We live in interesting times. And the new year begins, almost 1,000 Venice residents have tested positive for COVID-19. The effects of the on again, off again lockdowns have devastated our iconic business community; walk down Abbot Kinney and the first thing that strikes you are all the "for lease" signs and boarded up windows on a once legendary and vibrant shoppers' Mecca.
But Venice has more than just a potentially deadly virus to fear. Violent crime within our 3 square miles is on the rise, particularly on the Boardwalk, where squalid encampments outnumber businesses and, according to Pacific Division, 56% of recent violent assaults involved unhoused people, either as victims or perpetrators. On December 1st, at about 5:30 in the evening, a woman was shot to death in a dispute over a faulty motor scooter directly in front of the Pacific Division substation at OFW and Pacific. In September, a woman was brutally raped and left for dead in the parking lot near the pier. In late October, 11 people got into a massive fight with a deadly weapon near Navy Court and OFW that sent one man to the hospital. Brian Averill, a VNC Board member and the head of the VNC's Ocean Front Walk committee stated at the most recent meeting of the VNC's Public Safety Committee that conditions on the boardwalk are "completely unacceptable" and becoming "palpably more violent". Businesses are dying, he said, because people no longer feel safe to come down to the Boardwalk at night. Due to budget cuts arising from the pandemic, the police force here has been cut and is scheduled for more cuts in the coming months, including the sexual assault unit that arrested the Venice Pier rapist.
So one might presume that our elected officials, in particular our City Councilman, Mike Bonin, would try to offer solace to his Venice constituents in this time of crisis, at the very least heeding the call of nearly 2,000 Venetians and the VNC in their request for a VNC Town Hall to discuss Public Safety.
Instead, Mr. Bonin has used the opportunity presented by this crisis to promote his most recent, progressive notions of how to solve broader societal problems. Public safety must be re-imagined, with hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the LAPD being re-directed to social services, ranging from mental health outreach to "youth opportunity programs". At the most recent meeting of the VNC's Homeless Committee, his Bridge Housing Rep for Venice, Dexter O'Connell, stated that Bonin's long term solution for homelessness here is to allow for denser residential development. Recently, Bonin introduced a motion calling for the city (despite its dire economic state) to develop "social housing" that is both built and owned by the government, in order for Los Angeles to be able to guarantee housing for all. Meanwhile, rents in Los Angeles have declined by 13% this year.
For Venetians struggling to preserve a sense of sanity and safety during these trying times, it's as if our home is on fire and the Fire Department pulled up to our driveway. But instead of putting the fire out, they've commenced a discussion of how best to improve fire safety standards within the local building codes.
So we turn to our other elected officials -- the Venice Neighborhood Council, who in recent months have considered variety of public safety-related motions. Whenever they can get a word in edgewise.
The invasion of the VNC by a so-called "homeless advocacy" called Streetwatch LA began with the November meeting of the VNC's homeless committee. Members of the group (who insist that they are Venice stakeholders because, from time to time they come here to hand out food to the unhoused and participate in the occasional protest against street cleanups) called in to the meeting, identifying themselves by first name only (if not obscene, fake names of the type used by high schoolers making prank phone calls). They claimed, among other things, that the VNC has no legitimacy. They called the Committee's members "sadists" and "Nazis" and screamed obscenities at them, until the Committee finally had to end the meeting before they could complete the agenda, which included a call for immediate shelter solutions for the homeless in Venice. All of this was gleefully documented on the group's Twitter feed.
A couple of weeks later, the same group was at it again, this time at the VNC's monthly Board meeting. The presentation by a staff member from CD15 councilmember Joe Buscaino's Office on enhanced encampment cleanups, as well as a motion on that evening's agenda to support Buscaino's motion to prohibit encampments under freeway overpasses and near Bridge Housing facilities appeared to be the big draw for Streetwatch, who also re-tweeted video of another advocacy group protesting outside of Buscaino's home during the meeting. Councilman Buscaino's participation in the November VNC meeting was somewhat ironic, given that our own councilmember hasn't attended a public meeting in Venice in over two years -- not since a 2018 TownHall in which he, the Mayor and the Chief of Police made the now demonstrably false promise that placing a Bridge Housing facility in Venice would both reduce the presence of encampments here and result in increased security and less crime.
