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”I‘m pissed at him,“ says a former Hicks ally from the Multi-Cultural Collaborative. ”Guess he just wanted to be in the winner’s circle. He got tired of fighting and sold out.“
It‘s probably fair to say that the above sums up the current view of Hicks among mainstream African-American activists. But none of this fazes Hicks. In fact, he’s having the time of his life. Dressed, as usual, in a dark and dapper sport coat, crossed American and Israeli flags on his lapel, Hicks gives Horowitz a warm birthday hug. Later that night Hicks says to me he has never felt better. ”I know, I know what some of my old friends are gonna say,“ he says. ”Don‘t matter what this guy Hicks has done on the streets for the last 20 years, he’s now persona non grata, he will now be shunned, he‘s now the enemy. But that won’t be my posture.“
Hicks argues that he has made no great break, no radical shift. Instead, he sees his political transformation as merely part of a long, fluid arc: ”Looking back over my history, you see some moments where I was very consolidated in certain positions, but I was always thinking and always re-evaluating. Internal reflection was ongoing. But every now and then something would come along and jar my fundamental beliefs. What‘s going to happen now is an interesting test. Not only of me. But of the left. Can it overcome its dogmatic religiosity and get into a dialogue?“
No matter what one’s view, it‘s an excellent question. Indeed, those who might write off Hicks’ defection from the left as a simple caseof selling out or facile opportunism do so strictly at their own peril. If money or position were all that Hicks desired, he could have used his a ample multiculti credentials -- not to mention his recent role as city human-relations commissioner -- to retire to a cushy position as diversity czar for some corporation or government agency. But, in fact, Hicks is in it for the same reasons he manned the barricades of the left: for the pure passion of politics.
Perhaps Hicks just hankers to be in the middle of the political buzz -- and the middle, nowadays, is way over on the right. Maybe Hicks got so fed up with the knee-jerk aspects of the left that he finds it satisfying to kick back from across the divide. Or maybe Joe Hicks has simply been won over to the conservative cause by force of argument. I don‘t pretend to know his deepest motivation, and in the end what difference does it make? The left hardly needs to agree with what Hicks is now doing -- and of course, it won’t. But it ought to at least give him a listen. Falling back on the left‘s default reflexes of branding its rivals as racists, Klansmen or ”fascists“ won’t wash in the case of Joe Hicks, who -- until a few months ago -- was considered by many to be among the most thoughtful, reflective and complex activists that the local left has produced.
The sorts of issues that still obsess Hicks -- race, class, social and economic justice -- are all those dear to the soul of the left. But too often that same left confronts these complex issues in a frankly reactionary manner, unwilling to as much as re-examine assumptions ossified decades ago in a very different America. But from even the most rigid of leftist positions, you make a mistake if when you lose an asset like Joe Hicks, you simply slam the book closed on him, and don‘t take the time to at least hear his story.
Watts ’65: Journey Into Blackness
Hicks‘ social consciousness and activism are firmly rooted in the political geography of a segregated Los Angeles. Educated at Jefferson High in the 1950s, Hicks was rather late in coming to any sort of political belief. His father, still alive today at age 92, was what Hicks called a ”borderline Garveyite“ -- referring to the back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey. But the younger Hicks eschewed the call of politics and instead enrolled at L.A. Trade Tech wanting to be a draftsman. After a year of study, Hicks had a conversation that changed the course of his career. ”One day a teacher pulls me aside and says, ’Kid, I got to let you know. There isn‘t a single black person working as an architectural draftsman in the city of Los Angeles, and you are probably not going to be the first.’“
Hicks reluctantly turned in his T-square, packed in his studies and signed onto a U.S. aircraft carrier courtesy of the Navy. Stationed in Japan in the early ‘60s, Hicks says he first was called a ”nigger“ not by a fellow sailor, but by a Japanese bar girl.
By the time Hicks left the Navy in 1964, the civil rights movement was in full bloom. He followed it in the news and, as a liberal Democrat, was inspired by what he saw unfolding in the freedom marches. But at the time, he says, he was just one more middle-class guy, working at the Gas Company, married and trying to raise a family.