The King of Compton
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.
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."
If respect means hightailing it out of there not 15 minutes into the interview, that's fine by me. I will leave Compton where I've always left it: alone. Then Bradley abruptly changes tactics. As if I've passed some great test, he stands â up and declares that he's now going to take me around town and show me the real Compton, the one I have never seen and the evil media deliberately will not see.
THERE HASN'T BEEN A TIME IN OMAR BRADLEY'S eight years as mayor when he hasn't been regarded by large groups of people as mercurial, controversial or potentially dangerous. Those I interviewed were therefore either very willing to talk about him or irritated with the whole proposition. "Why write about Omar Bradley?" groused one source who generally lobbies me to do the most positive and heartening stories possible on local black figures. "You go ahead and do what you have to do," he went on without waiting for an answer, "but you might risk getting a reputation of always bringing black people down. Don't misunderstand, I completely agree with the complaints about him. A no-brainer. But what does this story accomplish? Haven't we heard enough about Negroes like him?"
"Everybody's got an Omar story," said Ellis Cooke, a behind-the-scenes reformer and about as low-key and reasoned a character as you'll find in town. "The complaints about him are valid, but there are other things that don't get aired. We have an archaic tax system that needs changing. We need to figure out why we don't spend money locally. We lack a history of responsibility -- we've been discouraged from it," he said, citing Tulsa, Oklahoma, and other places where black autonomy was systematically destroyed. "We simply don't see ourselves as being good or practiced in running cities. We don't have criteria for evaluating an effective leader. That's why I wouldn't waste time talking about Omar." Election season
What they were saying, in part, is that the mere act of holding Bradley up to the light of examination dooms all of us in the black community. We are all implicated in his psychological thuggery, his smarts and iconoclasm and grand intentions gone wildly askew. Viewed from various angles, he is everything unfinished about us: our nebulous leadership, our prosperous but inert middle class, our lower class that's had nothing to lose for a long time and, most of all, our need to be heard. Actually, I found the collective concern about him encouraging, proof that there is a black community out there, even if it exists at this point only in some nethersphere of the subconscious or the unspoken or the long-dead. Bradley, oddly enough, shows us our heart.
It must also be said that the city of Compton is not Omar Bradley. A modest backwater Southern California town lying hopefully in the shadow of South Bay affluence and suburban detachment, it burst into the national consciousness with the swift ascendancy of gangsta rap and its images of black poverty gone dour, brooding, nihilistic and -- just to drive the point of irony home -- ruthlessly material. This hard new casting of Compton was both an instant success and a civic poison. Economic development and commercial interest in the city, already in a long and slow decline, collapsed. South Bay proper and its vague promise of a better and brighter community quietly erased its portion of Compton Boulevard from county maps and street guides -- suspect by association. So it was that Compton got put on the map in one way and taken off in another -- neither way was good -- and Omar Bradley inherited the city's dubious new prominence and its even more dubious new mystique when he was elected mayor in 1993, a peak year for gangsta rap and a scant year after the '92 civil unrest. How much Bradley has tried to counter the city's lawless, badass image with appeals to community and calls to progress and how much he simply glories in that image and uses it to his personal arm-twisting advantage have been hotly discussed ever since.
And in this election season -- Compton's primary is April 17 -- the discussion is at full boil. Bradley is seeking a third term as mayor and a chance to prove his political hardiness amid accusations of everything from dirty campaign tricks to murder for hire. Among his challengers are Eric Perrodin, deputy district attorney, brother of deposed police captain Percy Perrodin, and the object of Bradley's wrath as the man who allegedly made that "threatening gesture"; school board member Saul Lankster, a longtime Compton operative who was once convicted of a felony (later set aside by a judge) and who is locally famous for his Martin Luther King Jr. impression; and Basil Kimbrew, an even more notorious Compton operative who is best known for testifying in federal court that he accepted bribes on behalf of former Councilwoman Patricia Moore (she was convicted, he wasn't) and apparently the only mayoral candidate who admits to making public appearances wearing a bulletproof vest. The L.A. Times recently likened the race to a "situation comedy," which, however objectively justifiable, stings -- Compton as the latest WB coon show -- and gives sudden credence to Bradley's frequent contention that the white media have more than a little devil in them.
