Freelance + Grad School Clips

We were pretty fortunate at USC's Annenberg school to work with professors who had an actual interest in seeing us succeed in the real world. I had incredible support from Gabriel Kahn, Alan Mittelstaedt, and Marc Cooper. Gabe was my business reporting professor, and it was in his class that I reported out two stories that wound up in the Los Angeles Times (huge for a journalist still in school), and contributed to a project on Marketplace.org leading up to President Barack Obama's second inauguration. Alan and Marc taught me not to waste my time on stories that wouldn't be published—and gave me a platform to get the stories I did write out into the world, wrapping me into the Neon Tommy family. I was editor-in-chief my second year in grad school, and I can't imagine my Annenberg experience without it. I also completed an editorial internship with Los Angeles magazine during the spring of my second year—you can check out some of the blogs and small features I contributed here.


Farmers Turn to Drip-Tape Irrigation to Save Water

Published May 30, 2013, in the Los Angeles Times

RIVERDALE, Calif. — Last year, the federal government gave farmer Dan Errotabere half of the water it had awarded him the previous year to cultivate his 5,200 acres. But he still managed to reap a yield as much as 25% higher.

"I've got to do more with less," said Errotabere, 57, who grows cotton, tomatoes, almonds and pistachios among other crops on his family's ranch in the Central Valley northwest of Visalia.

His trick? The increasingly popular drip-tape method of irrigation, which pumps water directly to a plant's roots.

Drip tape, an industrial-strength version of the garden drip hose, is the latest device farmers statewide are using to boost production in the face of ever-dwindling water supplies. And it just might help the industry stay afloat.

"I personally don't think it's feasible to do without tape now," Errotabere said. "Setting aside the water savings, we just do better growing crops with drip."

Years of drought-mandated rationing have left farmers frustrated with unreliable allotments of scarce water resources each year, threatening the state's $43.5-billion agricultural industry. And with the state in a moderate to severe drought for the last 15 months, they aren't likely to see matters easing soon.

That has forced growers to embrace a series of water-saving measures.

Some plant more fruit and nut trees and other crops that require less irrigation than cotton, grapes and rice. They also refill groundwater reserves during wet years to carry them through the dry ones. Some are experimenting with genetically altering crops so that they sweat less, diminishing overall water loss from planting to plucking.

And some simply let land go fallow, one of the decisions in dealing with the complicated dynamics of limited resources, said Sarge Green, a program director for the California Water Institute research center at Cal State Fresno.

"In the competition for water, if you want to expand the water supply for the environment and drinking water, you have to take land out of agricultural production to get it," he said.

But drip tape, now used to water about a third of the state's 9.4 million acres of irrigated crop land, holds the promise of growing more crops with less water. Green, for one, said he is encouraged by the trend toward more efficient use of water.

Other states have taken note. The turf grass industry in Georgia uses drip tape to keep lawns lush for buyers. Growers use it in Kentucky for their tobacco crop, in New Mexico for peppers and in Washington for onions.

Each year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the nation's biggest wholesaler of water, dictates how much water growers in each district will get for crops. Last year, for instance, growers in the Central Valley Project received 40% of the water they had requested, a sizable drop from the previous year's 80%.

Gayle Holman of the Westlands Water District, which provides water in western Fresno and Kings counties, said some areas in the Central Valley are still recovering from 2009. That year, federal authorities limited water delivery to just 10% of the amount requested.

"Water for us is not just water," Holman said. "It produces food, but it also produces jobs."

The city of Mendota, population 11,000, saw jobs dry up with the land as unemployment spiraled as high as 40%, according to the state's Employment Development Department.

Job growth, Holman said, will occur only when farmers can find new ways to save water.

For a rising number of farmers, the most efficient way to save water is through the use of drip tape, created in the 1960s by Richard Chapin. The founder of Chapin Watermatics Inc. in Watertown, N.Y., intended his "dew hose" for greenhouses.

In the drip-tape system that evolved for farming, water is pushed through thick plastic tubes to a series of thin, flat, pliable hoses with holes in them — the drip tape — that is either buried by the crops or laid on the ground over the roots.

Drip tape solved several water problems in fields and rows.

Mainly, it eliminated wasted water and uneven irrigation that typically occurs with the primary method: flooding. In flooding, water is allowed to creep along the surface or through dug-out furrows on a slope until an irrigator — usually one for each field — manually shuts off valves. Often, crops at the top of the row got more water than those down the line.

"Sometimes a good irrigator got it pretty close," Errotabere said. "Others, in the morning — big pond of water."

In the case of fruit and nut trees, flooding could harm crops. Over-saturation carried the risk of rotting the roots and killing the plants.

Errotabere watched his neighbors install drip-tape systems, but at $1,500 an acre, the installation price was too high for him. When it came down to about $500 an acre, he took the leap.

Now, he said: "There's no runoff on the drip system that we used to see.… We minimize the impact of the shortages that come along."

Errotabere saves water — 20% to 40%, he estimated — by dripping it directly over the roots and avoiding evaporation.

The new system practically runs itself, once the heavy work is done. Thick hoses are laid flat at the end of several rows, then plugged into narrower strips of drip tape that trail down each row, buried or laid on top. Then, booster pumps push water through the network from two to eight hours a day, depending on crop and soil conditions.

Errotabere and his foremen control the process through electrical boxes installed in the corner of each field. They monitor the entire operation using an iPad app, which lets them browse through data gathered by thermometers and global positioning system satellites.

There are some challenges. Smaller operations may not be able to afford the installation, and gnawing critters such as gophers and coyotes can undo hours of labor with a single bite.

Still, drip tape remains appealing for farmers headed into another tough year. On Feb. 26, Errotabere and his fellow Central Valley growers learned they would get about 25% of their requested water deliveries for the year.

That could mean trouble for Errotabere's crops that require more water, especially his acres of Pima cotton. Already he's had to let 500 acres of cotton go fallow.

Though drip tape has helped farmers conserve water while boosting their yields, it's not a given that harvests will continue to grow. Drip tape can't do much if paltry allotments don't provide enough water.

For Errotabere and his farming neighbors, the communal pressure to maintain crop quality despite bureaucratic and environmental challenges is immense.

Growers are sympathetic to the needs of the state to use water elsewhere, but they said they don't have much left to give.

"We can't do anything more for conservation," Errotabere said. "We're dancing as fast as we can — that's it."


Kevin Lives on our Couch: 'Aged out' of Foster Care, L.A. Teens Are Put on the Street, Expected to Be Instant Adults

Published January 31, 2013, in L.A. Weekly

John and Linda Campbell couldn't have known they'd be taking on another mouth to feed when the phone rang one night last August. On the other end of the line, the Whittier couple's 20-year-old son, Patrick, had a favor to ask: "I'm worried about Kevin. Can he come stay with us for a couple days?"

It had been a year since they'd met Kevin over dinner, the very weekend he'd been released from Los Angeles County's foster care system. He was hard to forget: well spoken, polite and large for his age, with small, dark eyes hiding beneath thick brows and a wispy mustache hovering above his upper lip. Besides offhand updates from their mop-haired son, they didn't hear from Kevin again — until the night he became part of their family.

The lease on his first-ever apartment was up, and Kevin was about to join thousands of other kids whom California "ages out" at the age of 18, shifting them from foster homes almost directly to the streets. After three years of harrowing moments in mostly unstable foster homes, Kevin had nowhere to go.

The Campbells had spent the evening at Whittier High School to see their youngest, 17-year-old Sarah, in her school's production of West Side Story. "We came back from the production and I went to meet Kevin at 11:30 at night with boxes and suitcases," Linda Campbell remembers. "Clothes, a handful of books, his computer — things that were really precious to him."

Kevin's mother abandoned him when he was 15. He landed in juvenile hall after police broke up a fight between them and, while inside, he actually asked to be taken into foster care.

Homelessness is widespread among these young people once they turn 18. Studies place the number between 11 percent and 36 percent, depending in part on the number of months since they "aged out" of the system — forced out of foster care.

Kevin is luckier than most kids trapped in the unnerving world of living without a responsible mother or father. In L.A. County, 1,500 teenagers are pushed out annually; 20 percent are arrested or incarcerated within one year. Yet among U.S. teens in general, the Urban Institute's 2009 survey shows, only 6 percent are ever arrested.

A smart young man with a knack for self-deprecation, who reads histories of Harvard Medical School for fun and plans to someday enroll in UCLA's medical researcher program, Kevin actually is on a much better path than his peers. Fewer than 1 percent of former foster kids will graduate from college — a devastating number. In stark contrast, as Pew Research Center reports, 33 percent of young Americans 25 to 29 today hold a bachelor's degree or better.

But even bright kids like Kevin can be derailed. The Campbells took it upon themselves to see their son's friend through to his dreams.

Both are teachers — John a substitute at schools around Whittier, Linda a resource specialist at La Mirada Heights Christian schools. The Campbells are used to the chaos of classrooms and the revolving door of their home as friends of Patrick, Sarah and Danny, their oldest, pass through.

But they weren't altogether prepared for the difficulties of getting a foster kid on his feet after the trauma that strikes when they turn 18, a time that federal and local governments euphemistically call "emancipation."

An above-average student, Kevin stopped going to classes at Rio Hondo Community College after leaving foster care, failing several of them and losing his financial aid. He'd stopped showing up to work at a plastics factory 15 miles away, a trek he usually made by bike. Broke, his apartment was next to go. It was the final blow in a year that included getting dumped by his girlfriend, frequent visits to the hospital for gallstones and watching a friend succumb to suicide.

His friends Patrick and Cat tried to make sure he spent what little money he had on groceries instead of cigarettes or booze. Kevin applied to about 10 assistance programs, "But then nothing came about," Linda Campbell says.

"We've made a generation of throwaway kids," she sighs. "We just felt like, Kevin is brilliant, and whatever his story was, we weren't going to be the ones to throw him into the street."

Although Kevin is aged out of foster care, he still receives some support from the county's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). He has a TAP card — a countywide transit pass — and he's supposed to have an assigned "transitional" worker. However, the Campbells haven't been able to reach that worker.

California lawmakers have tried to make emancipation less jarring via Assembly Bill 12, which provides welfare help such as CalWORKs and Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) to foster kids beyond age 18, as well as payments to some of their guardians.

Harvey Kawasaki, division chief of youth development services at DCFS, asks: "How many 18-year-olds do any of us know who could truly be on their own?"

If Kevin applies for aid and goes back into the system, he will be given a new social worker, regain court supervision of his case and receive around $800 for rent each month, Kawasaki says.

A week or so into their new arrangement, John Campbell confronted Kevin — why wouldn't he try to get all that help? "He'd just had enough, I think," John says.

The Campbells soon found that Los Angeles, with all its riches, has few places for those fresh out of foster care. The Salvation Army was booked. Bridge of Faith in Whittier, run by a former foster child, houses only women. Dream Center in L.A. wasn't prepared to take aged-out foster kids.

Other programs were too restrictive, or refused because Kevin was on antidepressants — too high-risk. "Weeks were clicking by," Linda says, "and everywhere we went, there were closed doors."

Then Linda found a possible solution on a flier tucked away in one of Kevin's folders. The two-year program at First Place for Youth in L.A. promised comprehensive support for former wards, including life-skills training and, most appealing, apartments for those selected to participate.

Stacy Peters, a First Place program specialist, says that when she met Kevin, "I looked at him and I said, 'You better go back to school. Do not waste your time. You're too smart for this.' " Weeks later, she can't help but smile when she talks about working with him: "We all love him up here."

Kevin signed up for the agency's Step It Up preparatory boot camp, which kids must complete before being considered for the full program and apartment. For three weeks, he and 11 other former foster kids went over budget basics, building credit, résumé tips and tools for identifying "circles of support" in their lives.

On graduation day, each kid was expected to speak. Kevin didn't dwell on the details of how exactly the father in his first foster home stole from him, or what prompted "one of my coked-out foster brothers" in his second setup to attack him.

Instead, the self-described "philomath — a lover of learning" talked about the day Peters showed them a clip of actor Will Smith talking about how his father made him build a brick wall — it took nearly 18 months.

"I believe [his father] was trying to show him that that which seems impossible is simply not," Kevin says. "I want to put my life on track again. ... I want to build my brick wall."

But Kevin wasn't among the few chosen for the program, another setback in a string of disappointments. His first "foster father," he tells L.A. Weekly, was "not a good foster parent. Yeah, he stole from me — my birth certificate and my Social Security card," he alleges. "Then he took off to Mexico."

Kevin learned that this particular guardian — an adult who is paid public funds to house, watch over and feed foster children — had implicated another foster kid in attempted robbery. Kevin didn't tell DCFS. "Where I come from, you don't ever complain," he says. "There's a Spanish saying" — Kevin is fluent, with grandparents in Mexico — "that the fish dies by his mouth."

His next stop was a prearranged "rest bed," a backup to foster homes. "I tried to stay there," he says. The woman who ran it "drove me to school. Like, no one ever drove me to school. And she would bring me snacks. She was really nice, but one of the other kids she had was a little gangbanger."

One night, Kevin got up to turn down the TV, and his "foster brother" hit him. "I woke up in a pool of blood, and I couldn't talk. Like, I thought I was saying things right, but no one could understand me."

He spent the night at Children's Hospital L.A. before going to DCFS downtown — he calls it "the tower" — to find a new home.

Kevin bounced around rest beds before ending up at a house in South Central. Something reminded him of the place where he'd been beaten unconscious by the gangbanger. "I got there really late," Kevin says. "The guy was already asleep but ... he was dressed kind of similar to the guy who beat me up."

It was a disastrous new placement by DCFS for a traumatized kid, sticking him in a rough neighborhood. "I took off that night," he says. Two days later, Kevin turned himself in to DCFS. He was driven to what was to be his last foster home, in La Puente, where things went fairly well.

Kevin says he was given two weeks' notice by DCFS that he would be kicked out because of his 18th birthday.

Still, looking back on the difficult year to follow, he says, "I prefer my own counsel, and being by myself. I just don't really like relying on other people."

At the Campbells' townhome, he abides by the rules, calling to say he'll be late when he's out with friends and keeping his space tidy. Inside, there's little evidence he's staying there at all. His belongings are kept out of sight. His bed is the living room couch. Someone has spread out a white blanket, smoothed down in anticipation of visitors. Kevin's a guest here himself.

