The Boxer

By JEFF DIETRICH

He rose abruptly, cracking the empty bottle of Thunderbird on the side of the curb. Waving his jaggededged weapon he crossed the street towards our soup line. Aubury Robinson, a former lightweight contender, was ready for action. I knew from past experiences of his bloody rages that I had to intervene. He took a drunken swipe at me with his broken bottle, I grabbed him and pushed. He fell to the ground and I rammed my knee into his stomach with the full force of gravity. He was subdued.

It was the only time in my 50 years of defusing Skid Row brawls in or around our Catholic Worker soup kitchen that I have ever “laid hands” on one of our guests, much less deliberately intended to hurt them. I am a pacifist by vocation and a non-combatant by natural inclination, but I knew that Aubury “Jack” Robinson was going to attack one of our guests, and as Gandhi said: “It is better to use violence to oppose evil than to do nothing.”

When I first came to Skid Row in September 1970, it was much like it had been for 100 years before: a “hobohemia.” Not unlike the Bowery in New York, Madison Street in Chicago, the Tenderloin in San Francisco, it was a classic Skid Row with bars, single room occupancy hotels, all night porn theaters, “flop houses,” and evangelical missions serving the mostly white, mostly older, mostly alcoholic inhabitants.

The old Central Station located at 5th St. and Central Ave, the heart of Skid Row, was demolished in 1956. But the Greyhound bus station was still located at 7th and Los Angeles Streets and its facilities attracted drug dealers and derelicts and low-cost “economy” travelers. The convergence of these transportation centers constitutes what most urban planners concede as necessary prerequisites for the creation of Skid Rows. And in the early 1970’s that was still true, as we experienced an influx to our population with the winter months as workers returned from harvesting crops, working oil rigs, and various other seasonal work.

At that time, the Catholic Worker was a completely new entity on Skid Row, I was a recent draft resister, anti-war protester, newly minted radical and I had just read Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals. I did not want to save souls as the Evangelical Missions did, I wanted to transform the social environment as Saul Alinsky did. I wanted to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” as our co-founder Dorothy Day did.

We had just recently organized the Blood Strike, a boycott of the Skid Row blood banks. We formed the Blood Donors Union, which demanded higher payment for donated blood and better health care for donors. We slept in the basement of the old kitchen with the strikers and every morning we arose and picketed a targeted blood bank, sending prospective donors across the street to its competitor. We received many threats of firebombing and violence.

Unfortunately, that project only ended up adding fuel to the efforts of the legislature to ban the sale of whole blood in the State of California and the eventual closing of all Skid Row blood banks. But it also led to my being appointed by newly elected mayor Tom Bradley to the Citizens Advisory Board of the Community Redevelopment Agency (over the vigorous objections of Councilman Gil Lindsey, who had called me “a little monkey” in response to my organizing efforts).

Needless to say, as a community organizer and activist, I was vastly skeptical of sitting down with a bunch of businessmen and corporate types to give “advice” on downtown redevelopment. At the time, the operational plan for the “redevelopment” of Skid Row was the “Silver Book” which called for the wholesale destruction of the entire area and the erection of a library, a U.S.C. extension, creation of businesses and luxury hotels.

During a recess of the City Council hearing on Downtown Redevelopment the “Blue Book” somehow “appeared” on each councilperson’s desk; detailing an alternative plan to the “Silver Book,” one that aimed at saving Skid Row housing and creating parks and jobs and a Skid Row Development Corporation. The “Blue Book” plan was created by the Catholic Worker with the expert help of Jim Bonner, director of an advocacy group, the Community Design Center. It was, after months of deliberation and negotiations with the business community, eventually formalized with the unfortunate designation of a “containment plan” for Skid Row development.

The “containment plan” came into being with the initial recognition by the business community that Skid Row was not going to move; it was just too big to relocate. And therefore it was decided to concentrate all social services within the boundaries of Skid Row, rehab existing hotels, create a non-profit to operate them along with in-house social services, and re-locate the largest evangelical mission, the Union Rescue Mission, from Main Street to the center of Skid Row at 6th St. and San Pedro.

The tradeoff was that police would be allowed to ticket panhandlers when they migrated into the business center, thus diminishing the deleterious effect of the Skid Row poor. If that sounds like a Faustian bargain, it was. But it allowed the business center to flourish, and it allowed Skid Row to grow as an Ellis Island reception center to L.A.’s prodigiously expanding homeless population.

Sometime around the mid 1980’s Skid Row began to experience a rapidly expanding population of younger African Americans, whose drug of choice was crack cocaine. Not coincidentally, the first Skid Row homeless encampment sprang up in the vacant lot next to the Catholic Worker soup kitchen. As this population expanded we began to focus on essential services to the growing sidewalk encampments.

