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The Power—and the Risk—of the Pen

October 31st, 2007 by Celeste Fremon

Mexican journalist, Lydia Cacho

Last night I went to an event called the Courage in Journalism Awards
where the International Women’s Media Foundation honored eight women journalists who have risked everything to report the truth they saw around them.

Since awards nights like this inevitably function also as fundraisers, the affair was suitably glitzy, featuring a dinner held in one of the ballrooms at the Beverly Hills Hotel, with actresses Meg Ryan and Angelina Jolie somewhat incongruously introducing several of the awardees. Yet none of the Hollywood flash could obscure the heart of what took place.

The women celebrated included a fresh-faced 27-year-old Ethiopian
reporter and newspaper publisher named Serkalem Fasil, who was arrested, beaten and charged with treason for criticizing the government’s conduct in the 2005 parliamentary elections (she has since been released).

Also honored was a particularly remarkable Mexican woman journalist
named Lydia Cacho who now is followed everywhere by four bodyguards because of the very credible threats made against her after she wrote a meticulously documented book alleging that certain wealthy and prominent Mexican politicians and businessmen were pedophiles involved in a ring of child pornography and prostitution. (Her description of things confided in her by some of the six and seven year old little girls who are among the victims made it clear why she does the work despite the risk.)

Yet, the most vivid moment of the night
was when the award was presented to six Iraqi women journalists who work in the Baghdad bureau for McClatchy news service.

Right now Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world for reporters. 32 journalists and staff have been killed last year alone. Since the beginning of the war in 2003, 153 reporters and news personnel have been killed—80 percent of those Iraqis. Yet, still women like these six who continue to go the places that the Americans and the rest of the international news corps can’t go, and do the bring back the interviews and stories that the Americans and the internationals can’t touch.

We were forbidden to photograph the Iraqi women,
four of whom were present at the dinner, because if anyone in Baghdad got hold of the photos their lives and the lives of their families would be in grave danger. One of them has already had her husband, daughter and mother-in-law killed by insurgents. A second woman was herself nearly killed by an IED. A third, Sahar Issa, has had her son killed in a crossfire, her nephew killed in a market bomb.

Here’s a fragment of what Issa wrote for a McClatchy story about the experience:

“We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed. From the waist down was all they could give us. ‘We identified him by the cell phone in his pants’ pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourself. We don’t know what he looks like.’ Now begins the horror that surpasses anything I could have possibly envisioned.” – Sahar Issa

It was Issa, a head-scarved woman with an elegant bearing, who acted as the spokesperson for the other three when they stood up to accept the award:

“We live double lives,” she said….

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Free Speech, War | 28 Comments »

Green Dot Does the East Coast

October 30th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


The best LA-based education drama
of this past year has been the proposed—and now LAUSD school board approved— charter conversion of Locke High School by Steve Barr and Green Dot. A big part of the drama was the fact that LA’s teacher’s union, UTLA, did their best to derail the whole thing.

Now theres a related drama taking place on the east coast, where Green Dot wants to open a new charter school in the South Bronx. But this time UFT—the local union that represents New York City’s 110,000 public school teachers—has chosen to enthusiastically partner with Green Dot in the endeavor, instead of opposing it.

This past Friday, UTF and Green Dot announced in an joint press release that they’d cleared the second of three necessary hurdles when the State University of New York Board of Trustees approved the plan for the new school, which will begin with 100 9th graders, and eventually grow to 500 students, with no more than 25 kids in a classroom.

The last hurdle is the approval of the State Board of Regents.

According to UTF, this is the first such union/charter partnership in the nation.

So why can’t LA’s union and Green Dot forge their own cooperative bond?

Such questions are made more… the fact that the Green Dot/UTF announcement happened coincidentally to coincided with the release of a new national drop out data analysis conducted by Johns Hopkins for The Associated Press. It seems that Johns Hopkins decnstructed U.S. Education Department figures and came up to the discouraging conclusion that 1 out of every 10 American public high schools can be labeled a “Drop-Out Factory.”

