Last year, on May 30th my son and I walked to Pan Pacific Park to attend a BLM rally. Five days earlier, George Floyd an African American man was killed by police in Minneapolis. George Floyd’s last moments on Earth were recorded by Darnelle Fraizer, a 17-year-old African American high school junior who happened to walk past the arrest and was so concerned by the actions of the police that she pulled out her phone. Mr. Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe” recorded by Darnelle were seen by the world.
My son Jack and I heard that BLM would be hosting a rally at the park near our home and we both wanted to attend it. I had been interested in Black Lives Matter for a while but had never attended any of their events. I always learned about their events after the fact but this time I saw the flyer in advance and it was in my neighborhood. If there was ever a week to hear BLM speakers, I felt this was the week to do it.
We headed for the rally about an hour before it was scheduled since we did not know how big a crowd to expect. Because this was early into the Covid Pandemic, I told Jack if it gets too crowded I may want to leave early. He understood. The two of us walked west on 1st street towards the park. 1st street is the line of demarcation in Los Angeles, it separates the north from the south addresses. We walked on the north side of 1st stepping in between the shade of the mature trees and the stark sunlight that was so bright it made me squint.
The area around Pan Pacific Park was developed about a hundred years ago. By 1900 there were several communities on the westside like Santa Monica, Hollywood and the town of Sherman, a small enclave of rail workers and farmers in what is now West Hollywood, but the development of Beverly Hills with its beautiful Hotel in 1911 drew a lot of attention and focus westward.
Beverly Hills is in Rancho Rodeo De las Aguas which was deeded in 1822 to Maria Rita Quintero de Valdez and her Spanish/Mexican soldier husband Vicente Valdez de Villa. Vicente died in 1828 putting her position as rancho heir in trouble, since most ranchos were deeded to men. But Maria lobbied for the rancho in her name through her connections. She had a smart eye, the rancho was verdant, in part because of all the streams that came out of Benedict and Coldwater Canyons. The rancho’s name means ‘Gathering of the waters” and is adjacent to Rancho La Brea sharing the boundary line of current day San Vicente Blvd.
Maria Rita’s grandparents were Luis and Maria Quintero, the last people to sign up in 1781 to settle the new Spanish colonial town of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles. On September 4, 1781, the original “Los Pobladores” (settlers) walked west from Mission San Gabriel to original plaza which was south east of the current plaza (Olvera Street) and launched the town of Los Angeles. The original 44 settlers were 11 men, 11 women with 22 children and were very much racially diversified. Including Luis Quintero, the son of a former enslaved African. Maria Rita Valdez Villa, the owner of Rancho Rodeo de Las Aguas, future land of Beverly Hills was of Spanish/Mexican African descent.
Early on her rancho was seen as valuable and Maria Rita had skirmishes with male family members who wanted the land, she also had battles with local Tongva who rightfully took issue with her family ‘settling’ a sacred place. Fights over stolen cattle and a cousin who built a house in front of her adobe (near present day Alpine and Sunset) appeared to wear her out. Tired of all the battles she relocated to the pueblo downtown. In 1854 the year she died, the four-thousand acre rancho was sold to Benjamin Wilson who was Mayor of LA and Henry Hancock who owned Rancho La Brea. It was sold for one dollar an acre.
As Jack and I walked west on 1st , we saw people of all ages and races and socio economic status holding protest signs heading to Beverly Blvd. In the 1910s there were no west bound major thoroughfares between Sunset and 7th street but as development grew there was a push for bigger roads that led west. By 1917 Beverly Blvd was developed off Temple and one block north of 1st. The name Beverly was chosen as complement to Beverly Hills which by now was known for its wealth and elegant homes. It was also one of the many white-only planned communities. In 70 years, the land went from Tongva, to the home of Maria Rita a descendent of an enslaved African and early Los Angeleno to white only Beverly Hills. Beverly Blvd was the conduit to white Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles. Now it was the road that protestors were walking holding “End White Silence” signs.
