The twisting, mansion-lined roads in the L.A. hills had been relatively quiet as tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets in the flats below after George Floyd was killed by police officers on May 25. But it’s getting louder in Bel Air.
On a recent Friday, Three 6 Mafia’s “Hit a Muthafucka,” UGK’s “Tell Me Something Good,” and YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “Fuck Donald Trump” blasted from the speakers of an SUV parked at the end of a driveway. The trunk door was left open, and the beats and lyrics spilled out loud enough for neighbors and customers buying açai bowls and picking up dry cleaning at the nearby Glen Centre, a tile-roofed, eucalyptus-shaded shopping mall, to hear.
The music, along with speeches from Martin Luther King Jr., have been playing almost every day for more than three weeks, after a Bel Air resident tried to stage a small, peaceful protest at the shopping center — but neighbors said it would harm the community, and the Glen Centre shut down for the day in response.
It all started five days after Floyd’s heart stopped beating as a Minneapolis police officer pinned him down by the neck. The killing ignited protests around the world, and on May 30, demonstrators on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills spray-painted anti-police messages on boarded-up luxury storefronts: “Fuck LAPD” at Chanel; “Eat the rich” at Hermès; “Make America pay for its crimes against black lives” at Alexander Wang. Photos of the vandalism were broadcast by local news stations, and that evening, Bel Air resident Mele Black posted a comment to an album on Facebook. “I don’t condone this behavior,” she wrote, referring to the looting. “But at this point .... I excuse it. I will be on Mulholland and Beverly Glen protesting tomorrow at 11 a.m. Peaceful.”
Black, who is white, says she was fed up with the racial injustices that had touched off the uprisings down the hill, and she wanted to stage a demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter in her own neighborhood. Located at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains, Bel Air is 87 percent white and only 3 percent Black. With a median household income of $210,000, it is part of the wealthiest Zip Code in Los Angeles.
A resident in the area saw her comment about holding the protest and then posted to Nextdoor saying that it shouldn’t happen: “I just saw somebody comment on one of my friend’s posts that they are planning on doing a protest up at the Glen Centre tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. on Sunday. I have of course told them that we do not want or desire them in our neighborhood ... If anybody knows management of that building or has a relationship with the proper police departments please put them on notice.”
Neighbors accused Black of trying to incite riots. They said she would endanger families and Glen Centre businesses, like an upscale market and Starbucks. One neighbor warned that “professional agitators” would take advantage of the little protest and harm “our lovely community.” Soon, the local homeowners’ associations caught wind of the protest, as did the owners of the shopping center.
“We just received a notification from social media site nextdoor.com that a protest is being planned at 11 am this morning at the Beverly Glen Ctr as a way to show that protests can reach affluent areas,” a warning from the Mulholland Estates homeowners’ association read. “Please take extra precautions ... We also strongly urge you to not have any outside visitors coming into the Mulholland Estates community today so we don’t distract the guards away from their primary responsibility of protecting residents.”
To the dismay of residents and shoppers, the Glen Centre shut down. One resident wrote on Nextdoor: “Center closed in response. Lost business. Our poor local merchants.” Wendy Goldman, who is listed on LinkedIn as the owner and manager of the Glen Centre, wrote that she wanted to charge Black for the lost revenue that day. “You wanted to stand around by yourself and hold a sign, so now you should have to pay the piper,” she wrote. ( Messages left by Curbed with the Glen Centre were not returned.)
Black was scared off, and with businesses closed, how much of an effect would a protest have anyway? She called it off and instead showed up unannounced one week later, on June 7, and was joined by her friend Courtney, who is Black and lives near the shopping center. (She did not want her last name used.)
This time, the Glen Centre stayed open, but the Glen Development Company hired an armed security guard just in case. “As you have probably noticed, a couple of protestors with protest signs are standing on Beverly Glen Boulevard. It also appears that customers have now started to join them,” the company wrote in an email to tenants. “Although this protest seems to be peaceful, and we have no reason to believe it will escalate, our security company has recommended that we add an armed guard, in addition to the current on-site guard.”
Black says she had been thinking of Courtney’s family when she planned the first protest that never was. “They’ve been racially profiled since the day they moved in. After two and a half years, people still mistake them for being outsiders,” Black says. “I wanted to show my solidarity for them. I knew there was a possibility it would make my neighbors uncomfortable, but why would I go somewhere else to protest something that’s happening right in my backyard?”
In 2018, Courtney moved her family from Culver City to Bel Air to be closer to her daughter’s school. “We were excited to be here,” she says. “We no longer had to be on the 405 to drop off at school. We got a very private property where my kids could ride bikes and scooters, and we had the idyllic little market across the street.”
But even though her new neighbors in Bel Air regularly hosted big parties and celebrations at their homes, she says her family could too easily make waves in a very white community. “I spent the better half of two years saying ‘We have to be quiet.’” When her children did make noise in the front yard, she claims their neighbor sprayed them with a hose, something the neighbor refutes.
Courtney says her family has been asked to leave the shopping center when they ride their bikes in the parking lot or walk there with their dogs, whereas white dog owners have not. Lately, photos have surfaced on social media of her and her family on neighborhood walks that she says were taken well before the protest started. “I’m wearing clothes in the photos that I have not worn in the past few months,” she says.
She says the photo- and video-taking has escalated over the past few weeks, with neighbors commenting on the father of her children’s large stature. He is also Black. One photo that surfaced was of him holding a baseball bat in their driveway. The implication was that he was aggressive, not that he was playing with his children.
The Glen Centre’s closure on May 31 signaled to Courtney that the owners did not care about her family, who shops there daily, or the Black Lives Matter movement. “To close it says something. Sunday is a big day,” she says. “It was deafening.”
Courtney isn’t afraid of being too loud anymore. The family is playing a curated selection of music by Black artists and speeches by civil-rights leaders from their car. “This music gets across what I feel and what I live every day as a Black woman,” she says. “My son can’t play with a water gun because he might get shot like Tamir Rice.”
She’s getting some of the reaction that Black got, with neighbors more concerned about the “obscenities” in the music and the disruption to local businesses (one commenter on Nextdoor said they weren’t being “neighborly”) than how Courtney and her family are feeling and how they have been treated. But some residents have started coming to their defense.
“How about [we] all go give this guy a hug or a handshake (i guess COVID-19 won’t allow this) or honk to show support,” one neighbor wrote on Nextdoor. A couple of supporters have left bouquets and cards in the trunk. (“I was just there, it was horrible. It looked like the man was selling flowers out of the back,” one upset resident posted on Nextdoor.)
Employees who work at the shops have been supportive too, but Courtney and Black say shop owners haven’t even done the smallest things to show their support, like putting signs up in their windows.
About a week ago, three men who don’t live in Bel Air showed up to support Courtney. As they stood outside, Courtney and the men, who are Black, shared stories about being called the N-word as children and not knowing what it meant, but knowing it must be derogatory because of the hateful way it was said. “Even in these affluent communities, they still feel the same things we’re feeling,” says one of the men, Chris Rogers, 29, who lives in Hollywood, where protests against police brutality have drawn tens of thousands of people.
Mostly, Courtney’s interactions have been with the police. Cops have been called multiple times, and she received a misdemeanor citation from the LAPD on June 13 for “loud, unnecessary, and unusual noise,” “loud music from car,” and “disturbing neighbors.” But she says she’s willing to face arrest to keep the musical protest going. “We’ve lived uncomfortably every day ... Now, finally, you all see what living uncomfortably is like every day,” Courtney says. “You won’t have silence for a good, long while.”