Gang Member Pleads Guilty in 2014 Boyle Heights Firebombing That Targeted African American Residents: DOJ


Fire officials and police were investigating series of fires at the Ramona Garden Apartments on Monday, May 12, 2014. (Credit: KTLA)

The lead and final defendant indicted in a 2014  firebombing attack intended to drive away African American residents from a Boyle Heights housing project has pleaded guilty, officials announced Tuesday.

Carlos Hernandez, 34, admitted to leading seven fellow members of the Big Hazard street gang in setting fire to four apartments at the Ramona Gardens development the night of May 11, 2014, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.

African American families, including women and children sleeping at the time of the incident, lived in three of the units, authorities said. The group smashed the residences’ windows and hurled Molotov cocktails inside, causing multiple fiery explosions, according to officials.

Nobody was hurt as firefighters responded to several 911 calls and managed to quickly put out the flames, the L.A. Fire Department said at the time.

In a plea deal, Hernandez confessed to assigning the gang members roles and providing them with masks, a hammer and other items used in the firebombing.

“This defendant oversaw a scheme designed to send African-American residents a potentially deadly message – you are not welcome here,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement.

A similar attack took place in Ramona Gardens in 1992, and for nearly two decades, black families avoided the project, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“For more than a generation, keeping blacks out of the housing complex seemed a point of pride for Big Hazard,” the paper reported.

Federal prosecutors have described the group as having “deep ties” to the Mexican Mafia.

Hernandez on Monday pleaded guilty to five felonies: conspiracy to violate civil rights, violent crime in aid of racketeering, using fire and carrying explosives to commit another federal felony, using and possessing a firearm in a crime of violence, and violating the Fair Housing Act.

With the charges carrying a minimum sentence of 15 years, Hernandez faces a statutory maximum penalty of life in prison, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 7.

The seven other gang members previously pleaded guilty to federal hate crime and related offenses, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. They will be sentenced later in 2019.

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A health care chaplain’s advice for better end-of-life care

When Sheri Bartlett Browne started working as a Catholic health care chaplain, she realized that despite hospitals’ best attempts to support patients and families through the dying process, there was a disconnect between doctors and patients. “My patients often seemed to be struggling, whether they felt like they weren’t being heard or were just frustrated by the system,” she says.

Browne, who also teaches history at Tennessee State University in Nashville, a historically black university, realized that part of this disconnect was due to cultural differences among the doctors at the hospital in which she worked, most of whom were white, and the patients, many of whom were black. So she began studying cultural barriers facing black patients around end-of-life care and how these barriers are affected by centuries of marginalization and oppression against black communities.

One way to overcome these barriers, Browne says, is by integrating Catholic social teaching into medical care. Doing so, she says, “requires determining what it means for a doctor or hospital to approach patients as if everyone is, in fact, made in the image of God.”

What does Catholicism have to say about end-of-life care?

Traditionally, Catholic hospital ethics has existed apart from Catholic social teaching. Catholic health care systems have a set of ethical and religious directives around which they live and breathe and that deal with things such as prenatal care, issues around abortion, sterilization, and end-of-life care.

In the Catholic tradition, end-of-life is both care and also an ethical framework for understanding the dying process. Medically, the term end-of-life care encompasses a pretty wide range of services. It can be specifically medical, providing pain relief, for example, but end-of-life care is also educating patients and families about the dying process, providing spiritual and emotional and bereavement assistance, and helping people understand and get through the grieving process. In the health care setting, it’s always a team approach that involves nurses, the medical team, social workers, and chaplains.

Ethically, end-of-life tends to focus very heavily on what it means to support life from natural birth to natural death, and it is often connected to the concept of dignity of the human person. Because of this, there’s a heavy focus on autonomous decision-making, or how to help someone make moral and ethical decisions about the dying process by providing them with information and support so they can decide what is best for them. This happens within a particular moral framework. For example, within the Catholic tradition, autonomy and dignity do not support physician-assisted suicide.

The traditional bioethics approach sees everyone as an autonomous individual instead of as relational, as living in community. That relational approach is found in the Catholic social tradition. If we’re even going to think about social justice within a health care setting, then we need to bring these bioethical directives together with the Catholic social tradition. Only then can we consider what is good and ethical and just for everyone.

To incorporate Catholic social justice into the ethical and religious directives that drive a lot of decision-making in health care, you need to consider a person’s historical, cultural, and religious context. Because how else can you help them make decisions about their death or inform the medical team as they help make decisions?

Can you give an example of where Catholic bioethics falls short?

Among African American patients, community is really important. There are often cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends at a patient’s bedside supporting them and thinking about their loved one’s dying process.

