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EYEWITNESS: TANDY K. BOZEMAN : A General Scouts the Soul of L.A. : Race: We are not all alike, but sensitivity to differences and sincere helpfulness can improve the city's spirit.

April 20, 1993|As told to Robert Scheer, Times Contributing Editor

Major Gen. Tandy K. Bozeman, 54, directs the California National Guard. He coordinated its preparation for verdicts in the Rodney King civil-rights trial.

As told to Robert Scheer / Times Contributing Editor

It's funny how it comes back. I went to see the Rev. Dr. Chip Murray (Cecil Murray, pastor of First AME Church in Los Angeles). He reached out and hugged me and it was just a flood of memories. I said to him, "My God, the last time I was hugged by a black minister, it was Martin Luther King."

I grew up in Montgomery, Ala. I was an orphan at 10. I was reared by a Victorian grandmother. But my grandfather had worked at the Montgomery Advertiser. So at age 14 I went down and (became) a photographer.

So I remember the night that word came in that someone had exploded a bomb on Dr. King's front porch. I got in the car and drove up into a predominantly black section of Montgomery, and outside his house there was a growing crowd of angry blacks. Dr. King saw me and he walked out into the crowd, and took me by the hand and took me in the house.

Let me tell you, I was very happy to be with the blacks. That was the only place you were safe. The police were brutal. I remember having a shotgun stuck in my stomach by a police officer one night, saying, "Did you take my picture, boy?" To which my courageous answer was "No sir, and would you like the camera?" And then there was an element of whites, referred to locally as rednecks, who were violent people. It was hard to believe, even though I was a native, that these people existed in the state. And so the only place that you felt reasonably safe was with the people in the civil-rights movement.

I have never been any place in my life that has more emotional content than the memory of sitting on the floor in a black church in Montgomery, with a full-scale riot going on outside, with the congregation, predominantly black women, singing spirituals.

Speaking as someone who grew up in the civil-rights movement and a university-educated anthropologist, the first, the greatest mistake is to simplify. It's like saying, you know, all Latin Americans are people like us who speak Spanish. No, the patterns of thought are complex and different. To simplify that and not understand the complexity of it, is to be simply stupid.

And we (middle-class white) Americans who believe ourselves, in our ethnocentricity, to be the apex of Western civilization, and hence the best thing in the world, have made that stupid mistake all over the world.

You know, I'm typical. I lived for 20 years in Thousand Oaks and rarely got into Los Angeles.

What I tried to do in the last months was to be proactive, to reach out, talk tothe community leaders and explain what we were doing, rather than having to find myself being defensive or reactive.

I have a fundamentally different view of Los Angeles than I did before I started into this journey because I have seen things I hadn't seen before. It is improper to say that this is a bad place. And that people in gangs are not retrievable, or that this is not a solvable problem. It is a solvable problem. You have to understand the culture and the values, and once you do that, then you can do things so those cultures and those values change.

I believe that people who right now are in gangs can end up being productive citizens, members of the society. You know, if you offer them jobs and economic opportunity, and the way to bring themselves up, in the right terms--that's a big if: If you do it under the right terms, you'll be successful. If you do it with cultural arrogance and a lack of understanding of the values of the people that you are talking to and a fundamental intellectual arrogance and a disrespect for the culture of the people you are dealing with, you'll fail.

What happened in Los Angeles last year doesn't bear a real relationship to Rodney King. He's only a symptom and a symbol of a deeper malaise--the perception in part of our community that justice is not equal.

That perception has got to change or I believe some inconsequential incident some night, maybe this summer, will start this whole thing again. But I believe that there is a solution--Willie Williams. There are fundamental economic problems in Los Angeles; we need to create jobs and bring opportunity to the inner city. But to the extent that the flash point was focused on a visceral hatred of the Los Angeles Police Department, I think Chief Williams will have a profound effect on that.

A number of friends, after the Los Angeles riots last year, said, "Well, good, if they want to burn the place down, let them do it. Let's not bother to rebuild it if that's the way they're going to be." That is to me a fundamentally incomprehensible statement because the racial and ethnic diversity that is Los Angeles is not an aberration; it's the future of our country. And we had better do what's necessary to accommodate that.

If you were at the armory in Inglewood, where I just came from, there is an Asian standing next to a black standing next to a fellow named Garcia. Men and women. The commanding general of the 40th Division, Daniel Hernandez, is a Latino--a two-star general who grew up in the 'hood. His chief of staff is black, Peter Grabett, a former L.A. police officer and a full colonel.

If I have a personal agenda, it's to make sure that the upper echelons, and access to command and higher responsibility in the California Guard is open to minorities and women. And the second thing is to see us with a greater involvement in helping youth, specifically inner-city. Because 90% of what the military does on a daily basis is train young people. We're very good at it. Why can't we, to the extent that we're able to do so, reach out to the young people in the inner cities and help them shift their values to something that is more productive?

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