Congress is hoping to address the nation’s drop out problem by tweaking the wildly flawed No Child Left Behind law to include accountability for drop out rates. (Since, as it stands now, NCLB “creates a perverse incentive,” as the AP puts it, for schools to encourage low-performing kids to drop out so they won’t bring down a school’s scores, some change might be in order.)

Did I mention that Green Dot’s existing LA schools have very low drop out rates and high graduation rates?

Consider it mentioned.

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Posted in Education, Green Dot, unions | 7 Comments »

The Guy Who Chats With Bears

October 30th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


Today the LA Times has a feature
on a man named Steve Searles who purportedly “talks” local Mammoth Mountain black bears out of bad bear behavior rather than having the authorities shoot the beasts. A bear whisperer, they have (naturally) dubbed him.

He tries to think like a bear. He studies their habits and social hierarchy. He has participated in Native American ceremonies to learn what the tribes perceive as bears’ spiritual nature. He even has been known to spread his own urine to drive away territorial animals.

“I’m the biggest, baddest, meanest bear in this town — that’s what I want them to think,” said the 48-year-old. “I’m the alpha male, and they must obey me.”

Actually, Searles doesn’t so much talk as use negative conditioning—loud noises, shots with pellet guns, and the like— to discourage certain undesirable activities on the part of the bear . (He also has gone on a campaign with local residents to change the humans’ undesirable behavior—namely their habits of leaving out unsecured, bear-attracting garbage and restaurant food scraps.)

According to the Times, the California Department of Fish and Game officials are “dubious.” And Mammoth Lakes Police Chief Michael Donnelly praises Searles “out of the box” methods as “things Fish and Game or nobody else had ever suggested.”

Well, not exactly. What the Times doesn’t say is that Steve Searles’ methods are not new or unusual at all. They are slightly more primitive versions of the “bear management” policy that biologists at Glacier and Yellowstone Parks have been using for well over a decade to deal with problem grizzlies:

It used to be that when bears
in Glacier or Yellowstone became too unnervingly acclimated to people, they were trapped and relocated to wilderness areas where they were less likely to have human contact. Then biologists rethought the whole thing and realized they might be removing all the more socially balanced members of the local bear population, leaving the weird, loner, Ted Kaczynski bears—not exactly an ideal plan. Now, unless the griz proves to be agressive, biologists have found it’s far better to leave the bear in place, but repattern its behavior using “aversive training”— banging on pots, shouting, rubber pellets, tossed bean bags and an occasional bout of barking and chasing by specially trained Karelian Bear Dogs.

On the other hand, maybe that’s an even better story: with absolutely no formal training in biology, Steve Searles has devised the same successful bear management method that it took a team of experts years to design.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

(And, no, this isn’t a social issue. It’s a bear issue, and we’re really into bear issues around here.)

Posted in bears and alligators, environment | 10 Comments »

GANG REHAB I: Missouri Gets it Right

October 29th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


(photo from Joseph Rodriguez book, Juvenile)

For the past month (with a brief break or two to obsess about wildfires,
and to meet other deadlines) I’ve been thinking about what it takes to get a kid or a young adult away from gangs. I’ve been doing so in the context of writing a new introduction and epilogue for an updated version of my book about Father Greg Boyle and the gangs of the Pico Aliso housing projects. (As you may remember, that’s what got me digging through circa 1991, 1992 photos, some of which I posted here.)

The process of doing a second (in 2004), and now a third version (2008) of a book that was originally published in 1994 has led me, sheerly by accident, into what has now become a back door longitudinal study of around three dozen homeboys and homegirls over a period that, to date, spans nearly seventeen years.

In future weeks and months,
I’ll post about some of the patterns I’ve observed in the course of the latest incarnation of this project. But, in the meantime, it was heartening to find in Sunday’s New York Times a short, but very smart editorial about an approach that many of us have long seen as a big part of the answer to the question of what is wrong with America’s juvenile justice system, and what might be changed in order to set things right. Specifically they wrote about a juvenile corrections system that is known in criminal justice circles as the “Missouri model.”

