By Frank Gruber
I ended last week's column ominously, saying that this week I would write about mistakes that were made in connection with the fundraiser-comedy night headlining Carlos Mencia that the Edison Language Academy PTA scheduled in Barnum Hall in January. The School District cancelled the show after activists from the Latino community protested that Mr. Mencia's comedy was racist.
Like any good Santa Monican, I don't want anyone to think I am into blame. I have talked to a number of people who were involved in the event and its cancellation -- not everyone to be sure, but enough that I can say that rarely have I written about a controversy where so many on all sides had such good intentions.
That such good intentions resulted in such a fiasco is why columnists, who can write in the past tense, exist.
So, to recap the history, on Jan. 8, the Thursday before the show was to occur on Sunday, Jan. 11, the Lookout published a letter http://www.surfsantamonica.com/ssm_site/the_lookout/letters/Letters-2009/01_08_2009--No_Laughing_Matter.htm from Elias Serna, of the Association of Mexican American Educators (AMAE), denouncing Mr. Mencia.
The letter led to many calls and emails to School Board members. The next day, Friday, there was a meeting at the Pico Youth and Family Center, where School Board Member Oscar de la Torre has his office. There the co-presidents of the PTA met with Mr. Serna and other members of AMAE, Mr. de la Torre and another member of the School Board, Maria Leon-Vazquez, members of the Pico Neighborhood Association, and others.
That meeting ended in a stalemate; the AMAE-side wanted assurances that Mr. Mencia would not use offensive parts of his act and asked for a meeting with him before the event, but the PTA co-presidents said they could not censor his act nor guarantee a pre-show meeting.
The next morning (Sat., Jan. 10), there was another meeting -- this time at the home of Laurie Newman, an Edison parent who has also been active in local politics as a deputy to former State Sen. Sheila Kuehl. The initial purpose for this meeting was to discuss security issues for the show, and attending were event organizers, the Edison principal, schools Superintendent Tim Cuneo, and Ralph Mechur, president of the School Board.
By Saturday, however, those protesting Mr. Mencia had begun to demand that the District cancel the event on the grounds that the choice of Mr. Mencia was offensive to the Latino community. There were also concerns among board members and others that there would be ugly protests, and possibly heckling from the audience.
Nothing was decided at the Saturday meeting, but over the course of that afternoon, the complaints and concerns escalated, and Mr. Cuneo decided to cancel. Word was given to Mr. Mencia around 11 that night.
Sunday morning, there was another meeting at Ms. Newman's house. Mr. Mechur and another member of the board, Barry Snell, attended, along with Mr. Cuneo and PTA members. After several hours of discussion, Mr. Cuneo and the school board members agreed with the PTA members that canceling had been mistake, and agreed to a compromise that would allow the show to take place, but with the announcement that there would be a future community forum to consider all the issues.
This compromise came too late, however -- Mr. Mencia, on hearing of the cancellation Saturday night while he was on tour, had changed his travel plans and was not going to be able to return to Los Angeles in time.
As for mistakes, but I'll begin with the cancellation of the event. The school board, or at least most of it, panicked. Rather than help to calm things down, or come up with constructive or practical solutions to deal with the issues the protestors raised, or with any potential protests, they merely transmitted the pressure they were receiving to Mr. Cuneo, forcing him to cancel the show.
Whether the school board members violated the Brown Act, as PTA parents and their supporters have suggested, is a legal point that I won't go into here; regardless whether Mr. Cuneo made his decision independently, most of the board members still overreacted to last-minute demands from a few people, giving those demands precedence over months of work by parents at the school.
The Edison PTA had played by the rules to obtain permission to use Barnum, and while I believe, as I discuss below, that they were woefully ignorant about Mr. Mencia's reputation, they had reasonable grounds to believe that his act cannot be equated with racism as Mr. Serna described it.
People react to comedy in different ways and what is offensive to some is refreshing to others; Mr. Mencia in 2007 received an award from the Imagen Foundation http://www.imagen.org/awards/2008/winners_list, a Latino entertainment industry organization, and in 2008 he was nominated for an award from the National Council of La Raza http://www.almaawards.com/2008-nominees.html.
