Battle for the Soul of the Westside

string(7) "#000000" bool(true) string(0) ""
Progressive CD11 candidate Erin Darling discusses his career standing up to bullies, his hopes and dreams for Venice, and his beef with our top L.A. albums list.
Art by Evan Solano.

Playa Vista is a Westside development two miles inland from the beach, a shiny play-village for grownups that looks like it emerged fully formed a decade ago. Also known as ‘Silicon Beach,’ it sits on the former site of the billionaire hermit Howard Hughes’s aeronautics empire and is within striking distance of a SoCal gas facility that has been deemed at risk for an explosion. Last October, when I went to report on the campaign to recall progressive councilmember Mike Bonin, I saw farmer’s market vendors hawking everything from microgreens to pupusas to online therapy. There were two groups of warring canvassers there, pro- and anti-Bonin; both proffered flyers, called out to passersby, and occasionally tried to refute each other’s talking points. Meanwhile, you didn’t have to look hard to notice the RVs parked bumper-to-bumper just outside the development.

This is not the Westside of Erin Darling’s childhood, but it is, unfortunately, its current iteration: the tech companies, the blatant inequality, the environmental hazards, the vitriol. In January, having survived two recall attempts that brought as-yet-untold levels of rancor to city politics, Bonin shocked Angelenos across the city by announcing that he wouldn’t be seeking reelection, citing the toll that events had taken on his family and mental health. Darling, a lifelong Venice resident, stepped into the race shortly thereafter, hoping to carry on the progressive torch.

Darling looks and talks like the surfer he is: tan, with blond hair and a mellow aura even when he’s discussing big issues. But he’s also a fierce civil rights lawyer who has made a career out of “standing up to bullies,” as he put it. For Darling, this has meant going to bat for tenants about to lose their homes during his time at the Eviction Defense Network, representing people facing harsh sentences in his role as a federal public defender, and bringing cases on behalf of locals who have been mistreated by Los Angeles law enforcement in his private practice.

Now, he says he’s ready to “scale up” — to go from representing his clients to representing hundreds of thousands of people across CD11. It will mean rejecting the play-village version of the district that shoves homelessness, income inequality, and environmental issues to the margins and fighting instead for a district that tackles these issues head on. It feels, he told theLAnd, like “a battle for the soul of the Westside.” 

People paint homelessness with such a broad brushstroke. There needs to be more awareness of the amazing challenges people face, and quite frankly, how amazing people are to be that resilient.

theLAnd: You grew up in Venice—what was it like back then?

Erin Darling: It was just this economically, racially diverse place by the beach. It was bohemian, but it was also really old school. It had a strong working-class sense. It’s weird because on one hand, I really miss the Venice of the ’80s and ’90s, and there’s so much loss, there’s so much beauty that’s no longer there. On the other hand, I don’t want to romanticize things — especially in the ’90s when gang stuff was so intense, and it caught up people I know. By the time I was a senior in high school, like, I’m about to go to UC Berkeley, I know multiple people who were in prison.

When people talk about diversity in this really abstract, Wells-Fargo-commercial way, it’s so lame. The diversity that I grew up in is so beautiful, but it was not without its obvious tensions. And my life was a lot easier than people who grew up, you know, harassed by the police. I wasn’t on the gang injunction list. 

Tell me about your work as a federal public defender. 

I’m really thankful for the experience, but it was also really tough. I had a case I’ll never forget where it’s this dude who had been through the foster care system, taken from his mom, moved around a lot… he caught a drug-related felony. If you have a drug prior, a ten-year mandatory minimum can turn into a 20-year mandatory minimum. And if you have two drug priors, you’re looking at life. So there’s no way you’re going to trial when that’s hanging over your head. It was kind of a beatable case, it wasn’t open and shut — but he pleaded out because he didn’t want that much time. Ten years of your life, boom. And if you have kids… I just think about that case a lot.

Because you felt like there wasn’t that much you could do.

Exactly. And he was my age. Guys my age I feel like: “There but for the grace of God go I.” 

Before that, you worked at the Eviction Defense Network, right? How did that experience inform your view of the housing crisis in L.A.?

Yeah, good question. One, it was that evictions lead to displacement and homelessness. Yeah, we have rent control in the city of L.A., but for the most part, landlords have a lot of power — and at the time [just after the 2008 financial crisis], banks had a lot of power because there were so many foreclosures. The city could have done a lot more to strengthen renter protections and just hasn’t — and here we are, 14 years later. And, in the absence of local effort to strengthen renters’ protections, we have record displacement and homelessness.

