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Activists Seek Answers Outside the System

June 30, 1988|MICHAEL ARKUSH | Times Staff Writer

Leo Whitaker, 49, of Glendale is secretary of the Valley Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). During working hours, he writes free-lance articles and does public relations. In his free time, he talks politics and change.

"To be a Democratic Socialist in America, you have to read a lot of history, economics and philosophy and be alienated," Whitaker said.

Whitaker isn't alone. There are plenty of activists in the area who reject the two-party system, preferring to search for answers elsewhere. From the Left to the Right--and in some a peculiar mixture of both--alternative parties and movements dot the ideological landscape.

Like Valley DSA. Though considered the liberal fringe of the San Fernando Valley Democratic Party, Valley DSA pursues its own agenda. It seeks a greater role for the worker in the factory and a lesser one for American troops abroad. National health care for everyone ranks as one of its highest priorities.

DSA was formed in 1982, the result of a merger of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM). The resulting group has about 5,000 members nationwide, with 350 in Los Angeles County. Well-known socialist and author Michael Harrington ("The Other America") serves as DSA's co-chairman.

Once a month, the Valley chapter congregates at the International House of Pancakes in Van Nuys to discuss strategy and policy. Many of its 40 dues-paying members are academics, writers and lawyers.

"Unfortunately, we're a proletariat group without a proletariat," said Whitaker. "And I don't know why we can't attract more workers."

Whitaker attributes much of his political consciousness to his liberal upbringing. During the 1920s and '30s, the plight of the hungry, homeless and jobless formed a lasting impression on Whitaker's father, a Glendale attorney.

Whitaker's father did more than sympathize. Because Japanese immigrants in the 1940s weren't allowed to own property, the elder Whitaker carried a Japanese-American newspaper under his name so it wouldn't be confiscated.

Politics was a passionate topic at the dinner table. "When Castro came to power in 1959 and they were executing the Batista people, I said something like, 'You don't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.' My father turned around, got mad and said, 'We're not talking about eggs. We're talking about people.' "

But debate was always encouraged in the Whitaker household. Only by questioning every assumption could serious thought be stimulated.

At Occidental College, Whitaker thrived intellectually in a similarly free environment. Still, he says, his education didn't prepare him for his eventual disillusionment with government and society's mainstream.

In his mid-30s, Whitaker was still searching for answers.

"The 'War on Poverty' had died, and I kept wondering, 'Where was Camelot?' " Whitaker said.

On July 4, 1976, the nation's bicentennial, he joined DSOC, which eventually became DSA. "I was celebrating what I consider to be the next step in the great American drama, when people will vote for our programs."

Twelve years later, Whitaker is still waiting. He claims DSA has helped influence national policy on such issues as arms control and Contra aid. But he realizes that many changes are decades away.

"I was born in 1939, the first year Democrats put national health into their platform," he said. "I'm 49 years old, and I probably won't see it in my lifetime."

Kate Beroukhim's political evolution mirrors Whitaker's. Values ingrained from childhood coalesced two years ago into a mature ideological identity when she joined the little-known Peace and Freedom Party.

Formed in 1968 as an anti-Vietnam War movement, the Peace and Freedom Party supported Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and comedian Dick Gregory for president. In 1972, it backed pediatrician Benjamin Spock.

After a brief merger with the Black Panthers, the party dropped out of sight during the calmer '70s. Today, it has 14,900 registered voters in Los Angeles County, including about 2,500 in the Valley.

Although its members have been elected to school boards in Northern California, none of its candidates for a partisan elective office in the state have ever won. In August, the party will meet in Oakland to pick a presidential candidate.

Peace and Freedom favors returning all American troops from foreign soil, and using the money spent on them for social purposes. Unlike liberal Democrats, who call for a more humane version of capitalism, Peace and Freedom supports a socialist state. Its members would like to see everyone guaranteed a job, decent housing and health care, regardless of class standing.

Beroukhim subscribes to the whole package. She is 33, the mother of a 2-year-old girl and working to make her Tujunga free-lance graphic design business succeed.

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