Secession, it hardly needs to be said, is not an idea that resonates positively with black folks. The current secession movements are entirely local, the issues many generations removed from slavery and states‘ rights, but that doesn’t change a general black uneasiness about race being the controlling subtext of separation campaigns of any kind, anywhere. The school busing wars of the late ‘70s and the renaming of Compton Boulevard in image-conscious, largely white Redondo Beach in the ’80s are a couple of cases in point — people can invoke neighborhood identity and local control all they want; blacks know better. Secession campaigns that have been gathering strength in the last year therefore elicited little interest from blacks, either from the movements‘ informal leadership or from the population at large; the general feeling was that secession simply didn’t involve them, and therefore wasn‘t worth fighting or getting behind.
But things have changed mightily since last year. Redistricting on state and local levels is hammering home the fact that black numbers and political influence are dwindling rapidly. Jim Hahn publicly reneged on a promise made to a handful of prominent black locals to retain Bernie Parks, until recently the biggest black presence at City Hall. The feverish campaign to reappoint ex–Police Chief Bernard Parks was a conspicuous failure, and has left many blacks doubtful of conventional political wisdom and old-school leadership tactics. The net result of all this is some blacks are seriously weighing the pros and cons of secession for the first time; one minister in Central L.A. has taken the lead and is working with members of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment (VOTE), the premier secessionist outfit, to explain secession in detail to residents far south of the Sepulveda Pass. While secession is hardly a populist movement, and while no one black has come out in support of it yet, the mere consideration of it is sea-changing, in ways both good and bad. Good because blacks are too often indifferent on issues they assume don’t affect their communities, but do; bad because those pushing for black consideration of secession are also likely seeking to fulfill political agendas of their own, and it‘s virtually impossible to distinguish one agenda from the other.
Take Frederick Murph, the Central L.A. minister agitating for secession education. Murph is senior pastor at Brookins AME Church and one of the now-famous handful of black locals that Hahn betrayed. Murph was a leading voice of protest against Hahn and the Police Commission during the pro-Parks campaign; it was he who spearheaded — and later quashed — a march at the new Grove shopping center to possibly sway the vote of police commissioner and mega-developer Rick Caruso. Murph co-chairs the fledgling Secession Exploration and Education Committee, which is staging a series of community forums in central L.A. in conjunction with Valley VOTE. It is also planning a voter-registration drive. While Murph says the forums are strictly about education, he admits they’re the direct result of many black people‘s colossal disaffection with the mayor. ”That experience caused us to wake up and recognize the fact that we can no longer blindly follow anybody,“ says Murph. ”We have to gather facts and make informed, intelligent decisions for ourselves.“ Of the notion that blacks oppose secession on cultural or historical principle, Murph says, ”Too many black people decide things in a knee-jerk-reaction kind of way. Hahn has actually done us a favor in giving us this wake-up call. We’ve got to change the way we do business. We can no longer afford to vote the way we‘ve been voting.“
Clearly that’s meant in more ways than one. Other black political observers who oppose secession don‘t actually disagree with Murph, but they do say there’s more purpose here than meets the eye: With elections for local AME bishop approaching, Murph, they say, is angling to make a name for himself in the church, and the community, with a hot-button issue like secession. ”He‘s the lone ranger on this,“ scoffs one such longtime observer who asked not to be named. ”He’s the only one talking about it. The Valley‘s selling [secession], but blacks aren’t buying. The real issue for us now is re-engaging with City Hall after the Bernie Parks fight. That‘s what’s important.“
Other veteran observers agree, adding that the traditional wariness blacks have of secession is in fact warranted this time. They warn of blacks perpetuating a wrong-headed and ultimately self-destructive relationship with Valley separatists for the sake of spiting Hahn. They say the South L.A.–Valley voting alliance that materialized during the mayoral race was a freak occurrence that should remain so, at least for now. They also note that Valley VOTE chairman Richard Close is already laying claim to South-Central in public speeches about the battle ahead. ”The Valley likes to say that it‘s a lot more diverse than it was 20 years ago, and therefore secession can’t possibly be a race thing,“ remarks another observer, a former political operative. ”But the people behind the secession are largely white. The power structure there is the same. Whites know that L.A. is becoming a minority city, and they know they stand to lose more if L.A. stays whole. It‘s all about following the money.“
But Murph insists there are new, important things at stake. For example, if the Valley secedes, he estimates, the black population in the city of Los Angeles would jump from about 10 percent to more than 30; shrinking black political representation would likely get a resuscitating shot in the arm. ”We don’t know what would actually happen, but we‘re looking into it,“ says Murph, whose committee is tapping academics and other experts for secession analyses. ”But I do know that we can’t afford to twiddle our thumbs on this.“
Others argue that neither can we afford to pretend that benefits lurk somewhere beneath the overwhelming drawbacks of secession, including diluting the power of the L.A. city employees union, a traditional black stronghold. ”Unions are committed to anti-secession, and they‘re the lead organizers on this,“ says another observer. ”Most of our people who are inclined to respond to secession will be against it.“ And though middle-class Valley secessionists dissatisfied with city services can claim to have that in common with South-Central residents, the comparison is probably an invidious one: The Valley may want three cops per thousand residents instead of two, while the inner-city core has suffered so many kinds of institutional neglect for so long, it’s hard to begin to address in specifics. Suffice it to say the inner city endures a de facto secession of local government already, and the effects are hardly beneficial. Even Danny Bakewell of the Brotherhood Crusade, characteristically vocal during the pro-Parksanti-Hahn campaign and a lead voice on any number of black causes, doubts the wisdom of supporting secession.
”I‘m a bit fearful of getting another elected official, of percentages going up — and then finding out, ’So what?‘“ he says. ”Black elected representation isn’t a guarantee of anything good for the masses. We‘ve seen that. The bigger idea is how we maintain the city’s largess but also make it more responsible to the least of its citizens.“ But like Murph, Bakewell is keenly aware of politics, and of the real possibility of blacks representing the swing vote in a close election — witness the mayor‘s race. ”Nobody,“ says Bakewell, ”can win this if they don’t have the black community.“
But nobody does, really, and that‘s what Murph and others are scrambling to secure. That scramble may still smell like opportunism, but if blacks get educated and more aware in the process, it may turn out to be more opportunity than anything else. Murph says his group — whatever it turns out to be — will form an opinion by fall, after the town-hall meetings; at least one observer is devoting the next six months to heading any black pro-secession sentiment off at the pass. In the end, says the observer, for all the furor and soul-searching Hahn touched off, he won’t matter, because blacks will realize that secession is not in their interest, whoever occupies City Hall. Though who will occupy City Hall in the future is of intense interest: Parks said he will run for a council seat in the 8th District, and he will very likely win — thereby putting himself back downtown, and his supporters in a new frame of mind. ”We could get behind Bernie again,“ muses the longtime observer who asked not to be named. ”And it‘s an opportunity to unite folks of all colors. The day of strict identity politics is really over. It’s the quality of coalitions that matters now.“