The Times has done a good job of distilling what is working in Missouri, so let me first just quote from them directly.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in crime and punishment, juvenile justice | 7 Comments »

Sad Awakening: The Defeat of the Dream Act

October 27th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


What with the fire and other distractions,
I’m late in talking about this. But it’s been bothering me for the past few days, so I’m going to bring it up now:

Americans are not thinking clearly on immigration. If they were, they would have urged their representatives to pass The Dream Act, which instead failed to get the needed 60 votes in the Senate this past Tuesday.

The Dream Act, if you’ll remember, is the bill that, if it had passed would have given certain students brought here illegally as children an opportunity at citizenship—if they go to college or into the military. As the Dallas Star-Telegram reported it, “Roberto Gonzales, a researcher with the University of California, Irvine, estimates that the DREAM Act “would provide 360,000 undocumented high school graduates with a legal means to work, and could provide incentives for another 715,000 youngsters between the ages of 5 and 17 to finish high school and pursue post-secondary education.”

Opponents claimed, with nothing resembling proof to back them up,
that the plan would provide amnesty for parents and adult siblings and would be rife with fraud. Contras also blasted it as a “reward” for illegality, and a way that undocumented immigrants could “cut in line ahead of law abiding immigrants”…blah, blah, blah.

So instead of giving the approximately 1 million, seventy-five thousand kids
an opportunity to better themselves, become tax-payers, serve in the army and, in general, make the country fiscally and sociologically healthier, we keep them at the fringes. How clever of us!

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in immigration, National politics | 12 Comments »

Genarlow Wilson – HE’S OUT!!!

October 26th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


The California fires are now estimated to cost in the billions
, George Bush’s administration continues to poke sticks at Iran (then claims it’s a only negotiating ploy)….but there is one genuinely good piece of news today:

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled earlier today that Genarlow Wilson’s ten year sentence for having oral sex with another teenager (he was 17, she was 15), is indeed cruel and unusual, and the court ordered him released.

This afternoon, his mom drove over to the prison with a nice bunch of new clothes for her about to be released kid. Now he’s OUT! And, as you can see from the ABC photo above, his mom looks mighty happy about it!

(Earlier WLA stories on the subject here, here, here, here and here.)

Good going Georgia Supremes! (At least, the four of you that voted in favor of release.)

Here are some clips from the NY Times story.

In a 4-to-3 ruling, the court’s majority
said the sentence was “grossly disproportionate” to the crime, which the justices said “did not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children.”

…Writing for the majority in Friday’s 48-page opinion,
Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears noted that changes to the law made after Mr. Wilson’s conviction “represent a seismic shift in the legislature’s view of the gravity of oral sex between two willing teenage participants.

“The severe felony punishment and sex offender
registration imposed on Wilson make no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment,” she wrote.

Very nicely said, Justice Ward.

NOTE: Chapeau Tip to commenter Woody for snapping me out of my deadline-ridden, post-fire haze long enough to notice this news.

(photo from ABC)

Posted in Courts, crime and punishment, criminal justice, juvenile justice, social justice | 10 Comments »

Fire Weather VII – The Crusader – UPDATED

October 26th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon

I promise I’ll blog about a non-fire subject next time. But I figured the story below was an appropriate bookend to Thursday’s post, so couldn’t resist it.

Our much-missed pal (and WLA guest blogger),
Alan Mittelstaedt, has written his regular LA Sniper column over at LA City Beat about my friend and Topanga neighbor, Tony Morris.

(By the way, if you’re not reading Alan’s inspired dose of weekly snark, you’re cheating yourself.)

For more than a decade, Tony Morris has been trying to slap California’s lawmakers into wakefulness about the state’s under-preparedness for just the sort of fire-wrought disaster that this past week of hillside infernos has brought us. Finally, it seems, he’s having some success.

A few representative clips from Al’s column:

The 65-year-old Yale graduate nearly lost his own home in the Topanga fire in 1993. It turned the former NBC documentary producer and construction guy into a crusader to set up a national fleet of supertankers to bombard flames with water scooped up from the ocean or other body of water.