Our first campaign was to provide porta-potties to a community of people who were doing their personal business on the streets, between parked cars and behind dumpsters. We were arrested numerous times for sitting in at the mayor’s office, blockading city council members’ bathrooms and disrupting meetings of Skid Row businessmen. We were finally successful when Mayor Riordan, after years of campaigning, finally allowed 30 porta-potties to be installed in Skid Row.

We followed that success with our shopping cart campaign, in which we bought 100 black shopping carts to be distributed to the homeless. We held a press conference and a shopping cart parade at LAPD Central Division in which we publicly exposed illegal police actions. They would first write out a ticket to any homeless person on Skid Row pushing a shopping cart, saying that: this cart has been stolen from Ralph’s (or wherever). Then the officer would push the cart into the middle of the street, dump out the contents, often recyclables as well as personal property (sleeping bag, tent, personal identification, prescriptions and medications). Then a skip loader would scoop up the cart and its contents and crush them.

We once wondered to a friend, “Why is it illegal for a homeless person to push a shopping cart and it is NOT illegal for a police officer to crush that very same shopping cart?” Our friend responded: “Someone should buy homeless people shopping carts.”

The only people we knew who would be crazy enough to buy shopping carts for homeless people was us, the Catholic Worker. Since that first distribution of shopping carts in front of the Police Department we have given away over 100,000 shopping carts to homeless people on Skid Row.

One could easily dismiss our shopping cart project as insane. But from a street-level perspective, it meets the needs of homeless people where they are actually situated in real life. Shopping carts meet the real needs of homeless who require among other things: income, mobility, and shelter. I have seen people turn our carts over, put a tarp on top and sleep inside. And when the homeless are harassed and told to “move on,” they need to be able to move their meager possessions to the next location. Many folks also use our carts for recycling to earn essential cash income.

As Skid Row continued to evolve from one homeless encampment into squalid Beirut and Baghdad style refugee encampments, we have taken our fight to the courts. Along with help from civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, we guaranteed the constitutional right of homeless people to “security in their property and possessions.” We also won the constitutional right of homeless people to be free from the “cruel and unusual punishment” of police harassment and jail time for the “crime” of sleeping on the sidewalks until such We followed that success with our shopping cart campaign, in which time as the city provides enough shelters or low-cost housing for them.

As multiple areas of our city, indeed our entire country, begin to look like the tent cities of Skid Row, we must realize that the expanding U.S. economy has left behind and abandoned a significant population to the status of unhoused refugees.

Shopping carts, Blood Strikes, porta-potties. These are but a handful of efforts over the years that represent the spirit of the Catholic Worker community working to impact the social environment of Skid Row. However, the core of our work has always been the soup kitchen, feeding hungry people, creating a sense of welcome, conviviality, dignity, and listening to their stories in our beautiful dining-garden.

Skid Row is my anchor to the suffering world. It keeps me in contact with authentic reality when I become too complacent, too comfortable in my own bed with a roof over my head and hot food on my plate. It is my own personal Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam. It is my own personal war zone. It is my own personal refugee camp that keeps me honest when plagued with personal and ideological delusions.

I have a picture, hanging over my writing desk, of Arbury “Jack” Robinson, cut from the L.A. Times, warming his hands over a trash can fire during a long ago cold spell. I think of him often and fondly.

Despite his unruly behavior, I think of him as an icon of Skid Row. He was a “boxer and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminder of every glove that laid him down and cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame, I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains” (The Boxer, Simon and Garfunkel).

I hope I have been a fighter, too, who remained anchored to my own personal war zone and refugee camp fighting for Jack Robinson and all the Boxers of Skid Row.

Jeff Dietrich is the Catholic Agitator founding editor.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.lacatholicworker.org/wp/2022/06/01/the-boxer/

1 comment

    • Toni Flynn on June 2, 2022 at 10:15 am
    • Reply

    Dearest Jeff, God! How I loved reading your article, The Boxer! I myself have many fond memories of years past when I was a regular volunteer at the Soup Kitchen on Sixth and Gladys. And I occasionally had the honor of writing a few stories about my experiences. Yet, only you. over the span of many decades, have seemed able to paint with words, the memories of your very long time on that little seemingly insignificant patch of L.A. – the people, the bowls of soup, the garden, and all of the ways Christ has been and is still present in that rough and sacred territory called Skid Row. Thank you from my heart for once again gracing the rest of us with such a fine and personal missive.

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