The General and the War to Save LA’s Soul (Part III)

The Hippie Kitchen. (All photos: Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

The Hippie Kitchen. (All photos: Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

[This is Part Three of a four-part series. Click to read Part One and Part Two.]

“In childhood we have been taught that tramps are blackguards, and consequently there exists in our minds a sort of ideal or typical tramp — a repulsive, rather dangerous creature, who would die rather than work or wash, and wants nothing but to beg, drink and rob hen-houses. This tramp-monster is no truer to life than the sinister Chinaman of the magazine stories, but he is very hard to get rid of. The very word ‘tramp’ evokes his image. And the belief in him obscures the real questions of vagrancy.”— George Orwell, “Down and Out in Paris and London”

During our time in Skid Row I had met some people whose memory of I am certain will remain with me for a long time.

When Dogon first introduced me to Annie Moody, he said she was the “poster child of SCI.” She had been arrested scores of times and spent months in jail for violating 41.18(d). According to her public defender, the total number of her arrests was 87 in a span of seven years or so, although he conceded there may be more. Dogon and others said the arrest total was 108. Moody said it was over 100 for certain. The exact number, however, isn’t important, because being arrested once for simply resting on a sidewalk is probably one arrest too many.

Dogon and I stood on the northeast corner of Gladys Avenue and Sixth Street, next to the Hospitality Kitchen, which was a food line run by the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. The one-story building, better known as “The Hippie Kitchen,” was set apart from other buildings due to the mural on its Gladys Avenue side. The painting was a duplication of “The Christ of the Bread Lines” by Fritz Eichenberg. It depicts a starry, night sky with moonlit images of the stereotypical tramp or vagabond huddled in blankets and wearing shabby clothing walking single file, and among the figures is a haloed man. The courtyard behind the building was full of homeless people, sitting at circular tables and eating. Outside, people were getting water from a large container on top of a table near the street curb.

“So as of this month,” said Dogon, “Annie Moody is being tried again for 41.18(d), about her 107th arrest, I think that one is — she just got arrested again, either last week or somewhere around her trial. The city is arguing Ann knows that she’s not supposed to be sitting on the sidewalk and that she’s sitting on the sidewalk during non-times you are supposed to be sitting. You’re supposed to sit from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and she’s sitting after that. So they saying that she’s intentionally violating this code. So they want to prosecute. They’re not trying to figure out what the problem is and address the problem. They just criminalizing her for being out here. They’re not trying to understand what her problem is. They ain’t trying to hear it. All they know is she violating 41.18(d). It’s just a custody and a trial issue that’s repeatedly played out with this woman. So in the meantime, between time, she’s out on bail on her own recognizance and she got arrested again for 41.18(d). So it went from 107 to 108 and that’s where we are now.”

A woman in her late 50s, wearing sandals and beige capri pants walked past Dogon and me. Her hair was pulled back into a black hairnet and rose-colored, wire-rimmed sunglasses rested low upon her nose. “Oh, here she is. …,” said Dogon. I turned around and saw Annie Moody standing at the table. She was pouring water into a plastic bottle. I introduced myself.

“According to the information I have, I’m not doing anything illegal,” said Moody. “It’s that simple. The last time I was in court, I learned the ACLU handled that case and it was vacated because the city didn’t have the info to make it constitutional and they were supposed to revisit it and they never did that. So it was never a law in the first place. I can have my tent up 24/7 as long as I’m not obstructing pedestrian or vehicular traffic, you know, have a buggy out in the street or something like that. So that’s what I stand on. I’m just fighting for my civil rights. … I’m the one they like to pick on. What can I say?”

A higher court had ruled the city code was “cruel and unusual,” as it didn’t seem nice to make people who have no homes stand 24 hours a day. The city, however, felt different and convinced the court to abandon their decision so long as they made changes to the code, such as only enforcing it between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

The constitutionality of 41.18(d) remains a question, which put Moody in a legal gray zone. A higher court had ruled the city code was “cruel and unusual,” as it didn’t seem nice to make people who have no homes stand 24 hours a day. The city, however, felt different and convinced the court to abandon their decision so long as they made changes to the code, such as only enforcing it between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. But the city never held up their part of the bargain by amending the code. Through the eyes of an attorney, that could mean that 41.18(d) is still unconstitutional and any case against Moody, or any other homeless person, would be thrown out of court.

