How America responded to a refugee crisis 100 years ago


The images of the refugees on boats or at border fences fleeing danger for safety is a sad commentary on how the world watched ISIS take over and did nothing.  I believe if more outrage and humanitarian aid had been available earlier, ISIS would have seen that the Western world  cared about the innocent.  A century ago,  the response to genocide was different.  In April, the Los Angeles Public Library carried an exhibit on how Americans responded to the Armenian Genocide.  Americans were able to raise $117 million, or what would amount to $2 billion a day.  Here’s my story (April 18, 2015): 

The children were almost lost to the desert.

They had left their villages under death threats. They saw their fathers killed by swords, watched mothers, grandmothers and aunties die of starvation on the death marches to Syria.

But from thousands of miles away, Americans found them.

Through telegrams, news articles and film reels, the story of how children became orphans of the Armenian Genocide reached America’s shores in 1915. An organization called Near East Relief was founded and a national movement rose. Silent movie stars such as Irene Rich and Jackie Coogan held sandwich boards asking for donations and cans of milk. Churches and community groups raised money and sent clothing while President Calvin Coolidge called for Golden Rule Sunday, when Americans ate modest meals to remember “the starving Armenians.”

“Back then, there was a groundswell of a response,” said Ani Boyadjian, research and special collections manager at the Los Angeles Public Library. “They were hearing that people were being slaughtered.”

The American reaction to the needs of the orphans and those who survived the Armenian Genocide is the theme of a traveling exhibit now on display at the Los Angeles’ Central Library. Called “They Will Not Perish: The Story of Near East Relief,” the exhibit includes 26 panels that show photographs of orphans as well as posters used at the time to raise funds. But at its heart, the whole exhibit is meant to show America’s generosity in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, Boyadjian said.

The display is there to say “America, we thank you,” she added.

“Many of us are direct descendents of those orphans and survivors helped by Near East Relief,” Boyadjian said. “Their response is an untold story of American philanthropy.”

Now called Near East Foundation, the nonsectarian, New York-based non-profit organization is also celebrating its centennial this year. It was founded after U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau sent telegrams about what was happening in the Ottoman Empire.


“At that time communication had been revolutionized by the telegram,” said Molly Sullivan, director and curator of the Near East Relief Historical Society. “It was the first time that communication could move faster than the fastest runner, fastest ship and fastest horse. It meant that the perpetrators of the genocide used the same technology.”

With the help of President Woodrow Wilson, the small-scale relief operation went on to raise more than $117 million — today’s equivalent of about $2 billion — to aid Armenians in the aftermath of the genocide. That money helped save 132,000 orphans, according to the Near East Foundation.

Any orphan of any religion was welcomed, Sullivan said. And the organization still works today to help displaced people in the Middle East and Africa. With the ranks of the Islamic State swelling, thousands of Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans and Armenians whose families fled to Syria and Iraq for safety during the genocide are now being displaced and killed. Sullivan said the American response is different now, again, because of technology.

“Technology has made incredible changes in the last 100 years,” she said. “We have so much information about the news that it’s possible that people have become overwhelmed and they don’t know how to help. With certain aspects of the news, they’re very concerned but they are also fatigued.”

On Friday, Armenians worldwide will observe the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide. They will gather at memorials to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were killed by the Ottoman Turks as part of what scholars and historians say was a systematic cleansing of their identity. And they will march in cities to protest the ongoing denial by the Turkish government, which has said the deaths and deportations of Armenians, Assyrians and Pontic Greeks were part of wars and unrest in the then-collapsing Ottoman Empire.


Many countries and states have recognized the events of 1914 to 1923 as genocide. Last Sunday, Pope Francis even defined the slaughter of Armenians as the first genocide of the 20th century. But Armenians remain disappointed over President Obama’s silence. While a resolution was introduced by 40 congressional members including U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, to call on the president to pressure Turkey to fully acknowledge the genocide, the United States has so far resisted.

The pope said subsequent atrocities such as the Holocaust, the Pol Pot massacres and those in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur could have been avoided if the Ottoman Turks had been held accountable.

Jen Portillo and Marleni Segovia, local visitors to the exhibit, looked over the photographs of orphans and said they thought they were images of Holocaust victims of World War II.

“I knew nothing about the Armenian Genocide,” Portillo said. “We had the same wars, the same killings in El Salvador. It’s like so many cultures have gone through so much.”

“It shows we’re all human, that we all go through struggles,” Segovia added.

Boyadjian said many non-Armenians have been able to relate to the photographs of the children.

“Los Angeles is a city of refugees,” she said.