THE MAYOR DOESN'T GIVE ME A CHOICE ABOUT whether I'm going on his impromptu tour or not, which I'm not sure is a compliment -- does he extend this invitation to everybody? -- or more browbeating. I go. Maybe, just maybe, the browbeating is performance, and he keeps his natural sense and good deeds in the glove compartment. And, as I've told myself once today, in Compton one has to see things for oneself.
The only thing Bradley seems to keep in the glove compartment is tapes. To a soundtrack of ballads by '70s soul crooners -- the Moments, the Dramatics, the Chi-Lites -- he wheels around Compton for over two hours, breaking frequently into song and becoming almost chivalrous at our many stops, insisting that I wait for him or Stokes to open my door. He points out medians sprouting African palm trees, and newly built Rite Aids and fast-food joints where there used to be fallow lots. He shouts "Hey, brother" or "Hey, sister" to friends and citizens in passing cars or on street corners, and shakes their hands in the stores we stop to inspect. At one store, shoppers are so randomly solicitous and complimentary of the mayor that, on our way out, I joke that the whole scene could have been staged. Bradley and Stokes stop dead in their tracks and stare at me like bad fish bait. "What do you mean?" Stokes asks, and I know the only way to extricate myself from the hell that threatens is to say, vehemently and innocently, "Nothing." The mayor, mollified, next shows me his "masterpiece," the Renaissance Plaza at Central and Rosecrans, which boasts a Food 4 Less and is the city's most substantial shopping mall. The plaza is also the site of a recently unveiled monument honoring Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King -- Bradley's tribute to the possibilities of black-Latino brotherhood -- though the words most prominently displayed on it are not King's or Chavez's, but his own.
In the car, with Stokes in the back seat and me semicrouched in the front, Bradley is almost happy. His clear pride in the improvements in Compton's landscape is touching; as he talks about them I can practically see his chest swell. In these moments he displays a charisma that is not at all moody or outlaw, but childlike -- he's gotten an "A" on his paper, and he's standing in front of the class showing it off. Even as I sit tensed beside him, half expecting a volley of bullets from one of the many enemies he's mentioned for my benefit, I get caught up in a puerile thrill of victory. "Unemployment has fallen 9 percent," Bradley fairly shouts, while Stokes murmurs something like an "amen" in the back. "People don't want to talk about all this, about the new Pizza Huts, the McDonald's . . ." I don't know if McDonald's ever felt like triumph, but it does now.
We stop at Bradley's family home on Compton's west side, where I'm introduced to his father, a fragile-looking but still handsome man wearing blue jeans and house slippers, a shock of white hair and a ready if somewhat vague smile. Family in Compton has always meant a lot more than blood; Melvin Stokes came to live here when his parents died. We drive through Richland Farms, the city's most well-heeled neighborhood, described by narrow sidewalks and lush, interlocking trees that make it look almost rural. For all the vilification of Bradley as little more than a street hood, the mayor has big dreams of transforming Compton into a Ladera-style lure for the departed black middle class. He points out the park and tennis courts where Venus and Serena discovered their genius, and where he predicts more tennis players will do the same. He talks about building new luxury houses of stucco, two stories, with sliding glass doors. He talks about the city's recent purchase of a building he plans to turn into a health spa, about the hundreds of kids he's gotten involved in Pop Warner football leagues, about establishing a black Hollywood hall of fame near Compton's downtown. He talks about all this with as much fervor as he talks about getting exgang members and dope addicts and dealers off the streets and into programs like Operation Redirection, a brainchild of his that offers job training through rehabilitating old city-owned houses. Improve lives and improve unsightly housing stock at the same time -- this is the kind of efficiency Bradley loves. That it's his idea makes him love it that much more. "Build a better world," he says sagely, "and the world will travel."
He tries to charm me with such oblique aphorisms, and I'm more than charmed at junctures not by his deftness but by something quite opposite, his total artlessness. I'm seduced not by the pinstriped suit or the menacing air but by the kid who gives himself an "A" and can't get over it. But my guard is immovably up; this is an overgrown kid who doesn't know his own strength.
