14
Sun, Jul

My Antepenultimate Column for 2015

GELFAND’S WORLD--This being the antepenultimate column of 2015 for me, it seems appropriate to tell the story of a friend of mine who had to deal with corporate America. But this wasn't the usual corporate screw job by a credit card company or by a cell phone company. This was a combination screw job by both a credit card company and a cell phone company together, in one and the same incident. 

There are two reasons to tell this story in these, the final weeks of the year. First, it is illustrative of what our society is becoming, what with the big corporations turning us all into unpaid clerks, and customer service becoming customer disservice. The other reason is that I get to use the word antepenultimate in a published piece. You don't get to do that very often, much less twice in the same place. 

So here is Rod's story. 

He got a credit card statement a few days ago. There was a charge for $118 for his Sprint cell phone service. Only one problem -- he doesn't use Sprint. The charge was completely bogus. 

It wasn't even identity theft. He didn't have dozens of other charges for expensive luggage or diamond rings. It was just this one charge. So Rod did what any normal American would do. He called the number on the back of his credit card and explained. He told them that he doesn't have an account with Sprint. Therefore, they shouldn't be charging him for Sprint service. 

"You'll have to call Sprint" he was told. He again explained that he doesn't have an account with Sprint, but he was politely told to bug off. Apparently, this was the best that the voice on the other end of the line could do for him. So he called Sprint. 

"You need to talk to your credit card company." It seemed that Sprint did not have any record of his account, which isn't terribly surprising since he doesn't have an account with Sprint. Apparently, the Sprint clerk didn't have an icon on his computer screen labeled non-customers who don't have accounts with us but just got billed $118 anyway, and now they're mad

Rod politely explained that the credit card company had just given him the exact same advice except in reverse. This attempt was, as they say in the novellas, to no avail. 

There's a reason we call it the runaround. You end up running in a giant circle from one customer service desk to the other, and then back again, ad nauseum. The more common form of runaround is within the offices of a single corporation. You get sent from billing to customer relations to billing, and so on. But in this case, Rod was getting carommed between two separate corporations. 

I'm happy to report that in this holiday season, I have a happy ending to this story. Mind you, it took Rod another 3 hours of his life to achieve that level of happiness, but he did get there. Here's how. 

Rod is what I would call a particularly assertive sort of fellow. You may remember when books on assertiveness were all the rage. Many people bought them, but few seem to have absorbed the lessons. Rod didn't need to buy a book on assertiveness training. He seems to have been born with it. 

Rod simply gave up on the 800 number folks and found the number for the cell phone corporate headquarters. It's actually not all that hard to do. Corporate telephone numbers are not state secrets. Mind you, the clerk on the other end of the 800 number will usually refuse to give you the number of corporate. You will get some lame excuse that the poor clerk just doesn't have that number. Feel free to say that you don't believe him, but don't belabor the point. 

Just go online and look for the corporate website. Find a telephone number on it. You could try calling the public relations number, as they will always call back eventually. There's also a number called investor relations. I don't exactly know what they do, but it sounds like they would be the type to call back. Usually you can just call the corporate headquarters and ask to be connected to the office of the president. 

You won't get direct access to the CEO, but some nice person will answer, and you can explain your problem. That person will generally turf you to the person who can do you some good. So Rod got corporate, and explained that Sprint had billed his credit card number for service he doesn't have. 

Corporate figured out what was wrong. It's actually a little outrageous, if not exactly astonishing. Sprint, as in so many other companies, allows the customer to call in to pay a bill. But Sprint doesn't want to waste money paying clerks to take those payments. Instead, the computer on the other end of the line has voice recognition software. It asks you questions, and you give it answers. 

Sometimes the voice recognition software understands your reply correctly. 

In Rod's case, it did not. Somebody else called into Sprint's system, gave it a credit card number, and Sprint dutifully charged Rod for the service. Rod inferred from his conversation with Sprint that the voice recognition system had simply misunderstood somebody's speech. It happens from time to time. 

We can also imagine a different possibility, that this somebody was trying to pay a bill by using a credit card number that was not his own. But this sounds a little farfetched. Why engage in credit card fraud when you can simply avoid paying the bill? 

Whatever the glitch was, Rod had gotten billed that $118. And here is the crux of the matter. When Rod got charged that amount for something he never purchased, the burden should have been on the credit card company. Or at the very least, the dispute should have been between the credit card company and Sprint. The two giant corporations should have determined who owed what and to whom, rather than expecting Rod to fix their mistakes. 

The burden should never fall on Rod, since it was not his purchase. Yes, it is up to Rod to inform the credit card company that there has been an incorrect charge, but that should have been the end of it for him. The clerk at the credit card company should have been able to see that Rod did not have Sprint service at anytime up to this particular billing. and should have remedied Rod's problem on the spot. Then Sprint could have resolved its billing error as it saw fit, perhaps by contacting its actual customer. 

Because neither clerk could solve Rod's problem, or because they labored under rules that prevented solving Rod's problem, Rod was forced to go to the corporate offices at Sprint. 

By going to corporate, Rod got his credit card charge reversed immediately. His credit card company showed the reversal of the charge within the hour. All is right with the world, and Rod was only out the 3 hours of calling that it took him. 

Here's the take-home lesson: Give that guy on the other end of the 800 number his one chance to fix your problem, but don't accept getting the runaround. Escalate the problem sooner rather than later, and thereby get hold of somebody who has the authority to fix your problem. One reminder -- if you are connected to the 800 number and getting the usual runaround, asking for the supervisor usually isn't the effective form of escalation. Even if you get a supervisor, whatever that might be, you are still dealing with somebody who doesn't have the authority to fix your problem. 

A very short story 

Here's another example: One woman I heard from was trying to sign up for health insurance using the Covered California system. The insurance company mistakenly applied her December 2015 payment to January, 2016, and then told her that she didn't have insurance for December. A series of clerks on 2 or 3 continents promised her that the problem would be fixed in 5-7 days. Three weeks later, still no joy on the December insurance. A call to the office of the Insurance Commissioner of California sped things up remarkably. 

The overall strategy

Mind you, I am not suggesting going right to the top every time you have a corporate version of the sniffles. Some things really are just the sniffles, and not pneumonia. But when the clerks don't deliver, it's time to go to corporate. 

Notice that we, the consumers, didn't create the system where we have to be so demanding. But in this modern era, corporations save money by getting rid of the local staff, and then you are supposed to try to fix your problems by calling that 800 number. What you get are boiler room staff who are reading off of a prepared script. When I run into that, I say, "Excuse me, but could you please stop reading the script for a moment so I can explain the problem." Once in a while it works. 

One last story 

It was a while back, probably a couple of decades, but I still remember how a corporate screw job turned into a source of humor. 

One day, I got a letter in the mail from a new toll road authority down in Orange County. I was vaguely aware that Orange County had OK'd a toll road running parallel to the 5, but that was about all I knew. Nevertheless, this letter said that I had been driving on their toll road without paying, and now I was being assessed the fee and a fine. 

This was all a little strange, because I could state with certainty that I had not been anywhere near Orange County on the day of the alleged violation. I had not even been into Orange County within several weeks of that day, either before or after. 

But this toll road authority letter explained that they had a photograph of my car on their road. They had some automated system that took photos of cars that didn't use their system of payment, whatever it was at the time. 

That story about the photo was peculiar in the same way as Rod's more recent story. In each case, corporations expected us to jump through their hoops. I called the company and asked them to send me a copy of the photo. After all, if I am being charged with something, I have a right to see the evidence. The person on the other end of the line seemed a little surprised, but promised to get back to me. 

A day later, I got a return phone call. The toll road representative sheepishly explained to me that the license plate in the photo had been read incorrectly. My citation would be erased. 

I remained a little dissatisfied, because in my experience, what some clerk promises over the phone doesn't always come to fruition. Suppose some other office in the toll road authority didn't get the memo, and sent me another dunning letter? So I asked that they send me a copy of the photo for my files, so that I would be able to demonstrate by actual evidence that my car was not on their road at that time. 

You can probably guess what the answer was. They refused to send me a copy of the photo. They claimed that this would violate the privacy of the driver of the other car. That was an inadequate answer, to say the least. The photo was a necessary part of my defense if I ever needed to defend myself. You might even call the toll road's argument stupid. But I never did get that picture for my files. 

Dealing with this new digital age 

There are all sorts of issues with regard to this digital era and the control it has over us. Rod's run-in with the credit card company and the cellular phone system is illustrative. The phone company couldn't be bothered to put adequate safeguards in place to protect the integrity of its billing system. The credit card company left it to Rod to fix the mess, even though the credit card company could have done a simple charge-back to Sprint and left it to Sprint to sort things out. 

A new threat to our privacy 

The following is a bit of a change of subject, but bear with me. There's one more device that will potentially be a new threat to our privacy. It's the drone. If you haven't seen one up close, come down to the harbor, where we see them almost every day. Drones can be barely the size of your hand, or they can be a little bigger. You can buy them in a drone store (I didn't make this up) or from Best Buy. And the drones have look-down capabilities that give the creep on the next block the same sort of ability to violate your privacy that we once attributed to the NSA. 

By coincidence, drones are not only dangers to our privacy, they are dangers to civil aviation and the aircraft that fight brush fires. For this reason, the FAA is now about to adopt a rule that drones need to be registered. There will also be an age requirement for such registration. I don't think that this will solve the privacy issue, but it's a start. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]. Note: Rod is the pseudonym for a real person.)

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

LA is Missing Some Buildings ... and, No One at City Hall Can Find Them

MY TURN--When Councilman Felipe Fuentes (District 7) evicted tenants in the North Valley City Hall, he included a police substation as well as the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council in his purge.  Even though a hue and cry was raised by his constituents and this writer; we were told that he had every right to do that.  Apparently, who occupies city property is under the purview of the Councilmember in that district. 

It opened a Pandora's Box.  There are 96 Neighborhood Councils (NC's) in the City of Los Angeles.  They receive a budget of $37,500 annually.  This must cover their events, flyers and administration.  Some pay half their funds in administrative costs ... others don't have an office and parcel out administrative duties and records to their Board of Directors.  In keeping with the LA Charter, NC's are supposed to be independent of City government, even though they are a city agency.  There is no template on how they are to spend their budget allocation.  

The question was raised by the Los Angeles Alliance of Neighborhood Councils (LAANC): if the NC's were part of the City why couldn't they utilize the vacant space owned by the City and also receive a dollar a year lease as some of the other non-agency organizations were paying.  This way their budget would be better spent on their stakeholders. 

Sounds simple, no?  Board of Neighborhood Commissioners ( BONC) member Lydia Grant brought it before her Commission and it was approved to send to the City Attorney for the correct legalese.  It is supposed to have the legal approval next week.  Then the Rules, Neighborhood Committee can act on it or send it directly to the City Council. 

