Veterans Turned Away from Attending Open Meeting about Veterans Cemetery — Based on Race?



Cemetery - June 8 Event - No Vets, Chinese Only 1

These veterans came to Irvine on Monday evening to talk to residents who object to the construction of a Veterans Cemetery on this site of Irvine’s Great Park — the former Marine Air Base at El Toro.

They were turned away.  While the site was a public space, they were told that it had been privately rented.  One female veteran did gain access to the hall and was later removed.  (There is no indication that her behavior was creating a disturbance.)

It’s difficult to prove discrimination in admission to such a meeting, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that people were admitted or excluded from the room based upon race and ethnicity.  Many of  us — hopefully close to all of us — would be incensed if Asians, Latinos, African-Americans were excluded from an open public meeting , even in a hall that had been rented privately, solely based upon these factors.  For it to happen to everyone except members of a certain race or ethnicity is similarly disturbing.

Let’s backtrack  bit and figure out how this happened.

[1] Back in the Orange Juice Archives, You’ll Find a Story or Two

On October 26, 2014, we published this story about a sudden pre-election intrigue taking place in Irvine, where an architect named Gang Chen was, well after the approval of the Veterans Cemetery, apparently spearheading a drive to reverse the Council’s decision to go ahead with it.

Treachery in Irvine? Chinese Language Documents Suggest Choi and Lalloway May Betray Veterans on Great Park Cemetery

Four days later, evidence emerged that a Planning Commissioner was telling Chinese-language newspapers in the area that the plan — already signed by the Governor and considered a “done deal” — could still be reversed.

Is Irvine Planning Commissioner Anthony Kuo Really Telling Chinese Papers That the Veterans Cemetery Can Be Stopped?

Then the election came, with Steven Choi winning re-election to the Mayor’s seat more narrowly than expected and Jeffrey Lalloway barely edging out his closest opponent to win re-election to the City Council.  Gang Chen suggested that perhaps if he were retained as the architect for the site the problems would diminish.  And there were occasional rumors that resistance to the plans was continuing, on the grounds that even a graveyard for heroes violated principles of feng shui and would lower the property values of neighbors (even if they couldn’t see it, hear it, or smell it from their homes.)  And then, a couple of weeks back or so, all hell started to break loose.

[2] A Town Hall Meeting with the Mayor and the Cemetery’s Fiercest Opponent on the Council

This flyer began getting distributed — and cemetery proponents started getting concerned.  What was going on?

Cemetery - June 8 Meeting Flyer

The problem here wasn’t so much that the opponents of the cemetery were making the same old tired and baseless arguments.  No, there’s no reason to think that a majority of Irvine residents oppose the cemetery; no, no adequate alternative site — meaning one that would pass muster with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, has been located; no, there’s no reason to think that property values would go down.  (In fact, it might attract a lot of veterans nationwide looking for a great place to retire.)  It might cut into the expected profits of those who planned on using newly built houses for short-term rentals for people visiting from China — but that’s not the sort of constituency that cities normally strive to serve.)

No, the worrisome thing was that Mayor Choi and Councilwoman Lynn Schott were appearing at the event.   Schott had replaced Larry Agran (who with veterans leader Bill Cook and former Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva were the main figures in taking the proposal from conception to enactment at an incredible speed) on the Irvine City Council.  Choi and Christine Shea were both suspected of still wanting to please the developer Five Point, a renamed successor to the big developer Lennar.)  This looked like an opportunity to have Choi and the “Orange County Residents Alliance” (OCRA, which was suspected of doing the bidding of Five Point) convince Schott to join him and Shea in figuring out some way to abort the proposal, without even needing Lalloway’s vote.

Veterans believed that there was nothing to be done — Irvine Council candidates and members campaigned on the issue and were happy to pose with Gov. Jerry Brown — but it was still disconcerting that the City’s leading politicians were acting otherwise.  That soon changed.

[3] Schott and Choi Think Better of Attending

A message came out on Wednesday, June 3.  Its authors did not sound happy.

Announcement from OCRA on Townhall Meeting Update

Councilwoman Lynn Schott had notified OCRA yesterday that she and Mr. Choi will not participate in the Townhall Meeting scheduled on June 8, 2015 at Cypress Village Community Center.

No written explanation or apology was given by Ms. Schott to OCRA for OCRA’s work and time spent on this TH efforts.

Although through a phone call and a third party blog site, we had learned that Ms. Schott cancelled the meeting due to her concern on others’ false interpretations on our event flyer, we are greatly disappointed in her no direct communication to us PRIOR to her decision and her unprofessionalism.

Our sincere apology for any troubles this may have caused you. We appreciate your joint-efforts with us in  making the event known to others.