Amid all the signs of progress and the music that serves as its score, Bradley's mood lightens considerably, and he starts touching my hand to emphasize points. One point in particular is how far Compton has yet to go, how substandard the standard remains and how that must change. "I don't have time to fight," he says, impatience creeping back into his voice. "I don't have time. I've got so much to do and so little time to do it. I can't let things look any different than they look where you live." He doesn't know where I live, though he knows it's not in Compton. He points to another spot where a tree and grass grow where once had been only broken pavement. "For years we thought it was supposed to be dirt or asphalt. People said, 'They're black, that's how it's supposed to be. They don't like cleanliness, proficiency, efficiency.'" He lapses into a bitter silence.
PRETTY MUCH EVERYBODY IN COMPTON STARTED out with high hopes for Omar Bradley's mayoralty, even those who have become his most vocal critics. Bradley seemed a thing apart from a tired black political establishment that had the progressive rhetoric down but had stood by and done nothing as South-Central and Compton and Watts slipped into economic and spiritual entropy through the 1970s and '80s. By the '90s, which saw an explosion of Latino immigration and a nervous new emphasis on multiculturalism and pie sharing and all of us getting along, it was no longer even politically expedient for black politicians to speak directly to the problems of black people.
Bradley would have none of this kind of retreating; throughout his years in public office, beginning with a term as councilman, he championed the causes of strong black men and black self-sufficiency loudly and often. He has ties to the Nation of Islam, and recalls a meeting with Louis Farrakhan during his college days as a turning point in his life. Unlike other black politicians who were all too eager to distance themselves from the mean streets they represented, he was a local boy who knew every odd corner of his city and seemed proud of it. He went to Compton Centennial High School, played football and later returned as a coach. Growing up near Piru Street in the '70s, he witnessed the inception of the Bloods gang there, and though he was never a member himself, his familiarity with the life informed his blunt, cock-of-the-walk style. Whatever their misgivings about that, many people saw Bradley as a fighter in a world of apologists, a bit crazy by necessity, rather like irascible and indomitable L.A. City Councilman Nate Holden. (And as with Holden, his local legend is such that everybody in town refers to him simply by his first name. Omar, like Cher or Puffy, says it all.)
"When I first met with Omar I was 100 percent in his corner," says the Reverend B.T. Newman, a member of Pastors for Compton, a group of ministers and concerned citizens that opposes Bradley's re-election. "He was a bright, upcoming, sharp young black man. I even supported him for mayor against the wishes of my own flock." Bradley had stirred the wrath of many church types when, as a councilman, he championed a casino initiative on the grounds that Compton sorely needed the business. He declared then that he might be voted out for it, "but I didn't run to become a popular person, I ran to make a difference."
Longtime resident and civic booster Mollie Bell has her concerns but says that, overall, she likes Bradley's stubbornness and all the things he has stood up for over the years. "The Million Man March, allowing Farrakhan to speak in Compton, coming to a vigil held for crack babies, questioning the relationship between the CIA and the distribution of crack cocaine," says Bell. "The mayor is not politically correct, but he's right there. These are our communities. He has a love of African-American people."
Yet Bradley has been held responsible for the city's social and political isolation. Where Compton should naturally embody local black concerns, it has repelled them. Former Congressman Merv Dymally says he "could never do anything with Compton." An L.A. activist says he never takes his causes there, because it is too likely they will be hijacked or distorted. A veteran political consultant who has worked nearly every other town in Southern California flatly refuses to run campaigns in Compton.
The Reverend William Johnson, also of Pastors for Compton, says Bradley has never quite decided which elements of the city and which elements of himself -- toughness or expansiveness, hard truth or pliant hope -- he wants to represent politically. It is a public-identity crisis unique to modern black figures, but with Bradley it has meant that one day he quotes Shakespeare and scripture, the next day Malcolm X and Mein Kampf. "He doesn't know whether he's a Christian or a Muslim, a gangbanger or a good guy," Johnson says dryly. "He has many forms, many guises. He can be civil and absolutely threatening. He's a Christian and a Muslim and a thug all at once."
Other observers say it is paranoia that is most responsible for Bradley's ham-fisted governing style and his reputation as a possible good guy who went bad a long time ago; that the big, unwieldy ideas and altruistic impulses have been undermined by an even bigger suspicion that people are out to get him or wrest control out from under his comfortable seat at City Hall. Bradley has been able to do pretty much what he wants as mayor because he's had a three-member voting bloc in place on the City Council, and the few members who have tried to challenge it over the years have been either ignored or treated with open hostility. For this he has been likened to Hitler, Idi Amin, "Papa Doc" Duvalier and other despots.