In doing some research on this situation I discovered that the NC Budget Advocates had been requesting a list of LA City owned real estate and vacant land for at least four years.  After all, it is considered assets and they were charged with advising on the Mayor's annual budget.  At the last Budget Advocates meeting, Matt Szabo from the Mayor's office told the assembled group that such a list did NOT exist and that it would take approximately a year to put one together. 

I found this hard to believe.  I would assume that these assets would amount to millions if not billions of dollars.  In the last couple of weeks the City Council passed a resolution ordering the Banks owning what are called nuisance vacant foreclosures to release them. The City would fix them up and take the cost out of the proceeds when they get sold. 

So if the City Council is giving the Banks these instructions ... how about knowing what real estate inventory is in the City portfolio? 

When it comes to City money I go to our financial guru Controller Ron Galperin.  Not only is he one of the most knowledgeable when it comes to City finances but also the most transparent.  Turns out he shares my frustration and bewilderment.  The Controller's office oversees money going out ... they don't have jurisdiction on the money coming in like rents, property sales etc. 

According to Controller Galperin, "The Controller's Office has been working very hard to compile a list of City-owned properties.  Unfortunately, because the lists we've been provided  by General Services Department (GSD) are inaccurate and/or outdated and/or incomplete, we've often had to go to other resources to build our database. 

For example, we have sought property records from the County Assessor's office. Unfortunately, the Assessor's information doesn't tell us the whole story.  For instance some property listed as belonging to the City might belong to the DWP. 

Nevertheless, we are determined to build this list--and to publish it on our open data site. What's more, we are determined to build a detailed list that tells us which City agency owns the property and how it is being utilized. These properties belong to the City of Los Angeles and the people who live here. All Angelenos have every right to know what properties their City owns and how they are being used. 

I went to GSD looking for some answers.  Asset Management comes under their jurisdiction, along with a bunch of other categories.  I found their website to be somewhat of a fairy tale or to be kind...wishful thinking.  The following is what they profess to do.

 

MISSION STATEMENT 

 The Real Estate Division's mission is to ensure optimal use of all Council-controlled City owned vacant and improved properties and maximize the value of each of these assets. The City relies heavily on the expertise of Real Estate Division in the following areas:  acquisitions, appraisals, sales, relocations, leasing, title research, negotiations, property management, energy conservation, and Real Estate Division is committed to providing exemplary services to its customers. 

ACCURACY: Every Real Estate Division employee will be committed to maintaining and developing accurate information on its real estate portfolio. 

TEAMWORK: Real Estate Division is committed to collaboratively working together within division and other City departments. Since all of our work is so intricately woven together, it is imperative that we are all collegial and cooperative in the performance of City work. 

It continues to describe its work 

The City of Los Angeles owns and leases real property worth billions of dollars used for diverse public purposes such as office buildings, police stations, fire stations, libraries, public parks, open space, roads and maintenance facilities. Asset Management division negotiates the purchase or lease properties for the City, and annually reviews the capitalization of owned and leased properties to identify refinancing or lease renegotiation opportunities. Also, develops and operates projects jointly with other governments and the private sector to accomplish the real estate needs of the City. 

It sure sounds good.  Terry Gomes, Budget Advocate Co-Chair and LANNC president, had issued a Public Records Act (PRA) request more than a year ago for the list touted in their Mission Statement.  These requests are supposed to be answered in 60 days.  Follow up has not produced anything! 

Mayor Eric Garcetti prides himself on his administration being at the vanguard of technology and transparency.  I sent requests for information to the two people in the Mayor's office who were aware of this situation and Deputy Mayor Barbara Romero.  I also sent a few questions to GSD General Manager Tony Royster.   Surprise ... Surprise. Not one response.  Obviously, having this exposed to our hundreds of thousands of influential readers is not important. 

WE are facing a homeless crisis.   Some of the open land owned by the City would be viable for people who live in their cars or recreational vehicles, to have a place to park aside from the street.  Some of the vacant public facilities could house many of the homeless since the allocation of monies set aside by the City Council isn't sufficient to take care of our needs. 

Not knowing, and if there is such a list not distributing it to other City agencies, is disgraceful! The Mayor just completed his annual review of his General Managers.  I'd love to see the report on GSD. 

I will close with one last quote from the GSD website 

Real Estate Division will be the City's resident expert for all real estate issues. Real Estate Division will implement the highest level of customer service and efficiency and is committed to providing detailed review and analysis of existing facilities and sites. Real Estate Division will also be the leader, in providing real estate advice to the Mayor, City Council, City departments and the general public for city owned property. Finally, Real Estate Division will continue to maximize financial and programmatic needs of all city owned properties

And … a quote from my own personal ‘department of public opinion’: Balder Dash! 

As always comments welcome …

 

(Denyse Selesnick is a CityWatch columnist. She is a former publisher/journalist/international event organizer. Denyse can be reached at: [email protected])

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 102

Pub: Dec 18, 2015

Affirmative Action: Supreme Court Justice Scalia Is Just Plain Wrong

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION REBOOT-Su­preme Court Justice Ant­on­in Scalia’s (photo) seem­ing sug­ges­tion this week that stu­dents of col­or would be bet­ter off at “a slower-track school where they do well” is not only of­fens­ive, it’s wrong. 

Black and Latino stu­dents who at­tend se­lect­ive schools are more likely to gradu­ate than those who at­tend open-en­roll­ment schools, re­gard­less of how aca­dem­ic­ally pre­pared they are when they enter.  

Ac­cord­ing to the Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force, gradu­ation rates for black and Latino stu­dents double when they move to se­lect­ive schools from open-ac­cess col­leges. 

“Justice Scalia is mak­ing the tired ar­gu­ment that ad­mit­ting Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dents in­to white schools is akin to put­ting ponies in a horse race,” said Nicole Smith, the Geor­getown Cen­ter’s chief eco­nom­ist, in a state­ment. “Like so many, Justice Scalia mis­takes Afric­an Amer­ic­an as a proxy for low read­i­ness, when in fact minor­ity stu­dents in more se­lect­ive col­leges and uni­versit­ies not only gradu­ate at re­l­at­ively high­er rates, but also se­cure high-pay­ing jobs there­after.” 

Scalia’s com­ments came as the Su­preme Court heard ar­gu­ments in an af­firm­at­ive-ac­tion case that could have wide-ran­ging im­plic­a­tions. The Uni­versity of Texas, the de­fend­ant in the case, says its use of race has helped en­sure di­versity. The school also uses a “10 per­cent plan,” in which any stu­dent who gradu­ates in the top 10 per­cent of a pub­lic high school in Texas is gran­ted ad­mis­sion to the Uni­versity of Texas. Since many of the state’s high schools are largely se­greg­ated, the policy in­creased the num­ber of stu­dents of col­or at the uni­versity. 

Ac­cord­ing to the Geor­getown Cen­ter, even though the plan meant some de­gree of lower pre­pared­ness among Uni­versity of Texas stu­dents, gradu­ation rates in­creased.  

“If Scalia’s the­ory were true, equally pre­pared stu­dents of all races would do worse at more se­lect­ive col­leges,” said An­thony Carne­vale, the Geor­getown Cen­ter’s dir­ect­or, in a state­ment. “In fact, we find the op­pos­ite is true.” 

Af­firm­at­ive ac­tion, the data sug­gests, not only be­ne­fits schools by help­ing them in­crease the num­ber of stu­dents of col­or, it of­fers those stu­dents a bet­ter chance at a col­lege de­gree. 

 

(Emily DeRuy writes for Next America, an editorial venture by National Journal.   She previously reported on politics and education for “Fusion,” the ABC News-Univision joint venture. This piece originally appeared in the National Journal.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 101

Pub: Dec 15, 2015

How Big Oil Broke Jerry Brown’s Heart

CALIFORNIA WATCH--As Governor Jerry Brown touted California’s environmental initiatives and prodded world leaders in Paris to embrace tougher environmental policies during the United Nations summit on climate change, it was instructive to look back at how one of Brown’s top environmental priorities suffered a major defeat in the California Legislature this year.

That priority was to establish a 50 percent reduction in petroleum usage in cars and trucks by 2030. Brown’s failure to win its passage in an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature clearly illustrates not only the influence of the fossil fuel lobby, but also the continued rise of a new breed of Democrats who are exceedingly attentive to big business, while tone-deaf toward their party’s traditional progressive base.

Petroleum reduction was a key part of a proposed law, introduced as Senate Bill 350, which also called for steps to increase energy efficiency in existing buildings and require that 50 percent of California’s energy come from renewable sources, such as solar and wind. By any definition SB 350 was a landmark piece of legislation. It had the rock-solid support of environmentalists, numerous health and physicians groups, and two Nobel Prize winners.

In hindsight, however, it probably didn’t stand a chance, thanks to an intense, summer-long lobbying campaign and media blitz by Big Oil and others. State filings show that oil companies and their trade organizations opposed to the petroleum reduction measure spent $10.7 million in the third quarter of 2015 to lobby lawmakers and conduct a negative media assault.

Of that, the Western States Petroleum Association, an influential industry trade group, spent $6.7 million, more than twice as much as it had spent in the previous two quarters. Individual oil companies, such as ExxonMobil and Valero, also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the third quarter, a significant increase over the amounts they spent on lobbying earlier this year.

In contrast, among the bill’s supporters, NextGen Climate, an environmental group founded and headed by philanthropist Tom Steyer, spent nearly $1.2 million on lobbying in the third quarter.

By late summer, the industry’s lobbying campaign and media blitz attacking SB 350 had had a big impact. Faced with defections by a group of nearly 20 so-called moderate Democrats, led by Fresno Assemblyman Henry Perea, SB 350 backers reluctantly removed the petroleum reduction measure. The move followed two critical meetings between supporters of the bill and the group of about 20 moderate Democrats concerned about the petroleum reduction measure. At the first meeting, on August 24, the moderate Democrats, led by Perea, met with then-Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). At the second meeting, on August 31, the same group met with officials at the governor’s office. (Perea announced this month that he is leaving the Legislature a year before his current term expires.)

Many of the corporate-friendly Democrats who attended those meetings with Atkins and Brown have received substantial campaign contributions from Big Oil over the years. Perea, for example, has received almost $100,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, while Merced Assemblyman Adam Gray has received about $80,000 and Rudy Salas, an Assemblyman from Bakersfield, has received about $65,000, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times citing the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

On September 9, with only two days left in the legislative session, Brown, Atkins and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), announced they were dropping the petroleum usage provision from the bill. The California Chamber of Commerce, another powerful opponent of the measure, then removed its influential “job killer” tag from the bill, sending a clear signal to corporate-friendly Democrats that it was now permissible to support SB 350.

