Thursday, May 23, 2013

Swan Lake

An untouched canvas. The buckets are open, the brushes are out, and vibrant paint gracefully starts coloring the white surface in a majestic dance that spreads from edge to edge, corner to corner.

That’s what I imagined when I saw the Los Angeles Ballet perform “Swan Lake,” directed by Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary, at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The ballerinas’ arms and legs seemed to extend to infinity, their toes and fingers tracing soft, invisible lines through the air, finding their way around the stage. The resulting artwork is like a softer version of a Pollock painting; the lines are more gentle, the shapes less angular.

Through her grace, Alynne Noelle was able to candidly and yet elegantly tell her story as Odette, the White Swan who falls in love with Prince Siegfried (played by Kenta Shimizu) but who then tragically decides to end her life after Von Rothbart (Nicolas de la Vega and Zheng Hua Li) casts a spell on his malicious daughter Odile, disguising her as Odette.

“Swan Lake” may seem like an outdated story of young love and old societal pressures, but its real meaning is relatable to all of us. The ballet tells a story of deception and circumstances, and of the blindness of love. Kenta Shimuzu beautifully expressed his love for Odette with his strong and yet seemingly boneless body, forming elegant and precise images on stage. But his execution wasn’t perfect; his acting didn’t impart his endless love as well as his dancing did, thus mildly weakening his overall performance.

Although Shimuzu could improve his acting, the love between him and Noelle as both the White and Black Swan was evident. Their bond was mesmerizingly powerful, giving me the chills in the second act, as their relationship was blossoming.

The tale of Price Siegfried and Odette was made even more captivating by the rest of the Los Angeles Ballet dancers. Their synchronization was remarkable, their stage presence and elegance giving the main characters a sort of enrapturing support, furthered by the swans’ simple and yet charming tutus.

What I found interestingly confusing, was the third act, but this is not the director’s fault. It almost detached from the rest of the ballet, while still being pleasantly charismatic and joyful. The Spanish scene in particular added a little bit of edge and spice to the rest of the production; the music was lively and engaging, and most importantly the ballerinas’ synchronization seemed exceptionally astonishing, even more so than in the rest of their performance.

I would have never thought ballet would be able to hypnotize me the way “Swan Lake” did. It was the first time I saw such a production, and while I was admittedly expecting to walk out at least slightly bored (as I’m not very good at focusing on wordless performances), the dancers’ beauty and elegance kept me hooked the whole time.

(Written ~1 year ago)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Injunction increases friction between police and the homeless

(April 2012)  

