By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor, and Erik Kongshaug, Former Editor
Thirty-five years is an eternity in the news business.
When Random Lengths was launched, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, there was no cable news, no Internet and no text messaging.
People were distracted the old-fashioned way: Politicians lied to them and newspapers printed the lies as facts. This is where Random Lengths came in, taking aim at those lies, one at a time.
The pace and volume of those lies have increased dramatically since then, requiring more thoughtful and diverse responses. Sometimes it’s shining light on a neglected or hidden story. Sometimes it’s setting the record straight about very public proceedings—from neighborhood councils and the Harbor Commission to the state legislature, the Congress, even United Nations conferences, like the recent climate change “Conference of Parties” in Paris. Sometimes it’s reporting from an unexpected perspective, showing things in a whole new light. Sometimes it’s taking a very familiar subject, story or point of view and discovering something more. Sometimes it’s being right up to the minute, as new developments cast old certainties into doubt. And, sometimes it’s recovering history, putting old stories—whether familiar, forgotten or even hidden—together in new ways. This is the reason for this retrospective.
From the beginning, Random Lengths has stepped quite consciously in the footsteps of muckraking author Upton Sinclair and his populist paper, Epic News. Sinclair funded and wrote that historic newspaper to wage his political campaign to “End Poverty in California” (EPIC); the founders of Random Lengths began with a $2,000 donation from liberal candidate Jim Stanbery, then a resident of Point Fermin. Stanbery was running to replace the powerful, conservative Los Angeles District 15 Councilman John S. Gibson. Stanbery, a young liberal in the Kennedy mold, was a far cry from the more radical Sinclair (who was only narrowly defeated in the race for governor of California in 1934). However, he forced Gibson’s only runoff race ever in 1977 and symbolized to the five original editors, the first real chance for a change from the political conservatism that dominated our district for decades.
For decades more, however, the conservative climate reigned supreme. Then, after a local change at the state level in 1998, city representation finally shifted back to moderate liberalism, even as the federal government veered to the extreme right with the stolen national election of 2000.
Now, after 35 years, the legacy of those original Point Fermin activists has come full circle. Today, those same Point Fermin activists who created Random Lengths in the late ’70s are middle-aged San Pedro homeowners like generations before them. But they are “activist homeowners,” who have begun to push California’s traditionally self-centered, “not-in-my-backyard” politics of vested self-interest towards genuine social and environmental justice. Early in the past decade they sought out the Natural Resource Defense Council and won a groundbreaking legal victory: community empowerment over the global economy through direct community mitigation of the expansion of the China Shipping container terminal at the foot of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, near Knoll Hill.
But recently it’s been discovered that the Port of Los Angeles lied to everyone about the mitigation measures, failing to implement 11 of them (see “Activists Urge City Council To Restore Port Oversight After China Shipping Debacle,” p. 3). What can or will be done to remedy this breach of trust—and violation of law—remains to be seen, but it underscores the never-ending nature of the struggles we’re engaged in, the need for constant vigilance, for questioning, for skepticism, for courage in challenging bland assumptions as well as outrageous lies.
The First Thread of Issues with the POLA
Random Lengths was born immediately following the Port of Los Angeles’ December 1979 completion of its Port Master Plan. It drew a metaphoric line in the landfill of port expansion with its lead article, “GATX Chemicals Endanger Harbor Area Residents.’’
The detailed article drew public attention to a mis-zoned chemical tank farm on Crescent Avenue. Random Lengths investigated and the Harbor Department was admonished for disregarding the tank farm’s volatile and toxic chemicals.
Spearheaded by activist Bea Atwood, the fight over the tank farm’s removal took a decade; the fight over the toxic cleanup took another decade. Most of the following decade found the site embroiled in conflict over the nature of waterfront development, questioning whether the development should be community serving or corporate serving. A 16-acre park was opened on the site—significantly smaller than previously promised in the “Bridge-to-Breakwater” planning process—on Jan. 10, 2010. Nonetheless, it was a regionally significant park. The lesson was simple: miracles can happen—after 30 years of struggle.
