It's gone forever now, but once there was a residential complex as close to paradise as such a place could ever be. Not far from the ocean and adjoining undeveloped hillsides, it had great views, cheap rents, funky old wooden units, lots of trees and shrubs, and a cooperative spirit in which most tenants became friends. So seductive was this place that just living there seemed more fulfilling than career success itself. The atmosphere was more than laid-back. It was flat-supine.
Then the old manager retired, and a tenant named Wanda replaced him. An attractive and intelligent woman, Wanda was the most popular resident, known for her unending hospitality and generosity. But the small empowerment transmuted her. Soon, she was telling tenants to take down their curtains so she could monitor their lives. She ordered one renter to lose 20 pounds on pain of eviction. Then she started screening visitors. You get the idea. It took just one speck of authority to turn the even-tempered Wanda into a New Age Nazi. And to make that laid-back paradise into a tropical purgatory.
Authority evokes ugliness in many otherwise decent people. I thought of Wanda when I read the latest about Episcopal priest Alice Callaghan in Saturday's Times. Callaghan's original turf was the far-from-paradisiacal Skid Row. For more than a decade, she helped Skid Row's children, doing the Lord's work against all the odds. She was then, correctly, I think, deemed one of the Southland's livingsaints.
But she's since become a force behind multimillionaire moon-rock Ron Unz's Proposition 227. It was the efforts of Callaghan, after all, that largely inspired the recently approved voter initiative ending most bilingual-education programs. It was Callaghan who organized a parent boycott of L.A.'s Ninth Street School over the difficulty of getting all-English classes for students who did not speak English fluently. Although the school district deserves much criticism for its mismanagement of bilingual education, the administration at Ninth Street makes a strong case that it was vilified out of all proportion. And that it continued to be vilified no matter how it responded or reformed. This attention-getting dispute caught the eye of tech-whiz Unz, whose career experience with language disputes better suited him to discuss the merits of Unix vs. Cobol.
Never mind that Callaghan, a clergywoman, has only the most limited concept of the overall educational needs of the state. She's become as weird as my old pal Wanda when it comes to promoting and enforcing 227. Whose passage, she early declared, was the desire of most Latino parents.
But according to exit polls, it turned out not to be the wish of many such parents. So to hell with them. Last week, she announced, in the Times, her intention "to hold everyone's feet to the fire" and that "we may have to sue everyone who is out of compliance" with her extreme interpretation of 227. This would include any schools that offered nearly any form of native-language instruction, even if parents wanted it, even though the initiative's language itself grudgingly allows such exemptions. Speaking to the Weekly, she said, "We have replaced bilingual ed." Of course, the initiative also allows lawsuits over its enforcement, opening the door to the meddlesome and not-so-publicity-shy Callaghan.
Such are the transformative aspects of sudden authority - and sudden fame - on flawed egos. Before Alice Callaghan, Wanda, or even Mayor Rudy Giuliani, there was that revolutionary dictator in Woody Allen's Bananas, who, on seizing power, ordered everyone to wear his underwear outside his pants.
Alice Callaghan is coming on the same way. Except that Callaghan is, unfortunately, real. And what's at stake is parents' choice about their children's future.
It was a sad little vote of 11-3. And due to its shamefulness, no one on the L.A. City Council said much, except Rita Walters, who was eloquent as she spoke against appointing Ted Stein to the Harbor Commission. Walters pointed out, in essence, that Stein had transgressed important city regulations the last time he served on a city commission.
For those of you who've forgotten - please listen, 11 members of the City Council - Stein surreptitiously hired Clinton crony Webb Hubbell, and saw to it that Hubbell was paid improperly, all in an attempt to curry favor in Washington over L.A. airport funds. Hubbell, of course, did nothing for his $25,000.
As Walters reminded the assembled, "No commissioner has any authority beyond the consensus of the appointed body. Stein had no authority to hire this person" - Webb Hubbell - "in the first place."
