Off My Back
Johnson remembers the days when you could spend the night undisturbed in the seats of Broadways old Cameo Theater for $1.40. He remembers the days before the 92 riots brought steel shutters to nearly every storefront downtown, when you could still sleep in a doorway without having to worry about the rats that scurry through the alleys. Long ago, he got used to the rhythms of the LAPDs interactions with the homeless, the 6 a.m. wake-ups, the occasional sweeps, the periodic shopping-cart confiscations that came when a cop had nothing better to do: About every 30 days you had to find a new cart. You expected that.
And Johnson remembers very well his first encounter with the private security guards hired by the downtown business-improvement districts -- the shirts, so named for the distinctively colored top halves of their uniforms (yellow shirts for the garment district, red on Skid Row and in the toy district, green on Broadway, purple on Bunker Hill). It happened a few years back, when Johnson was supporting himself recycling cans and bottles fished from garment-district trash cans. The yellow shirts set a precedent, Johnson says: no shopping carts on their turf. Early one morning I was picking some cans out of a trash can. A yellow shirt stepped out of his car to let me know he was armed and said, You cant pick through the trash. Over the next few months, yellow shirts confiscated his cart seven, eight, 10 times, often calling the police, who wrote him tickets he couldnt pay. Late last fall, Johnson still wore a County Jail wristband earned with a series of unpaid tickets.
These days, he says, Nobody sleeps in the garment district because of the yellow shirts early vigilance. The homeless were all chased out -- often literally escorted to the edge of the area -- in the years after the creation of the Fashion District Business Improvement District (BID) in 1995. Since then, almost every inch of downtown has been covered by a BID, each with its own colorfully garbed safety team, as their employers call them. Perhaps the greatest single indicator of municipal neglect, BIDs are created when property owners or merchants in a given area elect to tax themselves to finance services that the city provides inadequately or not at all. They use the money to clean sidewalks, remove graffiti, hype the area to potential customers, and patrol the streets with all the swagger, if none of the legal authority, of police officers.
It is that last function, and its alleged abuse, that led Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and an advocate for the homeless who runs the Skid Row community center Las Familias del Pueblo, to persuade attorneys from the ACLU and the law firm Morrison & Foerster to file suit -- in November 1999, on behalf of 12 Skid Row residents -- against four BIDs (the Downtown Industrial District, Toy Town, the Fashion District, and the Historic Core BID, which covers the Broadway commercial strip and surrounding blocks) and the security firms contracted by them. The suit contends that the shirts were regularly and systematically intimidating the areas homeless in an attempt to badger them off their turf.
On Monday, the Fashion District, the oldest and largest of the downtown BIDs, agreed to settle the case. The settlement sticks largely to the terms of an interim agreement signed by all the BIDs a few weeks after the lawsuit was filed: Security guards would not tell anyone to move on if they were on public property, they would not search anyone, photograph them or demand ID. While that agreement was in force, the worst sorts of harassment -- the searches and mug shots -- all but disappeared, though other forms of intimidation continued. The interim agreement, however, expired last September 30, and, though the Fashion Districts yellow shirts continued to act in good faith, the other BID security forces, Callaghan and sources on the street allege, have reverted to their old ways. Unless that changes, and the remaining BIDs agree to a settlement enforceable in court, says Dan Marmalefsky of Morrison and Foerster, Well litigate and take it as far as we need to.
For their part, BID lawyers are equally willing to see the case to trial. Donald Steier, attorney for the Central City East Association, which runs the Downtown Industrial District and Toy Town BIDs, rejects allegations of wrongdoing and bristles at the notion of court oversight, which he says would prevent the CCEA from keeping its insurance coverage.
The case will not likely go to trial until next year. Whatever happens, the stakes are high. At issue are not only the experiences of the 12 men who signed on to the suit, says Callaghan, but the increasing privatization of public space that the rise of business improvement districts represents: Were seeing a privatization of the police force that ought to be troubling to everyone. Catholic Worker volunteer Jeff Dietrich, who helps run the Hippie Kitchen, is more blunt about the danger posed by BID-employed security: From our perspective, theyre a private army. Theyre no different from a vigilante group formed and paid for by business people and property owners. Their job is not to prevent crime, Dietrich charges, but to maximize the profitability of the areas they patrol. They want no experiences that diminish peoples desire to spend money.