The fact the city never changed its code to comply with the federal court is immaterial to the city attorney’s office. In their eyes, Moody remained a threat to their delicate social order. My conversation with Moody was less than three minutes, yet even in such little time I could perceive that she was defiant in the face of it all. It was her raised eyebrows, arched back and brash attitude that said she was not afraid of a fight, not to mention her willingness to stare down a monolithic institution such as the LAPD.

“She’s stubborn and willful,” said Aaron Jansen, her public defender, in a telephone conversation we had a week later of my meeting Moody. “Living on the street, a woman her age doing that, she’s resilient and she’s strong. She feels the LAPD are harassing her, that she’s not doing anything wrong and she insists on going to trial on her cases, even if it means that she has to spend time in jail, even if it means that they take away her stuff or she has to pay fines, attorney fees or whatever it is. She just always goes to trial. She never takes a deal.

“They just constantly harass this poor woman. It’s to the point where it’s just ridiculous. It’s some sort of a vendetta or grudge that the LAPD and the city attorneys have against her. Out of all the homeless people that they have sleeping, sitting or lying on the sidewalk they just keep bringing in Ms. Moody. So she had a case that went to trial. Actually it was ten counts consolidated into one complaint. She just went to trial on that this year. The jury acquitted her on six of them, one was dismissed and she was convicted on three out of the original ten that were filed against her. Now we’re coming up for sentencing and I’ve been filing these motions trying to get the cases dismissed, the three cases that the jury found her guilty on. If she’s sentenced, she’s looking at, I believe it’s 180 days on each count. So one year and six months would be the maximum. I’m sure the judge on the case would not give her the maximum sentence in jail, but that’s the possible maximum she’s facing.”

Los Angeles Skid RowIn a situation where most people are persuaded to waive their rights to a trial and take a deal, Moody has proved that is not always the best course of action. Her refusal to take a deal gave her an 84 percent success rate. The accusations the LAPD were making against Moody were failing again and again and again when put before a jury of her peers. It was a rare, positive note of a deeply flawed justice system, that not every poor person can get railroaded into jail. But underneath Moody’s arrests, successes and losses, there was a very ugly and dark side to her story.

“Have you seen or have you heard about any of the emails that the LAPD have been generating about Moody?” Jansen asked me. I had not. He told me the police emails on Moody had been discovered by chance when LA CAN filed a public records request with the police. LA CAN suspected the LAPD were targeting them and obtained roughly a thousand pages of police emails that mention their organization. Annie Moody’s name came up within a few of those emails. An attorney working with LA CAN contacted Jansen, who in turn did his own public records request. What the emails revealed was an obsession within the SCI Task Force, the city attorney’s office and the Central City East Association BID over Annie Moody and her refusal play nice.

“When you see the emails they’re really unprofessional,” said Jansen. “Why are they going after this poor homeless woman? What is it about? It’s like they just have to win. Like they’re trying to break her. What do they want out of her? They’ve already locked her up, they’ve taken years out of her life and it’s just this homeless woman. They’ve taken her property; they’ve taken her money away. They want to just crush her, I guess. We were hoping that when City Attorney Mike Feurer came into office that he would review this case and ask why are we wasting all these resources trying cases against this homeless woman and make them stop. So far that hasn’t happened. We’re hoping that with these motions we might get some attention from the public as to how much of their tax dollars are going to prosecute this woman who’s just homeless and sleeping on the sidewalk.”

LAPD brass called their campaign “Operation Bad Moody” and it officially began at least in 2010, though Moody’s harassment began earlier. Its leader was Lt. Shannon Paulson, the SCI Senior Lead Officer, and her goal was to arrest the shit out of Moody. In her eyes, Moody was guilty of the worst crime of all, which is “contempt of cop,” and Moody was going to pay for it. No one in Lt. Paulson’s town gets away with pissing on its municipal code book.

