By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
In February 1971, the Board of Supervisors approved the commission, but only as a one-year pilot project. “The only staff that we could have was a meagerly paid executive director,” recalls Amin David, longtime head of the Latino civil-rights group Los Amigos and the commission’s first chairman. “We occupied a vacant county-building office without any desks or chairs.”
Despite challenges and perennial threats by subsequent supervisors to revoke its funding, the commission continues to this day. Rusty Kennedy, who joined in 1976 and became its executive director in 1981, has seen a welcome trajectory between police and his organization over the decades.
“There’s been a dramatic shift in the attitude of Orange County law-enforcement leaders toward the Human Relations Commission. When the commission was created, the Police Chiefs Association came down and testified that it shouldn’t be created,” he recalls. “Transitioning through the years from the days when the police complaints were considered a hostile thing and treated very poorly, we’ve come to a day when they are seen as important tools in managing liability and recognizing officers that may be going off the deep end before they become really problematic.”
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After the League trial, Lynem tried to live a normal life. He worked for the county in mental health but fell into cocaine and heroin and turned to robberies to support his habit. He eventually spent four years in state prison, where he struck up an improbable friendship with his main antagonist on the force.
“I can’t stress enough how much I hated that man,” admits Bob Stebbens, who worked at the SAPD for 32 years before retiring as a captain in 1989. The Huntington Beach resident worked on community relations when Sasscer passed away. “The African-American community in Santa Ana was good. We’d get militants from Los Angeles to try and stir things up, but most locals would say, ‘Leave us alone. Things are fine.’
“The more miserable I could make it for the Panthers, the more I could enjoy it,” he adds with a chuckle. Stebbins remembers two encounters he had with Lynem before Sasscer’s murder. “One time, I walked into [Panther] headquarters in uniform to burn Michael. I asked to see him, and in front of everyone, I said, ‘Thanks, Mike, for the info’ to make the others think he was an informant. Another time, he came into my office, and Michael told me in effect that we cops better change or the Panthers would burn the city down. I told him he better have a lot of gas because we’re going to blow you off the face of the Earth.”
The two wouldn’t speak again until 1978, when Santa Ana Mayor Loren Griset—who had helped Lynem find Christ—called Stebbins and said he had a letter from someone in his past. It was Lynem writing from prison, with Griset’s encouragement, to amend for his wrongs. Stebbins wrote back to Lynem, not expecting a reply. Days later, he received one, along with a Scripture verse, Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The two continued their correspondence during Lynem’s prison stint. Once Lynem was released, the two told their story before congregations and Christian businessmen’s meetings. They still speak regularly.
“I knew that God would have me be friends with Michael,” Stebbins says. “It wasn’t something I asked for, but all that hatred passed away. We still talk about how we came together—even for us, it still blows our minds.”
But the friendship wasn’t popular among Santa Ana officers. “I could understand their feelings, but the reality was that we were brothers in Christ,” Stebbins says. “Michael was my friend, and that was the way it was going to be. Some thought I was a traitor. What else could they think? They couldn’t possibly understand.”
League continued the activist life outside of prison. He has worked with All of Us or None, a group centered on incarcerated and released prisoners and felons. A 2005 Workers World article quoted League as saying, “When people fight back, this place is set up to make the most extreme examples of them. . . . If you’ve been convicted of a felony, you’re a legal slave in the United States.”
He’s also active in the campaign to free Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, a Black Panther convicted of murdering a security guard in 1969. “I’m proud of Arthur [League]—he’s done a lot of good for himself,” Lynem says. They recently talked for the first time since 1977. Neither mentioned Sasscer.
Now living in the Bay Area, League declined the Weekly’s numerous requests for an interview but has maintained his innocence.
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Nelson A. Sasscer Park is a small oasis in Santa Ana’s downtown civic center, a triangle of trees and walkways squeezed between local, state and federal government offices. It’s not the most accessible public space, sitting at the meeting point of four major streets. But Sasscer Park is popular, especially during hot days, when its ample shade, massive fountain and sloping canals draw people looking to cool down.