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A Little Home, A Little Dignity

02/25/2016

The house I always see is a deep purple and sits on a freeway overpass. Beside the window, there’s a painted military decoration – three stripes of red on a yellow field with a splash of green on either end- and the words “Vietnam Veteran” printed beside. A miniature American flag flutters proudly above the door. It’s an inspiring oddity – a small oasis of comfort suspended by a concrete span over the rushing din of Los Angeles traffic.

These houses are the brainchild of a Los Angeles resident named Elvis Summers, who made headlines last spring by constructing tiny mobile homes for homeless people. It started with one shack for his neighbor, and has since blossomed into a passion project, with thirty seven built so far. For their residents, these diminutive dwellings provide privacy and dignity. We, who have places to rest at the end of the day, often take for granted the ability to retreat, to not interact with other folks, to not be subject to the gaze and judgment of another. While these little dwellings are not a long-term solution to helping people experiencing homeless get off the street, they represent a compassionate step in the right direction.

Bafflingly, the City of Los Angeles thinks otherwise. Having designated them as prohibited “bulky items” which, pursuant to recently-passed City Ordinances, can be confiscated from homeless people without notice, the City has begun confiscating the tiny homes. As of February 25, 2016, they have taken three of the thirty seven dwellings Elvis Summers built by hand, and plan to take seven more by the end of the week. This action is the culmination of a legal fight that has been brewing since August, when the City Council first took up the issue.

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#OscarsSoWhite Misses the Mark

01/14/2016
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Gotta say, I just can’t get behind the #OscarsSoWhite thing. For a few main reasons:

First, it’s a bad use of statistics. Year to year, in a profession which is still overwhelmingly comprised of white actors, and hundreds of performances are considered for a handful of awards, there is a fairly good chance that a person of color wouldn’t be nominated even if they were randomly selected. Saying that the Academy is “regressing” without statistical rigor is really just another form of shallow horse-race politics.

Second, the focus on the race of Oscar nominees is a bad proxy fight for larger diversity issues in our storytelling entertainment. As noted above, its methodology of diagnosis is suspect – as a result, its proponents seem disingenuous to the unpersuaded, and lose credibility as a result. Why are we focusing on Oscar nominations? Other advocates such as the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA have done such great work looking at diversity in Hollywood that doesn’t rely on weak, click-baity analysis.

Third, clamoring for merely greater minority representation in media ignores the fact that the quality of that representation also matters. Hattie McDaniel may have made history by being the first black woman to win an Oscar, but she also won it playing “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind.” Octavia Spencer was amazing in The Help (and won an Oscar for it in 2011), but ultimately she was still playing “the help”. For a long time now, advocates for actors of color have been pushing not just for more roles but better roles, where minority actors aren’t simply playing stereotypes, even when they win awards for it. Focusing on having more Oscar nominations neglects this critical part of the conversation.

Fourth and finally, the #oscarssowhite focus ignores the fact that nearly every Best Picture nominee this year centers on liberal-associated issues and cultural tropes. Let’s go through the list, shall we?

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Hood and Robe Not Required

11/24/2015

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A postcard dated August 3, 1920, depicts the aftermath of a lynching in Center, Texas, near the Louisiana border. According to the text on the other side, the victim was a 16-year-old boy.

Last night, Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis protesting the shooting of Jamar Clark were attacked – five people were wounded, but thankfully none of their injuries are life-threatening. Several witnesses told the Washington Post what they saw:

“One of the white protesters who had been with us since the beginning said, ‘Be careful, those guys are white supremacists,’” Brown said, referring to the three men and one woman in balaclavas. “We asked them to remove their masks, asked who they were, invited them to come and protest with us peacefully once they did that.”

“One of our young men reached out and touched one of them and said, ‘Oh he has a vest on’ like a bulletproof vest,” she added.

One witness, who did not want be named, was among those who followed the outsiders up the street.

“About midway down the block the group sort of thinned out and I said, ‘Maybe we should turn around, not make them feel like we’re all up on them,’ and the minute I turned around I heard four shots,” he said. “One whizzed right by me. I was going to get down but then I just ran.”

