Library honors activists with mural
The Southern California Library unveiled its new mural yesterday to honor community organizers and their fight against police terror. The mural is dedicated to the organizations Mothers Reclaiming Our Children and the Coalition Against Police Abuse and its co-founder Michael Zinzun.
Speaking to a crowd gathered for the unveiling, library director Yusef Omowale said the library chose that day, International Human Rights Day, to acknowledge the broader demand for human rights.
“The library commissioned this mural because we are tired in the ways that our human rights are being violated in this neighborhood, in this country and in the world,” he said. “We also did this because we … know there are things we can do about it. So we created this mural representing organizations, people and groups that said there is something we can do.”
The Southern California Library is located in South Los Angeles on Vermont Avenue. It specializes in social and political movements in LA. According to its website, the library is “dedicated to documenting and preserving the histories of communities in struggle for justice,” which it then in turn offers to those same communities to assist in their struggles.
The mural, called “They Claim I’m a Criminal,” prominently features the image of Michael Zinzun who co-founded the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA) in 1976. He was a former member of the Black Panther Party and founding member of Community in Support of the Gang Truce, an organization that successfully won a truce between the Crips and the Bloods. Zinzun died in 2006 at the age of 57.
Coalition LA organizer Bilal Ali, who worked with CAPA for several years and knew Michael Zinzun, spoke at the dedication.
“I’m heavy-hearted today,” he said. “This is recognizing one of our true heroes, someone who sacrificed, someone who always was out there to defend someone’s human rights. When others retreated, Michael Zinzun pushed forward.”
CAPA’s work gained the attention of the LAPD, which began spying on the organization, as well as other citizens, through its Public Disorder Intelligence Division. An ACLU case against the division, in which CAPA was a lead plaintiff, led to its dismantling and later restructuring into the department’s current anti-terrorism unit.
“A person like Michael Zinzun comes only once in a while,” said Ali. “Michael is the only organizer I know that put his home number, besides the office number, on his business card so people could call him. … He was on call 24 hours a day.”
In 1986, while attempting to defend someone who was being beaten by Pasadena police officers, Zinzun lost his site in one eye as a consequence. He continued his community organizing through the years, even producing and hosting a television show called “Message to the Grassroots” on Pasadena’s local community access station Channel 56.
Also represented in the mural was Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, or Mothers ROC. The organization was established in 1992 by a group of mothers concerned about the rate at which their children were being drawn into the criminal justice system. The group, which no longer exists, studied the criminal justice system, held demonstrations and monthly workshops. Mothers ROC advocated for such things as an end to the war on drugs, the repeal of the “three strikes law,” the end of racial profiling and more funding for public defenders.
Geri Silva, executive director of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes and founding member of Mothers ROC said, for her, Mothers ROC was a political statement against “criminalizing communities because of their color.”
“We were there to defend and to help educate families about the legal system,” she said.
Man One, the artist who designed and painted the mural, who met Zinzun in the early ’90s, said it was an honor to put the man’s image on a wall. He spoke about his creation and the thought that went into his design. He explained he incorporated two nearby light posts into the mural, calculating the shadows they would create at different times of the day to simulate prison bars over the face of Michael Zinzun’s image.
Man One said the youths in the neighborhood where given the chance to express their concerns over their community, which in turn was represented in the mural.
“A lot of the kids felt hopeless and that police were always on them for anything,” he said. “They felt trapped in this system.”
With help from the library, Man One was able to come up with images that represented the communities history, as well as include the sentiment of the neighborhood’s youths.
As part of the unveiling event, the library featured exhibits that showcased a few of their historical documents relating to CAPA and Mothers ROC. The library holds a voluminous 19 file cabinets worth of files on CAPA alone, which it has been archiving since this summer.
Florence Zinzun, widow of the late Michael Zinzun, gave a brief statement at the dedication to voice her appreciation of the mural.
“We did do a lot to help others, but that was part of Michael’s life,” she said. “He loved it and he wouldn’t have traded it for nothing. I still see him in my heart and he’s still saying, ‘Keep struggling.’”