Fellow Council Member Ruth Galanter, who had led the failed charge against the Guns of Stein, was for once beyond words as she joined Walters in voting against Ted "Zilla" Stein. "I know an exercise in futility when I see one," she said later.
By endorsing Stein's appointment to the Harbor Commission, the City Council has, in effect, loosened the rules of commission behavior. Eleven members tacitly agreed that stuff like the Hubbell deal was, okay, great. Back-dating fake paperwork to make it look as though Hubbell was paid before his felony conviction? Fine, terrific. Suborning department managers to violate city rules to do the deal? Neat, keen. Anytime, Ted.
By making Stein a harbor commissioner without a hint of reproach, the council majority gave Stein a license to kill in San Pedro. Maybe we ought to start calling him Double-0-Ted.
But this is the new city spirit: It's not what you do; it's who you know. Ted's a pal of the mayor's, and now a council pal too. "Ted just schmoozed everyone," said one resistant schmoozee. "When he wants to be, he can be a really likable guy," conceded another distrustful council member. A sweetie, really.
So what if, apart from the Hubbell mess, Stein never accomplished anything noteworthy at the airports? The right people like him. He must be okay. Otherwise, why would he be joining the oversight body of the city department with the worst history of corruption?
The Good Old Days
Then the unlucky Carli was once more put on to the strappado. He fell into a deep swoon and was with difficulty brought to life again. Next, his son of 16 was racked with similar results. [Another suspect] had been kept on low diet in prison during the past week, and was therefore ripe, according to the judicial theories of that time, for salutory torments. Having been strung up by the hands, he was jerked and shaken in the customary fashion until he declared his willingness to make a full confession . . . Carli was again summoned, and set upon the "she-goat" with heavy weights attached to his feet. He sat for two hours on this machine, the sharp edges and spikes of which were so contrived as to press slowly and deeply into the tenderest parts of his body . . .
-John Addington Symonds,
Renaissance in Italy
Such was jurisprudence before "criminals" had rights. In the 1570s you didn't need to be a convict to be tortured. Just a suspect. Or a witness. Confession meant that you'd been tormented enough to say what your torturers wanted to hear. Two hundred years later, our nation was founded, in part, on the principle that this sort of thing didn't constitute a fair trial.
And so traveled criminal-justice theory, until four weeks ago in Long Beach. When Municipal Judge Joan (hereinafter Joltin' Joan) Comparet-Cassani ordered a bailiff to administer a huge charge of electricity to criminal defendant Ronnie Hawkins, who wouldn't stop talking.
According to what I've read, the stun-belt device hurts enough to double you up on the floor. It is intended to stop prisoners from escaping or attacking. It is not intended to tell them to shut up. But that's the way Joltin' Joan used it. The defendant is now suing. He was also assigned another judge.
The authority to inflict pain is among the scariest of mandates. In 1998, in theory - if not in Corcoran state prison - pain cannot be used to control those in custody. But it's used anyway: in jails and prisons, sometimes on the streets - curbstone justice, the old cops called it. But in a public courtroom? For talking out of turn?
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So large a swerve in the highway of due process certainly merits overwhelming public attention. It was therefore decent of the county Board of Supervisors to investigate Joltin' Joan's 400-year retreat to the electric strappado, even if they have no direct authority over the courts. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, to his credit, moved to ask whether her act fell within, shall we say, the protocols of county practice, let alone modern jurisprudence. In other words, may judges now lawfully torment prisoners?
I am told the discussion included a recommendation to restrict the stun belt's use to situations that embody a risk of injury or escape. That's what I'm told, but neither I nor any other member of the general public knows for certain because the discussion was held in closed session. Of course, this secrecy was unlawful, in the strict sense of the Ralph M. Brown public-meetings act. But by now, we know that this law exists only to be violated, not enforced.
A standard justification of this secrecy is that matters such as the courtroom jolt could result in potential liability for the county. And that supervisors don't want to say anything that could assist a lawsuit against the county. But even though a lawsuit has been filed, do our supervisors really think the general public's become so bloodthirsty that it is politically perilous to openly oppose public torture?
What else can you possibly think?