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Seeing the State in Downtown LA

April 03, 2013

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Though less often visited as a tourist attraction than Hollywood or the Westside, downtown LA deserves geographers’ attention as it has wielded enormous influence over the greater metropolitan region and, indeed, the world. It is here where the city’s power brokers have gathered most often to hatch their plans for local and global power. It is also here where activists, past and present, have organized to resist their designs. While alternative narratives of Los Angeles, including those written by geographers, often focus on the machinations of capital (e.g., the Los Angeles Times, Chamber of Commerce, or the Merchants and Manufacturers Association), less attention has been paid to the state. The state has played a powerful role in shaping key elements of Los Angeles’s distinctiveness, including its class structure and racial formation, and violence has been one of its central tools. Just blocks from the conference hotels are many vernacular landscapes illustrating state violence at work in Los Angeles – as well as powerful examples of resistance.   

When people think of state violence in LA, the LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT (LAPD), headquartered at 100 W. First Street, might first come to mind. This is entirely appropriate given the LAPD’s propensity towards spectacular violence as seen in the Watts Riots, the Rodney King beating, the Ramparts Scandal, and most recently the May Day protests. But focusing solely on the LAPD and its role in these events assumes that state violence is exceptional or merely sporadic. Instead, what if we see state violence as one of the key elements of the state? What if we conceive of state violence as multidimensional – as not only physical and political but also economic and symbolic? From this perspective, downtown Los Angeles becomes a particularly rich tourist zone for the examination of power and state violence, as it has been claimed by three states – Spain, Mexico, and the U.S. – in the last 250 years.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of state violence can be found at those sites where the Spanish, Mexican, and American states successively conquered and dispossessed the region’s indigenous people, the Tongva (Gabrieleño). The Spanish conquest was a brutal process, carried out jointly by the Spanish military and the Catholic Church, and was extended, though in different ways, by Mexico after its independence from Spain. The U.S. imperialist take-over of Alta California featured both land appropriations and quasi-official lynchings of Mexican and native peoples. Importantly, each of these nation-states achieved power through displacement and abrogation of existing Tongva settlements. In 1781, Spain established El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles almost directly on top of Yang-Na, the region’s largest Tongva village, and the Americans continued the pattern by establishing LA CITY HALL on that same site, now 200 N. Spring Street.

Just a block away, at 312 N. Spring Street, are the ghosts of DOWNEY BLOCK – now the site of a federal courthouse –where the Tongva were auctioned off as slave laborers to pay for their “crimes” of drunkenness, loitering, and vagrancy in the 1850s and ‘60s, immediately after the U.S. take-over. These urban sites, located in downtown, were critical complements to the somewhat better-known sites of indigenous dispossession and genocide that occurred in surrounding rural areas, including the Spanish missions at San Gabriel and San Fernando and the fields and ranches of California agriculture.
At the turn of the 20th century, as the U.S. continued its imperialist expansion and ascent to global power, Los Angeles continued to be an influential coordinating hub. During this period, people who had been displaced and exiled from their home countries – in no small part due to U.S. capitalist expansion and military intervention – immigrated to Los Angeles and actively promoted revolution in their homelands. One site that illustrates this phenomenon is 809 Yale Street. In the early 1900s, this site housed La Casa del Obrero Internacional (the International Workers House), which was one of the headquarters of the PARTIDO LIBERAL MEXICANO (PLM), an anarchist organization committed to worker control and collective ownership. Brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón established the PLM, published a newspaper, and were promptly expelled from Mexico. Nonetheless, they helped foment the Mexican Revolution from the north and contributed to the overthrow of dictator Porfirio Díaz, who had encouraged extensive U.S. corporate investment in Mexico. The Magón brothers published their newspaper, REGENERACIÓN, nearby at 519½ E. Fourth Street. Scholars such as Christina Heatherton are rethinking the spatiality of the Mexican Revolution by highlighting its transnational dimensions: not only was the revolution a response to U.S. imperialism, but its political energy reverberated around the world.

