The past isn’t quite dead here, either: how racism shaped Santa Monica

When Fay Wells went national to write, in the Washington Post, about what happened when a neighbor called 9-1-1 on her, she brought the issue of race to the attention of the white majority in Santa Monica, a city where race is not typically a major part of the public conversation. To me the case is a lens through which to examine how racism has shaped Santa Monica.

Santa Monica has been shaped by segregation. Segregation? In Santa Monica? Well, yes. Like much if not most of America that was developed in the 20th century, Santa Monica was developed as a segregated city. The mechanisms of segregation were not blatant Jim Crow laws. Instead, segregation was implemented formally through restrictive covenants included in deeds for properties in single-family zones and by federally mandated redlining for F.H.A. financing that also kept minorities out of neighborhoods, and informally by realtors seeking to “protect property values.” While the Supreme Court declared restrictive covenants to be unconstitutional in 1948, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination weren’t illegal until the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Restrictive covenants were part of the DNA of suburban development in the first half of the 20th century, when most of Santa Monica was subdivided, much of it only for single family homes. Single-family zoning, by prohibiting apartments (which had been common in American cities), was another strategy to keep lower-income families (i.e., renters), and in particular black families, out of new neighborhoods. (This history is discussed in detail in Benjamin Ross’ 2014 book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.)

The impact of restrictive covenants and single-family zoning on Santa Monica today cannot be underestimated: about 32% of all the land in the city is zoned for single-family homes (nearly half of all land zoned residential), and to this day few black or brown people live in R1 zones. Santa Monica is about 70% non-Hispanic white, but it is more segregated than one would expect for a city that is 30% non-Anglo.

Nearly all minorities in Santa Monica, with the exception of some of Asian descent who have moved into the city in recent decades, live south of Wilshire and north of Pico (mostly in the Pico Neighborhood), with a few other clusters in Ocean Park and in non-single-family areas of Sunset Park. Not coincidentally, these were, historically, the only integrated neighborhoods in Santa Monica. And also not coincidentally, these neighborhoods mostly straddled the industrial belt that ran along the railroad tracks that ran through the city—in Santa Monica, as in much of America, most black and brown people lived “across the tracks.”

African-Americans and Latinos have lived in Santa Monica for over a century, but they didn’t have the opportunity to buy houses in Santa Monica when working-class whites were able to, part of a shameful national story of how minorities were denied the opportunity to participate in the (heavily subsidized) post-World War II real estate boom.

And racism in Santa Monica wasn’t all about what could be built, and for whom, but what could be destroyed. Who were displaced to build the high school, the Civic Auditorium, and the freeway? Black and brown property owners and renters. Santa Monica has African-American churches to which black families still return to worship from their scattered homes miles away.

From the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, Feb. 15, 1951

From the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, Feb. 15, 1951

So you’re saying, what’s the point? History is history, right, and only in places like Faulkner’s Mississippi is the past not even past, right? Well, yes, to a point. We’re not doomed to be racist because our physical environment was shaped by racism. In my lifetime I’ve seen whites go from asking rhetorically what they would do if their sister married a black man, to today, when I doubt if there are too many white Santa Monica parents who would bat an eyelash if their child brought a black or Latino boyfriend or girlfriend home (preferably without too many piercings, but that goes for a white boyfriend or girlfriend, too).

Progress does get made. I’m not calling anyone a racist. May I repeat that: I’m not calling anyone a racist.

However, the past isn’t dead. One can argue whether racial incidents involving the Santa Monica police, and there are more than the two involving Fay Wells and Justin Palmer, are evidence of institutional racism or isolated incidents that don’t reflect the police department’s earnest efforts to be fair. In fact I’ve made the latter argument. One cannot honestly argue, however, that blacks and Latinos do not have historical grounds to feel marginalized in our city, which is going to affect their interpretation of interactions with the police and other public institutions. And because of Santa Monica’s history of segregation, you’re also going to have white people who don’t see black or brown people in their neighborhoods often, and because residents want the police to protect their neighborhoods, that is bound to lead to trouble.

