From the Arab Spring uprisings to the Occupy Wall Street movement and austerity rallies, 2011 was the year of the protest. Dictators were toppled and governments put on notice as ordinary citizens used social media to do the extraordinary — spread a wave of dissent across continents. It was a year when global politics became local, and the local was made global.

Being the progressive, civically engaged and eccentric city that it is, it was only fitting that Santa Monica was home to a Occupy protest all its own; a protest that focused on the freedom of speech, both for and against organized religion.

The atheist takeover of Palisades Park this holiday season, which displaced several nativity displays erected by local churches for over 55 years, caused quite a stir. Dozens of letters and e-mails filled the Daily Press inbox from those on both sides of the issue, which also drew national media coverage.

That is why the atheists’ Occupy-style protest in Palisades Park topped our list of the news events that shaped 2011 for Santa Monicans.

Tradition under attack

There were signs last year that the atheists were planning something. Damon Vix, a Hollywood prop builder, had placed a “Happy Solstice” display in the park to compete with the nativity scenes. The display featured quotes from the founding fathers about the importance of separation of church in state.

At that time, Vix was all on his own and posed no real threat to the coalition of churches and community groups that had up to that point free reign over the park during the holiday season. No one bothered to challenge them until Vix came along.

This year he mobilized and assisted other atheist groups and flooded City Hall with applications for space along Ocean Avenue, forcing city officials to hold a lottery. The atheists won a majority of the spots, leaving room for only three crèches instead of the regular 14.

Many in the community were outraged and disappointed that politics got in the way of tradition during a season when they were trying to hold on to good memories of old times. Others supported Vix and expressed displeasure with the presence of religion in such a public space.

There are calls for city officials to alter the lottery so that the churches have more of a fighting chance. With all of the exposure, Vix seems to have come out ahead in this battle. It will be interesting to see how many other groups apply in 2012 and whether or not the churches change their strategy to come on top.

Meanwhile, more menorahs popped up across the city by the sea, many of them on private property, and with little opposition. Could that be a solution?

Bulger bagged after years on the run

With its beautiful beach, award-winning restaurants and four-star hotels, Santa Monica has attracted visitors from all over the world who are looking to get away.

James “Whitey” Bulger was looking to get away… away from the FBI. The former Boston mob boss, who was on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted List,” was living in a rent-controlled apartment on Third Street when he was apprehended in June after 16 years on the lam.

Thanks to a tip dropped by a former Icelandic beauty queen, FBI agents were able to track down the formerly feared underworld figure and his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig. The 81-year-old leader of the vicious Winter Hill Gang was lured outside his building — The Princess Eugenia Apartments — and arrested without incident. Inside his apartment he had stashed 30 weapons and more than $800,000 in cash.

During his time in Santa Monica, Bulger was said to like to walk down to the Santa Monica Pier and soak in the view. Sometimes he made small talk with the fisherman or those playing chess on the boardwalk.

Bulger is awaiting trial on a federal indictment that includes allegations that he was involved in 19 murders and oversaw a criminal enterprise that extorted bookmakers, drug dealers and businessmen. His next hearing is Jan. 11 in U.S. District Court in Boston.

Wrestling with racism

In May, Santa Monica High School was the scene of what was initially described by district officials as a “racial incident” involving a member of the school’s wrestling team. At first, reports had the victim, an African American, being chained to a locker by two white teens, who allegedly shouted “slave for sale.” Making matters worse was how the victim’s mother was notified; it was not by the school district, but by another parent.

What was most likely a foolish prank exploded into a community-wide discussion on race and bullying, and launched two investigations — one that focused on the incident and the other on the school district’s response — that resulted in no criminal charges being filed. The two teens responsible agreed to enroll in a diversion program offered by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and the victim and his family moved on, still scarred but coping.

What came out of it was a commitment to continue creating a safe learning environment for all students, with the formation of the Intercultural District Advisory Committee and focus on creating new programs that promote racial harmony.

Slicing the pie

The Board of Education banned parent groups from raising money for staff salaries at school sites in November, a fundamental shift in the organization of fundraising in the district meant to increase equality between campuses.

Parent Teacher Associations and other fundraising bodies were bringing in vastly different amounts of money to individual schools, causing some sites to get roughly $2,100 in extra funding per child while another received only $65.

The difference in funding led to extra arts programs and instructional aides at wealthier schools, a disparity that new Superintendent Sandra Lyon could not justify.

“Ultimately, it creates a climate in which instruction and instructional experiences can be different from one school to the next,” Lyon told Malibu parents, saying that between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., students should be guaranteed the same access to a quality education in the district.