Streetwatch's "public commentary" at the November VNC meeting included the same accusations of soul-less NIMBY-ism and rampant racism targeted at the Board, shouts of "F***k Joe Buscaino","F***k the LAPD" and "I hope you all die of Covid!". It was exhausting, depressing and infuriating and achieved nothing; ultimately, the Board passed every single motion the group had called in to oppose.
Their mindlessly cruel and juvenile "public commentary", along with statements on their website that "the housing and homelessness crisis cannot be solved through charity within the capitalist framework" might lead one to dismiss Streetwatch as just another bunch of cranks using the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles to promote their radically anti-capitalist economic beliefs. They are, after all, not a licensed not-for-profit homeless services organization (such as the St. Joseph's Center or United Way). Their website doesn't list any personnel by name, or a even an address or phone number. They do, however, request cash donations via a third party they promise will all be spent on items such as tents and socks.
Every month, a number of Bridge Home neighbors participate in a monthly meeting organized by Mr. Bonin's office to discuss the facility's impacts on their neighborhood and get updates on its progress. Normally, the meeting is strictly limited to just Venetians who live within 500 feet of Pacific Sunset and the facility's service providers, but this month it will be different. Mr. Bonin's office is now insisting that Streetwatch be included in December's Zoomed meeting, as they are considered his "trusted partners". Over Thanksgiving weekend, Bonin's Instagram and Facebook accounts lit up with images of him carrying grocery bags of food to encampments in Venice, alongside members of the group whose Twitter account accuses the VNC of being soulless, Nazi NIMBYs. "Grateful to join with... Street Watch LA recently to distribute hot Thanksgiving Day meals to unhoused neighbors in Venice," was Mr. Bonin's cheery, holiday message to the members of the VNC, who, unlike Mr. Bonin are not compensated for their service to the community.
Furthermore, his embrace of this group in particular seemed a somewhat strange choice for Mike Bonin. Back in August, Streetwatch Tweeted out: "Mike Bonin is no progressive hero. He has prioritized the will of LAPD goons and NIMBY menaces over CDC guidelines as well as the safety and well-being of our unhoused neighbors." As recently as November, they were decrying Bonin's mostly successful efforts to eliminate the encampments along the Penmar golf course via Project Roomkey, in which 70% of the campers accepted motel and hotel rooms in exchange for relocating. "I don't think they should be offering people services in that punitive a way," a Streetwatch representative told LAist. The group is apparently opposed to encampments being forbidden or regulated anywhere.
Perhaps in a frantic effort to reclaim his progressive bona fides, Mr. Bonin's latest social media posts have been directed at the LAPD, implying that they are lying about recent budget cuts and implying that the choices they have made about how to cut personnel are arbitrary and selfish (he is particularly opposed to scheduled pay raises). It's an argument that has been ongoing since at least August, when the LA Police Union accused him of "inviting and celebrating...craven criminal behavior" after a BLM/Defund the Police riot in Van Nuys led to a police station there being covered in graffiti. Bonin says the LAPD is directing smears at him; the LAPPL laments the lack of a plan from the city to address the recent surge in violent crime. Neither side are willing to budge, it seems, and certainly Bonin's recent embrace of leftist groups like Streetwatch, who label the entire police force a racist army in the service of rampant gentrification, isn't helping the discussion.
Meanwhile, people are suffering, both on and off the street.
Rather than digging in his heels and defaming anyone dissatisfied with his performance, either directly or through his open embrace of groups like Streetwatch, in this time of crisis it's time for Mr. Bonin to listen to everyone he represents and negotiate. He must drop his Trumpist tactics of pandering to his base while demonizing those who don't bend the knee to him (even if he represents them) and begin to mend fences. His constituents -- who undoubtedly agree with him on many issues, including the need for more mental health services, racial equality when it comes to policing and even sharing the burden of budget cuts among all city entities -- deserve to be respected and heard.