The exhibit, made possible by the American National Committee of America, is a personal one for Boyadjian. Her paternal grandparents were two of the orphans who were saved by the work of Near East Relief. Her grandmother’s entire family except a sister were killed. Her grandfather lost all of his family members. The two orphans were brought to Lebanon where they ended up in the same orphanage, and they married as soon as they came of age, she said.

“I can still feel their story on my skin,” she said.

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Boyadjian said she will be one of those attending a March for Justice event on Friday that begins in Little Armenia, in east Hollywood. More than 200,000 people of Armenian descent call Los Angeles County home. It is the largest Armenian diaspora outside of the Republic of Armenia.

Boyadjian said she knows people will be upset that streets will be closed, and others will say the genocide happened 100 years ago, that it’s time to move on. But she said she will march to say thank you.

“If it wasn’t for America’s response, my grandparents would not have survived,” she said. “I would not have been born.”

Robin Williams remembered on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame


I’ve been on Hollywood Boulevard after flowers were placed on the stars of celebrities who have died, but the flower ceremony that stayed with me the most was for Robin Williams. I covered the ceremony in 2014, a day after he took his own life. It was heartbreaking because Williams was young, funny, and giving.  Today, Aug. 11, 2015 marks the one year anniversary of his death. Here’ my story, (Daily News, Aug. 12, 2014):

HOLLYWOOD >> As a wreath of white and yellow flowers was carried down Hollywood Boulevard on Tuesday morning, an uncharacteristic silence came over the usually vibrant Walk of Fame.

The placement of calla lilies and roses over Robin Williams’ pink terrazzo star was a quiet gesture, one in contrast with the entertainer they were intended for, whose range of characters he created seemed to burst from screens big and small, bringing laughter and smiles. But in the end, news of his suicide brought sadness and tears to those very same fans.

“He could take audiences to different levels,” said Erlinda Fantauzzi, an Arleta resident who came to Hollywood Boulevard to pay her respects to Williams. The 67-year-old woman said she cried when she heard the news that Williams had taken his own life.

“I feel sad that he made so many people happy but in the end, he died sad and alone,” she added.

"Fans have left flowers and memorabilia at Robin Williams' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Tuesday, August 12, 2014. (Photo by Michael Owen Baker/Los Angeles Daily News)"

“Fans have left flowers and memorabilia at Robin Williams’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Tuesday, August 12, 2014. (Photo by Michael Owen Baker/Los Angeles Daily News)”

Based on a preliminary report by the Marin County’s coroner’s office, Williams died alone in a room of his Tiburon home. The cause of death was asphyxia by hanging, Lt. Keith Boyd with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office said during a news conference. Boyd said that Williams, 63, had several cuts on his left wrist and that one end of a belt had been fastened around his neck, while the other end had been secured between the closed closet door and door frame. No foul play was suspected. Williams was found by his personal assistant, in a seated position. Boyd would not say if Williams had left a note for his family.

What was known was that Williams recently had sought help for depression. He had battled cocaine addiction and alcohol before, but it seemed overwhelming sadness still filled him.

“Humor and laughter is a defense mechanism,” said Ildiko Tabori, a licensed psychologist in residence at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Depression among comedians is common, she said, especially since many travel frequently and feel lonely on the road.


“I didn’t know Williams at all,” Tabori said. “But there had to have been some sort of demons inside of him that had gone on for many, many years that were not processed through, and not resolved.”

Tabori said everyone experiences a range of emotions every day, including sadness and depression, but if people don’t receive help or support, those feelings can fester and become detrimental.

While Williams had the wealth to find exclusive support, money doesn’t always help, Tabori said.

“It’s about the desire,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t see past that dark moment.”

She said society still needs to remove the stigma of mental illness so that people are not afraid to say, “I am having a really bad time in my life.” In addition, people need to learn to recognize signs in others: a change in mood, or too much eating or not eating, change in appearance, and isolation.

“We need to reach out,” she said.

Back at the Walk of Fame, media from around the world and tourists crowded around Williams’ star near TCL Chinese Theatre, where Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, quietly placed the wreath. The star in the sidewalk already had been covered with daisies, votive candles, notes and drawings.

A card that hung from the wreath read: “You made us laugh, now we cry.”

Many fans had the same sentiment.

“I got very teary eyed when I walked up to his star,” said Mary-Beth Hempfling of Florida, who was visiting Los Angeles with her husband, Ray. He liked Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” while she preferred the actor in “Patch Adams,” she said.

“I think it was his gift of laughter. It was a God-given gift,” Hempfling said of why so many people were drawn to Williams. “I think his purpose on this planet was to show his heart.”


Puey Quinones, 31, said Williams is a big star in his native Philippines.

“It’s like losing a family member,” Quinones said. “I love his movies. It’s a big loss for us.”