Many parents, notably those from Malibu, were against the move, calling it “mandated mediocrity” and asking the board to raise other schools up rather than bring successful schools down.

After almost 20 hours of public comment and board discussion spread over three meetings, the Board of Education voted unanimously to move the responsibility of fundraising for personnel to the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation, a 30-year-old nonprofit formed to bolster funding for public education.

The shift will take place over 18 months for elementary schools, with the Education Foundation taking full responsibility for extra programs as of the 2013-14 school year.

Flying toward a brick wall

On Aug. 29, 2011, a pilot with around 40 hours of flight experience fell out of the sky, crashing into a home in Santa Monica’s Sunset Park neighborhood.

The pilot survived with a broken leg, and a single bystander sustained minor injuries, but the incident inflamed tensions between those that use Santa Monica Airport and its neighbors, who claim that the airport is a safety hazard and must be closed.

Since, the respective sides have drawn their lines in the sand, with elected officials at the state and local level, including Los Angeles City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl and Sen. Ted Lieu, rallying in support of closure while the Federal Aviation Administration and pilot group Friends of Santa Monica Airport, or FOSMO, stood in defense of the historic location.

Flight schools became regular targets for community ire, with activists blaming the six schools for exposing residents to unnecessary danger both from crashes and from lead, a dangerous element used in fuel for prop planes.

The ruckus came as the City Council launched a series of studies and community outreach to determine the economic impacts of the airport and possible uses for non-aviation land in the face of the impending end of a 20-year contract with the federal government which restricted local control over the airport.

The FAA contends that day won’t come until 2023, and that City Hall has an obligation to operate the airport “in perpetuity.”

Investigating the investigators

Summer of 2011 saw the conclusion of a year-long saga that began as a police investigation of a prominent elected official and ended in an investigation of the Santa Monica Police Department itself.

A fight between two teenagers near Samohi turned into an investigation of two-term Board of Education member and community activist Oscar de la Torre, who was accused of felony child endangerment for allegedly not breaking the fight up quickly enough.

The district attorney declined to file charges in the case, and instead City Hall brought in the county’s Office of Independent Review to clear the air of community accusations that SMPD investigators had acted inappropriately during the course of the investigation.

The OIR report revealed uncommon interview techniques, and that the investigator, Sgt. Dave Thomas, included “an unusual mix of facts and advocacy.”

City Manager Rod Gould took full responsibility for the incident in February, followed by Police Chief Tim Jackman in July. The SMPD instituted a number of reforms to prevent a future incident. de la Torre is still waiting for a formal apology from City Hall.

Suicide shocks Samohi community

When Santa Monica High School freshman Matthew Mezza jumped to his death from atop the Sheraton Delfina hotel in January, it caught the school community off guard.

The seemingly happy baseball player apparently ran away from practice, heading across the street from campus where he would ultimately end his own life in front of a group of his teammates.

The death sent shock waves through town that led to school officials using the opportunity to teach parents and students alike what to look for when a teen is contemplating suicide.

There were workshops held, tears shed and much soul searching in the wake of the tragedy.

A Facebook page has sprung up in the aftermath that Mezza’s mother uses to post touching tributes to her son. Mezza’s classmates often respond to the emotional posts with encouraging sentiments to the young man’s family and loved ones.

Samohi sports roll on

Samohi’s push to become an athletic powerhouse continued this past year.

In May, the boys’ volleyball team rallied to topple San Gabriel in four games to win the CIF-Southern Section Division 4 championship at Cypress College.

The team led by Julian Hess and Charles Levy also won an Ocean League title and qualified for the state tournament in the process.

“I feel overjoyed for these boys,” Head Coach Liane Sato said after the title match. “This is great for them.”

Although Samohi’s football team didn’t win a CIF-SS title this year, it did post its best season in a decade.

The Vikings went 11-2 on the season, winning its first Ocean League crown in 10 seasons. Samohi used that momentum to propel it to the semi-finals in the CIF-SS Western Division where they were eliminated by league rival Culver City.

The season was unique in that it united the community behind the Vikings as they had the best season in Head Coach Travis Clark’s three years leading the team.

As the drama of the season grew, it wasn’t unusual to see near capacity attendance at both home and road games. City and school officials even took notice, with a number of them appearing along the sidelines during what would become a season to remember.

The team spawned a number of players who are actively being recruited by major college programs with linebacker Chris Collins and offensive lineman Chad Wheeler garnering the most interest.

