By Elizabeth Blaney, Bill Przylucki and Pete White
This past Monday, on the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, Mayor Eric Garcetti was kept from delivering the keynote address at a USC-sponsored event. Activists from LA Community Action Network (LACAN), the NOlympics coalition, and the Stop LAPD Spying coalition attended the event and stood up to to highlight the ongoing abuses of human rights perpetrated against the poor and unhoused in Los Angeles by Mayor Garcetti’s government, especially by the LAPD, and they successfully prevented him from being able to address the audience.
This disruption warranted a number of headlines, and on Friday the LA Times Editorial Board published an Op-Ed criticizing the activists and grassroots leaders who disrupted Garcetti’s speech.
But this event mirrors another in which Garcetti was publicly interrupted that the LA Times Editorial Board did not feel the need to mention: an October 17th community meeting on Bridge Housing in Venice, co-hosted by Garcetti and Councilmember Bonin.
Many of the organizations who helped shut Garcetti down were also at the October 17 Bridge Housing hearing in Venice, co-hosted by Garcetti and Councilmember Bonin. At that hearing, a large group of mostly wealthy, mostly white Venice property owners turned out because they felt that building a place for people with nowhere to sleep at night would absolutely ruin their neighborhood, and their lives.
The anti-Bridge Housing group was unruly and rude, interrupting the mayor and other speakers countless times, and they shouted vile and awful things all throughout the night. They attempted to dehumanize and vilify people who have been in Venice much longer than they have, and now can’t afford a place to live. Some of the people opposed to the Bridge Housing were personally responsible for evicting some of the people who now need Bridge Housing in Venice.
Wendy Lockett, a Venice resident who had been evicted from her apartment, where she was paying close to 90% of her income in rent, waited politely in line for her chance to speak. As soon as it was clear she supported the shelter plan, though, she was interrupted by shouts from an anonymous audience member. That moment, and a few others like it throughout the night, captured the immense bravery, integrity, and persistence that it often takes for the poorest among us to be heard in public. Wendy, following the rules, had to endure ridicule and verbal abuse to make her voice heard.
The event in Venice went on for hours and it was brutal, with most shelter supporters standing outside in a silent candlelight vigil in honor of those suffering the economic violence of homelessness, and the further police violence that homelessness often invites. And though inside the hearing was unruly, Garcetti did not walk away from a group of people who shouted vile things at him for hours. He stayed well into the night, even remaining after the event to engage with people who had been far more rude to him and disruptive than the grassroots leaders at USC.
In Venice, Garcetti claimed that there’s nothing he cares about more than addressing the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles. So if he would spend an entire evening talking to people who know so little about, and are helping to create, the problem, activists and grassroots leaders should be forgiven for believing he might want to hear from the real experts — the people living unhoused and those working directly with them in the community.
But compare this to the event at USC, where the demonstration was about the same basic question: How is Los Angeles treating out unhoused neighbors? Mayor Garcetti endured maybe 20 minutes of criticism — much of it more creative and uplifting than the blunt hatred on display in Venice. The activists at the USC event voiced concerns about life and death, issues far more grave than property values, and yet instead of listening to his most vulnerable constituents Garcetti gave up and walked away from the whole thing.
Because of course Garcetti was being hyperbolic in Venice. Based on his actions and his policies, there are many things he cares about far more than the homelessness crisis, foremost of which seems simply to be building his brand. And a keynote address in commemoration of the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights is just such an opportunity to burnish his image.
But why are Garcetti’s views on human rights more important than those of the people whose rights his government violates every day? Is it not better to give time and space to those suffering human rights violations? Low-income people, as we saw in Venice and at USC, have to fight for every inch just to have any place at all in public dialogue. Meanwhile, Garcetti can speak whenever, however, and wherever he wants — and it turns out that’s nationwide, at taxpayer expense. So to imply that Garcetti’s free speech was somehow violated, as if we live in one big happy world, is elitist and short-sighted.
Mayor Garcetti and the LA Times Editorial Board don’t want us to realize this. They silently acquiesce to the verbal abuse and disruptions of the “respectable” classes in Venice, and the mayor rewards those same people with even more access. Yet the groups who stood up on Monday are not deemed respectable, even though some of these same groups launched the LA Human Right to Housing Collective over a decade ago, and have twice hosted actual human rights experts from the United Nations since then. Both times, those experts returned to the UN and delivered scathing reports on the human rights violations happening every day in Los Angeles.
Twenty minutes of legitimate questioning by the rabble, though, and Garcetti was out the door.
Garcetti has time and again refused, through his scheduler, to meet with grassroots leaders and communities impacted by his policies. When these groups are lucky enough to have a meeting at all, Garcetti sends low-level staffers to hear the stories of immigrants overburdened by rent increases in public housing, stories of people on the streets whose medicine and vital documents are stolen and destroyed by the Department of Sanitation and the LAPD, stories of long-time residents in gentrifying neighborhoods whose landlords won’t make repairs but still increase the rent, and most tragically the stories of loved ones killed by the police. Not once has he met with representatives of the groups who demonstrated at USC, not once has he acknowledged the pain he has caused or the pain he has failed to prevent. He ignores all these people until they stand up to be heard in an auditorium, then he leaves and pretends he’s the one who has been injured.
And if Garcetti won’t meet with our most vulnerable communities, perhaps the LA Times Editorial Board should. Meet the real experts on homelessness and the housing crisis, the groups who have twice hosted the United Nations, the groups whose leaders live everyday in tents and in RVs and in overcrowded, converted garages. Meet with the people whom Mayor Garcetti has failed again and again, and who feel like they won’t survive another of his failures but nevertheless are determined to persevere until they are finally heard.
Hear from them, then see if your opinion changes.