          The streets of Downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row have turned into garbage disposals after homeless advocates and a federal court judge passed an injunction impeding efforts by police and business organizations to clean up the area.
            Eight homeless men and activist groups persuaded a federal judge that police officers were overstepping their boundaries, seizing property they deemed to be abandoned, but which the homeless claimed belonged to them.
            San Juan and Sixth Streets, for instance, just a few blocks away from freshly redeveloped condos attracting prosperous newcomers to a reinvigorating downtown, reek of urine.
            From tents, to broken bicycles, to mountains of dirty clothes, to buckets of pee: stacks of seemingly useless things take up more than half of the sidewalks. 
            In the middle of the all the dirt and piled objects there are people sitting there, some sleeping, some staring into space. For the homeless people of Skid Row, this is their home, and those are their belongings.
            “What we have on Sixth Streets is like the show hoarders,” said LAPD Central Division Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph. “You see this right here?” he asked while pointing at a photograph, “That’s a human being laying among garbage. We found two people dead in situations just like this. That’s what the advocates are fighting for, for their right to sit on the sidewalk and do that, and it hurts because it’s more challenging for us to protect them and save their lives.”
            It has been this way for more than a year, since in April, 2011 eight homeless men sued city, specifically the LAPD and the Bureau of Street Services, of illegally confiscating and destroying their property without a warrant or without notice, thus violating their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
            California Central District Judge Philip Gutierrez agreed, issuing the Tony Lavan injunction – named after one of the eight homeless men. The city appealed, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to decide the outcome of the case.
            What the court order has established is a deadlock, with police taking a hands-off approach while trash piles up on the sidewalks, firefighters find the occasional dead body buried beneath the piles and the quality of life keeps decreasing.
            “What’s happening now after the injunction is that we can’t touch [the property in the streets] at all. The city can’t clean it up,” said Joseph. “There are people with mental illnesses who will hoard things they don’t need and pile it on the sidewalk. They’ll use it for toilet tissue, urinate on it, and it never gets used, but then they say it’s theirs and we can’t touch it even though it’s obviously garbage to us.”
            But community members say officers’ hands are not really tied like Joseph claims. According to Kevin Michael Key, a former public defendant and current community coordinator for the Los Angeles Poverty and Department and part-time employee of the United Coalition East Prevention Project, officers are interpreting the court order in a way that legitimizes the confiscation of homeless’ property. Now that the court barred cops from unreasonably taking people’s belongings and discarding it, he said, officers are letting the situation get out of hand to show what happens when property isn’t seized.
            “I don’t like all the garbage on the streets, but I think there’s a difference that people can discern between private, personal property and discarded junk. But the police don’t want to take the time to distinguish that; they’re very abusive of their power,” said Key.  
            Joseph, however, believes there’s a conspiracy that stems from the community itself, claiming there are advocates on Skid Row who encourage the homeless to pile garbage on the streets just to test officers.
            “I do believe homeless people have the right to property, but when you’re setting up broken furniture and throwing clothes and trash all over the sidewalk, that’s different – that’s a health and safety issue and hazard,” said Joseph.
            But the injunction doesn’t actually bar police from removing all property, it prohibits them from “seizing property in Skid Row absent an objectively reasonable belief that it is abandoned, presents an immediate threat to public health or safety, or is evidence of a crime, or contraband,” according to the document.
             Despite the court’s clear statement regarding items that present an immediate public health or safety threat, officers still don’t remove the buckets of urine that sit in plain sight along the sidewalks, making the conditions of Skid Row even more detrimental to the homeless’ lives.
            Key’s theory is thus not unfounded – there is evidence suggesting officers are indeed abusing the power, and it’s further proven in the LAPD’s attempt to justify property seizures.
            The City maintains that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to Plaintiffs’ property because ‘it is well established that individuals who leave items in public places do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in them,’…The Court is troubled by the City’s straight-faced misstatements of the law,” reads the injunction.
            Joseph said he supports the homeless’ right to own the necessary things that help them get by, but his disapproval for the Lavan court order stems from the resulting drug trade, which the police had successfully reduced with the Safer Cities Initiative but that has escalated within the past year due to the injunction.
            With the Safer Cities Initiative, started in September of 2006, 50 extra police officers were placed in the 50-block area of Skid Row with the goal of reducing crime in the community, and according to statistics, the reform had its success.
            The year before SCI was put in place, 93 people died in Skid Row, 18 of which died in the streets in conditions that, according to Joseph, looked just like they do today. But in 2009, at the height of police efforts, only 63 people died in the community and only five of them died in the streets.