Breaking the law

Santa Monica’s crime rate is thankfully low, but that doesn’t mean the city is immune to unlawful activity. Unfortunately, families were hit hard by a shooting, a fatal stabbing, and a brutal beating in 2011. If there is anything positive to glean from this, it is that the Santa Monica Police Department arrested suspects involved in all but one of the top crime events this year.

Perhaps the most shocking was the brutal beating of a resident on Santa Monica Boulevard during the early morning hours of Sept. 22. Police said the victim, a 45-year-old movie producer, couldn’t sleep and decided to go for a jog. That’s when two men approached and attacked the victim with his own hand weights, causing serious injury. Detectives worked with sheriff’s deputies in Arizona to apprehend Bryan Hale and Brett Davis, who are fighting extradition to face criminal charges.

The beating was reminiscent of the senseless attack on Giants fan Bryan Stowe at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ home opener.

Another violent crime to take place in Santa Monica was the fatal stabbing of an Albertsons employee as she worked at a checkout stand. Police said her estranged husband, Kelvin Green, walked into the grocery store on Wilshire Boulevard and attacked Christina Talley from behind, stabbing her more than 20 times in the head, neck and upper body.

He faces murder charges and is being held on $1 million bail. His next court date is Jan. 10.

A transient named Ron Hirsch caused quite a stir in April when he allegedly set off a homemade bomb near the Chabad House synagogue on 17th Street. Some debris went through the ceiling of a bedroom where a 12-year-old girl was said to be sleeping. Nobody was hurt in the blast but it raised concern amongst religious groups in Santa Monica, who had been relatively free from attacks.

Hirsch was eventually arrested in Cleveland after fleeing Los Angeles via bus. He remains in federal custody awaiting trial.

Other crimes that shook the community included the non-fatal, gang-related shooting of a 16-year-old Samohi student on Dec. 7 and the attempted kidnapping of an infant by a crazed homeless man in July.

And for some closure, Paul Edmond Carpenter was found guilty in October for the death of a German tourist, who was shot and killed during a botched robbery attempt near Loews hotel in Santa Monica in 1998. Carpenter was apprehended in Kingston, Jamaica in 2009. Three others were found responsible for the murder and have since been convicted. Carpenter’s sentencing is set for Jan. 18.

Ban the bag

In September, a City Council-mandated ban on single-use plastic bags took effect.

Gone are the days of receiving complimentary plastic bags at local markets and stores. If a shopper needs something to cart home their goods, they either have to bring their own reusable bag or pay 10 cents for a paper version.

The ban puts Santa Monica in rare company as one of the few California cities to enact such a ban.

Public response at first was lukewarm as shoppers struggled to accept the new rules aimed at protecting the environment. Local store clerks reported that some shoppers refused to pay for the bags, instead opting to carry their items in their arms to avoid the surcharge.

The reaction has since died down as shoppers and store owners adjust to the progressive law.

Los Angeles County has since OK’d a ban of its own covering unincorporated areas with other SoCal communities considering doing the same.

Blown out of proportion

Santa Monica churned out a number of news items that caught national attention, but at least three fell short of their potential.

The 8.9 earthquake and consequent tsunami that devastated Japan in March, claiming thousands of lives and causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, brought people to the coast to witness the waves that touched shore in America.

In Santa Monica, at least, there was little to see.

Officials closed the Santa Monica Pier and beach parking lots out of caution, but saw nothing more than slightly higher waves.

On the domestic side, officials across the county inundated people with public service announcements and saturated media coverage with tales of the traffic doom that would befall the region when a stretch of the 405 Freeway between the 10 Freeway and the 101 Freeway closed to demolish Mulholland Bridge in mid July.

People were encouraged to stay at home and businesses pulled out “Carmageddon” specials to tempt locals into their shops and restaurants.

Those who drove on July 16 and 17 saw smooth sailing and none of the traffic jams foretold by officials.

Traffic wasn’t the only thing people tried to cut short this year.

A San Diego-based organization that opposes circumcision for newborns filed paperwork to place a measure on the 2012 Santa Monica ballot to make it a misdemeanor to perform circumcisions on boys under the age of 18.

The Santa Monica Male-Genital Mutilation Bill ballot initiative, submitted by resident Jena Troutman, sought to protect male babies by making the procedure a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine or a year in county jail.

Troutman eventually bowed under the intense criticism heaped upon her by locals. She pulled the petition out of circulation.

This year in review was written by Ashley Archibald, Daniel Archuleta and Kevin Herrera.

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