AFTER A WEEK OF WATCHING BLACK LEADERSHIP SCRAMBLE for position in Inglewood's anti-police-brutality cause célèbre, I've concluded that the only figure missing so far from the free-for-all is Michael Jackson. Not the tepidly progressive radio talk-show host but the King of Pop, who has spent roughly half his life in pursuit of a lighter complexion, and nearly all of it fending off the real world in one way or another. I mention the Gloved One because, coincidentally, he is now invoking race for the first time that I can recall in his long public life with his battle against his boss, Sony Music, a development that actually diminishes his activist credentials, because it reminds us all so effectively that he's never really had any, "We Are the World" notwithstanding.
But even those who've logged the hours in the cause -- and who are in the forefront of this one -- do not have everything quite in hand. The overriding cause does not appear to be Donovan Jackson anymore -- that's so last week -- but who will have the last word on the merits of his case, and who in the end will best fill the vacuum that has long defined, or undefined, black leadership in Inglewood and just about everywhere else in the country.
My humble burg of Inglewood suddenly has become a must-stop for Al Sharpton, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King III and the usual local cast of characters that stars Maxine Waters, Danny Bakewell and the increasingly ubiquitous Project Islamic HOPE director, Najee Ali.
Everybody's at least got the cause and the scale of emotion right: What happened to Donovan Jackson shouldn't have. We should be up in arms about it. But some people wear their outrage better than others. State Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson built a career on not taking strong positions and smoothing out any rough edges of race. It's hard to imagine Wesson being up in arms about anything, yet there he was, pounding the pulpit at a church last week, declaring that we hadn't progressed nearly enough since Rodney King. I know it's become a strictly rhetorical question, but -- we who? Ideally it's that diverse community of anyone concerned with civil liberties, but most often, coming from a black politician, we is a coy reference to the AA word -- African-American -- a way to invoke the people without actually spelling them out and risking offense to the non-AA. (I don't know about other black folks, but I'm starting to feel like a recovering addict, like I'm in perpetual counseling to just get over myself).
On the other end of the spectrum there's Maxine Waters, who is probably the only black politician left who is unambiguous and unapologetic in her support of what are popularly defined as black issues, as well as many that aren't. And she does most of this work when the cameras aren't rolling, hammering away at predatory lending practices in the inner city, going against political wisdom in calling for investigations into the possible CIA/crack-cocaine connection that surfaced some years back. And who else in Washington could persuade Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan to tour the post-riot ruins at Manchester and Vermont and then do a Q&A before a hostile audience?
Waters is characteristically unequivocal in her support of white cameraman Mitchell Crooks, while Danny Bakewell, standing at her side, welcomes Crooks "into our family." Drawing such hard lines between "us" and "them" is often where black causes start going a bit soft in the head. What would be wrong with introducing moderation into the mix, separating Crooks' misdeeds (at least for the moment) from his very worthy deed of videotaping a crime that, had it not been filmed, would never have seen the light of discussion at all? It's all the more frustrating because Waters and like-minded others really do know better, and also take on more issues than the media habitually give them credit for. Once again the extreme is being painted as the middle, even though it gives many blacks a flag to rally around, but many others a reason to sit this one out.
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OF COURSE, PUBLICATIONS FROM HERE TO EUROPE ARE almost exclusively quoting black sources, running photos of raised fists, church gatherings and angry black faces. Acknowledging that blacks and police have a particular history is fine, but ignoring the place that the ACLU and countless other nonblack groups and individuals have had in that history is sheer negligence. And race, whenever it comes into play in a big way, doth make cowards of us all, or at least lazy journalists. Why is it that the press automatically contemplates another possible riot out loud simply because more than 10 black people gather in protest? Why is it we've already read a personal and rather sympathetic profile of white cop Jeremy Morse, and virtually nothing about Donovan Jackson himself? The implication, of course, is that Morse, the accused, deserves a second look and Jackson, only 16 but already an iconic Black Male Suspect, is a known quantity who has already aroused as much sympathy as he deserves. In many minds Jackson is not the victim -- was never the victim -- but is himself the accused, in some ways more so than Morse. Donovan Jackson may have a revolving-door cast of celebrity lawyers, but he has no story.
Somewhat unlike the media response, the black response this time out is actually more textured than it was a short while ago during the feverishly ethnocentric campaign to save the job of black Police Chief Bernard Parks. Even though the Parks fracas did not travel outside L.A. and this one has, one can extrapolate encouragement from the fact that Al Sharpton and Inglewood Police Chief Ron Banks condemned the Jackson beating as unconscionable, but iterated that the problem may well be more behavorial or cultural than racial. Sharpton put out something of a disclaimer in saying that if it turns out to be that a black cop was involved in the beating, that cop would be as swiftly condemned as Morse. That Inglewood's government and police personnel are heavily black forces a complexity and raises uncomfortable questions that would otherwise be lacking, and that's a good thing.
An even better thing, now that everybody's in town, would be a vigil calling attention to another scandal that got zero response, but is eminently deserving of some. Fremont High School in South-Central, the lowest-ranking campus in the state according to test scores, was profiled in the L.A. Times yet again as state auditors step in to administer life support. The story was a supremely tragic one of black and brown youngsters left to wither on the vine; even Fremont's successful students are, in the big picture, failing. This isn't police brutality, but it's brutality nonetheless, and its social ramifications are at least as serious.
Okay, I take back what I said earlier: If Michael Jackson is looking for a real cause, if he really wants to save the children, now's his big chance to claim an untrammeled field of outrage. Sharpton and Company can catch up later.