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The Wrong Battle

Photo by Robert Yager

In announcing Tuesday that he was through with Bernie Parks, Jim Hahn said that a reform-minded police department headed by a non-reformer like Parks was nothing less than “a house divided.” But the real house divided in Los Angeles is the Hahn coalition, which just seven months into his term as mayor has begun to come apart at the seams.

Hahn, we should recall, was put in office by two groups of voters who tend to be diametrically opposed on most issues: the African-American community, and conservative and centrist white voters clustered chiefly in the west San Fernando Valley. The four city council districts where he racked up his biggest margins were the two most heavily black — the South-Central districts of Mark Ridley-Thomas and Nate Holden — and the only two represented by Republicans — the Valley districts of Hal Bernson and Dennis Zine.

The only thing these two groups had in common was that they preferred Hahn to Antonio Villaraigosa. In South-Central, Hahn was an ersatz homie — son of the legendary Kenny Hahn, the county supe for four decades who was the first white pol to champion black interests and give African-Americans their initial foothold in local politics. In black L.A., the ghost of Kenny towered over his lackluster son, and Hahn the Younger was repeatedly mis- introduced on the campaign trail as “Kenneth,” as if calling him by the old man’s name could infuse him with the old man’s spirit. In the white precincts of the Valley, meanwhile, it was enough that Hahn was neither as liberal nor Latino as Villaraigosa.

In short, Jim Hahn is mayor of L.A. because of who his father was and who his opponent was. That does not, in the parlance of political science, constitute a mandate. Even worse, from Hahn’s perspective, the two halves of the Hahn electorate agree on virtually nothing. To his Valley supporters, no group embodies more completely the fight for order, security, truth and justice than the LAPD — the officers on the beat and their collective voice, the Police Protective League (PPL). To his South-Central backers, no group has historically posed more threat to life and limb or treated black L.A. more brutally than the very same ä officers of the LAPD. And while the last two chiefs of police have themselves been African-American, the PPL drove the first from office and now seems poised to do the same with the second, unless Hahn’s own police commissioners ignore their mayor’s rejection of Parks.

On the merits of the case, there were ample reasons for Hahn to do what he did. In the wake of the moral outrage and financial disaster that was the Rampart scandal, the LAPD more than ever had to change. The department required effective civilian oversight and accountability; it needed an officer-tracking program and real community-based policing, and Parks actively worked to thwart all of those. Hahn made the right choice, but it was made much more difficult for him by the PPL’s ham-handed campaign to oust the chief. Getting rid of Parks was one thing; getting rid of him under unrelenting pressure from the same police union that had brought down Willie Williams — a union whose own commitment to reform is a sometime thing at best — could certainly appear, to Hahn’s black supporters, as if he were succumbing to their historic adversaries’ racial biases.

But sticking with Parks would have landed Hahn in yet another heap of troubles. The PPL would have gone ballistic, conceivably igniting in its rage the very Valley conservatives whom Hahn does not wish to rile with the Valley secession measure looming on November’s ballot. The steam certainly seems to be going out of Valley secession, but a pitched battle with the PPL could give secessionists a new sense of purpose and urgency. Hahn’s brain trust may have concluded that black L.A. — which, absent a compelling citywide leader, failed to mount a mayoral candidacy of its own in last year’s election — really had nowhere else to go, while the Valley could turn on him on a dime. And, in the end, Hahn sided with the Valley.

The truly stunning achievement of the week, however, comes from the stalwarts of L.A.’s African-American political elite. To any genuine supporter of police reform they have transformed themselves into just as much of a civic problem as the PPL — if not more of one.

For it was the old-timers within the black political class who foisted Hahn upon the city — without their support, there would have been no Hahn candidacy — despite ample evidence that, push-come-to-shove, he’d side with the cops. Hahn, after all, had broken with the black community in the early ’90s to defend Daryl Gates in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating — a fact his black supporters conveniently forgot when he ran for mayor last year. The battle over Daryl was also a contest pitting the white Valley against South-Central, Hahn was very clear in his preference, and I didn’t hear one of Hahn’s black champions last year explaining why their man would do differently if the same choice presented itself again.

The more fundamental issue, though, is that in backing Parks, the black elite is invoking the worst kind of double standard. For Parks’ tenure does not signal a break with the bad old days of the LAPD, but rather their perpetuation. In the best traditions of Bill Parker and Daryl Gates, he has handled incidents of racially charged police brutality by minimizing the department’s responsibility and resisting all efforts to get the department to shape up. Have Parks’ defenders forgotten his response to the Margaret Mitchell shooting — the gunning down by two officers of a tiny, middle-aged black woman on a Westside sidewalk, which Parks insisted was not a violation of department policy, even though the Police Commission overruled him? Haven’t they noticed that Parks’ response to Rampart was essentially identical to Parker’s response to the Watts riots and Gates’ response to the King beating: The department is fine; systemic racism is not a problem; we will resist all efforts to instill civilian accountability? Why an unaccountable department headed by a martinet contemptuous of civilian control is hunky-dory so long as that martinet is black is something that the Maxine Waterses and Melanie Lomaxes have yet to convincingly explain.

Yet here we are again, plunged into a particularly knee-jerk form of racial politics. Two years ago, it was much of the Latino political elite that was in high dudgeon over the sacking of Ruben Zacarias as head of the LAUSD. No doubt, Latino L.A. justly has a special stake in the school district, since more than 70 percent of the students are Latino. No doubt, black L.A. justly has a special stake in the LAPD, since its racist practices over the decades has made it central to the problems of the city’s African-American community. But both Zacarias and Parks were woefully wrong-headed symbols, altogether at odds with the causes they had come to embody. Zacarias was incapable of improving the schools and Parks has been dead-set against building a more responsive police force. A worse set of poster boys for Latino and black interests would be difficult to imagine.

But then, if the old bulls of the black political elite really cared about police reform, they wouldn’t have backed Hahn in the first place. The one real candidate of police reform in last year’s election — who’d opposed Daryl Gates and headed up the local ACLU chapter and said the department had to take responsibility for Rampart — was Antonio Villaraigosa. And while younger black political leaders like Mark Ridley-Thomas endorsed Villaraigosa, the Burkes and the Bakewells and the Waterses went with Hahn, confident that however deficient his record might be, he could at least be counted upon to be their boy. They were wrong in principle, and now, are they ever a sad bunch of suckers.


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