Would the Fay Wells 9-1-1 caller have called the police if the locksmith had been white? I doubt the caller himself can answer that question.

The legacy goes further. Politicians appeal to voters in R1 zones by talking about the importance of preserving neighborhood “character” (when, for instance, the issue is whether to allow the building of apartments on adjacent boulevards); should it matter that that character is based on a racist history? What about when politicians decry gentrification in the historically integrated neighborhoods of Santa Monica, but then side with residents who oppose building apartments near R1 neighborhoods that might (mildly) de-gentrify them by bringing in renters?

Thanks for reading.

Race: it’s everywhere (more on Fay Wells)

As I said when I concluded my first column about Fay Wells, the heart of the matter was the police response to the 9-1-1 call. The question is why Wells and the police have such a different views about what happened (recognizing that Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks acknowledged the validity of Wells’ response). Before I approach the question, however, I want to make some disclosures: if I’m going to take this Rorschach test you should know where I’m coming from.

The first disclosure is that when I ran for City Council in 2014 I had the endorsement of the Santa Monica Police Officers Association (SMPOA). I was proud to have that endorsement. You have to be proud to be associated with (and I wrote the first draft of this sentence prior to the attack in San Bernardino) any group of people who will put their lives on the line to protect ours, as SMPD officers did in the attack on Santa Monica College in 2013.

But beyond that primary level of respect, I believe that the Santa Monica police strive to be professional, disciplined and objective. This is not Ferguson and not Chicago. This doesn’t mean that our police never make mistakes, and currently there are several incidents of potentially discriminatory treatment by police that are properly under review. Yet I understand why Darrell Goode, of the local NAACP, told the Lookout that the organization did not “want to throw the Santa Monica Police Department under the bus” in the aftermath of the incident involving Justin Palmer, the African-American man arrested while trying to charge his electric car.

I was also proud to receive the SMPOA endorsement because the union endorsed me despite the fact that I had criticized the police officer who had investigated Oscar de la Torre after de la Torre broke up a fight between two Samohi students. Naturally I believe that I richly deserved every endorsement I received, but it meant something (more about the police than me) that the police were willing to look beyond my criticism.

My second disclosure is that underlying my analysis of what happened to Fay Wells is that I’ve researched some of the racist aspects of Santa Monica’s past. Most of my research focused on how the City of Santa Monica destroyed a black neighborhood to obtain the land for the Civic Auditorium. Through this work I became acquainted with and appreciative of the work of the Quinn Research Center, which focuses on the history of the African-American community in Santa Monica, and the Committee for Racial Justice (CRJ), which was formed in 2011 after a racial incident at Samohi. (The CRJ has monthly meetings to discuss issues related to race in Santa Monica. The next meeting is tomorrow night (Dec. 6) and the subject will be racial profiling in Santa Monica. All are welcome. The meetings take place from 6 pm to 8:30 (first half hour is a potluck supper) in the Thelma Terry Building in Virginia Avenue Park.)

My third disclosure is obvious, but important. I’m white. I’m not bringing that up to join the ongoing national discussion about privilege, but to remind myself as well as readers that when I use the word we, or words like one or you, as in “one must . . . ,” I can’t help but be referring to the majoritarian us. While I shouldn’t presume to speak for the white majority culture either, the only way I can speak about what could be a minority perspective is through a white filter.

Back to Fay Wells. Based on what she’s written and said, what’s outraged Wells most was that the police had their guns drawn when they approached her apartment, and that they continued to treat her as a suspect even after she told them that she lived in the apartment and offered to prove it with ID, the locksmith’s receipt, etc. She attributes her treatment to her race—she doesn’t believe a white person would have been treated the same way.