Mike Ravizza, 47, said he met Williams once, when the actor was leaving the set of the Jimmy Kimmel show, almost across the street from where the wreath was placed.

“I said, Hey, Robin, I’m a fan!’ and he turned to me and said ‘You are? You need Botox!’” Ravizza said. “It made me laugh. I’ll never forget that.”

For the ‘Wizard’ and others, supportive homes are their castles

“Michael Angel, “The Wizard” in his apartment at the Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. Wizard was homeless for more than 20 years before moving into the complex which was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News ) “

With more than 40,000 homeless people living on the streets of Los Angeles, the need for permanent, supportive housing is growing, especially for those with mental illness. But the issue is tricky because some neighborhoods don’t want those housing units around.  They say those who are still addicted to drugs may resort to crimes.  Other supportive residences are placed in rough areas where there are high crime rates and temptation is always around.  I met a few people who who were placed in supportive homes in the San Fernando Valley, who said they are grateful and were trying to stay away from trouble, but some neighbors still had doubts. From my story (Daily News, November 2014): 

The man who calls himself The Wizard says he feels as if a magical force pulled him up from years of living down and out on the streets of the San Fernando Valley.

How else, he said one recent day, can he explain how he went from sleeping on a sidewalk in Pacoima  to stretching out on a brand new bed in his own studio apartment.

“I’m The Wizard because no one can defeat me,” the 55-year-old man proclaimed, stabbing the air with a stick to simulate a sword fight. “But I don’t want to fight no more. I’m not young no more.”

The Wizard said he earned his name, like his long gray beard, through the street smarts and wisdom he gathered while living on the edges of the Angeles National Forest or on the sidewalks of Pacoima. But he also uses that name because he has no traceable identification: no social security card, no driver’s license. Volunteers and those with L.A. Family Housing saw The Wizard, homeless for years and aging, as the kind of person who would benefit from living at a newly built permanent supportive housing complex in Tujunga.

Michael Angel,

Michael Angel, “The Wizard” in the outdoor patio at the Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. Wizard was homeless for more than 20 years before moving into the complex which was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News )

Called the Trudy & Norman Louis Apartments, the 45-unit building is one of two opened by L.A. Family Housing in the San Fernando Valley that provides housing to the chronically homeless and the most vulnerable among them. They are the men and women who are most likely to die on the streets. The tenants, mostly single, receive on-site supportive services to help with mental issues, alcohol and drug addiction or chronic illnesses. In return, they pay 30 percent of their monthly government checks and adhere to rules typical of any other housing complex.

Although tenants moved in over the summer, a formal grand opening will be held Monday at 11:30 a.m. at 7639 Day St.

“We made a concerted outreach effort in the community before we did anything,” said Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of L.A. Family Housing, based in North Hollywood. Klasky-Gamer said staff from the agency first came to Sunland-Tujunga to let the homeless know that various services were available to them. While in the community, she said she discovered that the area had its own kind of homelessness, especially in the Tujunga Wash.


For decades, men and women and even families have lived along the Tujunga Wash, a rural area at the edge of the Angeles National Forest. Some who live there are part of a cycle of homelessness that has drawn complaints about lawlessness. Others are couples or locals with pets who have no other housing options.

“What I saw here was different than anywhere else,” Klasky-Gamer said. “I call it rural homelessness.”

The two-story garden-style complex on Day Street includes a computer lab and courtyard with planter boxes and a dog run. All units are fully furnished.

“The Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. The complex was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News ) “

A similar complex was opened years before in Sun Valley. But before the Tujunga project moved forward, Klasky-Gamer said the community had to be comfortable with it.

“This has been an extraordinary community,” she said. “When they invited us to do outreach in the Wash, they felt very protective of the homeless. They said these are our homeless.”

Cindy Cleghorn, a board member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council and president of the local chamber of commerce, agreed that L.A. Family Housing was careful when developing the project in a residential neighborhood.

“We had obstacles with some people, because they misunderstood and thought it was a shelter,” Cleghorn said. “But we’re a good-hearted community.”

Cleghorn said most of the issues were addressed by Klasky-Gamer, although the neighborhood council had hoped more people from the area would be residents at the Day Street apartments.

About half of the units are subsidized through a Los Angeles County Department of Health Services program called Housing for Health. It focuses on the homeless who are more likely to be frequent users of emergency services at local hospitals, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars each year. To alleviate that spending, the county diverted some of that funding toward housing.

“We’re really trying to make a dent in this population that comes in and out of the emergency room, and do something that is very effective which is supportive housing, to help them become healthier citizens of Los Angeles,” said Marc Trotz, director for Housing for Health.

The program is still new. So far, 700 such units have been subsidized through the county program. The goal is to have 10,000. Funding comes from various sources, including the Department of Health Services and the Hilton Foundation, which donated $4 million, Trotz said.

