As Palmdale Grapples With A Hanging Death, Locals Recall The Area's Racist History
The Antelope Valley's decades of entrenched racism have helped fuel the outcry over the death of 24-year-old Robert Fuller, a Black man found hanging from a tree in Palmdale earlier this month.
Many locals are skeptical that Fuller's death was a suicide — the initial explanation that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department issued and then retracted days later.
Some call it a lynching. Thousands have poured into Palmdale's streets, at times shutting down traffic. They're demanding an independent investigation by California's attorney general.
One reason for the skepticism is the Antelope Valley's troubled racial history. Neo-Nazis and skinheads have lurked in the area for decades, and the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that for years L.A. County officials — in collusion with Sheriff's deputies — were systematically discriminating against Black people.
So it's easy for locals to imagine the worst happened to Fuller.
During one recent march I spoke with Aezana Nora — he grew up in Palmdale, is Black, and is around the same age as Fuller.
"The things that I've gone through — [Fuller] could have been me," he said, holding a skateboard and walking with protesters along a busy street.
Nora remembers being told by white classmates that the KKK was going to get him. He said when he was 12 years old, he was chased out of a restaurant by men with swastika tattoos.
"They got into their truck and followed us," Nora said. "We kind of ran into the desert area that we were close to, and ran and hid in a bush."
'A BOMB READY TO EXPLODE'
The Antelope Valley was predominately White until the late 1970s when Black and Brown people started relocating to the area in search of more affordable and safer places to live.
Neo-Nazis and skinhead groups have been a constant threat, linked to hate crimes including stabbings and the firebombing of a Black church.
The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks nearly 90 hate groups in California.
By 2010 the Antelope Valley had the highest rate of hate crimes of any region in L.A. County, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report.
Last year, a photo of teachers at a Palmdale elementary school smiling and holding a noose went viral and caused some parents to pull their kids out of class.
"It's a powder keg — a bomb ready to explode," said Pharoah Mitchell, co-founder of the Antelope Valley activist group Community Action League.
'SO MANY HORRENDOUS THINGS'
More than a decade ago, the Antelope Valley had another big problem. Black renters receiving federal Section 8 housing assistance were calling Mitchell, telling him they were being harassed by Sheriff's deputies.
"[There were] so many horrendous things ... we were getting calls everyday," Mitchell said.
Toni Clark made one of those calls. In 2008 she and a friend were driving from a barbeque when they saw flashing lights from a deputy's car.
"They pulled us over. They treated my friend like crap," she said, describing how deputies slammed him against the car.
Clark said the deputies cited her for $5 worth of medical marjuana in her purse.
Because of that, she lost her eligibility for Section 8 subsidies and became homeless, she said.
The number of local Black Section 8 renters doubled in the early 2000s and continued to grow into the 2010s, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Black people still overwhelmingly occupy Section 8 housing in the Antelope Valley region, according to data from the L.A. County Development Authority.
Out of more than 6,000 housing voucher recipients, Black people make up over 4,500.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation in 2011 into the harassment allegations.
More than 300 people showed up for the first community meeting with federal investigators, Mitchell said. Renters told investigators about intrusive and harmful compliance checks that led to many of them losing their housing vouchers, he said.
In 2015, the Justice Department formally accused the L.A. County Housing Authority and the Sheriff's Department of working together to discriminate against Black Section 8 residents in the hopes of driving them out of the Valley.
The complaint also alleged that the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale specifically encouraged the discrimination. It read:
"City officials contracted with [the Housing Authority] for additional investigative services and devoted substantial financial resources to voucher program enforcement efforts; directed and encouraged LASD deputies to become involved in [the Housing Authority's] enforcement efforts; fueled public opposition to the voucher program by making disparaging statements about voucher program participants; and discouraged landlords from renting to voucher holders."
"There was no legitimate law enforcement or programmatic justification for these types of extraordinary enforcement efforts," it said.
The Housing Authority denied any wrongdoing, but eventually agreed to pay a $2 million settlement. The Sheriff's Department insisted its deputies did nothing wrong, but paid an additional $700,000 and agreed to several reforms.
Toni Clark received some money from the settlements, but said she never got her subsidized housing back.
"How do you lose your housing from a traffic stop?" she asked. "Somebody, please tell me."
Mitchell says that was the reality for many renters. Just recently at a protest about Robert Fuller, he was approached by a woman who told him she had lost her Section 8 housing before the DOJ settlement, and wondered if there was anything he could do to help her.
Mitchell had to tell her no. "It's heartbreaking to know that so many people lost their Section 8 because of the harassment, and they [weren't] able to get it back," he said.
At a June 15 press conference about the Fuller case, I asked Sheriff Alex Villanueva about how the region's history of racial discrimination — which included his department — affected community trust.
"That happened before I took office as sheriff," he said. "I think the reforms have been put in place; they're working, to date."
Villanueva said many of his officers live in the area. "We've been at this for 170 years and we have longstanding ties — we are part of the community," he said.
ONE SMALL SIGN OF CHANGE
There was one small sign of change earlier this month — a high school in the Antelope Valley agreed to drop its mascot: Johnny Rebel, a cartoon Confederate soldier.
But many Black residents dispute Villanueva's claim of community solidarity and say the area's problems won't be solved that easily.
Toni Clark — who grew up in Pasadena before moving to the Antelope Valley — said she's never felt at home in the area. After nearly 20 years, she's considering moving.
"They didn't want Pasadena out here. They don't want Los Angeles out here. They don't want no Blacks out here," Clark said.
A few days after Fuller's death, Clark was talking about the protests with a relative, who told her: "That's our cousin!"
Turns out Fuller and Clark were distant cousins.
Clark says she wasn't that surprised about the connection. Because this cycle of tragedy is what she and her loved ones have dealt with for decades.