A Week in the Death of Alfred Olongo
By Mike DavisOctober 6, 2016
(Wednesday, September 28)
Alfred Olongo, a 38-year-old Ugandan refugee and the latest unarmed victim of a US police execution, died yesterday only a few streets away from where I grew up in El Cajon, California, a city of 100,000 twenty minutes inland from San Diego. To be precise Olongo was shot in the 800 block of Broadway, where an apartment complex adjoins one of the score of mini-malls that line a road that once divided raisin vineyards from lemon groves. The site is down the street from the Extreme Gospel Worship Center and a creepy gun store, catering mostly to burly militia types, where you can buy a handbook on how to discreetly dispose of dead bodies.
The El Cajon Police are anything but discreet and immediately tried to spin the killing by releasing a video still showing the victim crouched in a “shooter-like stance” directly facing one of two cops who had drawn and aimed their weapons at him. At the same time they conceded that Olongo was unarmed but embargoed the video from which they had extracted the image.
They offered no explanation of why the cop confronting Olongo from just a few feet away fired four times when it should have been obvious that any object he was holding was not a weapon. (Or, for that matter, why he approached him with his gun drawn.) And as police always do in these circumstances, they quickly released Olongo’s criminal record, as if a few past arrests justified an impromptu death sentence.
As I write this (in a popular bar-restaurant near city hall where bikers, cops, and bail bondsmen rub shoulders), groups of young Black people, some wearing the popular Kaepernick football jersey, and their Latino and white supporters are playing cat and mouse in the streets with the police. The protesters briefly blocked some streets and a freeway entrance, then marched on the trolley station where they were stopped by a police line. A few Trump supporters briefly showed up to scream, “Get the fuck outta El Cajon,” despite the fact that the marchers are almost entirely locals.
The bartender switches all the big-screen televisions to live coverage of events a few blocks away. Apparently the “unweapon” was a electronic cigarette, but Police Chief Jeff Davis remains tight-lipped. School is letting out and earlier I noticed cruisers parked in front of my alma mater, overcrowded El Cajon Valley High. (Hopefully authorities long ago removed the huge, carved redwood Indian that was the mascot of the El Cajon “Braves.” Ironically, the three nearby Indian casinos are now the biggest private employers of El Cajon residents.)
While waiting for the protesters to make their way to police headquarters, I’m distracted by bittersweet memories of this hard-luck town, the poorest in San Diego County. I find obscurely sinister significance in the fact that Oscar’s Drive-In, the neon-lit oasis of El Cajon car culture in my high school years, is now the police parking lot, and that the Goodwill store that replaced the Penny’s of my childhood has itself now been closed for years. (Should we acknowledge a “post-thrift-store stage” of suburban decline?)
Single-family homes have long been outnumbered by dense tracts of barrack-like, poorly maintained stucco apartments. This is last-resort housing in San Diego County, yet the city is also full of homeless people. Back in the 1980s it was unhappily crowned the Meth Capital of the United States, and if I crossed Main Street and walked over to the alley next to the First Baptist Church, I could still buy Black Molly or whatever it’s now called. Serial murders, biker wars, DEA busts, and school shootings (17 shot at Santana High and Granite Hills High in 2001, two weeks apart) have given El Cajon and its neighboring East County communities of Santee and Lakeside a reputation as a boondocks Compton.
Although El Cajon is considerably larger, there are some obvious similarities to Ferguson, Missouri. Both towns are downwardly mobile blue-collar suburbs with few jobs, troubled schools, and elderly frightened homeowners who vote to keep conservatives in city hall and bullies in police uniforms. Both have undergone dramatic and unexpected demographic shifts without any corresponding civic empowerment of new majorities.
In Ferguson, of course, it was a rising Black majority that was locked out of power. In El Cajon, on the other hand, African Americans are a bare six percent of the population (they were zero in my day) and have utterly no influence on local government. But the Census data showing a “white” majority in El Cajon (an estimated 62 percent in 2009) is misleading since at least half are Iraqi refugees, the largest single concentration in the country. Fully a third of the households in El Cajon speak Arabic or Spanish at home. Although not reflected in the voting statistics, where conservative, white English speakers continue to dominate, this is a “minority-majority” city.