“It’s impossible to recover when you’re homeless. It’s heartbreaking,” Trotz said. “People who have been written off as near death spring back to life when they have a home.”


That’s how Patrick Piercey came to live on Day Street. Volunteers with L.A. Family Housing found him as he lay dying along the parched banks of the Tujunga Wash, with his 4-year-old pit bull terrier named Blue nearby.

Even in the heat of summer and drought, pneumonia had moved into Piercey’s lungs, and he could no longer walk to the 7-Eleven for food or maintain his tent where he had lived. Bone thin and tired, Piercey thought he was living his last days. He was taken to the emergency department of Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar, but he had nowhere to recover.

“This place is great,” Piercey, 58, said in a quiet voice. “I still have a hard time believing I’m here. When I moved in, they had a lot of people, and they gave me a basket with things I needed. It gets me choked up thinking about it.”

Blue is happy too, he said.

“He loves the air conditioning,” Piercey said.

“Lucille Hawkins-Walker loves the patio in her apartment at the Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. Hawkins-Walker lived on the street before moving into the complex which was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News ) “

Lucille Hawkins-Walker, 60, was living on a bus bench in the San Fernando Valley where servers from the local Denny’s brought her coffee every morning. She and her brother lost their home in Apple Valley two years ago, she said, and her family couldn’t care for her. She’s lived at the new complex for three months, but each time she walks through the door, she feels like she’s seeing it again for the first time.

“Did you see how big that bathroom is?” she asked visitors one recent day. “You could have a party in there.”

Klasky-Gamer said there is a waiting list of people who live in temporary housing who hope to move into Day Street, and a similar project is underway in North Hollywood.

As for The Wizard, whose name on his key card reads Michael Angel Ambriz, which he calls himself, he likes that he has his own place, where he can come home, read his world history books in peace, wake up early, take his bike and go out to the streets to collect recyclables for money.

“I think what they did is a real humanitarian deed,” he said of those who built the apartment complex. “This building may not look like a castle. But this room, this is my castle.”

Hospitals find ways to navigate homeless into shelters

Jonathan Lopez (Homeless Navigator) talks with patient Guadalupe Tolentino at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Woodland Hills, CA September 19, 2013. Lopez helps homeless patients find a shelter or home after they are discharged so that they don't go back to living on the streets.(Andy Holzman/Los Angeles Daily News)

Jonathan Lopez (Homeless Navigator) talks with patient Guadalupe Tolentino at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Woodland Hills, CA September 19, 2013. Lopez helps homeless patients find a shelter or home after they are discharged so that they don’t go back to living on the streets.(Andy Holzman/Los Angeles Daily News)

Patient dumping, or when a hospital discharges a homeless patient to Skid Row or onto the street, has become rare, but still does occur. With so many homeless people who require medical care, hospitals in Los Angeles and across the nation are trying to find ways to help the homeless recuperate after being discharged. There are programs in Los Angeles, but they still are few and far between. Jonathan Lopez, who is a former homeless navigator, has helped many.  Many more like him are needed. From my story (Daily News, October, 2013): 

WOODLAND HILLS >> Almost once a week, Guadalupe Tolentino’s liver and bloodstream drown in liquor and sorrow, and that gets him a free ambulance ride to Kaiser Permanente’s Emergency Department.

There, doctors and nurses flush the alcohol out of the 55-year-old  man’s veins with IV fluids, calm his tremors with vitamins and medications and, if he stays long enough, provide him a meal and clean clothes.

Despite an existence in crisis, liquor is never far from Tolentino’s mind, and neither is Kaiser’s emergency department in Woodland Hills, which he visits up to 40 times a year.

For Tolentino and other chronic homeless men and women like him, the emergency department is a place of stability and peace, where the sound of rushing crash carts and the beeps of telemetry monitors can be a lullaby compared to the sounds of sleeping on the streets.

But for the hospital’s “homeless navigator” Jonathan Lopez, those such as Tolentino, known as frequent flyers, also are never far from his mind. Most pose no harm, but those repeated returns show that their chronic drug or alcohol dependence as well as their homelessness go untreated. And it means the hospital pays an average of $1,500 a night for their stay, money that is never recuperated.

“When a frequent flyer returns to our ED my adrenalin gets going,” said Lopez, “I instantly start to process where I might be able to coordinate a placement,” Lopez said. “I get to relate to these individuals in an extraordinary way.”

Hospitals around the country have been increasingly using homeless navigators to help place indigent men and women into treatments centers or housing after discharge. In the Kaiser system, which has 14 medical centers in Southern California, Lopez’s position is part of a first-of-its-kind, two-year-old pilot program launched at the Woodland Hills campus. He said he crafted the program after watching a similar approach formed by the San Gabriel Valley Consortium on Homelessness.

