The murder of Jascent-Jamal Warren speaks volumes about the declining value of homeless lives in Venice

By John Seeley

Mourners light candles for Warren during a Sept. 2 memorial on the boardwalk Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Mourners light candles for Warren during a Sept. 2 memorial on the boardwalk
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

For the in-crowd, the Venice boardwalk’s Cadillac Hotel played host to a hyper-chic art event on the evening of Saturday, Aug. 29. “Collage-O-Rama,” displaying the work of 10 mixed-media artists and celebrating the of late Venice art icon Mark “Sponto” Kornfeld, had been promoted with an invite that depicted the head of Jesus Christ on the flexing body of a Schwarzenegger-esque bodybuilder — a smile-worthy image, except perhaps for the very devout.

Long after the last lingering art partiers had drained the bubbly and wandered home, notions of muscle-flexing and the Messiah became disconnected again for others living on Venice’s margins.

Around 2 a.m., a loud argument involving a hotelier, an armed man and a group of homeless people camped outside the Cadillac ended in gunfire. And then Jamal-Jascent Warren, a 26-year-old musician and poet known to locals as “Shakespeare,” was dead.

From conversations I’ve had with Warren’s family and friends at boardwalk memorial gatherings and  what I’ve picked up from media reports of eyewitness accounts, Warren had no intention of sleeping outside the Cadillac Hotel that night. Rather, he approached the fracas trying to calm things down while asserting that people did — as the courts have affirmed — have the right to sleep on the sidewalk.

Word on the boardwalk is that Warren’s intervention was not calming to the hotelier (now facing a murder charge), who witnesses allege ordered a still-at-large gunman to shoot at Warren and the crowd.

What drove Warren to enter into that fatal fracas, say friends and family, stemmed from his whole-hearted embrace of Christ’s mandate to help the needy. As his father, Herb Warren, explained in the eulogy for his son during a Sept. 5 funeral service, “Jay” was instilled since boyhood with a Christian spirit of helping the less-fortunate, whether by passing out bibles and basketballs to poor kids with his dad or insisting on pulling over to help stranded motorists.

While Warren did not carry a bible on the boardwalk, he had continued to serve the down-and-out. Only months earlier, he was giving free haircuts with a traveling homeless-aid group called Pioneers of the Open Road. Friends say Warren had left his job as a reception clerk at nearby mini-hotel Su Casa in late July intending to join the Pioneers on their mobile mission, but scheduling changes aborted those plans.

In the month that he died, Warren was looking for new employment, working on his music and hanging out at the boardwalk, where he spent hours listening to the woes of troubled kids or vets with PTSD issues.

In the final week of his life, Warren had the plight of the homeless on his mind, posting to his Facebook page: “Instead of building mega-churches, how about building mega-homeless centers?”

Following the funeral service, friends discussed launching a legacy project to keep Warren’s spirit alive. Musician Paul Goldstein, with whom Warren had planned to record, pledged to name his studio after him. One of Warren’s former supervisors at Su Casa suggested a campaign calling on the tech giants that are transforming Venice’s real estate landscape to subsidize the conversion of the Cadillac Hotel into a homeless center with rooms both for sleeping and for art.

In the meantime, Westside activists have renewed a commitment to defend the rights of homeless people to exist in public space.

A hastily organized protest along Ocean Front Walk on Sept. 13 drew about 70 people. Demonstrators marched from the Cadillac Hotel to Windward Avenue, where on May 5 another African-American homeless man in his 20s was shot and killed during a confrontation with police.

As it was with the still-unresolved police shooting of 29-year- old Brendon Glenn, Warren’s killing came as a shock to many. Tension between the swelling ranks of the boardwalk’s homeless and Venice’s increasingly upscale new residents has risen in recent years from grumbles to rumbles, to be sure. But nobody had predicted that gentrification would pick up the gun.

Perhaps that was naïve. This bizarre and callous killing or one just like it should have been expected in a social climate that casts Venice’s homeless as a threat and in which violence has been inflicted against the homeless with impunity.

It’s been less than two years since attacks on campers and sleep-in SUVs drove many unhoused people out of the Penmar Park area, just east of Lincoln.

An apparent campaign of “trailer terrorism” — largely unreported in the media, due mostly to the vehicle dwellers’ hesitation to speak on the record — started out small with “Keep Moving” notes on windshields, then escalated to slashed tires and drive-by window breakings before finally culminating in the suspected firebombing of a trailer on Glyndon Avenue.

That trailer’s 50-something resident — Ernest Roman, known as “Magoo” — no doubt seemed a transient and outsider to the neighborhood’s new residents, but he had in fact grown up less than a mile away, behind what is now Whole Foods Market.

Immediately following Glenn’s death, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck expressed serious doubts about the officer’s need to shoot. But what’s happened since? Despite community demands, video of the shooting hasn’t been released and there’s been no public accounting for Glenn’s death.

On days when guns aren’t being fired at them, the homeless are facing intermittent harassment in their sleeping quarters.

Some city leaders are pursuing new laws to make it easier for police to seize homeless people’s property and issue tickets they have no way of paying, further complicating their already difficult lives. They should consider that some of these people would not be homeless had the city had done its job to maintain affordable housing and control predatory developers.

In this current anti-homeless climate, what message are we sending about the worth of homeless lives?

John Seeley is chair of the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action Foundation.