"It's his way or no way," says Percy Perrodin, of the erstwhile Compton Police Department. "Complete and total control."
Civic affairs in Compton have always been personal in a small-town kind of way, but the Bradley years have taken such intimacy to startling new levels. A sample: His aunt Delores Zurita is on the City Council; his sister Carol Bradley Jordan is on the school board; a nephew, Jamal Bradley, works as his personal aide (and was recently hired at Centennial High as a football coach); Lynwood mayor Paul Richards, a Bradley ally, recently became a housing developer in Compton, with exclusive rights to lucrative projects; Richards also ran a successful campaign for freshman Compton City Councilman Amen Rahh, a member of Bradley's voting bloc (and an administrator at Compton College). Bradley himself works full-time for the Lynwood school district, and, by the way, has publicly announced his interest in becoming the superintendent of Compton's schools. And so on and so forth.
Bradley also has a history of problem solving through purging. Last summer, at the height of his clashes with the police department, which culminated in its vote of no confidence in the mayor, he issued an informal gag order to municipal employees, warning that if they spoke out against Compton or its leadership they risked being fired. Later in the year, shortly after Treasurer Douglas Sanders stomped out of a council meeting when Bradley prevented him from giving a routine report on city finances, the council contemplated the possibility of changing the treasurer's post from an elected position, which it has been for 100 years, to an appointed one. Bradley has also been contemplating dissolving the fire and water departments.
Far less genteel are various allegations of intimidation. Last week, Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux reported a threat of bodily harm to the FBI. Veteran activist Lorraine Cervantes, who supported Bradley in his first run for mayor and has since supported recall efforts, claims that she, too, has been subject to threats, and responded to one with a flat challenge: "I said, 'You'd better kill me, because that's the only way I'm going away.'" Relative newcomer Father Stan Bosch, who pastors Our Lady of Victory and Sacred Heart Catholic churches, has experienced three church break-ins since he became involved with Pastors for Compton, though he has no evidence they were connected to his political activism. Bosch, who is white but speaks Spanish and leads parishes that are virtually all Latino, has also been accused by the Bradley camp at various times of being a racial instigator, a Nazi and a local head of the Mexican Mafia. And in one of the more interesting bits of campaign news, Eric Perrodin lodged letters of protest with the city and the Sheriff's Department after he was told that Bradley and a few other officials tried to raid his personnel files in hopes of uncovering some dirt. Bradley, through a spokesman, says that not only was he not involved in the incident, but "I can assure you that on the date in question, I was not in City Hall." It's life as usual in Compton, with a few minor adjustments. "We're walking precincts for Eric this weekend," says Perrodin's brother Percy. "I'll be armed."
There are facts, and there are rumors, and there are wild hybrids that flourish year-round in Compton's climate. The darkest rumor, which I'd heard from half a dozen sources before candidate Basil Kimbrew started holding feverish press conferences about it last week, implicates Bradley in the mysterious death of Gary Beverly, a fellow Lynwood school administrator and all-around popular guy who was inexplicably shot last summer on the 91 freeway as he was driving home from work. Bradley beefed up his own security after the incident, telling the press that he feared those shots may have been intended for him. The Sheriff's Department, which took over the investigation that originated with the Compton police, has not named any suspects, nor released any findings to date. Through a spokesman, Bradley characterizes Beverly as more than a colleague and says, "It is upsetting that another elected official would go on the record in an attempt to slander my name and outstanding record of accomplishments by indicating that I had something to do with the murder of my dear friend Gary Beverly."
AT THE END OF THE TOUR, WELL AFTER nightfall, Bradley walks me back to my car in Roscoe's parking lot. As I fish for my keys he becomes serious again -- puts his dark glasses on, plants his feet apart -- and asks what I think of him now. I say, honestly, that I don't know.
In an instant the chivalry vanishes, and the cold fury of our first moments returns. I am keenly aware of him standing between me and my car. I try to think of an answer.
"Say it," he says through his teeth. "The people love me."
Though I'm tired and more than anxious to go home, something in me balks at his naked insistence that I say what he wants to hear. Fortunately, Bradley decides to elaborate. He talks about how he's had to go into his own pockets to bury children whose families didn't have the means or the will to do it themselves. He tells a story about a man who approached him to tell him his daughter had been killed by violence and how he, Bradley, felt responsible for that death as mayor of Compton. As he talks, his lip quivers and he looks distraught, an imposing figure suddenly too small for his fierce pinstriped suit.