Lopez works to help 40 to 50 homeless patients a month who come to the ED looking for care. He and a team of nurses, caseworkers and others try to place the men and women in treatment centers to help with their addictions, or locate transitional housing, sober living environments or other programs.

It’s a difficult vocation. A knot of obstacles, including stretched resources, lack of beds and housing, and a resistance by the patients to treat their alcohol and drug dependence or leave the streets for good, make Lopez’s work seem futile.

Still, he tries.

In the last 18 months, Lopez and his team have worked to place 500 men and women into emergency shelters, transitional housing, detox and residential addiction rehabilitation programs.

“My greatest challenge is having immediate availability of homeless resources so that we can end homelessness at the time of discharge from the Emergency Department,” Lopez said.

In the last few years, more hospitals have hired navigators to make sure the homeless have somewhere to go after they are discharged, health officials said. The most successful programs are those that can lead the homeless to supportive housing, where their addictions and mental illnesses can be addressed in a safe environment.

But patient dumping — in which hospitals transport homeless men and women back to Skid Row — continues to cast a shadow over the way medical facilities work with poor patients.


In 2006, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office filed criminal charges against Kaiser after a 63-year-old patient from the system’s Bellflower hospital was found wandering Skid Row in a hospital gown and slippers. Kaiser agreed to fines and a program that trains staff on how to work with the homeless when they are ready for discharge.

Similar cases involving other hospitals followed. In 2008, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center also agreed to settle allegations with the City Attorney’s Office after it left a paraplegic man crawling around downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row in a hospital gown and with a colostomy bag.

No lawsuits are currently pending but investigations are underway, said Frank Mateljan, spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office.

“Our office is currently working with our service provider and law enforcement partners to investigate several reported incidents of patient dumping  on Skid Row after seeing an increase over the past year,” Mateljan said.

Discharging the homeless is a complicated issue, agreed Jennifer Bayer, spokeswoman for the Hospital Association of Southern California.

In Los Angeles County, where services are spread out and where there are 6,000 emergency beds in shelters for nearly 60,000 homeless, hospital staff say they struggle to find a place that will take these patients upon discharge. The result has been accusations of patient dumping.

“It’s a frustrating issue because hospitals are caught between a rock and hard place,” Bayer said. Some homeless patients won’t give their name. Others give consent to be transported to the Union Mission, then change their minds while being transported. A few who know the system also take advantage of emergency departments, which by law cannot turn anyone away, Bayer said.

“So much of this comes down to patient rights,” Bayer said. “You’ve got a very difficult population. We can’t force them into treatment. We can’t force them into recuperative care.”

Physicians and staff in emergency care say they too have felt the frustration of treating a patient, only to see them again, or else not know where they might go after they are discharged.

“I think emotionally you hope to make a change in people’s lives,” said Dr. Ara Gabrielian, an emergency physician. “Before the program started, there was a feeling of hopelessness.”

But the navigator program is another prevention tool, to help untie the knots, Gabrielian and others said.

Nationwide, hospitals provided more than $41 billion in uncompensated care in 2011, the last year for which data is available, although not all of that was spent on the homeless patients, according to the American Hospital Association.

Costs aside, Lopez said he also works with the homeless in the community who are referred to him from churches, service agencies, and even other homeless who he has met in the emergency department.

“When I accepted this job I told myself to be successful I would need to be as open as possible and completely non-judgmental,” he said.

And patient.

On a recent afternoon, Lopez met with Tolentino to tell the homeless man that the Tarzana Treatment Center had a spot for him.

Tolentino, who sleeps behind a local Home Depot, works as a day laborer but drinks so much that he’s fallen off of ladders while on the job. He has gotten cuts on his face from street fights, or else passes out on the concrete behind the Home Depot where he sleeps.

“When I was 12, I used to see older men sit and drink and they told stories and laughed and seemed so happy,” Tolentino said.

He agreed to try sobriety, but a few days later, he was back on the streets, Lopez said.

“It can take from 1 to 10 attempts,” Lopez said. “So I usually think ‘OK this is only the sixth time’ — as an example. So I realize that being a homeless navigator is a process and I never give up, ever.”

Lopez said when he was a young child and for most of his life — he dreamed of saving people.

“I never get discouraged,” Lopez said. “We can’t always cure homelessness, but we can disrupt the pattern of chronic homelessness which can lead to helping to change the individual’s life.”