In December 1988, the Port of Los Angeles released its dutifully corporate-friendly “Plan 2020,” which called for the construction of Piers 300 and 400. It also called for creating the infrastructure for the Alameda Corridor intermodal railway. This time, Point Fermin activists, headed by the late Greg Smith, took on the port in the planning stages. Not by accident, the month Plan 2020 was released, Random Lengths started publishing two issues per month, and began to assess global issues more systematically, always within a local context— issues involving South America, the Pacific Rim, the geopolitics of petroleum, and such ominous acronyms as NAFTA and GATT.
The coal and petroleum coke facility next door to GATX was another local issue involving global forces. Before Kaiser was closed in the late 1990s, the Los Angeles Export Terminal, LAXT—created through Plan 2020—had surpassed by tenfold Kaiser’s toxic payload. Beginning in 1996, through Random Lengths’ uncompromising coverage of the LAXT as a multi-national experiment in government privatization, the community forced the construction of domes to cover the coke piles and their easily airborne particulates. LAXT soon went belly up as East Asia soon found its own coal reserves.
Meanwhile, the port abandoned the earlier promise of Pier 400 as “energy island”— relocating hazardous liquid bulk facilities as far away from residents as possible—with the opening of the Maersk container terminal instead. When the Alameda corridor was completed in 2002, its promise of local community jobs remained empty, its safety and toxic mitigation were still suspect and the dream of reducing future truck traffic had vanished behind clouds of diesel fumes. Almost immediately, far-sighted activists started saying that it needed to be fully electrified—the first such call for a zero-emissions system that’s since become a statewide policy goal, yet remains elusive on the ground.
Inspired by the example of activists organized around LAX expansion plans, the heirs to Greg Smith’s legacy—like June Burlingame Smith and Noel Park—got all mayoral candidates in 2000-2001 to commit to forming what became the Port Community Advisory Committee, PCAC, in the specific form chosen by the winner, James Hahn. Soon it was given additional responsibilities flowing from the landmark 2002 California Appeals Court victory overturning the port’s approval of the China Shipping Terminal. This combination finally lead the port to begin seriously addressing the problem of port-generated air pollution.
However, it listened far less attentively after Antonio Villaraigosa defeated James Hahn’s bid for a second term as mayor. Villaraigosa pledged to go even farther than Hahn’s “No Net Increase” plan, which produced the first comprehensive analysis of port pollution problem, and expanded the effort in partnership with Port of Long Beach, producing the Clean Air Action Plan, CAAP, adopted in November 2006. However, Villaraigosa simultaneously undercut the citizen involvement that originally drove the process. His new harbor commission immediately stopped receiving direct reports from PCAC and began a long slow process of undermining, dismantling and eventually disbanding PCAC. This, at the very time the port was privately violating the China Shipping agreement PCAC was intended to oversee (see story, p. 3).
However, activism didn’t disappear. A broad-based coalition challenged the approval of Trapac’s terminal expansion in December 2007, eventually resulting in a community benefits agreement, based on the LAX expansion model. In addition, as the CAAP was being formulated, the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports emerged to advocate on behalf of forgotten and disposed truckers misclassified as “independent owner-operators.” The coalition included a wide array of local, regional and even national organizations—environmentalists, labor, community activists, public health advocates, people of faith and others. It was part of coastwide effort, matched by another East Coast coalition. The initial effort to protect and empower truckers through the CAAP was thrown out by the courts. But a broader national effort building on labor law, strongly supported by the Teamsters Union, has built a powerful movement, which has grown rapidly in the past few years. The movement has had hundreds of legal victories and an escalating series of short-term strikes, which is strongly reminiscent of the 1934 birth struggles of the ILWU—even before it was an independent union. Not surprisingly, no other publication has told the story of this struggle quite the way that Random Lengths has told it.
Finally, waterfront development has been a key port-community issue since 2000, both in San Pedro and Wilmington. Since it ties together two different threads, we deal with it below in the thread of issues with the land.
