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Matthew Contreras picks up torch passed by John Lewis

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Los Angeles County Democratic Party honoree Matthew Contreras (Screen grab from JFK Awards 7-25-2020)

After civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis died July 17, woke people around the globe sang the praises of the humble leader born to sharecroppers in rural Troy, Alabama who, at 23, became the youngest speaker at the famous 1963 March on Washington and went on to become the “conscience” of the US Congress.

Lewis’ spirit infused the virtual Los Angeles County Democratic Party’s JFK Awards show eight days later, with California Democratic Party icon Roz Wyman, who won a seat on the LA City Council at 22, praising another civil rights hero and LACDP honoree Dolores Huerta as “my John Lewis of California.”

Wyman announced the recipients of this year’s Roz Wyman Democratic Youth Leadership Award — “our future” — as Erica Liepmann, president of the LA County Young Democrats and Erica has a accountDigital Strategist for LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Matthew Contreras, a gay student at California State University/ Northridge set to serve as a political intern through The Panetta Institute for Public Policy on the cusp of his 22nd birthday (on Aug. 5).

Though Contreras didn’t mention Lewis during his acceptance remarks, the young activist nonetheless best articulated the core principles the civil rights hero passed on to young activists in his final New York Times opinion piece entitled: “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” 

“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself,” Lewis wrote. “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So, I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

Contreras picked up the torch, noting his involved participation in community matters, including serving on the boards of directors of two non-profit organizations and promoting diversity inclusion.

The “four characteristics of servant leadership that resonate with me are listening, stewardship, empathy, and valuing people. As a first generation Latinx Gen-Zer, these are the qualities I look for in people when I vote,” Contreras said. “My decisions indeed have consequences and every time I vote on an action item, I keep my community in mind. Time and time again, we see people in charge exploit vulnerable communities in their special interest.”

With the critical November elections fast approaching, he pledged to continue “to have difficult conversations with peers, mentors and community members,” as well as “pushing for change” by phone banking, organizing, donating money and informing community members on how “they, too, can get involved in the democratic process.”

Though people will not always agree, he said, “it is really important to move forward together” while “living through an extraordinary moment in our lives.”

Politics “is very personal,” Contreras said. “I have never forgotten why I do the work. I do it for those so often left out of the conversations we have. And I want you all to practice radical inclusivity and invite people to the table and respect people’s world views that are different than your own.

“You see, the political landscape is changing before our very eyes,” Contreras continued. “My generation of voters are looking for strong, community-based servant leaders that don’t just talk but act….We’re starting to hold people accountable and reevaluating concepts that we’re learning in schools. The stakes have never been higher and people are starting to wake up.”

LACDP Executive Director Drexel Heard, II with his friend Matthew Contreras (Photo courtesy Heard)

“Matthew continues to embody not only the best in Los Angeles, but the best in our Nation,” LACDP Executive Director Drexel Heard, II, Contreras’ mentor, told the Los Angeles Blade. “Empathy, Drive, Selflessness has been his NorthStar for as long as I’ve known him. As we look to cultivate and engage more young people in our Democratic process and our party, like John Lewis, young Democrats like Matthew show us that the upcoming generation is ready and determined to set us up for a future that we can believe in. I’m proud of his accomplishments and excited to watch what’s next for him.”

“John Lewis said, ‘The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time.’ It is because we are now facing the ugly truth about our country that we are able to say ‘no, let’s not go down that path again,’” Contreras told the LA Blade.

“People want concrete changes that involve shifting money away from the police to communities of color. It’s devastating to see communities of color, especially Black communities, disproportionately affected in areas of life ranging from healthcare to graduation rates,” he said. “The Black Lives Matter Movement is making sure the world is paying attention. If we look back in time to analyze the many forms of protests organized by people of color in this country, we will see that they all had importance in creating societal change.”

Contreras, a senior at CSUN who lives with his parents in Sun Valley, is starting his Panetta internship on Monday. The DC portion, where he would have interned in a Congressional office, has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“That really threw me off because I worked so hard for that experience,” Contreras told the LA Blade. “My mother is from the city of Oaxaca and my father is from Durango, México. They both raised me to be a hard-working person in a country that seems to be against people like us. What I really hope to learn at the Panetta Institute is how someone with my background and privileges can use the legislative process to support people in my community. I really want to hear what they have to say about leadership roles for People of Color and the difference that we can make.”

