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This Is Progress? 

Cops, land and the legacy of the Progressive era

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
photo by Don NormarkADD TO THE NAMES OF JAVIER FRANCISCO OVANDO, Jose Perez and Juan Manuel Saldana those of Félix López, Florentino Sánchez and Patrick Nuñez. Ovando, Perez and Saldana were all shot by Los Angeles police officers, Saldana fatally, in cases recently fingered as "dirty" by Rampart Division rat célèbre Rafael Perez. The other three each merit a brief mention in Edward J. Escobar's Race, Police and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900­1945. Félix López, a striking farm worker, was shot in the chest with a tear-gas canister by the LAPD's red squad in 1936; Florentino Sánchez was shot with a conventional bullet in 1939 while allegedly resisting arrest, as was Patrick Nuñez, age 22 at the time of his death in 1942. Far too many others, whose names are recorded nowhere but in the memories of those they left behind, could be added to this list.

By tracing the long and bloody trail leading up to the current enmity between L.A.'s police and its Latino community, Escobar's book goes a long way toward answering the baffled cries of local editorial writers heard since the Rampart scandal broke. Escobar, a professor of Chicano studies at Arizona State University, methodically, if not always grippingly, lays out the steps by which a department that was merely brutal, corrupt and almost incidentally racist came to cultivate "the mystique of being the defender of the white middle and working classes against the depredations of inherently criminal racial groups."

"At the beginning of the century," Escobar writes, "while Mexicans were certainly seen by whites as an inferior race, they were not generally regarded by government and law-enforcement officials as inherently criminal." They were nonetheless the frequent victims of a police department that acted in explicit service to the city's moneyed interests. Mexican labor unions, often far more radical than their white counterparts, bore the brunt of the repression. Picketers were jailed, meetings and rallies raided. At one point in 1917, when sugar-beet pickers struck in Orange County, the LAPD aided the growers by rounding up able-bodied Mexican men on trumped-up vagrancy charges and giving them the option of scabbing in the beet fields or "pound[ing] city rock."

Radical political groups were equally at risk: In 1907, the great Oaxacan anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón and several members of his Partido Liberal Mexicano were arrested and illegally imprisoned for over a year. Other activists and rabble-rousers learned to fear the department's red squad, which was organized in 1919 to fight "radicals, persons making unpatriotic utterances, [and] IWWs," and went on to take part in many sorry chapters of local history, including the mass deportations of the 1930s.

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Throughout the early part of the century, though, Progressive reformers were battling to wrest control of the Police Department from the city's ruling elite and take it for the burgeoning bourgeoisie. Escobar takes the reformist luster off the Progressive movement -- which overlapped with the party of the same name and shared its goal of crafting industrial capitalism into a more refined and efficient beast -- by defining it simply as "an affirmation of the increasing strength and confidence of the growing American middle class." The Progressives' eventual success insulated the LAPD from the oft-corrupt political process, and as a side effect "essentially removed all external control over the actions of individual officers," with predictable results. At the same time, the force began a process of professionalization, raising "the status of police work by making officers' primary function fighting crime, not merely reacting to it," thus creating for themselves the perpetual mission of a "war on crime." This mission combined with the growing tendency to link crime to ethnicity, the LAPD's loss of its traditional big-money sponsors and the department's commensurate "need to develop a constituency among working-class whites to permanently label Mexican Americans a criminal element within the community." The unfortunate result, Escobar argues, was not only the destruction wreaked by the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, but a legacy of antagonism and violence between the police and the Latino community that shows no signs of fading.

Police attacks, though, have not always been met passively. Escobar convincingly demonstrates that each wave of police repression helped to create an increasingly cohesive notion of Chicano identity and to spawn confident and effective struggles for Mexican American civil rights. While discussing the enormous community support for 17 young men wrongfully convicted of murder in the infamous Sleepy Lagoon trial of 1942-43, Escobar mentions in passing a telegram sent to the attorney general by 300 residents of L.A.'s Palo Verde barrio. Within two decades, Palo Verde would no longer exist.

LIFE IN PALO VERDE, AND IN LA LOMA AND BISHOP, the other two neighborhoods that once made up Chávez Ravine, is lovingly documented in Don Normark's Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story. Shortly after the 18-year-old photographer visited the area, its residents received form letters from the city announcing that their homes were to be razed to make way for a public-housing project. They were promised first choice of apartments. The project -- and all public-housing plans for L.A. -- fell victim to McCarthyism, but the inhabitants of Chávez Ravine were evicted nonetheless. The city eventually gave the land to Walter O'Malley, to lure him and his Dodgers away from Brooklyn. Palo Verde is now beneath the asphalt of the stadium parking lot.