He's in good hands — John drives him to appointments and the library, while Linda is ready with a listening ear and keeps the refrigerator stocked. "They told me I could stay," Kevin says. He sounds ashamed to accept their help. "I didn't ask."

He never names the biggest failure in his upbringing, his mother. "One day, I asked him what he wanted to drink in the morning," Linda says. "And he goes, 'Mrs. Campbell, when I grew up, my mother never even had milk in the refrigerator for us.'

"Yet she went and ran into a car and came up with $15,000 cash to pay that," Linda Campbell says. Her eyes are pleading as she asks, baffled, "How do you do that and never give your children milk?"

Kevin doesn't say whether his mother was on the list of people he called in desperation after being "emancipated." At the time, he turned to his mother's former boyfriend, a man he calls his stepfather. He stayed with the man for a short time but, thanks to his job at the plastics factory, soon got his first apartment. He was making progress.

But the coalescence of trouble at school, physical health problems, disintegrating relationships and overwhelming grief in the wake of his friend's suicide dragged him down into a dark place.

"When he lived on his own and he became homeless again, I think he lost a lot of faith," says Stacy Peters. After Kevin missed a few of the class meetings due to the flu, "He came in early, he made it up, he did his work — usually, when people miss class I dock them," Peters says. "But Kevin was different."

He's a regular at the library, nearly fluent in Japanese, and is advanced in C++, Python and JavaScript programming. He has studied Latin, and plays drums and guitar, though he insists he's no good.

Kevin has learned all this on his own. "Lone wolf," he says with a smirk.

While many foster kids pushed out of the system are doomed to low wages and menial labor, Kevin is taking steps to one day become a medical researcher. He will begin classes at Los Angeles City College on Feb. 4 — retaking math he failed during his downward spiral at Rio Hondo. He's saved money for books by working construction. "I don't think there was ever a doubt in my mind that I wouldn't make it," he says.

"He might try for some on-campus work, too — you know, he worked as a math tutor at Rio," John Campbell says, pride edging into his low, gravelly voice.

Months after the "couple days" that Kevin was supposed to stay, the Campbells spent the holidays with their temporary son.

John says that Kevin "takes up space at our house, but we're used to that. It's not good for him, though — he needs to branch out. But he's feeling good about going back to school." He thinks Kevin will thrive.

Kevin's story is far from the worst-case scenario among L.A.'s thousands of former foster kids. Instead he's trapped in limbo, relying on others while learning to stand on his own. As foreign as the concept of family support might be to him, the Campbells are in it for the long haul. "We told Kevin, 'We're gonna see you to the finish,' " Linda says. "Whatever that is."


Born on Inauguration Day: Health care hits home

Published January 17, 2013, on Marketplace.org

As a chaplain at Lurie Children’s Hospital in downtown Chicago, and a resident of Chicago's Southside Woodlawn community, Ashley-Anne Masters sees tangible evidence of one of the nation’s most critical challenges every day at work. Masters says patient anxieties over access to health care transcend socioeconomic divides inside stark waiting rooms.

“Every day I would see families who were terrified about how they could pay for their child’s chemo,” she says on a day off from the hospital, seated inside a coffee shop. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what your job is or who the president is -- nobody can afford to have cancer.”

In 2010, the year President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, the country’s health expenditures topped $2.6 trillion. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, that’s more than 10 times the $256 million spent in 1980, when Masters' mother was preparing for the arrival of her first and only child. The country spent roughly $1,110 per capita in 1980, a figure that skyrocketed to $8,402 in 2010.

Faced with the reality of these costs on a daily basis, Masters has a personal investment in the health care debate. But it stems from more than sympathy for the patients who seek her counsel. In the 1980s, her mother Carol was a loyal Reagan Republican. When asked about her family’s political makeup, Masters is quick to mention her mother stumping for President Reagan outside a North Carolina polling place while seven-months pregnant.

But a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer set off a shift in ideology. Carol Masters was first diagnosed with cancer 30 years ago. After retreating into remission for some time, her cancer came back with a vengeance when Ashley-Anne was in high school. Doctors diagnosed it as stage four and gave Carol six months to live. She’s far outlasted the prognosis, but the battle dragged on: Ashley-Anne Masters spent the holidays this year by her mother’s hospital bedside when it became clear the cancer was spreading. On Sunday, Jan. 13, a week before Ashley-Anne's 32nd birthday, her mother passed away. Treatment had never been cheap or easy on the family. But Ashley-Anne says her family is aware of how different their circumstances might have been without health insurance.

Despite Carol Masters' earlier party affiliation, she and husband, Al, cast their votes for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. “She had to vote for Obama-care,” Ashley-Anne Masters says, “‘Cause stage four cancer sure as hell is a pre-existing condition.”

Before leaving the workplace on disability to fight cancer with even more focus, Carol Masters was Director of Major Gifts for an international nonprofit. The experience undoubtedly informed a global perspective for her small family.

"I didn’t know people didn’t know about fair trade, I didn’t know people didn’t do alternative gift fairs,” Ashley-Anne Masters says, thinking back to Christmases at home in Taylors, S.C. “If you look at how I was raised, I was raised by Democrats. I’m in an interracial marriage because I was raised that everybody’s the same.”

Masters met husband Reggie Weaver in 1999 at a youth conference through the Presbyterian church, but their courtship was often plagued by pain rooted in racism in the South. Weaver, now the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Chicago, is black.

Masters says some friends refused to attend their August 2008 wedding because of their difference in skin color. Three months before voting President Obama into office, the significance of that election wasn’t lost on the young couple. They spent Masters' January 20th birthday the following year at Obama’s inauguration, shoulder-to-shoulder in the buzzing throngs of people gathered outside of the Capitol.

But she says that historic day in Washington, D.C., left her numb, serving most as an illustration of the decline in respect for elected officials. “As soon as [President George W. Bush] flew away after the ceremony, people were ...  flipping him off,” she remembers. “It was horrible. It was the most embarrassing moment as an American I’ve experienced in my lifetime. Because (the president) should be respected. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them. Vote against them, but you don’t stand against them.”

For a woman who grew up celebrating the spectacle of the Inauguration every four years -- during an elementary school field trip to the White House, she was surprised to learn parades weren’t an everyday occurrence -- whose birthday is forever entwined with the nation’s history, the downward trend in political engagement has been discouraging.

“Citizenship is real. Patriotism is real,” Masters says. “Before the baby-boomers go, we need to grab some of that.”

Looking ahead, she seems to have lost some excitement for the democratic process. Maybe it’s because of her upbringing, or the patients at Lurie whose fates lie in the hands of politicians losing the faith of the people a little more each day.

“I don’t know what it will take to get it back. I don’t think it’s fair to put all that on any president, that’s for sure," she says. "Nobody who gets elected can fix that overnight.”


Farmland in Demand

Published December 26, 2012, in the Los Angeles Times

In the last year, Prudential Financial Inc. has plowed money into lemons and avocados in Ventura County, almonds and mandarins in the Central Valley and strawberries in Santa Cruz County.

The insurance giant is just one of many players, including highly specialized investors and large pension funds, that have snapped up California farmland recently.

The buying spree has helped push farm and ranch land values to record highs, raising questions about how long the boom might last and what effect it might have on the state's important agricultural sector.

A new class of investors is piling into the sector, said Frank Plessmann of Agriworld Fund Inc., a hedge fund based in Greenville, Miss.

When he started putting together a plan to raise capital to finance farmland purchases a decade ago, he said, "there was no one to speak with about it, but now there are all these agricultural investment groups."

The average cost of an acre of farm real estate in California rose to $7,200 this year, roughly $300 above last year's record, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Some of the highest-priced land is in the almond-growing region of San Joaquin Valley's Tulare County, where an acre can fetch $15,000 to $19,000. Just two years ago, the price was in the $13,000-to-$16,000 range, according to surveys by the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers' California chapter.

The surge has as much to do with shifts in the global economy as with local agriculture.

A burgeoning middle class in China has increased the appetite for almonds and pistachios, driving up prices for those crops — and the farmland that produces them.

At the same time, investors have become frustrated with paltry returns from the stock market and low yields on government and corporate bonds, driving them to look for new places to park their money. The effect has been felt beyond California, with cropland prices in the Midwest also on the rise.

Craig Wichner, a managing partner in Farmland LP, which buys up land that can be used for sustainable agriculture, said his clients are "looking for an alternative to investing in the market." Investors in his fund, he said, include a multibillion-dollar wealth management firm, old money and veterans of the tech sector.

Prudential has been buying farmland on behalf of family offices, endowments and pension funds.

"Farmland is lower risk and probably higher returning than commercial real estate, timberland, bond funds and equity funds," said Charles Allison, head of Prudential's agriculture investment portfolio.

Still, investing in farmland is not without risk. Prices in many areas of the state dipped during recent drought years. A rise in interest rates could draw capital away from farmland and into other investments. And there is no guarantee that commodity prices, which undergird agricultural land values, will continue to rise.

"I know of no one who projects farmland prices, other than hucksters who are trying to sell you some," said Dan Sumner, a professor and director of the Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis. "They then only say farmland prices are sure to rise always and forever. But if that were true, why are they selling?"

Rising land prices can make life tricky for farmers.

Some changes are positive. As more outsiders buy up land and lease it for agriculture, farmers can use their own money to invest in equipment and technology that can produce bigger harvests.

"The more capital that enters from outside agriculture, the more farmer-owned capital can be used for operations and perhaps for diversification of farmer wealth," Sumner said. "Of course, anyone hoping to buy land would wish other potential buyers were not in the market."

In previous years, dairymen would buy surrounding land to grow their own corn for feed. Because of the pressure from rising prices, "they can't do it anymore," said Charlie Pitigliano, a grower and land manager in Tulare County.

Competition from big outside investors for farmland has sparked unease among some growers.

Ryan Jacobsen, executive director for the Fresno County Farm Bureau and co-owner of his family's J&L Vineyards in Easton, said he saw a clear difference between these investors and his fellow local growers: "They just don't have the same connection with the community."

Tom Barcellos, president of Western United Dairymen, said outside firms can tack on an additional $3,000 to $4,000 an acre. Although high values seem attractive, he said, there's "a definite concern from farmers" that it could all come crashing down — much like it did during the land market's boom and bust in the early 1980s.

Fresno broker Ron Silva, whose real estate firm specializes in farmland, had a front-row seat for that crash.

"Starting in 1978-79, we had investors coming in and buying up grape land for $15,000 to $16,000 an acre. We all got caught up in it," Silva recalled. "These investment bankers in 1980 were saying by the end of five years, it'd be $20,000."

Before it could hit that level, though, the market began to sputter. Silva blamed a drop-off in consumer demand for raisins, one of the state's top commodities, and hesitation from struggling banks to approve agriculture loans.

"By the last quarter of '84," he said, "the best quality land in San Joaquin Valley was going for around $4,500 an acre."

Dairyman Brian Pacheco, who recently was board president for the Fresno County Farm Bureau, didn't sound optimistic that this current crop of investors would stick around.

"When things turn, they'll be the first ones out — just like in the '80s," Pacheco said. "Things will plummet again."

One of the factors propping up land values is the booming export market for California crops, particularly in China. As of 2010, California was the nation's top agricultural producer and exporter, shipping out 24% of total production to the tune of $14.7 billion. The state's exports rose 125% in the 11-year period beginning in 2000.

Factors such as a slowdown in the Chinese economy could dent demand for crops such as almonds and pistachios.

"The question is this," Fresno County grower Dan Errotabere said: "Will commodities stay at the level needed to service those prices?"


USC Homicides, One Year Later: Raymond Avenue at a Glance

Published April 10, 2013, on Neon Tommy

Just before the anniversary of the rainy night Qu Ming and Wu Ying were gunned down inside a parked BMW, all is well on Raymond Avenue.

The sun is shining brighter than it did the morning police cleaned up a murder scene. Birds are out in full-throated force. Mothers walk around the block with their children, pushing empty strollers as the toddlers waddle by their sides. A garageband pounds out an unrecognizable anthem, nearly drowning out police sirens in the distance. 

There’s the house where Ming staggered, bloody, onto the porch around 1 a.m. that night. His girlfriend Ying sat slumped in the car while he tried to get help. Light grey, with metal lattices and bars covering the windows and doors, birds of paradise blooming on either side of the front steps — the house is cared for, unchanged. No one answers the door. 

This isn’t Bryan Barnes and Javier Bolden’s neighborhood. The men charged with killingMing and Ying were outside interlopers with fringe affiliations to gangs elsewhere. Police said theirs was a crime of opportunity, a robbery gone wrong, but opted not to release further details until they come out in court. Barnes and Bolden are due in front of a judge April 23 to set a schedule for their trial, postponed several times now since they first appeared in court May 22 last year.

Despite loose ends and unanswered questions, the community that came under scrutiny as a hotbed of crime around USC’s campus has moved on. Twenty-year-old Christian Rodriguez, a construction student at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, was surprised by news of the homicides. “Around here it’s like you hardly hear about stuff like that...because it doesn’t happen as much,” he says. “You hear (about) shootings, but not like close to home, you know?” Rodriguez grew up in the neighborhood. Just after the shootings, he moved down Raymond Avenue from 20th Street to a peach-colored house in the 2900 block. His new home is almost in sight from the spot where Ming and Ying were killed.

The streets Rodriguez has known his whole life feature more police cruisers now than they once did. As the university mourned the loss of two Chinese graduate students in the electrical engineering program, before the LAPD had arrested Bolden and Barnes, Chief Charlie Beck joined Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and USC President C. L. Max Nikias to announce increased resources dedicated to protecting the community. 

During an April 26 press conference, Nikias told reporters four LAPD officers would help the school’s Department of Public Safety in on-campus patrol, and three dozen officers would be reassigned to the department’s Southwest division. Police have yet to turn over the documents detailing costs and logistics of this agreement following multiple requests by Neon Tommy.

Residents say they’ve seen consistent follow-through on those promises. “There’s more security around here now — more campus security, more police,” Rodriguez says, his voice lilting up. “It feels more safer to be walking down the street in the night.” Short and solid, with a buzzed scalp and tattoos peppering his arms and hands, Rodriguez doesn’t look like he scares easy. Still, he says, “I have confidence now that I see campus security.” 

