coming, it’s mainstreaming – for lack of a better word – the intersection between evictions and housing and homelessness and race, and immigration too’, says Jonny Coleman of NOlympics. ‘It’s all one song, it’s just all collapsing into one mega-narrative. So who’s going to tell the story, who’s going to make things move into the long-term, who’s going to make things change at all? What’s going to happen in six months when people’s unemployment benefits are gone?’
Coleman says that both the pandemic and the uprising for Black lives have both brought new people to NOlympics. ‘Some of these people who have joined us since Covid-19 … They’re already teaching the new waves of people, post-George Floyd. And there are still new people coming. People are basically self-radicalising now.’
Tim Hayes, of Ground Game and the Mutual Aid Network, sees something similar:
With Black Lives Matter, Los Angeles, as a very segregated city, suddenly erupted in a form of protest that people weren’t used to. It had a narrative pick up that people weren’t really ready for as far as the powers that be. It hasn’t changed too much in terms of how we’re operating in the Mutual Aid Network. But it’s definitely given us a sense that we’re at a very specific moment in time, and the work we’re doing is very necessary. A lot of the volunteers I’ve worked with in the inventory office, and that I’ve trained to provide food aid, I now see out at protests running snack carts, and making a bigger point of the fact that this is a solidarity network. We’re supporting each other.
How all of this plays out, given such an erratic landscape, is unknowable. It seems clear that LA will continue to sashay from one catastrophe to the next. How quickly things deteriorate is down to a number of factors. But the other unknown is down to the left, the moving movement, the new infrastructures of dissent, and the upsurges that have upended people’s sense of the possible.
As the summer comes to an end, wildfire season returns. It is once again the worst in California’s history, with over a million acres destroyed in a matter of weeks. By autumn’s end, it will be four million. The worst is once again in the north of the state, where thousand-year-old redwoods go up like Roman candles and red skies bear down on San Francisco Bay. In Los Angeles, they turn a sickly yellow-gray, smothering the city. The air is so polluted you can taste it.
8 November 2020: Joe Biden is declared the winner of the presidential election. The protests and celebrations in LA provide something of a catharsis. The first rain of the autumn is that day. When the skies clear, many in the Hollywood area report a double-rainbow, the kind of plot point that would get you laughed out of any serious screenwriting class.
There is endless contradiction in the many of the celebrations, particularly in the more thoroughly gentrified and hipster-fied areas like Silverlake. A few BLM placards share the swirl with American flags and Biden-Harris signs held out of honking cars.
Even among many who attend the protest that marched through Downtown, there are plenty of contradictions that the LA left will have to grapple with. Originally organised for the eventuality of Trump’s attempt to undermine the election, the coalition of groups includes DSA, BLM, several of the more left-wing unions including healthcare workers and UTLA, housing rights groups. There are a smattering of Biden-Harris signs and Extinction Rebellion banners bobbing through a crowd of more radical homemade placards demanding defunding of police and calls to empty the detention camps on the US border.
There is also an added celebratory boost given that Jackie Lacey, the DA who has yet to prosecute a single killer cop, has lost her bid for reelection. What’s more, Nithya Raman, a DSA member and housing advocate from Silverlake, has beaten incumbent David Ryu for a city council seat. She is the first socialist elected to LA city council in more than seventy-five years.
Still, in the midst of celebration, desperation remains palpable. There is slim belief in the Downtown march that Biden will deliver on much of anything. With congress split and Biden’s own history of centrism and corporate fealty, and with Trump’s base embattled and brazen as ever, the breathing room we are offered is tight. America has bared its teeth for all to see. This is not an impulse you can stuff back in its cage so easily.
The fact that California and other western states have fared better through the time of Covid-19 makes it a prime resource for a centrism giving itself a technocratic makeover. Kamala Harris, a Senator who made a name for herself by sending the parents of truants to jail in San Francisco, personifies the downward redistribution of the carceral state into other areas of life. As Vice President, she brings this flair for California-style carcerality to the White House.
There is also talk that LA Mayor Eric Garcetti is in talks to join Joe Biden’s cabinet as Secretary of Transportation. It makes sense; Garcetti represents a showier and more flamboyant version of Biden-esque DNC operator mode, though it is equally cynical and void of substance. Both of their plans for taking on climate catastrophe push full decarbonisation to at least a decade after the IPCC threshold. Though public transport has improved over the past decade, the area remains still quite car-bound.
In Los Angeles and nationally, the left is larger than it has been for some time. In Los Angeles it has become stronger, has proven itself willing and more than able to disrupt a city’s flow. The realisation of apocalypse, the way it unveils truths and forces greater than we could have previously imagined, works in more way than one.
The day of the march in LA, the day Biden declares victory, is the fourth day in a row of over a hundred thousand new Covid-19 cases nationwide. For the second day in a row, over 1,000 patients die across the country. New and effective vaccines are starting to emerge, but with several months until it is effectively distributed, LA County braces for the impact of a vicious third wave.
It is coming, along with more fires and floods. The dams still haven’t been fixed, and the summers are getting hotter. The border is everywhere, and it’s crossing all of us. If there is hope, it lies in the kaleidoscope.
Alexander Billet is a writer of prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, based in Los Angeles. He is a member of the Locust Arts & Letters Collective, helps edit its publication Locust Review, and is a co-host of its podcast Locust Radio. He also writes regularly on music for Jacobin, and was a 2020 Fellow at the Los Angeles Review of Books Publishing Workshop. He blogs at alexander billet.com.