November 8, 2016--A Night of Nightmares and Miracles

A DANGEROUS WOMAN: Exposing the Dark Underbelly of the Nonprofit World and How Cancel Culture Came for Me, Chapter 1

November 8, 2016 was a night of nightmares for some and miracles for others. It’s hard to imagine an event that has caused greater division in our nation than the election of Donald Trump as president. A man “of the people” as many saw him. For others, a man who threatened the stability of a nation. Certainly everyone agreed he was an outsider. Unpredictable. Trump was not a puppet of the Washington DC democratic or republican establishment. Both sides hated him. How had this even happened? He wasn’t a politician or a beloved actor. He was a reality show host, for goodness sake. A huckster. Gaudy and gauche. He could have cared less about Hollywood or the corporate elite. He said what he felt and he didn’t filter it.

The common folk listened and saw themselves in him. Those common folk who lived in what the cultured East and West coasters liked to call the “fly by States.” Those common folk who would come to be known as “deplorables.”

Don’t the erudite upper classes ever learn from history?

As one of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis, says in That Hideous Strength: “Why you fool, it's the educated reader who CAN be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they're all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don't need reconditioning. They're all right already. They'll believe anything.”

Never have words from the past so applied to present-day circumstances. As I point out in my article Happily Slipping into Our Straight Jackets, it’s been a slow and insidious “drugging” of the United States people. Not surprisingly, it’s the common folk who have refused to take their medicine.

That night wasn’t just about the shocking revelations on every news channel. No night, or day, ever is. Billions of people were going about their normal lives, with all their personal joys and sorrows. Babies were born, grandparents died. Parents worried about paying bills. Arguments ended friendships and marriage proposals were made. Families ate dinners in front of the TV and watched the news. Some cheered, some booed, many were too busy to care. Life went on.

For Silvia Sanchez and her family, this night meant more than all the other nights before it and all the nights to come after. And it had nothing to do with who became president.

This was the night Silvia Sanchez returned home after more than twenty years in prison. No fanfare in the press, no public statement from a prominent attorney, no patting on anyone’s back or big congratulations. Just the long slow journey of one human being overcoming personal tribulations, never giving up, her family always standing by her.

For me, that night was a mixture of hope and trepidation. I’d had plenty of experiences being silenced for my thoughts and ideas in the past. I knew the signs. I knew I couldn’t express what I wanted to say to my liberal friends: that Trump might be a better choice than Clinton. I knew I couldn’t even dare to say “maybe” or “perhaps” or “who knows.” The night before the election results I’d been at the home of some very close friends. Their hatred of Donald Trump knew no bounds. CNN blasted all day, every day, and up until the moment they went to sleep at night. Rachel Maddow was on a pedestal so high as to be irrefutable. One word of question from me and I would no doubt have been thrown out of their home. That’s how high the emotion was. This, in itself should have given any rational thinker pause. But rational thought went out the window that night and it never returned. Hatred started with the Orange Man. Over the next five years, it spread to include the more than 75 million people who committed the unpardonable sin of voting for him the second time.

That night the truth that everyone knew was there, but no one wanted to acknowledge, started pushing to the surface: that our government was steeped in corruption.

Everyone talks about “truth,” but who actually wants it? Truth is a murky business at best, a deadly tool at worst. How dare could someone like Donald Trump keep on speaking? Someone who was so obviously flawed, and who let it all hang out? How dare he say that what we’d been fed as truth might actually be lies? How dare all those ordinary “stupid” folk be emboldened to speak out, too? Put them in reeducation camps. Take away their children. Shut them up.

I thought back to an afternoon years before, towards the end of my days as president of InsideOUT Writers. The new chair of the board, a socialite married to a powerful Los Angeles businessmen, was obsessed with having a charity event at the Pacific Palisades home of one of the most successful directors in Hollywood. This would have been IOW’s first big event. I’d organized quite a few small gatherings before, such as a showing of the writings and art of our youth in the children’s book gallery, Every Picture Tells A Story. I’d written all the invitations by hand and with a wonderful team of people, we’d put together the exhibit and it had gone very well. Now, in 2005, the board wanted to move the organization to the “next level.” And that meant big Hollywood names and glamour. I preferred having the event at a neutral setting, such as the Writer’s Guild. But no, it had to be in this exclusive home. Even though the wife and her husband didn’t really want it there. The wife had complained that they didn’t want the parents of our alumni coming, since they were afraid for security reasons. That right there should have stopped the event. We worked with incarcerated youth. What message would we send if we didn’t let the parents of our youth—the ones who had overcome so many hurdles and were receiving awards that night—to come?