Jack and I met my friend Wendy who joined us and the three of us followed the protestors to the hilly area by the gym. Once we got situated Jack found friends and I found a spot in the shade and Wendy chose a spot closer to the speakers. The rally was a peaceful event. Speakers told of statistics like the fact that since 2000, there have been nearly 900 killings by local police in LA County, almost all of the dead were men, nearly 80% were black or brown. There were other speeches and other stats but one comment really struck me. At the beginning of the event a reverend said, “If BLM does not tell you to do it, don’t do it. There are agitators here.”
His words spoke to something that was already causing me concern. In the park I saw young white men who got my attention. Earlier in the week I read about Boogaloos. Radicalized extreme right zealots known for their Hawaiian shirts. I saw the Hawaiian shirted young men in the park. I also was following real time incidents in Minneapolis like the the white man dressed in black with an umbrella, breaking windows at the auto supply store who wanted to incite looting. He was arrested two months later, and he too had ties to white supremacists. I also saw several lone, white young men not participating in the event, just staring, dressed in black, usually carrying a skateboard. We would learn later their backpacks and their hearts were filled with hate. When one of the speakers asked us all to take a knee. The bulk of us bent down but not everyone. I wondered about the motives of all the people at the rally.
I left the park before the speakers finished because it got too crowded for social distancing. As we walked back on Beverly there were more and more people walking towards the park, I said to Jack, “I hope to god no one gives those agitators I think I saw an excuse to create chaos.”
The rest is history.
The rally concluded and the protestors marched west. Some took Beverly and others took Third. At Fairfax the LAPD held the line as if it was a hill in a battle, they would not let the peaceful protestors march to La Cienega where they could turn around and head back to the park. This choice of holding back the peaceful protestors created an opportunity for the malicious players to do what they wanted; cause chaos, injury, theft and damage to property.
When I saw the CNN images of my community on fire and local businesses being damaged, I had a moment where I was so sad that BLM picked a park in my neighborhood, but I caught myself and understood that having rallies only in south LA, south of 1st street leaves the rest of us in the dark. Maybe my squinting at the harsh light on 1st street earlier was a harbinger of the stark reality I would see in my city. I ran out of my house and returned to the protestors and started asking questions. A young white couple told me they were in the front of the line and rubber bullets were shot hitting the older woman next to them. An African American couple with kids the same age as Jack told me how they got pushed and shoved and the chaos of the police line at Fairfax. Another protestor, an African American young man told me how he left the march when he saw five white dudes, matching the description of the guys I was concerned about at the park throwing frozen water bottles against windows breaking the glass of businesses. A group of young African American women told me they saw the agitators, one of them said, “There are always the white troublemakers at BLM events.” Later I would see the famous video of the African American woman confronting the white women tagging “BLM” on the Starbucks at Farmer’s market. She yelled, “No one told you to do that for BLM.” Exactly what the reverend cautioned us about and what I feared. I thought about how the young African American women and their cell phones were telling the stories of 2020 and we were all squinting.
This past March an independent commission report was released that was highly critical of the LAPD actions on May 30. One year later, LAPD and BLM are still unpacking the events . But what about those of us who lived at the scene of the troubles how did it impact us? I heard community members in neighborhood councils speak only of the looting and damage. I heard community members who were injured by the police tell compelling stories. I know for me I continue to feel a myriad of emotions about the rally and events of that weekend. A few days after the 30th, I was at a meeting and the Mayor of West Hollywood explained that she began conversations earlier in the week with the local sheriff’s office advising them that on May 30 they should not greet any of the protestors in riot gear and should just engage in conversation. The protestors in We Ho met the sheriffs at the station on San Vicente, had a discussion and then moved on and disbanded. Apparently, the ghost of Maria Rita and Rancho Rodeo de Las Aguas was on the side of First Amendment. I still have a sharp place in my psyche for our two local elected officials who did not engage in a similar discussion with LAPD before the BLM rally. But having said that I also think about the beautiful, diversified community of people in the park who came together like modern pobladores walking west and sharing a belief of building a new city based on fairness and equity. Many of those same people showed up the next day with their brooms and cleaned up the streets. This gives me hope for Rancho Land.