Two years ago, Normark began meeting with Los Desterrados, as those who were uprooted from Chávez Ravine call themselves, showing them the photographs he had taken and recording their reactions. The result of those meetings is a beautiful book, in which Normark accompanies his photos, many of them unforgettable -- of children wrestling in a field, a girl trying on her confirmation dress, men talking over a fence, shooting the shit in front of a market, shadow-boxing in a yard -- with fragments of oral history. Together, the faces and landscapes and voices tell the story of the life of a community, with all its joys and all its troubles, that neither the bureaucrats who planned to improve the "blighted" neighborhood nor the politicians and businessmen eager to profit from it were ever able to hear.

IF THE DESTRUCTION OF CHáVEZ RAVINE STANDS out as a particular outrage in Los Angeles' more than slightly checkered history of city planning, USC professor â Stephanie S. Pincetl attempts to provide the larger picture in Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development. With scrupulous attention to how the state's political structures have shaped the way in which we organize our communities and interact with the land, Pincetl sorts out the interconnections among the various phenomena that characterize California today, including corporate dominance of agriculture, white flight, urban neglect, environmental degradation and suburbanization. The picture she paints is not a pretty one; as the natural environment is steadily destroyed, a built environment of mini-malls and tract homes keeps people isolated from each other and alienated from political life, and the landscape reflects more than ever the inequalities and exclusions that mark contemporary American democracy.

Like Escobar, Pincetl goes back to the Progressive era to find the roots of today's ills. For the Progressives, she writes, "the role of government . . . was to create favorable conditions for businesses and capitalists." Power was snatched from political parties, which were corruptly beholden to the railroads, and dropped into "the hands of civil servants . . . advised by volunteer boards and commissions where politics would play little or no role." In the process, "Democracy was reduced to a simple act of voting rather than participation in decision making." And politics did, of course, continue to play a considerable role, as powerful appointed boards and commissions tended to be staffed exclusively by representatives of the industries they were ostensibly regulating.

In vast, often excruciating detail, Pincetl tallies the dire effects of Progressive reforms through the years in terms of housing, agriculture, timber, fishing, water policy and environmental regulation, arguing that many of the state's contemporary ailments can be tied to its fragmented political system, which effectively precludes intelligent land-use planning. She seems most upset, though, not by the physical results of those reforms, but by their broad political consequences: "The principles of a competitive capitalist economy system have become internalized in the principles of governance, leading to malign neglect of the commonweal." Only a very small -- and largely white and wealthy -- portion of the populace, Pincetl bemoans, participates meaningfully in government these days.

But she offers no evidence that Californian -- or American -- politics were any less plutocratic prior to the Progressive era. Such evidence would be difficult to find. Without it, though, she cannot convincingly pin the blame on Progressive reforms. As destructive as they may have been, the problem goes rather deeper. Nor can she avoid sounding naive as she protests the lack of "any distinction between the public sphere of politics and the economic sphere of capitalism," as if any such distinction had ever been particularly noticeable. What she can do, and does, is offer superficial solutions (including "removing the two-third majority required to pass a state budget" and a host of other tinkerings) and liberal platitudes (largely rehashings of political philosophers like Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls) without asking more difficult questions about the necessary relationship between the ever-present inequalities of capitalism and the ways in which they are invariably perpetuated under liberal democracies like ours. In the absence of such an analysis, Pincetl is sadly right that "Overall, the outlook for expanding democratic access, democratic process and accountability does not look promising."

RACE, POLICE AND THE MAKING OF A POLITICAL IDENTITY: MEXICAN AMERICANS AND THE LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT 1900­1945 | By EDWARD J. ESCOBAR | University of California Press | 372 pages | $18 paperback

CHáVEZ RAVINE, 1949: A LOS ANGELES STORY | By DON NORMARK | Chronicle Books 144 pages | $30 hardcover

TRANSFORMING CALIFORNIA: A POLITICAL HISTORY OF LAND USE AND DEVELOPMENT | By STEPHANIE S. PINCETL | Johns Hopkins University Press | 372 pages | $45 hardcover

  • Cops, land and the legacy of the Progressive era

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