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Where’s Omar?

A gathering Tuesday in the Compton City Council chambers of reform-minded citizens was nothing new -- in fact, it‘s been routine in such chambers for some time now, at least since the local election season kicked off earlier this year. But considering that Mayor Omar Bradley’s latest power move has been to boycott council meetings to avoid growing criticism and, in the process, shut down city government, the event was more than significant. Dubbed a town-hall meeting by councilwomen Yvonne Arceneaux and Marcine Shaw -- the two council members who are not part of the mayor‘s voting bloc -- the gathering might not have mattered technically, but it more than made its point. “We’ve been through censorship for too long,” said Shaw to an enthusiastic audience of 100-plus. “We‘ve lived too long with it. This is your chance to talk.”

Bradley has long been known for using harsh language, and somewhat stronger methods, to counter his critics, so his disappearance from public view without so much as a goodbye caught even veteran Compton observers by surprise. This wouldn’t be so encumbering except that when the mayor vanished, he took with him the two members of his voting bloc, his aunt Delores Zurita and newcomer Amen Rahh. That left the council without a quorum or any power to act, and the Compton public without the opportunity to be heard.

It was, in fact, the public that drove Bradley out of council chambers on April 3, the date of the last meeting. With the election season at a fever pitch (Compton‘s primary is next Tuesday) and speculation mounting over various alleged Bradley improprieties -- a publicly detailed sexual-harassment complaint being chief among them -- council chambers had more than the usual number of people asking the mayor tough questions. Toward the end of the meeting, according to Yvonne Arceneaux, Bradley abruptly stood up, motioned to Zurita and left with her trailing close behind; Rahh followed suit a few minutes after. Then Tuesday’s meeting, the last one before the election, was canceled by the same council majority that staged the walkout. Arceneaux and others say it is clearly the mayor‘s intent to duck the tough questions until after the election. Determined to keep voices of dissent alive, she and Councilwoman Shaw hosted the town-hall meeting after Arceneaux got clearance from the City Attorney’s Office -- despite attempts by the Bradley majority to block it. “This was a chance just to let people speak,” said Arceneaux, who is running for re-election. The councilwoman also noted that Channel 36, the local government channel, had blacked out the audience-comment portion of its broadcast of the April 3 meeting, making the town-hall event that much more needed.

To a row of empty council seats the audience addressed concerns about everything from censorship to the efficacy of the Sheriff‘s deputies, newly signed on after Bradley led the dissolution last year of the Compton Police Department. (The cop presence at the meeting was formidable -- a half-dozen deputies and several security guards, a response to fears of trouble from the Bradley camp.) People speculated about the Monday break-in at the Compton Bulletin, a local paper that issued a scathing editorial about Bradley only last week. The most impassioned comments came from Mae Thomas; she, like many who spoke, has been a Compton resident for more than 40 years. Thomas has lost two children to violence in the city, but she directed most of her anger and indignation at this year’s election shenanigans, to strong-arm tactics embodied by Bradley, and, especially, to fellow citizens who are thinking of sitting this election out. “Don‘t you have the courage to fight back?” Thomas shouted, to lively applause. “No way am I going to fear any man. Don’t let anyone stop you from doing what‘s right. The streets are beautiful, but don’t give credit to any one person. Tell your neighbors, your family, to vote!”

Thomas reflects a new boldness in Compton, a willingness to speak out where people once might have looked the other way. Papers that have generally avoided voicing opinions about Compton have broken their silence this year: The Long Beach Press-Telegram endorsed Eric Perrodin, not Bradley, as well as Arceneaux against her Bradley-backed opponent, Frank Wheaton; the Los Angeles Sentinel recently ran a story on its front page about allegations against Bradley. Thomas, in her remarks, also criticized another local paper, the Compton Journal, which gets city money and is generally considered a Bradley mouthpiece; the Journal published an endorsement by Maxine Waters of Bradley that Thomas said was merely another dirty trick. The Reverend B.T. Newman, a member of the reformist group Pastors for Compton, was glad about the meeting but wondered aloud about its real impact. “What is our purpose today?” he asked Arceneaux. “Is this cancellation, and this event, a normal proceeding?” In Compton, that‘s the million-dollar question to ask about everything.