The first BID was formed in Toronto in 1965. There are now well over 1,000 nationwide. They began sprouting up all over New York City in the 1980s and 90s, their progress barely hindered by the 1995 revelation that a midtown BID had been directing its security guards to brutalize any homeless people found within district boundaries. With 29 BIDs formed in the last five years, nearly two dozen more in the works, and a civil rights lawsuit of its own, Los Angeles is quickly catching up.
Though they get rave reviews in the business pages, BIDs are not always popular, even among business owners. L.A.s first BID, the so-called Miracle on Broadway, was quickly overturned by merchants who resented what they felt was just another tax. Shop owners in Los Feliz recently staged a tax revolt, refusing to pay their BID assessments, which range up to several thousand dollars a year. The problem, says Robert Solomon of Yale Law School, who sued a New York BID in 1995, is that theyre inherently undemocratic. The majority of property owners dont have to consent for a BID to be formed, just the owners holding the majority of the property.
City officials have nonetheless been more than happy to encourage their growth. The City Clerks Office bends over backward to help property owners and merchants set up BIDs, even providing them with start-up funds. Mayor Riordan has gone to the trouble of personally telephoning recalcitrant property owners to convince them of the benefits of voting to form a BID. And why shouldnt he? Every task business owners pick up lightens the citys load of civic obligation.
Even the BIDs most active supporters feel some ambivalence about their work. Tracey Lovejoy, executive director of the Central City East Association, admits, In all honesty, we shouldnt even be here. The city should be doing this, but the reality is they are not, so if you want it done youre going to have to pay for it yourself.
Lovejoy has long been bemoaning the citys neglect of the less glitzy parts of downtown. The homeless problem and everything associated with it -- the crime, the drugs -- makes it nearly impossible to do business, she told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. You cant really bring clients into the neighborhood. You have to pay your employees hazard pay . . . We believe the citys homeless problem has been dumped on [Skid Row] by the bigger businesses in the western part of downtown. Business owners in the surrounding area -- which includes the wholesale fish warehouses and factories on the Row itself, the toy district, the flower markets, the garment district and Broadways commercial strip -- felt the same way. As the citys largess poured into Bunker Hill in the 1980s, small-business owners received none of the perks that the corporate giants towering above them enjoyed.
With a lawsuit on her hands, Lovejoy downplays the role of the homeless problem in the decision to form a BID. Cleaning the area, she says, was really the main thing -- the graffiti removal, the pickup of trash, removal of weeds, insisting that the lions share of the BIDs budget is spent on maintenance. In fact, the Downtown Industrial District BID spent more than three times as much on its security patrols in 1999 -- 50 percent of its total budget -- as it spent on maintenance. It had originally proposed to spend 75 percent of its budget on combating such vagaries as disruptive street elements.
Those elements include the approximately 11,000 people who live on Skid Row, about 3,000 on the streets or in shelters, the rest in hotels. They, far more than area businesses, bore the brunt of the government cutbacks that began in the Reagan years. This is the tail end of the whole system, says Jeff Dietrich. Those who fall through the gaping holes in what was once comfortingly called the social safety net have to land somewhere. In L.A., wherever they land, they often end up downtown and on Skid Row, which has become, by more or less conscious policy, the citys dumping ground for problems it would rather keep out of sight. Virtually all of Los Angeles social-service providers that offer help to the homeless are within a few blocks of each other on the Row. But whats been created, according to Alice Callaghan, is more than the chaos of cardboard shanties visitors view from behind locked car doors. Its a community, albeit one with more than its share of problems. People know each other. People have been here a long time, Callaghan says. And because people have nowhere else to go, More than any other place in L.A., public space is important here.
