”I‘m pissed at him,“ says a former Hicks ally from the Multi-Cultural Collaborative. ”Guess he just wanted to be in the winner’s circle. He got tired of fighting and sold out.“
It‘s probably fair to say that the above sums up the current view of Hicks among mainstream African-American activists. But none of this fazes Hicks. In fact, he’s having the time of his life. Dressed, as usual, in a dark and dapper sport coat, crossed American and Israeli flags on his lapel, Hicks gives Horowitz a warm birthday hug. Later that night Hicks says to me he has never felt better. ”I know, I know what some of my old friends are gonna say,“ he says. ”Don‘t matter what this guy Hicks has done on the streets for the last 20 years, he’s now persona non grata, he will now be shunned, he‘s now the enemy. But that won’t be my posture.“
Hicks argues that he has made no great break, no radical shift. Instead, he sees his political transformation as merely part of a long, fluid arc: ”Looking back over my history, you see some moments where I was very consolidated in certain positions, but I was always thinking and always re-evaluating. Internal reflection was ongoing. But every now and then something would come along and jar my fundamental beliefs. What‘s going to happen now is an interesting test. Not only of me. But of the left. Can it overcome its dogmatic religiosity and get into a dialogue?“
No matter what one’s view, it‘s an excellent question. Indeed, those who might write off Hicks’ defection from the left as a simple caseof selling out or facile opportunism do so strictly at their own peril. If money or position were all that Hicks desired, he could have used his a ample multiculti credentials — not to mention his recent role as city human-relations commissioner — to retire to a cushy position as diversity czar for some corporation or government agency. But, in fact, Hicks is in it for the same reasons he manned the barricades of the left: for the pure passion of politics.
Perhaps Hicks just hankers to be in the middle of the political buzz — and the middle, nowadays, is way over on the right. Maybe Hicks got so fed up with the knee-jerk aspects of the left that he finds it satisfying to kick back from across the divide. Or maybe Joe Hicks has simply been won over to the conservative cause by force of argument. I don‘t pretend to know his deepest motivation, and in the end what difference does it make? The left hardly needs to agree with what Hicks is now doing — and of course, it won’t. But it ought to at least give him a listen. Falling back on the left‘s default reflexes of branding its rivals as racists, Klansmen or ”fascists“ won’t wash in the case of Joe Hicks, who — until a few months ago — was considered by many to be among the most thoughtful, reflective and complex activists that the local left has produced.
The sorts of issues that still obsess Hicks — race, class, social and economic justice — are all those dear to the soul of the left. But too often that same left confronts these complex issues in a frankly reactionary manner, unwilling to as much as re-examine assumptions ossified decades ago in a very different America. But from even the most rigid of leftist positions, you make a mistake if when you lose an asset like Joe Hicks, you simply slam the book closed on him, and don‘t take the time to at least hear his story.
Watts ’65: Journey Into Blackness
Hicks‘ social consciousness and activism are firmly rooted in the political geography of a segregated Los Angeles. Educated at Jefferson High in the 1950s, Hicks was rather late in coming to any sort of political belief. His father, still alive today at age 92, was what Hicks called a ”borderline Garveyite“ — referring to the back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey. But the younger Hicks eschewed the call of politics and instead enrolled at L.A. Trade Tech wanting to be a draftsman. After a year of study, Hicks had a conversation that changed the course of his career. ”One day a teacher pulls me aside and says, ’Kid, I got to let you know. There isn‘t a single black person working as an architectural draftsman in the city of Los Angeles, and you are probably not going to be the first.’“
Hicks reluctantly turned in his T-square, packed in his studies and signed onto a U.S. aircraft carrier courtesy of the Navy. Stationed in Japan in the early ‘60s, Hicks says he first was called a ”nigger“ not by a fellow sailor, but by a Japanese bar girl.
By the time Hicks left the Navy in 1964, the civil rights movement was in full bloom. He followed it in the news and, as a liberal Democrat, was inspired by what he saw unfolding in the freedom marches. But at the time, he says, he was just one more middle-class guy, working at the Gas Company, married and trying to raise a family.