            “We erased this, we took away the blight, the means for them to destroy themselves, to urinate and defecate and create a health and safety hazard, and hide narcotics from high level dealers who were employing the homeless to sell their drugs,” said Joseph.
However, in the past year 123 people died in the same area, 15 of which died in the streets, and police believe it’s directly related to the injunction.
Prior to April, 2011, in addition to SCI, there was a standing agreement between the ACLU and the LAPD that barred the homeless from setting up tents or sleeping on the sidewalk between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. because of the crime that spurred from it. Tents don’t present any kind of imminent health or safety hazard and the agreement is now invalid as suggested by the Lavan order.
“A lot of people in tents are in tents because they’re working with the criminal element,” said Joseph. “Inside the tents you’ll have cocaine, marijuana, stashed cash, narcotics paraphernalia and things of that nature.”
            Some of the people on Skid Row aren’t poor homeless individuals, they’re gang members from the outside who come in and build a drug-trading network, employing homeless drug addicts to sell narcotics. According to Joseph, they use the tents and piled up furniture and trash as hiding places to continue their business and the injunction is preventing the LAPD from keeping the streets crime- and drug-free.
            Joseph’s concern is validated by several videos showing             drug dealings that were successfully hidden from plain view by the heaps of random objects.
            “What you see here is this guy in the red shirt, he’s a Blood gang member, and this girl right here, he’s a Blood gang member as well,” he pointed out as we watched the video. “And now he’s walking over toward her and handing her a bag of drugs, and she’s going to prepare it and package it for sale.”
            But despite the presence of the trash in the streets, cameras provided by Skid Row organizations were able to catch several crimes on tape. So community members like Key wonder why, since the LAPD has these videos and knows who the larger drug dealers are, it isn’t conducting investigations that target the powerful players in the drug trade.
            “I’ve seen the police rush up and bust drug users and it went from two cops show up to ten.  You would think it was a major narcotic trafficking bust, but it turns out it was a poor homeless guy selling a small amount of crack to keep his addiction going,” said Key.
            Skid Row members are also concerned about the negative repercussions small drug busts have on both the individual’s future and on the community as a whole.
            “The police sends addicts to prison, and then when they get out they’re in a worse situation because they aren’t eligible for housing or food stamps, and have a hard time finding a job because prison doesn’t cure addiction and a lot of folks are now violent,” said General Dogon, a member of the LA Community Action Network, an organization that primarily aims to protect the rights of the homeless community.
            In response, Joseph claimed that busting the guys at the bottom of the pyramid is necessary to discourage other members of the community to get involved in the business and he further added that not even gang members are being punished like they should.
            Community members have heard officers’ reasoning plenty of times, but they’re not convinced; to them, police are focusing most of their attention on racial profiling and handling petty crimes like jaywalking violations, explained Dogon.  
            “People on crutches, blind people, people in wheel chairs who can’t cross the street fast enough, the police [doesn’t] care,” said Dogon. “But if you’re on the other side of town jaywalking you’re probably not going to get ticketed because that’s not what matters.”
            However, the situation in Skid Row is different than that in the other side of town – the LAPD strictly abides by a zero-tolerance policy that’s justified by the broken window theory: if officers allow even the smallest misdemeanors to take place, they are promoting an air of lawlessness that wrongly imparts an idea of accepted disregard for authorities.
            “We wrote a whole lot of tickets and it worked, people were more respectful of the law. I don’t apologize for one ticket; if it helps save lives and bring crime down, then absolutely,” said Joseph.
            One may wonder how a homeless man can pay off a jaywalking ticket, but the repercussions are not as great as they seem – the real problems start when tickets turn into warrants because people refuse to go to court, not because they’re unable to pay the fees, said Joseph.
            The LAPD also created the Streets or Services program, which aimed to keep misdemeanor arrestees out of jail and place them instead into programs that suit their needs.
            “For people who successfully completed the program, whether for housing, mental health, drug addiction or alcohol, we rip up the ticket as if it never existed,” said Joseph.
            The program is currently on hold due to lack of funds, but Project Homeless Alternatives to Living on the Streets created by the City’s Attorney’s Office still exists, although it too, to a smaller degree. The project encompasses the same goals as LAPD’s program, but it also allows a city attorney to decide against prosecution if a county social worker determines that the person in question would benefit from available services.
             Although in a previous case named Fitzgerald v. City of Los Angeles the court opined that Streets or Services and other offered resources aren’t enough to eliminate or reduce homelessness in Skid Row, it cannot be said that the LAPD or the city have made no efforts to improve the lives of the homeless community.
Ultimately, the dynamics of Skid Row aren’t as black and white as is portrayed by the media and by activist groups. There is evidence of officers abusing their power, but there is also evidence of police attempts to better the quality of life for the homeless of Skid Row.
Though the two opposing sides blame each other, they both wish to have a violence- and drug-free community. However, their approaches to finding a solution are much different and the chaos resulting from the current stalemate is only increasing the friction between the LAPD and the homeless.