Contreras has packed a lot of experience into his 22 years.

“I came out in high school shortly after having my first girlfriend. I was absolutely in love with this girl, but I just could not continue dating her,” he told the LA Blade. “I remember struggling with suicidal ideation, internal homophobia, and a lack of self-confidence. I began trusting close friends at the time but somehow those secrets came out. For about a year or two, people always asked me if I was straight or gay, but I always lied and said I was straight.”

He was outed at a friend’s Quincenera practice.

“I was one of her chambelanes. During one dance rehearsal, I remember going to the restroom and leaving my phone out on a table. A few people decided to go through my phone without my permission to find messages of me talking to boys online. As soon as I returned from the bathroom, I noticed a bunch of commotion around my phone. I quickly realized that everyone at that rehearsal knew my secret,” he said.

“It wasn’t really my choice to come out that way, but that experience taught me so much about myself, so in a way, I am grateful that happened to me. Eventually, I became more comfortable with myself because I started to find my community.”

Eventually, Contreras secretly started dating boys in high school. “But it typically ended up in getting my heart shattered into a million pieces. My senior year a boy asked me to prom and that was a nice way to publicly tell my peers that I was for sure queer.”

College enabled him to express himself with rainbows in his room and USU Pride Center logos everywhere.

“My attitude shifted. It’s really funny because my parents actually came out to me. On my 18th Christmas, they co-wrote a beautiful letter expressing their support for me and letting me know that they already knew my secret. Apparently, they overheard me talking about my identity with a friend,” Contreras said.

“It was getting super hard having to suppress my true identity at home because it felt like I was having to be two different people at all times.”

College allowed him to develop his own identity and commitment to activism.

Ghandi once said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ That’s exactly what I want to do. I’m an individual driven by action and doing. I became an activist because I wanted to improve my community and create real societal changes. If I complain about something, I’m going to come up with plans and strategies. I won’t just complain and dwell,” Contreras said.

“I learned this lesson through ethnic studies courses at California State University/ Northridge. This truly made an impact on my life, as it did for so many. Student groups on campus have taken what they learned in the classroom and applied it to their communities. When I joined The Queer Collective, CSUN’s LGBTQIA+ Club at CSUN, we gathered together because of common struggles, identities, and interests. I slowly became more vocal on campus and learned about my own privileges.”

Learning about his own privileges “took a lot of active listening and reflection. I figured that if I could support communities with my own privilege, then why not do it? We often see so much negativity and I want to be part of the big picture — no matter how small or big of an effect I have in this world.”

Contreras learned about injustice through his Chicano and Queer studies, as well as working with homeless youth for about a year, seeing first-hand the disparities he had only read about in the news.

“This prompted me to invest my time and energy into standing up for what I believe in. This work is never seen as the high paying career that people go for. I’m doing this to create changes that I want to see in my community,” he said.

“My mentors have inspired me to become a better person for myself so I can one day support the social justice work that they are doing today. These changes take time so I want to be part of that. The victories are worth it,” he said.

“It’s so easy to be complicit but times are changing, and I want to be working towards a better world. My generation is unlearning so much of what we learned in our history books and maybe even some of what our parents have taught us,” Contreras said. “We will be the generation cleaning up the mess of this current administration. It’s about time to take things into our own hands. When you don’t get invited to the table you pull up a chair, sit down and don’t apologize. I want to see younger people more involved in this democracy because we are the future.”

Contreras also notes that there have been young civil rights leaders of color throughout history, as exemplified by the late Rep. John Lewis.

“John Lewis left me thinking how I want to spend my time,” Contreras said. “I will be spending my time and energy fighting for communities that need my support. It’s a calling. In truth, I have been pessimistic about my generation’s future because of Donald Trump.  But I no longer dwell on that because this movement woke up so many people and sparked awareness.”

 

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Los Angeles

Los Angeles County contract employee charged in Vaccination Card theft

Officials determined that blank vaccine cards had been stolen from a vaccination site in Pomona Fairplex Mega-Pod vaccination site

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(Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles)

POMONA – Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón announced that a Los Angeles County contract worker was charged today for allegedly stealing hundreds of blank vaccine cards from a COVID-19 vaccination center at the Pomona Fairplex.

“Selling fraudulent and stolen vaccine cards is illegal, immoral and puts the public at risk of exposure to a deadly virus,” District Attorney Gascón said.