In my opinion, there is no way one (there goes that majoritarian one) can honestly second guess Wells on this, in particular because of the recent incidents of police killing blacks. Trying to put myself in Wells’ shoes, I suspect that her treatment must have been particularly painful because, as she said, she’d never had so much as a speeding ticket. With her education and budding career, and her calm (and somewhat ironic) demeanor (clear from listening to her on the 47-minute tape), she’d done everything not to be one of those “angry” blacks whom white folks just can’t understand, and she certainly had not been enmeshed in the criminal justice system, and yet there she was, black, with police pointing guns at her.

So I don’t believe that “we” can question Wells’ perspective on what happened. Memo to Ms. Wells: I hope that time will heal these wounds, but in the meantime this member of the majority culture says, go ahead, be angry.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the police officers on the scene did wrong. If the standard protocol when investigating a three-person burglary is to approach the apartment with guns drawn, and that’s how the officers are trained, then I can’t fault them for following their procedures. Similarly, if it’s standard protocol not to believe what anyone who answers the door says until the area has been secured, then again, I can’t fault them for not taking Wells’ word that she lived there. And, although the officers might have known that the 9-1-1 caller had ID’d the “burglars” as Latino, and perhaps, if they weren’t following the proper protocol, the officers had their guns drawn because of that, one thing we do know is that the officers did not expect that an African-American might be involved until Wells opened the door.

But that doesn’t mean that race wasn’t involved.

Let’s assume that it was proper protocol for the officers to have drawn their guns. Why would that be the case? After all, Santa Monica, other than in connection with gang shootings, does not have much violent crime, and the 9-1-1 caller had not said anything about burglars being armed. I can’t recall any burglaries here ending up in shootouts. What would make drawing guns when investigating a possible burglary standard procedure?

The answer is guns. Our country is full of them, and they’re getting more powerful all the time. The only reason I can think of for police being instructed to draw their guns when approaching potential burglars is that they consider it necessary to be prepared to confront someone with a gun. These days that’s hardly irrational. Look—when 35 or so years ago I first sent money to a gun control organization, the issue was handguns. (Remember Handgun Control, Inc.?) In these days of assault weapons, to be worried about handguns seems quaint.

But that only raises another question. Why do Americans—and let’s face it, when we’re talking about who blocks gun control we’re talking about white Americans—love guns so much? Why can’t Congress pass sensible limits on guns designed to kill people? Okay, there are a lot of reasons, it’s probably over-determined, but historically a fundamental factor is race.

America’s gun fetish starts on the frontier, with fear of Indians (and a desire to conquer them), and with slavery, when slave owners and the rest of white society feared slave revolts. After Emancipation, whites in the South used violence and terror to keep freed slaves down. That continued through Jim Crow and the lynching era. When blacks got pushed off their land and moved north, fear and guns became suburbanized. It was all about “my home is my castle” and Willie Horton.

Race is everywhere. We’re not going to solve the gun problem until we solve the race problem.

Next—how historical racism shapes Santa Monica.

Thanks for reading.

Rorschach moments

By now I assume that readers of this blog are aware of the incident involving Fay Wells, the young African-American woman who in September was mistaken by a neighbor for a burglar after she locked herself out of her apartment and had to call a locksmith. The neighbor called 9-1-1, telling the dispatcher that he “needed some cops.” He said that his “next door neighbor,” whom he described as a Hispanic man, along with two female companions (also, he said, likely Hispanic), had just broken into into someone else’s apartment.

Within minutes Santa Monica police arrived on the scene. In response to a command to come out with her hands up, Wells emerged from the apartment to face two officers with guns drawn, as well as a barking police dog. Only after officers took Wells to the street with her hands held behind her back, was Wells able to convince them that she lived in the apartment. The case received nationwide, in fact international, attention after Wells wrote an op-ed about it for the Washington Post. (Wells can also be heard on last Monday’s Warren Olney’s KCRW show, Which Way, L.A.?”)