Los Angeles marchers carry hundreds of mock coffins to protest death by cop


With Ferguson, Mo. and later Baltimore becoming the focal points of social unrest over police brutality, April’s Los Angeles Death by Cop march was a timely, peaceful event.  There were tears, anger, and frustration by family members whose relatives were killed by police in Los Angeles County. Police have added cameras to their uniforms, and even attended the event. But as one protester told me, until a police officer is held accountable, the frequency of deaths among African Americans and Latinos by cops will continue.  From my story (April 7, 2015):

The 617 coffins came from four directions of Los Angeles County on Tuesday morning with a single purpose.

They came from the east, where Kendrec McDade, 19, was shot by two Pasadena Police Department officers in 2012. From the west, where Douglas Zerby, 35, was shot by two officers with Long Beach police in 2010. From the north, where Gabriel Lopez, 22, was shot by three officers with the San Fernando police in 2014.

And from the south, where Ezell Ford, 25, was shot by officers with the Los Angeles Police Department in 2014.

One by one, the cardboard coffins with the names of those killed in officer-involved shootings since 2000 were carried by hundreds of protesters who marched through downtown Los Angeles, then lay out in front of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration. The silent gesture conveyed a loud message: Remember me. Death by cop.

“I’m here because I feel there needs to be a change made to the use-of-force policies in Los Angeles County,” said Canek Pena-Vargas, a site director for CALÓ YouthBuild, which works with students who drop out of school.

Pena-Vargas often hears from youth that they don’t trust law enforcement. “If we’re so afraid of law enforcement, then who can we trust to help us?” he asked. “I want to make sure we have a chance to trust.”

Organized by the Youth Justice Coalition and a new group called STOP Police Violence, the rally was a call to action directed at law enforcement and District Attorney Jackie Lacey to institute new county policies.

The groups want the state of California to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate use of force and demand more action by Lacey to prosecute each incident by officers found guilty of misconduct. They also want more rights for families affected by use of force, so they have better access to information on their loved ones’ cases, county support and resources to bury people who are killed and access to mental health counseling for survivors.


The groups are calling on changes to city and county charters to expand representation during community oversight commission meetings with the LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Lastly, the groups believe 1 percent of funds that go to law enforcement should go to developing youth centers and other services aimed at helping teens graduate and find jobs.

Lacey’s office released a statement later in the afternoon saying the district attorney opposes the appointment of an independent counsel to review officer-involved shootings.

“Under the California Constitution, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office — which is led by an independently elected district attorney — reviews and prosecutes all felony crimes within Los Angeles County,” said spokeswoman Jean Guccione.

“Specially trained prosecutors and investigators review all allegations of police misconduct in accordance with the law. They roll out to all officer-involved shootings to ensure that the inquiry is conducted in a fair and professional manner. Long-established LADA policies and procedures further protect the integrity and independence of the criminal review process.”


Organizers said the rally was in response to a continued, frustrating trend between law enforcement and black and Latino communities. Last year’s shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer inFerguson, Mo., sparked a national outcry and cast a spotlight on racism on law enforcement agencies.

The protests and rallies that followed spawned the slogans “Black Lives Matter,” “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe,” all intended to bring about a deeper understanding of how young black men feel when approached by police.


“They (Los Angeles County officials) heard our message, but what we want now is action to follow through,” said one organizer, who gave her name as Michelle X. “No (police officer) has been held accountable. If at least one person is held accountable, then it will be like a domino effect.”

Watching the protest, LAPD Capts. Michael Rimkunas and Patricia Sandoval thanked Michelle X for being part of the event. Both said they supported the rally, that they wanted to hear the community’s concerns.

But the young woman told them she had attended several community LAPD meetings over the years, and nothing seemed to improve.

“We can be doing things better,” Rimkunas, of the LAPD’s Newton Division, responded. “I’ll take this message and tell those who work under me.”

However, among those in attendance, the family members of those who had been shot felt justice was out of grasp, said McDade’s aunt Latina White. Recently released court documents showed Pasadena police made several tactical errors when approaching the unarmed young man.

“We want to keep his name out there, to keep seeking justice,” White said. “It’s nice for the community to unite like this. It’s more empowering. They (county officials) have no choice but to listen to us.”

Despite ISIS, Assyrians continue to fight for the right to exist


As we come up on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a similar genocide has erupted.  This time, mass media stepped up and told the story of how ISIS is attempting to wipe out Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and other minorities from the Middle East.  But I’ve written about the topic so many times, I’ll simply let my latest story speak for itself.  From my story, Daily News, Feb. 26, 2015:

The woman who entered St. Mary’s Assyrian Church of the East on Thursday morning kissed the foot of a cross, then cried out a tearful plea.

“Please, God, please help the innocent,” she said in an ancient language inside the San Fernando Valley church. “Please save them.”