Driving back to El Cajon this afternoon I listened to rightwing radio host Carl DeMaio brag that “San Diego doesn’t riot,” “unlike Ferguson or Charlotte or those other places we don’t have such deep divisions amongst ourselves.” I’m not sure he has ever been to El Cajon.
Here in alter-San Diego, long histories of racial and anti-immigrant violence have fused together in matrix of fanatical Christian conservatism to create a toxic tolerance amongst many whites for shootings like that of Alfred Olongo, who was both Black and a refugee. Rather than continuing yesterday’s account of the protests (bettered reported in the social media by the actual participants), I can more usefully contribute a synopsis of this troubling history and its resonances in the Age of Trump.
Thanks to its many unionized aircraft and construction workers, the El Cajon of 60 years ago elected Democrats to Congress and supported a surprisingly liberal daily newspaper (the El Cajon Valley News). At the same time it was a suburb with a West Texas twang — many of my friends were the children of Dust Bowl — and emphatically off limits to people of color, apart from a small number of Mexican and Native American families. There was a solitary Jewish girl in my high school graduating class.
On the other hand, there were plenty of Hell’s Angels in my childhood and the concrete-block bunker of the Dago Chapter on El Cajon Boulevard continues to defy the decades-long official efforts to condemn it. From the 1950s, there was also an occult far-right underground. Lakeside, an unincorporated area just north of El Cajon, became particularly notorious as haven for John Birchers and a succession of shadowy militia groups, including the Secret Army Organization which terrorized the San Diego antiwar movement, perhaps with FBI help, between 1969 and 1973.
The Vietnam War boom transformed El Cajon almost beyond recognition. The completion of Interstate 8 through the middle of town followed by an adjacent big-box shopping center was a death knell for the traditional family businesses on Main Street. At the same time the city’s “urban farm” lots and still plentiful open spaces were turned into densely packed mega-apartments, with as many as a 184 units in a single complex. (Imagine a landscape composed of Motel Sixes.)
In the 1970s more prosperous blue-collar and middle-class families began to cash in their equity and move out to the new suburbs along the I-15 corridor in northeast San Diego. El Cajon continued to rapidly devolve as dingbat-apartment dormitory for low-wage worker-commuters as well as households on disability or welfare. It soon had the highest proportion of single female-headed households in California. By the 1990s, the city’s relatively low rents also nominated it as a destination for refugees from the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.
Embittered old-timers loudly complained that the El Cajon Valley had become “the dumping ground for San Diego’s problem populations” — a grievance that Republican politicians and fundamentalist preachers would amplify until it was second nature to talk about “being invaded.” (In fact San Diego County, because of its high housing costs and lack of manufacturing jobs, has proportionately less than half of the Latino population of Los Angeles County.)
The stable ballast of the blue-collar population, machinists, and assemblers at San Diego’s huge aerospace plants, was jettisoned in the 1990s when General Dynamics shut down its local operations. By 1996, an estimated 58,000 jobs had been lost with a multiplier effect that devastated older suburban areas like Clairemont, Allied Gardens, and, of course, El Cajon, where white incomes fell to the statewide level of Black median incomes.
The emergence of this déclassé white population — often the jobless adult children of former Convair/General Dynamics workers — registered itself in addiction, family violence, and increased support for extreme white supremacist politics. In northern inland San Diego County, Klan leader Tom Metzger, our homegrown David Duke, won the local Democratic primary for Congress in 1980. In the El Cajon area, assaults on gays, Blacks, and immigrants became chronic by the 1990s.
Among the more infamous incidents, a Black Marine in Santee was savagely beaten and left a quadriplegic. Another Black man, ambushed outside a bar, suffered severe brain damage and lost his ability to speak. Skinheads also attacked two Black men at a gas station and a Latino laborer standing outside a store. Most horrific was the fate of Irineo Soto Aguilar, a 34-year-old laborer, stoned to death by three skinheads in Lakeside.
A disturbing 2002 public television documentary about the murder — “Culture of Hate: Who Are We?” — can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/38595578. The same year filmmaker Garrett Scott premiered his “Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story” about the life and death of Shawn Nelson, a marginally employed plumber from the Clairemont area, who stole a tank and rampaged joyously until being killed by the San Diego police. These two films, preferably screened back to back, are a documentary archaeology of the Trump electorate.
