Anti-Blackness and Structural Racism in the Antelope Valley

Originally distributed by Overground Collective

Sitting about 90 miles north of the city of Los Angeles, the Antelope Valley is a desert swath of gated McManision communities, prefab homes, and water tanks in backyards because there’s no piping in the high desert.

It has the feel of an outskirt—a place on the edge.

But underneath those small town vibes, a history of racism persists, and so do urgent calls for Black lives to matter.

On May 21, 1989, local law enforcement shot and killed Betty Jean Aborn, a homeless Black woman, in the Antelope Valley. County Sheriffs fired 28 rounds. Eighteen hit her body.

Aborn allegedly stole an ice cream cone from a nearby restaurant. The three deputies involved were found not guilty.

Following Aborn’s death, the LA Times reported, “To many, the incident and three other recent shootings by law enforcement officers reflect the Antelope Valley’s transformations from a cluster of sleep desert communities into an urban area with urban problems.”

About 30 years later, on July 10, 2020, a young Black man named Robert Fuller was found hanging from a tree. His body was right outside of Palmdale City Hall, less than 10 miles from Aborn’s murder. Authorities ruled Fuller’s death a suicide.

However, in the midst of national uprisings around the killing of Black people by police, community members voiced suspicions of a lynching. In the weeks that followed, organizers held rallies and called on public officials to pursue a deeper investigation.

BEYOND THE INDIVIDUAL HASHTAG

Thirty years apart, Aborn and Fuller’s deaths, and the community response for racial justice in both instances, tell a story of racial tension, racialized violence, and anti-Blackness.

They remind us that the murder of Black people, whether at the hands of law enforcement or racist lynch mobs, isn’t new. It’s the result of centuries of structural and policy inequities.

This is true for America broadly, and the Antelope Valley, specifically. Since Fuller’s death, the area, sometimes called the “Confederacy of California,” has transformed into somewhat of a growing desert-metropolis. In fact, recent census data shows the Valley’s Black population grew from 7 percent to 17 percent between 1990 and 2018. Meanwhile, its Latinx population ballooned from 18 percent to 51 percent in the same period.

The increased diversity of the area hasn’t prevented racism from rearing its ugly head. Black residents endure race-based hate crimes, discriminatory housing practices, and Ku Klux Klan activity.

Rex Parris, an incumbent white mayor of the Valley town of Lancaster, CA, produced campaign materials calling a Black Air Force Master Sergeant and City Council candidate the “gang candidate.”

And just last year in neighboring Palmdale, CA, another Valley town, pictures of elementary school teachers “jokingly” posing with a noose rippled through the community.

A Black resident, choosing to remain under the pseudonym Camille, told me her family moved to the Antelope Valley from the city of Los Angeles in the 1990s. Throughout the years, they experienced numerous racialized attacks. “The KKK is real,” Camille said. “They are not playing.”

Frankly, incidents of violence and discrimination run deeper than individual conflicts between Black residents and law enforcement.

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The lived experiences of Black people in the area are the result of policies and lawmaking that rely on a history of anti-Blackness, unevenly distributed development, and community divestment.

STRUCTURAL RACISM’S FOOTHOLDS IN ‘URBAN (RE)DEVELOPMENT’

In 1993, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) created a set of national reforms entitled HOPE VI. The program granted local housing authorities the ability to demolish public housing, and to replace it with ‘mixed-income’ units. It also allowed “high-poverty” public housing residents to receive vouchers, such as Section 8, to relocate.

Much of the Black community in the Antelope Valley, including many who moved from bigger cities in Los Angeles County arrived through those Section 8 vouchers. “You can take your Section 8 … and get a big house for cheap,” noted Camille.

Between 2000 and 2008, the number of residents utilizing vouchers nearly tripled. Black families—primarily mothers and their children—were being shifted from their public housing in areas like Watts, Compton, and Inglewood to the desert highlands of the Antelope Valley. And unfortunately, while land is cheap there, jobs are thin.

