Photo-Report: Red America and Blue America in Southern California

A Tale of Two Protests

This week I thought I would try something new with this newsletter— documenting something a little closer to my home in Southern California. I attended two protests in the past month— one on purpose, another I merely chanced upon by accident. Below is a little photo-report that I hope will be a small glimpse into the political landscape of the region.

The first protest was a demonstration in support of the unhoused residents of Echo Park, not far from where I live in Koreatown. The protests at Echo Park were a product of the city’s deep and years-long failure to address the issue of homelessness and provide affordable housing. Locals peacefully advocating for some of the poorest and disenfranchised among their community were brutally repressed by a grossly disproportionate and violent police response. All of this in “progressive” Los Angeles, where the Democratic Party has a near-monopoly on every level of government.

The second protest occurred in Newport Beach— just south of LA in Orange County— close to where I grew up. An anti-abortion protest is something I had never seen in the quiet, largely suburban county; but it is not surprising considering the county’s traditionally conservative Republican politics and large evangelical congregations. Comparatively, it was small and elicited no reaction apart from a few car horns. It dispersed without incident after a few hours in the afternoon sun.

One is a picture of “Blue” America, the other a picture of “Red” America. Alongside the pictures are some unstructured thoughts that arose from what I observed.


BLUE AMERICA

It has been a dispiriting week here in Los Angeles. Early last week, a call went out that the city was planning to sweep the homeless encampment that had developed at Echo Park. Led by city councilman Mitch O’Farrell (a longtime right-hand man of Mayor Eric Garcetti), the city announced it would evict all of the park’s homeless inhabitants, fence off the entire park, and keep it closed for an indeterminate amount of time as “repairs” are done.

A protest was called for 7 AM on Wednesday morning— the rumored time the first sweeps were scheduled to take place and fencing scheduled to go up. As I headed out from my Koreatown apartment, the sun was just peeking over the Angeles Mountains.

At the park people filtered in calmly. Soon there were a couple hundred demonstrators gathered in a show of solidarity with the unhoused residents of the park. The crowd was truly representative of Echo Park and the changing demographics of the Eastside. Residents old and new, housed and unhoused, all stood together.

Two park residents, Ayman Ahmed and David Busch-Lilly, marshaled the press who had gathered and began the proceedings. They spoke about their efforts to make the park livable— a supportive self-organized safe haven in a city riven by a homelessness crisis and a global pandemic. As the camp grew, they built showers, a kitchen and planted a garden.

There had been a small encampment in the corner of the park for several years. The size of the encampment ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis. Echo Park was not alone— encampments across the city increased in size as those without a home had to find a way to shelter in place and minimize their risk during a potentially life-threatening public health crisis. The speakers at Echo Park all stressed the relative safety and supportive nature of the community they had formed.

After a few initial speeches, the protesters marched to Mitch O’Farrell’s district office. As the initiator of the sweep, O’Farrell was the chief antagonist of the day. Protesters took over one block of Sunset Blvd, the main thoroughfare in the heart of the neighborhood. The protesters directed traffic, allowing public buses through. The signs carried by the protestors urged compassion for the unhoused, all-in-all it was a well organized demonstration that showed no signs of getting out of hand.

The first sign of a police response came when a single squad car sped down Sunset, sirens blaring, straight at a line of protestors who had barricaded the street. Whatever tough-guy cop was driving the car was still speeding when he hung a sharp left just as he approached the protestors, speeding away onto Logan St like he was an extra in the Fast and the Furious franchise. It was a pale imitation of last summer’s BLM protests which saw single-file lines of up to 50 LAPD squad cars speed by demonstrators at regular intervals. The single squad car was a pathetic attempt to intimidate the demonstrators, but it foreshadowed the outsized police response we would see over the next few days.

A few hundred peaceful demonstrators, motivated by their humanitarian concern for the unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake, couldn’t be tolerated by the city. On Wednesday night, police brutally dispersed protesters and managed to clear the way for the entire park to be fenced off. Its homeless residents and all their belongings were trapped inside.

The crackdown continued Thursday and LAPD made a disproportionate show of force after calling an “unlawful assembly”. Videos of the disproportionate and militarized police response were all over social media. (If you haven’t seen images you can see here, here and here.) 182 people were arrested, drawing criticism on social media and from organizations like the ACLU. Activists, journalists, legal observers and homeless residents alike were detained on both nights.

