“I’m a take-to-the-hills kind of guy,” admits Damien Goodmon. “When something’s not being done right, I don’t think of how to make it easier for people who are doing things wrong.”
In 2007 Goodmon, now 27, joined a group of South Los Angeles citizens to wrest from the Metropolitan Transit Authority the same safety considerations taken for granted by residents of the Westside and San Fernando Valley. At issue was – and is – the MTA’s Expo Line Train, which is being built through low-income neighborhoods from downtown to Culver City and, eventually, to the sea. He soon became the leading spokesman for the Citizens’ Campaign to Fix the Expo Rail Line and has since been called an obstructionist, and worse, by his detractors.
No one, though, has questioned his commitment to environmental justice.
Growing up in Leimert Park, Goodmon had little reason to suspect that other cities’ thoroughfares did not resemble L.A.’s bland, pedestrian-hostile boulevards and freeways. His mother didn’t drive, so Goodmon saw the city from the back of an RTD bus. While attending school in Seattle and, later, at Harvard, he realized that Leimert Park had less in common with the rest of L.A., with its cookie-cutter streets and strip malls, and more with other cities that made mass transit a part of the civic fabric. He saw janitors sit next to executives on trains, and small businesses thrive in an era of malls. In other words, he was seeing what was missing in his hometown.
“People treat the city as their car,” Goodmon says of L.A. “They get in it and leave.”
Florida’s contentious 2000 presidential recount first got Goodmon fired up about politics, and he later became a national student coordinator for Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential run. Afterward, Goodmon immersed himself in the details of L.A.’s transit system, spending some 2,000 hours researching ways to overcome what he calls the city’s two traditional excuses for not building mass transit — that it’s too expensive, and that people can’t be convinced to look 30 years ahead to address the city’s problems.
His early forays into neighborhood activism were met with bemused indifference, he says. Playing Mr. Nice Guy got him nowhere with MTA officials and elected representatives, African-American or otherwise.
“You put on the tie and give them facts, and nothing happens,” he says. “You end up pounding your fist on the podium.”
Of his meetings in politicians’ offices, Goodmon says, “I don’t go in there looking for a handout and something for myself for the future. To work for free and to work day and night, and not ask for something in return other than to fix the issue under consideration — they’re floored by this concept.”
Fix Expo’s accusation of the MTA was simple: By allowing the proposed Expo Line trains to cross heavily trafficked streets at the same level as those streets — especially near Dorsey High School and Foshay Learning Center — the MTA was inviting tragedy.
“My issue,” Goodmon says, “was factual but unapologetically brutal: We know people are going to be killed. In the process of running over people you’re creating a separate and unequal transit system. And you’re ignoring complaints that would make it a better transit system!”
Community activists demanded the same as what had been put in place at USC and Culver City — that trains cross over or under streets. So far, the group’s fight has won them one of the two victories they were seeking — a pedestrian bridge over the tracks near Dorsey, which they also want for Foshay Learning Center — and they haven’t quit.
The thing that galls Goodmon and Fix Expo is that they have dedicated so much time researching solutions only to be met with suspicion and hostility by L.A. officials.
“We tell them, ‘We’ve done the work for you guys — all you have to do is be the heroes,’” Goodmon says. “We don’t want the glory.”