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GEORGE RAMOS

In Compton--a New Videotape and a New Storm

August 08, 1994|GEORGE RAMOS

I was set to vent my anger because Latinos--who make up about half of the riders on Metropolitan Transit Authority buses and trains--got taken for a ride by the recent strike and the fare increase that goes into effect Sept. 1.

I'm not sure the MTA did the right thing by banking on an unproven program of using busing discount tokens to entice riders to stay with public transit. Judging from the reaction of some riders I met after the strike, County Supervisor Gloria Molina had few friends for going along with the hike. "She sold us down the river," Route 30 commuter Rene Acosta told me.

But as often happens in the news business, something else came up. I quickly changed course after two friends, Emiliano Castillo and Joey Mendez, called Saturday to say they wanted to go to Compton.

They wanted to know if this much-publicized confrontation between a black police officer and a 17-year-old Latino was another Rodney King case. "We don't need another one of these damn things," Emiliano said.

*

Compton is the latest place where the race card is being played. Because the confrontation between Felipe Soltero and Officer Michael Jackson, who is African American, was videotaped and shown on TV, it underscored festering tensions in a place where city officials estimate that Latinos have replaced blacks as the majority.

Some Latino activists have demanded an apology from Compton's mayor, who is black, and the resignation of Police Chief Hourie Taylor, who also is black. Even the Brown Berets showed up in town to back up those demands.

There have been some tensions in South-Central L.A. between Latinos and African Americans, but it doesn't match the current storm in Compton.

Under a hot Saturday sun, my buddies and I walked around much of Compton--I insisted that we take the Blue Line to get there--and discovered some surprising things.

Most of the folks we encountered weren't really interested in talking about the specifics of the incident. They knew that it involved a black officer and a Latino. They have seen the videotape on TV, but that doesn't mean very much. After all, they said, recent events have proved to them that not everything is on a tape.

They were very interested, however, in the charge by some Latino leaders in Compton that the incident showed that African Americans--oppressed themselves since before slavery--have become the oppressors of the Latinos in town.

Opinion was divided, depending on one's skin color.

"B.S.," said Glenda Harris, a black woman who is a 20-year Compton resident, as she walked to her car on Compton Boulevard. "If anyone is sensitive to that sort of thing, it's us. We have been oppressed for so long that I think many blacks guard against it."

"There is no respect for raza "--the people--said Jose Guzman, a five-year Compton resident who was eagerly eating ice cream on Willowbrook Avenue.

"There is respect," argued Melva Johnson at the Blue Line station.

"No way," said a man from Guadalajara, now on Cypress Street.

As we made our way around town, we also saw a bit of Compton that doesn't make the TV news or the pages of a major metropolitan newspaper. Kids of all shades run after an ice cream truck on a hot day and pedal their bikes furiously on a moment's dare.

Neighbors still gossip. Carmen Valencia and Ruth Johnson, no relation to Melva, chose to huddle in a noisy but shady walkway between their homes. The husbands argued about the impending baseball strike, but the two mothers preferred to wonder about Michael Jackson--not the police officer, but the singer, who just married the King's daughter.

*

Back home, mulling over what we saw and heard, this much seemed clear:

This is no time for the police chief to be taking a vacation, as he apparently has done. He should stick around and handle this controversy. Otherwise, as Compton resident Johnny Merchant noted, "People will start smearing Compton. That ain't right."

In dealing with the situation, Compton City Hall should keep in mind the danger of the oppressed becoming oppressors. To forget it is a sure prescription for political arrogance. Latinos have had to deal with it as they acquired power in places like Bell Gardens. Asians have heard it too, in Monterey Park.

In a way, many of the folks we met on Saturday were glad that the brouhaha has surfaced in Compton. "Sometimes, you need a camera to set things right," Melva Johnson said. "We can use this to remind ourselves that as people of color, we are entitled to respect and we ought to give it. Compton has a chance to teach L.A. a thing or two."

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