That all changed forever — for Hicks and the city of L.A. — during a couple of hot August nights in 1965. As the Watts riots burned through the heart of the city, and with a curfew clamped down on the riot zone, Hicks could go no further than his own front porch to escape the stifling summer heat. A National Guard jeep buzzed his house, and the soldiers ordered him to go inside. ”No way,“ Hicks says he said to himself. A half-hour later, the jeep was back. ”And this time they pointed that .30-caliber machine gun right at me and yelled, ’Nigger, get the fuck off the porch!‘“
That brush with imperious authority and the scenes of inflamed passion and injustice that flickered around him drove Hicks right into the arm of the nearest militant group, Ron Karenga’s cultural nationalist US (United Slaves), which was then in its heyday. ”I was enthralled when I first encountered Karenga,“ Hicks remembers with a hearty laugh. ”He was doing one of his so-called soul sessions. It started off with some music from Smokey [Robinson] and ended up with a passionate speech from Karenga.“
Hicks‘ three years with US branded radicalism onto his soul, but also instilled in him what would be a lifelong discomfort with race-based identity politics — Karenga’s forte. By 1968, US locked horns with the rival Black Panthers, and the feud bloodily culminated on the UCLA campus that year with the shooting of Panther leaders Alprentice ”Bunchy“ Carter and John Huggins. Hicks had seen enough. ”I looked at that incident. I said, ‘Hey, if we are black nationalists, and white people are the enemy, then why do we spend so much time fighting other black folks?’“
And so began a zigzagging political trek for Hicks that continues today. He dabbled very briefly with Islam, but his secular, atheist background was stronger than the Koran. Then came readings in Pan-Africanism and eventually socialism. Hicks found that class analysis made more sense than any racial theories in explaining the divides in American society.
A girlfriend in the Communist Party accelerated Hicks‘ interest in Marxism. By the late ’70s, Hicks was frequenting meetings of the Young Workers Liberation League, a Communist Party front organization then run by former City Councilman Richard Alarcon‘s sister. Shortly thereafter, Hicks joined the C.P. itself where he says the party leaders were ”salivating over me as some sort of real-life ’young Negro leader.‘“ Like many others who have passed through the C.P., Hicks says he found party life far less intriguing and dramatic than its critics and enemies have portrayed it: ”Mostly it was unimpressive people doing unimpressive work.“ But Hicks used his Communist activism to immerse himself in the Marxist classics.
Sometime in the late ’70s, Hicks experienced an ”eye-opening, life-changing disillusionment,“ triggered, predictably enough, by his first visit to the Soviet Union. ”It was dull and drab and it sucked, and I‘m walking around saying, ’Shit, is this what I want the U.S. to look like?‘“ A visit to his Communist host’s Moscow apartment deeply depressed him when Hicks found a stash of Playboy magazines piled on the floor. Openly corrupt and hypocritical party officials, an apolitical population and the second-class status of Soviet women soon drove Hicks from the C.P.
But that didn‘t mean a disengagement from Marxism. ”Instead of coming back from Russia and coming to my senses, what do I do? I go even further to the left,“ Hicks says with a hearty self-deprecating laugh. ”I said socialism wasn’t the problem, the problem was the way it was administered by the Soviets.“ From there, he flirted with the openly Stalinist Line of March organization. But only briefly. After two decades on the revolutionary express, Joe Hicks was about to get off the train.
During much of his time on the revolutionary left, Hicks was living what he calls ”an absurd double life.“ He had gone back to college and came out working as an editor and writer for the magazine of the Automobile Club of Southern California. He soon rose to running the regional PR office for General Motors. ”Talk about schizophrenia,“ he says. ”I would leave the G.M. corporate offices in Encino, and after work I would go to a Nicaragua solidarity rally. Crazy, crazy stuff.“
In the late ‘80s Hicks tried to reconcile his clashing political and personal lives. He pushed his day job to the left, going to work for the Service Employees International Union and simultaneously pulled his politics away from the radical edge and toward a more liberal center, renouncing revolution and settling into that vague slot on the political spectrum nowadays called ”progressive“ — what in a more politically sophisticated country would be recognized as a social democrat.
