Chapman University’s Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Sciences today will hold a conference titled the City of Bell Scandal Revisited. The event brings together academics, public officials, attorneys, and journalists to discuss what happened and lessons we can learn from the largest local government scandal in California’s history.
Many are familiar with the scandal’s details: two Los Angeles Times journalists exposed a city council and city manager’s outrageously high salaries (around the time Laguna Hills councilmember, then candidate, Barbara Kogerman exposed city manager salaries in Orange County), a citizen activist group formed, there were arrests, then a recall, then trials, guilty verdicts on some charges, no contest pleas, and jail and prison sentences. A new council and city manager are in place.
However, what has often been underreported since the 2010 scandal erupted is a silver lining, a good story: it took a Latino and Lebanese American coalition—two groups that lived among each other but previously had minimal interaction—to help save democracy in Bell.
According to the most recent census data, 93.1% of Bell’s 35,948 residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. Within the city limits, there is also a small Lebanese American community numbering approximately 2,000. These citizens are primarily immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Yaroun, a village in southern Lebanon near Israel. Bell’s Lebanese Americans community began immigrating to the city in the 1970s, fleeing civil war in its original homeland.
Since the 1970s, the Latino and Lebanese American communities in Bell generally had little interaction with each other. In 2010, Los Angeles Times reporter Raja Abdulrahim wrote, “[Lebanese Americans] have mostly kept to themselves, creating an insular community where only people from their native village in southern Lebanon—Yaroun—are welcome, and outside social and civic involvement is mostly shunned.”
Then the Bell scandal erupted. An activist group called Bell Association to Stop the Abuse (BASTA) formed in the immediate aftermath with the intention of restoring good governance principles to the city. Cristina Garcia, now an assemblymember, and Ali Saleh, now a Bell councilmember, helped establish the association. Citizens were furious and BASTA had no problems recruiting members, but there was one issue to resolve: where would this group of political novices meet?
Enter the El Hussein Community Center. Bell’s Lebanese Americans are primarily Shi’ite Muslim; its Latinos are primarily Protestant and Roman Catholic. El Hussein is a community center that serves the city’s Muslim residents. No other facility was large enough to hold BASTA meetings, and it would become the chief meeting location for the organization.
Saleh had run for city council in 2009 with disastrous results. During his campaign, someone placed fliers in a local market with his head superimposed on the body of a figure holding a sign stating, “Islam Will Dominate the World.” The flier had images of burning World Trade Center towers, people with black hoods standing over a hostage, and messaging encouraging people not to vote for Muslims in the forthcoming election. Saleh received only 375 votes in a losing effort.
“That did not go well for me,” he said. “They used my religion [against] me. Right when I lost, I decided that, you know what, I should have never ran and this is not for me, and all it did is hurt the Lebanese community here in Bell. I said, there’s no way a guy with the name of Ali and the last name of Saleh will win in a community of 95% Latino.”
According to a 2010 Pew Research Report, only 30% of Americans had a positive view of Islam. In Yorba Linda in 2011, protestors shouted vile comments such as “Terrorists,” “You beat your women, your wife, and your children,” and “Go home” toward Muslim families attending a controversial speaker event. The Islamic Center of Temecula Valley drew backlash from community members when it tried to build a mosque in Temecula in 2010.
This was not the case in Bell, where an Islamic center was home to a great American activist movement. An Islamic center was the gathering place for a citizen crusade to enforce an improved and more transparent democratic government.
There originally were trepidations about meeting at the community center. People did not know what to expect, but meeting at the facility helped bring two communities together. Saleh reflected, “I remember when we first opened [the El Hussein Community Center], people started looking around, [asking] what is this? They were kind of looking at the walls and all they saw were four walls with nothing on there. One side of the wall just had all these religious books; it’s like a little minilibrary, and some photos. What we would do is we would have all these stackable chairs, and we would have to take them one by one to have people sit down, and after a while, either me or somebody else would open the door to the El Hussein Center, and they would walk in by themselves and start organizing the chairs like it was their own house, which was neat because you kind of saw that okay, we’re working together, they felt comfortable being in here, and it’s kind of great that they feel they’re a part of us, that we’re all one. That’s where it kind of all revolved. The media started coming. We had at one point 600 to 700 people at the El Hussein Center and it was packed to the last chair.”
Saleh, the candidate who received only 375 votes in 2009, was the top vote receiver in 2011 and first Bell mayor postscandal.
“The election kind of opened doors,” Saleh said. Councilmember Violeta Alvarez added, “Before [the BASTA movement] it was like everybody was in their own world. That really brought us together at that time.”
Bell is a story of human frailty and corruption, but it is also a story of community groups composed of many first-generation Americans working together to fight for justice. Latinos and Muslim Americans are sometimes targets of bigotry, xenophobia, and discrimination in the United States, but there were no greater representatives of American ideals than those who fought government corruption in the City of Bell.
Michael A. Moodian (@mikemoodian), a Voice of OC Community Editorial Board member, will present a paper titled “Unity Through Crisis: How a Latino and Lebanese American Coalition Helped Save Democracy in the City of Bell” today at the City of Bell Revisited Conference at Chapman University. RSVP for the conference and read its white papers here.