We will discuss and notify you in short orders on the possibility of keeping the meeting date/time/location with you all.

We will still be present at the meeting location the same date and time if you choose to come out to learn more details about the cemetery issue. We will provide any answers or details concerning the situation.

Thank you for your patience,


Emphasis in orange has been added.  The public town hall meeting was still to go forward.

[4] Veterans Groups Get the Word

 This message went out to veterans and their supporters on June 4:

  • Have been officially advised by City of Irvine that the meeting facility for the ‘OCRA’ event that was to include Mayor Choi and Councilwoman Shott has been CANCELLED.
  • Please spread the word. We do not know if this group has rescheduled or relocated. Or they will show up there anyhow.
  • Will advise as we learn.

While Vets indicated their understanding that the meeting with Schott and Choi was cancelled, they weren’t sure whether there would still be a town hall event.  Some of them decided to check for themselves.

[5] The Register Gets Word of the Controversey

On Friday, June 5, the Register came out with a story presenting the terms of the debate, part of which is excerpted below:

And a wild card emerged this week. Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who supports the veterans cemetery at the Great Park, said a 288-acre parcel near Anaheim Hills might serve as a cemetery where veterans could be buried.

But for Bill Cook, chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation and the man who has led the fight to put a cemetery on the former El Toro air base, the issue is just as sacred.

“That site represents. .. where thousands of American teenagers last stood alive on American soil,” said Cook, 68, a Mission Viejo resident and Vietnam War veteran who served at El Toro.

Cook and others who back the cemetery at the Great Park point to a future need. About 130,000 veterans live in Orange County, and nearly 1.9 million live in California. Most served in wars of the 20th century, including World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

I became involved with the group that Bill Cook chairs in January 2013 and continue working with them for much of the duration of the project being shepherded through the process.  As a result, I know that the federal government has all sorts of requirements that a veterans cemetery site has to meet for it to be able to receive the federal funds that make this sort of development possible.  Many alternative sites were presented over time that did not meet those requirements.  It seems unlikely that a site in the hills would do so.  And, regardless, such a site would not have the symbolic importance of Former MCAS El Toro.  I don’t know who Supervisor Spitzer has discussed this with — but if it’s not the staff people in the State Legislature who know how the system works, he may be in for a rude surprise.

At any rate, you’ll note that the OCRA people said that they were going to show up anyway — and the veterans decided that this might be a good chance to meet and see if there was common ground between them.

They would not likely have guessed how little common ground there would be.

[6] Veterans Not Welcome

When the veterans arrived, they were told that they could not enter the event.  (One woman veteran did enter the event, but was later removed.)

As Bill Cook tells the story, when he tried to enter the meeting he was turned away, being told that it was a “private party.”  (This was despite the flyers that many people had when entering the building, stating that it was a “Town Hall” — in other words, an open public meeting.)  Cook says that he was never asked if he was there for the meeting, but felt that he was excluded based on his non-Asian race.  While some veterans did wear indicators of their veteran status, others, as you can see from the photos, were in street clothes and of multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Cemetery - June 8 Event - No Vets, Chinese Only 2

Cook says that the vets asked: “Your Veterans are outside, may we come in?”  They received no invitation.

That was a surprise.  Maybe there’s some exception out there of which I’m unaware, but if people were excluded from a public meeting (no matter who rented the room) based primarily on their race or ethnicity, that does not exactly seem legal.  If there’s a specific list of invitees, that might work, but this seems to have been a meeting to which the general public was invited — and not one that specified a racial or ethnic requirement for attendees.

Note that nothing stopped then from holding the meeting in Mandarin or whatever other Chinese dialect or dialects they chose.  The veterans were not in a position to force anyone to speak English in a public meeting, nor did they intend to try.  But if they had been admitted inside the hall, they might have been positioned to make their own case to the homeowners — presumably in English — and at least invited questions.

The big question is: would they still have tried to pull this sort of stunt had Choi and Schott attending?  That would have upped the stakes considerably.

[7] The Elephant in the Room

I’ve met enough with OCVMP persons to know that they have really not wanted this issue to become one about race and ethnicity.  Some opponents of the Veterans Cemetery have argued that the conflict has nothing to do with feng shui — others, obviously, argue, that it has everything to do with feng shui.  Feng shui is a Taoist belief (I will leave it to others to decide whether it rises to the level of being a “belief system.”)  It may not itself be a religion, although it would seem to qualify as a creed.  (As one commenter has pointed out, it’s interesting to think of how this might play out if the objection were based on the principles — also commonly held worldwide — of Sharia Law.  Personally, I’d be objecting to it if it were based on principles that opponents claimed to be Christian, or perhaps just culturally Christian.)