The emphasis on a patient’s autonomy, which is what is traditionally done in Catholic ethical approaches to dying, is very much due to a Western, individualistic view of the self and of dying. This view misses the importance of the family interacting with their loved one.

This can cause a lot of frustration for both medical teams and families. For example, if a patient has had a severe brain injury, a common procedure is to test for brain death. But oftentimes families don’t understand what the medical team wants to achieve. They become frustrated or angry and feel like their loved one is not being cared for appropriately.

From the medical team’s perspective, this is a medical decision, not an emotional one. It’s a decision based on tests, whether there’s any brain activity, whether the patient is going through organ failure, and other tests. If there is no brain activity, then the patient is dead already and they are ethically bound to remove life support.

But for families, if someone is on life support and breathing with the help of a ventilator, then they are still alive. This is true in any family but becomes even more fraught in many African American families because there’s a lot of mistrust of the medical community already. The African American community has experienced a lack of health care and undergone medical experimentation without their consent. So in a situation this fraught with emotions, it’s not just a straightforward medical decision for them.

To help families get through this experience, hospitals need to incorporate Catholic social teaching, not just act from their ethical directives. It’s important to consider the totality of a person and their situation.

Can you give a historical example of why African Americans mistrust the medical establishment?

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment lasted 40 years, from 1932 to 1972. The study involved 400 men in Macon County, Alabama who tested positive for syphilis and who were studied to see what would happen over the course of the disease. During that 40-year period, antibiotics became available to treat syphilis, but these men were not offered antibiotic treatment. Today, Tuskegee is seen as one of the most egregious experiments on a living population in the 20th century.

Though 1972, when the study ended, seems like a long time ago, there are many people alive today who remember hearing about it or who had family or friends who were affected. It’s still very much a tangible experience in the historical memory of African Americans, and it continues to have a lasting impact.

Today, when pharmaceutical companies test a new drug or treatment, they ask many people to participate in research studies. But black participation in such studies is quite low, and researchers attribute that to things such as the memory of Tuskegee, along with other forced medical interventions: the long history of the forced sterilization of African American women and neurological experiments that were done on African American children.

Black people today are not confident that they will be treated in the same way a white person would be if they’re asked to participate in a study or take a new experimental drug. I even had someone tell me that the memory of Tuskegee is enough to affect how they think about their own routine health care.

How does Tuskegee still affect attitudes toward health care today?

Take advance directives for example. In many white communities, signing an advanced directive is considered fairly typical; people believe it will prevent unwanted or aggressive care at end-of-life. They have an understanding of CPR and what it can do to a patient’s body, especially if they are older or frail, and they often will say, “I don’t want that. Let me sign the forms.”

But among communities that have been marginalized, or have not received care when they needed it, or did not give informed consent to something like in the Tuskegee experiments, signing a form like this that talks about those very last minutes at the end of your life is a lot more problematic.

People think that it means they’ll be neglected at the end of their life, that doctors won’t try to save them and will just stand by doing nothing and watch them die. There’s a fear that patients won’t get pain medication or assistance with breathing and that they will be in pain and suffering while people do nothing to stop it.

What does culturally sensitive end-of-life care look like? 

As a chaplain, I am often with families as they go through the death of a loved one. What I see time and again is that medical teams are often rushed; they’re doing the best they can and certainly want to reach out to family members, but they also have a lot of demands on them. They’ll explain what they want to do medically or what test they’re going to run, but they’re not very good at explaining it while bridging any cultural, educational, or socioeconomic divide.

I feel like because of this they often get frustrated. They’ll tell me that whoever they’re talking to, a patient or their family, just doesn’t get it. Doctors will say, “This is what we need to do next. We’ve come to the end of the line, and we need to do a test for brain death. I’ve explained all this to them, and I don’t understand why they’re pushing back.”

This is often when the chaplain is called in: when doctors have made this decision and they’re meeting resistance from the family that they don’t understand. The chaplain then has to come in and explain what’s happening next not medically but to facilitate emotional and spiritual understanding and help lessen the anxiety in the room.

Doctors are so intent on delivering their own message about what needs to happen next that they don’t understand the process from the perspective of the family members gathered there.

More awareness, education, and training for doctors and medical professionals could definitely help these kinds of situations. Because when there’s already a socioeconomic or cultural barrier, this is really heightened in these life-or-death moments. If doctors had a better understanding of these cultural factors, it could help lessen the tension and help family members better understand what’s happening.

How do hospitals start to implement this approach?

First, hospitals and health care systems need to completely revamp their cultural awareness or cultural sensitivity training. Right now, this training normally lasts an hour or maybe a half day. It’s framed as “come and learn these things to overcome a problem.” Employees learn about culturally appropriate behavior, such as how a male doctor should interact with a female Muslim patient, things like that.