The moment passes, and he sighs. Before moving away from the car, he insists on giving me a hug. I'm going to be married in a few weeks; I've mentioned that at some point because it seemed like a safe, albeit throwaway, topic of conversation.
"Have a wonderful marriage," he says softly. "Good luck. I mean that."
OMAR BRADLEY'S BUNKERING DOWN has had special impetus in the last decade or so, as the ethnic balance in Compton has tipped steadily away from an African-American plurality. A city that went breathlessly from white to black in the '60s is now going as breathlessly from black to Latino, from roughly 40 percent in 1990 to well over 60 percent today. Bradley has witnessed much of this great demographic sea change from the mayor's office, and though he likes to say he embraces all people -- he cites the monument as proof -- the demonstrated truth is that he is hardly ready to concede power to anyone, and Latinos are merely another personal encroachment that must be kept at bay.
But now Bradley may have his hands full with Pastors for Compton, a coalition that has brought together all of Compton's dissatisfied but disparate parties -- clergy, activists, disgruntled ex-employees of the city, business owners, plain citizens, and Latinos who are finally clamoring for inclusion. Its goal is simple: civic accountability.
"We want to take Compton back," says Father Stan Bosch, his voice hoarse after a Sunday mass preached before a crowd that spilled out the side doors onto the verandas of Our Lady of Victory. "Omar has no counselors. He says, 'This is my meeting, these are my chambers.' It's not about him, it's about the people -- it shouldn't be about us and our egos. If it is that kind of leadership, I think it's evil."
The coalition's first act was to present the city with a short but pointed list of concerns: the whereabouts of federal housing moneys routed to Compton, the state of the $8 million the city was supposed to save by liquidating the police department, the viability of plans to sell off the water utility, the general unavailability of city budget and other public information on any given day. The group met with Compton City Manager John Johnson and felt encouraged, but a scheduled follow-up meeting never happened. They were disappointed, but hardly surprised: During the first and only meeting with Johnson, the mayor broke in unannounced and launched into what the pastors uniformly describe as a 20-minute rant. "I don't know what he was talking about," says the Reverend Richard Sanders of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church.
Thereafter, as Pastors for Compton has grown more public and more persistent, the group says, Bradley has grown more blatant in his opposition and more blatantly quid pro quo. Several of the group's founding clergy claim that he's threatened to strangle their nonprofit housing projects -- hold up city moneys -- unless and until they turn off the heat. Sanders, still looking slightly bewildered at the memory, says that during a recent meeting with the mayor he was told: "'There are projects you want to do. I promise you, these things will not get done as long as you're in the coalition. I'll just give the money to someone else who is not my enemy. Why should I help, when you're doing everything you can to kill me?'" The Reverend William Johnson was so taken aback by Bradley's approaching him at a local fast-food outlet to convey the message personally that he circulated an open letter describing how "His Honor told me in no uncertain terms that if I want a favor in Compton or need any money for my projects, he and he alone has control over city funds. It seems we do not have a democracy in Compton, but a dictatorship."
Bradley, through a spokesman, categorically denies obstructing funds, and adds, "Thus far, the ministers of this coalition have been focused on creating division within the community rather than working with the city to improve the quality of life for all interested parties."
The ministers are not deterred, but invigorated. "We're not going to back down," says Bosch, whose affable smile and level voice don't hint at a steeliness he developed as an Industrial Areas Foundation community organizer and during stints in other tough spots, such as East L.A. and Mexico. "We have everything at stake and nothing to lose. The time is ripe to shine a light where there's been so much darkness."