A related site is David Alfaro Siqueiros’s mural, América Tropical Oprimada y Destrozada por Los Imperialismos (aka TROPICAL AMÉRICA), located on Olvera Street (644½ N. Main Street.). The mural was commissioned by the city’s Anglo American elites, who envisioned a mural depicting a bucolic scene of Mexican peasants that would appeal to tourists. Instead, Siqueiros, a communist, painted an indigenous person crucified by U.S. imperialism. Within one week city leaders had the mural whitewashed. Although the mural can never be fully restored, the Getty worked to conserve it and built a viewing station and interpretive center that was opened in Fall 2012. Hours are limited, so check in advance.

Of course, the U.S. empire also extended across the Pacific. During the 1930s, the CABALLEROS DE DIMAS-ALANG, a Pilipino organization that actively promoted Philippine liberation from U.S. colonization, had an office at 126-128 Astronaut Onizuka Street, where its members published the Philippines Review and demonstrated against U.S. colonial policies. The office on Onizuka Street was one of approximately 30 branches of the Caballeros that existed in the U.S. during the 1920s and ‘30s. At that time, this address was part of a Pilipino community known as Little Manila, which was destroyed by the 110 freeway in the mid-1950s; since then, the area has been subsumed into Little Tokyo.

In the contemporary era, state violence in Los Angeles is especially evident in economic terms, through the imposition of a neoliberal regime that, in the last decade or so, has transformed the downtown landscape and dramatically widened the gaps between the city’s rich and poor. Part of the effort to attract capital to downtown has entailed eradicating or privatizing its public spaces. These efforts are intended not only to commodify space and services, but also to eliminate the people – often poor and homeless – who use these spaces. At PERSHING SQUARE (532 S. Olive Street), the largest park in downtown LA and a historic site for progressive activism since the early 1900s, an urban redesign process in the late 1980s eliminated features (such as trees and public restrooms) that were thought to make the park a breeding ground for “social deviants.” In the eyes of the LAPD and city officials, this could mean a gay person, a communist, or a civil rights activist. Pershing Square is now a gathering place for members of the city’s homeless population – arguably the largest in the country – who experience routine police harassment as part of the larger criminalization of the poor.

Another kind of state violence, redevelopment, is associated with the sports-entertainment complex, or “playground,” at LA LIVE (800 W. Olympic Boulevard). LA Live, which opened in 2007, is home to the Lakers, hosts frequent concerts, and includes luxury hotels and condominiums, movie theaters, the Grammy Museum, a bowling alley, and restaurants. In keeping with the larger trajectory of downtown development, thousands of low-income people, mostly Latina/o immigrants, were slated for displacement by the project. Their removal would have continued a long history of displacing poor people of color for the sake of urban capital accumulation, as had previously occurred at Yang Na as well as the Plaza, Chinatown, Chavez Ravine, and the jungle of freeways east of downtown. The original plan paid little heed to displacement and the project’s effects on affordable housing, traffic, parking, and crime. But activists fought back. The Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice (FCCEJ) successfully organized with local residents to demand that LA Live’s owners sign a community benefits agreement (CBA) in 2001. Unprecedented in its scope and scale, the CBA included commitments to hire locals, provide low-income housing, create a preferential parking-district, and donate money for parks. The community benefits agreement has become a model for community organizations around the country as they work to resist neoliberal urban development regimes that privilege the desires of the affluent over the needs of workers and the poor.

These are just some of the many sites that illustrate how power, and in particular the state, operates in downtown LA. We hope that you will make the time to escape the conference hotels and really visit El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles. If you think that these sites are interesting, you may want to check out our book, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (University of California, 2012), which is chock-full of sites that offer an alternative geography and history throughout LA County.

Laura Pulido, University of Southern California

Laura Barraclough, Kalamazoo College



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