If you haven’t already, I suggest following up on a few links beyond the news coverage. For one, there is the 9-1-1 call that started the whole thing. Then there is the statement that Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks released. Along with her statement, Seabrooks also released a 47-minute audio recording of a conversation between Wells and police officers on the scene. The recording begins, unfortunately, only after Wells has established her bona fides. (A transcript of the recording has also been published.) Seabrooks’ response has been the only official response from the City.

The facts of what happened that night don’t appear to be in dispute, but different people interpret them differently. In her statement, Seabrooks invokes the metaphor of a Rorschach test, and she’s certainly right about that.

The facts start with the 9-1-1 call, which is a textbook example about the unreliability of eyewitness observation. The caller is confused both in his facts and his interpretation of what he’s seeing. He identifies the man “tapping” on the lock to get in—the locksmith—as a neighbor breaking into the apartment of someone else. The caller doesn’t identify Wells, his actual neighbor, as a neighbor, but instead includes her as one of two Hispanic “girls.” The caller twice says he “needs” cops, but then a couple of times tries to tell the dispatcher that it’s not an emergency, that he doesn’t “think this is some kind of crazy robbery.” (The dispatcher, trying to get the facts, cuts him off both times.)

Regardless of the caller’s confusion, the 9-1-1 call set the ball rolling for the whole incident. Depending on your perspective, the caller was either a conscientious “eye on the street” protecting the neighborhood (the view of Seabrooks and the caller himself), or otherwise a careless neighbor, possibly tipsy (a possibility that comes up later when Wells and the caller meet—you can listen, and judge for yourself), who can’t fathom that three Hispanics—including a neighbor!—trying to get into a locked apartment in an all-white apartment building at 11:15 on a Sunday evening could be up to any good.

My view? Admittedly with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I lean toward the latter interpretation: this doesn’t sound like a high-crime location and I wish the caller had done “due diligence” before calling. But I also recognize that the caller had probably internalized a lot of the irrational fear that permeates our “Film at 11!” society. To me what the caller relayed to the dispatcher precisely describes a locksmith doing his job, and in my wishful world the caller might have checked first to see if there was a locksmith’s truck parked outside before calling 9-1-1. Even better, and even more idealistic, what if he had called out over the ten feet he says that separated him from the locksmith and said something like, “Hey, everything okay, need any help?” That would have been neighborly, but it’s also nearly impossible to contemplate that he would have done that given our culture of fear. (Open question: would the caller have been more likely to do the neighborly thing if the locksmith had been white?)

The heart of the controversy, however, occurs when the police arrive. As Wells articulates in her op-ed as well as in other statements, she was terrified to emerge from her home to face drawn guns. Because of the barking dog, she couldn’t hear the police identify themselves. Anyone would have been afraid, but as an African-American Wells couldn’t avoid visualizing herself about to become another post-Ferguson victim. When she finds out that 19 officers have answered the call, she believes that they are all there as an overreaction to fear of blacks in an overwhelmingly white city.

From the police perspective, it’s different. As the officers explain to Wells in the 47-minute tape, they believed they had followed prudent standard procedures and would have done the same if she had been white. For all they knew, three burglars were in the apartment and they can’t take Wells’ word for it that she’s the only person there. Three burglars warrant a big response. Guns are drawn because officers get shot at in these circumstances. For all Wells’ fears, they did not shoot or tear up her apartment.

I urge readers to listen to the whole 47 minutes of the tape, if only to hear how easy it is for articulate, intelligent and well-meaning people to talk past each other. You’ll hear both sides, and I suspect your sentiments will go back and forth. Which raises this question: why is this a Rorschach situation? Why is it that (i) a young black woman, well-educated and professional, who says she’s never had so much as a speeding ticket, and (ii) the police (some of whom, including at least one officer on the scene and Chief Seabrooks, are themselves black), interpret the same facts so differently?

I’ll try to address this question in a future column. In the meantime, thanks for reading.