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Witness LA is on Vacation This Week, Back on Monday

August 23rd, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

Unless news breaks that we absolutely can’t ignore, we’ll be on vacation this week.

But we’ll be keeping an eye on things, and will see you next Monday!

Then after Labor Day we’ll launch a new version of WLA that will give us—and you—a little more room.

Happy end of August!


Posted in Life in general | 2 Comments »

Muhammed Ali: Simply, The Greatest – January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016

June 4th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

― Muhammad Ali

“The Service you do for others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”

― Muhammad Ali

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’.”

― Muhammad Ali

“Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.”

― Muhammad Ali

“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

― Muhammad Ali

“The man with no imagination has no wings.”

― Muhammad Ali

“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.”

― Muhammad Ali

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”

― Muhammad Ali

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me.”

― Muhammad Ali

“I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.”

― Muhammad Ali

Posted in Life in general, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

For Those Who Have Served, With Deep Appreciation, Respect and Sorrow.

May 30th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

For those service men and women whom Memorial Day honors,
here is Jason Isbell’s beautiful and heartbreaking song Dress Blues, written for his high school friend, Marine Cpl. Matthew Conley, who was killed at age 21 in Iraq in February 2006 when his Humvee rode over an improvised explosive device.

Conley left behind his young wife who was pregnant with their first child.

Then, of course, once again The Band Plays Waltzing Matilda. written by Scottish-born Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle in 1971, four years before the fall of Saigon.

Below you’ll find two versions. The first sung by the great Liam Clancy.

The second by the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan.

Both versions are devastating and unduplicable.

As you listen, remember that Los Angeles County has the largest population of homeless war veterans in the nation.

Posted in Life in general | 2 Comments »

Brave & Beautiful: Prince – 1958-2016

April 22nd, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

Posted in Life in general | 1 Comment »

Wounded Teen Activist Returns to City Where He Was Shot – by Matt Smith

January 11th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

Semaj from JJIE Multimedia on Vimeo.

A year ago, 18-year-old Semaj Clark was already gaining recognition for his courage.
He had been in foster care from age six onward, after he and his baby brother were taken from his drug-addicted mother who first got pregnant at 17-years old. While he was eventually adopted by a kind family, for years he was placed in a series of foster homes where the adults who should have been keeping him safe, instead used beating and drugging as their go-to parenting methods, to the point where Semaj’s body was always tattooed with bruises. Not surprisingly, the young Semaj took to the street and it wasn’t long before he was arrested for burglary, with a string of low level arrests and lock-ups to follow.

When he was 16, his probation officer told him to go see the Brotherhood Crusade, a community organization which ran the BLOOM program (Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men). Semaj was initially suspicious of the group. But over time, BLOOM’s “strengths based” approach won him over and, gradually, Semaj began to radically reroute the trajectory of his life. By the spring of 2015, he was enrolled in Mt. San Antonio community college, taking classes at Cal Poly Pomona, and working as a “youth ambassador” who was impressing youth advocates all over the state with his energy, dedication and ability to inspire others.

Then, in October 2015, as part of his outreach work for BLOOM, the inspired and inspiring young man took a trip to Savannah, Georgia—and everything changed when he was shot three times in the back and paralyzed.

(We reported originally on Semaj here.)

In the story below, Matt Smith reports on the next painful and challenging phase of Semaj Clark’s life, a phase that seems to have brought out in the teenager an even deeper brand of courage.



by Matt Smith

Semaj Clark is a determined young man.

The Los Angeles teenager’s steadfastness helped him emerge from a childhood punctuated by a string of foster homes and arrests to become an ambassador to troubled youth.

Now he’s determined to learn how to get around in his new wheelchair.

And he’s determined that his anti-violence campaign can take root anew in Savannah, Georgia, where he’d taken that message of hope and transformation in October — only to find himself with a bullet in his spine. The outpouring of support he received after being shot and paralyzed during a robbery attempt made him want to come back, he said.

“I never experienced as much love in my life until I came to Georgia,” Clark said after a recent round of physical therapy. “I have no hard feelings against Georgia. Thanks for the love.”

