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Political Change Is Brewing In El Cajon

Mike Terzibachian, the owner of Babylon Palace, greets El Cajon City Councilman-elect Ben Kalasho, Nov. 15, 2016.
Katie Schoolov
Mike Terzibachian, the owner of Babylon Palace, greets El Cajon City Councilman-elect Ben Kalasho, Nov. 15, 2016.
Political Change Is Brewing In El Cajon
Political Change Is Brewing In El Cajon
Political Change Is Brewing In El Cajon GUEST: Marquis Parks, community organizer, El Cajon

Rallies following the shooting of an unarmed black and in El Cajon bring to the surface racial tension that's long been simmering in the predominantly white city. Their assigned of change but leaders say the change was underweight. The shooting just capitalized it by bringing more attention to the racial divide and getting more people involved. Clare Trageser has the story. There's no better time than now. Reporter: -- Marquis Parks is speaking at a rally . Writes like equal representation, the shooting mobilized parks another at this what a more diverse government. I feel a person, it's my duty to have this place I live in to be better. To be better served by the people that we have our trusted. He worked to create districts, right now members are elected citywide. Giving high turnout majority white neighborhoods more power. Marquis Parks hopes the new districts will boost diversity. El Cajon has not such a good history of division among its citizens, due to the color of one's skin. Corey Blaker has watched that history unfold over 20 years as a teacher at El Cajon Valley high school. When he took the job the city was 75% white and now it's just over 50%. If you look at our school yearbooks, around 2004 or 2005, we have more and more Arabic names. Almost 15,000 Iraqi refugees have moved to San Diego County many to El Cajon in the last seven years. When I first moved here there was one Arabic restaurant. Now downtown is covered with store signs and Arabic. Laker likes the change because these businesses filled vacant buildings. You want your kids to have a better life than you did and you want them to be successful. Having grocery stores in El Cajon, where the owners are Arabic, that screams success. The mostly Iraqi neighborhood could elect a representative who's more reflective of its diversity. It could take longer to bring change. I live in Fletcher Hills. I don't want to hookah lounge on every corner. You might think that shows the Council is diversifying with an aerobic member. He says he is not there to represent the Iraqi communities needs. He lives in a mostly white neighborhood. I like to stress I'm American first, I'm El Cajonian and further seventh or eighth I can say that I'm Middle Eastern. He wants to be in refugees from coming to El Cajon and will ask Arabic businesses to change their signs to English. He worries that an Iraqi council member would only think about his district and not the city as all. People are infallible and they will make those judgment calls based on the district, they want to keep their seat. The activist says that's exactly the point. A lot of the city council members live in the same neighborhood. It would give somebody a more direct person to get in contact with about their concerns for the community. He's making his own proposal for boundaries and might run for counsel in the future. His election would mark the change for El Cajon. Change that may have been simmering but was sparked into a fast burn by a long those death -- Alfred Olango 's.. Things happen when you have the number. Clare Trageser KPBS news. Joining me is Marquis Parks. The organizer that we heard in the report. I recently spoke with El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, he disagreed when I said there were racial tensions in El Cajon. Would you give us an idea of the history of division that you talked about. You think that El Cajon has a history of discrimination against people of color? Yes. I've known a lot of people who are from El Cajon who have been there 30 years. I have a friend who's been there for 30 years. She among others have witnessed gangs of white supremacist gangs of -- terrorizing and beating people of color. This has gone on since the 80s, it slow down in the 90s because some of those gains were moved out. The Hells Angels, there are a lot of motorcycle gangs that come to El Cajon. It's a city that leads to where the drug traffic goes on across America. There's a lot of motorcycle clubs or biker clubs are majority white men and a lot of racism drags down into El Cajon. You see it as a problem that you think elected officials don't recognize the kind of history and the kind of problems that you just talked about? I do. Looking upon the city council members themselves, some of them are older white gentleman. Not to same thing against that, they haven't seen or they refuse to go through the paths of life that the people of El Cajon face on a daily basis. The El Cajon city Council, has its first Iraqi immigrant elected. We heard in the report, it doesn't seem to mean the Iraq he identity is going to get a higher profile. He wants to be in refugees and have Arabic signs changed to English. That kind of politics, voting for someone who looks like you doesn't always work, does it? I don't think Ben Kalasho was the first one Star Bales is also Middle Eastern and she represented her community at first. I recently had a conversation with her and she regretted that she didn't uphold her values for her own, not necessarily her own kind but her own culture. America is not as big of the melting pot. Everybody comes together but we aren't blinded. They come together but they hold a part of themselves. I think she lost that. She regrets that, now that her seat has been filled, that blatantly goes against where he comes from. The family of Alfred Olango has filed a claim against the city of El Cajon for increased training for police officers. Do you think that would help? I seriously believe it would help. Having officers trained to deal with the late rather than resort to a Taser Oregon -- or a gun. It would help tremendously. It would not help just with training, they would be more involved with the communities which they choose to serve. Do you think that race played a factor in the shooting? It's hard to tell. I can't say it did or didn't. The officer who shot him wasn't a white officer. He was a Hispanic male. It's hard to say in that aspect. The only race I would say is blue against the rest of America. How would you like to see measure S which brings district elections to El Cajon, how would you like to see that change the city? I would like to see a change the city by showing the actual citizens of El Cajon that the people they elect actually care about them. Not just personally, but more on a personal level as they have to live in the district that they represent. Just like San Diego city, I know friends who have gone to their council member and had to hold them accountable. It gives you more of a feeling that you are part of the government and the process that got them elected. Will you be running for city Council? That's hard to say. I will say you have to know something about politics. The president does did get elected without prior experience, I just need to be my research and find out how the districts would be sound and so on and so forth. I'm all about helping my community in any way possible. I've been speaking with Marquis Parks . Thank you.

