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Compton Latinos Still on Outside Looking In

Politics: Despite growing numbers, black-run government remains largely closed to them.

April 16, 1998|DARRYL FEARS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He made the promise in front of everybody.

Omar Bradley, running hard for mayor of Compton in 1993, wrapped one of his tree limb-sized arms around Pedro Pallan's shoulders and declared that it was finally time for the city's emerging Latino majority to have a representative on the mostly black City Council.

If Latinos voted for him, Bradley said, he'd recommend the person of their choice to fill the council vacancy his mayoral victory would create.

"We were glad that for the first time in Compton, a Latino would be recommended to be on the council," said Gorgonio Sanchez, the Mexican American president of Compton's school board.

But it never happened.

On the night of the big announcement, civic-minded Latinos filtered into Compton's small council chambers. When two council members recommended yet another black man to fill Bradley's empty seat, Latinos were stunned to see the mayor-elect--helped into office by their votes--join in.

"At the moment of the announcement, we were preparing to have this big roar," Sanchez said. "Everybody thought it would be Mr. Pallan. We were more than sure. Mr. Pallan was fixing his tie and getting ready to stand up."

For Pallan, it was like a blow to the gut. "You know when someone hits you and you see stars?" he said. "That's how I felt. I said, 'Gee, I can't believe this is happening.' "

At a Crossroads

Five years later, Compton's black-run government is still largely closed to Latinos.

Compton is one of three cities in the rapidly changing southeast and western part of Los Angeles County where African American leaders and Latino activists are at a crossroads when it comes to sharing political power, and each is seeking a different path.

In Lynwood, Latinos who felt left out of government overwhelmed African American leadership in the last election and are now seizing power. In Inglewood, black leaders are seeking a multicultural government in part by helping Latinos into power. And in Compton, black politicians are clinging to power without much regard for the city's exploding Latino community.

Mayor Bradley said Latinos will have to vote themselves into power. Similarly, he said he didn't push Pallan's candidacy because he had neither the council's nor in the community's votes.

If Pallan and other Latinos "get some votes, then they'll get some elected officials," Bradley said.

Bradley also alleged that Latino activists are hostile toward black people. In fact, he's labeled them "agitators."

He voiced that description at a time when tension between black and brown residents crackled like a live wire after the videotaped beating of a Latino teenager by a black police officer in 1994. Bradley--who lists his heroes as John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X--played down complaints by Latinos who organized in protest.

"I see this as a well-constructed attempt to utilize the historical context of the African American civil rights movement for the benefit of a few people, who in fact probably don't even consider themselves nonwhite," the mayor said of demonstrations by Latino activists. "This is really about power and privilege."

As was the snub of Pedro Pallan, some say. Power and privilege--fancy words for the appointments, jobs and lucrative contracts Compton's city government doles out--have worked the same way for black people as they did for the white power elite, which kept African Americans down for years.

"What does power mean?" asked Randolph Ward, the black state administrator of the blighted Compton Unified School District who nonetheless is fighting for more Latino leadership. "It means influence and money. When people feel they're losing that, they go through drastic measures to keep it."

Compton's ongoing black-brown discord is largely political. In the city's neighborhoods, blacks and the mostly Mexican immigrant residents get along like neighbors anywhere.

"It's not a race thing for me," said Claudia Soto, a Latina whose 6-year-old daughter attends a Compton public school. "I support Latino candidates, but I also support people who do the right thing. They could be Chinese, they could be African American, whoever, as long as they do their job."

Bradley isn't as colorblind, said school board member Basil Kimbrew. When the mayor learned that Kimbrew would vote to appoint Sanchez as board president, Kimbrew said the mayor told him that a Latino couldn't do the job.

"I'm appalled at stuff like that," Kimbrew said. The district's student enrollment is 68% Latino.

Bradley called Kimbrew's account "an utter lie."

The mayor said that, while he has "no hostility toward Latino people," he will not give them a hand into government. "They have to organize. They have to strategize the way we strategized." Bradley said.

"Power," said Bradley--quoting the black abolitionist and journalist Fredrick Douglass, "concedes nothing without demand. Never has. Never will."

A Familiar Pattern

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