Do you remember any stories from that time that really stuck with you? 

Oh, so many. I represented a woman who’s, like, volunteering and helping with my campaign — we won her case, and she stayed in Venice. And she’s a wonderful local activist, and she’s still in that same unit. It’s just dope to have, like, tangible victories and to keep people in their homes… I remember another guy who had been homeless. We didn’t go to trial, but I won his case, and he was able to stay in his unit. And he was just, like, so happy. He offered to buy me a pastrami sandwich.

I guess I remember the joy most of all, you know? It was a good job to stick up to bullies. And I feel like that’s what a lot of this campaign is about, is sticking up to bullies — because I think a lot of the Recall Bonin stuff, people are pissed off at homelessness, but they’re not pissed off because they live in the wealthiest district and it’s characterized by mass homelessness. They’re pissed off because there’s a homeless guy down the street. And of course, it sucks, and it affects all of us. But we need to help people. We can’t just push people away. We know that doesn’t work.

Can you talk a bit more about some of your ideas to expand renter protections if you’re elected?

The biggest thing is a right to counsel. When people are unrepresented, they lose. And so I believe a right to counsel would really be huge in keeping people in their homes and reducing homelessness, because we know that people enter homelessness at a faster rate than they exit it, right? So we have to stem the tide. 

I think local leadership needs to really be more vocal for the need for change on the state level —like Ellis Act reform, which is happening now, but it hasn’t passed yet. We need to undo Costa Hawkins. That was on the ballot a couple of years ago, but there wasn’t enough support for it, and I think there could be… We have to draw a direct line from homelessness to tenant protections, and if that’s not made clear to people, the landlord lobby is going to control the narrative.

You’ve spoken about the need for homelessness policy to be citywide, rather than patchwork. 41.18 has been incredibly patchwork in the way it’s enforced, but it is on the books right now. Would you enforce 41.18 if you’re elected?

No. I’m the only candidate saying no. We know enforcement doesn’t work. I mean, look at Echo Park. A year later, the UCLA study showed that literally more people have died than remain housed in a year [Ed. note: This analysis is based on one count in the study; another count shows more people were housed.]. This is a massive policy failure. And like, we also know that lots of unhoused folks were pushed out of the park — and they came to Venice Boardwalk. We’re playing whack-a-mole, and people are getting displaced. And so the 41.18 approach I think is just the extension of the status quo, where we push people from one part of the city to the next. It’s this out of sight, out of mind mentality.

You talk about child homelessness in L.A. on your website, which is something I really don’t see discussed in L.A. that much. Can you say a little bit more about that specific crisis?

There’s 17,000 LAUSD students who are homeless. I mean, that’s a massive number. People are very supportive of addressing childhood poverty, but in the same breath, they could be talking about enforcement and anti-homeless rhetoric. It’s just like: it’s the same thing. It’s not as if child homelessness is this distinct problem. The children are homeless because their parents are homeless. Let’s strengthen wages and tenant protections so that families can stay in their home — so that they’re not sleeping in their cars and it falls on school districts to feed kids.

Before I went to law school, I worked as a college counselor at a high school in East Oakland. There was a girl who was a sophomore when I was there. And last week, I met her again because she’s a USC doctoral student living in a van with her husband. She just had a kid, he’s literally less than three months old. She was pregnant, while homeless—while being a grad student at USC. 

People paint homelessness with such a broad brushstroke. It’s just not accurate. I feel like there just needs to be more awareness of the amazing challenges people face, and quite frankly, how amazing people are to be that resilient. And yes, there are people who have mental health breakdowns and cause a nuisance to neighbors, but that’s because we don’t have a mental health social safety net in this state. 

Local government needs to support and expand what grassroots organizations are already doing — take the success of what is already happening in civil society and scale it up.

How do you think the L.A. City Council could do that more effectively?

For one, just directing dollars at successful projects so that they can scale up. They spent $5 million to house 200 people off the boardwalk and in some ways this was a success because people got off the boardwalk and got a roof over their head. On the other hand, the social work and basic services weren’t necessarily followed up [on]. 

You mentioned the Encampment to Home project on the boardwalk. Bonin definitely touted that as a success, but it was really expensive. And I spoke to unhoused folks who ended up staying way longer in motels and temporary housing than they were initially quoted. How do we improve on that?

We have to improve. That people haven’t been fully transitioned to permanent supportive housing is, one, a reflection of the challenges but, two, of the fact that we’re relatively new to this, and it will be expensive until we get better at it. But you know, we need to get federal and state funding to do it. Electorally, homelessness is a big issue in California, and there’s a budget surplus in the state.