He and his grassroots group – Aerial Fire Protection Associates – took their spiel on the road and testified before one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s blue-ribbon panels on fire protection. A few months ago, the governor announced that the state would sign a three-year lease for one of the supertankers – a converted DC-10 that drops 12,000 gallons of water over a half-mile area in eight seconds. “Everybody’s amazed that he did it,” says Morris, who traveled around the state to get homeowners groups to bombard the governor with letters. “But that’s not the end of it. What you’re seeing now, the catastrophic fires, is inexcusable. It’s unbelievable. It’s a combination of all of the elements coming together at the same time. It’s the perfect firestorm. Global warming has produced a rise in the intensity and number of fires around the world.”

The special DC-10, known as Tanker 910,
drops nearly 10 times as much water as the WW II-era turboprops. In the last few days, it has hopscotched the state dousing flames. But one jet tanker isn’t enough. The lease runs $5-million per year, plus $5,000-an-hour during fire-fighting. It’s a bargain, Morris says, and the company operates at a small profit. “You have to think about what you’re saving by putting these fires out.” By comparison, L.A. Unified recently got $600 million to build new schools it doesn’t need and the city announced a $150 million program to synchronize traffic signals that don’t make much of a difference.

(Here’s a rather cool video of the DC-10 dropping fire retardant, looking for all the world like a Godzilla-size, spawning salmon.)

For thirteen years, Tony has explained in informed and impassioned detail to nearly anybody who’d listen
that investing in the right tools to knock down the fires early will save the state money (and homes and lives) in the long run. Finally, after the Griffith Park fire threatened precious pieces of the city’s heart, those with the power to say “yes” began to realize he’d been right all along.


I just got off the phone with Tony, who called by sheer coincidence to let me know how things are going with him, which he does from time to time. He says he’s getting calls from a zillion media outlets— from Which Way LA to the New York Times. It was nice to hear his excitement. After 13 years he’s suddenly the right guy for the right moment, and, I hope, in terms of public policy at least, it’s not going to fade away with the ever-turning news cycles.

What he says is, with the right planes, we can have a tanker up and in the air within minutes—not hours—and just knock the fire down. He talked about the new generation of high tech air tankers that have a different level of maneuverability. The Russians, it seems, are way ahead of us in this regard with their BE-200 [check the video link; it's another very cool one] No, they’re not cheap. But the damage wrought by the fires we’ve seen in the last four years is…how to put it?… a tad more expensive.

The approach to firefighting equipment in California has been, as my mother used to say, penny wise and pound foolish. (This is true of the US in general on the issue of firefighting. The Canadians simply roll their eyes at us.)

By the way, in case it wasn’t clear, for all these years, Tony’s done this work only as a man with a passion. He’s never been paid for any of it. And no, he’s not a trust fund baby. His wife works, and he writes free lance—as it leaves time for his excellent crusade.

Posted in environment, Fire, State politics | 34 Comments »

Fire Weather VI: AIR SUPPORT

October 25th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


Now that many of the fires
are contained, accusations and complaints are surfacing from Orange and San Diego counties that some of these disastrous fires of October were made worse by the fact that firefighters certain areas didn’t have adequate air support.

The way it works is, each county has its own fire-fighting air fleet
. Then when a true disaster strikes, the county or city draws from the state fleet and, in some cases, beyond.

For the record, LA County’s fleet consists of three Sikorsky Firehawks, four Bell 412 helicopters, and another Bell Jet ranger.

This fire season, in addition to the copters it had in its own hanger, LA County Fire Department had access to a couple of Erickson Sky Cranes, a Super Scooper or two (leased from Quebec), and some other fixed-wing planes that swoop over and drop fire retardant. (The Daily News has a basic rundown of what was most recently being used.)


Over the past few days, these planes and ‘copters were bounced around between LA area fires, “depending upon where there were structures threatened,” LA County Fire spokes guy Sam Padilla told me.

And although there were homes and structures lost in LA County, as yet, there have been no big complaints that it was for lack of resources. The truth is, sometimes, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, the fire does what it wants.

Yet, Orange county fire authority chief Chip Prather has been widely quoted as saying that with the arson-started Santiago Canyon fire in particular, a lack of air support in the fire’s early stages made a crucial difference.