Savannah police say the 18-year-old was shot on Oct. 10, after speaking to a community safety forum held by the Chatham County Juvenile Court. He was there with a group of teens from the California-based Brotherhood Crusade, which he credits with showing him a life beyond running the streets of south-central Los Angeles.

“They were the ones that probably connected with the group more than the others, because they were telling personal testimonies,” said Chatham County Juvenile Court Administrator Adam Kennedy. “The others were adults that were implementing programs with young people. But when you actually hear the voice of the young people, I think there’s a stronger connection — and all of those young men did connect and impacted the people that were there.”

Clark was 13 when he was arrested the first time, for burglary. He had been in foster homes since he was 6, when his infant brother was born with drugs in his system and authorities removed him from his mother’s home.

“I cried every day,” he said. “Six-year-olds know what’s going on. They’re not dumb.”

His first foster home was fine, but he had to move while the home was being renovated to accommodate extra children. The second home was awful.

“That’s where I got beaten,” Clark recounted. “The lady was drugging us, putting stuff in our applesauce to make us calm down and stay in one spot, and stuff like that.”

After two years, he was adopted by his original foster mother, Cynthia Clark, who also adopted Semaj’s brother. But by the time he was 13, he was hanging around older kids who led him into trouble. In the next two years, he would be arrested several more times for what he called “little small stuff, like stolen property.”

“I probably spent, like, a year and a half, two years altogether in juvenile hall,” he said. He dropped out of high school in 10th grade. But then he was introduced to the Brotherhood Crusade’s BLOOM program — Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men — and its Reintegration Academy, which teaches its kids to see beyond their own difficult circumstances and raise their sights.

“If you say you want to be a lawyer, they’re going to put you around Attorney General Eric Holder,” he said. “You want to be a rapper, they’re going to take you to a concert with Kanye West and Jay-Z … Whatever you want to do, they put you around that stuff, and it gives you a bigger picture.”

Once removed from the “chaos” of his neighborhood, he said, he could breathe — “And once you can breathe, you can think. Once you can think, you can excel.”

He became one of the Brotherhood Foundation’s youth ambassadors, speaking to other teens, to elected officials and policy wonks. In August, he was among a group of teens who met with President Barack Obama during a presidential visit to Los Angeles.

By then, he had earned his high school equivalency diploma and was enrolled in political science classes at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. He was under the tutelage of Professor Renford Reese, who said he looks at Clark “like he’s my son.” It was Reese who took Clark and several other BLOOM alumni to Savannah — and who got the call from police when Clark was shot.

“You almost brace yourself to hear something like that when you’re at home in Los Angeles,” Reese said. “But you don’t get them out of one of the most volatile, dangerous places in the country and then bring them to Savannah and expect them to get shot in Savannah, Georgia. That’s really a cruel irony.”

After the community forum, Clark and one of his friends were walking down River Street, Savannah’s waterfront tourist strip, when some local kids approached them.

“I was just talking to them, telling them positive stuff,” he said. He called it “a natural instinct.” They talked him into coming with them a few blocks down the street, to the Yamacraw Village public housing complex.

“I had an instinct or a feeling that told me to stop, but I just didn’t listen to it,” Clark said. “I love to help kids. I love to help anybody that I see that used to be like me.”

But when they got to Yamacraw Village, beneath the landmark Talmadge Memorial Bridge, one of the kids pulled out a gun. When Clark and his friend tried to run, he opened fire. Clark was hit squarely in the back, the bullet ripping into the vertebrae behind the heart. His doctors told him he won’t walk again.

Clark just completed a month of physical therapy at the Shepherd Center, an Atlanta rehabilitation center for survivors of spinal and brain injuries. He’s got full use of his arms and “is getting to be fairly independent from a mobility standpoint,” said Dr. Gerald Bilsky, his attending physician.

“He can really take care of all his needs,” Bilsky said. “People who have injuries more in their neck often don’t have the ability to raise their hands. His balance is really good. He’s a young, 18-year-old, healthy kid.”

In his first two weeks at the Shepherd Center, Clark focused on the basics: getting dressed, bathing, getting in and out of cars. He had to exercise his arms, trying to build them up to be able to propel himself around.

