Anatomy of a Facebook Uprising

  • 09/03/2015
  • Terelle Jerricks

The Neighborhood Council Motion that Sparks Citywide Reaction

By James Preston Allen, Publisher

Disclaimer­—Nothing in this editorial or in the pages of this newspaper should be taken as the official position of the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council to which I was elected president in 2014. Nor does it reflect the opinions of any of its board members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own, which I will defend as follows.

It began with the addition of a motion supporting the idea of building “tiny shelters” for the homeless on Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council’s formal agenda on the Friday before the Aug. 8 meeting.

By Saturday, a disgruntled former board member was ringing a three-alarm fire bell on Facebook about the item.

By Monday, Daily Breeze reporter, Donna Littlejohn picked up the scent and posted a story with the screaming headline  “‘Tiny houses’ for the homeless create backlash in San Pedro.” On Aug. 10, Littlejohn said the meeting was “sparking an uproar among critics who charge that the wooden ‘shacks’ are not only eyesores but will quickly become a haven for crime.”

I’m not sure if her reporting was the cause or the effect of the “uproar,” but what is clear is that just the announcement of the item to support the tiny homes caused the office of Councilman Joe Buscaino to panic and call the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the part of Los Angeles that advises neighborhood councils, to find out if this motion was legal.

He then submitted a motion through the Public Works and Gang Reduction and Homeless committee of the Los Angeles City Council to the city attorney’s office to “report on the legality of the placement of such structures in both the public right-of-way and on private property and recommend removal protocol.”

This was probably the fastest action the council office has ever taken with regard to a neighborhood council action. As yet, there is not an adopted legal opinion on this issue.

Meanwhile, on the social media front, days before the actual meeting, public commentary on the issue was building fast and furiously—spreading wild accusations and half-truths. It is my suspicion that the “tiny homes” opposition message was boosted by Buscaino’s officer of propaganda, Branimir Kvartuc, since it was reported in his weekly eNews that week.

The TV news caught wind of the uproar via the City News Service and KCAL9 dispatched a reporter to the meeting. Even the Los Angeles Times sent a reporter and the word spread that “something was happening,” even if they didn’t know what that something was.

The attendance at the Central’s council meeting was, to say the least, nearly triple the average count. During the public comment portion of the meeting, some 14 individuals spoke both for and against the motion, which read as follows:

CSPNC supports the tiny homes initiative, not with any financial support but as a policy, and that we continue to look for alternative spaces for these tiny homes to be placed that are not on city streets, and urge the city to assist in the search for alternative locations.

The community comments were split, but the vote of the council was unanimous. Afterwards, the room quickly emptied by two-thirds. Later, Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Catharine Plows commented that the city attorney advising them told her that the tiny homes violated several municipal codes.

Yet, two weeks later, upon review of the ordinances that might apply to these structures, legal counsel for two separate city council committees were still trying to craft legal language that would hold up in court.

The Daily Breeze miraculously reported in its Aug. 24 story that, “Senior Assistant City Attorney Valerie Flores told the panel that the structures are illegal on public property, including sidewalks, streets, alleys and parks. Under city law, they are considered bulky items and can be picked up and destroyed by city sanitation workers.”

As of press time, there seems to be no consensus on whether they are legal or not.

The very next day, Buscaino’s office announced that it was hosting its own homeless forum on Sept. 3 at the Warner Grand Theatre.

Then,  Xavier Hermosillo posted a flyer on Facebook after the neighborhood council meeting announcing, “San Pedro’s Biggest Meeting Ever!!!… Don’t let our San Pedro become another Skid Row…Let your voice be heard!!!”

This, after he claimed Long Beach is dumping their homeless on us.

The forum was set for First Thursday, right in the middle of the Art District’s monthly art walk, conveniently scheduled the week before the Central’s next meeting, and 13 days before that council’s own Sept. 15 forum on homelessness.

Another problem the council office has is that it has curtailed any public comment during their forum, fearing that some of the uglier kinds of commentary that has been appearing on Facebook would be aired. As a result, they have only accepted written questions prior to the Warner Grand Theater meeting.

