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Jewish Journal

Power to the People

March 23, 2000 | 7:00 pm

During the early years of the 20th century, a jour-nalist, Lincoln Steffens, published a series of exposés that were eventually turned into the book "The Shame of the Cities." It was a sensational work of non-fiction, but it was also quite depressing. Steffens uncovered corruption from the top on down in one city after another across America. It was a portrait of how American democracy was not working, and it did not inspire much confidence in our urban future.

The mayor, the judges, the police, the city's new business leaders, and the ward bosses who controlled a city's political machine at the turn of the century all formed something akin to an interlocking directorate. Their purpose: To ensure that the city government ran smoothly, that those in power retained power, and that enough money was distributed to keep everyone happy -- and more than a few people quite wealthy.

When reformers asserted themselves and were able to sweep the city clean of the party bosses and the ruling elite, the story rarely had a happy ending. Within four or eight years, the corruption had taken hold once again. A new system, sometimes with the same faces, sometimes with new ones, was back in charge running the city in the old way, but with some new refinements. Business as usual, only with a modern, updated twist. Who said there was no progress? The question arose: Were human beings -- at least those who were wealthy and successful -- just plain rotten, or was the system itself so open to manipulation and rule by a clever, protected group of men that it was all but impregnable?

This is no history lesson, though it should be added that 100 years ago Jews in those "shameful" cities could be numbered among the have-nots. Today in Los Angeles (and elsewhere), we are counted as part of the ruling elite. We are a dominant minority on the City Council, in the legal profession and within the judiciary. We are also well represented in financial and corporate L.A.

The mayor himself is not Jewish, but he owes his election in some measure to financial and electoral support from our community. It is only within the police force itself that we might be seen as underrepresented. Perhaps that accounts for the relative silence within the Jewish community over the Rampart Division police scandal. It is not that Jews themselves are especially involved, so much as that we identify with the "haves" who helped lay out the goals nine years ago for the present system, which apparently has gone so far awry. Now the challenge for us is to reform our city, albeit in ways that sidestep the dangers that took hold during Steffens' day. And, yes, there are actions we can take that should produce change.

When Mayor Riordan swept into office in 1993, he and the City Council and the then police chief identified gang rule as inimical to the welfare of Los Angeles. They made a concerted effort to sweep gangs from our city streets. Who could object to that? Not us, even though most of our neighborhoods were gang-free. Not the Latino community, which found itself forced to choose between gang or police rule.

And so we watched as the system took hold, with some (definitely not all) police, prosecutors and judges enforcing what they saw as a mandate. Get rid of the gangs, through legal or extralegal methods. It was the end that was important, not the means. It was like watching an old Western, with the town hiring a gunslinger to rid it of an oppressive group of outlaws; or vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. We had only to turn to our own history and romantic myths to understand what we were about.

In the process, L.A.'s gang members, their friends and associates all became the enemy; in some cases, for good reason. They were dehumanized, targeted, perceived as an insurgent force that had to be eliminated by whatever tactics were available. And, not surprisingly, some police took on the coloration of a corrupt gang themselves -- only they were in control and wearing badges.

Along the way (and also over the years) the police established a culture of silence, protecting one another against an enemy world outside. That world consists not only of gangs, but of bureaucrats, journalists, and us, the citizens they are protecting. What an irony: They are representatives of our government, operate on our behalf and in our name, and we are part of their problem.

Not too many of us know gang members or even have friends who live in those neighborhoods. After all, we no longer identify with the have-nots, and the geography of our city enforces a rigid separation of classes and ethnic groups. When an acquaintance is affected, we often rationalize the experience away as an aberration. I know of a photographer in L.A. who covered the gangs in the city for a number of journals. He did not portray them as villains, nor did he demonize them.

When the police broke into a party where the gang was celebrating, he was present. And recognized. According to his description, the police began to taunt him as they destroyed his equipment and beat him savagely. He has not recovered from the experience. Well, someone I know said, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. True. But of course next time it could be someone else; and the time after that maybe a party that was closer to home. No one is immune to the fist of unchecked power.

Irecite this tale not in the voice of the public interest. There is no such thing as the public interest, only our own special (competing) interests and views. My interest is in seeing that the police, the prosecutor's office, the judiciary and the mayor are all accountable to us. And that we have authority to replace them with dispatch when they overstep their authority. That's my (selfish) interest. Maybe some atavistic memory is at work here, and I am simply recalling the Cossacks riding into my great-grandfather's village outside Kiev.

Does this mean I want the gangs to ride roughshod over Pico-Union and other neighborhoods? Definitely not. Does this mean I believe gang members are the product of poverty, dysfunctional families and poor education? Young men without hope who therefore need to be excused for their criminal excesses? No, again. It seems to me possible to prosecute lawbreakers and to lean on gang members without shooting them, abusing them and faking criminal charges. That road leads to our own corruption, our own criminality, even though we may run this city.

Can we do anything? Most certainly. We need to figure out what we want and use our political smarts (and our power) to achieve our goals. I personally would like to see an independent commission step in and look at the entire criminal justice system; I want a commission beholden to no one, and not linked directly or informally to an old-boy network that runs the city. You may disagree.

I also want to single out all the responsible players and apply pressure. The mayor, not up for re-election, values his good name. We all know people in our community who are friends of Mayor Riordan. We can urge them to impress on him that his reputation is at stake.

Six members of the City Council out of 14 voted for an independent commission to examine the actions of the police and the criminal court system. We need two more votes. Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, recommended to a forum convened by the Progressive Jewish Alliance last week that we apply pressure on Council members Ruth Galanter and Mike Hernandez, neither one of whom voted for an independent commission. I'm for that; and for threatening politely to help turn them out of office if they don't support my cause.

We -- on this newspaper and at the L.A. Times and the L.A. Weekly -- have been delinquent as well. We have failed to identify the judges and prosecuting attorneys who have played a leading role in this scandal. We need to "out" them before the next election; failing that, we can at least lay out the facts so that their role is public knowledge; in short, so that their neighbors and associates under-stand who they are and what they have done or failed to do.

I have more suggestions, but no more space. I never was a fan of the Black Panthers, but I loved their slogan: "Power to the people." Even when the people are part of the establishment, just like us. -- Gene Lichtenstein


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