“If we had more air resources,” he said, “we would have been able to control this fire,” he said. “Instead we’ve been stuck in this initial attack mode on the ground where we hopscotch through neighborhoods as best we can trying to control things.”

Similar complaints are surfacing around San Diego’s destructive Harris fire.

So why didn’t the OC and SD have what they needed and LA did?

Out of curiosity, I called Orange County’s fire authority
and asked what kind of air fleet the OC had. Angela, a very cheerful and sleep-deprived OCFA spokesperson told me, “Two helicopters.”

To make sure I hadn’t heard wrong
I asked again. Two, she repeated, and they definitely aren’t Firehawks. “I wish!” she said.


Asked why OCFA didn’t get the additional resources they needed, Angela laughed dryly. “That’s the big question,” she said. “Let me know when you find out.”

Even now, she added, the efforts to control the still-burning fires are plagued by a lack of the Right Stuff.

So what’s the deal? Certainly the LA fires started sooner, so equipment came to us first. Plus we have a bigger fleet to begin with. But that doesn’t really explain the situation.

Fire resources are controlled in layers. First city, the county, then state, then—if a fire is big or nasty enough to be “federalized”—by region. And with each successive layer, there’s a formula for allocation.

In other words, determining what caused these resource short falls is a complicated business that will take time to sort correctly.

But for now we need to make sure we ask
the right questions, and keep asking them.

POST SCRIPT: Here’s the LA Times write-up on the equipment that the State of California didn’t buy, since 2003, against the advice of its Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, all hand picked to make such recommendations.

I’ve heard from back door sources that the what the firefighters believed would have made all the difference in routing the 2003 SD fires before they got so tragically out of control—was early air support, specifically the super scoopers and the air cranes.

Posted in environment, Fire, Los Angeles County, State government | 43 Comments »

Fire Weather VI: “Courage” & Patchy Afternoon Smoke

October 24th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon

Afternoon smoke looking down at S.F Valley

Okay, I figure we all need a levity break today…
as people deal with the fact that homes are lost, and as the accusations begin to fly fast-and-furiously as to who ought to be blamed for these catastrophic fires.

With that in mind, I offer
the following odd anecdote from my friend Sooki Wheeland. Sooki works in the film industry and is also a fellow Topanga mom. Her house is closer to the Pacific Coast Highway than mine is. Thus if a fire came roaring up the canyon from Malibu, her number, so to speak, would have come up first.

On Monday,” she says, as the winds and the rumors grew ominous, she busied herself loading more of the requisite family photos and Important Papers into her family’s van, while her husband Ken drove up to the ridge that separates Topanga from Tuna Canyon in order to see what he could scope out about the status of the Malibu fire.

NOTE: It is a rule of thumb, if you’re potentially in a fire’s path, whatever you see on the TV news is either dead wrong or of little use when it comes to decision making so, in the absence of updates from the firefighters, such look-sees are often wise. (Plus, we lost TV reception in Topanga on day one of the fires.)

“We all felt the adrenaline of impending danger,”
says Sooki, “and worried that clogged roads would impede our departure if we waited too long to evacuate.” On the other hand, they wondered if they’d be able to get back in if they left prematurely. “We had already heard that residents were having trouble with access.”

But as husband Ken, plus a neighbor pal, headed out to do fire reconnaissance, (both appropriately supplied with emergency radios and face masks), they rounded the corner on their home street only to have their access to Topanga Canyon Blvd. blocked by “the arrival of TWO stretch hummer limos, loaded with stressed hairdressers.”

It seemed that this double gaggle of very nervous-looking stylists had been scheduled for a “rejuvenating seminar” at the Topanga-located “Institute of Courage.

The fact that fires were exploding all over Southern California and that Topanga might or might not burn, had evidently not dissuaded the hair people. They were scheduled for rejuvenation, and by gum they were going to get it.

(No, although I’d seen the sign, I had no idea what the Institute of Courage was either until I Googled it this morning after Sooki emailed me the story. You too can become similarly informed if you click on the link.)