Muhammad Rauf Ahmed, 45, of Las Vegas was charged with one felony count of grand theft. Arraignment is set for August 25 in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, Pomona Branch.

On April 27, officials determined that blank vaccine cards had been stolen from a vaccination site in Pomona. Ahmed, who worked at the center, allegedly stole more than 500 cards, which have a value of at least $15 apiece if illegally sold, prosecutors said.

In a statement, La Verne police said 528 blank COVID-19 vaccine cards were recovered in the suspect’s hotel room.

Ahmed — described by police as a non-clinical, contracted employee hired to support the Pomona Fairplex Mega-Pod vaccination site that at times administered nearly 4,000 COVID-19 vaccinations a day — was arrested April 27. He was released the same day, according to jail records.

The case remains under investigation by the La Verne Police Department.

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Los Angeles

Pride after the pandemic, is LA’s LGBTQ community back in business?

A majority of Pride celebrations remain in a virtual mode or in some cases no events at all in Los Angeles this year too.

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The Brooks Lifeguard Tower on Venice Beach best illustrates yet another Pandemic Pride (Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles)

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released its coronavirus pandemic metrics this week noting that Los Angeles County remains in the least restrictive yellow tier in the State’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy framework. Factoring into that is as of May 21, 50% of L.A. County residents 16 and over and 72% of seniors 65 and older are fully vaccinated. 

Then there’s the “but.’ The state isn’t scheduled to lift fully the pandemic imposed mandates until June 15, including the mask mandate which has been a point of contention. Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Secretary of Health and Human Services announced Monday that California will require people to keep wearing masks and practice social distancing indoors until June 15 although people and businesses must adjust to the changes while the state continues its “relentless focus on delivering vaccines, particularly in underserved communities and those that were hard hit throughout this pandemic.”

The impact on Pride month in Los Angeles has already been felt as a majority of Pride celebrations remain in a virtual mode or in some cases no events at all. There are notable exceptions as the Los Angeles Dodgers are hosting their annual  LGBTQ+ Pride Night at Dodger Stadium on Friday, June 11th. There will be sections set-up for vaccinated and non-vaccinated Dodgers fans and the team is also bringing back Friday Night Fireworks for the first time since 2019, set to a special mix from DJ Bowie Jane. But only fully-vaccinated fans are invited to leave the stands and watch the show from the baseball field.

LA Pride also noted that Cinespia, will host LGBTQ+ Pride Movie Night at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Saturday, June 26th. The organization also made note of its partnership with KABC 7 LA’s one-hour primetime special on June 12, 9:00 PM – 10:00 PM, in a ‘best of LA Pride.’ According to a its website, the special includes Trans profiles, celebrity shout-outs, spotlights on LA Pride’s 2021 Honorees (more on that soon), a special Pride performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles from the Getty Center, and more.

But the main event, the parade, one of the nation’s oldest and largest was canceled for the second year in a row. LA Pride vowed to return in 2022. “Safety was our No. 1 priority,” said Sharon-Franklin Brown, board president of Christopher Street West, the nonprofit organization that produces LA Pride. “It takes time to put on a parade, [and] we were not sure we were going to be where we’re at now, which is this amazing space where everything is opening up.”

West Hollywood, which has been ground zero for Pride events in the region for over 50 years, like most of California went through the state-wide shutdown ordered by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020, the only event of note last year being the non-sanctioned ‘All Black Lives Matter’ protest march after the police killings of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other unarmed Black individuals whose deaths have drawn public attention and widespread outcry.

This year though, the city is taking a cautious approach, which in separate interviews with the Blade Mayor Lindsey P. Horvath and Councilmember Sepi Shyne both emphasized that maintaining safe standards for the City’s residents, businesses and visitors was a continuing priority and that WeHo would remain essentially in a virtual mode for Pride month.

The City’s 2021 One City One Pride LGBTQ Arts Festival s taking place virtually/in a socially distant manner for 2021 according to a city spokesperson.

The City did receive a boost in Pride awareness with the public dedication of a street mural honoring recording artist Lady Gaga’s album Born This Way this past weekend, which has been unofficially adopted by many in the greater LGBTQ community as an anthem.

West Hollywood’s Out on Robertson and Out programs have been effect in drawing diners and retail customers although still a far cry from pre-pandemic levels.

