By Comrade Redbeard
Long Beach’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park used to be the vibrant heart of our city’s 6th District, a place where local kids, elders, workers and all types of people from the neighborhood could come and play, learn, and enjoy life. Back in the day, social and community programs reduced crime by about 65%-far more than the cops ever have- and anyone trying to bring violence, substance abuse, and pimping into the area faced an uphill battle. Street organizations did their part to keep serious crime out, before they were sabotaged by police campaigns. The park was once home to a girls’ softball team that was envied far and wide. A little more than 12 years after it was founded under its current name, MLK Park is struggling to survive, despite the efforts of the surrounding community. One local leader, Senay Kenfe, has described it as a “green mausoleum.” As banks and real estate speculators continue to sink their claws into the land and people’s homes, and the Long Beach Police Department salivates over rising crime rates they can use to justify another substation in the area and their bloated pensions, the community pays the price of State neglect, if not outright hostility. But they’ve never stopped working or leading, even when others refused.
At a public meeting held on April 29, a group of nearly all Black residents met with the city’s directors of Public Works and the Parks department, underneath the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that graces the area. The King statue was defaced with a swastika and SS lightning bolts last July, but the supposed investigation into the hate crime produced no suspects. For some perspective, the cops already receive over half of the general budget in Long Beach. City workers power-sanded the graffiti off, with little concern about how this would affect the statue. It’s difficult to think of a more fitting metaphor.
At the meeting, which this author attended as a cadre of For The People-Long Beach, residents testified to what the space means to them and the whole neighborhood: what it once was, what it’s become, and what it could be. At a recent City Council meeting, city officials spoke of a new “vision plan” for the park, but I suspect they weren’t prepared for the vision people in the community actually have in mind. Residents spoke about the “holy ground,” and the need to create or expand mentoring classes, a community garden that actually provided food for the community and wasn’t locked up, a Black cultural center open to everyone, a theater stage, sports and entertainment programs, but also STEM and arts courses for young people. In a neighborhood where parents often have to work two or three jobs, kids need a safe place to study, play and learn. There is a community center, but it’s underfunded and understaffed. The same for the Black Resource Center, which is run by hard-working, respected leaders like Sharron Diggs-Jackson. A number of people noted that these spaces have to be more accessible for people with disabilities, and showed staunch opposition to working with the “arrogant” LBPD.
Many attendees also spoke of the need to hire local workers for parks projects, and those projects to be led by Black people from the block. People complained of being treated like tokens who were only tapped in for photo opportunities, not decision making. Appropriately enough, during the meeting, a representative from a city councilwoman’s office started taking pictures of one community speaker as he talked. The speaker paused to politely but firmly shut that down, saying he doesn’t want any pictures of the meeting going on some newsletter.
The directors of the Parks and Public Works departments speechified and made all sorts of promises in response to what residents said, but the people have good reason to be skeptical. As with many cities in the united states, let alone the world, there are really two Long Beaches: one for the rich, and one for the poor, one mostly white, and one mostly Black and Brown. Long Beach is a place where a wealthy, disproportionately white neighborhood like Belmont Shore can secure $90 million for an Olympic-caliber swimming pool, while MLK Park is supposed to be satisfied with an algae-filled “atrocity” where locals are often shut out by fees imposed by the local Boys and Girls Club and space taken by non-locals. Corruption, systemic racism, and back-scratching nepotism within the network of city bureaucrats and politicians, big capitalists, and well-connected NGOs dictate where resources go, not economic and cultural need. Every day in this killing field of a settler-colony we see how people from oppressed nations, and particularly Blacks/New Afrikans, are exploited by the power structure if they’re not ignored, abused and terrorized if they’re not demeaned. The masses aren’t stupid. They understand this. One of the most poignant calls I heard during the meeting was directed towards the City representatives: if you’re not going to help, then get out of the way.
After the meeting, one woman, a local educator whose daughter often goes to the park, stressed the need to get together before the next event and coordinate talking points. Others agreed on the importance of showing a united, organized front towards the city. The city council has about two months to produce a “vision plan” with funding sources for the park. It remains to be seen how much community input they’ll actually take. One thing’s for certain, however. The people of the 6th District won’t wait around to be saved, but will continue to fight like hell for the lives they deserve-that we all deserve.