Friday, April 18, 2008

Embracing Courage and Recognizing Fear

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a great line watcher. I get nervous when I have to tell someone that they can't cut in line, and they have to start at the end of the line. Most of the time, there's no big fuss made. The cutter will argue for a second, roll his/her eyes and comply or leave. Beyond the occasional cutter, I haven't had too much experience with conflict in the garden. The other brave female line watchers are usually the first to dive right between two angry diners. I'm right behind them... sort of.

In the past few months, I've mastered the "back up" position. Clare, Martha, Ann, or Catherine will sacrifice their bodies to whatever comes at them, words or otherwise; meanwhile, I linger safely out of the way, but close enough to run up to help them if I am needed. And every single time I've approached to help, I become the target of the diner's anger. This can be seen as a good thing since the negative energy isn't being focused toward another diner.

But right about now is when I start to lose my bearings. I am not tough. I'm 23, just over 5 1/2 feet tall, and not very strong. I haven't used my "mom look" as much since I moved away from my brothers, the frequent victims of such glares. In short, I am neither physically or psychologically intimidating. And when an angry kitchen patron starts to stare me down, my timidness starts to take over.

On Thursday, for example, there was a scuffle between a large man and surprising feisty yet petite woman. The verbal conflict seemed to be calming down until the woman was reignited. The man, under the coaxing of the line watchers, left the area. As the woman charged toward his back, not finished telling him off, two line watchers and I stepped in front of her. Comfortable with the relative calmness, I continued to clean the garden when I was stopped by the still-reeling woman:

"It is none of your business! When I have something to say, I'm gonna say it! You get out of my face. I wasn't talking to you! Next time you get in my face like that, I swear I'll beat the shit out of you!"

While she was speaking, I felt my awkwardness surface. I concentrated on my facial expression, my body language, and what I'm going to say next--and I know it was obvious I was uncomfortable. I am sure I was holding a facial expression that hinted toward an uncomfortable bowel movement. And then I just stood there like some defenseless idiot... an open target for whatever words come at me. I went back to sweeping with a giant pit in my stomach, thinking about how I could have handled the situation better. My conclusion: couldn't I just try to pretend to be under control?!

My fear of line watching stems from the fear of vulnerability. In the moment of conflict, I reassure myself that this is a practical fear--pain, physical or emotional, is not something I find too enjoyable. I try to prepare myself for anything that will come my way, but the only time I think about it is during the moment anything could happen. I criticize myself for not embracing the courage I know I have. I do have the capacity to endure the pain that could be bestowed upon me in an "incident." The reason I am (at this point, hypothetically) stepping in to squelch a conflict is to provide a peaceful and restful environment to the people who suffer so much abuse and harassment outside our garden.

I have to get over my fear so I can fulfill the role of the line watcher--a person who maintains the peace of the garden. I am afraid of saying something wrong, or clearly being void of authority. I have to remember that with time, I will begin to understand more deeply the role of the line watcher. And then I will stop making weird faces.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Reflections on April 1 Demonstration

On Tuesday, April 1, the LACW was present for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's press conference regarding the installation of streetlights in Skid Row. Sadly, I was on "house" and was not present. Check out the links in the previous post for more information.

Since, the LACW has been all over blogs by Central City East (the lofters' name for Skid Row).

One man who was quoted in the LA Times article also wrote on one blog:

Just wanted to say that the residents that attended the "press conference" represented different groups that are working together to solve common problems in the Skidrow/ Central City East neighborhood. These groups were OG's N Service Association, Skidrow 3 on 3 Streetball League, Issues and Solutions, and Skidrow Brigade/ Homeless Coalition.

While we did not come to press conference because we agree with every aspect of Safer Cities Initiative...we did come to support those efforts that we do agree upon and to listen to what the Mayor's future intentions....As well as to express our own concerns! Those protesters (who did not live in this community) had the "freedom of speech"! Nevertheless, I and others have the "freedom to hear"! I believe that these protesters interfered with that right.

These individuals are here in this neighborhood from 9 to 5 ( or whatever time they leave). They go home to there comfortable homes and clean streets. They are not around during the evening time to see what the homeless do...they turn their eyes to the drug trafficking. They don't concern themselves with all the garbage and trash that is scattered around the neighborhood by the various "street ministries" that come claiming they are here to "help the homeless". Food and clothing end up on the streets of Skidrow. These protesters "point their fingers" at others...they need to take responsibility for the damage they do!

Again, I don't need others to speak for me...nor "think" for me! Too many people believe they have the solutions to our problems without asking the homeless what they think. And when they do ask...they simply ignore the homeless comments and suggestions. So, I believe that the protesters were being very rude to us that wanted to hear!

Benito Compito
My response is below. Thank you all for your support. It is conversations, demonstrations, and exchanges such as these that empower and motivate us to continue our much-needed work. Blessings to all of you!

With true respect to Benito Compito (aka OG Man), he is clearly unfamiliar with the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. He inaccurately claims we leave our average shift for our “comfortable homes” without concern for drug trafficking or the pollution of Skid Row, and are creating damage along the way.

The Los Angeles Catholic Worker, with a base community of ten workers, is rooted in the practical application of simplicity. Contrary to Mr. Compito’s accusation, we do not leave our soup kitchen for our cozy lives. We live, instead, in Boyle Heights, an area still pained by gang violence and suffering from increasing gentrification. Our lifestyle is supported purely by donations that are not tax-deductible; we live through the summers without air conditioning, and through the winters without heaters; much of our food is donated, and sometimes it is a second-hand donation; we do not have cable, a microwave, clothes dryer, dishwasher, or carpet. More importantly than what we do and do not have, we maintain the ideology of simplicity because we make every effort to sustain solidarity with the men and women we serve. A delicate balance is made between our service at the kitchen, our lifestyle, and our survival as a community.