The eastern half of downtown Los Angeles provides perhaps the starkest example of both the problems that provoked property owners into forming business-improvement districts and the more worrisome problems those districts create. The ACLUs lawsuit alleges that the outcome is a private police force that deals with the poorest of the poor in what amounts to a crude campaign of intimidation on the streets of Los Angeles, with the intention of trying to run the [homeless] out of certain sections of the city forever.
The most egregious case alleged in the lawsuit involved Armando Cervantes, a Mexican immigrant who had worked in the garment industry for years until he lost his job and his home after a broken leg prevented him from working. He was still on crutches and in a cast in July 1999, when he was sitting on Sixth Street, having just finished a meal at the Hippie Kitchen. A group of red shirts arrived, made Cervantes stand, searched him, confiscated his pain medication, and, believing that they had found crack cocaine among his belongings, cuffed him and forced him to hobble, without his crutches, down the block to their car. Jeff Dietrich and Alice Callaghan both attempted to intervene, to no avail. Only when the police arrived and determined that what the security guards had thought to be crack was in fact bread crumbs, was he released.
The biggest problem with the shirts behavior, says Callaghan, is not just the lack of training indicated by their inability to distinguish crack from bread crumbs. Red shirts get only around 40 hours of training before hitting the streets, yellow shirts just a few hours more. L.A. cops, by contrast, who are not famous for their skill at dealing with the homeless, spend eight months at the Academy, then one year under supervised probation. The real problem, Callaghan says, is that they are accountable to no one but the property owners: The police have to abide by the Constitution. They are held to a whole different standard, and when they violate it, you have recourse. The remedy when [private security guards] do something is that poor homeless person has to take that individual guard to court. Most people on the streets, of course, lack the resources to sue an abusive guard, which is why the ACLU suit was brought on behalf of an entire class of plaintiffs.
Not only are the shirts completely unaccountable to the public, Callaghan says, but despite their uniforms, they have no more legal right to stop someone, to search them or confiscate a shopping cart than any other private citizen. Guards, just like anyone else, can ask you to leave if youre on private property without permission. And, just like anyone else, they can call the police or make a citizens arrest if youre violating the law. They have no more rights than you do, though, to search strangers on the street, handcuff them, deprive them of shopping carts, or demand that they pour out a beer and move along. But many of the guys, as Callaghan affectionately refers to the Rows denizens, dont know this. And those who do also understand that If you dont listen to the guards, theyll call the police. Since almost everyone living on the streets has a few unpaid tickets (for jaywalking, drinking in public, blocking the sidewalk), Everybody has an outstanding warrant, and any run-in with police can mean a few weeks in County Jail. So many, in Callaghans words, go along to get along. This made it clear to Callaghan that, regardless of the final outcome of the lawsuit, since the shirts are not going to go away, a The real solution is to get the guys on the Row to stop cooperating.
To that end, Callaghan and Catholic Worker volunteers began plastering the streets of Skid Row with colorful stickers designed by Robbie Conal depicting a security guard on a bicycle and the words Shirts are not cops. They began handing out bilingual pamphlets explaining the restrictions the interim agreement placed on the shirts behavior, concluding with the admonition: REMEMBER: The Shirts are not police. They have no authority to order you about on public property . . . DO NOT MOVE ON JUST BECAUSE A SHIRT THINKS YOU ARE NOT PRETTY TO LOOK AT. You are part of the public. The sidewalks of America are yours to be upon.
BID administrators are not fond of Callaghans stickers, though -- perhaps for laughs -- the Central City East Association has a framed Shirts are not cops poster on the wall outside its conference room, and the Fashion District operations director has one on his office wall. Still, they credit the posters with, in Tracey Lovejoys words, creating more of a hostile atmosphere on the street. Along with other BID officials, she steadfastly denies the allegations put forth in the lawsuit. In response to the many claims that red shirts routinely stopped, searched and photographed the homeless, Lovejoy says, We dont do that. Never have. Of the yellow shirts, now in the clear as far as the lawsuit goes, Fashion District BID executive director Kent Smith has said they never harassed anyone, never chased anyone out of the area, never illegally searched anyone. We had been asking people to move along, asking them politely, he says. Now we just inform them when theyre violating the law.
