The headline above the Los Angeles Times story was instructive, but not for the reasons the writer may have intended. “Dozens protest LAPD shooting of homeless man on skid row,” it read. A reader may have asked, “Dozens? As many as that?” On any given day in Los Angeles you might find dozens of people protesting any number of things, but seldom does such a small gathering warrant coverage by the L.A. Times. One can almost hear the editor asking the reporter, “Are you sure there weren’t more people there? Can’t we say ‘hundreds’ in the headline instead?”
Television station KTLA was a bit more generous with its estimate of the crowd’s size. “Hundreds Protest in Downtown L.A. After Homeless Man Is Killed by Police,” read the headline on the Internet version of their story. In numbering the protesters, the station’s reporter took care to note that there were “a couple hundred of them,” making the headline technically accurate, if only barely.
But still, the sparse turnout must have disappointed those in the media hoping to turn the March 1 shooting death of Charly (some sources say Charley) Leundeu Keunang into the next rallying point for the type of “social justice” campaigns that followed the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City. Video of the shooting (warning: deadly violence and abundant coarse language) has been widely seen, most often accompanied by the description of the deceased as “unarmed” and “homeless.” Both terms are accurate but, as things turned out, irrelevant. The video revealed Mr. Keunang did indeed try to remove an officer’s sidearm from its holster, this, while the officers were trying to detain him in the course of a robbery investigation. And as details about Mr. Keunang’s past emerged – he went to federal prison for a 2000 bank robbery in which he pistol whipped a teller – the story lost the kind of public traction that propelled Messrs. Brown and Garner into international prominence.
Indeed, if your protest can’t draw more than 200 homeless people, who have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, what hope do you have of attracting a wider audience? KTLA interviewed one resident of skid row who summed up the case nicely. “If you grab a cop’s gun,” he said, “they’re going to kill you. They’re going to put you in the ground. You’re going to have a funeral service. You’re going to be dead if you grab a cop’s gun . . . Don’t protest for a homeless crackhead bum.”
And “homeless crackhead bum” is a description befitting many denizens of L.A.’s skid row, including just about every single one of the people you see gather in the video after the shooting. I’m very familiar with that part of downtown Los Angeles. I’ve arrested people on that very block, in fact, and I can tell you that the only place where you’ll find a higher concentration of criminals is inside an actual prison. I described conditions on skid row back in 2006 in a column I wrote for National Review Online. In that column I discussed the recent decision out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, one that for all practical purposes created the constitutional right to be a bum.
Things haven’t changed much since then. If you don’t want to take my word for it, but you’re unwilling to place your mortal hide at the kind of risk attendant to an actual visit to the place, you can still get a feel for the atmosphere through the modern marvel of Google Maps Street View. (You won’t get the unpleasant odors, of course, but I’m sure Google is working on that.) Here’s a guide to get you started: Begin at the corner of 5th and San Pedro Streets, where Google has helpfully placed the “skid row” label on the map. Head east on 5th Street (it’s actually a one-way westbound street, but with Google anything is possible) and note that on the north sidewalk, just past the public toilet (more about that later) is a small encampment made of shopping carts, tarps, discarded furniture, and what have you. Note also the two men engaged in what would appear to be a drug deal, probably involving crack cocaine. Continue east for a block or two and take in more of the sights on 5th Street: more encampments, more crackheads, and more of an overall air of despair.
Then turn south on Towne Avenue and notice, in addition to the homeless encampments, the abundance of security measures in evidence. This is a commercial district, and the local businessmen have learned through hard experience that anything that is not secured under lock and key – or several of them – will quickly be carted off. Next head west on 6th Street (again, you’ll be going against the traffic, but have fun!) and see more and more of the same. Turn north on San Pedro Street, which takes you to the scene of Mr. Keunang’s deadly encounter with the police.
The shooting occurred near one of those public toilets I referred to above, which were installed at public expense at the insistence of advocates for the homeless as well as local merchants, who grew tired of seeing their doorways used as latrines. But what has happened, of course, is that the doorways are still often used as latrines because the public toilets are occupied by people using them to conceal drug use and prostitution from the prying eyes of the police.
I’ve lived in and around Los Angeles all my life, and people have been talking about cleaning up Skid Row for just as long. But it’s always been just talk. Have no pity for the people you see on your virtual tour of the area, the great majority of them are there because they like it. Or at least they don’t dislike it enough to conduct themselves in such a way as to put it behind them. There is free food at the missions and service centers, there is pleasant weather for sleeping outdoors, and there is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit telling you there’s nothing much the police can do to you if you lay claim to a piece of the sidewalk and pitch a tent on it. Not a bad life for anyone unburdened by ambition.
The piece of sidewalk formerly occupied by Charly Keunang is now available, but it will go fast.