In addition, we currently host nine guests who are formerly homeless. We support each person in the house, which could include accompanying someone to a doctor’s appointment, speaking in Spanish or translating, and cleaning the house to provide a livable space. If we had enough rooms, we would give them to more of our friends in need. Our work does not end at 5pm, as Mr. Compito implies. Rather, our lives are immersed in our work.

Many of our brothers and sisters in Skid Row suffer from addictions or are engulfed in the unfortunate dealings of drugs. We are very much aware of the plight of the poor and homeless. The Catholic Worker practices mercy, not the idea of “justice” supported by the LAPD, court and jail systems—an idea that resulted in the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI), a city- and police-supported effort to “clean up” Skid Row. According to Gary Blasi, UCLA law professor and author of “Policing Our Way Out of Homelessness? The First Year of the Safer Cities Initiative in Skid Row,” in the first seven months (September 2006-April 2007) of the SCI, the LAPD added 50 more police officers to the 0.85 square miles that create Skid Row, and arrested an average of 750 people per month. Arrests for drug offenses, constituting over half of the arrests in the seven month period, were often made by undercover cops pretending to need two rocks of cocaine. Not being a dealer, the suspect offered to buy some with the $20 offered if s/he could share in the purchase. This arrest would be counted as a drug sale, rather than drug use. Only 22 arrests were made for serious violent crimes: homicide (1), robbery (8), aggravated assault (13), rape (0). We call for true justice, that which is not based in fear-mongering, deceit, and skewed priorities.

At the Catholic Worker, we provide resources through our clinic and strong relationship with Clean Needles Now, which assists drug users in disease prevention, and rehabilitation resources. We care deeply for the health of each and every person on Skid Row, and to be charged otherwise only demonstrates ignorance toward our organization.

The pollution of Skid Row is a serious issue, one that could be brought under slight control through the existence of porta-potties and waste cans in the area. On and off the streets, the Los Angeles Catholic Worker prides itself on the cleanliness of the area once we leave. Earlier this year, a number of Hippie Kitchen patrons noted a sewer overflowing with human waste just blocks away from our kitchen. While the sewer was out of our range of vision from the kitchen, a worker called the city and requested an immediate response. Just 45 minutes later, the sewer was under control. We believe that by keeping, at the very least, our corner of Skid Row clean, it inspires a bit of dignity. Yet dignity is a quality consistently raped from the people through poverty, disease, harassment by police, and the continued silence and idleness of our city and state officials.

Mr. Compito believes our work creates “damage.” I would be interested to hear specific situations in which we hurt, oppressed, neglected or in any way caused harm to the suffering in Skid Row. I would also encourage Mr. Compito to compare such, if any, instances with the police brutality that occurs daily in the same area. Jaywalkers are receiving tickets for over $150; and with a monthly General Relief income of $221, many “criminals” are ending up in jail because they are unable to pay citation fee. Men and women are being arrested for having shopping carts and milk crates, items considered by the LAPD to be “stolen property.” A patron on the Hippie Kitchen just last week told me that the private security in Skid Row took his cart with all of his belongings which was left on the sidewalk while he came to the kitchen to get a plate of food. When he heard his things were being confiscated, he ran to the security officers to get his cart. Asking for simply his blanket, he was refused. The security officers said it was no longer his property: it had all been seized.

It is clear Mr. Compito was displeased, as were the city representatives, with our presence on Tuesday. He notes that we had the freedom of speech, but he wanted the freedom to hear. Mr. Compito was more than welcome to hear on Tuesday, but he had to hear more than one side. Sadly, protest is welcome only if it does not steal the spotlight, ask challenging questions, or create tension. Our leaders anticipate silence, neutrality and cooperation, and when members of this democratic society call upon their rights to speak out, it is deemed “rude.”

Rudeness should not even be a topic of discussion regarding our actions on Tuesday. We interrupted a speech. In comparison, Mayor Villaraigosa is working with developers and the police to push out the homeless to create room for revenue. The people are being sacrificed on the altar of capitalism, surrounded by wreaths of handcuffs, taser guns, jaywalking tickets and jail sentences. Too often, we witness the increased victimization of the men and women of Skid Row. We refuse to be silent until the communities in Skid Row are recognized, respected and heard.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Recent Happenings

My Birthday! On March 20, the CW helped me celebrate my 23rd birthday with pizza, beer, music and (as seen above) dancing.

Stations of the Cross. Each year, the Catholic Worker hosts Stations of the Cross around "places of darkness" downtown such as the prison, courthouse, police stations and more. The ceremony parallels the suffering of Jesus to the suffering of our brothers and sisters in places of war, poverty and neglect. About 100 people showed up to walk and be witness to the men and women who are victim of our society.

Kelly visited! Only here for one night, but we drove around the downtown area, took a tour of the kitchen and had a delicious dinner at Jim's (our local burger/Mexican joint).

For Easter, we hosted a huge brunch enjoyed by many. And the following week, we hosted the annual Seder, a traditional Jewish holiday that celebrates the liberation of the slaves from Egypt. This was the LACW's 35th Seder, and we had an enthusiastic crowd, bouncing music and lots of wine.

Today, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa held a press conference across the street from our kitchen today announcing the installation of streetlights into Skid Row. Of course, the LACW believes that streetlights and housing are not mutually exclusive... so, the mayor, the city representatives and the press all heard our views. Normally, I wouldn't be supportive of such noise, but when the voices of the homeless are consistently ignored for the money of developers, it seems this is the only method of communication that is effective. Read the LA Times article (accompanied by video), see the KNBC clip, the KTLA clip, and the ABC story.

Enjoy, expect more updates soon (more details, as well).