A watered-down bill soon passed, with all of the formerly recalcitrant Democratic lawmakers except Gray voting for it. Brown signed it into law in a ceremony in October at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

“The main takeaway regarding the loss of the petroleum reduction piece of SB 350 is that it allowed us to shine a bright light on unprecedented oil industry spending [intended] to protect their bottom line – along with the lengths some lawmakers will go to ignore what voters truly want, which is less dependence on petroleum,” Susan Frank, director of the California Business Alliance for a Clean Economy, tells Capital & Main

The alliance, a network of 1,300 mostly small and mainstream companies in California that support a clean energy economy, was an important backer of the bill. Frank adds that it wasn’t a total loss, citing the stronger renewable energy and building efficiency standards that survived.

 Les Clark, executive vice president of the Independent Oil Producers Agency, an industry trade group based in Bakersfield, says he was adamantly opposed to the petroleum reduction provisions of SB 350 because they would have significantly hurt anyone who produces oil, particularly the mom-and-pop operators he represents.

“We were opposed to it,” Clark tells Capital & Main. “If you produce oil, you are producing it to make money. Of course we’d be concerned about that.”

Clark claims the measure could have driven some smalltime oil producers out of business. “It’s not good for my neighbors to have to pack up and go back East to find a job,” he says.

In speaking against the petroleum reduction measure, the bill’s opponents warned that it could result in gas rationing and prohibitions on sport utility vehicles. Opponents, including some Democratic lawmakers, also claimed that cutting petroleum use would be disproportionally harmful to residents of the Central Valley, whose long commutes and dearth of public transportation make dependence on automobiles – and fuel – a certainty.

“In the Valley – more than anywhere else in California – that means reducing jobs, businesses and opportunities,” Assemblyman Adam Gray wrote in an opinion piece published in the Merced Sun-Star. “The Valley’s No. 1 industry, agriculture, is dependent on transportation by both trucks (produce) and cars (labor). We have some of the highest levels of poverty and unemployment in the nation. Yet SB 350 puts these disadvantaged communities first in line to pay more and offers nothing in return.”

Sarah Rose, chief executive of the California League of Conservation Voters, disagreed, and in an interview confirms that the opposition of several key Democratic lawmakers to the petroleum reduction measure appears to have been motivated more than anything by a desire to please Big Oil.

“Clearly, there’s a problem when you have legislators not voting in the best interests of their constituents,” says Rose, whose organization supported SB 350.

“Oil has won a skirmish,” Brown conceded at the September 9 press conference, while de León added that the measure’s proponents were unable to compete with Big Oil’s “bottomless war chest.”

Now, three months later, after the governor promoted California’s accomplishments in a weeklong series of events at the Paris climate change conference, Brown can only look back and regret what was clearly a lost opportunity in Sacramento.

(An investigative reporter for more than three decades, Gary Cohn won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 1998 for his series The Shipbreakers. This piece originated at Capital and Main

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 101

Pub: Dec 15, 2015

Driverless Cars Won’t Save Los Angeles

NO SUBSTITUTE FOR WALKABLE STREETS--At the center of UCLA’s campus, there’s a banner advertising some of the university’s newest groundbreaking research. It features the outline of a small vehicle and reads, “The 405 is a joyride … in a driverless car.”

The 405 is the main freeway serving the west side of Los Angeles County, and along with earthquakes, humidity and natural aging, it’s the stuff of Angelenos’ nightmares. The federal government has cited the highway, with its average daily traffic of 374,000 vehicles, as the nation’s single busiest roadway. LA sunk five years and more than $1 billion into a project to widen its right-of-way through a congested mountain pass. (Officials called the temporary closure of the roadway “Carmageddon.”) The city has spent several times that amount expanding its mass transit system, with the promise that light rail and bus-only lanes would alleviate some of the region’s famous traffic jams. If anything, the traffic has gotten worse.

As for driverless cars, they’re likely to be a fixture of our roads by the end of this decade. Aided by a scanning technology called “lidar,” Google started testing vehicles in the San Francisco Bay Area this year, Tesla’s Autopilot program is now in beta and conventional carmakers such as Nissan and Ford aren’t far behind. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimates that by 2040, up to 75 percent of cars on the road will be autonomous. Could this be the solution to LA’s notorious traffic?

Probably not. Since I moved here three months ago to study urban planning, I’ve been engaged in the ultimate class project: living in LA without a car. Public transit junkies often imagine that with the right combination of incentives and policies, any city can be made into Manhattan. All around the LA area, heroic efforts are being made to reduce auto dependence and improve people’s ability to get around by foot, bike and public transit. But the wide streets, ample parking and huge tracts of single-family houses don’t lie: LA’s urban form is almost entirely built to move automobile traffic as quickly as possible.

The urban planner Fred Kent famously says, “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” Driverless cars are an exciting development, but they are still cars. They’re very much in their infancy, and much of the reporting on them has centered on technology and design. In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Dream Life of Driverless Cars,” two passengers gaze upon London from the computer’s-eye view of a Honda CR-V, watching as “workers setting out for a lunchtime stroll become spectral silhouettes” and “glass towers unravel into the sky like smoke.” These are suggestive images, full of intrigue and possibility. Still, driverless cars aren’t just a technological marvel; they raise serious urban planning questions.

In terms of safety and parking, they are likely to be a force for good. Perhaps we’ve become numb to the damage because it happens so often, but it’s worth remembering that cars are deadly weapons that we entrust to almost everybody, whatever their competence or emotional stability. Starting this Halloween in New York City, 13 pedestrians were killed by drivers in as many days — including young Bronx trick-or-treaters standing on the sidewalk. In 2013, drivers in Mexico City killed 491 pedestrians. Everyone has had a close brush with a driver who is texting, eating, applying mascara or falling asleep at the wheel. By contrast, autonomous vehicles are so cautious that they often have trouble crossing intersections, and recently one got pulled over by police for driving too slowly.

More than half a century ago, we gave for-profit car companies the opportunity to remake American cityscapes to their liking. It was a disaster.

As for parking: The average car is in active use for 5 percent of the day. The massive space required to store thousands of idle vehicles for the remaining 95 percent has been a disaster for urban land use. In the post-World War II period, U.S. cities including LA tore out the hearts of their downtowns — places that by their nature benefit from high density — and have given away immensely valuable urban land, effectively as a gift to suburban drivers, ever since. On top of that, drivers “cruising” for parking (circling city blocks looking for a cheap spot) can increase congestion by as much as 30 percent. Most American cities have parking minimums built into law, significantly increasing the cost of housing construction. Autonomous cars won’t simply vanish into thin air when we’re done using them, but unlike cars today, they will be able to relocate themselves away from the most valuable plots of urban land, freeing up space for new housing, businesses and parks.

All this portends a brighter future for LA and similar cities. But even today, the truth is that my car-free lifestyle is very doable — sometimes even convenient. LA has a robust bus system that I use to commute to UCLA, and so far I’ve found it to be reliable (LA’s bus and train networks combine for about 1.5 million weekday boardings, third in the nation after New York and Chicago). My home in the Palms neighborhood is a 15-minute walk from a light rail stop that takes me to Downtown LA, which has recently come into its own as a cultural and culinary hotspot. Almost everything I need is within biking distance of my apartment, and when I have to, I can rely on the generosity of friends with cars.

However, my commute is easy only because the daily itinerary of a childless graduate student is fairly simple, and because I can afford to live in a neighborhood that’s on a direct bus line to campus. I can use my phone to track bus arrivals in real time, or call a Lyft if I’m in a rush — but these apps that have surely saved me hours of wasted time are unavailable to those who can’t afford a smartphone. Socially, I’m surrounded by fellow planning students who love walking, biking and transit — but when I leave school, I’m reminded very quickly that the stigma against public transit and its users remains strong in L.A.

Driverless cars, promising as they are, cannot change a simple spatial reality: Single-occupancy private vehicles are not an efficient way to move people around an urban area that, despite its reputation, is by some measures the country’s densest. Nor should any of us be rushing to cede control of urban transportation systems to billion-dollar profit-driven companies. Take Uber: The “car-sharing” company provides a popular and often valuable service, but its poor labor record and transparent desire to replace public transit should give pause to anyone who values the “public” part of that phrase.  

More than half a century ago, we gave for-profit car companies the opportunity to remake American cityscapes to their liking. It was a disaster. When the time comes, I’ll be excited to explore Los Angeles in an autonomous vehicle. But I’m more excited for the day I can traverse the whole of the city by bus, train or bike without having to set foot in a car at all.

(Jordan Fraade is pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. His writing on urban policy issues has been featured by Next City, Gothamist, The Baffler and CityLab. This piece was posted first at Aljazeera .

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 101

Pub: Dec 15, 2015

City Reps: ‘LA Can’t Afford Public Safety’

GELFAND’S WORLD--The Los Angeles Police Department has 10 jails, including one in the harbor area (photos) that was recently constructed at substantial expense. But of those 10 LAPD jails, 4 are not being used. That total of the wasted and unused includes the new one in the harbor area.  According to city representatives, there aren't enough available funds. The facilities are in place, but not the people to staff them. This has serious consequences for public safety. 

The city also built a brand new police station in the harbor. It cost $40 million. The station was opened to great celebration and got plenty of press coverage, including an L.A. Times story which describes the new station, its helipad, and the jail. 

So we have an expensively built jail project which would have served the southernmost part of the city, but doesn't. The loss is significant in terms of the efficiency by which police resources are used. For one thing, it's a 30 mile round trip every time the police make an arrest in this part of town. 

Think about that last point. In order to book a prisoner, the police have to use the closest available LAPD facility, which is at 7600 South Broadway. This alternative is called the 77th Street Regional Jail. When the police make an arrest in San Pedro or Wilmington, the prisoner has to be transported 15 miles up the 110 followed by additional driving over city streets. That means that it's a half hour (or more) round trip each and every time, and this subtracts from available coverage of the harbor area. 

We are not alone. In the L.A. basin, the Southwest Area Jail and the Wilshire Area Jail are closed. That leaves jails in the Pacific Area, Hollywood, and downtown to cover a large swath of the city. 

In the Valley, two jails out of the total of three are being used. The Devonshire Area Jail is closed. That leaves facilities in Pacoima and Van Nuys to cover a huge area. 

In one sense, this is an old story. It's easier to raise bond money to build things than to find the money to keep them running or to keep them in repair. We notice this when there is a recession. Local governments reduce expenses by cutting back on the long term maintenance that would extend the life of publicly owned facilities. When governments get squeezed even further, they start to cut even short term maintenance. 

And when they get really squeezed, they close things down or, in this case, hold off from opening them. 