I think almost all experts agree it has to be “housing first:” You need to give people a roof over their heads before you’re gonna do anything else. But housing first doesn’t mean housing only, right? It’s lowering the entry to some basic housing, but then it has to come with services. A lot of people I’ve spoken to in Venice about this — there is frustration with how it’s been, but I think when things aren’t good enough, that means we improve them. We don’t scrap [them] and say oh, “we’re just gonna send you to the desert” or some absurd, punitive, other idea.

I want to talk a little bit about the environment. You mentioned shutting down SoCalGas’s Playa Del Rey facility. What are some of your other environmental goals?

The city council took a major step in banning drilling, but it didn’t stop it all. What’s overlooked is there’s this massive Southern California gas storage facility super close to Playa Vista. Everyone knows about Aliso Canyon, and it’s like, we’re facing another potential Aliso Canyon, and it’s so risky. I totally understand the infrastructure challenges as we transition away from gas, but we haven’t done it yet. I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time and push L.A. to be 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. My framework is: Climate change is here, and it’s all around us, from increased wildfires in the Santa Monica Mountains to increased storms along the coastline. And so we can’t be doing things like the Southern Company gas storage or just our status quo energy system. 

What a lot of this campaign is about, is sticking up to bullies — because […] we need to help people. We can’t just push people away. We know that doesn’t work.

I’ve been endorsed by Youth Climate strike, and I bring it up because this is the role model: youth realizing that this is the existential challenge and we have to lay our bodies on the line. Inequality and climate change are the two existential crises of our time, and if our democratic system can’t address these crises, then where are we?

I hear you’re a big Mike Davis fan. Was City of Quartz the first book of his you read? 

I talked about growing up in Venice and all these influences, and I feel like Mike Davis’s writing is that. He reads. So. Much. Just so many intellectual threads — he’s quoting NWA and the Frankfurt School.  And I think we need Cassandras. City of Quartz is, to me, the seminal book of L.A., but Magical Urbanism is super overlooked… I think of Ecology of Fear whenever I’m in Malibu. 

Are there any other seminal texts that you really look to understand L.A.?

Ruthie Gilmore looms so large right now. She was at Berkeley when I was there. She came to speak to our seminar right when Golden Gulag came out. It was great. I just read some Raymond Chandler for a book club I’m in with some lawyers. It’s such a different L.A., an L.A. I don’t know, and, like, it is so racist. It’s just like, dude! I guess I bring it up to say: L.A. is always changing. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s just change. I feel like I’m gonna hang up the phone and think of [more] — that’s how my mind works whenever people ask me about albums and books.

Well, what’s your favorite L.A. album? Because we did a big list. 

I literally went to Skylight to pick up that physical copy. I think the first thing that comes to mind is Freestyle Fellowship’s Innercity Griots. That’s like a criminally underappreciated album. Freestyle Fellowship was at the height of their powers, and it’s just like post-riots L.A.…“Park Bench People” is like a freaking classic. I think about that song a lot when we’re talking about homelessness. You guys had Love[‘s album Forever Changes] up there and it’s funny because Love is so classic, but I feel like it’s not—

It’s an unexpected choice for top album.

Yeah, Love isn’t the soundtrack to [my] coming of age, you know, The Doors feels like more connected to my life because it was in the background more. I shouldn’t say it’s not as good as The Doors. I’m not saying that!

Anything else you want to say before I let you go? 

Now, with Roe v. Wade, this reactionary wave seems to be so strong — and so many people in California have this sense of California exceptionalism. Like, “oh, we’re safe, we’re different.” But is the Westside just going to become a place for wealthy white people? We’re just going to police our way to a sense of safety? Like, we know that doesn’t work. 

So I just really hope that… it feels like a lot of pressure. I don’t want to screw up this campaign. I feel like there’s some really strong reactionary energy, from the sheriff to mayoral candidates. I just want to feel like my city, my neighborhood, my community is stronger than that, better than that. 

It does feel like a battle for the soul of the Westside. Are we going to become a fortress? We know that fortress mentality doesn’t work for our country. So many of us were against that approach that Trump was taking. But then when we’re talking about the Westside, it’s like, we’re going to spend more energy making sure that poor people aren’t sleeping in parks than we are housing people? Is that really who we want to become? It’s already lost so much diversity, and there’s been so much displacement. I don’t want my son to grow up in a punitive environment like that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. An abridged version appeared in the May 17 edition of theLAnd’s newsletter.