Instead, this training should be taught by providers who work with specific communities. It should take into account not just behaviors but also people’s mindsets and beliefs.

I also think medical practitioners, chaplains, social workers, whatever the role, should get much more immersion training with underserved communities. This should last not just for a day 
or a week, but should be a substantive part of people’s medical training and experience.

We also need to aggressively recruit diverse medical practitioners. We have a huge shortage of black physicians, for example; hospitals should be working much harder to remedy that.

Finally, we need to change the mindset that working with underserved communities is somehow less prestigious or deserving. Right now, medical schools are funneling people into neurosurgery or cardiac. There’s a shortage of good family doctors or general practitioners. We need people who are just as talented to serve in the neighborhood clinic.

Image: Jair Lazaro on Unsplash

This article also appears in the April 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 4, pages 18–22).

A Quiet Showdown Between Writers and Agents

Yule Caise

by Tatiana Blackington James

You won’t see picket lines or placards, chanting protesters or drivers honking in support, but labor strife is back in town. This time, it isn’t the networks or studios that Hollywood writers are targeting but their own representatives. The biggest moment of drama came last Friday, when The Writers Guild of America sent a directive to its members: fire your agents at midnight.

According to the WGA’s member website, only about fifty agencies – many of them one-person shops – had signed on to the Guild’s Code of Conduct by the April 12 deadline. Negotiations with the “Big Four” agencies – Creative Artists Agency, ICM Partners, William Morris Endeavor and United Talent Agency – broke down. The most contentious issue is packaging, the practice of agencies attaching several of their clients to a project – a writer, director and an actor for example — presenting them as a package to buyers, and collecting substantial fees for the service. Writers say this leads to self-dealing and a lack of transparency.

Santa Monica screen and TV writer Yule Caise returned Saturday from Nice and to find the Guild’s specific instructions for how to deal with his agent.

“It was kind of a scary e-mail,” he admitted, but said he complied.

Caise was one of the 93.5% of members who voted for the Code of Conduct.

“I was hoping my agent was going to sign,” he said, “because they’re not one of the Big Four.”

Smaller agencies usually don’t have the wherewithal to package and in theory focus more on getting individual clients work, something his agents touted while wooing him.

The problem writers face, he said, is that, “agents aren’t really in the business anymore of actual agenting. They’re in the business of deal-making and doing things that can make the agency larger amounts of money … You really never know if your agent’s working on your behalf.”

It’s one of the reasons Caise started his own company, Behind the Billboard, and sought work internationally. The trip to Nice was to attend MIPTV, the International Market for Content Development and Distribution. Other countries do certain things better, he said. For example, foreign agents aren’t such fierce gatekeepers to the top actors.

“It’s all based on personal relationships.”

Santa Monica writer and producer Stephen Nathan said he loves his agent of almost 30 years.

“She’s been loyal, understanding, compassionate and dedicated. But…I have to stand with my union.”

A show-biz veteran who began his TV career with “Laverne & Shirley” and wrote for a slew of hit shows including “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Nathan rattled off a few of the WGA’s accomplishments: “fantastic health care, an excellent pension as well as residuals and many other protections…I fervently believe that without unions labor suffers. Look at the rest of the country where unions have been crushed. Packaging has always been a questionable practice. It’s time to work out a fair compromise that works for both sides.”

Writer Eric Daniel of Culver City didn’t have to fire his agent because he had already learned to do without one, relying on his manager and his lawyer instead.

“I’ve been with agencies, and that was fine when things were big and moving fast, but just like everybody says, when things slow down, you fall down the totem pole a little bit.”

Early in his career, Daniel, who won the WGA’s Humanitas Prize for his Disney film, “Let it Shine,” wrote and sold “a big script, with Will Smith attached.” But the film was never made and after a while, Daniel found it harder to get his agent’s attention. He jumped from one Big Four to another, but the new agent pressured him to take a job on a TV show he didn’t particularly like.

“And I honestly thought it was kind of a forced ‘diversity hire.’” Daniel, who also voted to adopt the Code of Conduct, is African-American.

“I haven’t gone back to agencies until recently. Ironically, I was working on my first TV project and started meeting with agents, and it’s interesting what’s going on now because their first perspective was to start packaging.”

A longtime agent at one of the Big Four, who asked that his name not be used, had a different take on the impasse.

“There are compelling arguments on both sides,” he said, “but what it comes down to is there’s a lot of chaos in the industry at the moment — the disruption of conglomerates, streaming.” Agents, he insists, are still writers’ closest allies.

On Sunday, he said that a handful, but by no means all of his clients in the WGA had given him the union-drafted message, and he accused the Guild leaders of brinkmanship.

“It really has not been a negotiation,” he said, but thinks the dispute will ultimately be resolved.

