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Hitting Gates High and Low

Since Mark Ridley-Thomas has only been a member of the Los Angeles City Council for less than two months, you might not think he has had time to develop much influence.

But his pre-council experience has given this newcomer the skills and contacts that qualify him as a significant player in the wrenching struggle now taking place on the council over Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.

Before Ridley-Thomas’ election, he served as executive director of the Los Angeles branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As SCLC director, and a leader in the African-American community, Ridley-Thomas has been part of the extensive network of political and legal organizations with long-standing complaints about the Los Angeles Police Department’s conduct toward blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays and lesbians.

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On the City Council, Ridley-Thomas brings to the debate the voice and political strength of these organizations, whose participation previously was restricted to press conferences and demonstrations. While the politicians argued inside City Hall, these groups fumed outside.

Ridley-Thomas is a serious man, an attitude emphasized by his round, tortoise-shell glasses, grave expression and formal, scholarly manner of speaking. His council office is spare, with an old roll-top desk on one side and a personal computer on the other.

As I interviewed him Thursday, he sat in a claret-colored swivel chair that tilts slightly to one side, and counted votes.

“There are two tendencies operative in the council,” he said in his academic way. “One is the accommodationist line, which revolves around the chief and what he wishes to do and doesn’t wish to do. The other is the accountability line, which revolves around what will be done to put the department in shape.”

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What Ridley Thomas calls the “accountability line” might be more accurately labeled the Gates-must-go-now faction. It consists of Ridley-Thomas, Michael Woo and Rita Walters, the other African-American elected in June. She campaigned on a strong anti-Gates platform.

These hard-liners are outnumbered by those that Ridley-Thomas called ‘accommodationists.” Put simply, it is the council’s broad center.

Centrist members range from longtime Gates critic Zev Yaroslavsky to Gates friends such as Council President John Ferraro and Councilman Joel Wachs.

In the weeks after the police beating of Rodney G. King, they were reluctant to move against Gates. Reluctance seems to be evaporating since the release of the Christopher Commission report, with its strong criticism of the Police Department. Now, most of them want the chief to go, but peacefully, without making trouble for council members.

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Last Friday, Ferraro and Wachs thought they had accomplished such a maneuver, announcing they had made a deal with Gates for him to retire. But these two veteran politicians forgot a basic rule of politics--get it in writing. The next day, Gates embarrassed them by proclaiming, in essence, “no deal.”

Wednesday was an example of the two different approaches at work to push Gates out.

The middle-of-the-roaders embarked on another complex maneuver designed to permit the chief to leave gracefully.

Among the reasons the chief has offered for declining to step down was his insistence that an orderly process be in place to select a successor. That meant having the voters decide on whether there should be a limit on the term of the new chief. The council is divided over when to hold the election.

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Chairman Richard Alatorre of the Public Safety Committee, one of the middle-of-the-roaders, proposed breaking this deadlock by beginning the process, recruiting a chief before an election. The chief would have to accept a term limit later if the proposal is approved by the voters.

This plan could come before the council for a vote. Alatorre thinks it would pass, putting the council on record in favor of beginning the task of finding a new chief.

The council, rather than Gates, would be dictating the terms of picking his successor, a political blow to the chief.

That complex maneuver isn’t Ridley-Thomas’ style.

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He joined with his activist allies in the Coalition For Police Accountability at a City Hall press conference to demand that the chief go--now. Brushing off the centrists’ attempt to gently persuade Gates, Ridley-Thomas said, “You can’t accommodate someone who is being as unreasonable as Daryl Gates is at this time.”

Speaking about the two approaches, Ridley-Thomas said later, “We’re hitting high and hitting him low.”

It was a strange turn of events. Alatorre has the reputation of a political street fighter, but he was taking a cerebral approach. The scholarly Ridley-Thomas was throwing punches.

Together, they may add up to a deadly combination for Daryl Gates.

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