It obviously worked for him. The ensuing decade saw Hicks move to the post of communications director of the Southern California ACLU, to head of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the civil rights group founded by Martin Luther King Jr.), then to founding and leading the Multi-Cultural Collaborative, then finally to City Hall.
Politically, Hicks dove into another round of studying and introspection. He was moderating his politics but still calling himself a socialist. ”I was like an alcoholic trying to give up drink,“ he says. ”I couldn’t give up on the romance of the idea. I knew it was bad for me but just didn‘t know where else to go for my political identity.“
Hicks, though moving rightward, simply couldn’t compute a break with ”the left.“ As a balm, he accelerated his reading and study.
That inner search took Hicks to a serious re-reading of the works of Dr. King. This time, he was ”bowled over“ by the ”race-transcendent message“ he saw in the writings of the slain civil rights leader. It was, he says, ”another one of those ah-ha moments.“ He found a King who wasn‘t arguing for a society cleaved into racial categories, divided by competing ethnic identities, but rather a vision of a colorblind democracy. He found himself asking how activists had come from fighting for equal opportunity and rights for all to divisive identity politics.
”I saw how much I had missed,“ he says. ”While I was playing revolutionary and running around with guns calling King an Uncle Tom, I failed to see how much he had accomplished. He was trying to build the American Dream, while I was trying to overthrow it.“
Transformed by his re-assessment of King, Hicks began to chafe under the traditional left-wing notion of seeing American blacks and Latinos as primarily victimized peoples. Perhaps, 30 years ago, that was a proper view. But to persist on that track decades after measurable inroads against institutionalized racism had been achieved was in itself a sort of ”soft racism,“ he says. It was not only patronizing, he began to think, but also damaging, to tell young people of color that their futures were de facto limited.
And so, during the ’90s, especially in the wake of the 1992 riots, Joe Hicks emerged as a high-profile advocate and spokesman for a new progressive politics in Los Angeles, even as he was reformulating his racial views. Indeed, that reformulation began to alter his day-to-day politics and made Hicks one of the local left‘s most unpredictable and original voices. He was among the very few black political activists who would publicly rebuke the demagogy of self-appointed or media-appointed ”race leaders“ like Danny Bakewell. He would stress what united different constituencies rather than what divided them.
Appearing regularly on radio and TV and often in print, Hicks forcefully argued for a cross-town, cross-racial left-of-center political coalition, using rhetoric that would later be closely echoed by Antonio Villaraigosa during his 2001 mayoral run. I knew, along with many other journalists in this city, that if you needed a quote from a mature analyst who could evoke a left-of-center vision that put the emphasis on class rather than race, you called Joe Hicks first. And if you wanted to have lunch with a fellow leftist where you could safely blow off steam about the inanities of politically correct dogma, Hicks was the guy.
The David Duke Debacle
”I knew six or seven years ago that he was coming out,“ says Hicks’ friend and talk-show host Larry Elders. ”I could hear this in Joe right after the David Duke Debate.“ Elders just as well might have said a the Infamous David Duke–Joe Hicks Debate Debacle — the indisputable low point of the 1996 ballot fight over affirmative action and a seminal event in Hicks‘ future conversion to the right.
But telling that story requires a bit of background: When Ward Connerly, the maverick African-American regent of the UC system, came up with the idea of outlawing affirmative-action programs in state schools and agencies — a notion quickly snatched up by conservatives and libertarians and transformed into Proposition 209 — the traditional language of the left was appropriated for the campaign. Called the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) it cadged its rhetoric right from the lips of Martin Luther King Jr.