How the campaign against Moody began is not clear, but what is certain is that the CCEA didn’t like her, and the LAPD and city attorney’s office wanted to do whatever it could to make the fine people at the business group happy. The more angry critics of gentrification often say cops are just servants of the business class and the emails definitely lend credence to it, but this argument is not accepted by the public because cops are thought of as heroes and any criticism of rich people is immediately thought of as Marxist. But when you have a well-paid police lieutenant reporting in to and taking requests from a consortium of businesses, even a dyed-in-the-wool sycophant of the rich has to admit that wealthy people in downtown LA are getting more than their share of government representation.

“Any chance of an Anne Moody arrest Thursday or Friday?” wrote Steven Keyser in a February 2011 email. Keyser was the CCEA’s then director of operations, himself a 23-year veteran of the LAPD.

“We’ll take her in the early afternoon,” wrote back Lt. Paulson.

Los Angeles Skid RowOne can say with some measure of accuracy that Lt. Paulson loved her job, or at the very least, she enjoyed being a lackey for business interests. Maybe she wanted to work for the CCEA after she retired from the police force, just like a few of the CCEA executives had done. Who knows? But while the public believed Lt. Paulson was fighting serious crime in Skid Row, she was finding adequate time to hunt one person over a misdemeanor. She would appear at Moody’s court hearings and text developments to the CCEA. Sometimes she would personally confront Moody, making this battle of wills more intimate. Once, when Moody was ordered by the court to stay 200 yards away from Sixth Street and Towne Avenue, the site of her repeated arrests, Lt. Paulson ordered two officers to measure distances and provide her landmarks so they could quickly determine if Moody was violating the order and arrest her yet again.

And how Central Division staff enjoyed the suffering of the weak! A judge once sentenced Moody to 180 days in jail for violating 41.18(d). He also ordered her to pay the court $1,000 in public defender fees. He seized $200 Moody had on her when she was arrested and applied that to her court-created debt. For the LAPD and the CCEA, locking up a homeless person and taking all her cash was a wonderful occasion. Vicky McCormick, then director of the CCEA, herself also a 23-year veteran of the LAPD, was very happy over the news. “That’s great. Thanks to you all,” she wrote.

For the LAPD and the CCEA, locking up a homeless person and taking all her cash was a wonderful occasion. 

It is not easy to divine Lt. Paulson’s and the CCEA’s fascination over Ann Moody. To this day hundreds of homeless people can be seen in LA on any given day resting on a sidewalk. They have to. Sometimes the cops get a kink in their colon and enforce the code en masse, other times they lay low, but to focus on one homeless woman as though she were a “problem child,” as they so named her, is difficult to understand.

None of their criticisms and accusations of Ann Moody — that she used a five-gallon bucket for a toilet, was in view of school children and a general nuisance to colonists — meant she wasn’t any different from any other homeless person on Skid Row. Lt. Paulson had even attempted to malign Moody’s character by insisting that an addendum she wrote be attached to every arrest report concerning Moody. In it she insinuated drug and criminal connections, but after years of police scrutiny, the only other “crime” they could find on Moody was that she was selling cigarettes and beer.

Yet Moody got the entire attention of the Central Division and the city attorney’s office. She truly was SCI’s poster child, a human play-thing for a tax-payer-funded cult that was conjoined by their similar tastes in torture.

“They say the reason why they bringing all these cops down here in 2006 was to focus on the outside criminal element that comes in on Skid Row and prey on those that are vulnerable,” said Dogon after Moody said goodbye. “They were talking about the drug dealers. But they didn’t come out focusing on the criminal element. They came out here and attacked homeless people, which was a total contradiction of what they said they was going to do. Since 2006 that’s been their primary target is to move poor and homeless folks out of here. They want to move people out of here so that these yuppies on Broadway and on Main Street can walk their five-thousand-dollar French poodles down the street. That’s what it’s all about. They had a six-month plan to sweep skid row. They still ain’t enough housing going around and Skid Row is the most occupied police community, not only in America, but in the world. There’s more cops on Skid Row than any other community in the world. They only down here for one reason. But we stood up and fought back, came out and taught folks their rights and confronted the cops, took video of what they was doing, filed complaints with the feds and all that kind of stuff. Here it is 2014. We still own the block. We saying gentrification, my ass; we ain’t going nowhere.”