Daniel remains firmly behind the union’s tough stance.

“It’s a wake-up call,” he said. “It’s kind of like an abusive relationship, when the guy or whoever it is doesn’t realize they’ve been abusive and then they realize, ‘Wow, they’re willing to let me go.’”

Vanessa Williams to perform at concert for scholarship supporting African American, Latino students at Syracuse University

NEW YORK — Actress and singer Vanessa Williams is hitting the stage in New York City and performing at a benefit concert.

The concert is hosted by Syracuse University’s Office of Multicultural Advancement and will feature an evening of music from university alumna, Vanessa Williams.

Proceeds benefit the “Our Time Has Come” Vanessa Williams Scholarship, which supports African American and Latino students in the University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

To date, over 1,300 scholarships have been awarded to students.

The benefit concert will be held Apr. 24 at 7 p.m. at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at 515 Malcolm X Blvd.

For tickets, click here.

Vanessa Williams benefit concert

04/26-28th Free Workshops & Demos to Celebrate World Qigong Taichi Day @ Eastover, Lenox, MA w 20+ World Known Masters

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We sat down with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes to talk racial equity in schools. Here’s what he said.

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African American Perspective in Horror Films Is Platform for Social Commentary

Jordan Peele’s recent horror blockbuster “Us” follows his 2017 directorial debut with the Oscar-winning horror film “Get Out.” Critics and audiences have hailed the African American filmmaker as a pioneer of black horror films as metaphors for social, economic and racial injustice.

“Us” explores the monster lurking within ourselves in the form of the evil doppelganger.

Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o describes her dual characters of Adelaide Wilson, a middle-class mother and wife, and Red, her disturbing double.

“Adelaide is riddled with this trauma from her childhood that she cannot explain or shake off. And she is convinced, as they are on their way to their summer home in Santa Cruz, that something bad is going to happen. And she is proven right when at the end of the day, these four shadowy figures show up at the top of their driveway, and their worst nightmare ensues.”

FILE - Lupita Nyong'o arrives at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, March 4, 2018.

FILE – Lupita Nyong’o arrives at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, March 4, 2018.

Peele explores the idea of the shadow self, “which comes up in many cultures, many mythologies. And it tends to be this sense that there is a darker self that we suppress, and we suppress it because we are afraid of what it means. It holds our guilt, and our evil, really.”

Peele said he uses horror to address race relations and the growing socioeconomic divide in America. His previous horror film “Get Out” was about wealthy elderly white people extending their lives by having their brains transplanted into young black people.

“Us” is about the reckoning of privileged Americans by their disadvantaged selves.

“It’s more about what we’ve become as a country and a retribution of how we are treating each other, all centered around how a family deals with being attacked by themselves,” said producer Sean McKittrick.

“Oftentimes, we feel that the monster is from outside of ourselves, outside our borders, outside our homes. In this story, the monster is really within our very selves, and it’s about embracing that or at least recognizing it,” Nyong’o said.

Minorities in lead roles

Horror film expert Andrew Scahill said Peele epitomizes the era of black horror movies.

“I think we are at an incredibly exciting time for horror right now. Minorities taking the reins of this genre, which to be honest, it has been really exclusionary, if not antagonistic, toward them in the past.”

Scahill said in past horror movies, such as George Romero’s iconic 1968 horror flick “Night of Living Dead,” black actors were either killed off within the first 10 minutes or used as tropes to save white leading characters before getting killed off.

FILE - Jordan Peele accepts the award for best original screenplay for "Get Out" at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, March 4, 2018.

FILE – Jordan Peele accepts the award for best original screenplay for “Get Out” at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, March 4, 2018.

Now, he said, Peele establishes them as the main characters who are here to stay.

“Jordan Peele does not plan on casting a white actor in a lead role because that movie has been done,” Scahill said.

Anxiety of millennials

Scahill said the concept of the monster within is as old as Jekyll and Hyde or Frankenstein. The same applies to using horror as a platform for social commentary.

“It goes back even further,” he said. “When I show ‘Nosferatu,’ I show the image of that vampire against caricatures of Jewish people during the period. ‘King Kong’ is a metaphor for the slave trade. ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ depending on who you talk to, is about communism or McCarthyism or consumerism, or all of those things. And that is one exciting thing about horror — the instability of the characters. Representing our different anxieties.”

Scahill said in millennial horror films, the killing force cannot be as easily identified and, consequently, controlled. He said such themes as those explored in “Us” reflect the anxiety of millennials losing control of their socioeconomic and environmental well-being, and their inability to change the system.

“Bodies being puppeted against their will seems to be a strain of contemporary horror. And if you think about the anxieties of young people today entering the workforce and their crippling debt, it’s an endless war. It makes sense that that’s horror today.”