In the case of those LAPD jails, the official terminology is that the four are "temporarily closed." We might see this as optimism on the part of our city officials -- they plan to open the other 4 jails when financial times improve. Of course the term "temporary" is a little vague. It might mean 3 or 4 years more, or it might mean a lot more. At meetings where members of the public can ask questions, the city officials don't offer us any specifics. 

At some public meetings I've seen, the LAPD representatives have been badgered by the public about the situation. It's entirely unfair of course, because it's not the uniformed officers in the district who make this decision. Actually, when you talk to the police officers who go out on patrol, they are the first to agree that they are understaffed and could use more help. 

And that's what leads to the next point. If it's not the local police, who does make the decision to keep all these jails closed? It's not going to be a deep revelation that this kind of decision comes out of the city's budget process. Could the city find the dollars to open the Harbor Area Jail if it were considered a weighty enough priority? Obviously it could. But that decision would come at the cost of other priorities. 

So the harbor is stuck with a police presence that is effectively reduced. The official count of police officers stays approximately unchanged, but they spend less time patrolling the streets and responding to calls because they are on the road transporting prisoners. 

I've dwelled on the situation in the harbor because it is close to home and has come up here repeatedly in public discussions. But you can make the same argument about the other parts of town. When the San Fernando Valley (at least that part that is located in the city of L.A.) has lost one-third of its jails, that has to have a significant effect. I would imagine that the valley's 34 neighborhood councils are concerned about the level of police services, including the potential services that are lost due to unnecessary drive times. 

It's always a matter of priorities, and city budgets are the true definition of what the real priorities are. Money, as they like to say, is our way of keeping score. In this case, the game involves whether we buy fire trucks or pay higher salaries to city workers or, in this case, pay for people to work the jails. It reminds me of the old joke about buying things: There's price, quality, and service -- pick any two. To put it in political terms, we can't have everything because we don't have unlimited tax dollars. I suspect that the grand opening of the Harbor Area Jail won't happen until this recession is well behind us. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 100

Pub: Dec 11, 2015

Brown Act Violations Shut Down Downtown NC Meetings

DOWNTOWN- This week, the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC) had to cancel it’s monthly Board meeting after being informed of their Brown Act violations. This comes after last week’s abrupt cancellation of the DLANC Executive Committee meeting. 

What’s going on with the DLANC? 

DLANC by-laws, which were revised this summer (July 20, 2015) and also means were approved by this sitting Board, clearly states on Page 14- 

“Article VIII, Section 2- Agenda Setting- The Executive Committee shall set the agenda for each DLANC meeting at it’s monthly meeting prior to the next general DLANC Board meeting. During the seven (7) days prior to the DLANC Board meeting, EXCLUDING THE SEVENTY-TWO (72) hour period just prior to the DLANC Board meeting, the President or his/her Executive Committee Member appointee, may set or amend/change the agenda and submit it to the Secretary for posting. Any such agendized items or changes shall be SPECIALLY NOTED on the published agenda.” 

When the DLANC Executive Committee meeting was abruptly cancelled last week (of which DLANC still hasn’t publicly issued a reason why), it’s Board meeting for the month would AUTOMATICALLY also be cancelled UNLESS the President or committee appointee set the agenda 7 days prior … BUT, with the 72-hour Brown Act requirement STILL in effect, in essence this option can only take place during the four days prior to the 72-hour window. 

While many folks don’t know it, DONE (Department of Neighborhood Empowerment) has the capability of identifying EXACTLY when meeting agendas are posted ... The DLANC agenda posting missed the 72-hour requirement- a Brown Act violation.

While some DLANC Board members explained the meeting cancellation away as “a clerical mistake”, it is, however, a Brown Act violation. 

DLANC President Patti Berman was contacted by both DONE (Department of Neighborhood Empowerment) and the City Attorney’s office and made aware of the Brown Act violations and was then ADVISED to CANCEL the Board meeting. 

While the frequent misunderstanding of the “7-day posting window” has caused this very same level of Brown Act violations in the past, a grievance wasn’t pursued specifically on this until now. 

Even though DONE is severely understaffed, they took the initiative to address these issues. Ironically, DONE is currently in the process of undergoing additional training on how they handle the grievance processes citywide and will resume their department’s actions in this capacity in January, 2016 … It is not yet clear if the DLANC will be one of their first items of “grievance discussions”. 

These aren’t the only issues regarding DLANC agendas. 

Over the years, many in the Skid Row community have had tremendous issues trying to get their items of interest and/or concern onto the DLANC Board agenda. This frustration has led to the collective desire to create the Skid Row Neighborhood Council. Two weeks ago, the City Council approved the subdivision motion which puts the SRNC one step closer to becoming a reality. 

As for DLANC’s by-laws, while their old by-laws (January 26, 2014) are presently posted on the DLANC website, as previously stated in this article their new by-laws went into effect July 20, 2015. Apparently, this may have caused confusion amongst the DLANC constituents who have taken to social media to air their collective disdain over the matters of cancelled meetings, vacant Board seats and more. 

One such topic which led to unnecessarily aggressive discussions into the wee hours is in regards to the replacement of a DLANC Board member. DLANC’s new by-laws state; 

“Article V, Section 6: Vacancies, Letter D- The Board shall vote on the application at the meeting. If multiple applications for a seat have been submitted, the candidate with the most votes wins.” 

OBVIOUSLY, this would not be considered to be a vote during DLANC’s “regular election”. Therefore, it was referred to as a “special election” and some people in the Downtown area took STRONG exception to this notion … to the point where myself and others were called liars. Just because it doesn’t literally say “special election” in the DLANC by-laws doesn’t mean that that’s not what it is. 

Moving forward, upon the many changes in DLANC’s new by-laws, the number of Board member seats have been reduced from 28 to 24, including one less Social Service Provider seat. The Board seat adjustments will go into effect during the upcoming election cycle next year. 

DLANC now has a choice of either letting the “holiday season” be the reason for not having a December Board meeting or having a “special meeting”. If they have a special Board meeting in December, it will be the same as an admission of guilt regarding the Brown Act violations. 

So much for being the 2013 Empower LA award winners. 

My how the mighty have fallen!

 

(General Jeff is a homelessness activist and leader in Downtown Los Angeles.)

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 100

Pub: Dec 11, 2015

UTLA is Not Really a Union

EDUCATION POLITICS-In looking at the attempt to unionize the charter school teachers of Alliance College Ready Public School by the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), it is hard -- if not impossible -- to know which side represents the lesser of two evils for teachers caught between them. It’s clear to me that with or without a union, public school teachers have become employees at-will whether or not they have tenure or union representation.

I have always been a supporter of unions because I know from history just how bad any worker, white collar or blue collar, is treated when they do not have the power that collective bargaining and the ultimate threat of a strike gives them. The present reality for teachers and others represented by unions like UTLA is that once targeted by their employer -- be it LAUSD or Alliance College Ready Public School (if UTLA succeeds in getting their teachers to join) -- UTLA has and will do nothing to stop any teacher's removal, even if it is clear that there is absolutely no legal or reasonable justification for such action.

Simply stated, Alliance College Ready teachers without a union are presently employees at-will, subject to being legally fired without cause. What these teachers don't understand is that, even if they vote to join UTLA, they will remain de facto employees at-will subject to firing at will. UTLA has stood by for the last six years while its own dues paying members -- 87% of whom are over 40 and at the top of the salary scale -- have been removed by LAUSD from their careers as teachers without UTLA lifting a finger to stop this.

No, that really doesn't go far enough in laying out UTLA's complicity in allowing its own members to be fired without cause, because it is clear that LAUSD could not have and would not have even tried to remove the thousands of senior teachers it has removed without the active complicity of UTLA's entrenched and self-dealing bureaucracy and officers.

There is clear language in the LAUSD-UTLA Collective Bargaining Agreement that would have allowed UTLA to come to the defense of its targeted senior rank and file teachers in one unified action for wrongful termination, which is clearly authorized by this agreement. And yet, UTLA has done nothing. Such action would have been far more effective and less expensive than dividing every targeted teacher’s case in a costly process left to the isolated teacher, who received no help from UTLA, even though they had paid dues for years, supposedly to cover such an eventuality.

When push came to shove, teachers like this were completely jettisoned by UTLA. And now, to add insult to injury, UTLA has the chutzpah to seek a raise in union dues to cover the costs of having squandered union dues on who knows what (they refuse to show their books) while steadfastly continuing to refuse to defend their rank and file.

On December 3, 2015, UTLA was able to get an injunction against Alliance College Ready Charters to stop Alliance's alleged interference in UTLA's attempt to organize Alliance's teachers. A bit of advice to the Alliance's leadership, if they still want to stop UTLA:  Have your teachers contact me or any one of the hundreds of ex-LAUSD teachers I can put them in touch with and we will give them hard evidence as to how worthless UTLA was to us. And then there are the 2000 plaintiffs in attorney Mark Geragos' class action against LAUSD, none of whom got any help from UTLA.

UTLA is worse than no union at all since it gives the illusion to teachers that they are represented and protected. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sooner teachers realize this, the sooner a real union can be organized to give professional teachers the representation and protection they need in the fight to reestablish a public education system that once again can educate the public.

 

(Leonard Isenberg is a Los Angeles observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He’s a second generation teacher at LAUSD and blogs at perdaily.com. Leonard can be reached at [email protected]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

  

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 100

Pub: Dec 11, 2015

Islamic Terrorists: How They Got That Way

TENETS OF TERRORISM-News anchors scratch their heads. How could they have done this? How could a happily married young couple, with a good income, a six-month-old baby, and no apparent history of “radicalization,” execute this military-style massacre of 14 people in San Bernardino? Gosh, how to understand these people? 

Actually, I think it’s not so difficult to grasp. One just has to examine the question seriously and not begin with the assumption that such massacres are incomprehensible—the products of minds so alien to our own that comprehending itself isn’t possible.

It seems to me that the basic components of ISIL-type ideology are quite obvious and can be distilled as follows. 

1.There is a God, a Creator of the Cosmos, who has communicated His will to humankind through written texts transcribed by inspired men that set down His law.

This is a concept common to monotheistic religions, including Judaism and Christianity as well as  Islam. It does not automatically lead to terrorism, of course, even when it’s unthinkingly embraced by  people incapable of rational doubt or nuanced thinking. (Such people are well represented among this  country’s Christians, and in the documented world history of Judaism and Christianity we find many  instances of wholesale slaughter of communities by believers supposedly directed by the Almighty Himself.) 

But if God-belief doesn’t automatically lead to terrorism, it’s obviously one premise of Islamist jihadi terrorism. So this is the starting point of any analysis of that phenomenon. 

2. Islam, based upon the Holy Qur’an, transmitted to humankind through the Prophet Muhammad and embraced by the global Ummah (Muslim community), is at war with the West. 