Bosch is the combustive spark that Latino activism has been waiting many years for, ever since Bradley was elected mayor and very publicly reneged on a promise to appoint Compton's first Latino councilman to his vacant seat. (He claimed at the time that he didn't have the votes to do what he'd initially agreed to do.) Bosch entered the fray last year, when Ed Aguirre, then a Compton police detective, asked the priest to march with him and hundreds of others to City Hall to protest the increasing hostility the mayor seemed to be directing at the department and his unwillingness to put its fate to a public vote. When Bradley and most of the City Council left the meeting in a huff, Bosch stayed to interpret a question-and-answer session between the hordes of Latino protesters and Yvonne Arceneaux, a black woman and the sole council member who generally does not agree with Bradley. "I translated, she listened," says Bosch. "And that's all they wanted. Miss Arceneaux said that she had no real power, but it was the first time they felt some kind of power." Compton just may show the rest of urban L.A. how to do what nobody's been able to figure out yet: organize and sustain a real black-Latino coalition that, as one observer cuttingly put it, "does more than stage an ethnic festival where everybody gets together once a year and eats tacos and fatback."
While Bosch's reformist zeal has found plenty of amens among his fellow Compton clergy, most of them have in fact supported Bradley in the past. "I didn't want to be in a coalition if it was going to attack Omar," says Sanders. "I have never degraded or defamed him. I have never supported him for mayor, but I've always supported him as mayor. I think he's a brilliant young man, borderline genius, but he doesn't have the temperament or maturity to serve the people. It is Omar's response to all this that has appalled me and made me realize how he really is."â
Like many others, Sanders is curiously able to separate the man from his misdeeds, the promise of the past from the gross disappointments of the present. Compton is family, after all, and Bradley its wayward son. "I still consider him a friend, even though I oppose him," says Newman. And Sanders' good impressions linger: He recalls a visit the mayor paid to his office a few years ago to enlist support for a proposal for a swank new housing tract. "I was truly impressed with his passion," says Sanders, "how he grabbed a pad of paper and a pen and sketched out his ideas right in front of me." Bradley later branded Sanders an enemy, even though he had pledged support for the mayor's project in exchange for the mayor's support of a pet project of his own. The future of both is murky. Sanders says the lesson in all this is that "You can have great passion, and be sincerely wrong."
I SEE OMAR BRADLEY A SECOND TIME because I really have no choice: Over the weekend, I discover that I've left my appointment book in his car. When I walk into his rather lushly appointed office in City Hall, Bradley looks self-satisfied, as if he knew perfectly well from our first contentious moment that I'd end up here. The man who would be king, again, reclines in a big swivel chair behind a wooden desk the size of a dining-room table. On the walls are framed photos of his heroes -- Malcolm, Martin -- and the office décor includes kente cloth, African sculpture, a Kwanzaa candelabra. Away from the streets that he invokes so often, Bradley is quiescent, thoughtful. He still wants to know what I think of him. Figuring I have nothing to lose, I tell him that he righteously scared me during our first meeting, that he appeared to be very much the gangster everybody said he was.
He looks not angry this time, but a bit sheepish. He talks evenly at first, detailing his experiences in school, an influential teacher, his embittering epiphany that education for black students in Compton during the '70s was a joke. As a football player at Centennial, Bradley says, he played vicious defense against the South Bay white teams, "because we were getting even for the fact that we had no books, and our library was a hellhole." He talks about how he read Malcolm X's autobiography at age 9, Eldridge Cleaver at 11, Mein Kampf at 18, later the Rubàiyat and Mao Tse-Tung. This is as much equanimity as the mayor has shown, perhaps as much as he can muster, but the heat and anger are already roiling under his words like lava. He erupts recalling how, as a student at Cal State Long Beach, he challenged another student to tell him about the origin of bagpipes. "They're African," he fumes. "You need me to tell you that, so you can overcome that fucking bullshit . . . Education is a blade. Don't tell me, sister, that I talk too much because of your limited exposure."
His fondest theme, in the end, seems to be not African heritage or education or his own regard of himself as a kind of anointed civic savior, but football. When he talks about football, he seems to be remembering the most things and the best things in the fewest moments. He looks both animated and content. "I once ran 65 yards and caught a guy on the one-yard line," he says. "I hurt my knee. I put him out for five weeks. That's what I do. I enjoyed hitting people, though I wasn't a great athlete. I'd wait all game for a clean shot, then go kill 'em. I got a killer instinct."
He narrows his eyes and smiles a wide, closed-mouth smile. "From the sound of me, I seem bigger than I am. My coach once told a recruiter, 'He's not that big. But if I tell him to run through that wall, he'll run through it.'"
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Tue., Dec. 1, 7:30pm
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- Thanksgiving Travelers Will Enjoy Lowest Gas Prices Since Early 2009