I am in awe of the bravery of the protestors who reached out to people who obviously seemed to want to do them harm. That kind of loving openness to one’s enemy is astounding. I can’t imagine what it must feel like, as a young black man, to stand inches from potentially fatal violence – to have that kind of hatred focused on you. His decision, under the heat of that gaze, not to strike out in defense or even ignore it but to reach out and invite that person in is truly astounding. It is the kind of courage we should all aspire to. It is grace-filled.

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I’m angry about Mizzou and Yale.

11/10/2015

A homeless youth shelters under a bridge.When I was in second grade, I was sitting at my desk and a classmate came over to me excitedly. “Hey, Andrew – watch this!” He launched into a sing-song chant which I’d imagine a lot of Asian American kids are unfortunately familiar with:

“Chinese mother,” he said, pulling the corners of his eyelids up.

“Japanese father,” he continued, pulling his eyelids down.

“Mixed-up child!” Now one eyelid was up, the other one down. Hilarious.

I remember being angry, in a way I couldn’t yet identify. I remember yelling at my classmate. I didn’t have a good relationship with my second grade teacher (which is an absurd but true statement), so I’m guessing I probably got sent outside again. But the reason I remember that rhyme so clearly, I think, is that for the first time in my life I felt excluded based on my perceived race.

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The Kid on the Bench

11/01/2015

The entrance to Westwood Park

On my way to a soccer game tonight, I saw a kid sitting on a bench next to the field by himself. Couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old. Didn’t think much of it.

As I walk by him, he wipes his nose and his eyes – he’s been crying. Not good. But — I’m not sure if he’s homeless or just having a bad day, so I decide to check on him afterwards.

After the game, I walk by the bench on the way back to the car and realize that he’s sleeping on it. Shit.

I haul ass to the grocery store, grab water, jerky, pretzels, a couple apples, and some gummy bears (because who doesn’t love gummy bears). I haul ass home to print out directions to the youth drop-in shelter where my clinic is. I haul ass back to the field, park the car, and walk over to the bench.

He’s gone. There’s an old man in sweat pants doing tai-chi and a twenty-something throwing tennis balls for his dogs, but the kid is just gone. I do a couple laps around the park to see if he’s somewhere else. Nowhere. God damn it. Twenty minutes – that’s it. That’s all I was gone for. I thought I had enough time.

When you work with homeless youth, one of the realities you have to understand is that each time you see someone could also be the last time. Knowing this is frustrating. It is terrifying. But the atmosphere of the drop-in shelter masks this fear like a campfire in a foxhole – it’s an oasis of calm intersecting lives filled with chaos. When I sit down with a client and map out a strategy for wiping out or at least de-clawing the tickets, fines, and citations weighing down on them, most of these conversations end with an expectation: “See you on Thursday!”. Many of the youth I’ve met have made more than good on that promise. I see many of the same people every time I run the clinic, and this brings me relief and joy. But you never know.

The first day of clinic I had a young man come in who had been cited for sleeping on the beach – he has schizophrenia, and while his medication keeps most of his symptoms under control, the sheer stress of his encounter with the police had left him shaken. He wanted to get out of the city, to San Diego, he said, where he knew some people. He was convinced that the City of Los Angeles was out to get him. In a way, he’s right – “quality of life” infractions such as jaywalking, loitering, and smoking in non-designated areas are often used as an excuse to intentionally target homeless persons and get them to move away from businesses and public areas. I tried to convince him to stay, of course. To get to know the case workers and volunteers, and be part of our little community. He squinted at me, sizing me up, and said he’d think about it. At the time, I chalked that up as a win, but I haven’t seen him since. I hope he made it.

The time that we have to help another person is often brief. It often comes down to a fleeting moment of opportunity. This is particularly true when the person you’re trying to help is homeless, because when you don’t have a place to stay, your life is restless. You never know when an unfriendly person or cop is going to make your life hell. Rest is risk – to sleep is to leave yourself vulnerable, defenseless. Something must’ve happened to the kid on the bench. Maybe one of the regulars camping in the park chased him out. Maybe the sounds of the soccer game were waking him up. Maybe the stone bench dug into his shoulder. All I know is that I had an opportunity and missed it. It’s frustrating. It’s terrifying. No person – no child – deserves to sleep outside on a cold cement slab.