Living in LA, you see the reality of the city’s failure to deal with the issue every day. Rows of tents are periodically swept away by police and sanitation crews— within a week tents pop back up, maybe a block down, under the next bridge, or the same exact spot.

The homeless are forced to the literal margins of society, the less desirable the location unhoused people choose the more likely they are to be left alone. In the heart of Hollywood— in the literal shadow of streaming-giant Netflix’s corporate headquarters— a row of tents is practically hanging over the 101 Freeway, only separated by a chain link fence from the cars below. The people who live on that patch of dirt inhale the fumes from a busy stretch of highway 24/7, only made worse by the fact that it is the site of perennial bumper-to-bumper traffic.

It is a depressing state of affairs and any compassionate person can see how dire the situation is. In contrast to the horrific conditions at other encampments, the one at Echo Park stood out as a humane and livable environment. Echo Park was targeted for clearing because it is prime city real estate in a rapidly gentrifying area. Clearing Echo Park won’t solve the city-wide issue, it merely perpetuates the violent cycle of displacement.

A look at the real numbers behind one of the city’s housing initiatives is telling. Project Roomkey has been touted as a real housing solution by the likes of O’Farrell and Mayor Garcetti, especially in recent weeks. Data from March 22nd shows how far short the city is from meeting it’s own goals:

Not every unhoused person qualifies for initiatives like Project Roomkey, moreover the housing provided is only temporary and includes punitive restrictions. Trouble navigating the complicated housing process, and bad experiences at the city’s overburdened homeless shelters, leave many defaulting to the less regulated life on the street.

I don’t claim to be an expert on this issue and I’m not sure what a comprehensive and compassionate solution to LA’s homelessness crisis would look like. But one thing is clear— effort is required not just by the city but by our nation as a whole to alleviate the dire poverty and neglect that has left so many people displaced and unhoused. The homelessness crisis in LA is about so much more than just one park, it is a city-wide issue deeply connected with and inextricable from the failures of our nation as a whole to provide for its most vulnerable citizens.

For more information on the what happened last week at Echo Park, here are a few articles: A piece in Curbed by Alissa Walker, a write-up for Knock-LA by Jamie Loftus, and a pretty decent report in the LA Times.


RED AMERICA

The debacle at Echo Park happened in the shadow of the Angelus Temple. Pastor Matthew Barnett expressed his concern over the situation on Twitter, highlighting the efforts of his church to provide compassionate support to the residents of the park over the years.

Most people in Echo Park today might not realize it, but Angelus Temple was one of the first major landmarks in Los Angeles. It is also a largely forgotten piece of celebrity history, overshadowed by the rise of Hollywood. One of the first national celebrities to draw adoring crowds to the city was Aimee Semple McPherson. Long before the movie business hit its peak, the Pentecostal preacher McPherson drew giant crowds and attracted tourists from across the country. Her celebrity was a product of her popular radio sermons. At Angelus Temple, which is perched directly above Echo Park, she was known for her theatrical performances and charismatic style. Her performances would eventually integrate Hollywood style props and she traded her modest attire for increasingly elaborate fashions, foreshadowing today’s Hollywood red carpets.

The role of churches, charismatic preachers, and religion in general in the development of Southern California fascinates me. Christianity is definitely not at the top of the list of what people associate with Hollywood, and Angelus Temple might go unnoticed by Angelenos today. Los Angeles is a breeding ground for New Religious Movements. Eastern-inspired syncretic spiritualisms are more in line with the current popular imagination of Los Angeles than traditional Christianity.

Southern California is full of contrasts and Orange County, a short drive south of LA, is somewhat of a center of modern American Protestant Christianity. It is also one of the spiritual birthplaces of the contemporary right wing politics that dominate the Republican Party.

While visiting family in Newport Beach a few weeks ago, I stumbled on an anti-abortion protest. At a busy intersection on Pacific Coast Highway, a dozen or so middle aged suburbanites waved All Lives Matter flags, and flashed provocative signs to the passing traffic. It was quite the sight— it’s rare to see anybody on the sidewalk in Newport Beach and I can’t remember a single instance of visible political protest from my time growing up in the surrounding area.