Down the street, Velma Collins, her husband Alfred and a friend who declined to give his name are enjoying the breezy afternoon from their porch. Some reggae seeps from an unseen radio as handymen hammer away on the floor above them. The Collinses also say they’ve noticed an uptick in security over the last year — “There go one now,” Alfred murmurs as a cruiser passes. Bundling into her grey sweater, his wife laughs.

Velma, 67, hasn’t seen anything like it in her 42 years living in the neighborhood. She remembers three drive-bys back in 2001 or 2002, just down at the corner of her street. She doesn’t remember the police response being so attentive. “No, not then,” she says. “It’s a lot, lot, lot better now. It feels more safe.”

In some ways, police and DPS have become friendly fixtures of the neighborhood, on par with the mailman. “They talk to us nice,” Velma Collins says. “Sometimes they would wave. Everything’s fine now.”

In a side-by-side comparison with the Collinses, Rodriguez might draw more attention from police. “They have their days — at night they’ll stop you and see where you’re going, see if you have weapons on you,” he says. He doesn’t mind the hassle, though, if it means a safer neighborhood. “They’re respectful. They gotta do their job and follow their rules,” he says, shrugging. “That’s the way it is around here.”


LAPD Taps Predictive Policing To Focus Patrols

Published December 4, 2012, on Neon Tommy

It’s a little after two in the afternoon at the LAPD’s Foothill Division — prime time for the administrative work that makes boots-on-the-ground service possible.

But the division’s a bit handicapped today. Its servers are down.

“I just wonder if I’m getting this wrong, ’cause it’s not letting me in.” Capt. Sean Malinowski stares at his monitor, and for a moment, the former Fulbright scholar with nearly 20 years on the force is your befuddled father trying in vain to unlock the family computer.

He wants to pull up the analytic research backing the department’s new “predictive policing” initiative. But despite what the name might suggest, this is hardly "Minority Report."

Less law enforcement tracking the thoughts of the public than it is academics curating crime stats and patterns, the evolution of crime mapping is well on its way to changing how police patrol the streets of Los Angeles. And it looks like it’s working: In the last year, areas surrounding Foothill Division have seen a 12 percent decrease in crime, 26 percent in burglaries alone. Using calculations from a Rand Corporation study, the LAPD estimated efficient patrolling has saved the community some $4 million in costs related to police response and prosecution.

Southwest, Olympic, and North Hollywood divisions have joined Foothill in a trial phase of the new program, PredPol. Variations of the system already exist in cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, and Dallas. The LAPD is expected to roll out the program across several more divisions by this summer including parts of the San Fernando Valley, and possibly Topanga Canyon according to Malinowski.

In 2005, the LAPD tapped a team of Ph.D. scientists to help them preempt and discourage crime around the city. Those scientists — two mathematicians, an anthropologist, and one criminologist — founded PredPol and began collecting three years’ worth of crime data, giving more weight to recent incidents to observe patterns in neighborhoods.

The team tackles each area by breaking it up into 500-by-500 foot boxes — a little bigger than a major intersection, corner to corner. Focusing primarily on property crime — including grand theft auto, burglary, and burglary from a car — the predictive model considers crime type, date, time, and location of past incidents to forecast high-crime “hot spots” based on human behavior.

UCLA anthropology professor and PredPol cofounder Jeff Brantingham was clear that no information about individuals goes into his algorithm. “We don’t need it,” he said by phone, minutes before boarding a plane in Chicago. “The where and when of crimes tell us all we need to know about why they’re occurring there.”

The PredPol team emails a PDF to Malinowski every morning, with new data from the previous day included. “It’s locations within that neighborhood that are high-crime,” Brantingham said, “and today’s might not be tomorrow’s.”

The captain hands out copies to officers at roll call and tells them which of the boxes they’ll be assigned to that day, an extension of their regular missions. Malinowski cites research that showed spending just 15 minutes every two hours policing these boxes can have an impact on crime rates.

Police presence is meant to serve as a deterrent. “Knucklehead may be showing up to commit the crime,” Malinowksi says. “But now you’re there, and it won’t happen.” Brantingham compared it to a grandmother sitting out on a porch. “She knows all the teenagers on the block, so she can say, ‘Don’t you do that.’ The same thing goes for police even though they do more. They’re changing the opportunity structure for crime to prevent it.”

But, Malinowski clarifies, “If we make an arrest in a box, it’s incidental. That’s not the whole point.”

Back at his Foothill office computer, Malinowksi eventually pulls up a presentation explaining the program. One slide features the kind of equation you might see at a time management or job skills seminar: “Risk-based deployment” plus “removal of impact players” and “analysis-based goal setting” adds up to “incremental crime reduction.”

Malinowski winces over the second factor, which involves tracking suspects through data and investigating crimes. “I don’t want people to misinterpret ‘removal,’ but that’s what it is,” he says. “They’re predators. And everybody who lives there wants them out.”

Malinowski says that isn’t easy to pull off in most neighborhoods. “People won’t testify against [criminals] because they're so afraid of them. It’s a problem.”

Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, says low reporting rates are part of an inherent flaw in the system. “Predictive policing is only as good as the data input,” Ferguson said. “If you have some imperfect data inputted, you’re gonna have an imperfect prediction, and if everything is based on that prediction — well, it’s not terribly reliable.”

Emory Law Journal is set to publish Ferguson’s third article examining predictive policing methods and their impact on the Fourth Amendment, which requires probable cause for officers to conduct searches and reasonable suspicion to make arrests. In “Predictive Policing and the Future of Reasonable Suspicion,” he urges the legal community and court system to start thinking seriously about how to approach cases concerning predictive policing.

“If a law enforcement computer algorithm can change Fourth Amendment freedoms,” Ferguson writes, “then courts have an extra responsibility to ensure that the technology meets reasonable standards of reliability and accuracy.”

He says he was skeptical upon hearing first word of the new practice. “It’s not just looking at crime data and thinking retrospectively. It’s saying, ‘We can now take that information and use it prospectively, and in fact we’re confident enough in our data that we can predict where a crime would be,’ ” Ferguson says. “And I thought, ‘Really? This doesn’t make any sense.’ ”

Ferguson started digging, and eventually reached out directly to Malinowski, emailing a draft of his article along with a litany of concerns. The LAPD and the team at PredPol seem genuinely grateful for his input — Malinowski and Brantingham both dropped Ferguson’s name and said the department was being careful to avoid Fourth Amendment infringements.

“This is the opposite of a dragnet,” Malinowski says. “People who rightfully are concerned that the police are going to go out and drag everybody in — they usually like this approach, because it’s not offender-based or arrest-based. It’s denying the criminal the opportunity to commit the crime.”

Ferguson says his contact when working with the LAPD was limited and that he never actually met the captain or officers who would be carrying out these predictive orders. “I don’t really have a stake in whether it’s good or bad,” he says. “In terms of how police choose to allocate their own resources, they could do it by throwing darts at a wall or they could do it by using a sophisticated computer program. I would hope they’d use the smarter policing method, and I think they are.”

In his article, he notes the benefits of the program — that it was cost-effective for a department facing budget cuts and could bring good publicity with its “promise of a high-tech, progressive-sounding plan to stop crime.” Ferguson writes the boxes were “more precise” than patrolling generalized high-crime areas, and that the method “appears to reduce crime with minimal disruption to regular policing responsibilities.”

But he voiced concerns about the types of crimes targeted. Southwest Division has started using predictive policing to address violent crime, and the Charleston Police Department in South Carolina is using a similar program developed by IBM to track patterns of armed robberies. “That might be right, but it also might be wrong. We don’t know enough,” Ferguson says. “We may be doing something that needs real rethinking.”

He also says there might be reason to consider PredPol’s stake in the partnership. “Any for-profit enterprise, I think, has to be looked at with a bit more questioning than others doing it in a pure, academic way,” Ferguson says. “I’m not saying that in any way to malign the intention of the people who created it, but the questions should be raised because there will now be financial incentives to show that this does work.”

That responsibility of skepticism falls to the public. “I hope when the LAPD releases all its findings, people actually start delving into the numbers to see if it works,” Ferguson says. “It’s too easy to manipulate data. You can always lie with statistics and numbers.”

Ferguson  said he doesn’t think that’s the case here necessarily, and gave the LAPD credit for being among the law enforcement agencies transparent enough to regularly publish their crime statistics. “That’s a good thing — if it’s being accurate.”

All parties — police, researchers and critics alike — acknowledged this was a work in progress. “It’s important to take endeavors like this step by step,” Brantingham said. “You can’t just jump from nothing to a fully solved problem or a fully deployed solution. The partnership with the LAPD has really made that possible. I can’t say enough about them for having that vision to see that through.”

Looking ahead, Malinowski says he wants to continue tweaking the “dosage,” or how many minutes officers need to spend patrolling the boxes during a watch. He’d also like to see more streamlined delivery of the PDFs; he wants them sent straight to dashboard computers. “The officers actually complain about [the printouts], Malinowski says, grinning. “They’re like, ‘You know, we’re killing a lot of trees.’ ”

He wants to do away with the self-reporting officers do to track time in the boxes, which he called “a little Mickey Mouse for what we’re trying to do.” Instead, patrol cars would be equipped with GPS systems.

If anything, the police are facing more heightened surveillance than the communities they patrol. That may come as some reassurance to Ferguson.

“Like all things, I think you need to have protocols and policies that encourage accountability,” he said. “It’s always useful to know someone’s watching.”


Further Delays for Families of Alleged Gunmen in USC Shootings

Published September 20, 2012, on Neon Tommy

Lashanna S. Green-Chaskley’s shoes provide a spectacular contrast to the bland tile floor of the Los Angeles Superior Court. “Can I squeeze in with you ladies?” the sky-high black bedazzled heels say. “I’m skinny, I promise.” I look up to find the indeed skinny birthmother of Javier Bolden, one of the young men accused of murdering two Chinese USC graduate students in April. 

Green-Chaskley snuggles in on the court pew beside me, scooting over to make room for another woman—younger, with more casual taste in shoes. But Green-Chaskley seems to regret her seat choice once she discovers I’m a journalist. “Why you asking?” she says when I bring up the USC shootings. “I’ve just got so many reporters coming at me," she says quietly to her companion. "It’s a lot.”

It had been a long summer. In May, Green-Chaskley learned her son Bolden had been arrested on suspicion of gunning down Wu Ying and Qu Ming, two 23-year-old electrical engineering students, near USC’s campus in the early hours of April 11. Since then, details of Bolden’s character and that of his alleged partner in crime, Bryan Barnes, have trickled out via social media and apparently relentless hounding of the families.

“Are we just surrounded by media?” Green-Chaskley says to her friend, temporarily letting go of her hand to whip around and eye the Chinese reporters behind us. She is clearly rattled, and moves when she spots her husband, Unique, on the other side of the courtroom. Surrounded by supporters—one young woman with heavy scars on her face wears a white tank top with red hearts and lettering, “Free Javier,”—they wait for Judge Shelly Torrealba to take her seat and set a trial schedule for Bolden and Barnes.

But Thursday’s court date is unsatisfying for the anxious friends and families. The public defenders ask for more time before setting an official hearing date. They cite an ongoing investigation by the LAPD Discovery unit, which the attorneys say has already amassed some 3,000 pages of case file material and more than 85 data and audio CDs. “I don’t think we’re wasting time,” Barnes’ lawyer Vernon Patterson says. The team rejected a proposed Oct. 24 date. “If we come back on the 24th, I don’t think our position is going to be any different.” 

Torrealba, somewhat exasperated, grants a continuance until Nov. 20, nearly two weeks after the defense’s suggested Nov. 8. They’ll then have another 60 days to determine a schedule. “You all hear what’s going on,” the judge says to her courtroom. “You understand this is a major endeavor because of the volume of discovery [material].” 

Addressing Bolden and Barnes in their glass enclosure for the first time, Torrealba asks if they waive their right to a preliminary hearing 30 days from now, per their attorneys’ request. “Yes, ma’am,” they mumble. Barnes leans with arms crossed on a ledge behind his defense team, his face inches from a metal bar. Bolden stands next to him, handcuffed in a blue jumpsuit. 

“Enjoy your vacations,” the judge says, moving onto the next case. From behind me, a woman squeezed in beside the Chinese reporters mutters, “ ‘Enjoy your vacations’ while you sit in jail? That’s fucked up.”

With that, a sizeable portion of the courtroom’s 80 or so attendees rises from the wooden benches to leave. Bolden and Barnes’ supporters congregate at the end of the courthouse hallway to regroup, away from the still bickering attorneys. Green-Chaskley drapes hugs on those around her, attempting to make introductions. “This is my grandbaby’s mama,” she says gesturing to one young woman before pointing to another, “and this is Javier’s fiancé.” 

Complicated family dynamics are familiar to the Chaskley clan. Unique seems partly to blame his stepson’s troubles on his on-and-off status as a father figure over the last 16 years. “My son’s a lot of things, but he is not a murderer,” he says. “I’ll go to my grave with that.”

Tall, with small braided knobs on his head and a script tattoo peeking from his black embroidered shirt, Chaskley is an imposing presence, especially when he speaks with conviction of a “wicked” judicial system. “A black man who commits a crime in California—it destroys him,” he says. Chaskley was released July 4 after serving time for a “crack conspiracy,” and recently served another 10 days for violating parole with three positive drug tests.

“Part of me wants to have faith in the system, but knowing what I know makes that hard,” he says. Seated nearby, his wife subtly signals that it’s time to leave by sliding off her fabulous shoes in favor of flat sandals. 

Chaskley takes the hint. “I know there are going to be a lot of mistakes,” he says, shrugging. “He’s not a child anymore, and you have to accept the consequences for the mistakes that you made. But I wish the best for my son.”


New Details in Shooting Case Linked to USC Murders Point to Lax Investigation

Published June 23, 2012, on Neon Tommy

Note: This story ended up being formative in my early career. As a result, the Los Angeles Police Protective League issued a statement slamming my story, though none of their claims stuck when a L.A. Weekly journalist dug into the union's complaint. Here's the weekly's story, and my appearance on Current TV's "Young Turks" is in the clip below.

