I went to Guatemala in 1999.
My girlfriend, (now wife,) thought as a privileged, Jewish-American male, raised in the safety of the suburbs, I needed to see how people in the “Third World” actually lived.
She grew up in New Mexico, surrounded by deep poverty, and also traveled extensively in India and Egypt, (in addition to being educated at hyper-progressive Vassar,) and insisted I get a firmer grasp on reality, if we were going to be together, long-term.
That was 22 years ago.
I was infatuated, and agreed to go, heading to Guatemala to learn Spanish, and embark on a short, photographic project related to the Civil War there, which had recently ended.
I quickly learned that Guatemala was ruled by a racial elite; White descendants of the Spanish colonists, who maintained full power over the predominantly indigenous population.
Everywhere I went, people spoke in hushed tones of “Impunidad,” and how that was the main thing holding the country back from advancement.
The politicians and generals who had ordered the massacres of hundreds of thousands of people never faced accountability for their actions.
So no one had much hope the society would improve, and from what I’ve heard, it hasn’t in the intervening years.
Seven years prior, in 1992, while I was still in high school, Los Angeles erupted in riots, which burned chunks of the city, because White police officers, who were caught on video mercilessly beating a motorist, Rodney King, were acquitted of the charges.
Shortly thereafter, Gil Garcetti took over as the District Attorney of LA.
These days, much of the world is waiting, watching, hoping that Derek Chauvin is convicted of murdering George Floyd, (also on video,) because of a fake $20. That event, in the spring of #2020, set off a chain of rioting and political protest that is the largest since what transpired in LA back in ’92.
While the trial has been underway, Daunte Wright was murdered by a White police officer for an expired license plate tag, and yet another video went viral, depicting police officers threatening, pepper spraying, and harassing a Black military motorist, because they couldn’t see the legal, temporary license plate that was properly displayed in his back window.
(And since I wrote my first draft this morning, Chicago police released a video of an officer killing a 13 year old boy.)
So I ask you, how far have we come, really, and how did we get here?
I’ve been thinking about these things obsessively for years, as you well know, given that I’ve written about American politics and culture in this column for nearly a decade.
But most of the time, the answers are beyond my grasp.
For once, I think I can tie a string from the 1970’s to #2021, while featuring an unlikely cast of characters, and an almost unbelievable chain of small world connections.
And it all began on Tuesday evening, not-quite 48 hours ago.
A few months back, George Nobechi, the Japanese-Canadian photographer and entrepreneur whose work I published in this column recently, added me to the list of attendees for a program he’d developed, featuring Zoom interviews with master photographers.
It is not a free program, but he comped me, and I mostly forgot about it.
After we reconnected, George suggested I tune in for a presentation by Afghan-born, Cambodian-based photographer Zalmaï, and at that point, I noticed there was an upcoming lecture by Pete Souza, President Obama’s official photographer.
That’s not to be missed, I thought, and it was scheduled for Tuesday night, this week.
Earlier on Tuesday, my wife and I were trying to catch a few minutes of down time, and turned on Top Chef Season 5, on Peacock, which was filmed on the cusp of The Great Recession in 2008.
A young chef from Long Island, with the thickest accent you’ve ever heard, when asked to guess who the important surprise guest might be that week, speculated, “I’m thinking Donald Trump, him being the most richest and powerfulest man in New York.”
Setting aside the humor of his mangled English, and perfect Long Island charm, Jessie and I paused the stream, and looked at each other, aghast.
In 2008, four years after “The Apprentice” debuted on NBC, Trump had already conned “regular people” into thinking he was the biggest, baddest dude on the block.
Mike Bloomberg, the fucking Mayor of the New York, who was worth significantly more money than Trump, and ran the biggest city in America, was an afterthought, compared to the growing legend of DJT.
Back in 2008, Trump was on his way up, just as people were about to suffer through the worst economy since The Great Depression.
That is a huge piece of the puzzle.
Tuesday evening, I logged into the Zoom, and mostly paid attention to Pete Souza’s presentation, though I cut away from time to time to check on my kids, make a photo for Instagram, and shoot images for my ongoing series about Taos in #2021.
Pete Souza was great, and remarked that he thought being 54 years of age, when he took on the job as Presidential photographer, was too old for the role, because of how physically and mentally draining it was, but also gave him a huge advantage.
Being “seasoned” and wise, he knew how to manage people and situations in ways that allowed him to achieve his personal goal of making the best and most important Presidential photographic archive in the history of the United States.
And there he was, right on my computer screen, telling stories about Barack Obama, one of my personal idols; a man still admired by Billions of people.
At one point, while surfing through the other participants names and images, I noticed something strange.
There was a man on screen, wearing a demonstrably fashionable scarf, named Gil Garcetti.
No, I thought.
It couldn’t be.
In 1994, two years into Gil Garcetti’s job as LA DA, OJ Simpson’s wife Nicole Brown, and her Jewish-American “friend” Ron Goldman, were brutally murdered.
The crime took over the imagination and airwaves of all of America, and if I’m guessing, much of the known world.