I must report some news after all. A few bottles were thrown and a car windows broken last night. Tear gas and pepper balls volleyed back. Or perhaps it was the other way around. In any event, the Sheriffs and the San Diego PD sent reinforcements to El Cajon and one of the cop allies was apparently coldcocked with a brick.
It was obviously a magic brick, because today Jeff Davis reversed policy and released the video “in order to avoid further escalation.” It shows a confused, frightened man desperately trying to get away from a cop who’s aggressively stalking him with a drawn revolver. The cop barks orders while in the background Olongo’s sister screams at him not to shoot her brother.
She had phoned the police three times because she was worried about his safety. It took them an hour to show up. One minute after they pull up, Alfred Olongo is bleeding to death on the pavement. The startling efficiency of his execution, however, will not break current records. Two years ago, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead within a few seconds of the arrival of Cleveland cop Timothy Loehmann. A few months before, a 15-second choke-hold had killed street-vendor Eric Garner in Staten Island.
More interesting to me than the video is the revelation that the shooter was Officer Richard Gonsalves, who’s notorious for texting photos of his dick to a female fellow officer last year and inviting her to a three-way session with his wife. The officer sued the department and Gonsalves lost his sergeant’s stripes, but, according to her deposition in a new lawsuit, he has continued to harass her. Why this sexting criminal was kept on the force, and why the city aggressively defended its decision to demote rather than fire him, are decisions that no one in City Hall at the moment is eager to explain.
El Cajon, after all, has long been governed by born-again Christians obsessed with pornography, abortion, and sex outside marriage. Indeed it was ground zero in the political revolution of November 1990. Never heard of this “revolution”? Just ask a veteran anti-abortion campaigner or an older supporter of Ted Cruz. Fifty candidates endorsed by anti-abortion Operation Rescue were elected to school boards, city councils, water districts, and other local bodies throughout San Diego County, with the most enduring victories in the El Cajon area.
It was mythified as the ultimate grassroots family-values uprising, the inspiration for Christian Coalition groups around the country, but behind the populist façade was a cabal of wealthy Orange County political investors led by savings-and-loan heir and “Christian Reconstructionist” Howard Ahmanson Jr. The Reconstructionists proposed to end the separation of church and state in local government and ensure a place for the Creationist narrative in public education. East County seemed an ideal testing ground.
El Cajon indeed tottered for years on the brink of becoming a fundamentalist theocracy. City Council meetings were opened with prayers, rightwing Christian films became a staple of the city-owned public access channel, churches were given special municipal concessions including a lease on the city’s performing arts center, and a city-sponsored rehabilitation program was contracted out to evangelicals. Bill Wells, the current mayor, has proposed to make prayer an integral part of the city’s strategy for attracting new businesses.
High school and community college teachers fought long, bitter battles against attempts by rightwing board members to institute a Christian curriculum, and when a school superintendent advocated gender tolerance, a recall campaign was organized by Reconstructionist types who advocated capital punishment for homosexuality. One school trustee, Reverend Gary Gass, organized pro-life rallies at district high schools complete with huge posters photos of aborted fetuses. In the same vein, he blamed the 2001 school shootings on the absence of prayer in the classroom and the sexual promiscuity of students.
The hegemony of the Christian right was undergirded by two related developments of the 1980s and 1990s. First was the startling gentrification of the foothills and mountains surrounding El Cajon. While the population of the valley floor was becoming both poorer and more diverse, thousands of luxury homes sprouted out of high chaparral, including mountaintop mansions with spectacular views of the ocean 30 miles away. These affluent hillbillies, privatizing the “back country” of my childhood, were overwhelmingly white, Protestant, and Republican, and unlike the angry skinheads in Lakeside, or most of El Cajon’s apartment dwellers, they vote.