A key witness in the February shooting linked to the murders of two USC graduate students told police he could identify the gunman nearly two months before Wu Ying and Qu Ming were killed, court documents show.

The two Chinese electrical engineering students were gunned down April 11 around 1 a.m. inside a double-parked BMW on South Raymond Avenue, less than a mile from campus. Within hours, Los Angeles Police Department investigators had matched shell casings found at the scene to two other South L.A. shootings—one on Dec. 3, 2011 and another at a birthday party Feb. 12.  

Police retraced their steps in the February investigation to quickly identify 20-year-old Bryan Barnes as a primary suspect. Barnes and his accused accomplice, 19-year-old Javier Bolden, were arrested May 18 and are scheduled to enter pleas Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court on charges related to the three shootings.

A Neon Tommy exclusive report earlier this month provided details of detectives’ interview with a witness to the February shooting. During their April 11 meeting, the witness used a department computer to pull up Barnes’ Facebook page and exclaimed, “That’s him! That’s the guy that shot [one of the Feb. 12 victims]." 

The interview took place within 20 hours of the USC students’ murders and was a major break in the case. But the latest batch of search warrants obtained by Neon Tommy shows the witness in fact told detectives two months earlier he could identify the gunman who opened fire at the Feb. 12 party. 

Deputy Chief Pat Gannon of the Southwest Division said he might have handled the February investigation differently. “I think the appropriate thing to do is to try to work with that witness as best you can to help identify the person,” he said. 

“If it was me, I’d want to somehow secure the information off of Facebook. [The tip] is important, absolutely important, but you have to have some corroborating evidence,” Gannon continued. “In most cases, you like to have two or more witnesses that can identify your suspect.”

It’s unclear how vigorously police pursued the tip from the witness. Details in warrants filed Feb. 23 and March 29 outlined a different route in their investigation. 

Those warrants ordered Metro PCS and Sprint Nextel to produce phone records for two numbers dating back to Dec. 3—the same night 20-year-old Timothy Hall was shot at a party in South L.A. Ballistics testing has since tied the December shooting to Barnes and Bolden, though police won’t say when they made the connection with the shooting at the February birthday party.

The search warrants include details about the birthday party and the aftermath of the shooting. Police, responding to radio calls of an “ADW Shooting”—assault with a deadly weapon—arrived at a party rental hall near the intersection of 51st Street and Western Avenue in the early hours of Feb. 12.

Officers found 21-year-old Deionce Davance shot twice in the head and several times in the stomach. Another partygoer, Zanae Flowers, had been shot in the right calf. Both were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. Davance is now paralyzed.

Detective Erbie Phillips of the LAPD’s 77th Street Community Division got the case the next day.

The warrants detail Phillips’ Feb. 13 meeting with the witness who would later identify Barnes. “Later that day, [the witness] came to 77th Station and met with Affiant. [The witness] advised he was standing with [Davance] when he was shot. [The witness] advised he knows who the shooter is because he located a picture of the shooter on Facebook.”

But the reports do not say what detectives did with the information. Instead, Phillips’ account jumps ahead to Feb. 20, when he used phone numbers provided by party guests to track down a man named “K witt it,” the promoter responsible for the party at 5117 S. Western Ave.

According to the warrants, Phillips called and spoke briefly with a man who claimed to be K witt it. When pressed for his legal name, the man hung up and did not answer the phone again.

Police requested phone records for K witt it and a party guest to help determine “who attended the party and possible location of alleged suspect or suspects,” Phillips’ reports read.

The Feb. 23 warrant was not served, but Metro PCS produced records sought in the March 29 warrant by April 9—two days before Ying and Ming were killed. 

Deputy Chief Gannon said he didn’t see a reason detectives would choose to sit on the information provided by the witness in February. “No, no. That’s an important piece,” he said. “Here, I’m really speculating on that, but I don’t want to downplay it.”

The reports do not include what follow-up questions, if any, detectives may have asked the witness when he said he could identify the gunman on Facebook. Did Phillips, for example, ask him to call up Barnes’ profile so he could see his name and other identifying information?

“You know, he may have,” Gannon said. “It just may not be included in that information you have.” He explained detectives also keep a chronological record of their work that often includes details beyond those in a warrant’s report. 

Whatever might be in Phillips’ record, Gannon openly shared his concerns that more aggressive work on the December and February shootings could have prevented tragedy in April. 

“Not every case gets solved really, really quickly,” Gannon said. “I wish it wasn’t that way. And I wish in hindsight that we had tied those first two cases together, and that we did have Barnes and Bolden in custody. Maybe if that had been the case, these two young people from USC would never have been killed. That’s a burden—for me and for the investigators to carry with us. But I just don’t want anybody to think it’s for lack of trying.”

The USC students’ murders and the two earlier shootings are now being handled by Criminal Gang Homicide Division detectives Vince Carreon and Eloy Ochoa. When reached by phone, Carreon repeated the District Attorney’s instructions not to address specifics of the investigation. “I can’t really give you much—or anything really,” he said Thursday, “because of the seriousness of this case.”

Carreon also said the arraignment for Barnes and Bolden wouldn’t loosen restrictions on what he can say. “It will have to come out in trial.”


Court Docs Reveal Speedy Police Work and Lucky Breaks in USC Shooting Investigation

Published June 4, 2012, on Neon Tommy

Swift connections made in the fatal shooting of two USC graduate students April 11 led Los Angeles Police Department detectives to zero in on a suspect within 24 hours, according to court documents.
The files show that within hours of Wu Ying and Qu Ming’s murders, police had picked out 20-year-old Bryan Barnes as a primary suspect. A key witness identified him in an earlier shooting tied to the same weapon used to kill the two international students. 

By 3 p.m., April 12, Detective Erbie Phillips had gone to the courthouse to obtain a search warrant for Barnes’ Facebook account. Over the next several weeks, police closed in on Barnes and his alleged accomplice, 19-year-old Javier Bolden, through surveillance. 

Combing a waterlogged crime scene on South Raymond Avenue, about a mile from the USC campus, in the early hours of April 11, police collected what evidence they could—most notably several shell casings from a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. 

“Even though it was raining heavily, we were able to still salvage that evidence and send it out for forensic analysis,” Deputy Chief Pat Gannon of the LAPD’s Southwest Division said in a May 19 interview. By 6 p.m. that day, detectives had matched the casings to those found at two previous crime scenes, a Feb. 12 shooting and another on Dec. 3, 2011, when 20-year-old Timothy Hall was shot and wounded at a South L.A. party.

A late-night party on Feb. 12 also ended in violence when an unidentified shooter opened fire, hitting a young woman, Zanae Flowers, in the calf and 21-year-old Deionce Davance in the stomach and head, according to case files. The felony complaint report goes on to say officers found Davance lying face-up on the ground, motionless and covered in blood. He and Flowers were taken to the hospital where Davance fell into a coma. When he awoke, the young man was paralyzed. 

“Work had been done on those cases,” Gannon said Sunday. “But [the detectives] hadn’t gotten to the point where they could positively identify these guys as having been involved. You know, they do unfortunately have a lot of shooting cases. They were working towards it but just hadn’t gotten there yet.” Gannon said police had more leads in the February and December shootings, including witness accounts. When Ying and Ming were gunned down in April, detectives thought to call again on one witness in particular.

Phillips and an LAPD sergeant met with the witness at 9:30 p.m., nearly 20 hours after the USC students were killed. Details of that interview are recounted in a sworn statement that persuaded Judge Kelvin Filer on April 12 to issue the warrant for Barnes’ Facebook account. Under the header “Investigative information positively identifying the perpetrator as the suspect,” Phillips reported, “During initial interview, [the witness] mentioned to Detectives that he could positively identify the shooter in this case. [The witness] had researched information that he received from partygoers and located a man by the name of [Bryan Barnes].”

According to the affidavit, the witness said after talking to others who had been at the party that night, he had found the shooter on Facebook. When detectives pulled up the social networking site on a department computer, the witness quickly navigated to Barnes’ profile, pointed at the screen and said, “That’s him! That’s the guy that shot [one of the Feb. 12 victims].” Profile photos viewed on that first visit showed Barnes and his friend Bolden both flashing gang signs. The page also displayed a logo linked to the Black P Stones gang.

“That was really the first break we had,” Gannon said. As students wrapped up an on-campus candlelight vigil for Ying and Ming the night of the shooting, police had already tracked down a firm lead for a suspected killer. 

The Facebook search warrant sought basics about the subscriber—Barnes’ gender and birthday, his location details and various IP addresses. Police requested access to his stored files, everything from his mini-feed and status updates to private messages with users on his friend list. Information yielded by the online warrant linked Barnes and Bolden, who appeared in many of the primary suspect’s personal photos, to the party crew No RespectInc.

Detectives began to paint a fuller picture of their suspects, one of fringe gang affiliation and violent arrogance. Using surveillance and other tracking methods over the next several weeks, they narrowed in on their suspects. In that time, additional search warrants were secured for three addresses—one in Lancaster, another in Palmdale and one for a bright blue house on 91st Street in South L.A.

On May 18, a quiet Friday afternoon, police stormed the apartment to take Barnes into custody, arresting Bolden at a social worker’s home in Palmdale three hours later. Those search warrants have been sealed by a judge. The felony complaint filed May 22 by the D.A.’s office includes five counts against Barnes: two counts of murder in the shootings of Ying and Ming; two counts of attempted murder in the December shooting of Timothy Hall and the February shooting of Deionce Davance, including the allegation Barnes inflicted “great bodily injury”; and one count of assault with a semi-automatic firearm in the shooting of Zanae Flowers. 

Bolden faces three of the same charges—both counts of murder in the April shootings as well as the attempted murder Dec. 3. Their arraignment was postponed until June 25 to allow attorneys time to prepare their case.

Among the questions that remain unanswered as Barnes and Bolden await their day in court: When did police make the connection between the February and December shootings? If early enough, how aggressively did they try to find the young men terrorizing parties in South L.A.? 

And most haunting, would Ying and Ming still be alive today if the earlier cases had been as intensely investigated as the double homicides?

On Sunday, Deputy Chief Gannon reiterated the D.A.’s request that the LAPD keep details of the case under wraps. But he also addressed in general terms the level of investigative work involved in high-profile homicides cases compared with other shootings. 

 “Every crime that we get in the city is important to us, but you’re right,” he said. “The amount of resources we’ve placed on those individual crimes changes along the way depending on volume and everything that we have.” 

Gannon attributed the intensified efforts to solve the USC student killings to the nature of the crime. 

“When it comes to homicide, that is the one crime that I try to put as much emphasis and effort as I possibly can into it,” he said. “I try to deploy as many people as I possibly can to solve every single one of those crimes. That’s my goal. Am I successful with it? No, I’m not.” 

Despite the LAPD’s quick work detailed in the court files, Gannon expressed some regret regarding the pace of the two earlier investigations in February and last December. “In this particular case, yes, it might have been nice to have linked all these cases together with these individuals and gotten it solved,” he said. “Maybe the murders would never have occurred.”


L.A. Riots: Rev. Cecil Murray Sees Progress in Inclusive Society

Published April 24, 2012, on Neon Tommy

Scanning the anxious faces of some 2,000 South Central Los Angeles residents packed inside his sanctuary, the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church knew he had a difficult task before him. 
It was April 29, 1992. Earlier that day, a county clerk inside a Simi Valley courthouse some 50 miles away had read the verdict in the case against officers from the Los Angeles Police Department accused of using excessive force on Rodney King in a 1991 confrontation. All four had been acquitted, and the people’s outrage had begun to boil over. 

“We had planned on the day of the verdict that we’d all meet here at First A.M.E. Church,” Murray says, draping one arm over a pew. He retells the story smoothly, remembering that day with clarity.

It was with a sense of dread that he and 10 or so other religious leaders from around the community had been meeting with Mayor Tom Bradley to prepare. “We didn’t want any explosions in case the verdict was negative,” he says.

But it would quickly become clear their efforts were in vain.

Today, Murray holds the John R. Tansey Chair in Christian Ethics at USC's School of Religion, and is a senior fellow at the university's Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Though he's moved on, retiring from his post at FAME in 2004, the trauma of the riots 20 years ago has stuck with him.

As he talks, Murray seems to still see the masses that had poured into his church that night, filling the seats he and I now occupy. Members stood shoulder to shoulder, pressed against the back of the sanctuary. They crowded outside at the intersection of La Salle Avenue and South Harvard Boulevard, straining to hear pleas for nonviolence coming through speakers installed on the roof of the church.

“The mayor had just finished addressing the crowd when an usher came and got me, brought me out, said ‘I want you to see something.’ And he pointed to the horizon down south and there were fires—southeast, southwest. And in our neighborhood,” Murray says. “We knew then that our plans for deterring were too late.”

By the end of the night, more than 150 fires had been set around L.A. Gunfire echoed through the streets; looters ravaged small businesses, taking full advantage of the chaos. But Murray and his band of faith leaders did not lose hope. Instead, they moved toward the violence erupting just beyond FAME’s front doors.

“We took 100, 150 men and lined the streets adjacent to the church, next to where the Golden State Mutual Insurance Co. building was burning. And there were about 150 young men out there throwing stones at firemen… and a line of police, seven or eight of them, who insisted on attacking the young men throwing the stones. 

“We said, ‘Let us handle it so it won’t get out of control.’ But they insisted, and formed a line and started stepping, moving towards the gangs. We ran and got in front of them and worked with the guys, went behind the houses where some of them were hiding. Pretty soon, [the police] went and left it. 

“We stayed another three hours, ‘til about 1 o’clock that morning. Then we started going and bringing people who had been burned out into the church.” FAME volunteers cared for their neighbors displaced by the violence for three days until the Red Cross arrived. 

As the smoke cleared, Murray along with the rest of L.A. surveyed the riots’ devastation, keenly aware of the raw anger still broiling beneath the city’s surface. “We knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy time ahead,” Murray says.

A Church’s Influence

It’s no accident FAME was the chosen venue for that ultimately unsuccessful peace rally. 

The institution, Murray says, is a crucial component of African-American society in any city. “The church base is where black people have their greatest hope. If the faith-based community does not look out for the underserved community of blacks, browns and Asians,” he says, “then we have no justification for our existence, and the community will stay in muddy waters.” 