* * *

Dogon and I agreed to briefly go our separate ways. He was going corner to corner, taking notes and photographing locations that could use trash bins. On the other side of Main Street, there are ample public garbage cans for the colonists to throw their trash in, but in Skid Row they are remarkably absent. The lack of trash bins presents a Catch-22 for the homeless. Not having a place to put their trash means it ends up on the ground, which is a perfect opportunity for a littering citation. The trash angers local business owners, who blame the homeless for not being tidy. The county health department will issue reports documenting the obvious problems being created by lack of street sanitation — the promulgation of rats and the heightened possibility of diseases. Though humans have understood since the Black Death the need for trash collection and clean streets, this pragmatic solution still escapes city leaders.

I learned once in a meeting I attended with city officials and homeless advocates that the city had spent months running a test program to see which trash bin would best serve Skid Row. I would have thought that in the 21st century city officials would know which garbage can is the best to install on street corners, but alas, many mysteries to the universe remain. And despite their test, the trash cans never appeared on Skid Row, and the homeless, as well as outdoor food lines, continued to get blamed for messy streets and vermin by business lobbyists. Now LA CAN was putting together a report that would document the need for trash cans and hopefully convince the city to supply them for Skid Row, just like they do for the colonists.

Los Angeles Skid Row

General Dogon with video recorder, ready to record BID or police behavior. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

Before I could cross the street and leave Dogon, a small man with a soft, white face, gray beard and probing eyes stopped me. His rounded back and twangy accent reminded me of a gold prospector from a Hollywood western. He looked curiously at the camera slung around my neck.

“Has anybody ever been ugly enough to break that camera?” he said.

“No, but someone has tried,” I said.

I explained that I was reporting on a demonstration once in front of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Israeli Philharmonic were performing and a group were protesting the Phil’s support of their country’s foreign policy and its treatment of Palestinians. A well-dressed, upper middle-class woman about to enter the concert hall to see the evening’s performance got upset over the protest. She began shouting at the protesters, and the man she was with was having to hold her back. When she saw me taking photographs of her, she swung at me, hitting my camera. But she didn’t break it.

“Oh, wow,” said the old man.

“I know. There are animals in every dark corner of society.”

“How old do you think I am?” he said.

“Seventy,” I said, hoping my estimate was neither too far or too close to insult him.

“You’re wrong.”

“Then what’s your age?”

“Eighty,” the man said with pride.

“Eighty? Really? You’re in good shape, man.”

Then the old man began to tell me about himself. It’s an odd feeling to have a stranger tell you about themselves unsolicited. If it’s allowed to happen, the conversations inevitably go deep or weird, which can be unnerving, especially on a street corner with someone you don’t know and have absolutely no reason to be talking to. And yet, they often make the most memorable conversations. The man who stopped me had been in the Korean War. He was stationed on a destroyer that escorted the USS Missouri. The entire time he was in the war he never fired upon another ship or aircraft. His destroyer only fired inland. The ship was hit once by a shell coming from land though. It blew a hole into its port side bow just above the water line.

“I liked the service,” he said. “It was very good. It had three hots and a flop every day and it was very interesting to go around the world and to see all the people from different countries.”

Los Angeles Skid RowThe old man told me he wasn’t homeless, that he rented a room at a residential hotel, though I assumed he must be hard up because he had just finished eating at The Hippie Kitchen. He told me he believed there would soon be another war. “People are getting in position now,” he said. “It’s coming up and getting closer. I been trying to figure out who’s going to start that war for about the last ten years now, but I don’t know who’s going to start it.”

A safe bet would have been the United States, but I didn’t say anything. It was from here that his communication began to go wild, Skid Row wild, like a street-corner sky pilot screaming hellfire and damnation at a bunch of poor sods standing in a food line, desperate to only be fed.