The many conflicts, pitting western parties against Muslim ones, constitute this worldwide war. The western-backed Israelis occupy Arab land and abuse and butcher Palestinians. (In the Gaza War of 2014 the Israelis killed over 2000 Palestinians, around two-thirds of them civilians.) Western countries with the U.S. at their head support brutal dictatorships in the Muslim world, including monarchies and republics, all of which oppress the Muslim citizenry. The U.S. and allies routinely invade Muslim countries, killing hundreds of thousands and defiling these lands with their infidel presence. Meanwhile western popular culture invades Muslim nations, corrupting the youth with its immorality. 

This is not (as the jihadis see it) a conflict recently hatched. It harks back to the Crusades, and the bloody Christian occupation of Jerusalem in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; the struggle for Spain, culminating in the expulsion of Muslims in 1492; the European colonization of North Africa beginning in the early nineteenth century, and brutal suppression of Muslim resistance; the division of former Ottoman lands in the Arab Middle East by the French and English colonialists after World War I, and the brutal suppression of resistance, especially in Iraq; and the Palestinian Nakba of 1948. Is it not obvious—the anti-west jihadi thinks—that we are at war, and have been for hundreds of years? 

3. It is incumbent on all Muslims to defend the Ummah when it is under attack. 

The Qur’an says: “Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you… Kill them whenever you encounter them…” (2:190-91). If you understand that the Muslim world is in fact at war, you must as a pious believer take your stand. 

4. Terrorism is justified, indeed required, by God (Allah)

(A reminder: “Allah” is merely the Arab word for God, related to the Hebrew “Elohim.”) The passage cited above also cautions the Muslim:  “…but do not overstep the limits. God does not love those who overstep the limits.” And the Qur’an recognizes Jews and Christians as fellow believers in God, and specifies that there should be “no compulsion in religion” (2:256 ). But it also (like most scriptures) contains contradictions and passages that appear to justify all kinds of violent response to “those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land” (5:33). 

This verse specifies that these forces at war against Allah “should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned…” Verse 8:57 calls upon the Muslim warrior to “deal with [the enemy] so as to strike fear in those who are behind them, that happily they remember.” 

Because the enemy in this case has overwhelming military power, the jihadis must wage asymmetric warfare, using the “weapons of the weak.” Bin Laden and other radical Islamists find in the Qur’an moral justification for attacks on civilians to strike such fear. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri argued in a book published in 1995, entitled “The Rule for Suicide-Martyr Operations,” that the killing of non-combatants in the defense of Islam is not immoral. Osama bin Laden told al-Jazeera in October 2001 that, while it was true that “the Prophet [in hadith] forbade the killing of women and children…this forbidding of killing children and innocents is not set in stone…if the disbelievers were to kill our children and women, then we should not feel ashamed to do the same to them, mainly to deter them from trying to kill our children and women again.” 

This validation of random killing is a major break from traditional modern Muslim teaching, and the essence of what the U.S. media and law enforcement have taken to calling “radicalization.” 

Much like their counterparts in other religious traditions, Muslim clerics overwhelmingly reject any justification for attacks on civilians. U.S. Muslims in particular resist the rationalization of such attacks. (A 2011 Gallop poll showed that while in the U.S. 58% of Christians, 52% of Jews, and 43% of non-religious thought it “sometimes justified” for “the military to target and kill civilians” only 21% of Muslims agreed.) But this is the doctrinal point of departure for what is usually called “Islamic terrorism.” 

(One must note in passing that this comfort level with mass slaughter of innocents found in some Muslim texts is hardly unique to Islam. It is similarly revealed in Old Testament passages that long predate the inception of Islam, and indeed helped shape Muslim thinking. For example, the prophet Samuel, speaking on behalf of God (Yahweh) in the Bible advocates the genocide of a fellow Semitic people, the Amalekites. He tells King Saul to “attack the Amalekites…Do not spare them; put to death women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” [1 Samuel 15:3].

Such words resonate in the brains of Jewish terrorists like Baruch Goldstein, an a U.S.-born Israeli physician who killed 29 Muslims including seven children, and wounded 125 in Hebron in 1994; and also in the brains of Christian terrorists like self-described “100% Christian” Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 innocents including 55 teenagers in Norway in 2011 to protest multiculturalism and tolerance of Islam.) 

5. Just as there is unquestionably a Creator God, who communicates to us through the Holy Qur’an and the hadith (sayings of Mohammad), so there is surely a life of the soul after death, and the rebirth of martyrs in Paradise. 

So there is both broad license for the believer to break with conventional morality—liberated from its norms, to do the unthinkable, shocking the world through the massive bloody infliction of indiscriminate suffering—and mental assurance that (following the act of spectacular terror) the holy warrior-terrorists if killed in the mission will be reborn in “Gardens of Bliss.” There they will “sit on couches of well-woven cloth,” offered viands and drinks by “everlasting youths who will go round among them” while “beautiful [female] companions like hidden pearls” attend them too (56:12-24). 

6. By sowing terror among the enemies of Allah, killing their children, shocking the enemy by such measures as mentioned in Qur’an 5:33, the jihadis hasten the day of a general showdown between Islam and the west and the re-establishment of the Caliphate of the seventh century. 

(ISIL draws upon a particular tradition of apocalyptic prophecy and preaches that jihadi acts of violence from the battlefields of Iraq to Yemen to Libya and beyond as well as lone-wolf terrorist actions in western nations all contribute to the realization of this glorious end.) Thus the sacrifice of one’s life has profound, enduring meaning for all generations to come. One plays one’s heroic role in that which was foretold, shooting down innocents knowing they are not really innocent in God’s eyes and that one’s own actions enjoy divine approval. 

ISIL propaganda refers to the “grey zone,” meaning the global Muslim population standing between the enemy (the “crusader nations”) and the Islamic State jihadis—Muslims who must ultimate join the cause of the caliphate or stand with those who increasingly monitor, mistrust and vilify them. 

Millions of Muslims inhabit this zone, potentially joining it, like the San Berrnardino couple. 

* * *

This ideology is ultimately a product of—often rational—indignation at the state of the world, paired with the destructive potential of religious delusion. There’s no question but that it’s a hideous worldview and should sicken any clear-minded person. But in its validation of random slaughter, it not only draws upon a rich tradition in monotheistic religion but the history of modern imperialism. 

Didn’t U.S. General Curtis LeMay boast in 1945 that the U.S. would “bomb Japan back to the Stone Age” for the grave sin of attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941—bombed after the U.S. had shut off Japan’s oil supply and frozen its bank assets—and killing 2400 troops? 

Didn’t this Ohio Methodist boast that the U.S. would “scorch and boil and bake to death…every man, woman and child” in Tokyo, a city that ought to be “burned down—wiped right off the map—to shorten the war”? And didn’t U.S. firebombing on the night of March 9, 1945 alone indeed incinerate 100,000 Japanese men, women and children? And didn’t this atrocity via “conventional” war lead to the indiscriminate annihilation of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki five months later? 

Didn’t U.S. forces in the Philippines (1899-1901), Korea (1950-53), and Vietnam (1964-75) kill millions of women and children? Weren’t the troops accompanied throughout by Christian (and a few Jewish) chaplains who assured them that they had God on their side as they did so? 

It’s no more difficult to understand the mindset of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik than to understand the mentality of Gen. LeMay. The self-righteous, butt-headed expectation that God is on your side. The antinomian assumption that the normal laws and human feelings don’t apply to you because your mission is special and elite. The confidence that you will never suffer for the suffering you inflict. 

The sad fact is that the suicide bomber, or the “suicide by cop” figure, tends to die quickly without suffering. His or her brain dies, sensation ends. The “martyr” does not wake up on the “couch of well-woven cloth” in a blissful garden surrounded by the bounty of Paradise—or in some Inferno somewhere subject to eternal torture—but disappears unpunished, ultimately prey to worms. Death brings no punishment but silence. 

No one can say to the departed fanatic: “See, now that you’re dead and nowhere, that your religion-based worldview was a stupid dead-end?” He’s dead. She’s dead. It’s done. 

But you can say, to the daily jabbering brain-dead cable-news anchor: This crazy religion-based worldview that puzzles you is not really something so foreign and obscure. It’s something easily comprehensible to Americans on the basis of their own history (which includes the annihilation of native peoples, and the institution of slavery justified by citations of the Bible). It’s understandable in their own current context of ongoing bigotry, resentment and fear. 

You don’t need, feigning perplexity, to ask how people can be so vicious. You have a huge backload of unexplored if not meticulously avoided news stories that help explain the jihadis’ rage. 

Last Friday Staff Sgt. Dwight L. Smith, Jr. (28), an Army veteran of the Afghan and Iraq wars, was convicted of raping and murdering a 65-year-old woman in Delaware as she walked her dog on December 19, 2011. On leave from Fort Drum, New York, he just wanted to kill somebody that day.

After the killing, Smith wrote to his father, “I’m going to be honest with you dad. I have killed a lot of men and women and children. Some that didn’t even do anything for me to kill them. Also some that begged for mercy. I have a problem. I could kill someone, go to sleep and forget that it ever happened. 

“I think I got addicted to killing people,” he explained. “It got normal for me to be that way. I never wanted to be this way. I just took my job way too serious.” It appears he was never brought to trial for any of these self-admitted killings during his deployments. One must wonder how many people he “radicalized” by killing their loved ones. 

How could Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik have cold-bloodedly murdered 14 innocent people at a holiday party Dec. 2? In all probability, it’s because they believed the points listed above, and came to agree with bin Laden that “if the disbelievers were to kill our children and women, then we should not feel ashamed to do the same to them.” 

Shouldn’t we note the obvious—that Islamist “radicalization” has soared since the destruction of Iraq in 2003, and has been fed by the disastrous western interventions in Libya and Syria, executed by Sgt. Smiths who take their jobs too seriously and get addicted to killing people? And by drone strikes on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen? 

The anti-Assad, pro-U.S. “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” reported that on May1 of this year U.S. airstrikes killed 52 civilians near Aleppo in Syria. Is this likely to weaken ISIL, the ostensible target, or validate the Islamist charge that the west is at war with Islam and induce more to join the jihad? 

Isn’t it obvious that the news anchor really needs to ask, not why some Muslim can “become radicalized” and kill innocent civilians in western cities—as though this were some sort of inscrutable moral riddle—but why U.S. leaders can sleep soundly as their death machines rain down “shock and awe” on Muslim peoples in wars based on lies guaranteed to spawn simmering time bombs like Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik?

 

(Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan.  He can be reached at: [email protected].  This piece was first posted on CounterPunch.org.)   Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 

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CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 100

Pub: Dec 11, 2015

 

 

 

Does the University of Southern California's Ex-Coach Have a Case?