Since moving from Seattle in October 1977, Murray managed to develop the South Central L.A. congregation from about 1,000—250 of whom actually showed up week after week—to welcoming that many new members each year. To this day, members are encouraged to join at least one task force to help out in the community. It’s the church’s message, “First to Serve,” that led FAME to its renowned position in Los Angeles by the mid-‘90s.

“We were oriented towards the society,” Murray says, glancing around the walls of the wood-beamed sanctuary. “Mayor Tom Bradley was a member of the church so obviously he would include us in any faith-based action to reaction.” As the tumult of the riots subsided, Murray says, “We stayed open for about six months, 24 hours a day, around the clock, trying to find a way to bring peace, harmony and restoration.”

The community he loved began to rebuild.

Mending a Torn City

To placate the masses, officials turned much of their attention to holding the justice system and involved law enforcement agencies accountable. LAPD Chief Daryl Gates emerged as a clear villain for his handling of the crisis. Gates was unavailable the night the riots began, schmoozing at a fundraising event in Santa Monica. He took severe criticism for not only failing to recognize the potential threat of unrest, but also taking inadequate disciplinary action against the four officers who had beaten King. Under immense pressure from officials and the public alike, Gates retired from his post in June of that year.

Mayor Bradley appointed the Christopher Commission to assess the LAPD, including the department’s internal disciplinary system. The commission uncovered a disturbing pattern of officers using excessive force, and a severe lack of management or enforcement in addressing these cases. According to the commission’s report, just 42 out of more than 2,000 allegations of excessive force between 1986 and 1990 were sustained. The commission recommended a “new standard of accountability,” but most reforms were put on hold when Mayor Richard Riordan took office in 1993. 

But Murray says the department had made great strides since then. “Our new band of police chiefs, the last three, four,” he says, “have really been people of conscience and conscientiousness. We need to say to the police of 21st century mentality, ‘Thank you.’ Because, there are good policemen, good cops. But when you give a racist person a stick, you give them power.”

But dealing with many of the remaining problems facing L.A., both then and now, would have required a systemic approach. And Murray says even the best-intentioned efforts fell short in the years after the riots.

“Rebuild L.A. was a fine concept,” Murray says of the initiative headed by philanthropist Bernard Kinsey. Rebuild Los Angeles attempted to spur economic development to help the city rise from the ashes of the riots. And in a little under two years, the group persuaded investors to pour $380 million into the community. 

The program was a significant undertaking, but, “I think it did not last long enough so that it could go deep enough to solve the problems,” Murray says. “The problem has to do with jobs. The problem has to do with economics, with poverty. Addressing all of those things would take at least 30 years, a generation—not three years.” 

After Kinsey stepped down as co-chair of the organization, Rebuild L.A. quickly faded, as did its potential to effect change. “They shut down and the South Central portion still has the empty lots, still has the underserved schools, still has the homeless population almost as large as the Skid Row population—if not larger.”

The issues are a symptom of a much deeper problem, Murray says. At the core of the socioeconomic disparities is a clear racial tension that courses through the city. With that in mind, Murray advises Angelenos not to pat themselves on the back when reflecting on how far the city has come. “There’s no ‘post-civil rights,’” he says. “We have made some progress coming out of the fires, coming out of the ashes of the civil unrest of 1992. But we still have a long way to go. We would need to find a Rebuild L.A. that is in it for the long haul.”

History Repeats Itself

Stark reminders of the long way to go that Murray speaks of have come lately in the rash of highly publicized violent crimes.

The killings of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and Kendrec McDade in Pasadena (the 19-year-old was shot March 24 while fleeing the scene of a robbery by police officers under the false impression he was carrying a gun) have again brought the justice system under scrutiny, forcing Americans to reconsider their perceptions of who poses a threat to a community. 

Journalists and analysts have drawn comparisons to the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson, but Murray looks further back—to the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till more than half a century ago. 

Till, a black teenager from Chicago, was visiting family in Mississippi when he unknowingly provoked the ire of a white man who believed Till had whistled at his wife. That summer night in 1955, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, took Till from his uncle’s home and brutally murdered him. The tragedy rocked the nation, and remains firmly planted in the American consciousness. 

“And you could say, ‘Ok, we’ve outgrown that. That was in 1955,’” Murray says. “But here, in 2012, we look at Trayvon Martin, and here we go with the racial profiling on the part of George Zimmerman, with the same police mentality of yesterday.”

The solution to responding appropriately in the cases of Martin and McDade, Murray says, is nothing new. “We’ve got to make it with nonviolence,” he says, grasping his hands. “We must adhere to the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, who passed it on to Martin Luther King, to Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The assumption is: We have enough people of character. We have enough people of good faith. We have people of the modern century.”

Murray leans in. “We are under the mirror, and we are going to be watched closely,” he says. “If we don’t see ourselves in that mirror, then we will lose ourselves like every great nation.”

And in the wake of the most recent shootings, the country seems to be coming to terms with what’s at stake. Charles Blow, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote in his April 6 piece, “The Martin case… holds the potential to be a high point. There is nobility in the advocacy for truth and justice for a dead child who would still be alive if Zimmerman had not pursued him.”

Blow cautioned that “public pressure for a thorough investigation and fair dealings in this case needn’t and mustn’t be defined as a black issue. It’s a universally human issue.”

Murray says he’s optimistic that the nation is ready for a productive dialogue on race. “I think we are beginning to have it,” he says. “America will have to develop an inclusive philosophy. For the first time, the majority whites will be the minority. We have to prepare. And we have to have liberty, and justice, for all—or we have destruction for all.

“Our question,” Murray says, “is the question of the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe’s Island. Lady of Freedom asking us, her children in America, a nation of nations, ‘Aren’t you getting a little old for this?’”

And though the L.A. riots anniversary serves as an opportunity for reflection, Murray says it’s time to look beyond the past. Instead, he proposes we learn from those mistakes and move forward to make the crucial systemic changes. 

“We know what’s right. We are not a dark people—we’ve been there before,” Murray says. “Now our next step is to say, ‘Let’s fix it.’ Ours is not a failure of know-how. Ours is a failure of will.”

The reverend says a crucial first step is cementing an inclusive philosophy would be acknowledging the black community as a significant resource. “Black America is a consumer economy,” he says. “It isn’t enough any longer for any Americans, particularly African Americans to say, ‘Give them a fish.’ It isn’t enough to say, ‘Teach them how to fish.’ Now it’s enough to say, ‘They must learn how to own the pond.’

“We are dreamers, Americans,” Murray says. “Everything depends upon the mentality. If America will adopt its dreamer mentality, then America will achieve everything we have wanted to achieve.”

Murray sighs throughout our conversation. These are things the pastor has talked about time and time again, in sermons and in passing, even before the night the L.A. riots began. These are questions that are still posed to him by members of the South Central community desperately seeking hope. Despite decades-long experience fighting for civil rights, answers to some of his own questions still escape him.

“L.A., where are you?” he asks the floor of the church where 20 years ago he tried to prevent disaster with a similar appeal. And after watching his community struggle to reemerge from the ashes, Murray still rests his faith on that dreamer mentality. 

“The best way to make your dreams come true,” he says, “is to wake up.”


L.A. Riots: A Conversation with Anna Deavere Smith

Published April 24, 2012, on Neon Tommy

As the dust settled after the Los Angeles riots in 1992, people across the nation struggled to make sense of what had led to an explosion of social issues and underlying rage.

Anna Deavere Smith, the award-winning actor who now stars in Showtime's drama "Nurse Jackie," was already several installments deep in a series of one-woman plays examining the more challenging aspects of American society.

“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” drew from more than 300 interviews Smith conducted in the months after the Rodney King riots. She flew to L.A. to meet with key players: Daryl Gates, the disgraced chief of the Los Angeles Police Department; an unnamed white juror in the Simi Valley trial still haunted by what he thought at the time was a just verdict; Reginald Denny, a bystander yanked from his truck by rioters known as the L.A. Four during the upheaval. 

Smith talked to former convicts and social activists, scholars and storeowners, police commissioners and King’s own family members. She met with the average resident of L.A. who had seen the city ravaged inside and out. And she did so with the intent to leave personal judgment off of her stage.

In its finished “docudrama” form, “Twilight” was a series of monologues, quotes verbatim from her interview subjects. The critically acclaimed show ran from 1993 to its final performance aired on PBS in 2000. Smith performed in L.A., New York and London among other cities, peddling the docudrama for audiences to mull over. 

She understood then the gravity of what had happened in L.A. Today Smith has shifted focus toward exploring the inadequacies of the health care industry in her latest play, “Let Me Down Easy.” But she’s found the issues of racial injustice she encountered while producing “Twilight” still go unsolved.

Catherine Green: This wasn’t your first treatment of riots in the U.S. (earlier work, "Fires in the Mirror"). What intrigues you about these historical examples?

Anna Deavere Smith: Social justice is a major thing I’m interested in—the disarray that society is in during something like a race riot or afterwards. I went to Rwanda 10 years after the genocide. I’m very interested in what happens as people try to put themselves back together again. I think the media is interested in capturing the explosion while it’s happening, ‘cause that’s dramatic and it gets your attention. But I’m interested in particular because as people try to put the pieces back together, they’re trying to make sense of it, and it gives them what I call a very heightened will to communicate. 

I use real words on stage, but nonetheless they have to be dramatic words. You know, the same way a dancer doesn’t walk, I have to have a text that’s on the one hand, real, but on the other hand, dramatic, or it won’t be able to sustain what is required on stage. This is a place where I can get this type of organic talking that I often call singing.

CG: What was your ultimate goal in producing this play? One critic, Robert Brustein for The New Republic, wrote in 1994 that your play “leaves us with a shocking sense of how America’s hopes for racial harmony were left burning in the ashes of south-central L.A,” which sounds very doom and gloom. Did you want to offer hope at all?

ADS: There’s nothing the matter with doom and gloom. I think we rush too rapidly to the idea of hope. But most people who are talking about it are talking about optimism. That’s very different. Cornel West, who’s one of the people who ended up in the ultimate version of the play, distinguishes between hope and optimism by saying optimism kind of goes, “Looks pretty good, everything’s going to be better.” And hope is really about looking at the evidence and going, “Looks really horrible, but I’m going to go beyond the evidence I see to create new possibilities.” It’s contagious. It allows people to engage in heroic actions.

But I think that so often to me, that question of hope is really, “Just let me know it’s going to be ok, so I can go back to the normal way I live.” And at that moment in America, and now—not just because of race but because of many other things that we face—we really need people who are willing to say, “Wow, let me get a real look at this problem, and let me roll up my sleeves and figure out how I can be of service, what I have to sacrifice to try to make this better for a lot of people — not just me.” I think the rush to hope, although it is a very important part of American character, is dangerous. 

I can’t tell you how often I speak to people and that question always comes up—“Where’s the hope?” And I understand that about our nature as Americans, but I do think that the real work and real change comes from change agents. It’s urgent that we look at problems carefully. 

CG: What did you learn about yourself while interviewing, researching, performing this piece?

ADS: It was a wonderful transformation that I was able to go through in this whole process. I grew up in basically a southern city in many ways—Baltimore, Maryland, where I thought about race as a black and white phenomenon. If someone wasn’t white, then you were just thinking about how to categorize them. Usually they would be considered black in a way. 

And so coming to Los Angeles, with this extraordinary array of cultures and ethnicities, and the extent to which they were all a part of that drama—I was able to see race in a much more interesting way than I’d ever looked at it before. So for example, what happened to Korean Americans who were in South Central, I was able to learn more about their community, what their aspirations were, and about their very fraught relationship with blacks. I learned that this story about race is not just black and white, that there were the people in the Latino community, for example, many of whom were deported based on suspicion that they could have been involved [with the riots]. 

CG: And in handling such emotionally charged issues, how did you go about maintaining a degree of objectivity? 

ADS: Most people would say that the work was, if not objective, that there was a sense of fairness just by how broad my net was. You know, I interviewed over 320 people, and I am trained as an actress, which is different than being trained as a journalist. An actress understands that you won’t have anything to act in a character if you judge that character. I knew that if I interviewed someone with questions that sound like I’ve come to conclusions and I don’t leave any room for them to tell me what they want to tell me—not what I need them to tell me—I’m not going to have the material that I need. 

So in a way, my objectivity is not some great gift that I have. It comes out of a need to do certain things technically to do my work. I’m also a deeply curious person. That’s a part of my nature.

CG: What still sticks with you about this project? What was the most jarring thing you discovered in the process?

ADS: I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s very hard to answer that notion of the “most.” I will say that when I arrived, it was shocking to me, as it was even for people who saw stuff on TV, to see areas that were literally burned down. That was amazing to me. 

It was very emotional everywhere I went. So many people wept while they were talking to me. You know, the white juror in Simi Valley, he wept because he thought he was doing the right thing. He was really working hard to, from his point of view, bring a just verdict. And he had no idea that the verdict he brought would lead to what some people called a social explosion. 

I couldn’t even begin an interview without saying, “First of all, what do you call what happened?” Because it was so charged that if I said, “Could you talk to me about the riot?” there would be some people that would say, “It wasn’t a riot; it was a revolution.” But if I were to call it a revolution when I talked to Darryl Gates, he would say, “What are you talking about, the revolution? These were hoodlums.”

So to get my work done, I had to really be prepared to really step back and let the people speak. 

And I had to work very quickly, under the pressure of also delivering a play. I worked very, very long hours. I only had one young African American woman, still had braces on her teeth, driving me around in neighborhoods that were very, very dangerous. We went down to Nickerson Gardens. I’ll never forget a guy walking over to us and saying, “What are y’all doing here? You can’t walk around here. You know what, come with me, let me walk you.” 

Or Korean American graduate students at UCLA who called me up to say, “We heard about what you’re doing and we just want you to know we think that you’re going to get it wrong.” And then said, “So, we want to help you.” 

You say jarring, but I would say there were so many times where it wasn’t so much that I was jarred, but my heart was really opened unexpectedly. For example, those girls took me around their neighborhood to talk to people who would never, ever talk to me, an African American woman. They translated for me. 

And also the person who bears the name of the play, Twilight, was a gang member who opened up his world to me. My job is to open my heart to whoever is telling me a story. And so my heart was constantly opened by the generosity of people who wanted me to know quote-unquote, their city. And so you use the word jarring—I wouldn’t use that word. I would say that humanity opened up. It was like a cloud, a storm for me. I feel enormously blessed that I was given that gift from the citizens of Los Angeles.

