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The King of Compton 

Mayor Omar Bradley and his reign of chaos

Wednesday, Apr 4 2001
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Photos by Ted SoquiI DON'T COME HERE. AS I DRIVE THROUGH COMPTON on my way to meet Mayor Omar Bradley, past faded but neat rambling houses and islands of large shade trees, I realize that in all the years I've been informally covering black Los Angeles, I've been strenuously avoiding all things Compton. Los Angeles is full of small towns that feel distinctly apart from it -- Inglewood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills -- but still connected to it, within sight of it. Not Compton. It feels adrift, unseen, its sun and sidewalks and empty spaces hardened by time and indifference. Which is not to say it looks bad. With its tidy lawns and general quiet, it would probably be a disappointment to ardent gangsta-rap fans who imagine it as a kind of ground zero of ghetto. But Compton is not so much debauched as it is detached, which I don't remember until I see it, again, myself.

I'm feeling better -- well, less guilty -- when I reach the Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles on Central Avenue. During the drive I thought about all the things I've read and heard about Compton and about Bradley, most of them on the outer edge of bizarre -- the state takeover of the city's mismanaged school district, the City Council's dissolution of the police force and award of a no-bid trash contract to a man who once testified that he'd passed bribes to council members, the mayor's tendency toward cronyism, autocracy and occasional public rages, including an altercation with a political rival outside the council chambers because, according to the next day's L.A. Times, the man had "drawn his finger across his throat in a threatening gesture." In my car, I heroically decide that I will set things straight where they have always been out of focus, misunderstood; I will give Compton the empathy and the gravitas it has always needed.

Witness to a demographic sea change

But Bradley has no use for my assessment, or anybody else's, and he never stops letting me know that. His aide, Melvin Stokes, meets me first, with scrupulous politeness, and shows me to a table with assurances that his boss will be arriving momentarily. Bradley does, and appears just as obliging until I begin asking about some of his more questionable actions as mayor. Then all hell, which as it turns out is never far from the surface, breaks loose. Apparently, he's only met with me to tell me how utterly useless it will be to meet with me at all. He snarls a lot of things through his teeth and uses obscenities freely. He declares that I'm a victim of racism and don't know it, that I'm a hapless agent of the "white-devil media." When I ask him to clarify that, he says something about black people being blindly loyal to Bill Clinton and concludes, darkly, "The oppressed begin to love the oppressor." He gets most riled when I ask him about an incident a few years ago in which he charged, shirtless, into a Compton fire station after fire academy officials rejected a personal check he wrote to pay for his son's tuition. "The white-devil motherfuckers didn't mention the fact that I was not talking to Compton firefighters," he fumes. "If you threaten me, I'll respond to that." He grumbles some more about people making careers out of opposing him and says, "I wish they'd get out of the fucking life."

Thick with muscle and broad-shouldered, Bradley is given to a swagger that seems to have been in place long before he became mayor, and that is evident even when he's sitting down. He also has the unnerving habit of telling you exactly what you might be thinking about him before you've completely thought it: "You think because I'm a big nigger with a bald head, I'm a bad guy," he begins, looking me in the eye. "I've had 21 years of education. I have a master's degree. Why am I treated this way? Because I am a black man." This is a challenge only the most foolhardy would accept, and he knows it. Insinuations of racism (if you're white) or ethnic disloyalty (if you're black) are like bomb threats -- you always have to clear the building, take them seriously, even if you believe in your gut they are pure bunk. In the space of this necessary and/or cowardly hesitation, Bradley thrives.

In a final effort to engage him in something resembling a civil conversation, I unwittingly address him by his first name and get a stern rebuke from Stokes, a bulky man with deceptively sleepy eyes. He has been nearly motionless up to this point, nursing a lemonade, but he jerks at the word Omar like it's scalding water. "Now come on, Miss Aubry, he's the mayor," snaps Stokes. "You don't call him that. You give him the proper respect."

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