“He’s a strong kid, but he’s going to be using his arm muscles in place of his legs. It’s easy to wheel down to the Panera Bread Company down the block,” Bilsky said, referring to an eatery downhill from the hospital. “Wheeling back up from Panera Bread Company is a challenge.”

It’s a challenge — but, Clark added, “I take everything as a challenge.” He still holds out hope of walking again, saying doctors “are just flesh and blood. They’re not God.”

“I can do a lot of things by myself. I learned a lot here,” he told JJIE shortly after being discharged. “It’s hard, but you’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt … I’ve got to just deal with it the best way I can.”

Now he’s gone back to Savannah, about four hours south of Atlanta. He’s working on getting enrolled at Savannah State University, where he plans to resume his studies, and transplanting his California-based outreach mission to the youth of Georgia.

“People see something really unique, and I think he realizes even more so now that he can be a voice of change,” said Reese, who is helping him get set up there. “He can be the spokesperson for an anti-violence movement, and his voice can be more powerful, more authentic, more credible even now than before he was shot. I think it takes a certain amount of maturity to understand why this happened and to see the positive consequences of something like this happening.”

A 17-year-old, Daquan Bryant, has been charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault in Clark’s shooting. Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police are still looking for two other people it described as “persons of interest” in the case, but no further arrests have been made, police spokeswoman Eunicia Baker said.

Clark says he has forgiven his attackers and wants to convince others to do the same.

“It’s about second chances and forgiveness,” he said. “You don’t know what that person has gone through. I don’t know what they were thinking or why they did any of that, so how can I judge somebody if I don’t know? I’m not a judgmental person. I’ve been in their shoes before.”

This story was produced by Youth Today the national news source for youth-service professionals, including child welfare and juvenile justice, youth development and out-of-school-time programming.

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David Bowie: Jan 8, 1947 – Jan 10, 2016……Goodnight Sweet Prince

January 11th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

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WitnessLA Will Be On Vacation (Mostly) Until January 4

December 21st, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

We’re taking a break to work on some stories for the new year
—and to decorate trees, wrap presents, cook holiday dinners, read books, hike hills, and to go to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Naturally.)

We will be back at full reporting speed on Monday, January 4.

However, if there is news we absolutely feel we must discuss, we will reappear briefly to post, as needed. So check in.

Oh, and our weekly newsletter, The California Justice Report, is also on vacation, and will be back on January 4, with the usual great collection of must read stories. (So if you haven’t signed up, now is the time to do it!)

In the meantime, have a merry Christmas, happy holidays…..and a very happy winter solstice. (At WLA we are very fond of the winter solstice.)

We’ll see you in 2016!

Posted in Life in general | 5 Comments »

Not in Our Name: Southern California Muslims Gather To Discuss the Terrorist Attacks…& Their Fears of Reprisal

November 16th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


When a large and frightening terrorist attack occurs, like the attacks in Paris and in Beirut, we are all deeply shaken—and angry.

For many U.S. Muslims, however, there is the additional worry that some of their fellow countrymen and women will conflate ISIS with Islam in the wake of the attacks.

On Saturday night, young Muslim Americans gathered in Los Angeles at the Islamic Center of Southern California to listen to speakers on the topic, then to talk about their own anger at ISIS and their personal fears about backlash,

Still earlier in the day, there was a press conference at ICSC, featuring various local Muslim luminaries, including Dr. Najeeba Syeed, an award winning Assistant Professor of Interreligious Education at the Claremont College of Theology, who is known for her skill at conflict resolution.

“We are in solidarity with you. Parisians, we are in solidarity with you.” said Dr. Syeed, her voice full of emotion.

Similar sentiments were express in a notice on the ICSC website calling members to the Saturday evening meeting, and to the candlelight vigil that occurred earlier. “As Muslims, we unequivocally condemn ISIS and its latest heartless, faithless act of terrorism that has killed over 120 innocent people, injured scores more and betrayed Islam’s core teachings and values, ” read the notice.

KPCC’s Sharon McNary has more on the ICSC meeting. Here are some clips:

Terrorism and its ripple effect on Muslim young people was one the main topics discussed Saturday night at the Islamic Center of Southern California, which brought together several speakers to condemn the terrorist attacks in Paris.