CG: How involved are you with racial issues like these today?

ADS: My work always has at its core questions about social justice. I don’t want to talk about what my future projects are going to be. I never do that. But even my latest play, “Let Me Down Easy,” looks at healthcare in terms of the inevitable place we’re headed there. We have to do something about this. I think it asks the question, somewhat through race, but somewhat in other ways, how do we create a caring nation? Whether that’s to take care of people of color who don’t have any means, or whether that’s to take care of old people. Do we just throw people away in society? 

So I kind of live in that kind of a question and trying to use art as a way to bring attention to problems that often become a political football. My special thing is, find a way to hear more than one side of the story.

CG: At one point, the titular character and gang member Bey Twilight gives his definition of twilight as a kind of limbo, saying light is the “knowledge and the wisdom of the world,” while darkness is “just identifying with people like me and understanding me and mine.” It seems like we have to overcome this to grow as a city and nation—

ADS: Well let me put it to you. You’re at USC now. That young man told me that 20 years ago. How close are you to that? How much is your education delivering that possibility to you?

CG: Well, personally I grew up in something of a bubble in Indiana in a fairly homogenous, white community. I’ve tried to move beyond that to varying degrees of success. 

ADS: So it seems to me you keep trying. But my question is a real question. And by the way, it’s coming from the investment that I made at USC at a time when it was so far from where it is now. [Smith taught at USC in the mid-1980s in the School of Theatre.] It was not a good place when I taught there. It was simply not. Period, the end. 

And I feel I made a sacrifice, a real professional sacrifice to remain there for as long as I did, which was five years. It was very difficult. And it was an environment that was exceedingly uncharitable to me, and to people of color. I’m not saying anything to you I haven’t said publicly before, or written about. And so I’m pleased that it has gone as far as it has. 

But do you feel that it has resources? I really hope it does. My sense is that it does.  The only way you’re going to have leadership in the world going forward, is to increase your sense of the other. 

CG: Outside of USC, has that progress been evident to you anywhere? Are we doomed to have history repeat itself? If we have a negative verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, for example.

ADS: Well, we don’t know enough, you and I. We should just watch how we talk about that. We don’t know anything yet. We’re both journalists of a sort, so if we’re really interested in more than just talking about it, we either need to get on a plane or we need to do something to keep alert. We need to be as alert as possible, right? 

Again, my earlier caution to you, I feel that we jump too quickly to this sort of desire for a good ending. What we should do is get stronger about really taking a hard look at what’s in front of us. So without having done any research, which is dangerous, but based on the kinds of things I hear about our education system, all I can say is, I as an educator, who came from a family of educators, I only know about the possibility there, to try to give to the people the tools that they need to be productive members of society. 

And so given the fact that I feel those tools are not being equitably shared, I remain extraordinarily concerned—as concerned as I was 20 years ago when I came to Los Angeles to try and understand how in the world history could be repeating itself—because as you know, in the ‘60s, something similar happened in your city. 

CG: So in developing those tools and providing that education, what can we do to have a productive conversation about race?

ADS: I want to caution you about using those words—“productive conversation” or “good conversation.” That was the language 20 years ago. And I think what we’re seeing now is, conversations happen in communities of people who have time and resources to have a conversation. The people who are most vulnerable are the ones who don’t. What your generation can do is change the language and find a way to get to action—productive action.


L.A. Riots: Rebuild L.A.'s Ambitious Attempts to Revive the City

Published April 24, 2012, on Neon Tommy

When Bernard Kinsey signed on as co-chairman of Rebuild Los Angeles, the organization seemed like the city’s best hope for restoration after rioting sparked by the Rodney King verdict.

Kinsey joined former Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth to head the program targeting economic development in South Central L.A., an area that had been ravaged by looting and destruction in April 1992. Fifty-four people were killed, another 2,000 injured by riots in response to the news that four police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King a year before were acquitted. More than 3,000 businesses were damaged, devastating the 67-square-mile community and its 2.3 million residents. 

The riots shook the city to its core, and left L.A. in desperate need of intervention. That’s where Kinsey and Co. came in.

“Our simple premise when we were formed back in 1992, literally while the city was still smoldering,” the philanthropist said during a recent phone interview, “was we wanted to involve the community, the government, and the thing that had been missing in every riot that’s happened from the ‘60s forward—businesses.”

But the program’s approach drew mixed reviews. Critics chalked up the organization’s demise to several pitfalls—that it was lead by the wrong people, fizzled out too early to bring real reform or overreached beyond realistic expectations. A daunting task on its own, attracting investors to the underserved community turned out to be the least challenging part of Rebuild L.A.’s efforts. 

Early on, the group had an easy relationship with city leadership. L.A.’s department of building and safety planning allowed Kinsey and Ueberroth to open a Rebuild L.A. window where businesses could expedite the permit application process. But that amicability could simply have been because city government was in its own state of crisis. 

“During 1992, there was really nobody running Los Angeles,” Kinsey said. Then-Mayor Tom Bradley had announced he would not seek reelection, and both the Board of Supervisors and City Council were in flux. “Part of what we did with Rebuild L.A. was fill that vacuum,” Kinsey said. “And we filled it quite well.”

According to Kinsey, Rebuild L.A. renovated 63 percent of those businesses within two years of its inception. During his stint as chairman between 1992 and ’94, Kinsey saw the program make good on $380 million of a pledged $500 million in investments from corporations.

Before they could convince investors the South Central area was a worthwhile business venture, Rebuild L.A. needed to get the lay of the land. Ueberroth enlisted the help of strategy management consulting firm McKinsey & Company to survey the riot area.

“They found that three things were oversupplied in the black community: funeral homes, liquor stores and gun stores,” Kinsey said. “All of the things that people would consider services they would want—drug stores, book stores, libraries, parks, grocery stores particularly—were underserved by a magnitude of 10.”

Rebuild L.A. set out to develop those needed services, creating a hiring boom in the community. They pitched to chain stores like Vons and Ralphs, dangling the African American consumer market and those expedited building permits as bait. 

“If you were an RLA client like Vons—and later many, many people were our clients—you would go to the head of the line,” Kinsey said. Instead of waiting three years to start building, businesses could receive permits in as little as 13 months. “If you had our endorsement, the city was willing to work with you and help you get a building permit a lot quicker.”

But that endorsement came only if business owners agreed to a few conditions. 

“They would do two things,” Kinsey said. “They would one, hire within three miles of the area they were putting the store in, and two, they would have a Latino or African American or Korean manager in the stores. And they did it.”

Rebuild’s Early Successes

Within its first six months, Rebuild L.A. had tapped the city’s grocer giants to build more than 30 stores in South L.A. “We set it up to run it like a business and we ran it like a business.”

Rebuild L.A. was effective at first, but short-lived. By 1995, it had downsized to a glorified small business loan firm. Even the Rev. Cecil Murray, former pastor for First African Methodist Episcopal Church and prominent community figure who refers to Kinsey as his “homeboy,” had critical words for the initiative.

“Rebuild L.A. was a fine concept,” Murray said during a recent interview. “I think it did not last long enough so that it could go deep enough to solve the problems. All of these things would have had to take at least 30 years, a generation, and not three years. We would need to find a Rebuild L.A. that is in it for the long haul.”

Kinsey remains unyielding in his defense of Rebuild L.A. 20 years on, but does acknowledge the program was flawed in its timetable.

“We didn’t want to be a bureaucratic agency that’s around 30 years from now,” he said. “We wanted to do this in five years. And frankly, now as I look back on it, we probably should have done it in 10 years rather than five. But we wanted to show people that we were not there to supplant the supervisors, the county, the mayor and all these other agencies.”

As Kinsey pointed out though, those offices were essentially vacant when the organization first started. Once city leadership found its footing, the program’s dynamic with local government shifted out of Rebuild L.A.’s favor. “Then people that really had no real interest in the community anymore, had more interest in power grabbing, tried to make it look like we didn’t know what we were doing. They didn’t like it because they couldn’t tell us what to do.”

But that’s exactly what city officials did. Kinsey said Rebuild L.A. was forced to diversify its leadership model, a demand that quickly snowballed. Soon, the agency was headed by five co-chairs and a board 94-members strong. “Those board meetings were just a farce. They decided that they wanted to have a Latino; they wanted a female, wanted to have an Asian. Before you know it, we had five people making the decisions where before it was just Peter and I. And it just wasn’t practical.” 

With so many voices involved, the mission of Rebuild L.A. became blurred, taking on too many social issues to be fully effective in dealing with any one of them. Board members pushed for health care and education reform, ignoring Kinsey and Ueberroth’s objections that these weren’t the point of the agency. 

Their authority was further diminished with a demand by the City Council for regular reports, “like we were some subversive organization,” and a rocky relationship with new Mayor Richard Riordan, who was elected in 1993. “When he got to be mayor,” Kinsey said, “what he wanted to do was to have, quote, this private agency that was wielding, quote, all of the power and took up all of the L.A. Times. He wanted that power back.”

Kinsey watched his control over Rebuild L.A. dwindle until finally, “I said, ‘I don’t need this. This is not what I signed up for.’ So I left.”

His departure in early 1994 came just a few months after Ueberroth’s. Without its instrumental frontmen, the program rapidly began to fade. “From ’94 to ’97,” Kinsey said, “there was nothing that happened. Rebuild L.A. became a study group. That’s the best I can say.”

Kinsey maintained without the power struggle, Rebuild L.A. might have been much more effective in reviving the community, even within its short five-year window. ”I think having this public-private partnership is a pretty unique concept. But you gotta get it out of the bureaucratic confines of the city.”

Mixed Reviews for Kinsey

Nearly 20 years later, he still speaks highly of the program.

The New York Times said it right. It said that Rebuild L.A. was the most effective riot response in the history of this country—period,” Kinsey said. “And no other organization’s even comes close to providing the kind of tangible and real results Rebuild L.A. did.”

That praise from The New York Times Kinsey referenced, however, actually came from the former co-chair himself. A January 1994 article announced Kinsey’s decision to step down as co-chair, and served as an early assessment of the program. In it, reporter Calvin Sims wrote, “Asked if Rebuild L. A. had been successful so far, Mr. Kinsey said the organization had been the most effective post-riot effort in the nation's history.”

Despite Kinsey’s personal endorsement, the organization drew significant criticism for failing to be the cure-all many had hoped it would become. Economist Jack Kyser, quoted in a later Times piece published in May 1994, said the program was doomed from the start. “There were so many competing groups that wanted Rebuild L.A. to wave a magic wand and solve all their problems,” Kyser said. 'The expectations were too grand for anyone to meet.'”

Mark Ridley-Thomas, then a City Council member serving on Rebuild L.A.’s board, blamed much of the promising program’s failure on one figurehead in particular. 

Asked for comment on Kinsey’s retirement, Ridley-Thomas said, “In all candor, it's very difficult to give Mr. Kinsey high marks. I view his being there as more of a liability than an asset."

Ridley-Thomas, now a supervisor for L.A. County, still stands by his critique of both the program and its co-chairman. "There was a time of high tension and impatience and Rebuild L.A. had a very difficult time getting its focus. It meant that it was not as effective as many of us would have hoped," he said in a recent interview with Neon Tommy. "I don't mean to suggest that it did nothing, but it certainly didn't rise to the occasion."

Internal battles aside, a number of critics of the program seconded Kyser’s point that Rebuild L.A.’s task was simply too great. Anthony Downs, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in 1994, said it would have been nearly impossible to get investments substantial enough to truly address an inner city’s issues.

“You can’t expect a few businessmen and a few residents to cope with those monumental problems on their own,” Downs told the Times. “The job of an organization like Rebuild L.A. is probably impossible without some greater change in society.” 

Kinsey said the group was well aware L.A.’s problems at the time. “Remember, this city was in trouble,” he said. “This city didn’t know which way it was going to go.” That chaos was further complicated by the politicking and power struggles inside the organization. “We had this tug-of-war, and the tension there was just extraordinary.”

So, dropping his end of the rope, Kinsey moved on. The retired vice president of Xerox said he still had the luxury of not needing gainful employment. He could focus on other avenues to give back to his community. 

Today, he and wife Shirley work to preserve national African-American heritage through art and historical documents in the Kinsey Collection. The trove was most recently on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. During its seven-month stay, the collection drew in an estimated 2.5 million visitors, Kinsey will proudly report.

“We’ve gone from one serious thing, to another serious thing, to another serious thing,” he said. “In other words, I don’t sit around. And the reason you don’t hear me talk about looking back so much is ‘cause I’m not a look-back kind of guy.” 

But Kinsey spent the bulk of an interview doing just that rather than addressing the city’s problems left over the riots. Though prompted several times, he offered little concrete advice for tackling these issues. 

Asked what he’d do differently if charged again with the insurmountable task of rebuilding L.A., Kinsey seemed only to wish the circumstances had been different 20 years ago. 

“We had the right mission and the like,” he said. “But this whole notion of trying to appease all these different groups really ended up being our downfall.

“It was just too much.”

Then-Editor-at-Large Tom Dotan contributed reporting to this story. 


Police-Teen Advisory Board Bridges the Gap in L.A.

Published March 26, 2012, on Neon Tommy

Ten o’clock in the morning is still considered early for most college students. Isaiah Alexander, a founding member of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Teen Community Police Advisory Board, is no different.
“Hello?” a groggy voice answers when I call on a recent Tuesday.

“I’m, uh, standing on your porch,” I say. The spitting mist has just turned into a steady rain outside the suburban Sacramento house, and I’d like to be indoors.

“Oh, for real? Hang on.” The line goes dead. A moment later, Isaiah opens his front door. He’s wearing a white undershirt and his head is wrapped up—a far cry from the suit and tie he wore when we first met at Councilman Joe Buscaino’s inauguration party in February. But as soon as he smiles to welcome me in, he becomes the same charming, eloquent kid who stood behind the podium to boast  about his mentor, Papa Joe.

Isaiah says the nickname may very well have come from their first encounter in 2005 at the Boys and Girls Club of San Pedro. That’s when former senior lead officer Buscaino and his supervisor, Sgt. Catherine Plows, showed up to rally interest in a new idea they wanted to try.