The Second Thread with Municipal Issues
Within its first few issues, the original editors of Random Lengths had to decide whether to remain a sectarian political publication or to engage more broad-ranging political discussions from a non-sectarian viewpoint—the path they ultimately chose, which Random Lengths has followed ever since. From Stanbery’s 1980 “Neighborhood Associations Drive,” to the emergence of the inter-community 15th District Community Coalition candidacy in 1996, to the complicated legacies of a contradictory secession attempt, compromised charter reform and the watered-down-but-still evolving neighborhood council system that shapes district politics, Random Lengths has kept local news first and foremost as the honest measure of the health of local electoral democracy.
Random Lengths was launched at the start of the primary season that swept erstwhile California Gov. Ronald Reagan into the presidency. When George Bush, The First, took over in 1988, Random Lengths, in its new biweekly format, began covering deeper political issues—the Iran-Contra scandal, the Lockerbie airline bombing, and the first Iraq war—in a distinctively critical manner. Setting aside the corporate media fixation on President Bill Clinton’s sexual pecadillos, Random Lengths, instead, probed his bombing of Sudan and the geopolitics of NATO’s bombing of Kosovo. After 9/11, we documented the misinformation and concealed abuses leading into and through the second Iraq war of George W. Bush, which ultimately gave birth to ISIS, devoting countless pages to an eclectic mix of skilled, original analyses and information that never surfaces in the mainstream press. From Hurricane Katrina onwards, Random Lengths News has repeatedly probed different ways global warming is already threatening our lives — particularly in terms of prolonged droughts, wildfires and rising sea levels. And, in multiple other cases—from malathion spray, to the CIA-crack connection, to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment; from the Savings and Loan crisis, to the Walmart-driven union-busting of the local supermarket strike—history has justified the paper’s conclusions.
In its early issues, this paper sharply criticized conservative pro-business Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who succeeded John S. Gibson in 1981, yet her office maintained open lines of communication as befitted a public servant. Such was not the case with her similarly-minded successor, Rudy Svorinich Jr., who finally beat her in 1993. By the mid-1990s, Svorinich’s office took the unprecedented measure of refusing to provide any public information press releases to Random Lengths, the Harbor Area’s only community newspaper, while also refusing to return our phone calls. That actively obstructionist impasse continued until Svorinich was termed-out of office. His subsequent defeat in a run for state office was brought about to some degree by our never-ending scrutiny, documenting his frequent evasions of direct and open democracy.
With the turn-of-the century election of Janice Hahn to the council office and her brother, James, to the mayoralty, Random Lengths’ again had a decision to make: return to its initial position as a sectarian political publication or continue with its independent, non-sectarian point of view. Staying true to its original mission statement, Random Lengths chose the latter. But it was also forced to sharpen its critical acumen, to adjust to the increasing complexity of participating in whatever direct democratic empowerment was in store—not only criticizing abuses of power but also praising the responsible exercise of reform whenever it emerged.
These two poles of engaged critique were already seen regarding Janice Hahn’s first elected service on the Elected Commission for Charter Reform. Random Lengths praised her initial efforts for a proportionally elected, legally empowered neighborhood council system, then chastised the new charter she ultimately supported for its evasion of direct democracy, for its backroom deal to bypass the voters and create a disempowered version of the neighborhood council system that the electorate had once mandated Hahn to create. The various strengths and weaknesses of the neighborhood council system have been frequent subjects for similar critiques ever since, including its evident failure to fill the gap left by PCAC’s disbanding. Similarly, during Hahn’s first term, the paper covered the long efforts of the politically stymied Harbor Area secessionists and later that decade it covered efforts to restrain downtown-centric power, including a proposed charter amendment cutting back city council pay scales.
