The Rodney King beating has brought to the surface ugly problems in Los Angeles: not only the allegations of police brutality, but the now exposed factionalism among races and ethnic groups and the tensions between longtime city powers who fear too much change and new-line city powers who fear too little.
With the political winds full of volatile elements, the easiest, safest--and the most timid--response for an elected official is to do nothing. That's why Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo deserves credit for taking an unequivocal stand in calling for the resignation of Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates. Woo believes, as do many other responsible people, that the chief, "by pitting his personal supporters against his critics . . . has placed himself at the center of a fight which threatens to tear this city apart."
Given the crisis of public confidence in the Police Department, the national shame the beating brought upon the entire city and the controversy the chief has brought upon himself during his tenure, Woo's stand shouldn't be courageous. But it is, compared to some council members, who can't seem to decide, after three weeks of exhaustive public discussion, whether they support Gates' indefinite continuation as police chief. "Let's wait and see." "It's not really the council's job," some members have said. "We don't want to just add rhetoric." Really? Funny, that's never stopped council members from jumping into U.S. foreign policy, rhetorical guns blazing.
Some city officials simply are afraid to take a stand on the city's biggest controversy in recent history. Council members Joel Wachs, Ruth Galanter, Robert Farrell and Nate Holden say they have no position whatsoever on Chief Gates' tenure. Mayor Tom Bradley, although he's more than hinted that he wants Gates out, has been no model of clarity on this issue, either. And clarity is what's needed, whether the position is in favor of or against Gates as police chief.
Absent political leadership to give voice and positively channel public frustration--which is particularly strong among African-Americans--others step in to fill the gap. Enter Al Sharpton, the New York preacher-activist who has a proven knack for showing up in racially tense situations and making them more so. He describes himself as a "loose cannon," a point on which we agree.
Sharpton is just what Los Angeles doesn't need. But when you've got a town full of duck-and-run politicians, it invites others to take up the leadership mantle. And when that happens some people will follow--no matter, unfortunately, where they are being led.