The outrage was further fueled by TV reports, radio interviews and incendiary Facebook commentary, mostly accusing the neighborhood council of “building the tiny homes” and enabling homeless criminals, pedophiles and drug addicts, suggesting that these miscreants be run out of town or worse.

I was most shocked and amazed by the vitriolic foaming-at-the-mouth Facebook commentary demonizing an entire class of people with the misfortune of being without a home in our community.

What most of these opponents of little shelters never realized in all of this outrage is that this sudden “explosion” of  homelessness on our streets didn’t come from Long Beach or downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row. This explosion was one of the unintended consequences of the gentrification  of Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park and the Port of Los Angeles and Caltrans expansion of  the Harbor and SR-47 freeway exchange.

It’s not that most of this population of homeless just arrived from some other place or were “dropped off” here, as is rumored. What I have learned is that some 167 homeless folks at Harbor Regional Park and some 40 or more near the freeway exchange were evicted from those encampments in preparation for the work by the government itself.  The hypocrisy of this situation is that the homeless problem was acceptable (tolerated even) when it was invisible from public view. But once it spilled into the public domain, the residents became enraged and they had no one to blame.

Next came the political attack of the deceptive Change.org petition directed at recalling members of Central’s council, including myself and two other board members—as if we alone had caused the tiny homes to be built. This petition was posted on various Facebook pages and shared on Buscaino’s page, then promoted by my “good friend” Josh Stecker on San Pedro Today’s page. Isn’t underhanded subterfuge in local politics and publishing just amazing? But even in both of the editorials in SPT, Stecker and Buscaino all condescended to say that the tiny homes were well-intentioned, then offered no long or short-term solutions before ending with a meek invitation to Buscaino’s “Biggest Meeting Ever!”

This, I’m sure didn’t quell the Facebook vigilantes’ wrath, nor the demonizing of the homeless or the neighborhood council. Even more accusations came flooding in on Facebook threads, where some commentary tilted toward slander, accompanied with some profanity and a whole lot of stupid.

The outrage continued up to the point where I shared a news story about a homeless man shot on the Venice boardwalk.

“Is this what you want?” I was asked. The Facebook lynch mob seemed to back away and then change the subject to less hostile, but still personal, remarks. Everybody has some outrage, and far be it from me to stop the expression of free speech. But this was like someone had yelled “Fire!” in a theater and then stepped back to watch the panic.

Well, to tell you the truth, I’m outraged too. But for different reasons.

I’m enraged that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, in the most powerful nation on earth, in the second largest city in the nation, overlooking the largest port complex in North America, we have a population of people who are so desperately poor that they have no place else to live, but on the streets and in the parks.

But here’s the difference. I don’t blame them for their own collective impoverishment. I realize that as a community and a civil society, we are judged not by the great wealth of the few or how much money corporations make, but by how we treat the least of our citizens.

I know that San Pedro has a very big heart.  It is home to some 100 nonprofit organizations that do a tremendous amount of good work, that hire hundreds of employees and address a multitude of social, cultural and economic issues. A community that supports and benefits from this much goodness just doesn’t turn its back on this sort of human crisis.

We would do well to remember the ILWU’s motto, “An injury to one is an injury to all” and that this ethos doesn’t just hold true for the workers on the waterfront.

Stecker believes that these nonprofits just need to “step up their game” to do more to solve this human crisis. This response is as naïve as it is simplistic.

He and others just don’t get that these organizations are stretched to the max with what they can do already. There are no more beds at the inn for these homeless. Section 8 vouchers are depleted  and, even if they do qualify for subsidized housing, it could take 90 to 120 days just to get in the system.

What people don’t get is that our very small problem with just 375 or so homeless people pales in comparison to the 6,292 living in downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row or that the entire Council District 15, which ranks 6th in largest homeless population  in the city, has some 1,544 people without shelter. If this were a natural disaster, the Red Cross and FEMA would have already provided shelter. Even Reggie the Alligator, who got caught at Harbor Regional Park, was given a home and treated better than those evicted by Los Angeles  Recreation and Parks.

Finally, what I do know is that we, as a city and a community, have both the talent and compassion to solve this most basic of human problems. We can and will do this just as soon as we stop playing the blame game and stop using the homeless issue as a political football. This is not a problem that we can arrest our way out of. It’s more complex than that.

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