A panorama of organizations tabling outside the 2017 People's State of the City Wednesday night. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
Hundreds of residents flocked to First Congregational Church on the corner of 3rd Street and Cedar Avenue Wednesday night, but it wasn’t to hear a sermon. There was plenty of preaching, but not of the religious variety.
In place of the apostles and letters to the Corinthians were calls for policy reform and immediate action from local legislators as dozens of community organizing groups and Long Beach locals packed the 130-year-old church for the 2017 People’s State of the City (PSOTC).
The sixth annual event hosted by Long Beach Rising, a coalition of neighborhood organizing groups, looked very much like it had in past iterations, only with a noticeably larger crowd, one that extended up to the balcony seating near the church’s rafters after the floor area reached capacity.
People gather at tables outside the entrance to the PSOTC at First Congregational Church.
People mulled around the church’s East entrance on Cedar, visiting the various tables set up for organizing groups that spanned the gamut. Groups dedicated to recycling, banning fracking in Long Beach, housing issues, senior citizens and even democratic socialism had all set up shop to take part in what’s become a truly community-centric event.
Community organizer Amber Rose Howard served as the night’s master of ceremonies, orchestrating the two-hour long program that touched on a variety of issues that the coalition of community groups have been working on over the past year.
A simulated anti-Trump protest starts the PSOTC program.
But first, a simulated protest inside the church initiated the night’s discussion. With picket signs in hand and participants intermittently breaking from the flock to utilize a microphone where they delivered theatric monologues denouncing policies pushed by President Donald Trump and his administration. The crowd marched silently behind the speakers until they concluded their address then chanted in unison: “Not my president.”
While all politics may be local, last night’s PSOTC was inspired and driven by the election of Trump in November. Campaign promises to build a wall, use a deportation force to remove undocumented persons from the country, unshackle law enforcement agencies who had been reigned in by the Obama administration and suggestions he may roll back recently acquired LGBTQ rights, have a variety of demographics worried about their futures in Long Beach and abroad.
Trump has targeted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), proposing wholesale cutbacks of staffing and limiting its scope to administer laws that protect natural resources from pollution. Howard noted that Long Beach, especially its western flank, suffers from “environmental racism” as large polluters go unchallenged because of their economic clout.
She noted a recent victory for the working class community on the West Side in the form of a July ruling that required a new environmental impact report before a proposed rail yard—one that would’ve potentially pumped more pollution into West Long Beach and schools surrounding the yard—could be completed.
However, Howard said the city had remained quiet on a much larger project that is working its way through the state and local certification process, the potential merger of the Carson Tesoro refinery and its neighbor to the south in Wilmington. If completed it would make the complex the largest refinery on the West Coast and send additional pollution into the city’s boundaries.
“Tonight, we ask them [city council] to put people before profit,” Howard said. “And stand up for our most vulnerable, speak out against the Tesoro project and work with the community to defend our people.”
News coverage of the merger, a process that had started in early 2016, had mounted in the weeks leading up to the PSTOC with no Long Beach official going on record. Mayor Robert Garcia posted his first public comment on the project on Twitter just hours before the program began.
Before the SCAQMD considers Tesoro oil project in Carson, they need to consider regional concerns and impact. Too many unanswered questions. pic.twitter.com/ge6TKDpSBW— Robert Garcia (@RobertGarciaLB) April 5, 2017
Howard, who spent time as an incarcerated youth, advocated for policies like Proposition 47 and the good they can do for communities with former felons struggling to find employment.
The law reduced some non-violent crimes to misdemeanors and has kept thousands more from serving jail time since its passage, something that Howard said has given them a second chance. Law enforcement agencies, including the Long Beach Police Department, have been critical of Prop. 47 and have attributed it to a rise in crime in the city.
Howard was critical of the city’s choice to invest more money in officers given that communities of color have historically suffered the most from police brutality and arrest rates. Instead, she advocated for prevention tactics instead of punishment so future generations won’t have to go through the experience that she had after serving time in prison.
“That felony was a wall that limited me from achieving my dreams and millions of Californians are faced with that same wall including for nonviolent offenses like writing bad checks,” Howard said. “How can we promote economic opportunity if we give felonies to people for being poor?”
Mykailah Harris, an 18-year-old member of a youth organization that was tabling outside the event said that “gang-banging” was probably the largest issue that needed to be addressed in her community, but agreed with Howard’s assessment that it didn’t need to be done with handcuffs and jail sentences.
Harris, an African-American who identifies as queer, said she, too, was terrified by Trump’s election because of his policies targeting the gay community, but also because of proposals that would’ve cut free school lunches, something she said would affect her and a lot of her friends. When asked if she had faith in her local government to serve needs not met by Washington she said yes, but it would need to focus less on aesthetics to accomplish that.
“I think they focus more on the looks of our communities than what’s actually going on in the community,” Harris said. “The design of our community is important too but I think we should focus more on what’s going on in the communities.”
Housing, something the Trump administration has targeted in rollbacks to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, had been been an issue in Long Beach long before November. Howard called it the “most dire housing crisis” in recent memory and called on the council to act.
The Long Beach Grey Panthers sit in protest against senior evictions.
Karen Reside, who attended the PSTOC as a member of the Long Beach Grey Panthers, said the group plans to stage a sit-in similar to the one it held Wednesday night outside First Congregational. She hopes it will draw attention to the housing issue through the lens of senior citizens, a growing population that is dependent on subsidized housing.
The PSTOC, she said, and all its networking capabilities only makes the Panthers’ voice that much louder.
“I think it magnifies it. It’s so much more powerful when a large segment of the community is advocating for a specific position rather than a group of a hundred, although that’s not an insignificant group,” Reside said. “It’s hard to sway legislators’ opinions when you’re in a smaller group.”
Swaying legislators is a core effort behind the PSOTC as it serves as both an annual update on issues the coalition is working on or have successfully lobbied for, but also an opportunity to bring new activists into the fold.
Amber Rose Howard (left) and Maria Lopez (right) on stage during the PSOTC program.
Various organizers passed out pamphlets for upcoming rallies like a planned march against Tesoro later this month, the coalition’s annual May Day event and cards including contact information for every council member.
The program itself included slides showing which districts were up for re-election next year and the voting patterns of each district.
Maria Lopez, an organizer with Housing Long Beach, explained that it was a good first step for the city council to back the “sanctuary state” bills that were recently approved by the California State Senate, but she added that the community members that gathered that night wanted more, and still do.
The push for sanctuary city status was marked as one of those issues the coalition will confront in the coming year as the community seeks protection from ICE detention and deportation, but also a city where everyone is welcome.
She asked the council to put people before fears of losing federal funding.
“Sanctuary is not just for our undocumented brothers and sisters, but for our Muslim community and our LGBTQ community,” Lopez said. “And for our black community as well. Sanctuary is not just a policy, it’s what we can create with each other, it’s how we build community to rely on each other as neighbors.”
The program closed with Howard and Lopez bidding the crowd a good night and an initiation.
“Welcome to the struggle,” they said.