How the hell the duo of mega limos got past the Highway Patrol people is a question that no doubt some other intrepid reporter will want to investigate.

No word at….um…press time whether the hairdressers stayed for smoke-haunted spiritual renewal… or not.


POST SCRIPT: I was checking the National Weather Service a few minutes ago,
to see what the coming days held in terms of heat and wind, I found that the NOAA people actually have a designation for what we see overhead, complete with a nice little smoke-billowy graphic.

Posted in bears and alligators, environment, Fire, Life in general | 4 Comments »

Fire Weather IV – The Day of the Devils – UPDATED

October 24th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


My longtime close friend, writer John Leone, lives in the city of Del Mar, near San Diego.
Tuesday morning, he wrote the following essay and sent it out to a list of friends, myself among them:


John Leone

Rancho Santa Fe
Del Mar
Oct 23, 2007

45 houses burnt to the ground in Rancho Santa Fe, California’s most exclusive suburb, last night and this morning. The rich inhabitants escaped yesterday after a mandatory evacuation order.

My maids Ana Maria and Ana Luisa
, who occupy servants’ quarters in Rancho Santa Fe, spent the night with three of their children in my guest bedrooms and downstairs. Their husbands had returned to Mexico to attend to extensive fire damage in Baja California.

California Highway Patrolmen came across an encampment of indocumentados running from the flames in McGonnigle Canyon, crossing an unfinished segment of CA Highway 56, according to radio reports. The group were camping in the billowing smoke on an unopened stretch of the highway. The Mexican workers told the CHP that they had become separated from a group three times their size, who were trying to simultaneously escape the conflagration and avoid detection. They had no idea what had happened to their compas. “It’s the Day of the Devils,” said one man in Spanish.

The biggest and most destructive of all the fires, the Witch Creek fire, after burning 600 homes in Rancho Bernardo, has ramped like a flaming caterpillar into this most exclusive area and is burning down the Del Dios Highway towards Via de la Valle and Del Mar, where some 5000 people spent the night under mandatory evacuation orders at the Del Mar Race Track.

My friend Bill Brooks’ 86-year-old mother was told by police to leave her Del Mar home and dutifully reported to the race track. She spent the night in the ash and respiratory danger zone instead of comfortably at home. But she has a very nice place to return to, which the nursing home and hospital patients, evacuated by the thousands, do not. Many sat out all night in the open under the smoke.

The works of man are resisted everywhere by Nature, and most of the destruction until now has taken place in new developments, in suburban cul-de-sacs, once chaparral which used to have natural yearly burn-offs. It is the equivalent of building in hurricane zones.

The flames continue to consume
the lavish homes of the extremely rich and flush out the extremely poor who serve them from the ravines and arroyos in which they hide from la migra. “The flames are climbing over the ridges,” says a woman in Elfin Forest, an Encinitas suburb abutting Rancho. “We can see them on three sides. The poor Mexicans are walking along the roads. It’s like a war scene.”

The ashen air makes breathing difficult. The firestorm has a peculiar inevitability as it marches towards the west and the coastline, devouring fantastically expensive real estate, making the unthinkable come true. This has never happened before, not in the history of the state. Natives say it’s because of development, the cause of most ailments in the state. The average cost of the homes destroyed in Rancho Bernardo is over a million dollars,
and in Rancho Santa Fe many times that.

The malevolence of the fire makes one imagine purposeful violence against these places, and the helpless refugees evoke imagery familiar to all from war documentaries, but they’re not being shown on television, because these poor souls are not movie mavens or big shots or anything except desperate human beings with nowhere to go, fearful of the authorities who are helping the rich all around them.


For those of you following Rebel Girl’s Santiago Fire evacuation saga, as of 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, she reports that, according to a neighbor who managed to get back in to Modjeska Canyon, her house is still standing, and the sprinklers she and her huz managed to get up on the structure’s roof, are still up there and sprinkling away.

Photo of the burning mountainside in Rancho Bernardo by Genero Molina/LA Times

Posted in bears and alligators, environment, Fire, immigration, Life in general | 28 Comments »

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