SPORTS POLITICS--On Monday, former University of Southern California head football coach Steve Sarkisian sued his one-time employer on the grounds that his mid-season firing in October constituted a breach of contract and discrimination. 

Breach of contract is simple enough to understand. But discrimination? That's because, according to Sarkisian, he was fired as a result of his alcoholism. As the Associated Press reports:

Sarkisian claims he should have been allowed to seek treatment for his alcoholism disability while keeping his job. The lawsuit describes Sarkisian’s descent into alcohol dependency in steady detail, citing the extraordinary stress of the USC job combined with his wife’s decision to file for divorce earlier this year.

As Daniel McGraw reported for Pacific Standard last week, alcoholism actually falls under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and therefore isn't in itself ground for termination. As McGraw wrote:

That means a company cannot deal out punishments and work rules that single out alcoholics for worse discipline than their non-alcoholic co-workers for the same action, even if the transgression involves alcohol. That's not to say the ADA permits alcohol use as an excuse for poor job performance—employers can certainly fire anyone who shows up to work drunk. Rather, employers can't deny employment because of alcoholism, or set up job standards for alcoholics that are not equal to the other non-alcoholic employees.

This is a point of contention in the lawsuit: USC alleges that Sarkisian showed up drunk to a booster event and a pre-season game, and Sarkisian denies having done so. (He says he was only drinking out of work.) Technically, "California law required USC to make the reasonable accommodation of giving Steve Sarkisian time off to get help for his disability and then return to the job," the suit says. In other words, the school couldn’t just fire him for being an alcoholic; it had to give Sarkisian a chance at rehabilitation.  

Now, USC maintains Sarkisian was fired not for his drinking, but for his dishonesty. Again, from the Associated Press:

"[T]he record will show that Mr. Sarkisian repeatedly denied to university officials that he had a problem with alcohol, never asked for time off to get help, and resisted university efforts to provide him with help. The university made clear in writing that further incidents would result in termination, as it did. We are profoundly disappointed in how Mr. Sarkisian has mischaracterized the facts and we intend to defend these claims vigorously."

And lying, as McGraw points out in his piece, opens up a whole new can of worms:

That's because in an employment discrimination case, it is sometimes easier for the employer to claim that it was the employee's dishonesty—and nothing else—that led to him being reprimanded. As an example: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes discrimination against persons with criminal records in the U.S. illegal. But employers can still legally fire you, if you lied about, say, your criminal background by not properly listing convictions on a job application.

We'll see how this lawsuit goes, but, either way, we hope Sarkisian has been getting the proper treatment.

(Max Ufberg is an associate editor at Pacific Standard …  Previously, he covered technology and culture for Wired.)

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 100

Pub: Dec 11, 2015

Good News, Bad News: Change is Coming in Car Culture Land

BIKING … THE VIEW FROM HERE--Good news for anyone who believes in the future of cities and humanity; bad news for the Neanderthals on the LA City Council who grunt nostalgically for the bad old days of traffic jams, road rage, sprawl, and blood on the streets. (And anyone who believes that road rage is a new phenomenon need only watch the 1950s Disney cartoon, Motor Mania,” written at the height of the Car God Cult’s worldwide jihad.) 

Yes, somehow Congress managed to vote on and actually pass a transportation bill, known as the “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act,” acronymed down to, of course, the FAST Act. But it’s not so obsessed with speed as those among LA’s city council members who would kill any number of constituents as long as putting the pedal to the metal is still possible between pile-ups. 

As Next City reports, the act includes language “allowing local governments to use alternative road and street design manuals” (such as the NACTO guide) “in designing federally assisted construction and repair projects.” This amounts to official permission to build Complete Streets with Federal cash. 

The FAST Act also contains support for transit, Amtrak, and transit-oriented development. Though the bill has flaws, spelled out in the latter half of the Next City article, overall it represents a genuine step towards healthier, wealthier cities. 

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post reports on How Cyclists Are Causing Cities Worldwide To Rethink Bike Safety.  In an interview with Fredrik Gertten , director of the film “Bikes vs. Cars”, HuffPost examines what Gertten learned during his explorations of urban cycling in Los Angeles, São Paulo, and Copenhagen, as well as other cities. 

As Gertten observes, “It’s not about left or right. It’s not even about having money or not having money. People make the choice: I don’t want to sit in the car. It’s boring, I lose my time, I get fat, I feel unhappy, I feel trapped. On a bike I feel free, I’m more flexible.

“About eight bikes equal a car in space. It’s amazing to see here now in San Francisco, with a traffic light, with 10, 15 bikes waiting for a green light. If that had been 15 cars, that would be a very long line.”

[…]

“If you can make that little equation in your brain, you will start to love bicycles, even if you will never go on a bike. Even if you will be in a car for the rest of your life.” 

Let us hope we won’t be, and that soon we’ll live in an LA that makes more room for human culture than for motorized isolation chambers in our public spaces.

 

(Richard Risemberg is a writer. His current professional activities are centered on sustainable development and lifestyle. This column was posted first at Flying Pigeon.)  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 -cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 100

Pub: Dec 11, 2015 

A Secret and Dangerous New Challenge to Net Neutrality

BATTLE FOR THE NET--Just when you thought the issue of net neutrality had been resolved, it has found a way to resurface -- only this time, without the public consideration that went with the original outcry. Rulings by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) protecting access to the Internet without censorship by cable television companies were enacted after more than a year of public hearings and input. 

But cable television companies, led by Comcast, have now managed to put special wording and financial disincentives into a required budgeting bill granting the implementation and protection of the FCC’s authority. The fact that these companies could get consideration attached to such unrelated legislation should be a worry to the public. These special legislative additions have been put forward by elected officials who are paid substantial “campaign contributions” and have fundamentally become employees of the cable television industry. 

The underhanded behavior that cable television companies are willing to use shows that they want to be immune from existing government regulations – measures that have been put into place to protect the general public. The vulgarity lies in the willingness to put the safety and well-being of the entire United States budgeting process at risk for special interests. 

As one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the United States, the cable television industry has shown its willingness to utilize the Congress of the United States in attempting to subvert the authority of a governmental regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect the public from the power of special interests. 

The ability of the cable television net neutrality issue to affect the entire budget of the United States of America is clearly a violation of any good faith effort to allow for public knowledge and input. The fact that these companies can compromise the integrity of the U.S Congress is not something to be taken lightly. The entire future of net neutrality, which was thoroughly discussed for years by the general public and the FCC, is now at risk. 

Simply look and see who is supporting this addition to the U.S. budget and compare that to how much money they have received from Comcast and other cable television companies. It’s no surprise to see a direct correlation between the receipt of such funds and the promotion of potential doomsday legislation that could serve to shut down the entire United States government. 

This information has not been made available nor has it been widely reported by the general media, which cable television controls. During the time that net neutrality was before the FCC there was substantial media coverage. But now, special interest benefits and broad detailed legislation has been hidden within unrelated legislation -- an attempt to block the general public from knowing about changes to an issue they thought was resolved. It is only through net neutrality that I was able to become aware of this attempt to subvert the government by holding it hostage during the budget negotiations. 

A vote is set for December 11 on legislation hidden in the budgeting process that does not relate to the budget. Yet the public is kept in the dark. You should let federal elected officials know your concerns about this secret attempt to kill net neutrality

Net neutrality is necessary in order for all of us to understand how legislation is passed for the benefit of wealthy financial special interest groups that dominate access to media. It ensures an independent analysis. The continuing control of all major media outlets by six corporations is a travesty, subverting freedoms that are guaranteed under the Constitution. 

How many other sweet perks has Congress inserted in the budget for the benefit of their friends and political contributors? This can only be determined by an independent evaluation of how the Congress behaves; it’s clear that existing mass media outlets are no longer truly independent of government. 

These giant corporations rely on the government for their very existence and financial future benefits, especially in matters such as net neutrality – and, in turn, those who serve in government are too often controlled by those who are supposed be regulated.

(Clinton Galloway is the author of the fascinating book “Anatomy of a Hustle: Cable Comes to South Central LA.” This is another installment in an ongoing CityWatch series on power, influence and corruption in government … Corruption Watch. Galloway is a CityWatch contributor and can be reached here.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 -cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 99

Pub: Dec 8, 2015

The Day of the Big One: Two Alternative Scenarios

GELFAND’S WORLD--The big earthquake may not come for a hundred years, or it could happen in 2017. The immediate physical effects of a major rupture along the San Andreas Fault are predictable and probably inevitable -- immediate loss of water, electricity, gas, and sewer lines -- but how we respond does not have to be predictably ineffective. There is an optimistic scenario, if only we can consider the realities and prepare for them. The necessary preparation is going to require the participation of thousands of civilian volunteers. It is this latter, civilian element that is somewhat revolutionary. 

In order to get from our current state of blissful ignorance to that of an informed, trained force of volunteers that can function in a disciplined way during an emergency, it is going to take a new organization that will have the trust and cooperation of city agencies. To put it another way, the civilian volunteer force that can be created will need to be able to work with the fire department and the police in the case of emergency, and these departments will need to do their best to oversee the efforts of the volunteers. 

There is a need for one central organization that will be that point of connection between the city agencies and civilians. That  job will be the function (and obligation) of the newly created Emergency Preparedness Alliance. Right now, it's a gleam in the eye of a few dozen longtime participants of the LA neighborhood councils and their like-minded colleagues. It is destined to grow rapidly into a sizable citywide force if we can get our message across. It will add to and supplement some already-existing groups such as those with CERT training and the amateur radio groups aligned with the fire department. 

This column is the second in a series intended to inform you about this plan and how you can participate. 

The background: As many of you know, the city of Los Angeles recently brought in earthquake expert Lucy Jones to consider our vulnerabilities and to advise us as to how we might take precautions. Over the past year, she has been making the rounds of civic groups and neighborhood council alliances, explaining what a major earthquake ("the big one") would do. The earth movement of such a quake would be likely to result in the loss of our running water, electricity, and gas for a substantial length of time. 

How widespread the shutoffs will be, and how long it will take to repair things remains unknown, but a decent sense of preparedness requires that we think about outages that are essentially citywide, and that we contemplate weeks-long intervals prior to recovery of services. We have as examples the Northridge Earthquake of 1994 and Hurricane Katrina, just to mention two. The Northridge quake resulted in loss of natural gas for an extended period. Most electricity was functional within a few days, but there was a part of the city still without electricity after nearly a week. Some people relocated to relatives' houses or lived in mobile homes for weeks and months. 

The Northridge quake involved about 9000 injured people. In a more widespread disaster such as a major San Andreas Fault rupture, southern California might suffer more like 50,000 injured and more than a thousand dead.  