That afternoon, we had a meeting at the event coordinator’s office. On the events’ committee was one of our former students, an intelligent and articulate young man who had spent seven years in adult prison. You will hear more about him later. He was the only one who dared to agree with me that we should change the venue. I should add that others expressed this opinion privately, but no one else would say it out loud. And a lot of good that ever did anyone. In a calm, rational manner, this young man suggested that having such an exclusive event would send the wrong message about who we were as a program.

I drove home and my phone rang. The chair of the board was on the other line. She commenced screaming at me at the top of her lungs. “Who the fuck does he think he is? Doesn’t he know we’re doing this for him? He should just shut up and be thankful! And it’s your fault, you let him do this!”

Of course, she didn’t talk like this in pubic. She and her husband were philanthropists. They gave away millions of dollars to causes they promoted, got their names on public buildings. They would leave behind an impressive legacy of good deeds.

But this was who she, and so many others, was really like beneath the generous exterior. And this was what the upper echelons mostly thought. Disdain for those beneath them.

The event didn’t take place at the director’s house. I wrote a letter refusing to support it, knowing I had sealed my fate. It was unbearable that someone like me, who was not a part of their elite club, could sit at the head of the board table and, with my words, end their event. I was ousted not long after that.

Funnily enough, in the end, the event did take place at the Writer’s Guild.

These memories went through my mind that night. And then I put them aside. For a few hours, I could forget all the lies and manipulations, the fear and hatred that was brewing in government, the calculations going on in newsrooms, and the propaganda that was to become so blindly accepted by the public.

At least on this night I could celebrate the victory of one small person over the system. Good things could come from evil actions. There was always the hope of something better for those who had only known suffering. Silvia had never given up hope. Nor had I—not for her or for myself. The past… it had been such a long journey. How had we gotten here?

Let me tell you…

Dockweiler Beach is not a relaxing place. It’s directly under the flight path of the planes leaving LAX Airport and the noise is deafening. I don’t know why anyone would ever go there and lie on the sand since they’d have to wear earplugs just to make it bearable.

In May of 1998, I visited the beach with my dearest friend, private investigator Casey Cohen. At that time, Casey was considered one of the foremost authorities on the death penalty phase. He had worked on some of the highest profile death penalty cases with legendary defense attorney Leslie Abramson. His last case was that of Jeremy Stromeyer, the young man who killed a seven year old girl in a Reno casino bathroom.

Together, we walked down the ramp leading to the sand and stood next to the lifeguard tower where a young man named Martin had died from multiple stab wounds.

“It was the internal bleeding that did it,” I told Casey. “His chest cavity filled up with blood and he basically drowned in it.”

“Oh, thanks, thanks!” Casey’s voice was rife with sarcasm, his face starch white. “I could die like that, so don’t make me think about it.”

To this day, I could kick myself for that blunder. Casey had cancer and his days were numbered.

I can imagine the beach looks different at night. To an inner city kid it becomes a mysterious, exciting place. The ugly electrical plant on one side melts into a brooding shadow, the sky glows purple and the water shimmers with moonlight. Airplanes turn into long, black UFOs sliding overhead, lights blinking like something out of a sci fi movie.

Silvia Sanchez was no stranger to Dockweiler Beach. She liked to go there and party with her friends. On the night of April 26, 1995, she headed down with her boyfriend, Gerardo, and her friends, Rueben, Claudia, Leonore and Maribel. Everyone was drinking, having a good time. Martin was with them and they drove in his car.

The murder happened by the water. Silvia knew who was responsible: Gerardo, the man of her dreams, her only love, the one who made her feel like she was the luckiest girl on earth.

The police report said the victim had been lured to the beach with the intent to steal his car stereo. Gerardo planned everything and Silvia was accused of being involved in the plot. Once at the beach, her job had been to flirt with Martin and draw him down to the water’s edge. Then, the two men, Gerardo and Rueben, were to beat him up. Afterwards, they were all to run back to Martin’s car and drive away, leaving the victim on the beach.

But a knife had suddenly appeared and while Rueben held the victim down, Gerardo stabbed him over and over. Martin was left to die on the sand.

Just another inner city murder, hardly cause for more than a ripple in the news. A brief mention was made on television the next morning. Silvia and the three other girls involved in the crime watched it and Leonore testified in the trial that they laughed. Not because Martin had died, she was quick to explain, but because the police had no suspects.