Our safety team, according to Smith, is there to help people. They give directions to lost shoppers, respond to shoplifting calls from merchants, help people who have locked their keys in their cars and, Smith says, provide outreach services to the homeless when they need it. Weve had countless times where we have intervened to help mentally ill homeless people who are wandering out into traffic, overdosing . . . and we try to get those people into treatment where we can. Its a challenge, Smith insists. They have to want to get help.
None of the dozens of people interviewed on the streets for this story over the last seven months recalled being helped by the shirts. On the contrary, many had stories of recent harassment, and most had witnessed the harassment of others.
Last fall, Abdallah Alim, a black man with blue eyes and a scraggly beard, wearing a white construction helmet and a bright-blue Hawaiian shirt, reported having been told to move on three or four times, and of being awakened in the night by red shirts who shouted into his tent and told him to pack up and leave. He stayed. As did Royal Stewart, who slept a few feet down from Alim in a makeshift tent of cardboard and blankets. He told of the time the red shirts told us, If you dont get your stuff up and move it, were gonna take it. I got mad. Stewart recalled. I said, Just take it, take it all, take everything. When he threatened to walk around the corner to seek help from Hippie Kitchen volunteers, They left me alone.
Jose Luis Flores, a young immigrant selling paletas from a white pushcart, said the yellow shirts often confiscated his goods and twice took his entire cart. Carlos Mendez, a day laborer from El Salvador, waiting on the corner of Seventh Street hoping for work, reported being repeatedly chased off by red shirts. We go there, they run us from there. We go here, they run us from here. What can we do?
The same kind of stories can still be heard today on any block of the Row. Louis Williams, shirtless in the midday sun, standing on the corner of Fifth and Stanford, recounts being told three or four times over the last few weeks by red shirts to open the door of his tent. They want to be able to see what youre doing. Asked why he didnt refuse, Williams says, If you say no to anything that one red shirt tells you, next thing you know you got about 20 red shirts on you. They try to make you do it, try to frighten you into doing it. Williams remembers a day about two months ago when, he says, They got one of their trucks and just started taking peoples shopping carts. They had nothing else to bother people about, so they went around taking carts.
A tall, gaunt man in dark glasses who gives his name only as William, stationed on a milk crate beneath the awning of the Saint Marks Crescent Hotel, where he lives, points to two red shirts sitting on their bicycles at the corner of Fifth and Crocker, staring down at the dozen or so men leaning up against the wall of the mission known as Gravy Joes. They just post up there, he says, going on to describe how they watch traffic around the portable toilets across the street, stopping and searching people they suspect of selling or using drugs. Crack is everywhere here, and they often find what theyre looking for, but A lot of times they move on things when they dont have all the facts, William says. Given that there are no businesses on this corner, William wonders why the red shirts pay it so much attention. Is that part of their assignment, the port-a-potties, in an area where there are no businesses? I thought the police did that. Theyre just harassing people.
Terry Lee and three friends crouch on overturned plastic buckets and milk crates on the shady side of Fifth Street, a village of tents, cardboard shanties and overstuffed shopping carts stretching for blocks on both sides of them. This very morning, he says, a red shirt, standing just a couple yards away, took his picture. When Lee asked him why he had photographed him, He said, because he can. He didnt give me no reason. He had been photographed the previous week as well, but more often, he says, the red shirts indulge in a simpler form of intimidation, parking their bikes a few feet away and staring him down. They will sit right in front of me and wait. One of Lees companions, an older, bearded man named Moses Junior, observes, Theyre moving us out of here slow but sure.
Any account of downtowns revival is incomplete without stories like these. The glowing phrases that dot the Fashion District BIDs annual report (trendsetting revitalization . . . district renaissance) tell only half the tale of American urban history in the late 1990s. The other half is told in the gruff, broken voices of the dispossessed, voices very few people are willing to stoop to hear. If they are ignored, Callaghan worries, the dangers of handing the streets over to private security forces will only grow. Until they begin interfering with the rights of middle-class people, she says, you wont have anybody crying about it. But by then, it will be too late.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.