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While the City Abdicates Power, Commissions Set Urban Agenda : Government: In the effort to get rebuilding off the ground, the real problems that created the Los Angeles riots are being ignored or overlooked.

June 28, 1992|Mike Davis | Mike Davis is the author of "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall)

Over the last year, a disturbing seepage of power has occurred in City Hall. Confronted with the gravest civic crisis since the Depression, a weak, increasingly re clusive mayor and a shrewd but spineless City Council have abdicated power to a new proconsular elite of corporate lawyers, law-enforcement leaders and millionaire executives. With virtually no debate, responsibilities of democratic government have been subcontracted to the commissions or coalitions chaired by Warren Christopher, Robert E. Wycoff, William H. Webster and Peter V. Ueberroth.

They are invested with the power to develop city policy across a spectrum of vital and interrelated issues: police reform, public education and the future of South Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, these white knights have opted for narrow definitions of problems and their solutions.

Thus, the Christopher Commission abjured far-reaching institutional reforms, like a civilian review board or residency requirement, long advocated by police critics, in favor of minimal administrative changes acceptable to former police chief Ed Davis and other conservative critics of Daryl F. Gates.

The Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, chaired by Arco President Wycoff, has seized the high ground in defining the contours of educational reform. This corporate-funded coalition asserts that restructuring, rather than new tax revenue, is the key to saving Los Angeles' collapsing schools. As teacher activists have pointed out, LEARN has undermined support for desperately needed school funding by its emphasis on organizational panaceas.

For its part, the Webster Commission, headed by the former FBI and CIA director, is restricted in focus to problems of police riot deployment and response, set apart from any critical inquiry into the events and causes of the worst civil disturbance in modern U.S. history. In sharp contrast to 1965, there has been no initiative to establish a riot commission with a comprehensive mandate. Most city leaders seem to believe we should just concentrate on upgrading police performance and not waste time on a time-consuming and possibly recriminatory inquest into the uprising itself.

In lieu of such an investigation, however, the official "theory" of the riot will inevitably be elaborated by District Atty. Ira Reiner and U.S. Atty. Lourdes G. Baird in the prosecution of innumerable looting, arson and "gang conspiracy" cases. In their relentless push for maximum indictments and penalties, they deny any significant motivation for the rebellion other than opportunist criminality--a punitive interpretation that returns our understanding of urban unrest to the pre-Kerner Commission dark ages.

Meanwhile, the imposition of Ueberroth as L.A.'s rebuilding czar virtually precludes serious debate about the relative roles of public and private sectors in addressing the current crisis. He has stated that the over-arching priority of his Rebuild L.A. committee will be the mobilization of political and economic incentives to bring private capital back to South Los Angeles.

Given this premise, the public sector's role is reduced to leveraging the private sector through tax concessions, training subsidies, land-use variances and so on. Excluded is any serious consideration of the opposing argument, that revitalization might be more effectively achieved through public works and small-business loans financed by higher corporate and luxury taxes.

An ideological coup d'etat has taken place in Los Angeles, as elite commissions have been allowed to impose their interpretations on public policy. In every case, open debate over the fundamental parameters of analysis and action has been short-circuited or avoided. Police reform has been narrowed to a tinkering with the status quo, while redistributive solutions to the urban crisis have been excluded a priori . If there is some titular representation of selected "community leaders," testimony or participation from the grass roots is non-existent.

But conservative reform will almost certainly run aground on reefs of its own making. Consider two examples.

The Christopher Commission's chief antidote for widespread citizen alienation from the LAPD has been the revitalization of the "community-based" policing program that Gates previously discarded. The cornerstone is supposed to be the local police advisory council. But the Christopher Commission characteristically refrained from making these councils elected bodies or investing them with any independent power.

Thus, when the Venice Beach advisory council voted May 1 in support of the commission's Prop. F, they were immediately disbanded by Capt. Jan Carlson, commander of the LAPD's Pacific Division--an action upheld by Parker Center. If public advisers are fired every time they disagree with LAPD brass, the future of "community-based policing" may be less than brilliant.

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