Workers Vanguard No. 1064
20 March 2015
Life and Death on Skid Row
LAPD Guns Down Homeless Man
LOS ANGELES—Millions have watched the video of cops carrying out the coldblooded execution of an unarmed homeless black man, Charly Leundeu Keunang (known as “Africa” or “Cameroon”), in broad daylight on March 1. After the gang of cops surrounded and savagely beat Keunang on a crowded Skid Row sidewalk, three opened fire and blew him away—yet another victim of racist cop terror. The shooting happened just a block from where Carlos Ocana, who was homeless and mentally ill, fell to his death last year after a cop tasered him on a rooftop. The LAPD’s snuffing out another life has sparked protests by Keunang’s friends, advocates for the homeless and leftists.
The LAPD and city administration of Democratic mayor Eric Garcetti have gone into high gear to blame Keunang for his own death, claiming that he reached for a cop’s gun. The police often resort to this tired excuse, including last August when they gunned down Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old black man plagued by mental health issues. Meanwhile, the bourgeois press is working to defame Keunang’s character—digging up a 15-year-old bank robbery as if it’s relevant—just as they slandered Michael Brown as “no angel.”
While hailing the LAPD as “one of the most progressive forces anywhere in the world,” Garcetti told people to remain calm and await an official investigation. Any such investigation will be nothing more than a whitewash. Such was the case when a jury let off the cops in Orange County who brutally beat to death the homeless Kelly Thomas in July 2011. In each instance, the police were just doing what they are paid to do: enforce racist “law and order” on behalf of the capitalist rulers. Scores of homeless people die every day across America, but not fast enough for the ruling class, for whom the homeless, as this class-divided society’s castoffs, are not worth spending a dime on.
Police Occupation of Skid Row
The cops who killed Keunang were assigned to Skid Row, tasked with the daily forcing of homeless people off the sidewalks under the so-called Safer Cities Initiative (SCI). Initiated in 2006 under Democratic mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the SCI war on the homeless is an application of the “broken windows” strategy of policing that current New York City police commissioner William Bratton brought to L.A. in 2002 when he arrived to head up the LAPD. By the logic of “broken windows,” cracking down hard on petty violations supposedly prevents more serious crimes. In NYC, this policy resulted in the death last July of Eric Garner, strangled by cops for selling loose cigarettes.
As indicated by its original name, “Homeless Reduction Strategy,” the real purpose of SCI is to clear the homeless out of Skid Row to further the gentrification that began there in the 2000s. This has meant criminalizing people simply for being without a home. UCLA law professor Gary Blasi reported in 2011 that about 85 percent of citations on Skid Row “were for things like sitting on the sidewalk, for which you could actually be arrested, or dropping a cigarette ash—that was littering—or not quite making it across the street before the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign went on. That was 1,000 citations a month in those categories.”
Safer Cities poured additional undercover officers and 50 new beat cops (not to mention the parallel increase in private security guards) into an area of around 50 city blocks! The police initially cited homeless people for camping and confiscated their meager belongings if they left them to use a restroom or to visit a soup kitchen. After the American Civil Liberties Union won a lawsuit against the anti-camping ordinance, the city offered a “compromise,” agreeing to stop kicking the homeless off the sidewalk between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Laws against the homeless have a long history in capitalist America, one bound up with the effort to enforce the subjugation of black people. Vagrancy laws were expanded after the Civil War in order to help bind former slaves to the plantations as part of a new system of labor discipline. Following the social upheavals of the civil rights movement, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down vagrancy laws in 1972, but they have since been resurrected under other guises—the average California city today has nine separate anti-homeless laws, while L.A. and San Francisco each has 23.
Skid Row: Disgusting Reality of Capitalist Decay
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez captured the reality of Skid Row: “It’s as if there’s been a war or natural disaster, and the wounded, shellshocked and penniless have been herded into a dystopian holding pen where they have nothing left but a small measure of their self-respect, plenty of company and countless temptations to sink even lower.” Up to 5,000 people, predominantly black and male, eke out an existence on Skid Row. They make up fully 10 percent of the population of downtown L.A., a higher concentration of homeless people than anywhere else in the country.
In L.A. County as a whole, 91,000 people are homeless on any given night, by some accounts more than in any other American metropolitan area. Notwithstanding the common perception of Southern California weather, the elements take a toll on those living on the sidewalks, and many suffer from diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis. As is typical in racist capitalist America, half the L.A. County homeless population is black, although black people comprise only 9 percent of the county’s overall population.
Skid Row is what it is by design. While the neighborhood has been around since the late 19th century, Skid Row was at first largely a red-light district and home to day laborers, only taking on its modern incarnation in the 1970s. Since L.A. has always been decentralized, and anyone who had money avoided downtown, black Democratic mayor Tom Bradley purposely concentrated the homeless there, out of sight. As Martha Burt, an Urban Institute researcher into U.S. homeless communities, explained: “This doesn’t mean there was any actual increase in services or in public money going into assist anybody who was being herded into that area.... It just means that whatever was left by way of services was highly concentrated in a relatively few blocks of downtown.” In a practice termed “patient dumping,” hospitals have released homeless and mentally disabled people directly onto the streets of Skid Row.
Now that expensive lofts and chichi eating establishments are sprouting up downtown, the capitalist rulers want to drive the homeless somewhere else. This campaign has not gone unchallenged. Monthly walking tours of Skid Row run by local businesses to promote the gentrification of the area have been met with raucous protests by the L.A. Community Action Network and other activists. In 2011, the cops arrested one such protester for “disturbing” the walk and the next year charged another for assault and battery with an airhorn. (The latter was acquitted at trial and last week a court ruled the former should never have been arrested.)
Like more than a quarter of homeless people, Keunang needed treatment for mental illness. But America’s capitalist rulers have long made it clear that they will not pay for services for the poor, let alone the homeless. Mental health facilities have closed and any extension of those that remain has run up against resistance. When a mental health clinic near where Keunang was killed tried to expand, opposition by residents of lofts in the same building quashed the attempt. What the capitalists do offer is prison: L.A. County jail system is in effect the largest psychiatric ward in the U.S.
Homelessness and the Capitalist System
The scourge of homelessness is firmly rooted in the normal functioning of the capitalist system. Capitalism maintains a reserve body of unemployed to keep downward pressure on wages. A one-sided class war against the working class in recent decades has further slashed jobs and pay. Plenty of workers struggle to make ends meet and are at the complete mercy of the banks, living in fear that they are only one paycheck away from being thrown out on the street.
In order to fight the immiseration of workers and the degradation of the chronically unemployed, the labor movement must be mobilized in struggle at the head of all the oppressed. What’s urgently needed is a class-struggle fight for jobs for all. Equally urgent is the need for quality medical care, free at the point of delivery, as well as a massive program of public works—high-quality integrated housing, schools, libraries and hospitals for working people and the poor.
But providing these burning necessities is incompatible with the capitalist profit system. As Friedrich Engels, who with Karl Marx was a pioneer of modern communism, wrote well over a century ago in The Housing Question (1872): “As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labour by the working class itself.”
Crucial to this perspective is the forging of a Leninist vanguard party, the necessary instrument to bring the working class to power. In just one night, a revolutionary workers government would requisition living space from fancy hotels and the mansions of the rich—put the homeless in the Wilshire Grand Hotel, Beverly Hills and the Pacific Palisades! By ripping the productive forces out of the hands of the capitalist parasites and establishing a planned, centralized economy that serves the interests of society as a whole, the victorious working class will be able to provide a decent life for all.