By now, everybody’s heard about the recent election of some new members of the Venice Neighborhood Council. Everyone’s been told that Venice’s election had the biggest turnout of any neighborhood and district in Los Angeles. Each of us is aware that this election was crucial to the future of Venice. And everybody knows about how the developers and business owners in Venice used busses stocked with free beer to transport their employees to the polling place to vote for their slate of candidates. It’s true about the free beer. If you looked in the windows of the busses you could see kegs of beer sitting on the floor towards the back.
The free beer part isn’t why this is interesting; it’s interesting because everybody knows about it and doesn’t seem to care. The idea of using free beer to get your candidates elected doesn’t shock anyone. Given, this sort of thing was done a century ago by corrupt men in big city politics. But that’s not the reason people aren’t astounded by it. People aren’t astounded because they just assume that this is the way things are done today, and why bother getting worked up about it. It’s apathy. And the developers and owners count on it to get away with the things they do.
Imagine yourself in a world where everyone but you is in a deep sleep for a day and you can walk around and pick pockets and burglarize houses and not get caught. That’s the way the bad guys in Venice feel these days. They use false threats to intimidate residents into moving. They demolish beautiful old houses without proper permits or community oversight. They turn apartment buildings into hotels in spite of specific zoning laws. And they give their employees free beer to get them to vote their tools onto the Venice Neighborhood Council. It must be fantastic to do whatever you want without fear of any consequences. But it would be foolish to assume that this fantasy can last forever.
At the June 21 meeting of the V.N.C., the new members were sworn in to office. There was oath-taking and hand-shaking. There was appreciating and certificating. There was greeting and seating and finally getting down to the business of the meeting. The usual procedures were followed carefully but there was an element of tension in the air. Things went along relatively smoothly until the subject of the Oakwood barbecue came up on the agenda.
It seems the person speaking from the podium about the barbecue didn’t think about what he was going to say before he said it. He talked about how the barbecue was great because it brought attendees to Oakwood who might otherwise be afraid to come. Maybe he didn’t realize that there were people in the room who had lived in Oakwood for generations and had fought for Oakwood and were not at all afraid of Oakwood and didn’t particularly like the idea of others coming into Oakwood and moving the people of Oakwood out of Oakwood because they were afraid of the people of Oakwood.
The meeting quickly got loud and angry as serious Venice people told the new V.N.C. members that they knew how the members got elected and what they were planning for Venice. There was standing up and shouting and there was shouting back and calls for order. The new president guy threatened to have the Venice people removed. The good cop and the bad cop came and did their good cop/bad cop thing. Then the meeting was temporarily closed down as the members left the table.
After a while, everyone came back in and the usual program of deciding which beautiful houses to tear down and replace with big ugly concrete cubes resumed. But some things were learned in this first meeting of the new members of the Venice Neighborhood Council. The new members learned that it takes more than free beer to destroy Venice. In fact, the smiles and the shine of arrogance that they had at the start had faded after this first confrontation. Now they wonder what the next meeting will be like. They can contemplate what the meeting after that, and after that, and for the next two years will be like.
The people of Venice also learned things from this meeting. They saw the weakness on the faces of the V.N.C. members who got there by free beer. They heard the uncertainty and hesitation in the members’ voices. They tasted their own anger and defiance against a slate of candidates elected by corrupt tactics. Now perhaps that taste will develop into an appetite. And maybe more people will come.
The candidates that were elected in the Oakwood community center on election day might not have known that, in the park behind the center, lifetime Oakwood residents were already having a barbecue of their own. These Oakwood residents are Venetians. They’re already here and have always been here and have never been afraid of Oakwood. They may not look like the V.N.C. members. They don’t have the same skin color. But they’re here in spite of developers and business owners who use free beer to get candidates elected.
If apathy is the thing that enables bad guys to run around and do whatever they want, then it is the only thing. The people are here. The people are here now. The people can be anywhere in Venice including the next V.N.C. meeting. If the V.N.C. members don’t represent the people of Venice, then the members have a long rough road ahead for their term in office. Maybe they should have saved some of that free beer for themselves.