When affirmative action was first initiated by the Nixon administration, radicals and even some liberals viewed it with great suspicion — as a program to mollify the minority middle class. But as the right chipped away at affirmative action, broad sectors of the American left saw themselves drawn into a sometimes dogged defense of the issue. When CCRI came along in 1996, civil rights, feminist and other liberal groups closed ranks to defeat Prop. 209. ”I didn’t come up because of affirmative action, and I was pissed I had to defend it,“ says prominent black civil rights lawyer Connie Rice. ”And fighting 209 was hard because it was absurd to characterize its inspiration, Ward Connerly, a black man, as some sort of Klansman.“
Both Rice and Hicks hit the debate circuit to argue against CCRI. But now Hicks, like Rice, was having second thoughts about the programs they were publicly defending. ”Dr. King had his own reservations about affirmative action, and I agreed that it never did much for poor blacks, that it was aimed at a few middle-class blacks, that other minority people would forever be looked upon askance if they ascended,“ Hicks says. ”Maybe Cornel West was right when he said we should have never done this. That affirmative action should have been based on class and not race.“
It troubled Hicks that he and the rest of the left were smarting so much over CCRI‘s use of King’s colorblind language. If King had used it, then why was it ”unfair“ for the advocates of Prop. 209 to do it too? Hicks agonized over these questions but then allowed himself to be catapulted into the campaign spotlight. Students at Cal State Northridge offered former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke a $4,000 fee to come argue against affirmative action. Hicks was offered the same amount to defend it. And he took it.
Connie Rice and David Horowitz had offered to do the debate for free, but the student sponsors wanted fireworks. They got them. I was a reporter at the sellout event on September 26, 1996, and I saw tickets being scalped for more than $200. The debate opened in a frankly carnival-like atmosphere, and Duke was dragged out onstage as a sort of King Kong to be reviled and jeered by a predominantly hostile student audience of more than 700.
But there was no joy in it for Hicks: ”Even as the debate began, I‘m sitting up onstage asking myself just what am I doing up here with this clown. I mean, even in the middle of the debate I’m thinking this is like an out-of-body experience for me. I‘m supposed to be up here dealing seriously with the complex questions of equal opportunity and justice for all, and instead I’m up here with a joker that even conservative Republicans disavowed.“ Indeed, the proponents of Prop. 209, legitimately fearing they would be smeared, reached an agreement with Duke that he would never directly mention the ballot initiative during the debate. But the anti-209 campaign was intent on the opposite.
”It was a very, very ugly campaign, so much that it made me feel I‘d never again be part of one,“ remembers Ramona Ripston, executive director of the Southern California ACLU and at the time a close ally with Hicks. ”Somebody suggested that [Democratic consultant] Bob Shrum be hired to run our media campaign against 209, and it was his idea to brand the supporters of 209 as racists. Shrum thought it was the only way we could win.“
The morning of the debate, Hicks was encouraged by his anti-209 campaign allies to call Shrum on the phone for any last-minute tips. All Shrum did was instruct Hicks to do everything he could to get Duke to say the words ”Prop. 209“ during the course of the debate.
Hicks accomplished that mission. But it only came back to haunt him. Within days, much to Hicks’ horror, the anti-209 campaign was running TV ads featuring burning crosses, hooded Klansmen and Duke mumbling the words ”Prop. 209.“
”I assume full responsibility for all of this,“ Hicks says. ”I thought the debate would bring a lot of TV coverage to our campaign. But I was outraged. And I was used. No one wanted a real debate. They only wanted to get Duke to say those words and get that ad up on the air. I don‘t think it changed many minds.“
Apparently not. CCRI was approved, and affirmative action was banned by California voters six weeks later by a margin of 54 to 46 percent.
Horowitz and Hicks: Yin and Yang?
disgusted by the Duke debacle, Hicks accelerated his flight from the left. After publicly criticizing Richard Riordan during his first term, he endorsed Riordan for re-election in 1997. Riordan returned the favor by naming Hicks as L.A.’s human-relations commissioner. Hicks was still considered, nevertheless, to be somewhere on the left, even as he worked in the moderate Riordan administration. But during the late ‘90s, his private conversation turned ever more critical of his traditional comrades.
Over a couple of informal lunches together while he was still working in City Hall, I remember Hicks saying he was contemplating writing a book critical of ”multicultural orthodoxy.“ During New Year’s 1999, I saw Hicks at David Horowitz‘s yearly retreat for movement conservatives. I was there as a reporter for The Nation; just what Hicks was doing there wasn’t yet clear. At the beginning of last year, he mentioned to me in passing that after he left City Hall, he might unleash a ”political surprise.“ By then I could have guessed where all this was leading.
