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Political Change Is Brewing In El Cajon

Reported by Katie Schoolov

Political Change Is Brewing In El Cajon


Marquis Parks, community organizer, El Cajon


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.

Photo by 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."

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Mike Terzibachian, the owner of Babylon Palace, greets El Cajon City Councilman-elect Ben Kalasho, Nov. 15, 2016.

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."

Photo by 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.

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

The El Cajon sign, Nov. 15, 2016.

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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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