There had been nothing like the phenomenon, prior to that, and right now, I’d argue it was the inflection point that put us on our current trajectory. (Is it still the Darkest Timeline, now that Joe Biden is in charge?)
OJ Simpson was famous for being really good at football, but hyper-famous for being a smiling, happy, non-threatening Black man on TV and in the Movies.
Everyone knew his 70’s rental car commercials, dashing through the airport, jumping over things.
And many people knew him as Nordberg from 1988’s “The Naked Gun,” where he was “comically” maimed, in more and more absurdist ways, until he ended up in a hospital bed, seemingly begging Leslie Neilsen for heroin.
OJ was a Black man with whom White people felt comfortable. He was very good-looking and charismatic.
But it was all a con.
The OJ story and subsequent trial, as a symbol of American mass culture, made “Game of Thrones” look like a subreddit about NFT’s.
Everything froze, and I remember being a waiter in a restaurant at the Jersey Shore, stopping what I was doing to go to the bar TV and watch the slow-speed White Bronco chase.
Eventually, we had the moment of all moments, where they asked OJ to try on the bloody gloves, and his cartoon-ishly bad acting, pretending that he JUST COULDN’T GET THE GLOVES TO FIT was American history in the making.
Then, somehow, he got off.
Acquitted by a mostly Black jury.
A man that White people once loved, and then hated, was set free, because Black people in Los Angeles could very easily believe he had been framed by racist cops.
Did they think he was actually innocent, or was it an act of protest, taking what little power they had to shine attention on a real thing that no one seemed to care about?
Racist, violent police were given impunity.
Those cops faced no consequences for their actions, so why was it so hard to believe they would frame OJ?
If you looked at it sideways, wouldn’t his acceptance by White America be a reason for racist cops to hate him?
Looking back, can we really argue with the logic?
Marcia Clark, Christoper Darden, Gil Garcetti, the entire team had egg on their faces.
Gil Garcetti gave this speech, in which he looks like he’s choking down vomit, fighting back tears, and tried to highlight the dangers of domestic violence.
Johnny Cochrane, he of “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” became a celebrity, satirized on 90’s mega-hit Seinfeld, and OJ friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian went on to lead what is now America’s Most Famous family, (after the Trumps,) another clan renown for image over substance, wealth over talent, and plastic surgery that knows no bounds.
(Maybe we’ll throw in part-time family member Caitlyn Jenner here too, an athlete previously as famous as OJ in the 70’s and 80’s. Then-Bruce-Jenner was on the Wheaties box. Do they still make Wheaties?)
But the thing is, OJ did do it, according to a subsequent civil trial, in which a majority White jury found him guilty based upon the preponderance of the evidence. (As opposed to beyond a reasonable doubt.)
According to that jury, and the American public consciousness, OJ murdered Nicole and Ron, and his smiling visage was just a facade that hid a type of rage and violence that could not be contained.
As far as karma goes, fast forward to 2008, and OJ Simpson was convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery, after leading a brazen raid on a hotel room in (where else) Las Vegas, where he and some hired thugs terrorized some (likely) shady memorabilia dealers, holding them at gunpoint.
In this audio clip, you can hear OJ drop his makes-White-people-feel-safe voice, screaming “Don’t let nobody out this room. Motherfuckers! Think you can steal my shit and sell it?”
He was busted that time around, and served 9 years in jail, before he sat before a parole board, which was (again) televised.
Watch the video.
All along, OJ maintains his composure, winding a tale too convoluted to actually follow, with side-streets and confusing details.
He’s sitting there, a psychotic narcissist convinced of his innocence, trying to explain how the government got it all wrong.
Until just before minute 9, when a White parole board member questions him on a detail. (That the State gave him back his property, which means he couldn’t have stolen something that was his all along.)
Watch him flash with anger.
His vocal tone and body language change.
Even though the parole board has “power and control” over his future, he can’t hide his true self, but they let him out anyway.
While Donald Trump was President.
The year White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, confirming yet again that some White people would even don Nazi garb and white hoods, carrying flaming torches, to protect their power and privilege.
Like Freud speculated about the Death Instinct, and we all know about the Survival Instinct, I’m hereby coining the Power and Control Instinct. It means people equate power with control, and given how little control we humans actually have in the Wide Universe, certain types will do whatever is necessary to maintain that Power and Control, once they achieve it.
It explains a lot, if you think about it.
In #2020, Donald Trump broke the world, and in #2021, his minions stormed the US Capitol, desperate to overturn a free and fair election, so their autocratic, racist, con artist, Fugazi-strong-man of a President could stay in charge.
I recently read the one thing that most closely tied the insurrectionists together was the statistical decline in the percentage of White People, as a proportion of the population, in the counties in which they resided.
It doesn’t get more Anti-Democratic than that. Fighting to maintain Power and Control, even if it means killing off America’s beloved democratic system.
And now we’ve seen insane, anti-voting laws pop up like Whack-a-moles.
The covert racism of Lee Atwater, honed through the years by guys like Karl Rove, and then screamed proudly by assholes like Rush Limbaugh, has morphed into Tucker Carlson championing the Great Replacement theory on a TV channel run by an Australian oligarch.