Her prayers reflect an ache that has settled into the hearts and minds of Assyrians far and wide since Monday, when the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, pillaged three dozen Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabur River in northeastern Syria. They burned down homes and churches, kidnapped more than 200 people, mostly women and children, and threatened to execute them if the Kurdish militias in the region do not release several ISIS militant prisoners.

It’s the latest Middle East crisis for Assyrians, who were among the first Christians in the world, said Cor-Bishop Father George Bet Rasho, who heads St. Mary’s Parish in Tarzana.

Bet Rasho said the kidnappings and the displacement of 3,000 people have prompted a worldwide call for Assyrian churches in California and across the nation to hold a special prayer vigil Friday night. His hope is that people of all faiths in the community will join them at 7:30 p.m. at St. Mary’s at 5955 Lindley Ave. in Tarzana to pray for the helpless.

“We’re praying that ISIS will not parade these women and children in cages and burn them,” he said, referring to the Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by ISIS earlier this month. “We’re hoping for a miracle.”

To say the Assyrians’ plight is dire is an understatement, Bet Rasho and others said. Assyrians are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, presently Iraq, where the last and largest concentration of Aramaic-speaking people in the world have lived for thousands of years.

But after the start of the second Gulf War in 2003, an estimated half-million Assyrians fled to Syria because of a surge of Islamic extremist attacks against them and other Christian minorities. Then the Syrian civil war began, and the ranks of ISIS swelled.


Since the takeover in June of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS has targeted the Christian population, whose faith has been present for almost 2,000 years. Assyrians were forced to flee again.

The U.S. State Department this week released a statement condemning the militants’ actions “in the strongest possible terms.”

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, of Burbank, is the top Democrat of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He introduced a bill recently for use of military force against ISIS that would prohibit the use of American ground forces in a combat mission. Schiff said the White House is trying to determine how many people have been kidnapped, where they have been taken and ways to liberate them. There also are ongoing efforts to support the Christian and non-Christian groups fighting to protect the villages, Schiff said.

“People are not only being kidnapped, but women are being forced into slavery, men are murdered and churches are burned in an effort to eradicate their history,” he said Thursday.

“Every effort has to be made to protect these communities, to seek the safe return of those kidnapped, and to stop this evil that goes by the name of Islamic State,” Schiff said.

Schiff, who has sought U.S. recognition for the Armenian Genocide, said he can understand why Christians in the Middle East have drawn parallels to that event that began exactly a century ago this year. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians from the Ottoman Empire died from 1915-23 in what was called the first genocide of the 20th century. Though the Turkish government still denies it, Armenians say the killings involved the systematic cleansing of Christians, which included Assyrians and Pontic Greeks.

“It does harken back for both Armenians and Assyrians to terrible chapters in the past in efforts to exterminate them,” Schiff said. “I’ve been concerned about these communities ever since civil war began in Syria. We’re only seeing that trend continue and accelerate with the execution of the Coptic Christians, with the kidnapping of Assyrians, and the displacement of Armenians in Kessab.”

Mideast Lebanon Islamic State Assyrians

Members of A Demand for Action, a group founded last year to raise awareness and create a safe haven in Iraq for indigenous people and minorities, said they will continue to press legislators to make sure some action is taken to avoid the deaths of those kidnapped.

“We are devastated, frightened and horrified,” said Nuri Kino, founder of the group. Kino said families of the abducted who call relatives’ cellphones in Syria hear the phrase “Allahu akbar,” or “God is Great. This is the Islamic State.”

“We will not rest before we have the help of the world leaders,” Kino said. “If ISIS increases its power it, will be the worst threat to the world since the Nazis. The president of the United States needs to speak out and save our victims. Our militias need more support. We and the Kurds together are the only ones who can save those areas. U.S. has to send airstrikes to give us assistance and boots on the ground.”

Meanwhile religious leaders such as Bet Rasho say they are often confronted by questions of faith, and by those who express anger and frustration in a world that seems to have forgotten them.

“Sometimes we don’t know the reasons for things,” Bet Rasho said. “But we do know there is a God who provides us with the air we breathe, that there is more good in the world than evil and that we can’t give up. When we give up hope, that is when we lose.”

Brain cancer takes, but also gives


One of my darkest journalism moments at the Daily News came after the massive layoffs of 2007 and 2008.  That’s when editors were scrambling to fill various sections of the paper. One of their “ideas” included shoving my health stories into a feature section which ran very fluffy health stories (like yoga positions,  diet fads, and the horoscope) once a week.  I wasn’t asked if my stories could appear there. It was just done automatically.  So I fought it. And fought. And fought. And won. That feature section was rightfully killed. Here’s one of those stories that ran in that section that sparked my anger.  I mention it, because the same story about the same organization ran front page in the Los Angeles Times recently.  From my story (February 9, 2009):

NORTHRIDGE – The poet and the painter reunited one recent afternoon to share what brain cancer has given, and what it has taken away.