“There is absolutely no tolerance or room for this type of behavior, these types of actions in the faith of Islam,” said Center Chairman Omar Ricci, who called on Muslim youth to show pride in their faith and to resist those who might want to recruit them into radical groups. Many Muslims, he said, actually choose careers in law enforcement and the armed forces because they feel a special responsibility to protect the United States.


Edina Lekovic said her 4-year-old son was puzzled to see his mother turn serious as she made dozens of calls about the violence in Paris.

“He loves superheroes, and I had to explain to him that there were bad people who happen to also be Muslim – I couldn’t hide that from him – who did something awful and hurt other people and I had to work to do everything I could to help people who were hurting.”

Muslim kids could also face bullying, Ricci said, suggesting that parents confront anti-Muslim comments when they come across them in person or on social media.

While we’re on the topic of bullying, it bears mentioning here that a study released at the end of last month found that Muslim students in California schools report bullying at twice the rate as non-Muslim students. The study, which was statewide, found that 55 percent of Muslim students surveyed said they’ve been “bullied or discriminated against,” which is double the number of students who reported being bullied nationally.


Also on Saturday night, hundreds of San Diego-based Muslim Americans and friends gathered at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel for a yearly fundraiser for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) of San Diego. But, what would have normally been a festive occasion, of necessity, turned into a forum to discuss the horrific news that Friday brought, as speaker after speaker condemned the terrorist attacks in Paris in the strongest terms.

Speakers also spoke about the greater role their community must take to root out extremism.

Tatiana Sanchez of the San Diego Union has more. Here’s a clip:

Jérôme Gombert sat watching news reports about the assaults in the hotel lobby just minutes before the banquet commenced. He looked on quietly as images of the carnage in Paris unfolded before him.

The native Parisian said he’s been hit hard by the violence. He remembers frequenting the Bataclan concert hall — where the majority of victims were killed — before moving to San Diego 20 years ago. He walked the streets and ate at the restaurants now pictured in the news.

“They attacked the average Parisian’s life,” he said.

“It’s crazy that (the dinner) is today after what happened at home, but it’s still important to understand that there’s no connection between that and the reality of the Muslim religion,” he said. “It’s a peaceful religion, it’s a beautiful religion in many ways.”


In September of 2001, when I was still writing for the LA Weekly, my editors asked me to report on how Muslim Americans in Los Angeles were fairing after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

The answer was, in short: it was damned scary to be Muslim and American in LA—or anywhere in the U.S., for that matter—during that period. For what it’s worth, here’s a clip the opening of the story I wrote nearly a decade and a half ago.

The King Fahad Mosque, located on Washington Boulevard in Culver City, is a gracefully domed structure with an imported marble facade, a 72-foot-high gold-leafed minaret and intricately painted Turkish tiles adorning the place both inside and out. The facility was completed in late August of 1999, funded by a donation from Prince Abdul-Aziz, the son of Saudi Arabia‘s ruler, King Fahad bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. I spent much of the past week there. The following snapshots are the result.

On the morning of September 11, Tajuddin Shuaib wakes up at 5:30, performs the first of his five daily prayers, then falls back to sleep. He wakes again just before 7 a.m., then, as is his habit, flips on the TV as he gets out of bed. He likes to watch CNN while he gets ready to go to work. For Tajuddin Shuaib this means driving to his office at the King Fahad Mosque, where he has been its director and spiritual leader — or Imam, as he is called — since the facility opened three years ago.

On normal days, Shuaib leaves his house around 7:30. But on September 11, like most Americans, Shuaib finds himself immobilized by shock at the images that are playing across his TV screen. Like most Americans, he exchanges frantic, disjointed phone calls with members of his congregation. Like most Americans, Shuaib prays for the safety of the people who might still be caught in the collapsing towers. But unlike most Americans, Shuaib also mouths a special prayer as he watches the expanding devastation: “Please don’t let a Muslim be responsible for this horror.”

“As an American,” he says later, “I was sick inside at what I saw. As a Muslim, I was scared to death.”

Shortly after 9 a.m., Shuaib finally drives to the mosque and sees some of his fears coming to pass. At the building‘s front, a 30-ish woman clutches an oversize Magic Marker with which she scrawls the word MURDERERS in huge letters on the white marble. When she spots Shuaib, she begins screaming. “Murderers! Go back where you came from, Palestinian murderers!”