For behind the scenes, he‘d spent the previous two years being slowly courted by David Horowitz. Horowitz says he was intrigued by Hicks’ willingness to question leftist orthodoxy but was still cautious about aggressively trying to recruit him. ”I was ambivalent,“ says Horowitz. ”I didn‘t want to bring an enemy into my house.“
Hicks had similar trepidations: ”My connection to David has gone from derision to alliance. Like most on the left, I thought David was the breathing embodiment of evil. I started out being tough on David, angry with David, despising David.“
”The first times I met Joe I was afraid he was going to kill me,“ Horowitz remembers. ”He just glared at me.“
The thaw began one day about four years ago when the two decided to chat after a joint panel appearance. Horowitz followed up by sending Hicks a copy of his memoir, Radical Son. A well-written autobiography, but flush with self-recrimination and harsh attacks on his former political comrades, Horowitz’s book details his own political journey which took him from the activist left to the confrontational right, from Ramparts to Reagan.
After reading the memoir, Hicks called up Horowitz, complimenting him on a confessional that so deeply resonated with his own second thoughts. This led to a series of lunches and meetings. By last summer, both men had agreed that after leaving City Hall, Hicks would become the new executive director of Horowitz‘s activist and fund-raising Center for the Study of Popular Culture.
The question that goes begging here is not Hicks’ disillusionment with the left. Because for anyone who‘s blown a Friday night sitting through some torturously correct meeting of this or that solidarity committee can understand a certain level of discouragement and weariness. But that’s a long way from accepting wholesale the conservative world-view, not to mention joining up with David Horowitz.
Is Hicks‘ switchover, then, really more about rejecting the left than fully embracing the right? He strongly denies either notion. And that, in turn, raises a host of intriguing questions about how the scope and future of his alliance with Horowitz will be defined. Hicks still describes himself as ”adamantly pro-choice and pro–gay rights“ (but then again, so does Horowitz). Hicks voted for Villaraigosa last year (I doubt Horowitz did the same).
What both men do have in common is a conviction that current multicultural liberal principles and programs are a failure. ”The multiculturalists place victimhood before everything else,“ Hicks argues. ”And this has become the biggest obstacle to people moving out of poverty. As racism has declined, as discrimination has declined in America, we have actually seen a rise in multicultural victimhood. We hear rhetoric everyday from the left that discrimination against women, against blacks, against gays is worse than ever!
“The problem with the left is that it always tells its story in the most exaggerated way, in the most draconian terms,” Hicks continues. “That attitude keeps you from ever recognizing any victories or any progress. If things are always worse, then how can you win?”
I have to admit that much of this argument even resonates with someone on the left like myself. You don’t have to be on the right to agree that the left often luxuriates in the self-marginalizing ritual of proclaiming that we live in a fascist dictatorship where all people of color, all women and all lesbian-bi-gay-transgenders, for example, are ipso facto oppressed, that we are only moments away from repression, genocide and gas chambers. But this fails to answer the larger question of how far to the right Hicks has really ventured.
When I press the question, Hicks doesn‘t blink. The transition is total, he says. Not only has he moved to more traditionally conservative positions on economic and national-security issues but mostly, he says, he’s reveling in a newfound intellectual freedom. The left has just become too intolerant, he insists: “I feel the left keeps distilling down and down and down and is no longer a way of arguing. It‘s become a sort of righteous religiosity where you believe those who disagree with you are all evil, that they want to kick homeless people into the streets, take food out of the mouth of babies, and send all black folks back out to pick cotton.” He interrupts with a series of belly laughs. “I think this really demarcates the left from the right, with the exception of a few religious fundamentalists. Most of my new circle of friends are willing to acknowledge they have differences with others but not think them evil.”
Hicks says he wants to be a “bridge,” to “jump-start” a dialogue between left and right, finding “people who want to take the arguments on civilly, not personalize it, not Satanize the other, not name call.”
It’s a noble sentiment. But one that brings us squarely back to the question of how David Horowitz fits into the equation. Horowitz (who in person is rather quiet and even self-effacing) proudly maintains a public persona of a brawling, in-your-face provocateur — to say the least. In fact, Horowitz relishes his bad-boy image. As a longtime friend says, “The happiest day of David‘s life was when The Nation magazine recently did a cover story hit piece on him.”
