By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Ali, 34, is an ex-convict and gang member who knows something about turf battles, and he hopes to lend this one a tough edge. "We’re trying to establish territory, draw a line in the sand," he says. But his African American Village campaign is really not as militant as it sounds; it is a manifestation of a larger wish to persuade Crenshaw’s middle class to stay, please. History is against it. L.A.’s black population, like most other immigrant populations throughout the city, has been kinetic: As it prospers, it moves. The difference with blacks is that moving has rotted out a social infrastructure and replaced it with nothing. Ali says it is therefore absolutely necessary to preserve the infrastructure that is left. He argues — as if there really is an argument — that people must see that "Crenshaw is our last frontier, our last stand. There’s not a place like this anywhere in L.A. It has to hold. We have to convince homeowners not to do black flight, by any means necessary. We can’t hold them legally, but we can shame them into staying."
That sounds improbable, more so because Ali has assigned himself many other crusades. In fact, he assigns one almost weekly. His Project Islamic HOPE, which started out with the single mandate of feeding the homeless, functions today as a kind of clearinghouse for a growing number of black-related causes, from petitioning for justice for 9-year-old rape-murder victim Sherrice Iverson to shutting down a proposed Crenshaw porn shop to protesting black sexual stereotypes in films like How To Be a Player, which Ali believes are partially responsible for the high rate of black teen pregnancy, HIV and AIDS. These are issues that sizable black organizations can’t or won’t address; I admire Ali’s willingness to stick his fingers into as many holes in the dike as possible, but I wonder if he is overreaching or spreading himself too thin to be taken seriously on any point on this crisis continuum.
Ali says no. He sees all his efforts as spokes on a single wheel — the preservation and reinforcement of the black community. This is the wheel on which everything turns, or doesn’t. "I’m hitting the panic button," he says. "We’re part of the reason the demographics are shifting — by moving out and not staying, by not investing in each other and selling to each other. I would love to have a wife and kids, to kick back and watch TV, but I don’t have a choice but to be out there and agitate. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem."
He says that a big part of the problem is how black agendas have lately gone out of political fashion and been supplanted by happy-faced missives to build multicultural alliances. In a country pluralistic since its inception, multiculturalism is a given, but Ali argues that the multiculti push now is in fact a dangerously easy way of moving black concerns to the bottom of the list of social priorities. Over the last generation, "black" has lost currency to the point where black politicians and other leaders, mindful of cultivating broader constituent and financial bases, hesitate to characterize anything as exclusively black. The term casts a pall, dredging up accusations of reverse racism and cozy victimhood where it used to call the founding ideals of American democracy into question. "Our interests are being compromised by politicians who buy into this market concept of multiculturalism," Ali says angrily. "It’s being rammed down our throats." The greatest tragedy, he says, is that black folks have been willing to play the game. "There’s so much apathy. I stood up last year at the Malcolm X festival to say a few words, and when I said, ‘All power to the people,’ everybody looked at me like I was crazy. It distresses me."
Distress is no place to linger; instead, lead from where you are. So believes John Bryant, another young steward of inner-city change. Bryant is the 32-year-old president, founder and feverish brain behind Operation HOPE, a post-riot nonprofit aimed at revitalizing neighborhoods in Crenshaw and well beyond. Although he is a friend and mentor of Ali, he dismisses the back-to-black-L.A. movement as diversionary and nostalgic — a memento at best, an impediment to real progress at worst. "Okay, so we have self-esteem problems!" he barks. "We act like we just heard about it on the 11 o’clock news!" Like Ali, Bryant believes in a black agenda, but unlike Ali, believes that agenda has no choice but to broaden if it is to stay relevant and keep its eyes on the prize that matters most now: economic empowerment. Operation HOPE in the last six years has launched a variety of community services — a banking and home lending center, a small-business assistance program. Last spring Bryant grand-opened an Operation HOPE banking center in Maywood, a small outpost of a city in southeast L.A. County that is virtually all Latino.
"I’m not black for a living," Bryant says brusquely. "I don’t want to be a black community leader, I want to be an excellent leader." That doesn’t mean he sells himself out. "Hell, I’m black, and if I wasn’t first and foremost about black people, I’d have to have my head examined. Operation HOPE was clearly directed at blacks. But we also very quickly made it clear that it was about demographics. In the last stage of his life Martin Luther King was focused on a campaign for poor people — didn’t matter what the paint job was. King realized that economic equity was the real force behind social equality. It was always less about race than class."