Despite that local community leaders and businesses are worried. During the course of a non-COVID impacted Pride month, events and the massive Pride parade brings in millions of dollars, drawing tourists as well as locals. With ongoing virtual and barely no in-person events, particularly the annual parade, the ongoing pandemic economy is hurting businesses badly especially those who depend on a Pride boost.

Arguably the second largest regional Pride, in Long Beach has also been scaled back to virtual only for the most part.

There has been an independent push for Pride events including a three day concert to be held at the LA Coliseum on June 4, 5 and 6- OUTLOUD: Raising Voices, created by the award winning team of Jeff Consoletti and Artie Kenney. The series is headlined by Queen frontman Adam Lambert an according to its organizers is set to showcase extraordinary queer talent also featuring appearances and remarks by Angelica Ross, Conchita, Geena Rocero, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Valentina Sampaio, Yungblud and Whoopi Goldberg.

Downtown Los Angeles, (DTLA), Downtown Center Business Improvement District is hosting an event on June 24 at  Redline, a premier gay bar and lounge in the heart of downtown located in the Historic Core of the City. The organization announced this past week that it had lifted the COVID19 restrictions for that event.

In Santa Monica, Allies in Arts partnered with Santa Monica Pride to curate an Art Walk for Pride 2021, but aside from that no indoor in-person events are slated to occur.

As the pandemic restrictions are lifted and in addressing the ongoing effects on LGBTQ businesses in the city, a person knowledgeable of the efforts the Mayor and city officials are making, but not authorized to speak to the press, said that Garcetti’s programs outlined in his State of the City speech on the upcoming budget and his 25 million “comeback check” program to help restaurants and other small businesses pay off debt and reopen remained an overarching priority.

So for now, Pride month will be scaled back but with a sense of vibrancy for business that are able to reopen or in the case of the food and beverage and hospitality industry benefit from Pride events on a business by business basis with large scale looking to return in 2022.

Until then, the picture above of The Brooks Lifeguard Tower on Venice Beach best illustrates yet another Pandemic Pride.

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Los Angeles

Venice Beach targeted for clearing homeless encampments

Chronic homelessness is a massive problem in both Los Angeles City and County with a total of 58,936+ living on the streets or in shelters

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Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin appearing on KTLA (Screenshot via KTLA)

LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin announced that “a ton of resources” are coming soon to address the homeless crisis along the Venice Boardwalk.

Bonin, whose council district 11 includes the areas of Brentwood, Del Rey, Mar Vista, Marina del Rey, Pacific Palisades, Palms, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista, Sawtelle, Venice, West Los Angeles, Westchester and LAX told KTLA Friday morning that a new push to address the homeless problems in Venice Beach would soon be launched.

Last week Bonin sent a letter to his constituency writing, “I am fighting aggressively to house people so we no longer have encampments on our sidewalks, or at our parks and beaches.”

Bonin also noted; “While we step up efforts to house people, the city should conduct a feasibility analysis of whether a number of different locations, including LAX land and three beach parking lots, could be used for different types of temporary emergency shelter. I have also asked that the feasibility analysis consider whether two local parks with existing encampments could restore the bulk of recreational space to public use by designating a certain area for existing unhoused residents. In all cases, the proposed solutions would provide security, sanitation and services, and focus on getting people into housing.

These are not encampments. They are an emergency response—an alternative—to encampments, and they are temporary solutions meant to get people off the streets and into homes.”

In late March, the City cleared a massive homeless encampment in Echo Park in the Angelino Heights neighborhood adjacent to the 101 Freeway, located in Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s district 13. Officials say the hundreds of people forced to leave were offered shelter, but not everyone took it according to local homeless advocates. The clearing of Echo Park brought condemnation from rights groups and grass roots activists due to the presence of heavily armed LAPD officers and what one source told the Blade was a “complete lack of operational transparency.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti announced last month in his annual State of the City address, that he would seek to spend nearly $1 billion on initiatives for addressing homelessness, as well as allocate $235 million for the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance program, intended to help up to 100,000 households and other critical needs.

The Mayor also proposed a guaranteed basic income pilot project that would pay $1,000 a month to 2,000 to the city’s neediest households over the next year as part of a “basic guaranteed income” pilot program that he described as the biggest of any city in America.

Chronic homelessness is a massive problem in both the City and the County. In the city of Los Angeles there are 36,300 homeless people with a total of 58,936 in the County according to the annual Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) homeless count (2019). Over the years, homelessness has dramatically increased all over the county.

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