‘GUILTY’

November 8, 2011

Multimedia journalist Justin O’Brien reports from outside the Los Angeles Criminal Court House on the Doctor Conrad Murray guilty verdict. Dr Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of pop star Michael Jackson in 2009.

Reported, filmed, written and edited by Justin O’Brien.

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‘THE LONG GRASSERS’

February 21, 2010

As a 17 year old college student – I signed up for a major in American Literature. The two classroom novels were ‘Slaughter House Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck’s, ‘The

'The Homeless Camp'

'Home Sweet Home'

Grapes of Wrath’.

I mention this because at 619 pages in length – ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is a heavy read. It wasn’t John Steinbeck’s story about Tom Joad and his family’s fight to survive the Great Depression that concerned me, but the six hundred odd pages which lay ahead. So, I put my head down and got through it.

Last week, wandering through an illegal Aboriginal tent camp near the centre of Darwin – I could see similarities between the Joad’s and the ‘Long Grassers’ who called the camp home.

‘The word for Long Grasser mean we homeless people – homeless … but we like to use the word Long Grasser’ – is how 45 year old Bob Gallagher describes himself and the dozen Aborigines who live there.

Like the Joad’s – the men and women have no permanent place to stay. Fast forward eighty years since the Great Depression and home for these people is anywhere there is a vacant patch of ground to put up a tent.

However, the ‘Long Grassers’ have money. The Joad’s were penniless when they were driven off their Oklahoma farm by drought – while the ‘Long Grassers’ have access to regular payments from the Federal Government.

LORD MAYOR WITH LONG GRASSER

'VISITING THE LONG GRASSERS'

This ‘sit down money’ has bred a generation of first Australians – who fairly or unfairly, the majority do not contribute to society. At the Darwin camp, the ‘Long Grassers’ play cards, gambling with the ‘federal cash’. The winner does what the ‘Long Grassers’ call – ‘the rabbit run’, it’s his or her job to walk to the bottle shop and purchase more grog.

Lord Mayor Graeme Sawyer believes the influx of hundreds of ‘Long Grassers’ to Darwin is an unanticipated outcome from the 2007 Federal Intervention into Aboriginal Communities. Major General David Chalmers who headed up the Federal Response disagrees – telling me at the recent Bombing of Darwin Ceremony: “People were already on the move .. people are transient .. you can’t blame the Intervention for people wanting to move to the City”.

Shoot the messenger or do something about the problem.

The Lord Mayor wants to build camps with showers and toilets at locations around Darwin, where ‘Long Grassers’ like Bob Gallagher and his friends can live. According to Sawyer: “The various levels of Government need to get together and provide some space where these sorts of camps can be facilitated”.

Known for his passion to defeat cane toads – Graeme Sawyer is willing to stake his reputation to solve the ‘Long Grassers’ problem: “We have the same problem with backpacker’s when the dry season comes” – the Lord Mayor says, continuing: “Pretending it’s not happening is not a solution .. the reality is the system we’ve got at the moment is just creating more and more problems”.       

Northern Territory Police, Darwin City Council and the Aboriginal ‘First Patrol’ know the illegal camp exists. However, with the backdrop of Darwin’s housing shortage and skyrocketing rents – everyone allows the campers to stay.

The camp can only be described as basic – rough living, there is no running water and the toilet or bathroom is the tall grass surrounding the tents. Bob enjoys a drink, is a diabetic and he recently had his left big toe amputated. He worries he’ll get sick if he continues to live rough.

AMPUTATED BIG TOE - A LONG GRASSER

'MISSING LEFT BIG TOE'

“I’ve got to go to the hospital for a check up, because I’m living in the bush .. It’s not a nice place to stay, we put in for a house last year and we’re still waiting” – Bob says as he holds a plastic measuring cup filled with ‘watered down’ Port.

Australia is often referred to as the lucky country – I don’t think Bob considers himself lucky.

Maybe one day – the ‘Long Grassers’ will find a home or society will persuade these modern day ‘Okies’ to change. It’s not going to be easy. As someone once said to me, if you can read you can cook. My reply was, try reading ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.