“I can’t believe it,” said the old man. “All these people coming over here working in these buildings. I call them ‘tramp factories.’ The people say they even write brochures. The people come back there. They show them the brochure. It says, ‘Don’t come back. Send money.’ They should kick the people out to start with, to go rob their neighboring country. That’s why they’re here. They’ll never understand life if they don’t live in their own country like we did, like the United States did. We come up from nothing and the blacks built this country up from scratch by working in the cotton fields to get the revenue to build the country up.”

“All these characters come over here and say they work and all these other characters hire them. That’s what broke the country, by hiring all these characters. Nothing but thieves, liars and cheats. Within the last six months one of those characters, I think he was about 22 years-old, he had a young girlfriend. They got pregnant, had a baby. The baby was one day old. What did he do? He shot it in the face and killed it. They wouldn’t take care of themselves in their own country. They wouldn’t face up to God or Mother Nature. I go by Mother Nature. Mother Nature’s the one that really made everything — infinity, the whole world.”

“I prefer Mother Nature too,” I said.

dan-bluemelFiguring our conversation had become broken and unrepairable, I politely ended it. We had lost control of our dialogue, skidded off a verbal highway and straight into an unyielding oak tree, head on. That can happen in Skid Row. I no longer understood what the old man was talking about, though I was pretty certain it had to with foreigners.

I said goodbye, crossed the street and headed east to Towne Avenue. That is where I met Leslie and Howard. They were sitting near the entrance of a fish packing plant where trucks were loaded with shipments of seafood. Groaning with every load, forklifts spun around the loading dock in a frenzy, and beeping every time they were driven in reverse. I

first heard of Leslie and Howard through an attorney. Leslie was one of the many people he had interviewed in preparation for a possible lawsuit against the CCEA, because the BID was getting aggressive about seizing homeless people’s property. If the CCEA feels a homeless person’s property is abandoned, they take it to a nearby storage facility they run. But homeless people were reporting their property was being lost or stolen.

“My stuff has been taken in the past,” said Leslie. “They’ll take the whole cart and throw it in the truck. Whatever it is they’ll just pick it up and throw it in back. When they take it, the BID will leave a ticket on the fence or wall, but you might not know they left it because anybody can walk by and take the ticket. If you get a ticket, then you have to go and pick up your stuff at the BID storage. And when you go in there, you give them the ticket and they give you whatever property you get, because you can lose stuff that gets mixed up with other people’s stuff, or you just get what’s under that ticket number. Your lucky if you get some of it back.”

“It happens every day to somebody. Whenever they catch somebody not around their stuff. I’ve had it happen to me about three or four different times. It happens when you got some business to do, or you have to go into one of the missions to eat or if you have to go to the bathroom and you can’t take your cart with you. If you don’t take everything with you and the BID come by and see it, they’ll discard it if nobody is watching it. If people say they’re watching it and they’re not really watching it, they’re just saying that, the BID will still take it. For instance, if you say you’re watching it for them, they’ll be like, ‘Well, whose is it?’ And if you don’t give them a specific name, they’ll take it. I would try and do that before letting them take somebody else’s stuff. I’d be like, ‘I’m watching it for them.’ And they’ll just say, ‘Well, you have to tell them to come by and get it.’”

“It’s all rigged, because if you have bags, not shopping carts, you can go to one of the missions and leave your stuff for a couple of hours during the day. But not if you’ve got carts. So when meal times come a lot of people can’t come into the mission to eat because there is nowhere to bring their carts. They only have so much space at the Midnight Mission where you can put them in the courtyard, and if that space is all filled up, either you leave your stuff on the street and risk someone stealing it or you don’t get to eat. The Midnight might be the only one that lets you come in and place your carts against the kitchen wall. The rest of the missions you cannot take your carts in. It’s a trip. Everything is rigged down here. You’re constantly trying to get up and then you’re pulled down in some manner or another.”

Los Angeles Skid RowThe property of the homeless has long been an issue for some. Business interests complain about it, saying it blocks sidewalks and store entrances, which they say hinders profits. The city says it interferes with their ability to clean the streets of Skid Row and thus poses a risk to public health and safety. At one time, anything on the street, like a shopping cart loaded down with blankets, clothes and what-have-you, could be thrown away if a city worker deemed it abandoned. But homeless people were complaining their property was being thrown away by the city.

