Connie Rice was 13 and her father was a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base when the family drove from the high desert to church at First AME in L.A. She saw the city's ghastly gray air and said to herself, "Well, I'll never live here." Not only has she lived here for more than two decades, her work is about making "here" livable -- survivable -- for those in what she calls L.A.'s "kill zones." Her efforts at healing the wounded heart of L.A.'s civic life, mending the broken ties among police and power structure and the public, as well as her long journey here -- Harvard, death row cases, a passion for tae kwon do -- are laid out in her book, "Power Concedes Nothing." The title, from a Frederick Douglass quote, is an insight into her role in the story of the city where she never thought she'd be.
Two questions shaped your sense of mission. One came from a black boy, the son of migrant workers, in Arizona, when you were a child yourself.
He was this kid with a dusty, crusty face. I was 11, this light, bright, damn-near-white kid who doesn't think about race, doesn't think about privilege. And [he] walked up and said, "What is you?" I didn't look like black people in his world; [my family] is more than 50% white and Indian. [After that] it wasn't that I identified [myself] in a different way; it was that part of my consciousness came to the front of my brain as opposed to being buried in the back.
The other, years later, came from an angry woman at a meeting at the Jordan Downs housing project, asking, "Where the bleep was you?"
That confrontation yanked me out of my world again. This was during the crack wars, and bullets were coming through drywall, and these women were traumatized, and I come waltzing in in a St. John suit and pearls. They should have blasted us, because we -- the NAACP, the Urban League -- had abandoned the poorest African Americans to a war zone and to racist, hostile cops. She gave me what for, and she should have. She did it in a way that's part of the black family fight, which is over privilege within the family. I'm from the Sally Hemings branch of the family; she's from the Nat Turner branch. Within the black middle class there's not enough urgency. She was rightfully pointing a finger: You have gone on your merry way and I'm down here and my grandkids are dying.
Your parents shielded you from much of the impact of race?
The Rice way! The reason we can float right above all the racism; we have this magical thinking that completely frees us. There are no limitations. Of course I could play Queen Elizabeth I -- I'm the only black girl in the whole school but I had to play her!
Angelenos protesting a police shooting in 2002 carried signs reading "Control your cops." Chief Bratton's response was "Control your kids." Who was right?
Both. And that's the journey I had to take. The good people in LAPD, the good people in the street -- even good people, relatively, in the gangs -- you have to deal with the gangsters, you have to deal with the cops.
Probably the best service I did for [L.A.] was being the shield for Mayor [James] Hahn to be able to make room for Chief Bratton. Naming Bratton was the pivot point. [At a community meeting after a period of] 17 or 19 shootings, he was seething mad. He told this city, "I am not accepting what you accept as a norm. This has got to stop." He approached the podium as William J. Bratton. He left it as the chief of the LAPD. I was, "Yes! I like this man. I'm going to help him if he'll let me." And that was a big if.
What people don't understand is what it took to get reform started in LAPD. They think there was a Christopher Commission report and then Chief Bratton showed up -- no, it took seven years. He was outside LAPD, and LAPD can be a very mean, secretive, surreptitious and devious culture, and no outsider can come in.
But the city and the department have improved?
An unqualified yes. Do we have a long way to go? Also yes. The Rodney King beating, that was the beginning of the end of the old imperial LAPD. It's not just [a result of] legal work. It was creating human glue between us and the cops, us and the gang intervention workers, us and the community members. Most people separate those realms.
I'm a good lawyer. I also know the limitations of the court. I was winning my cases in the courtrooms, but my clients were losing. They had to go back to the worst of the gang zones. They had no freedoms. The only amendment I saw operating in the kill zones was the 2nd Amendment, because everybody had a gun. The 8th Amendment didn't apply because police could do what they wanted; I call them Constitution-free zones, and we still have them in L.A.
My neighbors call and say, "We think we have a gang!" [They saw graffiti] on a water grate and it was in pink script with hearts over the Is. Guys, this is an angry 13-year-old girl -- this is not a gang! Most of us live in safe areas. It's hard to process the fact that seven miles south of here -- you wouldn't want to be [there] in a blackout. You wouldn't want to be there when the lights are on.
How do you get the safe part to care about that other part of L.A.?
I'm not making a moral pitch. That seems to be a waste of time. We don't have any choice but to care. If you leave these kids in chronic destitution in gang zones, it becomes the blow-back from hell, because another 20 to 30 years of this, you think we can't become like Sicily? Colombia let their kill zones get to the point where, if you're upper-middle class, you have bodyguards, armored limousines and machine guns on the gates of your house. We can go that route, or we can do the work we've got to do.
You routinely hear from the police chief and the sheriff. But you also got a call from the Department of Defense -- and you at first thought it was for your cousin, Condoleezza Rice.
The sheriff had briefed [military officials] about our big gang report. I get a call early one morning from this captain. He wanted to know, could he come see the gang academy we were putting together. He said, "Ma'am, you are working with former insurgents. Your gangs are just like the insurgents we're dealing with in Iraq." I remember looking at the phone and thinking of all the parallels. For the first time I thought, "We need to engage the military on this one. It isn't shock and awe, it's Condi's 'clear, hold, build' -- and educate and employ."
You deal with cops and politicians -- and with killer gangs. How do you operate in that world?
I have the delusion I can go in anywhere. It's not that I don't get scared; it's that I don't let it overwhelm me. [An] anthropology mind-set is very useful. I do it with conservatives, I do it with gangsters, I do it with lefties, I do it with all kinds of tribes.
I'm the biggest feminist I know. I'm the black Murphy Brown. So how does a black Murphy Brown deal with men for whom misogyny is part of the credo? I had to talk to them in a way where they had to respect me enough to at least listen to my advice.
Part of me finds absolutely nothing redeeming about the gangs' mind-set. I am doing my best to slowly starve it of oxygen. I'm not going to attack it [in a way] that gets people killed. The goal is to keep kids safe.
How did you wind up at the hub of all this?
I think people see the passion and that I'm not there to pimp them. I'm not trying to judge, I'm trying to figure out a solution. The Police Protective League used to throw me bodily out of buildings. [Then] they created this narrative about why it was OK to work with the horrible Connie Rice. One of them said, "Connie, you're much more reasonable now. We can work with you because you don't take the money [from lawsuits against the department]. You're not sending your kids to college off of our dead cops."
You now have your own parking spot in the new police headquarters.
[Assistant Chief Earl] Paysinger [jokingly] gets his radio out and says, "Alert, alert, I need security, we need her ejected and her damn Prius. We do not allow Priuses next to Crown Vics!"
I'm probably too close to them now. I can never sue them; they rely on my advice, but I have always felt the police are probably the most honest brokers in this business. The politicians are just looking for their next seat. They don't want to solve long-term problems because they're not going to get the credit. The structure of the City Council is designed to fill potholes -- it's not designed to solve long-term problems.
What job description would you give yourself?
Civic entrepreneur? Democracy engineer? If you don't have the basics, you can't support freedom.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times