Judi Kaufman said words began to flow from her mind and onto paper after a tumor stole parts of her brain. She lost her inhibitions, too, allowing her inner poet to emerge.

Mario del Valle discovered paints and brushes after cancer crept into the left side of his brain more than 10 years ago, taking away some vision and mobility on the right side of his body.

But he covers canvases with seascapes and skies in brilliant blues, posies and pansies in yellows and magentas, and bamboo stalks in bright greens, as if his left hand once belonged to Cezanne, to Monet, to van Gogh.

The disease gives and takes.

It took away their former lifestyles: running businesses and presiding over boardrooms, walking and speaking with ease, and driving. But it gave Kaufman and del Valle creativity. And, more important, friendship.

“If it wasn’t for brain cancer, I wouldn’t have known the difference between life and death, and anyone who doesn’t know the difference between life and death doesn’t know anything,” said Kaufman, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1997. “And I wouldn’t have met Mario.”

Kaufman met del Valle through the volunteer group Art of the Brain. Thankful for the attention and treatment she received at UCLA, Kaufman founded Art of the Brain (, which works to increase public awareness about brain cancer, raises money for the UCLA neuro-oncology program to continue its research, and celebrates the art produced by those who have been affected by the disease.


The group also works as an intricate network of 50 “illness mentors” – or Brain Buddies – volunteers who help those with cancer with everyday activities.Since 2000, the organization has raised more than $1.8 million through its annual galas.Researchers are uncertain whether there is a link between brain cancer and artistic creativity.

But they do see that art becomes a positive outlet, especially because the physical changes brought on by brain cancer can be psychologically difficult to accept. And the illness can be challenging for relatives, spouses and other loved ones.

“Our brain is kind of who we are,” said Dr. Timothy Cloughesy, director ofthe neuro-oncology program at UCLA and researcher for the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the university.

“I have always been blown away by our patients, the struggles they go through and the courage they have,” Cloughesy said. “Mario always comes to mind. Here’s a guy who was a successful businessman. But after brain cancer, he can’t speak, can’t see in his right visual field. He picked up painting with his left hand and gave me these rudimentary paintings. A year later, he had these beautifully detailed paintings, and it affected me.”

While advances in treatments continue, malignant brain tumors remain themost aggressive and lethal form of cancer, Cloughesy said. They occur in 10 to 17 per 100,000 persons. There also is some evidence that the incidence ofbrain tumors in the elderly has increased.

In the United States, an estimated 13,300 people will die annually from primary nervous system tumors, and 17,200 will be diagnosed.

“One of the things that we always talk about with cancer is the benefit ofearly detection,” Cloughesy said. “But we don’t have an equivalent of a Pap smear for brain cancer. We haven’t identified any behaviors such as smoking or dietary habits, so we have no ability to prevent it.”

Cloughesy said his team’s goal is to pursue a more individualized form ofcare to treat brain cancer, because what causes the cancer and the way it spreads differs in each person.

“The more we’re able to identify what drives it, the better we’re able to best control it,” Cloughesy said.

The drug Avastin, used in many types of other cancers, also is proving to help shrink brain tumors, Cloughesy said.

Kaufman began Art of the Brain because she found no organization that helped patients with lifestyle changes as a result of cancer. While Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy’s diagnosis last year helped increase awareness about brain cancer treatments and survival, sometimes those withthe illness undergo several changes, such as difficulty speaking.

And so art speaks for some.

All around the Northridge home del Valle shares with his mother, vibrant paintings hang, proof that while he cannot tell visitors what he finds pretty, he is able to show them. Del Valle continues to struggle with the changes. As owner of his own tire business, he once drove sports cars and loved fast boats.

“I try to remind him to take it all one day at a time,” said Adriana Sullivan, del Valle’s sister.”With brain cancer comes some gifts.”

Sullivan said del Valle never painted before, though their mother, Pillar del Valle, was drawn to art when her children were older. One of Pillar del Valle’s works was reprinted on a book jacket for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

On a recent day, Kaufman and del Valle visited in his studio. He pulled out albums filled with photo stills of his paintings. And there are photos, too, of who he used to be. He also shows Kaufman a book she wrote on brain cancer, which includes some of her poetry.

Kaufman said before the illness, she was nicknamed “Jude the prude.”But the illness loosened up her mind – and her pen, she said. Charles Bukowski, one of her new favorite writers, would blush at her work, she joked.

“My poor husband. People always say to me, ‘What kind of woman would do that to her husband by writing poems about sex?”‘