Ryan McDonald

Staying power: Manhattan Beach’s Malissia Clinton finds strength in spirit of community

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Malissia Clinton in her Manhattan Beach home. Photo by Emily Kinni

by Ryan McDonald

James Baldwin’s 1955 essay “Notes of a Native Son,” recounts a particularly hectic week in the author’s life that includes the death of his father, the birth of his youngest sister, his own birthday, the outbreak of the Harlem riot of 1943 and, finally, his father’s burial. Though much of the essay is concerned with distance — his budding intellectualism pushing him away from his pragmatic father, persistent racism straining the bonds of wartime citizenship — its real theme is community, and that trying to remove oneself “was folly.” It was, he writes “necessary to hold on to the things that mattered.” Examining his father’s possessions amidst the wreckage of the riot, Baldwin resolves to accept “life as it is, and men as they are,” but not to be complacent, to fight “injustices with all [his] strength.”

When someone firebombed the Clinton residence in Manhattan Beach nearly two years ago, the immediate sensory experience was one of wondering where the community was. As Malissia Clinton revealed in her talk at the Manhattan Beach TEDx last year, smoke and flames sent her family streaming outside their home, where they were soon met by both police officers and firefighters. But once outside, they saw no other residents of their Hill Section street.

Clinton, herself, was in Washington, D.C. on a business trip, and recalls speaking with her husband by phone. The absence of other faces was one of the first things he mentioned.

“He was cool, calm, and collected, and that’s the thing that touched him: all these lights, all this smoke, and all this noise and there’s not one neighbor,” Clinton said in an interview.

In the chaos following the fire, and what the family described as hurtful, initial skepticism from authorities, the family seriously was considering leaving the place they had called home for 11 years.

(The Manhattan Beach Fire Department concluded that the fire was arson. Sgt. Paul Ford of the Manhattan Beach Police Department said, “We investigated this case like we would any other case.” Clinton would eventually praise the outreach efforts of MBPD Chief Eve Irvine; the case remains open, but is not being actively pursued due to the absence of leads.)

In a late-night email to the members of her book club, Clinton disclosed the family’s thoughts of leaving. But if the initial showing of neighbors was underwhelming, the family was soon moved by a community response more powerful than they could have imagined. The members of the book club reached out to others in the community, to the school board, the city council and businesses. The outpouring helped convince the Clintons to stay.

Two years later, what is striking about the effort is that it went far beyond the personal concern of keeping a close friend in town. The Clintons remaining in Manhattan Beach is a vindication of the town — that it is a place where injustice would be recognized, but not accepted.

“Her comment in the email, ‘Maybe we don’t belong here,’ just horrified me,” said Denise Berger, a member of the book club. “You’re our friend, you’re a part of this community. You can’t think of this as evidence of how the community feels, just because one person tried to do something really bad.”

Getting here

It is fitting that a book club would come to Clinton’s aid. She describes herself as “a reader by mistake.” Beginning in fourth or fifth grade, she began devouring Harlequin romances. Though she did not begin reading classic literature for pleasure until college, the early experience sparked a passion for books that would animate and support her in an improbable story of success.

Her childhood was chaotic. Clinton began life in Westmont, an unincorporated area near South Los Angeles that regularly ranks as one of the most violent neighborhoods in Southern California. Her father sold drugs and her mother abused them. But even then, her mother made sure books were available to her.

Her parents eventually separated. By the time she began high school, Clinton and her mother moved to Tucson, Arizona, where they stayed with Clinton’s beloved grandparents. Her mom was, as Clinton puts it, “still struggling, still distracted with what she was going through.” But Clinton found a degree of stability, and soaked up inspiration from her mom’s social-justice minded parents. (Her grandfather, despite not having a law degree, became a supervisor in the civil rights division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.)

When she notched straight A’s her first semester of freshman year, no one was as surprised as her. Clinton recalls that the achievement as an accident, a characterization that reveals both intellectual modesty and the relative newness of high expectations. Until that point, she said, her innate intelligence had been recognized if not necessarily encouraged; in reward for her good grades, she received a bookstore gift certificate.

“I got these grades and I thought, ‘Oh I should probably just try and do this every semester,’” Clinton laughed.

After attending Arizona State on full scholarship, Clinton entered Stanford Law School, long her dream school. She began from a background of deep idealism, informed by the activism of her grandparents. But like many law school students, the reality of legal aid work — its emotional toll and its tiny paycheck — set in, and she switched course.

“I do care deeply about social justice. But I’m very soft on the inside. I imagined myself doing a lot of crying, and being very frustrated with my career if I pursued it,” Clinton said.

She married, advanced in her legal career, and had a family. They were living in Ladera Heights, a wealthy, predominantly black neighborhood near Baldwin Hills. They had, as Clinton put it, “arrived.” But though the tony area is a far cry from “Boyz in tha Hood,” children living there are mostly zoned to public schools in the Inglewood Unified School District. The majority of families in the area sent their kids to private school. The result, she said, was a kind of fissure in the community.

“When it came time to look for schools, everybody goes to private schools, which means the kids don’t know each other,” Clinton said.

So they set their sights on Manhattan Beach, a community with excellent public schools.

Here to stay

For the book club meeting that followed the fire, the group set literature aside and went on an outing. The headed to Dulan’s on Crenshaw, a soul food restaurant in the heart of black Los Angeles, and took an African dance class.

It was a needed moment of cultural levity. The Clintons’ decision to stay unfolded against the mounting national debate spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement. Police officers shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri five months earlier; Freddie Gray died in a Baltimore police van two months later.

Clinton’s speech in November also came at a fateful time. It was the product of a request by Kate Bergin, the executive director of Manhattan Beach TEDx. Though it was apparent to almost everyone that the story would be a draw, Clinton was hesitant to appear. She delivered her remarks Nov. 5, confident that Hillary Clinton would be elected president three days later.

She said it would have been considerably more difficult to deliver her talk had it  fallen on Nov. 9.

“I wish I could say I called it or I was worried — none of it. I don’t know that I could have delivered it. I had to think at the end of it that there was hope, and that would have been hard in that moment,” Clinton said.

The setback, she said, would have been temporary. Clinton continues to believe that the threats posed by a Trump administration are opportunities for caring people to do good. But her ideas about the uplifting power of faith and community are tempered by a clear-eyed view of race and social progress.

At least part of her family’s choice to stay in Manhattan was practical. In a striking example of what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “double consciousness” of black Americans, she said the risks of staying in Manhattan had to be weighed against the ways in which the fire had actually made her children safer.

“They’re known here. In Beverly Hills, the place where we were considering moving, I had to worry about them walking out the door and, as soon as they’re 100 feet away, someone saying, ‘What are they doing here?’ Here, everyone knows about the family that had a fire,” Clinton said.

This balance — between accepting and fighting, cynicism and idealism — has marked Clinton’s worldview for the last decade. Her brother was shot and killed by a white police officer in Arizona in 2006. In her tearful comments about the tragedy, what emerges is a person self-aware enough to recognize how the shooting could have thrown the life of her and her family off its track. The fire presented a similar danger to avoid — an opportunity to retreat in disappointment and dismay.

“Everybody gets an experience like that once in a lifetime, at least one, so I’m not unique. But I had to figure out how I was going to pick myself up off the ground,” she said. “The hurt was irrelevant. I had to go and figure out what I believed.”

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