Flo, Nina, and Norm of the Eagle Rock Peace Vigil/Peace Through Justice
The now-familiar forum doctrine provides for three categories of access according to the type of public property involved. The first category, the traditional public forum, consists of streets, sidewalks, and parks that ... "have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public ... for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions."
Kaplan v. County of Los Angeles, 894 F.2d 1076 (9th Cir. 1990) (quoting Hague v. Committee for Indus. Org., 307 U.S. 496 (1939)).
I was sitting outside Swork today, in the absurd heat, trying to write a "Review of the Station Fire": I was trying to describe the plume silently expanding and roiling against the clear, dull blue sky just to the north of Eagle Rock. I was marvelling at how people continued to walk and drive by without once looking up at the massive, growing plume, when I noticed the people standing in front of the Shell on Colorado and Eagle Rock Boulevard, holding signs, encouraging passing cars to honk.
Plume from the Station Fire, Aug. 29, 2009
I've been wondering for years about the people in L.A. who stand out on corners around the city, holding signs in support of various causes (most often, Peace), trying to get passing cars to honk. I watched a lone guy with white gloves (the better to get drivers' attention) work the corner in front of the Vista last week. As I walked by him, I heard him saying to himself "C'mon, Lexus, c'mon, Lexus." He exulted when the passing Lexus gave him a short honk, and then set his sights on an approaching Honda.
Who are these people? Why do they stand on these corners? What do they seek to accomplish? I'd been meaning to find out for a while. So today I went and talked to them.
On the corner in front of the Shell and a cell-phone stand, I met Flo, Nina, and Norm (pictured above), three of seven "core" members of a group that calls itself the "Eagle Rock Peace Vigil" -- though Nina did note that she prefers to refer to the group as "Peace Through Justice" because, in her words, "there can't be peace without justice." (I mentioned that I had heard that theory before.)
They said that their group had come together semi-spontaneously nearly seven years ago, united in their opposition to the build-up to the war in Iraq. That was the original purpose of the group. But like MoveOn, which was originally formed to fight against the Republicans' push to impeach Bill Clinton, the mission of the ERPV changed over time.
The white-gloved guy with the "Spread Love" sign working the corner in front of The Vista.
Today, they had a number of signs expressing opposition to Prop 8 (Norm was holding one of these), Flo had a sign promoting peace, and Nina was holding a couple different signs. One was against Prop 8, and one referred to a "Seamless Transition To Civilian Life!" (the sign, she explained, was in support of greater support services for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan).
They explained that they were loosely affiliated with other vigil groups in Highland Park and Glendale, that some of them went to schools from time to time to talk to students about the risks entailed in enlisting in the military.
I decided to ask them about the issues. They all appeared to be opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wanted to bring the troops home right away. Norm began to explain that Iraq had been launched through 9/11, and then began to review a familiar set of pet theories about 9/11.
Each of the three seemed to have slightly different priorities that brought them to the corner. Norm said he was most concerned about gay rights and gay marriage, and wanted to see Prop 8 overturned. Flo said she was most concerned about peace, but also health care, and global warming, she added, after I had written down "peace" and "health care." Nina said she couldn't point simply to one thing (she said she was concerned about the reasons why all of these interconnected issues couldn't be addressed at once), but, when pressed, said she was most concerned with climate change and peak oil. She said she was most concerned about the need for us to decide whether we would choose to return to more sustainable "indigenous" ways of life to avoid catastrophic climate change, or whether catastrophic climate change would force us to return to indigenous ways of life.
All three of them seemed to approve of President Obama's performance so far, though Nina said she couldn't give a yes/no answer on whether she approved. She said that she thought the reality was that "U.S. presidents serve the interests of large corporations and are at the mercy of those corporations." She also said that if Obama did all of the things he really needed to do for the country, his life might be in danger from those who opposed him.
All three seemed to think Eagle Rock was relatively welcoming to their views. Norm mentioned that Eagle Rock seemed less conservative than Glendale, which he thought was "very conservative." The cops had not really ever hassled them, they said, though the cops did "watch them" when they were involved in larger events. In any event, Nina said "they knew their rights." They said sometimes people came up to talk to them, and sometimes people yelled at them. Before the war, Norm said, people would yell things like "We need that oil!" at them. People had also yelled things like "Commies!" (which Nina said she did not perceive as an insult), "Get a job!", "Get a haircut!", and "Go back to San Francisco!"
I asked them if they were trying to recruit people to a cause, sign them up, etc. They said that they were just trying to get their message out and raise awareness about issues like the war, health care, gay rights, climate change, etc. It struck me that they weren't really used to people coming up and actually talking to them and were a bit more focused on getting passing cars to honk for them -- but I may be wrong about that.
Finally, I asked them how they felt about the Station Fire, the plume of which continued to expand ominously over Eagle Rock as we talked. They didn't seem too worried. Norm said he "was more concerned about the effects of the fire on the environment."
The easiest thing in the world to do would be to caricature ERPV as a bunch of foggy-headed, KPFK-listening, Chomsky-reading, 9/11-conspiracy-theory-believing libtards who need people to honk at them for some weird type of self-validation. But that would surely be too simplistic and unfair. Undoubtedly, the people in ERPV have their own motives and needs that drive them to stand out in public in the heat on weekends (usually Saturday afternoons) holding signs, trying to get people to honk. (Norm told me that they weren't allowed to actually hold signs saying "Honk for Peace" because that would be encouraging unnecessary noise.) Perhaps it's a symptom of the loneliness and atomization of our city and the lack of true public space or public interaction -- a behavior produced by the need to establish a connection of any kind, even if only a honk of a car horn.
But people like the ERPV are keeping alive an old and venerable American (and Anglo) tradition of expressing grievances in public spaces. Sure, the internets, the blogs, Twitter, etc. are great, but what changes politics, governments, hearts and minds, often comes down to bodies in the street.
As this blog has morphed over time from a political blog into a blog about Eagle Rock, focusing mostly on food and shopping reviews, I've often had moments of saying to myself -- WTF? The most important things I can write about now are Belgian Fries at The Oinkster and sneaker shops? There are tens of thousands of Americans fighting in two hot wars right now. Every year the earth gets hotter, storms become more intense, the polar ice melts away, and oceans continue to rise. There are 45 million people in the U.S. living without health care. There are thousands of homeless living on the streets of our city. Meanwhile, we all go about living our lives, starting food blogs, complaining about the weather, going to Depeche Mode concerts, shopping for new sneakers and eyeglass frames.
I do tend to agree with ERPV in part on some issues (I definitely do not agree with them on everything -- I left most of my conspiracy-theorizing behind in my early 20's), but, regardless of any disagreement I may have with them, mostly I admire their willingness to stand out on the corner every week, expressing their views to the public. I admire their determination to redirect our attention from the tunnel vision of what we see ahead of us through our windshields to the massive fires burning in the world (the wars people are dying in every day, the coming disaster of climate change, the health care crisis, etc.), that most of us are all too willing to ignore as we go about our business as usual.