Moreover their vote is largely organized through the three or four mega-churches that now dominate the political life of the El Cajon Valley. The 1990 revolution was largely organized at Skyline Wesleyan, a Reconstructionist stronghold, which these days advertises itself as a refuge for Christians being persecuted by “LGBT bullies.” Its pastor, Jim Garlow, is well known for pronouncing America “clinically dead” after the reelection of Obama in 2012. A few months ago, he urged evangelicals to vote for Trump, if only for sake of the current Republican platform — “the best ever” — since it was largely drafted by the Christian right.
The other immensely influential mega-church is Shadow Mountain, a 7,000-member Baptist congregation that shares the campus of a former Catholic girl’s school with San Diego Christian College, where one can pursue a joint degree in Aviation and Creation Studies. Both were founded by Ted LaHaye, the co-author of the mega-best-selling “Left Behind” series, who also founded the Institute for Creation Research and its “graduate school” in El Cajon. (Santee meanwhile brags of its Museum of Creation and Earth Science, where dinosaurs and cavemen frolic.)
LaHaye retired long ago and the current pastor at Shadow Mountain is David Jeremiah, another prolific end times author (most recently, Agents of the Apocalypse: A Riveting Look at the Key Players of the End Times) who made headlines last year when he organized an evangelical delegation that met with Donald Trump (whom he said “cared deeply about Standing Up for Christian values”) and prayed with him for victory.
Jeremiah weekly warns his television audience that Islamic terrorism signals the approaching Apocalypse and the rule of Satan from his capital in biblical Babylon. His obsession with the diabolical reestablishment of Babylon, however, generates considerable eschatological dissonance in El Cajon since “New Babylon” is an Edenic image — a good name for a market or restaurant — for Chaldean residents.
“Not One More.” This banner leads a clergy-sponsored march of perhaps 500 people to the El Cajon Civic Center. Local hate radio has been rife with the rumor that protestors are being bussed in from all over California: part of a plot to “nationalize” law enforcement by discrediting local police departments. But no one has seen any buses … or black helicopters.
Downtown is largely deserted since the police have asked businesses to close for the weekend and organizers to cancel a Classic Car event. It strikes some as an over-reaction, but the ECPD is legitimately worried about confrontations between the largely white vintage car crowd and the marchers. In the event, the business closures are a powerful, if inadvertent, memorial to Alfred Olongo.
The police are wisely invisible at the rally, which is passionate but peaceful. There is a moving moment when a 16-year-old girl speaking on behalf of her recently arrived family, refugees from the frontline province of Paktika in Afghanistan, consoles the Olongo family.
A representative of Al Sharpton announces that he will soon visit El Cajon to help keep a spotlight on the protest. In the evening, I drive by the small encampment at the shooting scene where there are a few dozen young people quietly talking; sometime later they are arrested after the police declare the vigil an “unlawful assembly” and they refuse to disperse.
Before returning home, I stop at an Iraqi market down the street. No one has heard about the business closures and they’re not comfortable talking about the Olongo shooting. The young man at the register merely gives a wan smile and mutters, “Sad, very sad.” As small-business people, the owners of markets and most of the liquor stores in El Cajon, the Christian Iraqis (Chaldeans and a few Assyrians) rely on the police for protection, yet at the same time they have been victims of repeated persecution by law enforcement agencies and local politicians.
Estimates of the Iraqi population in the East County (El Cajon and adjoining areas like Rancho San Diego and Santee) range wildly from 40,000 to 90,000. Christians compose the overwhelming majority and El Cajon has a Chaldean cathedral and convent, but there are also many Kurds and some Shiites, Sunnis, and even a Yazidi family or two. The community is anchored by families that moved to the area from Michigan a generation ago, attracted by the climate and commercial opportunities.
The favored niches for extended-family businesses — as in the old country — are markets, restaurants, liquor stores, and gold exchanges and Iraqi initiative has transformed semi-derelict stretches of Main Street into a thriving Little Baghdad. At the same time, many of the recent Iraqi refugees are destitute and Chaldean kids, now repudiating any identity as Arabs, struggle in the local schools, too often dropping out to go to work. Military recruiters hover over the high schools like birds of prey.
The all-born-again, all-conservative City Council, having wasted millions in stupid, futile efforts to revive Downtown, should have been ecstatic about the commercial revival wrought by Iraqi family capitalism. Instead they treated it as a vast criminal conspiracy.