I certainly don’t remember hearing anything about it and have no memory of what happened on the night of the murder. But it’s a good chance I was home in bed, as usual, my husband lying next to me, my three children sleeping peacefully in their rooms down the hall.

Silvia didn’t sleep much that night. She knew something terrible had happened but she hadn’t actually seen the murder. It was verified at the trial that Silvia had refused to flirt with Martin and had stayed up at the top of the beach, near the highway, while the others had walked down to the water. Silvia must have turned away for a moment or perhaps she had blocked it out because all she could remember was seeing her friends running towards her and Martin falling, far away and blurry in the darkness, trying to stand up and falling back down again.

Her friends raced past Silvia and she ran with them, wild-eyed and confused. As they piled into Martin’s car, Gerardo yelled at them to keep quiet. In horror, Silvia saw a bloody knife and watched as Claudia threw it out the window at Gerardo’s command. It was never found.

Back at Claudia’s house, shivering with dread, Silvia tried to convince herself that it had been a terrible nightmare, yes, that was it. She had been drunk and her imagination had played a trick on her.

As the alcohol wore off, she felt the pain of the freshly made tattoos. Three of the fingers on her right hand now bore the letters 213, and Silvia loves Gerardo was boldly inked in a flourishing script above her left breast. The flesh was red and throbbing but she was proud to have those marks on her.

More than a year later she was to write these words inside Central Juvenile Hall: All I have of that guy I love is letters and memories. I have his name tattoo on me in the left side of my chest which he did it for me and I would never get it remove.

I accepted that promise without question, just as I did the writings of all the girls whose stories I came to hear.

On the morning that Silvia was watching the news I was no doubt drinking coffee and reading other, more important stories in the paper. If anyone would have told me then that I’d get to know a girl named Silvia Sanchez who was on trial for murder and we would become friends, I would have laughed and told them they were crazy.

The two of us couldn’t have been further apart. We lived in the same city but might as well have lived on different planets. If I had passed her on the street I wouldn’t have liked what I saw, and she wouldn’t have liked me either. In fact, the chance of us meeting one another would have been next to nothing. In all my years of living in Los Angeles I had never once crossed over to her neighborhood and she had never once crossed over to mine. No doubt she would have felt as fearful and unwelcome in my world as I would have felt in hers.

I was thirty-nine years old at the time of the murder. Silvia had just turned sixteen. Not many girls can mark that important milestone with a murder. My sixteenth birthday had been depressingly uneventful. The only reason I remember it is because my mom has a picture in a scrapbook of my two girlfriends and me blowing out the candles on a cake. At the time, I was seriously unhappy since I had never imagined the saying sweet sixteen and never been kissed would apply to me. My parents were far too strict and any boy who dared to visit me was confronted by my dad and never came back.

By the time Silvia turned sixteen, kissing was the least of her exploits. She was living with Gerardo, her twenty-one year old boyfriend, and before that she’d been living with a twenty-six year old man.

In the beginning, I failed to see the parallels between the two of us. Never would I have imagined that more than twenty years later, on November 2016, the day Donald Trump was elected president, Silvia would be released from prison and I'd be driving to her sister’s home to celebrate.

As I drove the three hours across the city that evening, police cars raced by in the opposite direction, lights flashing, horns blaring. A fire lit up the sky in the distance, helicopters beaming searchlights back and forth. I wondered what Silvia would think of this uncertain world she’d reentered.

And yet, I was so happy that night. All those years of hardship and tragedy, and now, miraculously, Silvia was free.

I went home from the party thinking how much I wanted to write about what had happened. Surely it was an inspiring story for our times. It showed how anyone, no matter how different, could overcome prejudice and become friends. On a broader scale, it showed how ordinary folk could find the courage to stand up against the lies and oppression of the powerful.

As a result of suggesting I might write this story, I was ghosted, laughed at, and chided. How dare I be so arrogant. Didn’t I know that every single thing I’d ever done in my life had been motivated by racism, white guilt and a toxic, destructive savior mentality? I needed to check my white privilege. It would be best if I just stayed silent.

I had heard that refrain too many times throughout my life—just stay silent. So had Silvia, albeit in different ways.

And so, I decided to write it here.

This is the main reason why I came to Substack. A forum free of censorship. I will be posting installments in this story every Monday morning.

Thank you for reading.

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