‘THE MICHAEL JACKSON STIMULUS PACKAGE’

July 8, 2009

Speak to any Los Angeles taxi driver, Starbucks barista, hotel valet or Police Officer and they’ll tell you – Michael Jackson’s death is good for business.

America in recession  … What recession?

I counted at least 140 TV crews camped on risers outside the Los Angeles Staples Centre – that doesn’t include the scores of reporters, producers and technicians, all there to cover for the world MJ’s death.

'THE LUCKY TICKETS'

'THE LUCKY TICKETS'

The economics of death. One of the best stories around was that of an Australian couple from Wollongong. Sarah Varley and Jason Leussink were staying in a Sydney hotel last weekend celebrating Sarah’s 36th birthday, watching television in bed they entered the Jackson Memorial lottery online from an I-Phone. 30 hours later and last minute Qantas tickets, they were on their way to Los Angeles doing their bit to stimulate the U.S. Economy.

Since his death – Jackson’s albums have topped the music charts, generating millions for his estate and various record companies. Outside the Staples Centre Police Officers on overtime pay seemed to number as many fans – three thousand in all. The message of the day was  … “If you didn’t have a blue or gold wrist band – you weren’t getting close.” Four million dollars U.S. and counting was the last estimate to police and run the event.

Looking back, the Jackson Memorial Service was nice – not too flashy, dignified – the performers wanted to be there, not there to use it as a vehicle to be scene.

'PEACE'

'PEACE'

For all of Jackson’s unusual past behaviour and weirdness – the Memorial Service left you in the end with the impression of a man fiercely loved by his family, whose image had finally been restored post-child molestation allegations and hush money.

Like John F. Kennedy Jr in 1963 saluting the coffin of his assassinated President Father  … an image itched into history will be Michael Jackson 11 year old daughter Paris, telling the world  … “Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father anyone could imagine and I just wanted to say I love him.” It made young Paris human – a normal little girl caught in an abnormal upbringing. One can only imagine the record executives hanging around the edges, hoping she can sing.

But in the end – my final impression of Michael Jackson’s Memorial Service was

'The Thin Blue Line'

'The Thin Blue Line'

watching a Mexican/American immigrant, a woman in her mid-30’s wandering around the media compound collection empty plastic water bottles. She would later cash them in for five cents each. As the taxi driver said – ‘Jackson death is good for business’.


‘MEMORIAL DAY’

May 24, 2009

(VIDEO STORY ABOUT MEMORIAL DAY AT THE LOS ANGELES NATIONAL CEMETERY)

The best way to describe Memorial Day to an Australian – is to say it’s the American version of ANZAC Day without the pub crawl! A time to remember those who have fallen in battle, survived to come home and anyone who has served.

An American Flag

An American Flag

An American tradition on Memorial Day, is to place an American flag at the grave site of past soldiers, sailors and airmen. No small task considering the numbers. At the Military cemetery in Los Angeles an army of volunteers is enlisted to answer the call – usually Scouts, Cubs and Girl Guides.  

From a foreigners point of view – it’s a very powerful and moving sight .. thousands of kids, American flags in hand – following tradition and struggling to push a 50 centimeter long flag into the soil. 

One of the 58 thousand flags placed around the LA National Cemetery

One of the 58 thousand flags placed around the LA National Cemetery

I asked a mother dressed as a Scout Leader why are American’s so patriotic? She replied .. ‘American’s come from everywhere, we believe in what this country stands for  – today is about respect, honor and freedom. Australian’s have fought for freedom .. you are just like us’. I agreed. Although, patriotism seems easier for American’s .. the colour combination of ‘red, white and blue’ lends itself to self promotion – unlike Australia’s ‘green and gold’ and that ‘Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi’ chant which makes me wish I was Canadian!

Back to Memorial Day .. the Mum summed the morning up best in five words that followed our conversation – (referring to her son, hand on his shoulder) ‘.. his father is in Iraq’. You may not agree with the decision .. but you support the troops. 

America is at War – Waring at a level not seen since Vietnam.

Walking around the LA Cemetery and looking at the headstones, one name soon blends into another. Many of the men buried there lived long lives – into their 70’s and 80’s .. they fought for their Country .. and they came home. But, what jumps out

21 years old

21 years old

is the unmistakable difference between a new headstone and an old one. The faded weathered lettering .. compared to the black stenciled look. 

Private First Class Jin Su Ong stood out. Ong an American, born in 1987 was just 21 when he died in Iraq this year. It made me think .. in 1987 I was in College living life and at 21, I was traveling the world. What would you have missed out on if your life had ended at 21? No disrespect to the other veterans .. but Ong lived in my time. 

For all the symbolism of today, most of the Scouts who playfully raced to plant the flags at each headstone are too young to understand the meaning of Memorial Day – that’s a good thing. PFC Jin Su Ong was forced to grow up too early.

(BELOW ARE ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN AT THE LOS ANGELES NATIONAL CEMETERY – JUSTIN O’BRIEN, 5/23/09)

 

'The Scouts'

'The Scouts'

 

'Flags On Guard'

'Flags On Guard'


‘WILDFIRE’

May 14, 2009

(An eyewitness account of the Santa Barbara Wildfire as strong winds threatened to blow the blaze into the City.)

Santa Barbara is best known as a weekend escape from the smog and traffic of Los Angeles. Two hours up Highway One .. SB – ‘White, Quite and Wealthy’ .. I’d never ventured far from the tourist strip until a Wildfire threatened to engulf the City this week.

Employed by CBS News to film, edit and transmit footage for Correspondents Manuel Gallegus and Hari Sreenivasan – it was a ticket to the frontline of the Wildfire.  

'Give me your left shoulder forward!'

'Give me your left shoulder forward!'

Unlike Bushfires (Australian’s call Wildfires, Bushfires) I’d covered in Australia – most notable by their constant hot strong winds, the Santa Barbara fire was different. It rested during the day and came alive with the afternoon breeze, Santa Barbara locals call ‘Sundowners’. In Hawaii it would the name of a cocktail.    

The odd thing about covering fires in the USA is the unlimited access given to the ‘media’. While police road blocks prevented residents from checking on their homes – a flash of a your media credentials in Santa Barbara and you were free to travel anywhere in the fire zone.

In Australia – a Police road block is a road block and no amount of ‘fast’ talking will get you through. Thank God for the First Amendment – Freedom Of The Press.

But it’s a Freedom you don’t abuse. Covering a Malibu Wildfire years ago – a Police Officer waved me through a road block saying: ‘You now have the right to go and get yourself killed!’ And he was right.

It’s not until you drive the winding backstreets, roads, terraces and drives in the foothills of Santa Barbara that you comprehend the City’s wealth. Old money, new money .. does it really matter, it’s still money. 

(A tour through the burnt out remains of two Santa Barbara homes.)

No matter how many Bushfires, Wildfires or House fires I’ve seen – it still amazes me what survives and what melts. I’ve seen letter boxes untouched while to house is reduced to a concrete slab.

'The Burnt-Out Remains Of Two Houses'

'The Burnt-Out Remains Of Two Houses'

 

'Cooked'

'Cooked'

 

 

But, one thing that’s forever constant is the brave determination of fire fighters to save property – houses, cars, boats, sheds .. whatever. Filming from a house threatened by the Wildfire on Day Two – a Fire Captain told me: ‘We’re going to stand here and fight it .. we’re not going to let it get this house.’ They were unforgettable words in the face of frightening uncertainty. We left as the sky turned black or  as we say ‘from day to night’. The house survived albeit a little smoky, but unscratched.      

Here unlies a Wildfire secret not spoken about. The decision on what house will be protected and what house will not. Officially, houses cleared of vegetation are easier to defend than ones surrounded by trees and grass – and professional fire fighters make that judgement. 

Personal involvement, friendship, influence and association also play a part. At one house surrounded by trees and grass in the SB foothills, the owner admitted the firemen were there because they were his friends. Fair or unfair .. if you’re going to risk your life fighting a fire, you’d prefer to do it for a friend. 

When I told this story to a mate whose house is in a known LA City fires zone, he said .. ‘Thanks, I’d better go and make friends with some fire fighters.’