I walked up, mask-less, so as not to arouse their suspicions that I may be a freedom-hating enemy of Christ. Every single one of these protesters faces lit up and happily agreed to have their picture taken. The glee in their eyes, the proud look of knowing that they are doing the Lord’s work beamed out from all of them.

As someone who grew up in Orange County, it is pretty apparent that the Trump Era has further politicized the county. Huntington Beach was the site of pro-Trump, anti-mask protests at the start of COVID lockdown. A county where nearly every housing development has a strict aesthetic code, demanding houses look like a faux-Italian villa in its ersatz Tuscan Hills, is now sprinkled with garish Trump Banners and Blue Lives Matter flags. Driving on Pacific Coast Highway last year I pulled up behind a bright red Mercedes proudly displaying a Q Anon sticker on the rear windshield. Orange County native Richard Nixon coined the term “silent majority” in part inspired by the conservative politics of suburban locales he grew up in. In contrast, Trumpian aesthetics are decidedly LOUD.

In the protestors slogans you can see a fusion of traditional conservative evangelical rhetoric with present day political catchphrases. The adoption of the All Lives Matter slogan, a sign lamenting abortion as “Far Worse than, Slavery, Racism, and other Wokeisms”. It is not an accident that the “save the children” paranoia that undergirds QAnon in some cases recycles and in all cases meshes incredibly well with the more traditional right-wing anti-abortion message.

Orange County is famous for its theme-parks, its sprawling master-planned communities, and its reactionary politics. The local airport is fittingly named after conservative Republican icon and Western film star John Wayne. Orange County has long been an island of Red in a sea of Blue (an identity that has only recently come into question with the 2018 mid-term elections which briefly flipped the entire county Blue.)

It is also home to a number of megachurch ministries that have a national audience. Calvary Chapel, located in Costa Mesa, maintains hundreds of congregations, and runs a national network of radio stations. Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, located in Lake Forest, draws an astonishingly large attendance and his Christian self-help books are best-sellers. The star of some of these churches has faded with the changing demographics of the county. The giant Crystal Cathedral ministry, built in Garden Grove by televangelist Robert Schuller, went bankrupt in 2010. It has since been sold to the Catholic Diocese of Orange.

There were a couple echoes of the January 6th Capitol Hill “insurrectionists” among the crowd. An older Vietnamese man recorded, or live-streamed the entirety of the protest. He sported the flag of South Vietnam around his neck and a Red Beret, a fixture of the South Vietnamese Army’s uniform. The flag of South Vietnam made an appearance at the Capitol Hill riot and is a common sight in Orange County. Just a few miles north “Little Saigon” (straddling the cities of Garden Grove and Westminster) is home to the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam— many of its residents came as anti-communist refugees fleeing at the end of the war.

One woman, your average blonde Orange County suburbanite, wielded a shofar— a ram’s horn used in Ancient Jewish rituals which made an appearance at the Capitol Hill riot. Dressed in bright pink with a matching cowboy hat, capri pants and a tote from a local health food store, she blew into the horn for me— muttering a prayer for unborn children and speaking in tongues between blows.

For further reading, the LA Times recently published a great piece documenting some of the far-right Trumpist scene in the county. A piece from 2018 is a good account of the county’s political history and recent development.

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There are plenty of Republican voters that don’t share these “socially conservative” views. Many Republicans stay silent on these issues, and some actually support socially liberal policies like abortion and LGBTQ rights. They pull the lever for the GOP largely because they just want lower taxes.

There is one glaringly obvious irony to all of this agitation on behalf of unborn children. They want to make sure the children are born at all costs, then they abandon those children once they are fully formed human beings by supporting conservative policies that undercut social programs and public spending. I guess our failing nation needs bodies to feed the meat grinder of poverty, homelessness and endless wars. It’s a shame that sentiment doesn’t fit nicely on a red cap.

As you can see by the examples here, both parties have their failings. In Blue America, the fight is for the humanity and dignity of fully formed human beings, in Red America, you might need to still be in gestation to qualify for compassion. Even in “progressive” Blue America, those showing concern for the welfare of poorest and neediest in our community can expect to be met with and hail of rubber bullets and an army of baton wielding police.

Here are a few final photos, the first of which shows a banner of the alleged price for fetal stem-cells that I regret not getting a better picture of. I found the source image online that gives a clearer picture.

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