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Cultivating Coalitions on L.A.'s Common Ground: Crime

September 05, 1993|BILL BOYARSKY

Last Monday, Mayor Richard Riordan met the drug trade.

Councilman Mike Hernandez was driving him through an especially drug-infested portion of Pico-Union, west of Downtown. "We turned off Venice (Boulevard) and a guy signaled the mayor," Hernandez told me afterward. "The mayor started to wave to him and I said, 'No, the guy wants to sell you drugs.' "

Later that morning, when he was talking to community residents at nearby Berendo Middle School, Riordan was still amazed. "They tried to sell us drugs," he said. The residents weren't surprised. One woman told him a drug dealer at the corner of Pico and Vermont gave her small son some cocaine. He was trying to recruit him as a customer. Another said gangs terrorized her children near the school, stealing watches and rings.

"We need more police to work with us on the gang issue," Hernandez told Riordan. "They (the residents) want more of a police presence."

Riordan listened intently. "You will see more visible police out here in the future," said the mayor, who has promised to put 3,000 more cops on the street.

As I listened to the conversation, I thought this is L.A. 1993--the mayor and these Latino and Filipino residents, most of them immigrants, swapping crime stories.


As Riordan forges a political coalition he hopes will support him for the next four years and possibly into a second term, he is counting on the sad fact that an encounter with crime is one of L.A.'s most common experiences, shared by all races and by the rich, poor and middle class.

He understands that Angelenos' concern with personal safety is more powerful than race, more powerful than political ideology, more powerful than the party labels that have long defined American politics.

There's not much else that unifies Los Angeles these days, especially since the 1992 riots.

You can see that by looking at Riordan's vote in the election in June. The biggest chunk of his supporters were white. More than 80% of the African-Americans voted against him. So did almost 70% of the Asian-Americans. Only one ethnic minority gave him some support: 43% of Latinos voted for Riordan.

But Riordan can't succeed by just being mayor of the whites. He needs members of the city's minority communities, too, even those who didn't vote. For their voices are an important part of that discordant, undisciplined force known as public opinion.

Without public opinion on his side, Riordan won't be able to muster support in the City Council for his programs to increase the number of cops on the street and to promote more jobs in private enterprise and less in government.

By touring Hernandez's heavily Latino 1st District, which extends from the working-class neighborhoods of Northeast Los Angeles to the poverty of Pico-Union, Riordan was trying to beef up the Latino portion of his coalition.

Latinos are important because they make up 40% of the city's population. Anglos are 37%, Asian-Americans and African-Americans 14%.

Despite its size, however, the Latino community made up only 10% of those who went to the polls in June, a figure that is likely to rise in the future.

As I watched Riordan in the Berendo schoolyard, I could see how popular he was and what the potential might be. The kids swarmed over a pleased mayor for autographs and gathered around him as he sat at an outdoor table, eating a cafeteria hamburger and fries with faculty members.

The Riordan Administration wasn't as popular Wednesday night at Trinity Baptist Church on West Jefferson Boulevard in South-Central Los Angeles.

Riordan's deputy mayor for police, William Violante, spoke to more than 300 men and women, most of them African-American, at a meeting sponsored by a year-old organization called AGENDA. The group is concerned that the public safety debate has shifted from a post-riot dialogue on police reform to a discussion focused entirely on expanding the LAPD.

Police reform remains a hot issue in South-Central. One example of that is the charge made by many South-Central residents that the LAPD indiscriminately forces young black men to assume a humiliating prone position when they are stopped by the police. These residents advocate creation of advisory councils, which could register complaints about such tactics. And the cops would have to listen. But the LAPD has traditionally resisted advice from the outside.

One questioner summed up the resentment. The LAPD, she said, has a long history of disrespect for the African-American community. Riordan, she said, has made it worse by "refusing to meet with us."

Another criticized the police union, which Violante recently headed, for financing the police officers' defense in the Rodney G. King beating case.

Violante replied that he "heard the frustration and anger in the questions" and would meet with the African-American community often.


No doubt many members of the audience have their horror stories about crime. But while they want more cops, they also expect them to be more responsive to the community. "Violante had a one-dimensional perspective on public safety," said Anthony Thigpenn, AGENDA's board chairman. "He always came back to 3,000 officers."

Los Angeles' African-American community has a long history of political participation that reached its peak during the recent reign of a black mayor, Tom Bradley. Today, black political power is diminished but not dead. There are three black City Council members who have shown they can put together a coalition of their own to block Riordan. They recently did that by uniting with whites to defeat confirmation of Riordan's controversial Fire Commission nominee, Latino activist Xavier Hermosillo.

Riordan will have to come to terms with this community. For, as President Clinton is finding out, it is one thing to win an election and another to govern.

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