Rallies following the police shooting of an unarmed black man in El Cajon brought to the surface racial tension that’s long been simmering in the once predominantly white city.

The rallies are a sign of political change. But community leaders say that change was already underway before the shooting — the death of Alfred Olango on Sept. 27 just catalyzed it by bringing more attention to the racial divide and mobilizing more people to work together.

Marquis Parks, one of those community organizers, said he got involved in local politics after Olango's death. He advocated for Measure S, an El Cajon ballot measure he hopes will bring a more diverse government.

"I feel as a person who is in the community and of the community that it’s my duty to want to have this place that I live in be better, and be better served by the people we entrust," Parks said.

Measure S passed in the November election and will create city council districts. Until now, council members were elected citywide, giving high-turnout, majority-white neighborhoods more power. The current City Council is made up of four white men, including the mayor, and Star Bales, a Chaldean woman appointed to the council.

Parks said he hopes the new districts will lead to more diverse representatives and serve as one way of tackling the city's racial tensions. The previous mayor resigned after making disparaging remarks against Chaldeans, Iraqi religious minorities who have resettled in El Cajon.

"El Cajon has a not good history of division among its citizens due to the color of one’s skin," Parks said.

Corey Blaker has watched that history unfold over 20 years as a teacher at El Cajon Valley High School.

Music teacher Corey Blaker works in his classroom at El Cajon Valley High School, Nov. 21, 2016.
Matthew Bowler
Music teacher Corey Blaker works in his classroom at El Cajon Valley High School, Nov. 21, 2016.

"If you look at our school yearbooks, probably around 2004, 2005, we have more and more Arabic names," Blaker said. "A lot more Alis, a lot more Miriams, more Muhammads."

In 2000, the city was 76 percent white, according to census data. Now it’s 56 percent. Almost 15,000 Iraqi refugees have moved to San Diego County — many to El Cajon — in the last seven years.

"When I first moved here, there was one Arabic restaurant," Blaker said.

Now downtown is covered with store signs in Arabic. Blaker said he likes the change because these businesses fill vacant buildings and signal a thriving immigrant community.

"It doesn’t matter where you come from, you want your kids to have a better life than you did," he said. "You want your kids to be successful. And having grocery stores in El Cajon where the owners are Arabic, that screams success."

Under Measure S, a mostly Middle Eastern neighborhood could elect a representative who’s more reflective of its residents.

But it could take longer to bring policy change.

That's evidenced by the election this month of Ben Kalasho, an Iraqi immigrant, to El Cajon City Council. You might think his victory shows the council is diversifying without smaller districts, but Kalasho specifically said he’s not there to just represent the Iraqi community’s needs. He lives in the mostly white Fletcher Hills neighborhood.

"I don’t want a liquor store on every corner. I don’t want a Hookah lounge on every corner," Kalasho said. "I always like to stress that I’m American first, I’m El Cajonian, and then seventh or eighth down the line I’m Middle Eastern. But I would never vote for a person just because they’re Middle Eastern."

A sign at a business in downtown El Cajon, Nov. 15, 2016.
Katie Schoolov
A sign at a business in downtown El Cajon, Nov. 15, 2016.

Kalasho won out over Bales, the appointed councilwoman. He said the Chaldean community opposed his campaign because he wants to ban refugees from coming to El Cajon. Once he takes office, Kalasho said he also plans to ask Arabic businesses to change their signs to English.

Kalasho said he worries that under Measure S, a Middle Eastern council member would only think about his or her district, not the city as a whole.

"People are infallible and are going to make those judgement calls based on the district because they want to keep their seat," he said.

The activist Parks said that’s exactly the point.

"A lot of the City Council members live in the same neighborhood," he said. "(Council districts) would give somebody a more direct person to get in contact with about their concerns for the community."

Parks is making his own proposal for district boundaries and might run for City Council in the future. His election would mark a big change for El Cajon — change that may have been simmering already, but was sparked into a fast burn by Olango’s death.

"It brought a sense of urgency to the matter," Parks said. "Nothing’s going to happen quickly, but things happen when you have the numbers."

The council must have district boundaries before the next election in 2018.

The El Cajon sign, Nov. 15, 2016.
Katie Schoolov
The El Cajon sign, Nov. 15, 2016.

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