The District should never have canceled the event, but having said that, it was also a mistake to schedule it.
As much as my natural sympathies are with the PTA parents, trying anything to make a buck for their school, and with, for good measure, Mr. Mencia's rights to free expression, the PTA had no obligation to give Mr. Mencia a forum -- nor does he need one. Public schools -- when being used for a school-related activity, and I include a PTA fundraiser in that category -- are not public forums, where anyone can speak. A PTA fundraiser is not the place to push the envelope when it comes to community standards.
I have never seen Mr. Mencia perform, but it was illuminating to me that a friend told me that weeks before the scheduled Barnun show, she asked her son in eighth grade whether he wanted to get tickets for it. His response -- "No way, the guy's a racist." (And they're Anglos.)
I don't mean to say that this kid (wise as he is for his years) knows more about what racism is than La Raza, but clearly with Mr. Mencia, the PTA was playing with fire. To his credit, Mr. Mencia knew that, and offered to have a Q&A afterwards to discuss the issues raised by his comedy.
Ideally, the PTA would have found this out before booking Mr. Mencia, but in fairness to them, they weren't the only people in the community ignorant about how he might offend. School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez, who later supported canceling the show, had bought tickets for it, and Member Oscar de la Torre, who also pushed for cancellation, told me and others before the cancellation that he had ambivalence about provocative comedians like Mr. Mencia.
When it comes to popular culture, don't trust anyone over 30.
We all know that in Santa Monica, there are some "entertainers" a PTA would not use in a fundraiser -- no one, for instance, is going to book Rush Limbaugh, no matter how many tickets his fans from elsewhere would buy. Again, I don't want to fault the PTA parents, because I'm sure if I had been there I would have said, "yeah, let's do it," but in retrospect it was a mistake for a school-related group to use him (and not only because of the fiasco that happened with the school board).
But that only brings me to the last mistake, the biggest of all.
As bad a mistake as it may have been to schedule Mr. Mencia, as bad as it was to cancel the show, the worst mistake occurred when the PTA parents were called (the equivalent of) racists, and no one from the District defended them.
As I recounted last week, after the District cancelled the show, Mr. Serna, from AMAE, went on to call the PTA parents "culturally insensitive." This line was then picked up and amplified by some members of the community. They had begun their criticism of the Mencia event on the principled ground that his descriptions of immigrants contributed to bad self-images that contributed to the achievement gap, but they moved on to attacking the motives of the PTA parents.
For instance, members of the Pico Neighborhood Association accused the PTA leadership of being part of a system at Edison, "where language and ethnicity dictates power, influence and authority," in the words of a letter the PNA sent to the PTA Council of the District.
Even at the District's forum that I wrote about last week, the one that was to be part of a healing process, the final note sounded by former Samohi principal Sylvia Rousseau when she was wrapping up the day was that the PTA had not done its best to "make sure all voices [were] at the table," as if you could sum up everything that had gone wrong by saying that these do-gooder parents had been exclusionary.
Look -- I'm not part of the Edison community, but I've been involved in controversies among elementary school parents (my kid attended SMASH, if that means anything to you), and in that context, no one is perfect. Edison, with its unusual dynamic mixing children of highly-educated and upper-income families (of all ethnicities) with the children of recent working-class immigrants, no doubt has more difficult communications than most schools.
Perhaps the PTA parents at Edison have done or said a bothersome thing at one time or another. Who hasn't? But in the context of all the immigrant-bashing going on in America, it trivializes prejudice, and it should be unacceptable in our community, to accuse someone of racism or tolerating or facilitating racism because of some unintentional slight -- or for booking the wrong comedian for a concert.
It's humiliating, hurtful, and does nothing good.
Mr. Serna and others had a First Amendment right to call these parents "culturally insensitive," meaning that the government can't stop them from doing so, but that doesn't mean that government -- the school board -- can't do the right thing and say it ain't so.