This sounds pretty dismal, but our service professionals -- the fire department, the LAPD, and the city agencies -- have been doing their best to be prepared. They will react properly if and when they have to. They will be coordinated from a single emergency response center that is designed to ride out a major quake and will continue to function, even in the absence of externally supplied water and electricity. 

But there are only so many police and firemen, not to mention trucks and ambulances. For the most of us, it will be the scenario I've characterized as You're On Your Own, aka YOYO, at least for a crucial 3 or 4 days. You won't have a lot of help from the uniformed agencies, because they will be tied up dealing with areas of dense population and mass casualties. 

For most suburbanites, you'll have to ride out the immediate aftermath on your own. 

But this does not have to mean that it's only your immediate family and you. With a little preparedness, your immediate family and your close neighbors will be able to combine resources, help each other, and deal with small issues. The most likely way that this will happen is that you and your neighbors are taught in advance to work together. You can organize as areas of perhaps 4 blocks. 

What's more important, these local organizations will be a part of a network of like organizations, each tied into a regional and citywide response network. Think of it as your block being able to communicate directly with the three surrounding blocks, and those 4 blocks tied into a network that includes the entire city. 

Why is this kind of structure so important? 

Imagine that somebody has a serious but survivable injury such as a broken leg. In addition, imagine that power lines are down in the street, making vehicular travel impossible, and that your regular telephone lines and cell phone towers are out of operation. What can you do to help that injured neighbor? 

Here's what. Your four block grouping will have a designated radio person who will be able to communicate to the authorities that your area has a particular type and severity of injury. The message will be passed up through the proper channels, and this will allow the fire department or other agency to send help as it becomes available. 

It will be important that the medical authorities hear about serious injuries all over the city as soon as possible, so they can make the best use of their resources. This is a way to save the lives of people who would otherwise perish for lack of transportation and care. 

How are we doing so far in forming this alliance? 

As I mentioned in a previous column, we held the first meeting at the city's emergency response center. The keynote address was given by a recognized expert on the El Nino phenomenon. The bottom line is that we can expect lots of rain this year, probably on the order of 30 inches, and this will stress our immediate responders as streets, intersections, and storm drains are flooded. We can expect that the rapid water rescue teams will be needed. We can also expect that mudslides will occur in some of the burnt out areas. 

The coming rainy season will be an exercise for the emergency response structure that the city already has in place, and it will be a chance for our volunteers to do a little on-the-job learning. Luckily, it won't be anything like what we might expect from a major earthquake. For one thing, the heavy rains and their aftermath are the sort of thing that the uniformed services are equipped to handle. 

In this sense, the coming El Nino year is a chance for the new volunteer group to see how the larger system operates without being required to be out in the field tending to casualties. 

There were about 75 participants at the first meeting of the new Alliance. We agreed to meet again on the morning of December 19. Anyone who is particularly interested in attending should contact the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment for more information. 

By the way, we have been putting together a citywide group of about 4000 volunteer participants over the past dozen years. They are the board members and stakeholders in the city's neighborhood council system. We should expect many of them to become part of this effort.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])  

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 99

Pub: Dec 8, 2015

When Muslims Admired the West and Were Admired Back

VOICES FROM THE SQUARE--Is it right to talk about friendship in a time of hatred? More specifically, is it right to consider Muslim affection for the West when, from London to Boston to Paris and now perhaps San Bernardino, Muslims appear to be saying we hate you?

In trying to make sense of these attacks, security analysts have looked at the social profiles of the terrorists in London, Madrid, Paris, and Boston. But there is no clear pattern to be discerned. There is no pattern of poverty, no pattern of being oppressed, no pattern of poor education, no pattern of training in terror camps.

But it’s clear to me, as a historian, that what the murderers have in common is a narrative. It is a story they share in which the West has always oppressed Muslims, in which the West is inherently and uniformly against Muslims, in which the West is the very opposite of Islam. I’ve traveled to the Muslim world every year for the last 25 years. In my travels and conversations with Muslims, I have heard that narrative a thousand times.

Fortunately, not every Muslim who recounts the legend that “the West is against us” or “the West is the opposite of us” regards violence as the answer. Many opt to simply ignore and exclude Western culture from their lives, even if they have to live in Las Vegas. But there are others who see the answer in a call to arms. Like most acts of political violence—from Nazism in the 1930s to Serbian nationalism in the 1990s—Islamist violence claims justification through stories of oppression. The violent paint themselves as the truly oppressed: They are not so much fighting as fighting back.

But it wasn’t always that way. In my research on the earliest Muslim encounters with the West, I discovered a journal written in Persian by a young student who, with five fellow Iranians, came to London in the early 1800s. The diary reveals that Muslims certainly have lived peaceably in the West in the past—they admired the London of Jane Austen, and moreover, were admired there in return. It wasn’t necessarily an easy moment to arrive in England—evangelical Christianity was on the rise at that time. But even as they faced challenges, their story offers a counter-narrative to the founding myth of Muslim (and non-Muslim) neo-cons that Islam and the West are irreconcilable. Finding Mirza Salih’s diary felt like unearthing a lost testament to coexistence.

Salih came to England with the others to learn the advanced sciences—engineering, medicine, and chemistry—that the country was known worldwide for developing. He wanted to bring the knowledge back to his home country. At the time, Iran was trying to defend itself from the Russians, who had invaded. Reaching London in the fall of 1815, Salih and his fellow students first struggled to make sense of the culture they saw around them. Women went unveiled and mixed freely with men; moreover, they received education and wrote books that men both read and admired.

But through their own curiosity and the good will of their hosts, the young Muslims came to understand, and then admire, this strange land where people did things differently. They overcame their alarm at this strangeness through a commitment to understanding. Rather than regarding the Christians as their enemies, the students saw them as people from whom they might learn, morally and politically, as well as scientifically. It was much harder to be a Muslim in England in 1815 than today: Compared to the hundreds of mosques in 2015, back then there was not a single mosque in the whole country. But the students still found a way to get along by focusing on what they had in common with the people they met. 

One of the most moving scenes in the diary occurred when the students made a kind of feminist pilgrimage to pay respect to the novelist and social reformer Hannah More (photo), the high-minded rival of Jane Austen. As the author of numerous books—some of them huge bestsellers—she appeared to them the epitome of the England that Salih called the vilayat-i azadi, or “land of freedom.” The students praised her learning and library; she gave them signed copies of her books, which they promised to print when they returned home.

On another occasion, they passionately discussed the parallels between Christianity and Islam with the Unitarian minister Lant Carpenter, whom they begged to found a Sunday School for the poor children of his parish. Far from being from narrow-minded promoters of their own faith alone, they saw the value of a Christian education and of Christian values more generally. England’s charity schools were one of the things that most impressed Salih. Through many such encounters, the young Muslims built a different narrative from the Crusades and colonial wars that are only a part of the encounter of Islam and the West.

The fact is that futures are built out of the past. Political and religious violence is based on stories about the past, stories that prompt “fighting back” as the proper response. The same process is true for political and religious compromise. And yet, for Muslims and the West, there are few narratives from which to build such a peaceable future.

This year we’ve been bombarded by stories about people who have been killed in the name of Islam. Even I have personal stories to share about the violence I have seen firsthand all across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Yemen and Afghanistan. But there are enough books about that. There also need to be books about the friendships that are the other half of the historical record. Salih and his friends are important because their story can reassure Westerners that Muslims are not inherently opposed to their way of life; and no less importantly, it can show Muslims how their learned forebears admired and respected Western norms. As a historian, all I can hope to do is show how such coexistence was, and still is, possible.

(Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA and founding director of the UCLA Program on Central Asia. He is the author of The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London and has written numerous books on the history of Islam. This piece originated at Zocalo Public Square … connecting people and ideas.)

-cw

 



CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 99

Pub: Dec 8, 2015

Maybe, Just Maybe...

ALPERN AT LARGE--You know, of course, that CityWatch contributors don't get paid, right?  So when we say a few things like "the City of Los Angeles probably has to be sued by its residents for its government to obey the law" or "we need alternatives to the automobile but don't need to persecute those who rely on automobiles" or "affordable housing or transit-oriented development isn't an excuse for overdevelopment" it's not like we've got a conflict of interest.   

So here are a few more thoughts that might go against the grain... 

Maybe, just maybe, creating an environment for worsening car traffic in Los Angeles will pollute the air more, not less--whether via overdevelopment or a lack of parking to access mass transit/alternative transportation, the result is the same. 

Maybe, just maybe, encouraging local overdevelopment and overpopulation (which is what the City of Los Angeles is doing) will NOT result in addressing environmental issues such as climate change as much as will the developing nations of China and India adhering to modern environmental standards. 

Maybe, just maybe, environmental issues (which ARE very important, because we can't really live without a clean environment) aren't the most immediate problem we face, considering that our own adherence to political correctness is preventing us from balancing kindness to foreign/Muslim immigrants with demanding they assimilate to Western ideals...which even many Muslim leaders support. 

Maybe, just maybe, it's not anti-American to suggest that this President isn't up to the job any more than his predecessor, George W. Bush, was up to the job.  Seriously, it's both Constitutional and morally correct to express concern about our leadership ... or lack thereof. 

Maybe, just maybe, we're torn between wanting to embrace Muslims as fellow kind, open-minded human beings versus wondering why so such a prominent minority have frightening beliefs that make us wonder what to believe, and who to trust. 

Maybe, just maybe, we're also torn between being vigorously against persecution of innocent Muslims here at home while wondering why organizations such as CAIR are more interested in damage control (LINK: http://www.cair.com/press-center/press-releases/13289-cair-asks-president-obama-to-condemn-islamophobia-during-address-to-nation-on-terror.html) than in proclaiming what the rest of us are on pins and needles waiting to hear:  that the horrible husband/wife killers in San Bernardino rot in hell, that they are a stain on humanity, and that they represent the worst thing that ever happened to Islam. 

Maybe, just maybe, the kindness that Americans (who, at this time in our nation's history, are mostly white) show the rest of the world--including acknowledgement of past misdeeds, and of our moral imperative to reach out to those of us less fortunate--shouldn't be attacked but praised.  A "politically incorrect Coke ad" pulled because it (gasp!) showed that we should reach out both to our Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south (LINK:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziSty_38p6k)?  Really? 

So maybe, just maybe, we can now understand why Americans are (and probably to their own surprise) now flocking to such unlikely individuals as billionaire and reality personality star Donald Trump or socialist Bernard Sanders to refocus on our main issues of the day... 

...which include income inequality, government and big business (or am I just repeating myself?) crushing of the average law-abiding American and a press that is both distracted and living in its own bizarre bubble. 

Maybe, just maybe ...

 

(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee.  He is co-chair of the CD11Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at  [email protected].   He also does regular commentary on the Mark Isler Radio Show on AM 870, and co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 99

Pub: Dec 8, 2015

Illegal Voting Behind DLANC Meeting Cancelation?