As Plows told it, the inception of the Teen Community Police Advisory Board, or Teen CPAB, stemmed from Buscaino’s hope to break down barriers between police and local youth. “Joe came to me,” she recalled, “and said, ‘Hey Sarge, don’t you think it’d be great if we could have a teen CPAB?’ And I said, ‘Well, Joe, that’s a really good idea.’”

The station already had a model in place for getting input from adults. “We develop plans with the community on a regular basis—you know, what’s bothering your neighborhood, what quality of life issues are concerning you,” she said when we met earlier this month at Harbor Division. “The only people we weren’t hearing from was the kids.”

So Plows and Buscaino set out to create a sounding board for officers and teenagers around the community, a group that would meet every two weeks or so to talk out problems and identify opportunities for civic engagement. They would eventually find a core set of members—co-chairs, a secretary and treasurer—to lead the group of about 15 kids at each meeting. Besides community issues, kids would also get time to ask officers about themselves—to see the people behind the badge.

First though, they would have to get teenagers to hear them out.

“They had boxes and boxes of pizza—you can always get kids to come if you got free food,” Isaiah says, remembering the day Plows and Buscaino pitched the idea. “Papa Joe was just speaking about having kids work together with the police officers, give us a voice. Supposed to be something real new, something fresh, something different. Seems pretty cool, you know?”

He says it appealed to his interests in community involvement. “I like to be in charge, I guess. And I like to have my ideas used. And Joe, he was just head of it all—he made it happen with those boxes of pizza,” Isaiah says, before adding with a grin, “If he hadn’t had pizza, I don’t know if I would have been there.”

There was no free food at the next meeting. There were, however, elections for positions on the board. Isaiah gave a short stump speech and quickly became co-chair. Before long, he was meeting regularly with officers, traveling with Plows and Buscaino to cities as far away as Atlanta for police conferences.

Peer Distrust

At first, Isaiah says, he was a little wary of his new surroundings. “It’s like, yo, this is a lot of officers, a lot of handcuffs around me,” he says, “a lot of badges and batons.” Before getting involved with Teen CPAB, Isaiah’s impression of the police was probably milder than for some his age. “My idea wasn’t so much that the police were bad, the police were mean—I just knew that the police did stuff that people didn’t like,” he says. 

“I did know the risk—you know, with all the stories out there and me being a young black man. You just never know. You could be the next story.”

Because of that perception, Isaiah says some of his friends were suspicious of the collaboration. “A lot of the people I worked with were like, ‘You work with the police? You a narc, you’re a this, you’re a that,’” he says, twisting his face into a sneer. “But I’d tell them, at the end of the day, no matter if it’s a police officer or the president, a person is a person and a human is a human.

“They’re taking care of us and you have faith in them,” he continues, “because when you call 911, you want a police officer to come. So it’s like, why not build that relationship so that phone call can go smoother?”

Isaiah said that understanding helped him develop a close bond with his Teen CPAB officers. After spending so much time together, Plows and Buscaino in particular began to play bigger roles in Isaiah’s life. When he got his first job at a movie theater, they even chipped in to buy him a car—a bright red 1994 Honda Civic EX—so he could get to work on time each day.

“They didn’t have to give me the opportunity to be head of something that could really help our generation. They didn’t have to do any of that,” Isaiah says. “But they did, and they were genuine through the whole process. We were like a family.”

That bond has stayed strong even as Isaiah has struggled to make use of the college opportunities Teen CPAB afforded him. He started out attending Sacramento State University on scholarship, but had to drop out after a rough year in 2010. It was hard for the then-18-year-old to stay on track without the support system he’d found in Teen CPAB.

But his mentors didn’t lose faith in him. “Papa Joe’s always telling me, stay focused,” Isaiah says. “He has a real accurate grip on what it takes to be successful. That’s the type of motivation that really helps, especially when it’s not just coming from your mother. It makes you feel like there’s actually something about me that I can use.”

Isaiah is upfront about the effect his homelife has had on his extracurricular activities. “I don’t have a father, so I always want a male mentor. Just having Papa Joe and Sgt. Plows motivate me every time I go back home, it feels so good,” he says.

Those visits usually include some well-meaning prodding. “Going to the station, seeing Papa Joe, Seeing Sgt. Plows, I always hear, ‘How’s school? Graduating? You better graduate.’ It’s like yeah, let me make sure I get that,” For now, Isaiah is taking classes at Sacramento City College, a nearby community college. He plans to re-enroll at Sacramento State as soon as possible. 

He credits Teen CPAB with helping him develop some key life skills he’ll use on his way to a career in either politics or marketing management. “It was like full-blown. I was able to travel, I was able to network, I was able to be a part of decisions and ideas that really came to life. It wasn’t just talk,” he says. “We really did stuff. It was real cool to be a part of something like that.”

Listening Is Key

Almost seven years later, the model appears to still be working.

Current Co-chair Kavita Desai is every bit as motivated as her predecessor when it comes to civic engagement. “Well personally, I have a hard life at home—my parents don’t really let me hang out with friends during the weekends,” she said. “Being involved in my community allows my parents to know that I’m safe and that I’m doing a good job. They motivate me to continue doing so.

“It’s more like I formed a family within these community organizations. They just really touched my heart.”

When asked what kind of tools she’s already gotten out of her three years with the program, Kavita’s voice climbed upward in a familiar teenaged lilt. “Like, leadership skills?” she said. “I’ve noticed in school that it’s really hard for kids to get involved with their communities. They lean toward the more negative side of growing up as a teenager. I think programs like these allow my peers to be involved in positive environments and grow from them.”

Senior Lead Officer Ria Garcenila, who took over Buscaino’s role as coordinator in January when he left for City Council, said she believes growth from this kind of involvement is inevitable.
“I think it’s contagious,” she said. “I think that once people learn that they make a positive impact in the community, there’s no turning back. I think that people will always try to give back. That’s the seed we want to plant.”

The officers behind Teen CPAB have tried to find constructive ways to nourish that seed. One creative project they've come up with is the board’s annual Public Service Announcement campaign. Each year, youth members pick a community issue they’re most concerned about and produce a short film spot to reach their peers. In the past, targeted issues have included curfew and truancy. This year, the board is working on promoting responsible skateboarding in light of the recent deaths of two San Pedro teens who were riding unsafely.

“We just thought we should address how severe or how important it is to wear helmets and be safe on streets and stuff,” Kavita said, shifting in her seat.

The project is still in the planning phase. “It shouldn’t take them that long,” Garcenila said. “I asked them to think of a commercial they thought was impactful, why they felt it made an impression of them. Is it the music, is it a visual impact? Is it what’s being said or who’s speaking to you? So I said, think about all those things and put them together. Then think about whether you’d watch that and if it would make a difference to you. That’s your springboard.”

Advice from Isaiah

It’s the kind of inspiring guidance over heavy-handed supervision that characterized Teen CPAB from the start—a tradition Isaiah will be happy to hear is still in place.

“I just hope wherever the program is now that it’s still that vibe—that the officers or whoever’s in charge have the same passion that Papa Joe and Sgt. Plows had in it to be really genuine,” he says. “Because the kids, they can smell it if an adult is just playing a role.”

Sgt. Plows said teens are still the priority. “It’s the kids, the kids that are there that need a voice. They need to hear, they need to be heard, they need to speak. So what better way for us as adults to recognize what’s going on in our communities than by asking?” she said. “But then listening.”

Inside the Sacramento house he shares with a few other students, Isaiah sits forward in his chair, clearly still passionate about the program that spoke to him as a 16-year-old. In simple words, he sums up the secret behind sustaining Teen CPAB’s success.

“If you’re going to empower youth, then empower them.”


The Big Leagues: Buscaino Joins The Horseshoe

Published February 14, 2012, on Neon Tommy

It’s the morning of his first committee meeting, and Councilman Joe Buscaino can’t get into City Hall.
“I knew it—it’s not gonna work,” he says. Standing outside the executive elevator in the depths of the parking garage, he holds his access card up to the sensor once, twice, three times—nothing.

He’s not surprised, but Buscaino isn’t grumbling. Despite the snafu on this already hectic Tuesday morning, he maintains the good-natured attitude that’s become part of his public persona. It’s not lost on him that this is the perfect illustration of his touted status as a political outsider.

When Buscaino defeated Assemblyman Warren Furutani in January’s special election for the 15th District, it seemed to catch even the winning candidate off guard. “This isn’t supposed to happen,” he’s often said of his victory. But he follows that incredulousness with praise for the grassroots effort that put him in office, the people from his hometown who believed in his vision enough to cast their ballots in his favor.

I tagged along on Buscaino’s morning commute from San Pedro to downtown L.A. as part of a series following the new councilman in the early months of his tenure at City Hall. It’s a drive he’ll make every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday as he settles into the job, splitting time with his duties in District 15.

Now if only he could get to his new office. Thankfully, Councilman Tom LaBonge arrives to save the day, music blaring from his city-issued sedan. LaBonge razzes the council’s youngest member, grabbing his shoulder and firing off gems of grandfatherly advice about the nuances of public office, all the way up to the fourth floor. There, the two men part to meet their staffs and prepare for the day.

After a quick scan of background materials, Buscaino is hustled off for his debut in the Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee. His easygoing disposition comes out again during the morning meeting when a community representative congratulates Buscaino on his recent election, before adding, “But how do you pronounce your name?”

“Like the blue sky,” he told the man. “Just think, ‘Blue-sky-ee-no.’ ”

To the people who know him from San Pedro though, it’s “Joe.” Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon of the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau is responsible for starting Buscaino’s 15-year career with the force. It was Gannon who promoted him to senior lead officer six years ago when they served together at the Harbor station.

“I’ve worked a lot of different assignments and in April, it’ll be 34 years with the police department. I’ve seen a lot of different people work as a community cop,” Gannon said. “Some have done a really good job, and others weren’t very good to be honest with you. Joe was exceptional at it.”

But Gannon met him long before that, when Buscaino was still a college kid working as an assistant at San Pedro’s Bogdanovich Recreation Center. “You know, the same thing I saw in Joe when he was a rec. assistant I saw when he was a young police officer,” Gannon said. “He was enthusiastic, and all he wanted to do was help in some way and make things better.”

According to his captain at the time, Buscaino was more grounded than most, an average-guy trait he’s brought up again and again on his way to City Council. “Sometimes in young police officers, they get this kinda like, ‘It’s me against them,’ idea. And they forget about all the other people around them,” Gannon said. “Joe never lost that perspective.”

Buscaino’s track record as a police officer seems to back up that endorsement. While at the Harbor station, he created the first Teen Community Police Advisory Board, an initiative that has since spread to police departments across the city. Based on an existing community soundboard idea, in which residents meet monthly with police captains to voice their concerns and prioritize neighborhoods’ biggest issues, Buscaino extended that same invitation for input to the Harbor area kids.

“They started anti-bullying campaigns. They did PSAs on graffiti and other issues, they held conferences where they had hundreds of kids show up to talk about these things. That was all Joe that put that stuff together,” Gannon said. “It was a huge undertaking on his part.”

From where Buscaino stood, that kind of responsibility came with the territory. “As I’ve often said, being a senior lead officer in my hometown is somewhat like being a small-town councilman,” he said while on his Tuesday morning commute from San Pedro to City Hall. “Bringing people together, improving the quality of life, just wanting to do good for others, wanting to serve—I have that passion.”

Sitting in the driver seat, he chewed furiously on sugar-free gum from a package tucked into the car’s cup-holder as he calmly navigated through traffic. Even in this mundane setting, the determination his former boss spoke of was apparent.

To his loved ones, it’s shown in the community work he’s done from an early age. “My family has told me that they're not surprised. They just knew that the love for this city has been with me since I was a kid,” Buscaino said. It was Joe back then who volunteered at church, joined student government to enact change on a small scale, signed up to feed the homeless and visit senior centers. “And I’m often reminded of that—that you know what, this is in your blood. This is your destiny to serve and give back and do good for others.”

When asked how he would want his community to remember him as he moves into local politics, Buscaino said he hoped it would be something similar to the way people saw him as a senior lead officer.

“Someone who cared about the community. Someone who was responsive, who included people in the problem-solving process. Also, someone who held people accountable for their actions,” he said. “That’s just not gonna change.”

San Pedro residents will be happy to hear that. The waterfront community feels like an ideal town to grow up in It’s little wonder why Buscaino would want to keep it that way for future generations. It’s well kept, friendly and welcoming. But there’s room for improvement.

“We have tree trimming that needs to be done. We have crosswalks for the kids that need to be restriped. We have stoplights that need to be put in,” said Leslie Jones, co-owner of the Omelette and Waffle Shop at the corner of Gaffey and 11th streets. These problems might seem minor, but to the people who live in the neighborhood, the fact that they go unresolved reflects a lack of attention and respect from L.A.’s City Hall.

Still, Jones seemed confident Buscaino would take care of it. She worked extensively with him when he was still on the police force, starting a business watch on Gaffey Street to keep an eye on the neighborhood. “Well, I know that he’s dedicated to the task that he takes at hand,” she said above the afternoon bustle of her diner. “I think quality of life—it needs to step it up a little bit. I think with Joe being from the Harbor area, he knows a lot about the communities in Wilmington, San Pedro and Harbor City. He’s going to address those issues.”

And she’s willing to wait. “I feel that he needs his fair share of time, ‘cause I know our city is very desperate right now with money,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of the services we need, so he’s got a lot on his plate. But if he makes it through these 18 months and we elect him again, I think that he’d serve our city and our district well.”

When he talks about his recent campaign success, Buscaino doesn’t take that community support for granted. He seems in awe still of the grassroots effort that landed him in his new seat. Fellow Councilman Paul Krekorian can relate.

“It reminded me very much of the way that I got elected to this office, based on the strength and support of people in neighborhoods as opposed to special interests in City Hall,” he said last week, having just stepped out of council chambers. “I think that’s going to be a terrific starting point for his service here. It gives him an ability to be an independent voice who speaks firmly and loudly and assertively on behalf of his constituents.”

The two councilmen will serve on Public Works and Public Safety together. “I’m very much looking forward to working with Joe. I think we kind of came from the same place. We’re gonna be able to work very closely together to try to bring reform to the way city government delivers services to the people.”