You can’t underestimate Horowitz‘s knack for the inflammatory gesture. He boasts of how he now turns the confrontational tactics he learned on the radical left back on his old comrades. Horowitz, in spite of recent health problems, has been maintaining a breakneck schedule of visiting as many college campuses as possible — the more liberal the better — prodding, provoking and enraging student audiences with his fiery denunciations of feminists, leftist professors, student protesters, multiculties, Democrats and demonstrators.
The Web site he maintains, and which Hicks now oversees (frontpagemag.com), seems calculated to cause maximum outrage per byte, freely demonizing opponents to the left, even wishy-washy liberal Democrats. And some of Horowitz’s most recent publications are among his most controversial ever — including a new book denouncing black “hate crimes” against whites.
Plenty of Hicks‘ old friends predict that the radical difference in style between him and Horowitz is destined to erupt sooner, rather than later, into a parting of the ways. But so far, a half-year into the new alliance, both seem immensely comfortable with each other. Horowitz himself doesn’t hesitate from recognizing the difference in approaches between him and Hicks. “He‘s a yin for my yang,” says Horowitz. “Joe is much more diplomatic than I am. He can make the sort of alliances I can’t; he can work the community connections better than I can.”
In this sort of good cop–bad cop partnership, Horowitz clearly sees in Hicks an instant inoculation against charges of racism. But Horowitz also has more practical expectations for Hicks. He‘s hoping Hicks can bring order and tighter management to Horowitz’s center — the day-to-day business of which has often been pushed aside by its leader‘s guerrilla antics.
Hicks, meanwhile, seems totally at peace as he slowly becomes the public face for Horowitz’s organization. A few months ago, he formally registered into the Republican Party in a rather awkward scene staged at the state party convention (proving that it‘s still easier for blacks to join the GOP than it is for the GOP to join with blacks). He’s started running the Wednesday Morning Club luncheons that Horowitz‘s center uses to showcase conservative speakers. And in a couple of those gatherings, Hicks had to contend with a red-meat crowd far to the right of where he seems to be. And yet, on those occasions he didn’t flinch from praising Horowitz for his ongoing campus rabble-rousing or from voicing what are now his own strongly conservative views on issues ranging from education to national defense.
There‘s no question that Hicks can more effectively carry this political message into certain venues. And he’s already doing so, penetrating into territory that would be verboten to Horowitz. Hicks was the lone conservative at a recent USC panel on the 1992 riots. And he recently participated in a debate over reparations on Earl Ofari Hutchinson‘s KPFK radio show. In both cases, the exchanges were respectful, shedding more light than heat. If it had been Horowitz participating, both events would likely have degraded into shouting matches (in part because Horowitz is such a skilled provocateur and in part because leftists seem constitutionally incapable of responding to Horowitz in anything less than a scream).
Hicks’ more diplomatic tone is a special challenge to the left. It‘s the left, after all, that lays claim to independent and critical thinking. It should welcome Hicks’ polemics as one more invitation to reflect and rethink. Not to run up a white flag and surrender to the right, nor to whip out a sledgehammer and try to beat Hicks — or Horowitz for that matter — into the ground. But rather to rise to the debate and confront some of the thornier issues raised by Hicks‘ apostasy. Must the narrative of the left remain rooted in victimization? Can race politics be transcended without abandoning a critique of racism? Can the left, in short, get past the dusty cant of the last 30 years and conjure a proactive vision with popular appeal?
Hicks must also face the challenges inherent in his newly adopted political position. For those of us who have known Hicks over the years and have watched him courageously buck the stale orthodoxies of the left while still being a part of it, the question now is this: Can he pull off the same trick within the right? It would be a loss to all if Hicks becomes one more dogma-ridden conservative hack. But if he’s willing to challenge his newfound friends on the right — while raising all those arguments that make the left squirm — he‘ll only raise the quality of L.A.’s political debate.
Some of his old allies on the left are at least willing to give him a chance. “I‘m not dismayed by this,” says civil rights lawyer Connie Rice. “This could be productive if Joe carries this out in a transformative way. Horowitz is too angry, his goal is only to provoke and vent. But Joe can really expand the dialogue if he does this right. Some of us do it behind the scenes. Some of us out in front of it.”