Antelope Valley Community Org Scores Big Victories for Fair Housing and Racial Justice

by Anonymous (not verified) on July 10, 2015

TCAL

 

By Joe Rihn

Liberty Hill Foundation offers Special Opportunity Fund Grants to provide tactical, quick-turnaround dollars for organizations seeking support for timely capacity-building opportunities. A recent SOF Grant was just what an Antelope Valley organization called The Community Action League needed to tackle a pressing local problem of police abuse and racial discrimination tied to Section 8 housing.

Pharaoh-Mitchell Pharaoh Mitchell, Organizer at The Community Action League

 

 

Like many residents in Los Angeles County’s far Northern reaches, Pharaoh Mitchell came from Los Angeles seeking a more tranquil place to live. He’s resided in Palmdale for over 15 years now, but since his days in L.A. he’s been no stranger to community organizing and advocating for those in need. “I started community organizing around homelessness in Los Angeles,” he says. Mitchell now works with TCAL.

In 2007 Antelope Valley residents who received Section 8 housing benefits started becoming victims of severe and widespread discrimination, especially people of color. The area has seen an influx of Black and Latino residents leaving urban L.A., and instances of hate crimes and racial bias have been an ongoing problem. “I started noticing in the AV Press every week there was an African American person on the front of the newspaper saying Section 8 fraud,” recalls Pharaoh, describing how he became aware of the problem affecting members of his community. Pharaoh knew something was off and began to investigate.

What he found was a climate of hostility toward Section 8 renters, who regularly put up with abuse from the local Sherriff’s Department and Section 8 housing investigators. During routine checks on Section 8 renters, “investigators would show up to the house with 6 police cars and up to 10 or 15 sheriffs,” says Pharaoh, adding that officers would arrive at homes “with guns drawn on citizens.”

 

noose Noose placed on the property of a Palmdale Section 8 resident

 

 

Many victims of Section 8 discrimination also received painful, racially motivated threats. One African American family receiving housing vouchers had racist graffiti painted on their home, and the family’s son had urine thrown on him. According to Pharaoh, other instances of racial hatred included nooses left on front lawns and swastikas painted on property. Black and Latino residents were disproportionately targeted while driving as well, and during traffic stops Sheriffs would immediately launch into questions about whether motorists were on probation. The Los Angeles Times also reported that cars belonging to African Americans were searched more often than those belonging to whites.

Pharaoh describes a fractured community and an atmosphere of mistrust when The Community Action League began taking up the fight. People were terrified of being known as Section 8 recipients and becoming targets of harassment if they spoke out against injustice. According to Pharaoh, some locals even feared TCAL was secretly working in conjunction with the municipalities of Palmdale and Lancaster to expose Section 8 renters. However, as soon as folks saw The Community Action League publicly standing up against the discrimination committed by the City governments in the area, more victims went public with their stories. “They started trusting us,” Pharaoh says.

TCAL began addressing the problem with town hall meetings and other platforms for community members to recount their experiences of harassment. TCAL also worked to educate the public by hosting know-your-rights seminars and leadership workshops. “We started training the public on their rights when it comes to dealing with the Sheriff’s Department,” says Pharaoh.

 

TCAL-press-conference-on-violence Pharaoh Mitchell speaks during a TCAL rally

 

 

TCAL took the fight for justice in a legal direction. The organization was among the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the Cities of Lancaster and Palmdale to end the harassment and discrimination. According to Pharaoh, an even greater turning point in the struggle occurred when the Department of Justice came to town in 2011, holding a town hall meeting to hear testimonial from community members. “The room was filled with almost 300 people,” says Pharaoh. While the media and the City government had denied the problem previously, the meeting demonstrated that a large number of residents’ rights had been violated. After the event, Pharaoh says the newspapers began to change their tune and public opinion started to shift.

The Department of Justice conducted an investigation into the claims and found overwhelming evidence of racially biased policing, harassment of Section 8 renters and excessive force. Soon after, things began to change. Pharaoh recalls that the community first saw real differences when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to put funding for Section 8 inspectors on hold. “That’s when the harassment stopped,” he says. Settlements with the County have since drastically changed the approach to policing in the region. Sheriffs must now abide by 150 new regulations that support racially fair policing, appropriate use of force, respect for Section 8 renters’ civil rights and community outreach. According to the DOJ victims of harassment were also granted $700,000 in compensation for the Sheriff’s Department’s violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The Antelope Valley that Pharaoh describes today is very different from the one he was fighting to change just a few years ago. Section 8 harassment has stopped, local law enforcement has adopted a more community focused attitude and racial discrimination is improving. Although TCAL has won a major victory on this issue, the fight for justice in a larger sense is still Pharaoh’s focus. The group is a recent grantee of Liberty Hill’s Rapid Response Fund for Racial Justice and continues to work for fairness in the criminal justice system.

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