Random Lengths also repeatedly reminds its readers that the Harbor Area’s largely Latino, mainly immigrant majority must be included in political debates, beginning with the very emergence of issues to be debated, not only within the neighborhood council system and in Los Angeles’ municipal government as a whole, but increasingly in other Harbor Area communities. Random Lengths has remained critical of the continuing inequities faced by Wilmington, Harbor Gateway and Watts in their smaller-scale economic development projects. Since 2000, we have also paid increased attention to Carson and Long Beach, communities in which Latinos and other minorities still struggle for equitable treatment on many fronts. Attention to labor struggles of mostly Latino hotel workers in Long Beach and truck drivers at both ports has been reinforced by broader coverage of endemic wage theft in the low-wage economy regionwide, and the fight for a $15 minimum wage over the past several years.
The Third Thread: Issues with the Land
Publisher James Preston Allen has said, “If you want to see a good San Pedro street fight, just hold a meeting on land use!”
Inextricably bound to issues of port expansion and of city governance, local land use issues lie at the heart of why Random Lengths was first created. The Byzantine legal interconnections between apparently isolated battles over this or that piece of public property over the past 25 years are mind boggling.
They have been further complicated by the decommissioning of military property following the Vietnam War, which included Angels Gate and White Point Parks, and properties related to the Long Beach Naval Station’s closure. Since late in the Richard Riordan administration, land-use conflicts have repeatedly erupted around waterfront development, both in San Pedro and Wilmington.
Although the port had created a brand-new master plan when Random Lengths’ first issue appeared in 1979, the community of San Pedro had no such plan for itself, thanks to business forces (working through Councilman John Gibson) who ensured that San Pedro’s General Plan hadn’t been updated since 1962. Random Lengths began with a land use “revolution’’ among Point Fermin neighborhood residents, who were determined to create a San Pedro land use plan democratically at a grass roots level. The fact that the public Cabrillo Beach was not destroyed by the port’s expansion of its marina and has now been restored as a community center is just one direct result of their efforts. Although the “San Pedro Plan’’ became a campaign issue in 1981, with all candidates—including Flores—favoring it, it was never allowed to come to legal fruition.
Nonetheless, the grassroots structure of the “revolution” remained in place, and each time a new issue sprang up, Random Lengths has been there to put it back into its larger context. The survival of any open spaces or low-income housing through San Pedro’s development frenzy in the 1980s and 1990s is largely due to the information and analyses Random Lengths has steadfastly provided.
From the eviction of Park Western residents in 1980 to the foundation of the Angels Gate Cultural Center in 1981, to the marina and the battle over Navy housing at White Point, to the so-called “Pedro 2000” plan to eliminate the Rancho San Pedro housing project, to the struggle over Taper Avenue housing, to Recreation and Parks’ eviction attempts at Angels Gate and Hernandez’s Ranch on the basis of a “master plan’’ that never was, to the port’s “eminent domain” at Knoll Hill and its first scuttling of the Pacific Avenue corridor redevelopment project; from John S. Gibson Field, to Joan Milke Flores Park, to Svorinich’s unrequited efforts to get a park or a field or a something named after himself, the story remained the same.
While much improved during Janice Hahn’s tenure, no community generated general plan for San Pedro yet exists. As one result, the endless struggles over waterfront development have seen more twists and turns than any street on the Palos Verdes peninsula. Since planning began during Riordan’s last year in office, there were more versions of plans and public processes than anyone could keep track of—except for Random Lengths.
Something approaching a community generated general plan emerged in response to the port’s waterfront environmental impact report: the Sustainability Plan originally supported by the Sierra Club, the TraPac Appellants, two neighborhood councils and the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce. The port’s intransigent opposition eventually reversed the chamber’s support—once again sacrificing local business interests for outside mega-corporations—most notably, the cruise ship industry.
When the final EIR was approved in September 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, the controversial outer harbor cruise terminal was already an obsolete economic fantasy, while the far more resilient Sustainability Plan hadn’t even been seriously considered. Economic reality killed off the port’s worst excesses, but no coherent replacement was allowed to emerge. The severely scaled-back nature of the Ports O’ Call redevelopment project, made public this past year, is symptomatic of the diminished possibilities, as was the suspension of the Red Car Line in September 2015, after 12 years in service.