I’m not aware of any precedent in the U.S. where a proposal of this size — presented for a usually popular patriotic purpose that is officially encouraged by federal law — has foundered on the shoals of feng shui.  If it ever has, it has probably not been the case that the desired outcome of opponents just happens to be one also being pushed by an enormously wealthy developer who wants to become more so.

Even among critics, there is great disagreement about whether this is a feng shui issue or not.  Contrast this story:

Residents of the American city of Irvine in California opposed the creation of a veterans cemetery on the former air force base El Toro. According to them, the idea of the authorities is contrary to the principles of Feng Shui. It is reported by The Orange Counry Register.

Almost 40 percent of the population of Irvine — came from Asia, where it is especially revered Taoist practice of development of space. In addition to concerns that the government’s plans will violate the harmony of the place, some residents also expressed concern that the views of the cemetery will cause a fall in property prices.

There are those who have a different point of view. So, a veteran of the Vietnam war, bill Cooke, who served on the base El Toro, actively advocates the establishment of a cemetery on the spot, “which became the last piece of American land for thousands of young Americans”.

In Irvine is home to more than 250 thousand people. In orange County, where the city, I live about 130 thousand veterans.

In 2014, California authorities approved the construction of this cemetery in the city. In the Ministry of veterans Affairs stated that it requires millions of dollars and Federal funding before July 2016 will not. Even if the money for this project will be allocated for its implementation will take years.

Feng Shui of Taoist practice of organizing space for favorable flows of life energy — qi. According to Feng Shui, burial near houses or schools — a constant reminder of the frailty of life.

with this affronted comment in a local Irvine-based blog:

This article lacks impartiality. Please refrain from referring to Chinese American residents as “Chinese,” as you do not know their citizenship status, which is unrelated to their language ability or insistence on feng shui . Also, diminishing the local resident’s perspective to “bad feng shui” exoticizes an ethnicity and cultural tradition that does not conflict with an American identity. Overall, I do not see how the original ethnicity of the local residents has anything to do with the “feng shui” argument, as people from different cultures have adopted this cultural tradition. After all, American identity is not synonymous with whiteness. Moreover, veterans include not only Caucasians, but Chinese Americans, and other Asian Americans as well. By positioning “Veterans” against “Chinese,” you are implying that the “Chinese” selfishly view their own property values as of greater importance than our soldier’s lives. However, local AMERICAN residents do have a vested interest in their community, especially if their investment is in their property. This situation is not ideal for anyone, but please, try to report this situation in a more politically correct way.

The author makes some valid points — but also some points that fly in the face of what actually happened yesterday.   This group cites feng shui as the primary basis for their opposition; it’s why property values would supposedly go down.  This isn’t being imposed externally as a means of “exoticizing” the group; it’s what they are saying.  And in any event, if the people who sponsored last night’s not-so-open forum were themselves discriminating primarily by race and ethnicity, then apparently they do believe that such factors have something to do with the feng shui argument.  Why else did they exclude people based on their appearance?

(As for “Chinese American” versus “Chinese” — the commenter is correct that we don’t know the citizenship status of the people involved.  So why would we automatically default to calling them “Chinese Americans”?  Based on property ownership?  That’s not how it works.)

[8] Unanswered Questions

Bill Cook has some good questions to be answered.

1. Who and what is OCRA?

Cook says that they claim to be a non-profit, but that he can find nothing on them.  One possibility, of course, is that OCRA is a front group set up by Five Points or Lennar (or their agents) to generate a way to keep the federal government from providing their expected funding.

2. Who rented the public facility in Irvine?  What price did they pay?

Cook was told by the on-site office that it was rented for “Mr. Ding.”  No one of that name seems to have been involved in OCRA.

3. Are the people protesting voters — or simply property owners from outside of Irvine?

Voters or permanent residents — of any race, ethnicity, religion, or creed — have a certain stake in how their own community is governed.  People simply try to maximize profits from investments — especially by renting or leasing to people who aren’t citizens, permanent residents, or here on visas — may not have the same sort of claim on public policy.

I’ll add a question of my own:

4. How and by whom was the decision made to enforce the “right” the sponsoring organization to exclude people on any basis they wished?  Did whoever enforced the rule check to see if it was being done on a constitutionally impermissible basis?  Did they even care?

When the OC veterans weren’t let in the front door last night, a messy situation just got a lot messier.  I’ll be that Mayor Choi and Councilwoman Schott are glad that they weren’t there.  Now the question is — when they’re out of the public eye, will their dealings with this group change?  It’s a fascinating fight brewing — and it’s unfortunate that the stakes are quite so high.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)