The issue was presented in court and the homeless won, both in a lower court and in federal court, on the grounds that destroying a homeless person’s property violated their Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. But not being an institution to abandon a worthy cause, the city attorney’s office appealed to the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court, in their hopes to have a poor person’s constitutional rights taken away from sea to shining sea. Only recently did the city attorney’s office announce it was abandoning the case. No explanation was given.

Leslie was helping Howard open a packet of saltines. On Howard’s blanket-covered lap was a Styrofoam container of food and a cup of soup they got from a nearby food line. He wore a blue windbreaker and a black cap that said “Chinese Gourmet Express” on its bill. Howard didn’t say anything but stayed focused on his meal. His gray beard looked soft and his slow movements said he was gentle and friendly. His eyes though were droopy, sad and wounded.

“He’s like my step-dad,” said Leslie. “I’m his only family. We’ve been friends for years. He’s 70. He’s a veteran. He was in the army from 1964 to 1966 in Germany. We can’t find anywhere to put him. We want long-term convalescence because he’s incontinent, because he’s got dementia. The brain doesn’t tell him he has to go to the restroom. He’s not responsible, he doesn’t know to change his diaper. I have to ask him, ‘Do you need a change?’ His doctor at the VA asked him what year it was and he answered 1976. The other day he asked me if it was winter or summer. We’re trying to save enough money to get an apartment. Down here it is SRO, Single Residency Occupancy, so two of us can’t be in the same place. He’s a veteran, but VA won’t house him. It’s hard for me to find a place for him.”

Los Angeles Skid Row

Leslie and Howard.

Leslie appeared to be in her 40s. She was thin and has blemishes and slight scabs on her face. She didn’t tell me her past, but she left clues. She mentioned in passing she had spent time in prison and currently got treatment at a methadone clinic. She had been homeless, on and off, for about seven years. And she took care of Howard.

“You got it figured out gramps?” she said to him, noticing he was struggling with resting the cup of soup on his lap. “Move that blanket. … Oh, don’t spill that.”

Howard began to slowly spoon his soup into his mouth, some of which landed on his windbreaker. “Howard, where’s your napkin?” said Leslie. “It’s getting on your jacket. You’re getting it all over your jacket. … Don’t worry, I’ll get it. … Don’t spill anymore, I’ll wash it off.”

Self-sufficiency is the core of manhood and I could see in his melancholy eyes that Howard knew despite his dementia exactly what he had lost. He looked defeated and it was a look I’d seen before in old men, when the shoulders of these once great stallions collapsed inward and their heads hung low with the shame that they were no longer relevant and had become a burden to everyone around them.

I had seen it in a co-worker at the cusp of an early retirement when he suffered from mysterious dizzy spells and was later diagnosed with prostate cancer; I’d seen it in my father as his lung cancer withered him away to a fraction of the powerful and proud man he used to be.

Howard too was a broken man now, and after 70 years of life, and after serving his country, our “God-blessed country,” he lived no higher than six inches above the gutter. Only Leslie, a homeless ex-con and former heroin addict, was the only human being standing between him and his last, inevitable battle.

dan-bluemel-175“It’s kind of hard to take care of him and take care of me,” said Leslie. “He’s like in his second childhood stage. It’s like taking care of a toddler. He’s a sweetie-pie though, a backwoods country boy, as green as can be, from Nacogdoches, Texas. Eight years ago, I used to be in the life and everything, and he was there for me. Now I don’t do those things anymore. He’s always been there for me, so I’m not just going to abandon him. He has no one to help him and that’s not right. Who’s going to visit him if I walk away? Nobody. I’m not going to do that to him. Everybody needs someone to take care of them.”

Dan Bluemel
LA Activist

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Comments

  1. Bella may says

    No words to express how much this article meant to me. I frequently speak to people who are invisable and are not heard. Ms. Moody is navigating through a system of chaos on her terms and with her voice. Good for her. Thanks.

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