Today I entered the halls of city hall in Los Angeles, I think, for the first time. It is entirely possible I was there when I was young and cannot recall the memory. It’s funny to me because although I am a Los Angeleno, I came of age in Ohio and my activism really began there. I often go to protests and demonstrations when I’m home, but I’ve never gone to speak before city council here as I used to do in Cincinnati, for instance, when I was actively fighting against the homophobic Issue 3.
It felt a bit daunting, perhaps, because I know that this space where I signed up to speak was a place where my grandmother, Marian Gibbons, founder of Hollywood Heritage, spoke so many times before. In fact, as I sat there in the transportation committee’s meeting space, thinking about what I would say when I addressed them, I noticed a man whose face, and eventually, name I began to recognize. He spoke at my grandmother’s funeral. Tom LaBonge has been working in Los Angeles city politics for ages and he worked with my grandmother at some point, but I cannot recall exactly what they did together.
I decided that I’d try to speak to this relationship somehow instead of addressing the same old points about boycotting Veolia, the transportation company that Los Angeles is working to renew a contract with. Everyone else (there were 33 speakers asking to dump this contract and 5 speakers seeking to maintain it) addressed the usual points. I talked about my grandmother’s history as an activist preserving and resuscitating Hollywood, which inevitably provided me with an model for how to be an activist, albeit in a different context. But while my grandma saved and renovated historic landmarks, I fight for human rights–for Palestinians to not be exiled from their lands, for Palestinian homes to not be demolished, for Palestinians to be able to return to their land. At the end of the day just like my grandma fought destruction of something that was valuable to her, I support Palestinians in their effort to preserve their life, livelihood, and homes. Veolia, the French company I spoke against today, profits off the destruction of Palestinian homes and livelihoods by creating and maintaining a Jewish-only transportation system connecting Jewish-only colonies.
I may not have been the most persuasive speaker, but at least LaBonge addressed me in his closing remarks, indicating that perhaps he heard what I had to say. In general, it was quite a disappointing meeting. Most of the council members there were either flipping through paperwork (which may or may not be related to what were addressing today) or played on their cell phones. The one who acted like he was listening, Paul Koretz, although this Jon Lovitz lookalike appeared constipated most of the time, made it expressly clear that he supports Israel. Although he stated this to the room, it was evident a bit before then because when 4 of the 5 Veolia supporters spoke (a team of people from the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles) he let all of them go over the 1 minute time limit without reminding them that they had gone over. Everyone else was interrupted and reminded of that fact.
The speakers (see Uprising radio above video for another example) who addressed the main arguments made some excellent points, especially about this city where I grew up. I’ve been a bit harsh and frustrated with my hometown of late because of the fascist policies the state and the city have been passing. But as a city, I was reminded today, that Los Angeles has often done the right thing. And this was a point that many people drove home today:
* In 1984 Los Angeles was one of the first major cities in the U.S. to divest from South Africa during the apartheid regime
* In 2008 and 2009 Los Angeles’ fire and police commissions terminated relationships with a program run by the Boy Scouts of America because of its explicit discriminatory policies against LGBTQ people
* In 2010 Los Angeles city council voted to boycott Arizona and any companies based there because of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law SB 1070
But it seems that Los Angeles would want to uphold its moral stance and be consistent. When the question today came up about whether or not it is illegal for the state of California or the city of Los Angeles to boycott Israel, a couple of important response came up (not the least of which is the fact that Veolia is a French, not an Israeli company):
* Nothing in U.S. law or California law prohibits the city of Los Angeles from refusing to do business with Veolia because of its human rights violations in occupied Palestine. A boycott even against Israel or an Israeli company would only be prohibited under the Export Administration Act (EAA) if the specific boycott is initiated by foreign countries, specifically, the official government of a foreign country.
There are many other important points that are specific to Veolia’s violation of international law for its apartheid transportation system in occupied Palestine. Jewish Voice for Peace, which organized today’s protest along with Dump Veolia LA, has a fact sheet where they lay out more reasons why one should boycott Veolia. There is also an article on the Mondoweiss website that details more of these points by some of the people who spoke today.
In the end, we lost. They voted unanimously to continue its contract with Veolia. Unlike Stockholm, Melbourne, Bourdeaux, Dublin, Swansea and the Hague, Los Angeles seems to want to continue its relationship with Veolia in spite of its human rights violations. My grandma, although she had her battles with city hall to be sure, never had to face the seemingly insurmountable Zionist hold on American politics. It’s significantly easier to get Americans, especially in Los Angeles, to be sympathetic about preserving its recent cinematic past.
[UPDATE: Here is the Los Angeles Times report on our action.]
The last time I was in Palestine, in 2009, I took photographs in al Quds (Jerusalem) of the Veolia light rail project that was being built by dividing and destroying various aspects of Palestinian neighborhoods for the sake of the colonial transportation system. Here are some of those photographs: