February 14, 2008
Who is Roger Diamond?
Put yourself in the shoes of this Jewish man. You're a lawyer representing the interests of a strip club called Skins, which has been in a long, drawn-out battle with the city and neighborhood groups to operate their club at the southern tip of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, several blocks from Hamilton High School.
It's a cold Monday night in late January, and you are facing about 600 angry people -- residents, parents, neighborhood activists, teachers, a few rabbis -- who have gathered in the Hamilton High auditorium to express their outrage. The battle has come down to the wire: This will be the final town meeting before a decision is made in a few weeks on whether Skins is entitled to get a permanent police permit.
I arrive early and find a seat in the front row. The atmosphere reminds me a little of what it felt like when I arrived early at a boxing match in Las Vegas: people milling around, conversations kept short, security guards asking loud questions, a reporter in the corner interviewing someone who looks important, people rushing to get seatsï¿½" and everyone expecting fireworks.
The official who chairs the meeting starts by summarizing the people's concerns about having a strip club in their neighborhood -- risk of drugs, prostitution, gang violence, traffic congestion, etc.ï¿½" and then invites Roger Diamond, the lawyer representing Skins, to respond.
It's one man against 600.
In his rumpled beige suit, Diamond walks over to the microphone. His eyes are intense and defiant. He starts by raising a couple of legal technicalities, which doesn't go over well with the audience. Then, a few feet from where I'm sitting, he starts to strip.
That's right, he starts to strip.
He throws his suit jacket to the floor, and as he starts taking off his shirt -- to the loud gasps and heckling of an astonished crowd and the repeated calls from the hearing officer of "You are out of order, Mr. Diamond!" -- all I can think of is: My God, I'm in the middle of a Tom Wolfe novel.
After a few minutes, the heckling and boos got so loud that Diamond decides to stop before his trousers come down, but not before everyone saw what is on his T-Shirt: the logo of Hamilton High, where he graduated some 45 years ago. Diamond was trying to make the point, he told us, that when he attended that very same high school, there was a lot of discrimination against people who were "unpopular," like blacks and gays. Strip clubs might be unpopular, he shouted, but what makes America great is that it protects the rights of everyone, even the tasteless, the vulgar and the unpopular.
His words had no effect on the hostile audience, except to precipitate his concluding remarks -- namely, that his client had followed every regulation in the book and that the negative effects of the strip club were grossly exaggerated.
His strange performance did have an effect on me, though, so a few days later, I tracked him down in his old-school, cluttered office on Main Street in Santa Monica.
I got to know a quirky, passionate Los Angeles native who never dreamed he'd become a counsel to skin merchants nationwide and the reviled bÃªte noir of neighborhood groups everywhere.
Diamond, who graduated from UCLA Law School in 1966, stumbled on the adult industry when he was engaged in a one-man crusade against air polluters in 1969. While employed at a major law firm, he filed, on his own, a class-action suit against 294 smog-producing companies such as General Motors, Texaco and Union Carbide. Because some of the companies were clients of his law firm, this created a conflict and he had to quit his cushy job and go off on his own. At the time, he and his wife had one daughter and his wife was pregnant with their second child.
Looking to pay the bills, Diamond's secretary showed him an ad in the L.A. Free Press for "a young aggressive attorney" needed to "fight an injustice." It was for an adult bookstore owner in East Los Angeles being prosecuted for a misdemeanor battery. Diamond took the case, fought it all the way to the State Supreme Court and won. That started his career in the adult world.
But while he was making a name for himself defending some of society's unseemly elements, he never stopped fighting for his pet causes. For 20 years he successfully fought off-shore oil drilling; he helped get the state's first propositions to ban indoor smoking on the ballot in 1978 and 1980; and he wrote the Clean Environment Act, which was voted down in 1972.
While we were sitting in his legal library, Diamond, a trim, youthful-looking 66-year-old who comes to work in sneakers, kept jumping from his seat to pull out another book of records from the Appellate Courts, either to prove a point or show me the numerous precedents he'd helped establish. His passion for legal complexities was no less than what I've seen with talmudic scholars.
After three hours of absorbing his fascination with legal rights and the protection of the environment, I couldn't resist asking him if he saw a contradiction in his work, since one can easily argue that strip clubs contribute to a different type of pollution -- that of the mind.
I don't think he appreciated my question, but he finessed it by saying that we have a choice in life to keep our minds clean or polluted, but we cannot choose whether or not to breathe polluted air. His focus on the tangible and his deep faith in the first-amendment right of free speech might lead you to believe that Diamond doesn't give much weight to things like speech pollution.
But when I asked him if there was something in his youth that presaged his interest in defending the unpopular, he recalled a homely looking Jewish kid in grade school named Jerry Solomon. Everyone in school would torment Solomon by calling him "Horseface."
Everyone, that is, except for his only friend: Roger Diamond.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.