In 2013, the El Cajon Police and the DEA raided one of the largest Chaldean social clubs, arresting scores while claiming they had broken up a major new drug network that allied Chaldeans with the Sinaloa Cartel. In fact, almost all of those arrested were guilty of nothing more than the traditional Iraqi male pastime of playing cards, talking business, and making informal loans.
As a result of the lurid publicity, the Council rammed through an ordinance that made it easier to revoke liquor licenses from stores which the police dutifully enforced with sting operations involving underage customers at Chaldean businesses. They also debated a moratorium on gold-buying jewelry stores, claiming that they were involved in money laundering. Needless to say, the Chaldean community and other Iraqis regarded all this as a full-frontal attack on their family economy.
The mayor at the time, Mark Lewis, then unleashed a torrent of racist invective in an interview with — surprisingly — Progressive magazine. He alleged that Chaldean kids who participated in the school’s free lunch program were “being picked up by Mercedes-Benzes.” “First time, they come over here, it doesn’t take them too long to learn where all the freebies are at.” He also reiterated the claim that the Chaldeans were supplanting “Mexicans and Blacks” as the city’s drug retailers.
Although Lewis was forced to resign, little has changed in City Hall. Chaldeans are still finding their bearings in a political system where their interests as small-business people orient them toward conservative low-tax policies but Trumpite nativism drives them toward Democrats. Perhaps the decisive factor in making thousands of new voters will be the imperative need to acquire electoral clout in order open the door to more refugees from the homeland. A second political revolution in El Cajon will likely be the side-effect.
The killer robots have struck again, this time in Pasadena on Friday night and in Los Angeles twice on Saturday.
Reginald Thomas, like Olongo “an erratic Black man” whose family called the Pasadena police to protect him from self-harm, died after being tasered, batoned, and kicked in the head by six cops. The father of eight was reportedly “armed” with a fire extinguisher and “a knife under his arm.” According to one account he tried to hide from the police in his bedroom and they kicked in the door. The family attorney reported that his body was simply left at the scene. “His pregnant girlfriend and children had to climb over Thomas’ body to exit the apartment complex that morning.”
Saturday afternoon, 18-year-old Carnell Snell Jr. was shot near his home while running away from the LAPD. According to the police he had been a passenger in a possible stolen car. According to Chief Charlie Beck, Snell kept tugging his waistband as if he had a gun; a witness said he was simply holding up his sweatpants. The other, not-yet-named victim was killed by the LAPD on Sunday. He was holding a replica gun. There is no other information.
Hundreds have been marching in Pasadena and demonstrating in front of the LAPD headquarters. Meanwhile, in defiance of the El Cajon Police, the vigil on Broadway has been renewed. Alfred Olongo’s life and death will not be erased by platitudes or pepper balls. Or even by the inevitable exoneration of his killer.
There is much more to be said about El Cajon. I have not talked at all about the paramount political machine in this part of inland California: the Duncan Hunter congressional dynasty that is financed by drone-makers and rich nativists. Nor have I mentioned the progressive resistance in El Cajon led by the admirable Ray Lutz, the son of my high school band leader. Then there is the wonderfully utopian Unarian Society, headquartered in Downtown El Cajon, that waits for flying saucers to bring world peace and equality. Indeed, I’m tempted to find an almost inexhaustible allegory in the El Cajon Valley’s strange and often dark metamorphosis.
But the focus should remain on Olongo, Black Lives, and the need for rage against the machine. This weekend the US Geological Survey issued an unprecedented “Earthquake Alert” for Southern California following an alarming swarm of small tremblors at the Salton Sea end of the San Andreas Fault. But after the atrocities in blue of the last week in El Cajon, Pasadena, and Los Angeles, another kind of earthquake may be just as inevitable.
Published jointly with The Rag.
Mike Davis is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and the author of Planet of Slums, City of Quartz, In Praise of Barbarians, and more than a dozen other books.
Mike Davis was one of the leading intellectuals of his era and a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. His works include City of Quartz (1990), a seminal study of Los Angeles’s economic and racial fault lines, Planet of Slums (2005), In Praise of Barbarians (2007), and Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (2020), co-written with Jon Wiener.
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