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As Change Overtakes Compton, So Do Tensions : Community: Latino plurality seeks power. A generation after winning it, blacks find bias charges a bitter pill.

August 21, 1994|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three decades ago, Compton's African American majority ousted the city's entrenched white leadership in a heated battle that reflected the social tumult of the 1960s.

For a time, the tough city in south Los Angeles County was the most populous community west of the Mississippi where blacks held political sway, a national symbol of political empowerment despite its persistent poverty. Here, refugees from the Jim Crow South acquired their piece of the American Dream, using the ballot box to overcome discrimination.

Now, a grainy video image of a black police officer beating a Latino teen-ager has given impetus to cries for a new political revolution.

This time, those alleging discrimination are Latinos--now the presumed majority in an extraordinary demographic shift after the massive emigration from Mexico and Central America that accelerated in the early 1980s. The much-publicized allegations of racial prejudice have galvanized Latinos' demands for power in a city where blacks have a lock on city government, a beleaguered school system and most municipal jobs.

"This is racism perpetuated by one minority group against another," said Pedro Pallan, a 60-year-old baker and unsuccessful council candidate who has been one of the most outspoken Latino advocates.

The uproar has created a besieged atmosphere in City Hall, polarized black and Latino leaders whose constituents have generally enjoyed cordial relations, and left African Americans in the ironic position of responding to allegations of discrimination.

"It's a hard pill to swallow," said Police Chief Hourie L. Taylor, who is black. His 125-officer department, at the vortex of the swirling controversy, includes 14 Latinos.

Compton's embattled black leadership has responded angrily to the challenge, dismissing allegations of discrimination while characterizing Latino activists as a self-serving clique of non-resident merchants.

"I see this as a well-constructed attempt to utilize the historical implications of the African American civil rights movement for the benefit of a few people, who in fact probably don't even consider themselves nonwhite," said Mayor Omar Bradley, a 36-year-old high school English teacher and Compton native. "This is really all about power and privilege."

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The black-brown dispute may provide a glimpse into the potential for future political upheaval in many Southern California communities where immigration has drastically altered the demographic mix. Compton is one test case in the politics of the new Southland, an indication of bumpy times ahead as newcomers' demands clash with established power blocs resistant to change.

Yet, despite the supercharged rhetoric, some see an opportunity for cooperation and coalition-building.

"People need to have a more inclusionary, larger political vision," said Joe R. Hicks, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, an African American civil rights group. "This is really an issue of poor folks struggling over jobs and opportunities. . . . Unless you have a vision of human relations as quite inclusionary, you end up circling the wagons, and lobbing hand grenades at each other in what is seen as racial or ethnic interest. We all lose in that scenario."

Even some African American clerics and others in Compton have called on politicians to open up their city to Latinos.

"We are today the entrenched group trying to keep out intruders, just as whites were once the entrenched group and we were the intruders," said the Rev. William R. Johnson Jr., pastor of Curry Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Spearheading the call for political change is a vocal group of Latino leaders, mostly merchants, who have formed Latinos United Coalition of Compton, headed by Pallan, a longtime activist who has the most political experience. Also included in the organization are a grocery store owner, a juice shop operator, a real estate investor and a lawyer. Participants meet in the back room of a Mexican restaurant to discuss strategy, assisted by national Latino groups.

Latinos are pressing several demands, including creation of a civilian board to review police behavior, a federal investigation into racial and ethnic conflict in the city, and establishment of an affirmative action and job-training program targeted toward increasing Latino participation.

Black officials have tended to paint the coalition as "outside agitators," in the words of several top city officials.

Arnulfo Alatorre, one of the coalition leaders, acknowledges that he resides in nearby Downey, but adds that his Compton grocery store has been in business for years and that he lived in Compton for most of his life. He and other commuting businessmen view their presence in Compton as crucial to a city with high unemployment and a low tax base.

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