I was planning to recuse myself from commenting on the Bernie Parks brouhaha, chiefly because so much is being said so often, by so many. Yet while the Parks dialectic has ranged from turgid to trenchant — more of the former, unfortunately, and less of the latter — I can’t help but note that for all the words, not enough is being expressed. In particular, what does this whole thing mean to the designated local black leadership, which is carrying the Parks banner with a ferocious single-mindedness we haven‘t seen since the ’92 riots? I found their unity momentarily impressive, even heartening, but beyond the 15-minute press conferences that have proliferated in the last month it becomes clear that the matter at hand is not about retaining Parks. Instead, it‘s about retaining a viable black political presence at City Hall, and more importantly, retaining what viability is left in the idea of black leadership, period. If all this unilateral support of Parks feels symbolic, it is. It’s supposed to be.
Symbolism is no longer a byproduct of the quest for black self-determination; in the Parks imbroglio and elsewhere, the quest is often for racial symbolism itself. And in the minds of the aforementioned black leaders, symbolism has acquired its own moral weight. Resounding proof of that came last week when Bishop Charles Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ — one of those rare pastors of a big black church who‘s always kept a low profile — stood before cameras and tore up a check the Mayor’s Office had donated to him shortly before Hahn announced he would not support Parks for a second term. More than a criticism of the mayor trying to buy off black leaders with hush money, the gesture was an unambiguous declaration of Blake‘s support for Parks: If cool-headed Blake is joining the fray, then there must be one worth joining.
Racial symbolism can be just and appropriate — particularly if it’s in response to the racial symbolism of the heavily white Police Protective League spending the unprecedented budget of a million dollars to beat back Parks, who happens to be black. But the problem with black symbolism this time is the dubious force driving it — black leadership. It‘s an idea that’s been tossed around since Reconstruction; if black community has become the most abused phrase in the American sociopolitical lexicon, black leadership now runs a very close second. The two notions are intertwined, of course, but leadership is complicated and carries higher stakes. Particularly now.
While everybody‘s got community — from the Amish to global Internet guitar swappers — few groups are held to leadership the way black people are. It is no small charge. Leadership requires not merely spokespeople for a whole, but direction, agendas, overarching vision and thought; while blacks are inherently no more capable than Internet guitar swappers of such things, leadership is nonetheless expected of them — it’s what we‘re supposed to have, regardless of the feasibility of having it. Yet it’s reasonable to believe that leadership is crucial to black progress and well-being, which is still evolving on a large scale — crucial precisely because we‘ve never fully had it. Leadership is our eternal dream deferred, our mountaintop, our holy failure that is always forgiven in one generation but never given up on by the next. Problem is, when we invoke black leadership these days we have little patience with the fact that it’s not, to say the least, sharply defined. We want it to serve our needs, our images, their deadlines — like good cops, we want black leadership to materialize in force at the right moments and be unobtrusive the rest of the time. This is a demand made on no one else, not even the Pentagon, which had years to grow intelligence and think about terrorist attacks, and which now seems to be making up a world war as it goes along. The mighty Pentagon is granted the right of disorganization at crunch time; not us. Talk about your double standards.
The leadership that has sprung up around Parks does represent, though not in the way it‘s assumed to. Maxine Waters, John Mack, et al. are reacting not on behalf of the black community (whose opinion no one has really bothered to measure thus far) but to their own deep disappointment that Hahn did not deliver what they wanted. This disappointment, by the way, is not purely political. This whole Parks episode is more emotional and personal than anyone is willing to say; it’s about betrayal and wounded pride, frustration and a search for redemption, a third-act scene in a sweeping tragic opera of waning black fortunes in the new millennium. Bishop Blake all but said last week what others had only intimated — that the mayor publicly reneged on a backroom promise he had made to a group of prominent people like himself. However veiled that promise, and however reasoned Hahn‘s decision not to support Parks, it was still a betrayal, and the betrayal is what’s most real. The rest is immaterial. The keen sense of loss over the golden era of Kenneth Hahn and his staunch cultivation of black politicians is also very real: The former county supervisor passed away nearly a decade ago but those who prospered under his auspices are only now realizing, with discomfiting finality, that Hahn is dead in more ways than one.
In the emotional tumult what‘s also become immaterial, unfortunately, is the very material issue of whether Bernie Parks is as reformist as L.A.’s black communities need him to be. Most of his supporters in the last five years have been, at one time or another, vocal about bad police behavior. They have also been critical of Parks, if only implicitly. The questionable officer tactics in the Margaret Mitchell shooting, the call for data collection to combat racial profiling, the glacial implementation of the Christopher Commission reforms, the rapidly rising homicide rate in South L.A. — these are all things Maxine Waters and company raised their voices over in recent years, and the things that Parks implacably failed to address. But in a classic instance of the heart trumping logic, Parks-the-symbol-of-black-pride-and-endurance overpowers Parks-the-symbol-of-police-resistance. In the age of symbolism, blacks are acutely aware of the power of image, and Parks has a good one: He‘s tall, unbending, dignified. He dresses well. He looks good. He doesn’t speak or act impetuously. He‘s also home-grown, like family; unlike the last black police chief, wily Willie Williams, he’s one of us. Maybe you don‘t agree with everything Bernie has said or done, but that doesn’t mean you turn family out of the house. When the going gets tough, as it certainly has for the black political base lately, you do exactly the opposite. It‘s also immaterial that Parks himself has launched his own campaign to keep his job — a campaign that emphasizes merit and de-emphasizes race, effectively distancing himself from his loudest supporters. This irony, or strategy, is being ignored by those supporters, who are determined that Parks prevails, as a mere quirk in family dynamics.
So even though what is described as leadership is often really something smaller and more intimate, when it comes to addressing the big issues that affect black people, nobody has the time or inclination for small or ambiguous. Thus the media persist in delivering declamatory black leaders to an undiscriminating general public, and blacks persist in accommodating them. It’s a love-hate relationship that is symbiotic, and problematic: Any black person spotted within 50 feet of the Bernie Parks fight who utters a word about it is likely to wind up in the next Times story as a community leader. This accounts for some of my own hesitation in saying anything; thrilling as it might be to be cast as a leader, or as a spokesperson — a lesser but no less thrilling position — I hardly feel qualified for either.
The rub is, nobody‘s qualified — not Maxine Waters, not John Mack, not me. But we’re all bound by an instinctual understanding that without black leadership, or some semblance of it, there is black entropy, which we already have and don‘t need more of. Bernard Parks may not need us, but we need him to prove a point that is losing a sharpness we took too long for granted. Ultimately Parks’ boosters are not looking to lead so much as they are looking to hold on. A pragmatic but poetically inclined friend of mine once had this to say about aspiring black leadership: “You can call yourself a leader. But if you look over your shoulder and nobody‘s following you, you aren’t a leader. You‘re just somebody out there taking a walk.”