But you keep trying. You have to, because sometimes they do come back. You’ll walk in and catch a glimpse of a specific hat or a specific haircut or hear a certain laugh. And they see you, and call you by name, and you lock palms with them and clap them on the shoulder. Those moments lighten the burden of the disappointments. And the possibility of those moments always justifies the effort.

Day 1: Sarah

08/11/2015

For the next two years I’ll be running a legal clinic for homeless youth. Going to try and put down some thoughts about it. I hope you like it. More than that, I hope it helps.

It is 75 degrees in West Los Angeles.

Today I went to Safe Place for Youth, where I’ll be starting the legal clinic in a few weeks. Met a young woman there named Sarah. Sarah is like ball lightning – full of energy and laughter and wit. She’s also eight and a half months pregnant.

A few weeks ago, the police gave her two citations over two nights for sleeping outside. They gave her the tickets, and then they left. Sarah’s trying for a Section 8 housing voucher, but she’s nervous about the tickets and her application. She tells me that the folks at SPY have saved up diapers for when the baby comes.

I have to tell her that I was just setting up today and I couldn’t get started on her case yet because I can’t start working until September 28th. It’s the truth, but it felt like an excuse.

“That’s fine!” She shakes her head and her curls nod in agreement. “I feel better knowing, you know…”

“That you can move forward?” I have this bad habit of finishing people’s sentences.

“Yeah. Get a place to stay. Would be nice to not have to spend all my money on rent, right?” She laughs, grinning as she says this.

I’m struck by the contrast between the gravity of her situation and her light-hearted attitude. I wonder if it’s bravery or naiveté. I feel like I’m second-guessing her and I chastise myself. Honestly, it’s probably a bit of both.

“Well, let’s make this a priority when the clinic opens.” I take a breath and try to sound professional. “October 1 – that’s probably the first day I’ll be here working. Can you make it?”

She sees through me completely.  “Yeah,” she giggles. “I’m always here. Where else would I be?”

On Empathy for Baltimore

04/28/2015

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There’s an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic that’s been making the rounds lately. And I’ve seen many friends from both law school and college cite it in an attempt to manufacture moral justification for the violence that erupted out of peaceful protests against police brutality in Baltimore this week.

I think TNC is just in his call for empathy towards rioters – we should all try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of West Baltimore’s people. We should look at the statistics and numbers, so that we can begin to reach to understand what this community goes through every day under the thumb of the BPD. We should stand with West Baltimore in its call for reform and for justice.

But the problem with the article is that it assumes every plea for non-violence is a request for submission to authority, and it sees every actor making such pleas as merely one part of a monolithic state oppressor. The reality is much more complicated.

Yes – some of those asking for peace have compromised their moral authority by allowing or encouraging the BPD to brutalize poor and black communities for decades. But among those pleading are politicians trying to preserve political will for reform. And activists, fighting and organizing for a better future. And parents and preachers who just want to keep their children safe. Can anyone say with a straight face that all of these people are agents of persecution?

The second problem is one of the underlying ideology that my friends adopt when they use this article to justify violence. It’s a “my way or the highway” kind of mindset. For some, this means that in order to be on the “same side” as oppressed communities, that you must be on board with whatever action members of that community take. Others go further. They believe that true solidarity is the exclusive possession of those willing to endorse radical, potentially violent action against the oppressor.

I find this kind of thought to be pessimistic, closed-minded, and in some ways, even hateful. By rejecting the legitimacy of non-violence as a form of protest – in labeling all its critics the enemy (or complicit with it) – in eschewing nuance for blind, raging tribalism, this kind of thinking reveals its self-righteous blindness.

In my opinion, this mentality closes itself off from love. It rejects agape, the unconditional love for all our fellow human beings that is the foundation of non-violent resistance. And because it is not motivated by a desire for peace, I believe it is an ideology that can never achieve it. But according to some, my voice doesn’t count. By preaching nonviolence and decrying its opposite, I am the enemy, whatever my motivations. I’m on the wrong team – and whatever “side” I’m on is overwhelmingly more important than the substance of what I believe.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is right to ask us to try and understand why these riots are happening. And he is right to point out how the disrespect many feel for “hollow law and failed order” has its roots in legitimate grievance and is a response to real, often fatal, persecution. But he is wrong to broad-brush all pleas for non-violence as the con of state authority. And my friends are wrong to use his over-generalization to justify violence and perpetuate a toxic political ideology.