Wilmington’s waterfront development had a much slower and torturous start, beginning with organizing against the expansion of the TraPac terminal and proposed erection of a shielding wall. This organizing saw the birth of Communities for a Safe Environment, and the emergence of its founder and executive director Jesse Marquez as a passionate, knowledgeable and incredibly detail-oriented advocate for environmental justice. His activism has taken him to the highest levels of global deliberations on port-related policies. But it took the entire Wilmington community pulling together, plus the election of Antonio Villaraigosa, to not just halt the original expansion plans, but to create the 30-acre Wilmington Waterfront Park, which opened in June 2011. Another significant Wilmington development is the 3-acre Wilmington Marina Parkway, financed with China Shipping mitigation funds, which opened in 2014.
Finally, local concerns about the dangers of the Rancho LPG facility surged to the surface again following the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion in 2010. From re-examining the error-plagued process that allowed it to be built without permits in the 1970s, to exploring the legislative and regulatory history that allows this danger to persist to following activists’ efforts to have it closed or relocated, Random Lengths has explored this public threat from every angle—aided especially by the expertise and experience of retired oil industry consultant Connie Rutter. It’s a struggle reminiscent of the decades-long tank farm fight. Five years on, it’s only just begun.
The Final Thread: Civil, Human Rights Issues
Random Lengths’ commitment to the local preservation of civil rights was crucial. Coverage of port expansion, local government and land-use struggles didn’t degenerate into narrow-minded NIMBYism.
The headline of the Fall 1980 edition of Random Lengths read: “Violent Clash At Peck Park: Citizens Demand Investigation of Police Misconduct.”
In an unprovoked sweep, the Los Angeles Police Department, wielding batons, attacked 85 to 100 mostly young Chicanos assembled to socialize and watch a baseball game. Since then, our vigilance on behalf of civil rights has taken many forms, fighting against discrimination based on race, class, or gender in familiar forms, as well as newly emergent ones, such as the environmental racism evident in the disproportional impacts of port pollution on communities of color, of refineries in and around Wilmington and Carson, and related off-port impacts in communities of color up the 710 Freeway and Alameda Corridor and out the Inland Empire.
The newspaper has both covered and given voice to the emergence of environmental justice as an organizing framework for building a better world for all.
Its vigilance has focused on a wide range of specific struggles. Examples include our coverage in defense of the Ralph M. Brown Act open meetings law, where publisher James Allen was threatened with arrest, and demanding the uncensored distribution of the newspaper at the San Pedro Hospital or at City of Los Angeles public buildings. It has supported the ILWU’s proud tradition of standing in solidarity, defending the rights of others, such as the ILWU’s right-to-work stoppages staged in solidarity with Australian dockers and in opposition to the Iraq War. It’s also vigilantly supported other workers facing much harsher odds. There was the months-long union-busting lockout of grocery workers. There was the decades-overdue struggle to organize hotel workers in Long Beach, working for poverty wages and suffering wage theft after decades of municipal subsidies to the tourist industry of hundreds of millions of dollars. There are the broader efforts of the last few years to raise the minimum wage and empower low-wage workers, in fast food and other industries. These later efforts dovetail with a more specific struggle of port truckers misclassified as “independent owner-operators” to preclude them from union organizing, while facilitating hundreds of millions of dollars of wage theft.
Abuse of police power has been a recurrent concern, from mass illegal arrests and police violence in Seattle at the World Trade Organization in 1999, or the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles the following year, to the May Day police riot in MacArthur Park in 2007, and police suppression of the Occupy Movement in 2011. But they also include individual violations, such as our coverage of the unjustified arrest of Derrick Evans, here in San Pedro, which finally prompted his release. They also include the multiple arrests of witnesses to the police murder of Roketi Su’e in north Long Beach. Aspects of both mass and individual violations merged with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which fueled the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Also, over the past decade or so, our vigilance has focused on the struggle for equality, especially as expressed within the Long Beach lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Random Lengths has always affirming that “an injury to one is an injury to all,” viewing local, regional and national events through the greater human lens of civil and human rights.