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Los Angeles | Patt Morrison

Parks, Blacks and Fear of Losing Power

April 24, 2002|Patt Morrison

Drag up a chair, and I'll tell you a story, all about how the mayor of Los Angeles, who was born in a modest home and rose to high office, instead inadvertently managed to end up killing the big fat golden goose of Los Angeles.

So far it's a fairy tale not yet come true. It could also be a sci-fi story, if you believe that the San Fernando Valley gnawing off its own leg to escape from L.A.'s civic trap is the scariest thing that could happen around here.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, Jim Hahn pulls the plug on a second term for Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, and the hollering begins.

He betrayed us, black leaders declare. And after all we did for him. Two ministers whose churches got $25,000 in economic development grants from Hahn two weeks earlier summon the press and rip up big mockups of the checks. "Pieces of silver," they declare. "Not for sale."

The recall-Hahn rumblings begin, and with wide and diverse support for Parks, the noise reaches across black Los Angeles to some Latinos, to some Asians--and to the Valley, where the secessionistas don't care much about Parks one way or the other, but have their own gripes about Hahn, and are glad to have some reinforcements for recall.

Then the Police Commission, with its only black member dissenting, votes to give Parks the hook, and out in front of Parker Center, there appear the forces of African American indignation: Danny Bakewell of the Brotherhood Crusade, Maxine Waters, the congresswoman who just a year ago was hugging Hahn like a proud mom.

There's even talk of taking pickets to the Grove, that vast mercantile tumor looming over Farmers Market. Its builder is Rick Caruso, head of the Police Commission.

All of this evidently backfires, or fizzles, insofar as it makes it seem like Parks' deepest support is about race, not merit. This is ironic because Parks spent his career proving that he is all LAPD blue. Now he's in the position of O.J. Simpson in that, despite O.J.'s success in the great white world, in adversity (in his case, in the face of vast evidence of guilt) Simpson had support only from the core of working-class African Americans.

What is the heartbeat of this impassioned Parker Center turnout? Fear. Losing a police chief feels like power slipping away. Gone are the days of a black mayor and a council that had three solidly black votes and two more likely ones from districts with many black votes. That old comfy black-Westside coalition has died of old age.

In 20 years, L.A.'s black population has plummeted by maybe a dozen percent--black flight to Pomona, Riverside, Santa Clarita, to better schools, safer neighborhoods. Some blacks left behind imagine a zero-sum world, black vs. Latino, if they win, we lose what few goodies there are, health clinics or public housing or the big chairs at every political table.

Raphael Sonenshein, the political scientist who tracks L.A.'s ethnic politics, thinks that's perception, not reality.

"The Parks thing is so high-profile, it's being fought as if it's a last stand, a statement about whether blacks have clout in the community anymore," when in truth, black leadership in government and politics is "surprisingly strong."

But Kerman Maddox, the black political consultant who's more plugged in than an outlet in a college dorm room, thinks blacks have lost ground in L.A. and in state offices. Younger blacks' support of Antonio Villaraigosa's mayoral candidacy was a 21st century cross-ethnic strategy to meet new realities; Hahn's aggrieved black supporters, he thinks, are latching on to just about anyone who will give them a seat at the table, even if there's not much on the table.

So where were we? Right--the recall movement runs out of ammo. There's a bigger-caliber weapon at hand: secession. That'll teach Hahn a lesson. Politically canny African Americans find common cause with their old foil, the Valley, the same far-off people who watched the riot smoke of 1965 and 1992 like it was happening in Bosnia.

"This process"--this Parks dust-up--"has definitely helped us tremendously." Thus says Richard Close, a secessionista and a commissioner in redrawing L.A.'s City Council districts. In a Valley-less L.A., all sorts of interest groups "will be able to elect their community representatives to the new Los Angeles City Council."

And Mayor Magic Johnson, aided by Councilman Bernie Parks, could preside over the nation's third-largest city--or its fourth-largest city, lagging behind the appalling Houston, if the harbor and Hollywood decide to take a hike too.

And this is how true-blue Angelenos end up splitting their beloved city like a wishbone. Remember that when you break a wishbone, the only wish to come true is the one made by the guy who winds up with the bigger piece.


Columnist Patt Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@

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