Passivity, Threats of Violence and Integration in LA


Two weeks ago—before the Donald Jr./Russia revelations— the president of the United States was testing our tolerance for outrage with a video tweet of himself appearing to beat up a TV show wrestler who had the CNN logo on his face. During the campaign then-candidate Trump used rhetoric that encouraged his audiences to act out against hecklers; he revels in being a “counter-puncher” who hits back when he feels aggrieved.

He may not be the catalyst of the attitude, but Trump senses that we have become increasingly inured to threats of violence and have, apparently, widely accepted the notion that grievances can be responded to by threats and acting out.

That callousness to threats and violence can erupt in the most unexpected places.

Recently, NPR broadcast a piece about Boyle Heights and the incipient gentrification that is taking place there. A seemingly innocuous topic about the changes in neighborhoods that inevitably occur in dynamic and teeming cities.

As I listened to the report, it was apparent that is was anything but innocuous, in fact, it was rather troubling.

The reporter, Saul Gonzalez of local NPR station KCRW, was offering the national NPR audience a glimpse of LA and his vision suggested that class violence was on the horizon, and there was little resistance to that prospect.

Gonzalez painted a portrait of a Boyle Heights community that is “gritty and industrial” that is being undermined by a “world of high-end art” galleries that are coming into the community and don’t fit in.

There are genuine debates to be had about the impact of gentrification on low-income communities-especially ones with large numbers of renters. Whether people get compensated when their neighborhoods gentrify and whether there are comparably priced accommodations for them elsewhere are legitimate issues to raise and debate.

But that debate is not furthered when it devolves into vulgar class warfare and threats of violence that are accepted as part of the discussion.

Reporter Gonzalez gave a megaphone and a majority of his broadcast to an activist, Leonardo Vilchis, who railed against art galleries because they might lead to others moving into the neighborhood who might add to its value:

Put in an art gallery with paintings that cost tens of thousands of dollars and the audience that comes to this place starts looking for other kinds of amenities….They look for the brewery, for the coffee shop for the place to hang out. All of those things increase the cost and the value of the local neighborhood. “

The fact that the galleries are moving in to what the report itself described as “vacant industrial spaces” didn’t impact Vilchis argument—he described the galleries as “cancer cells…who need to move out….you need to start killing the cancer cells that are creating the cancer.” [Emphasis added]

There are those who have taken his vile language seriously: mock eviction notices and flyers with human skulls in gun sights accompanied by threats such as “Boyle Heights is not safe for hipster trash” printed on them were noted in the report.

But Vilchis saw nothing wrong with those tactics—-compromise is impossible, “they” all have to leave; after all, they are like spreading cancer cells and they are all bad. He derisively dismissed those moving into the neighborhood who are sympathetic to gentrification concerns and desire to work with the community, “‘OK, I’m a cancer cell, but I want to be good,’ doesn’t change the fact that you’re a cancer cell. You need to move out.”

The fact that the NPR reporter never expressed the slightest discomfort with Vilchis’ characterization of the art gallery owners or his condoning threats of violence or the not-so-subtle bigotry against folks who don’t fit the mold of those who now live there, suggests that we now yawn at incendiary rhetoric, stereotypic expressions, and even threats of violence.

In an era when much has been written about the need to integrate neighborhoods across racial, ethnic and socio-economic lines this blatant push for homogeneity is bizarre. That is not where America or Los Angeles needs to head.

The absence of a nuanced discussion of the natural and constant growth and transformation of cities (after all, Boyle Heights was once a pre-dominantly Jewish neighborhood) including gentrification, would be too much to expect in a short radio piece. There should have been at least a bit of outrage over, or at least a counterpoint to Vilchis’ incendiary remarks. There was but one gallery owner quoted as saying “I’m not going anywhere.” Was no one else in the neighborhood concerned about threats, intimidation and the prospect of violence?

In the Age of Trump, if the president can appear to assault a reporter with whom he disagrees and hecklers can be assaulted with his approbation, even NPR is not immune from callousness to threats of violence.

It’s wrong in the White House and it’s wrong in Boyle Heights.

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