While another mosque official calls the police, Shuaib attempts to talk the woman down. “Ma’am, look at me,” he says. “Do I look like a Palestinian?” The woman stops shouting long enough to stare at him. Shuaib is a black-skinned man who was born in Ghana. He is also humorous, intelligent and possessed of the charm of a natural storyteller. “It‘s true,” he continues, hoping the woman isn’t armed with anything worse than the marker, “Palestinians come to pray here. We also have Egyptians and Pakistanis and Arabs and Africans and Sudanese. The whole United Nations comes to pray here.” The woman starts to shout again, but Shuaib keeps on talking. “The thing is, I am as upset as you are because I have family in New York and I have not been able to speak to them. But I‘m also terrified because, unlike you, I can be a target.”

By the time the police arrive, Shuaib has talked the woman’s fury into remission. Nonetheless, the officers search her car and find cartons of eggs plus a pile of stones. They ask Shuaib if he wants to press charges. He shakes his head no. Her anger spent, the woman turns sheepish and asks if she should clean the wall.

“That‘s okay,” Shuaib says wearily. “We’ll clean it up ourselves.”

On Wednesday, the mosque‘s community liaison — Usman Madha, who emigrated here from Burma 35 years ago — is crossing the street when a car slows to a stop right in front of him and the driver motions him over. Madha approaches the car with trepidation. He recognizes the driver as a Culver City resident who, for the past three years, has been vocally opposed to the mosque’s presence in the community. But to Madha‘s surprise, the man only extends his hand to shake. “For whatever it’s worth,” he tells Madha tersely, “I don‘t hold you guys responsible for what happened in New York City.”

Later, Shuaib and Mahad continue to field a weird mixture of phone calls — a few obscene messages, a few calls of support, and a couple of inquiries from the press. Most of the calls, however, are from worried congregation members who want to know if it’s safe to come to the mosque. The King Fahad Mosque is the primary Islamic center for L.A.‘s Westside, and typically draws a crowd for each of its five daily prayer services, plus upward of 500 worshipers for the big service at midday on Friday. But since last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks, the place has been almost deserted.


In Los Angeles, hundreds of students gathered at Cal State Long Beach on Sunday afternoon, to honor the memory of Nohemi Gonzalez, the 23-year-old CSULB senior who was studying at the Strate College of Design in Paris for a semester. Gonzales was one of 19 killed when gunman opened fire at the popular Parisian bistro La Belle Equipe on Friday where Gonzalez was eating with three friends.

Anh Do and Javier Panzar, writing for the LA Times, have more on that story. Here’s a clip:

[Gonzalez's three] friends managed to escape, but Gonzalez was wounded and later died of her injuries at a hospital, said Jeet Joshee, associate vice president for international education at the university.

Friends and family described Gonzalez as a diligent and committed worker with lofty dreams, including studying abroad in Paris.

She worked as a teaching assistant at Cal State Long Beach and as a shop technician, overseeing lower-division students on their design projects.

“She was a warrior, she fought for her dreams,” said student Alysia Elnagar, who took a basic design class in which Gonzalez served as an assistant.

“Even as a freshman, she exhibited leadership. She owned the stage whenever she presented,” recalled David Lee, design instructor who taught Gonzalez in foundation drawing and advanced drawing classes. “Her magic and beauty was so effortless.”

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November 13th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

Friday night we grieved with our brother and sisters in Paris. Today we stand beside them.

With the same sad but determined hearts, we stand beside our brothers and sisters in Beirut.

Posted in Life in general | 5 Comments »

WitnessLA is Going on Vacation This Week—-Sort Of

August 31st, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

We’re taking this week off—or mostly off.

We’ll still post a mini-story or two most days, so check back. But, the volume will be far lighter.

WitnessLA will be back in full after Labor Day. And, in the days and weeks to follow, we’ll have some important coverage on juvenile justice issues, plus a brand new story relating to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that we promise you’ll want to see.

So stay tuned.

And enjoy the last days of summer.

Celeste & Taylor

Posted in Life in general | 2 Comments »

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