DOWNTOWN-Thursday night’s Downtown LA Neighborhood Council (DLANC) Executive Committee meeting was abruptly cancelled. While no official reason was given by DLANC, those close to the situation have indicated that it was due to recent illegitimate Board of Directors’ votes. 

The legitimacy of multiple board votes is in question because of one Board member who is also on the DLANC Planning and Land Use committee -- Robert Newman. 

Newman recently shared on his personal Facebook page that he no longer works for Skid Row Housing Trust, stating that he “left [the] job at Skid Row Housing Trust.” He qualified for one of DLANC’s Social Service Provider seats as an employee of SRHT. Newman has served on this Board since 2012 and is fully aware of the rules that qualify a person for that particular Board seat. It is unclear as to what his motives were for not stepping down. 

Now that multiple grievances have been filed, it must be determined how many DLANC votes were tainted. It appears as though at least two consecutive months of votes, including Letters of Support for various development projects Downtown, will be affected. If a LOS is still desired from the DLANC, these developers (as well as all other projects) will need to go back before the planning committee and then to the full Board. This means it will take a minimum of another two months before the first batch of projects will be able to resume their development plans. 

Letters of Support from a neighborhood council are imperative to fulfill the City’s requirement regarding a project’s potential impact on the community. 

With the massive influx of Downtown development in recent years, this setback exposes just the latest of numerous blunders by the DLANC. 

Countless grievances have been filed over the years and over 50 grievances against DLANC have been accepted by DONE (Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.)  Illegal Board meetings have been held in venues which failed to secure lease agreements with the City; there have been matters in which Board members should have but refused to recuse themselves. The DLANC has had many close calls with decertification, a consequence that would instantly bring Downtown development to a screeching halt. 

Adding to all of this is the Skid Row community’s lack of inclusion, something that has prompted the collective effort to create the Skid Row Neighborhood Council. 

A separate grievance, filed at the same time as the others, has resulted in the Skid Row resident director Board seat being empty -- due to the fact that Ron J. Smith has left his job at SRO Housing Corporation. As a manager, he had been provided on-site housing by the company. But now that Smith works for a new company, that housing is no longer available for him, thus making him unqualified for a resident Board seat. 

The timing for this sudden departure is even more interesting because there is a proposed development in Skid Row to convert buildings that were previously used by Salvation Army (photo) to provide housing and services to homeless and formerly homeless. The developer now wants to change it into an adaptive reuse project which plans to provide market-rate, micro-unit housing to students and workforce members -- in the heart of Skid Row! 

Skid Row residents are livid because they currently don’t have any Board representation to represent their voice. 

The question now becomes, will DLANC be forced to hold special elections to fill these new Board seats before it can re-vote on the Letters of Support for all the development projects -- including the ill-timed adaptive housing project in Skid Row? 

If so, this could significantly slow development projects with fast-approaching hearing dates because, by not having a LOS from the local NC, their applications will not be complete and subject to delays which also incur cost increases. 

DONE is already severely understaffed. The last thing they need is all of these problematic issues that warrant priority status in the eyes of the Downtown business sector. And who’s supposed to log-in all the extra hours necessary to undo the current mess at the DLANC? 

One thing’s for sure, this was not the fault of Skid Row; it was not the fault of the residents of Downtown; and it isn’t City’s fault. 

That said, for the sake of NC political correctness, and now that the truth is out, maybe the finger pointing will stop. We need corrective measures!  

 

(General Jeff is a homelessness activist and leader in Downtown Los Angeles.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 99

Pub: Dec 8, 2015

Terrorism and Partisanship … Deadly Mix

PERSPECTIVE-I occasionally like to go off-topic and cover subjects or events outside of LA or California politics and government. This week, I am compelled to do so. 

The ISIL-inspired act of terrorism in San Bernardino, a city that can be considered part of the greater metropolitan area of Los Angeles, within commuting distance of downtown, would make any other topic an escape from reality. 

The loss of life and injuries cannot be described in any more words than have already be written and said. I cannot begin to express my sadness and anger over the senseless murder of innocent people in the name of an ideology. 

Instead, I’d rather focus on what events such as this exposes about us. 

Our nation has been steadily transformed into a partisan society, conceptually not too different from the sectarian rivalry evident in the Middle East. Whether political or religious in nature, irreconcilable conflict is poison. 

One only needs to follow sound bytes, Facebook posts and tweets from political leaders, and the people who elect them, concerning the string of mass murders in recent years to understand we are heading for our own version of destructive dysfunction. 

Executions, like the event in San Bernardino, have riled up the pro-gun segment. After all, its supporters claim, it is terrorism or mental illness and not assault weapons responsible for the carnage. Ultra-liberals are in denial over the danger of radical Islam. Even our president cannot form the words to acknowledge its culpability. Neither side recognizes the merits of the other’s arguments. 

The fact of the matter is, we allow the sale of military style weapons to almost anyone in the name of the Second Amendment. We also permit too many to enter this country from regions where twisted fundamentalism thrives. 

We should no more allow the sale of powerful weapons to the public than we should permit entry to this country in numbers too great to properly vet. 

Serious gun control is needed now. Mere possession or sale of assault or any semi-automatic weapons should be declared grounds for possible criminal prosecution. A period of amnesty should be granted for all to turn in these weapons – even reimbursing the owners who can provide proof of purchase; otherwise, allow them to surrender the weapons anonymously. 

Likewise, all applicants for entry into the United States for any form of long-term stay need to be investigated in a manner that digs below the surface. It is apparent that the current background checks are not enough. 

Civil records, if they are available, don’t begin to tell the whole tale. An applicants for admission could be squeaky clean on the surface, with no traceable ties to militants. But it’s what in their hearts and minds that counts just as much. Persons who find liberal society a threat to their values are ticking time bombs who can be swayed by radical elements to create mayhem down the road. Sophisticated questioning by FBI-trained personnel, including the use of polygraph tests, must be employed to uncover possible anti-Western leanings. 

That could add months to the already long process that refugees face, but we owe it to all of us living here. 

The United States should be a country that assists those who need protection from despots and persecution, but people coming here must prove themselves worthy of our trust and be in alignment with the facets of an open, liberal society. 

We are not obligated to allow anyone the privilege of residency; we are obligated to protect those who are here.

 

(Paul Hatfield is a CPA and serves as President of the Valley Village Homeowners Association. He blogs at Village to Village and contributes to CityWatch. The views presented are those of Mr. Hatfield and his alone. They should not be construed to represent the opinions of the VVHA or the residents of Valley Village, individually or as a group. He can be reached at: [email protected].) Photo: LA Weekly. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw                                          

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 99

Pub: Dec 8, 2015

 

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This Thanksgiving, No Place for Refugees at the American Table

In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, there has been a crushing backlash against refugees from the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. A cartoon has been circulating on social media showing a Native American man greeting a Pilgrim, saying, “Sorry, but we’re not accepting refugees.” 

As Americans prepare for one of the most popular national holidays, Thanksgiving, which commemorates the support and nourishment provided by the indigenous people to English refugees seeking a better life free from religious persecution, a wave of xenophobia is sweeping the country.

In the U.S. Congress, no less than six separate bills have been put forward to block any federal funding to resettle refugees from Syria or Iraq, and to empower states to deny entry into their “territory.” Imagine if all of a sudden we had 50 “statelets” creating their own border checkpoints, stopping all travelers, looking for anyone suspicious, i.e., any and all Syrians. So far, 31 state governors have essentially demanded this.

Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order forbidding any agency of state government from cooperating in any way with Syrian refugee support efforts. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have called for a pause in the Syrian refugee program, with the support of Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer.

In Europe, similar policies are being proposed, with an announcement from Poland that it would pull back from the Europe-wide commitment to take in Syrian refugees. Far-right-wing parties in France and Holland have gained traction with their anti-immigrant rhetoric as well.

“It’s both morally reprehensible and factually wrong to equate these people with terrorists,” Peter Bouckaert told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. Bouckaert is the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, and has spent the past few months in the Balkans and Greece, closely monitoring the refugee crisis firsthand. “They’re actually fleeing from the terrorists, and they’ve faced horrors of war in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan. Many of them are coming with their families, trying to bring them to safety and a better future in Europe. And they should be welcomed. They will contribute to our society, and they have a right to asylum,” he said.

While the cartoon of the indigenous man and the pilgrim may be humorous, the crisis is not, and the imagery from the wars and the flight of the refugees is numbing. Bouckaert was one of the first people to share the photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi after he drowned, lying face down on the sand in the Turkish beach town of Bodrum. Last September, the Kurdi family was trying to reach Greece, just a dozen miles across the Aegean Sea. They bought passage on a smuggler’s small boat, which capsized. Aylan, his brother and mother drowned, along with at least two others. The photos of Aylan’s corpse, first in the sand, then being carried by a Turkish soldier, shocked the conscience of the world. “That is still the reality on the beaches of Europe, two Aylan Kurdis are still drowning every day,” Bouckaert said.

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A core argument by those who would deny entry to Syrian refugees was a passport found at the scene of one of the suicide bombers in Paris last week. It was a Syrian passport, and contributes to the belief that violent jihadists can enter Europe posing as refugees. “That’s exactly why they left a fake Syrian passport at the scene of their attacks, because they would love it if we shut the door on the people who are fleeing their so-called Islamic caliphate,” Bouckaert explained. “Our most powerful tool in the war against Islamic extremism, are our values. It’s not our military planes and our bombs. The only way we can fight against this brutality, this barbarism, is with our values. And if we’re going to shut the door on these refugees, we’re giving a propaganda victory to ISIS.”

And yet, the U.S., French and Russian response to terror is to pummel the city of Raqqa, considered the capital of the so-called Islamic State, but also home to hundreds of thousands of civilians who will now become terrorized refugees themselves. They will follow the millions who have already fled, only to find they have no place to go. Add to that the refugees from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan: people fleeing for their lives from the wars being waged by the United States.

It has been almost 400 years since that first, fateful Thanksgiving feast in Massachusetts. Xenophobic policies like those threatening to shut out refugees from these wars, if allowed to stand, should serve as a shameful centerpiece at every Thanksgiving table this year.

(Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of “The Silenced Majority,” a New York Times best-seller.)

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 94

Pub: Nov 20, 2015

CW YESTERDAY DEC. 2014: Keeping Hope Alive: A Call to Action

OCCUPY THE FUTURE-As a country and as a people, we have decisions to make - the very same decisions faced by those who came before us: Are we prepared to surrender ourselves to the purposes and rule of arrogant government and corporate alliances, or are we willing to undertake the very hard work necessary to challenge power that has grown beyond conscience and duty to the people?

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