Hiking Mount Baldy

            It was a typical early summer morning in Los Angeles. The weather was still a little chilly, but the forecast looked promising: sunny, mostly clear skies, an expected high of 86 degrees with an average of 75.5.

It was the perfect day for a hike, and the target of choice was the top of Mount Baldy, or more formally, Mount San Antonio, located about an hour northeast of downtown L.A.

With the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains range, the mountain loomed over its early Sunday morning hikers, discouraging some, exhilarating others.

The sun was making its way toward the middle of the sky, gently warming nature’s skin, while a light breeze refreshed the air and the chirping of a few birds broke the peaceful silence.

The first half a mile was easy, maybe too easy, on a paved road that led to the cold but reinvigorating waters of the San Antonio falls. Some decided to stop and dip their heads in the splashing currents, trying to make their way to the top a bit less painful, others continued on their steps, unresponsive to the appeal of the freshening waters.

The next four and a half miles were nothing like the beginning, and the overconfidence that poured into people while strolling along that initial paved path quickly disappeared.

The singing of the birds was muffled by hikers’ footsteps and heavy panting, sweat started dripping from trekkers’ foreheads, the shade formed by the trees along the increasingly steep dirt trail became less and less refreshing, and the weight of one’s backpack became more and more unbearable.

“You’re almost there!” cheered passing hikers, on their way down the mountain.

But “almost there” was a lie, because after another twenty minutes of wheezing, sweating and whining, the summit was still too far.

            Finally, after four seemingly endless hours, the biggest natural high pulsed through the body, and 10,064 feet of elevation never felt so good.

            The wind was blowing forcefully, but the cold breeze was barely noticeable against hot and sweaty skin. The air was fresh and clean, free of pollution or any other man-made chemicals, nothing like the contaminated air Angelenos daily inhale.

            In the distance, L.A. was barely visible under a cap of smog, while right above it, pure, puffy and white clouds danced as they slowly formed of beautifully simple shapes.

            Then, suddenly, that peaceful and magical moment came to an abrupt ending, with the realization that there was no helicopter or parachute to take anyone home. And so the long struggle down Mount Baldy began. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Chaotic drips

Jackson Pollock is best known for his larger-than-life canvases covered in chaotic lines of color that collide with each other, forming a highway of paint collisions and complete disarray. Pollock moved from the conventional use of brushes and palettes onto the drip technique, which he used as a style of paint-pouring dance around canvases. His “action paintings” don’t portray any single image; he believed they have a life on their own, which evolved through his dripping and dribbling of synthetic resin-based paints.
I first admired “Lavender Mist: Number 1” when I was in elementary school, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. I was captivated by its size (7 ft 3 in x 9 ft 10 in), by its chaos, by its lawlessness, but I couldn’t quite understand why I found it so fascinating. I revisited it several times throughout high school; I would sit there in a state of entrancement and just stare, as the second hand would loop around my watch countless times.
I’ve never been a fan of museum tour guides, I never understood how they could possibly objectively tell me the meaning of a work of modern art, especially one like Pollock’s. What most fascinates me about Lavender Mist is its ability to have different meanings for different people. It took me a while to truly understand what the painting meant to me – its size is so great and its image so disorderly that the eye briskly moves all over the canvas, unsure of where to stop. But I finally got it: I saw Lavender Mist as a representation of the complexities of life, of the chaos, of the interconnectedness between us all and of our emotional ups and downs.
Parts of the painting are more chaotic and darker than others, just like parts of our lives are more confusing than others. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed as stressful events continuously pile on to each other, and sometimes we wonder, when will it ever get better? To me, the darker, intersecting lines represent these times – the confusion, and the deep and obscure abysses of our minds where nothing seems to make any sense.

But then there are the lighter parts of the painting, where black isn’t the ruling colors and paint is more spaced out, lines are less jarring and pronounced. To me, these sections signify the calm areas of our lives – maybe the calm before the storm, maybe merely the peaceful moments. Things aren’t as puzzling here; yellow and white are the prominent colors on the canvas. It’s as if one’s heart rate finally had the time to calm down and breathe in the midst of this disorderly darkness.

There aren’t any many calm and light areas in Lavender Midst, as if life were ruled mainly by dire chaos. But there seems to be a central yellow background, which I interpret to mean that despite all the curveball life throws at you, it’s still a beautiful learning experience.  

On the streets of LA

For quite some time, I've been wanting to talk to homeless men and women, to learn their stories, to know how they ended up living on the street, without a roof over their heads, without food, without showers or restrooms. In an online reporting class at the University of Southern California, we were told to report on a topic of our choice in a specific neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. I saw it as the perfect opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone, outside my bubble, and explore an environment so foreign to me. 

I met Kevin Johnson, a crack cocaine addict, by pure accident. My friend and I were driving around, in the search for homeless carts and tents to photograph, and desperately looking for a homeless men or women willing to share part of their life story. Suddenly we saw a couple of men sorting trash bins, trying to find cans to recycle for a tiny bit of money. I went up to one of them, Sam. He wanted me to pay him. Then I hear someone yelling, "I'll have a story for you, come here!" And then he just started talking, so eloquently, so beautifully, but so sadly. 

This is his story. 

I asked him about homeless shelters, whether or not he found them helpful for drug rehabilitation. They're not, in his opinion. Drug addicts find ways to sneak in substances regardless of the rules, he said. So I wanted to talk to homeless shelters staff and clients to know a little bit more. And that's when I found People Helping People, a shelter who had to close down in this past January. 

After I turned in my project, my interest for the homeless community did not go away. I'm currently working on an investigative piece about police presence and alleged abuse on Skid Row.