And like Jones, Krekorian was prepared to be patient with the new guy. “It’s a new system to try to understand, trying to get your arms around all the issues and the processes here. It’s difficult. But if he brings the same kind of energy to this job that he brought to his campaign, which I know he will, I have no doubt that he’s going to perform exceptionally well and make a real difference right from the get-go.”

And on Tuesday, as he walks quickly from his committee meeting toward the horseshoe of the John Ferraro Council Chamber, that enthusiasm comes through as an almost boy-like wonder. Staff members practically jog to keep up with his long strides as they give him breathless last-minute briefings, but he’s gazing up at the columns and chandeliers inside City Hall. The small-town guy from San Pedro still can’t believe this is his office.

Deputy Chief Gannon said that’s a character trait that has continued to serve him well. “I’ll probably always see Joe as a young guy, but that kind of youthful enthusiasm has never left,” he said of his one-time protégé. “There’s nothing that he doesn’t think could be accomplished if you just work hard enough.

“And he’s already fighting for people, he’s already fighting for his constituency—he’s trying to fight for what’s right. I think the world of him, I really do.”


Kneading the System: Mark Stambler's Cottage Food Crusade

Published December 11, 2011, on Neon Tommy

Note: This story won me my first award from the Los Angeles Press Club in 2012 for best online feature, a category dominated by career professionals.

Mark Stambler belongs in the kitchen. Inside his Los Feliz home, flour dusts the counters and floors of the charming sunlit room. Baskets and wrapping cloths are stacked and folded nearby, ready to welcome fresh loaves from the backyard brick oven he built himself.

“Now, I go at it with my hands,” Stambler says, thrusting them into a large Tupperware container of water and flour. Standing next to him as he works the dough, it’s clear this is a labor of love. It’s also one frowned upon by multiple levels of government.

Stambler has been baking his own bread since the 1970s. A year or so ago, the 58-year-old grantwriter tried to make a business venture out of his cherished hobby. But he soon came up against Los Angeles County’s strict health regulations that block homemade foods from reaching consumers. Higher up, state law requires producers to use commercial kitchens, banning the sale of foods made directly in-house.

According to HomebasedBaking.com, 31 states have enacted cottage food laws to make it easier for people to profit from the fruits of their foodie talents. California is not among them. Stambler has embarked on something of a crusade to change that.

He’s working with Assemblyman Mike Gatto, Northern California’s Sustainable Economies Law Center and Los Angeles Bread Bakers to introduce the appropriate legislation. But his determination to fix the system came only after losing patience with what he calls “regulation run amok.”

Business Is Booming

Stambler makes his bread simply, using just water, flour and salt. Family and friends rave over his loaves of rye and wheat, encouragement that pushed him to broaden his consumer base. Last year, he reached out to some local specialty shops. Chris Pollan at The Cheese Store of Silver Lake and Marta Teegan of Echo Park’s Cookbook agreed to start carrying his bread. Stambler said both owners knew full well at the start of their working relationships he was baking without the appropriate permits, in unapproved conditions.

Customers didn’t seem to mind; the stores regularly sold out of his product. At the height of his success, Stambler was baking 60 to 70 loaves a week to meet demand. The media took notice.
Jenn Garbee, a stringer for The Los Angeles Times, approached Stambler, eager to tell his story. But she and the breadmaker eventually came to an impasse over permission to print the names and locations of the stores carrying his loaves. Stambler had some reservations; he wanted to protect the small business owners who had given him a chance.

“If they shut me down, fine,” he said, recalling his thought process. “I’m taking a chance here, and I’m taking it on myself. But I don’t want to get anybody else in trouble.” Garbee pressed him, saying they owed it to readers to deliver the tips. The story wouldn’t run without them.

Stambler was not immune to the appeal of getting his 15 minutes. “I have to admit,” he said later, “the lure of being published in a major newspaper like this is kind of irresistible. And so with all these factors, I said ok.” The story would ultimately be Stambler’s downfall.

The print version of Garbee’s article ran in The Times’ Food section the first Thursday of June. That same afternoon, county health inspectors stopped by Cookbook and The Cheese Store, ransacking the inventories in search of the contraband bread and humiliating the owners.

Stambler said he was angry when he got the first panicked phone call from Teegan. “At heart, even though I knew this was a possibility, I also thought it was kind of a small possibility,” he said. “I never thought that the health department would get so exorcised about something like this.

“But that’s sort of the beginning of the story,” he said. Stambler laughed, but a hint of bitterness came through as he cupped his mug of coffee. He sat at a table inside his kitchen, where he’d grown his baking business from scratch before nearly losing it all in a regulatory nightmare. “It’s been going on since then.”

‘The House That Jack Built’

The following Tuesday, Stambler called the district bureau of the county’s department of public health. “I said, look, I want to work with you. I want to sell legitimately. What do I have to do?” he recalled. Inspector Karen Brown Franklin told him he just needed to find a bakery to sell his bread, and draft a written agreement that made it look like the facility’s staff was doing the baking.

Stambler thought he was in the clear. Department officials told him as much, just as long as wholesale transactions accounted for less than half of the bakery’s business each year. “I had a big rubber stamp made, I registered the name of my bread with the state,” he said. “I was ready to go.”

But the county’s Plan Check services curbed his ambitions. After slogging through a series of underlings and supervisors, Stambler was told the county doesn’t allow sharing of wholesale and retail operations in facilities. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re going into a thousand markets across the United States or you’re going to sell it at two stores in your community,” he said. The county still considered his small-scale operation wholesale, while the bakery was licensed as a retail business.

According to Stambler, L.A. is the only county in California with that rigid distinction. He ran into the same problem when he tried next to bake out of a friend’s catering kitchen.

Other home producers have sidestepped this roadblock by working in commercial kitchens. But according to Silver Lake-based preserver Carolyn Cooper, it’s an expensive arrangement, and one that only comes after jumping through government agency hoops.

“I don’t know if I can remember it fully or if I blocked it out on purpose,” Cooper said from beneath a cramped tent set up at Atwater Village’s Sunday farmers market. The 56-year-old decided to start her preserves business, Jam I Am, after falling in love with the process, the “art in a jar” she was able to give out to family and friends. It’s a passion that sustained her through the convoluted process of legitimizing her business.

Following protocol, or what she could make of it, Cooper applied for a business permit, filed and published a DBA (“doing business as”), secured a permit to sell at a farmers market after gaining approval from the Atwater Village location, and passed a food safety manager certificate course so she could use a certified commercial kitchen and earn a county health permit.

“It’s kind of like the house that Jack built,” she said. “You kind of have to work backwards.” Cooper now cooks out of Pasadena’s Chefs Center of California, an industrial kitchen used by several local start-up businesses, including food trucks and caterers.

But Cooper said the kitchen can get crowded. Its hours are limited, and for such a time-consuming process of making preserves, the rate can be a hefty financial burden. On top of the unforeseen costs of establishing her business, and the annual permit fees so she can offer free samples at the Jam I Am booth, Cooper has yet to break even. Luckily, she and most other home producers aren’t in it for the money.

Homefront Contamination

Stambler and Cooper have both been discouraged as they’ve tried to navigate the county’s confusing web of health regulations. And while Cooper, who holds a master’s in public health, said she can appreciate their concerns, Stambler said he thinks the rules are a little extreme for low-risk foods like bread.

“There’s nothing to go bad in bread if it’s just flour, water and salt,” he said. “My bread—bread that’s made in a very, very traditional way—you leave it out on a counter for a year and there won’t be any mold on it. It’ll be very stale, but you can still eat it and it won’t kill you.”

Bread falls into the county’s category of “non potentially hazardous foods,” joining granola, popcorn and nuts. In theory, these products should carry less of a risk for contamination or food-borne illness. But Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health in the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said that’s not necessarily the case.

“The standards for food production are that foods are produced so they’re wholesome and free of contamination,” he said during a November interview. “Rodent droppings in a loaf of bread are just as much a problem as improper food handling in other potentially hazardous foods.”

As for the county’s distinction between retail and wholesale regulations, Bellomo said different precautions must be taken as more end-point businesses enter the equation.

“The food handling techniques are very similar,” he said, “but the urgency to be able to contact all of the locations that may have received food product—that is certainly unique to the wholesale food processing industry.”

Coming from Bellomo, the county’s regulations sound straight out of a public health manual. But Stambler said officials he’s met with have been unable to show him in writing the exact rules against home production.

Stambler sees the problem as deeply ingrained in the layers of government overseeing food safety. “When you think about it, all the state guidelines for health really come down from the Food and Drug Administration,” he said. The agency’s national standards may not be appropriate for smaller networks.

“When it gets down to the community level, you have the same strictures in place that are supposed to govern immense wholesalers. They’re applying it to small businesses and it just doesn’t make any sense,” Stambler said. “It’s a matter of governance gone a little haywire here, and it really does have to be scaled back to fit the needs of the community.”

A Labor of Love

Stambler expressed his frustrations publicly in follow-up articles after his run-in with the county. His complaints did not fall on deaf ears.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto personally reached out to the breadmaker, who had already started working with the Sustainable Economies Law Center to draw up legislation that would introduce cottage food laws in California. Gatto said during a recent phone interview he would have a bill ready to submit Jan. 5 when the legislature reconvenes.

“This bill should pass,” Gatto said. His voice strained on “should,” revealing a cautious optimism. “Certainly Sacramento has surprised me in the past, but this one makes sense. You’ve got the small business angle, the local products angle—and laws should make sense.”

But even if the state does enact a cottage food law, county departments will still be able to interpret the new rules as they see fit. Stambler knows the bill is just a piece of the puzzle in streamlining regulations to allow the sale of his homemade bread, but he said the fight is worth it.

“I would eventually like to open up a bakery,” he said. “I would like to bake bread for a living and I feel that right now, I’m being held back by the laws and the codes that are in place.”

He’s scaled back his baking since the county started keeping an eye on him. Stambler still supplies a community supported agriculture group, Silver Lake Farms, with about 13 loaves a week. The rest he gives out to family and friends.

On a recent Thursday, Stambler was back in his kitchen, mixing batches of dough to bake the next day. Once he had finished and cleaned up, washed the bowls and swiped off the counters, he settled back at the kitchen table to talk about why, after so much frustration, he continues to bake his bread.

“Just the flavor of it,” he said, closing his eyes and leaning back in his chair. “It’s wonderful stuff.” Even at its peak, Stambler’s breadbaking wasn’t terribly lucrative. But he said he would still try to make a career of it if state and county regulations allowed.

“Much as I love helping nonprofits raise money and govern themselves better,” he said, “I think as I move into that next phase of my life, it’s going to be devoted to breadbaking.”

For now, though, he’s focused on getting his cottage food bill passed. Gov. Jerry Brown will have the final say in whether he’ll be able to sell the bread he lovingly bakes.

Stambler said the governor has been unpredictable in the past, but if given the chance to plead his case personally, he’d let his loaves do the talking. “I’d say, Jerry—taste this.”


In the Aftermath of Eviction, Occupy L.A. Looks to Relocate

Published November 30, 2011, on Neon Tommy

The most striking thing about city hall lawn Wednesday morning was the noisy din in the absence of protesters.
Beeping, crashing and scraping from heavy machinery made for more of a commotion than the demonstrators of Occupy L.A. had in the last two months of their encampment.

The debris strewn across the lawn was almost overwhelming, as if demonstrators had chosen trash and discarded camping supplies as their last-ditch effort to leave a mark on the city. As cleanup crews carried out their arduous task, police officers stood bored around city hall, guarding against its former occupants.

Blocks away, what remained of the movement struggled to regroup. They had relocated to Our Lady Queen of Angeles Church, La Placita.

Few tents survived the abrupt transition—one Occupier grumbled, "The bastards didn't get this one," as he fumbled to set up his worn sleeping quarters. Others had taken to sleeping bags lining the perimeter of the church.

But as dawn began to break, several Occupiers were wide awake in the plaza outside the church, too incensed by the night's events to sleep. They crowded around organizer Rudy, who declined to give his last name. Protesters asked about their tents, the belongings they'd been forced to leave behind when police raided the lawn.

They wanted to know what had become of the treehouse demonstrators, the last three to occupy city hall. According to Rudy, police had used beanbag guns at close range to force them down. One of them, Manny, was seriously injured.

Rudy watched the final showdown from nearby on the lawn. After debriefing the displaced Occupiers at Our Lady Queen, he was on his way home to finally get some sleep. It had been a long night, and it was too soon to say what the movement's next step would be.

"Today is going to be a day of rest," he said. "It'll be more toward the night I think that people start figuring out what's next. It's going to be a matter of waiting until people are released from jail, because they're the most committed." About 300 protesters were arrested for various charges, including unlawful assembly, early Wednesday. "That's a significant number, and that to some degree is the core of the movement."

The 36-year-old former commodity broker serves on Occupy L.A.'s demands committee. He was lucky enough to avoid arrest, but several key organizers on other committees were among those taken in last night, which makes planning the next course of action difficult. Rudy said Occupy L.A. may head to Pershing Square. "So we'll see how that works out," he said with some trepidation.

Before finding a new semi-permanent residence for the movement, organizers want to make sure fellow protesters make bail. Occupy L.A. has been collecting donations in anticipation of police intervention, but Rudy said he wasn't sure they were prepared to accommodate such a large number.

To that end, the size of Occupy L.A. may be its ultimate foil. Rudy said he thought reaching "critical mass" may have been the tipping point for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to order the raid, without waiting for the outcome of the recently filed injunction against eviction.

"There were certain things they were asking us to do, but when you have so many people out there with so many different grievances and ideas as to why they're there, it becomes impossible," he said. "Things just kept adding up."

Rudy conceded that overreaching, attempting to advance such a wide range of demands, has been an undermining problem within the movement. And if more people join, as he said they would in the worsening economy, that handicap could arguably further diminish the movement's impact.

But the organizer seemed confident more bodies would instead make for a more successful movement.

"Instead of having bread lines, we'll have people coming to Occupy to eat and to partake and share and find comfort, and do something about the problem," he said.

"The critical mass of the movement, with properly articulated demands that are consistent with ending corporatocracy, will exact change that we need. But it's a process. It's not going to happen today."

Today, Occupiers bail out their brethren and start to rebuild.