Which brings us to this week.
Now we’re caught up.
What was Gil Garcetti doing on that Zoom call, I wondered? Isn’t his son now the Mayor of LA, in charge of the very police force that employed pricks like Mark Fuhrman?
I hit up Google, and discovered that Gil Garcetti’s second act, his retirement career, was to be a fine art photographer.
Say what now?
Even stranger, Gil Garcetti did a photo book on the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, thereby pulling two more bold-faced names into this mind-fuck of a column.
My head was spinning, because right now, this very week, I just started working on a book about Frank Gehry’s new building in LA, The Grand LA, which is across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, because my friend and client, Weldon Brewster, is the official photographer documenting the build.
Weldon’s got some amazing photos of the Disney Concert Hall, shot from The Grand LA’s construction site, and agreed to let me show a few to you here, now.
Finally, though, let’s get back to where we started. That Zoom call George organized, and to which he kindly invited me.
For the Q&A section, people were reminded to ask questions in the chat, and I checked them out. There, in the queue, was a question posted by George, on behalf of Gil Garcetti, who had mistakenly written to George in a private message.
I thought to myself, this is going to happen.
I can feel it coming.
I got my iPhone 8 ready, and opened the camera app. (I’ve had it since I went to Portland in 2019 for Photolucida, where I first met Weldon.)
When the time came, I pressed the record button, and listened as Gil Garcetti, a seminal figure in the HISTORY OF AMERICA, asked Pete Souza, a seminal figure in the HISTORY OF AMERICA, a question about whether he ever wanted back in the game.
Pete said no, he didn’t want to do this job for Joe Biden, even though he knows him so well, that he’s just too tired. He’d said earlier he mostly photographs his granddaughter these days, and if he was seasoned at 54, now he said he was too worn out for that kind of work.
But then, in a split second, Pete pivoted to politics.
He told us how, at the very end of the Obama administration, when the transition was underway, he had a countdown clock, waiting to be done with the job.
He was so beat.
But Pete also realized something monumental.
Something that indeed came to pass, when the World’s Biggest Superpower, after defeating the (actual) Nazis, and outlasting the Soviet Empire, succumbed to a Queens con man with a thick accent, and a lot of faux swagger.
According to Pete Souza, (talking to Gil Garcetti,) in the beginning of 2017, a few months before OJ Simpson was released from prison, Pete said he came to a realization.
“We’re fucked, as a country,” he said.
And that’s how we got here.
I always kinda admired mid-America for being able to discern a “Big City” con man a mile away. It’s not that they got stupid all of a sudden. Granted, you got a whole bunch of people all over America who get weak kneed when someone starts waving the flag and touting the Bible (provided they’re White, of course). This time, we had someone who literally dry humped The Flag on more than one occasion; but curiously they didn’t seem to care about this Big City Con- and from the very Evilist, big city in the entire history of the US of A! This White Savior promised sanctuary from the Invading Brown Hordes, enhanced subjugation of The Eternal Black Nemesis, nor did he mince that message through the usual Republican code. Who cared if he didn’t know one single verse from the Bible, or the Constitution, who’d care if he sold out our national interests to the Rushkies (they’re White, right?)- all of a sudden they’d be honored to have their virgin offspring deflowered by the the overweight septuagenarian in the ivory tower on 56th and Fifth, as far removed from their trailer parks as any church in his lifetime (save for his sham weddings). This is when we got to see America stripped bare to its raw and rabid honesty- racist to the core since its inception of genocide and slavery, existing on its homespun delusion of a ‘democracy’ serving those who yield the power.
You are the best, Stan. Love it!
“… serving those who wield the power.”
Thanks for the article Jonathan. I enjoyed it tremendously.
If you’re speaking of accountability that’s missing in politics, media, and in decisions of life and in death, then you have threaded together a strong narrative from many disparate parts and (as a credit to you) many personal experiences. Indeed, you’ve cast the story to have included wealth, poverty, power and control as central characters in this story. Race and privilege, also play a starring role.
Personally, although there has been important changes and progress even in our own lifetimes, there’s nothing new here. Racism, corruption and stupidity has only been amped way up in this media age (with social media as the key pacing component). The 2016 US election showed the world that an incompetent, reality-TV star who dry-humps the flag as stagecraft could gain the votes of over 63 million people for the highest office in the land. We now know anything is possible.
These issues of race, poverty and privilege are of course not limited to the United States. They exist here in my own country (Canada) and throughout the world.
I’m also anxious about the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial. And the further craziness mass killings, insurrections and social unrest if the path out of the pandemic goes sideways, like it is here in Canada.
Your country has a lot of guns.
Thanks for chiming in, Stephen! We do have a lot of guns. And a lot of mass shootings. Sending good vibes from New Mexico.
Jonathan, thank you for the post. It was a fantastic experience for me. Indeed, You have chosen the tale as a focal figure for this story. Thanks so much!
Fantastic, what a great integration of information, enjoyable read and explorations, thanks.
Thank you for the kind words!