That’s not a good combination, Camille explained.

“It’s not worth it because you’re basically setting yourself up for [whites] to come mess with you. Once our car broke down, they chased us with bats, chains. They had a pole with nails in it… they were chasing us for like two miles, like ‘Get out of here, you don’t belong over here.’’

In addition to racial violence from white residents, relocated Black residents are met with excessively aggressive housing inspections, with a special Sheriffs unit assigned to execute midnight raids on families and evict them if they fail to meet narrow Section 8 compliance rules.

Families reported being evicted for having children sleepover who were “not on the paperwork,” for boyfriends coming to stay the night, or for family members with documented criminal records visiting their apartments.

This systematic discrimination became so persistent that a lawsuit was filed against the Sheriffs department in 2015. The result was a $2 million settlement awarded to residents enrolled in the voucher program. The ruling indicated the Sheriff’s department, government officials in the Antelope Valley, and Los Angeles Housing Authority had systematically colluded to displace Black residents from the City. First, they forced them into the desert, and then they kicked them out of it through evictions.

But this isn’t new, either. Nationally poor Black women with children face the highest rates of eviction.

Unaffordability, the financial pressures of being working class, challenges of parenting, and racialized, sexist tropes about the aggression of Black women all create a deadly storm where stable housing for Black women and their families can feel impossible.

Meanwhile, in the neighborhoods left behind after Black families relocate, the now familiar signs of gentrification are already deeply solidified. Housing projects in Watts are slated to be demolished, massive capital projects like the Los Angeles Rams’ SoFi Stadium, and the remodeling of The Forum have made Inglewood financially untenable for many longtime residents. And the development of transit infrastructure has led to Black residents organizing for fear of being pushed out of historic neighborhoods like Crenshaw and Leimert Park.

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Words like “relocation,” “revitalization,” and “redevelopment” sit like a veneer over policies that shuffle Black people geographically in the name of property values, capital gain, and investment.

PRISONS LURKING

At one point, it seemed as if Black women were only welcomed in the Antelope Valley when they were being incarcerated there.

On the outskirts of the Valley, just a few miles down from where most families like Camille’s live, sits an empty immigration detention facility called Mira Loma. Previously operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the facility housed 1,100 immigrant beds. Now desolate save for one or two private guards, Los Angeles County proposed to spend $215 million to transform it into a women’s detention facility.

That plan failed.

Thanks to grassroots organizing efforts, including Youth Justice Coalition, Dignity and Power Now,Justice LA, and JustLeadershipUSA, the Mira Loma Women’s project was voted down last February by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors. But while this victory deserves celebration, a carceral nexus still sits in the Antelope Valley. Federal, state, and county prisons are all still operational in the area.

DEFUND MORE THAN THE POLICE

The killing of Black people requires more than defunding or abolishing the police. Underneath the location of each hashtag, each Black person murdered, named and unnamed, lies a deeper history of anti-Blackness and violence.

We must look beyond individual incidents.

The last thirty-years of the Antelope Valley’s history speaks to this. Dr. Rahim Kuraw of the Department of Criminology at University of Illinois at Chicago is currently working on a book about this history. “It had a whites only past but it doesn’t have a whites only future,” he said.

Valuing Black lives also means valuing our history, protecting the places we are from, and helping to create our future. It means breaking down the racist structures that allow our lives to be taken from us, and the historical attempts to displace and erase generations of us.

Whitney Richards-Calathes (she/her) is a community-based researcher, writer and social justice program consultant. She collaborates with grassroots organizations and institutions to do participatory research and youth leadership development. Her work is in service to abolitionist movements and gender equity. She holds a PhD from The Graduate Center and writes about the impact of incarceration on generations of Black women. Her work is based in NYC and Los Angeles. She is from the Bronx. Find her at instagram @call.me.shaney and on Twitter @whitneyinpublic.