In the first few days of uneasy calm after the rioting had been quelled and the fires extinguished, the image of Jesse Jackson became a constant, flickering blur in Los Angeles.
Trailed by television cameras and a gaggle of reporters who were frequently updated on his schedule, he traversed Los Angeles from dawn to midnight. Turn on the television news and there was Jesse Jackson praying with victims of the riots at an Inglewood hospital, preaching in a predominantly white church in Pasadena, meeting with Korean merchants in Koreatown and talking with Arsenio Hall.
Yes, everyone in Los Angeles knew Jesse Jackson was here. But one question lingered for some: Why was he here?
Why was a minister from Chicago, who is fighting to get statehood for the District of Columbia, who heads a Washington-based political organization, touring a West Coast city before the arrival of the President and his leading Democratic challenger?
Was he here to bridge the chasm between different worlds, to calm tensions, to initiate the healing process between Korean-Americans, African-Americans and whites? Or was he here to garner publicity for himself, to highlight his organization and to raise funds?
Jackson has a knack for parachuting in at the world’s crisis spots--in Iraq with American hostages, in the Soviet Union during the fall of Communism or in South Africa in the final days of apartheid. And, wherever he lands, there are those who are inspired by his eloquence and there are those who are suspicious of his motives.
Jackson bristled during his visit when he was told that some residents asked if he were in Los Angeles out of genuine concern or opportunism. As he toured South Los Angeles in a rented Lincoln Town Car, past the charred remains of buildings and graffiti denouncing whites and the police, he said the question was a racist one.
“Here I am, speaking to thousands and giving them hope . . . I shouldn’t have to deal with that question,” said Jackson, who arrived Thursday night. “You know, I went to jail many times during the civil rights days. . . . I have been in public leadership for 32 years. And if I still have to answer that question then the person who asks it has a problem.
“That’s somebody else’s question, from another part of town . . . and it has racist assumptions. That’s not a question they’re asking in Watts.”
It is true that at the Praises of Zion Baptist Church in South-Central Los Angeles nobody asked why Jackson was there for the Sunday service. They lined up outside, packed the church, cheered when he arrived and responded with wild enthusiasm to his every rhetorical question, his every metaphor.
At Praises of Zion, and many other African-American churches and groups he visited during his four days in Los Angeles, he called for an end to the violence and discussed the ramifications of the Rodney G. King verdicts. But he often avoided the specifics.
When talking to black groups and churches he did not directly address the tensions between the Korean-American and African-American communities here, an issue that was critical for many in the tense days after the riots.
But instead of discussing this issue with African-American audiences, Jackson brought up, over and over again--in an apparent attempt to placate the Asian-American community--Japanese-American Kristi Yamaguchi, who won an Olympic skating gold medal. He talked about how unfair it was that her mother was placed in an internment camp during World War II.
While Korean-American businessmen were barricaded behind their stores, armed to the teeth, this constant reference to a Japanese-American figure skater and her mother, while poignant in other circumstances, often appeared irrelevant and contrived.
Much of what he said could have been said to crowds in New York or Birmingham or Seattle. Instead of addressing the increasing tensions during the past few years between the African-American and Jewish communities, Jackson repeatedly told a story about how Jews on a ship from Germany in 1939 were turned away from America and sent back to their deaths.
“You can only cover so much, you don’t have time for everything,” Jackson said. “Most people only have stories of their own tribe. With these stories I’m trying to build bridges between people.”
Jackson has faced skepticism for many years. Some white Americans just do not trust a black preacher who wears a gold-studded Rolex watch, colorful silk ties and well-tailored double-breasted suits, who constantly challenges conservative politicians and who has the audacity to run for President. Throughout the predominantly African-American areas of Southern California, however, Jackson was treated with a reverence and adoration few in the white world comprehend.
Martin Luther King Jr. once told Jackson that riots are “the voices of the unheard.” Jackson said he tries to give the unheard a more constructive voice. Many African-Americans who waited for Jackson outside radio station KLJH for hours on a hot weekend afternoon said he is the only one who can impart their point of view to mainstream America.
“People see the rioting and burning on TV, and that’s all they see,” said Ronald Franklin. “They don’t understand why people are burning stores in their own neighborhood and looting and all that. Jesse knows it. He lived it. He can explain it.”
And, at times, Jackson attempted to do this. But whether he addressed a packed crowd in a sweltering African-American church, parishioners at an Episcopal Church in Pasadena or a large crowds outside a South Los Angeles radio station, he gave essentially the same speech.
Sections of the speech he has been giving for more than four years, since the Democratic National Convention. Most of what he said dealt with general issues of racial inequality and the need to rebuild urban America; some comments were tailored to the King verdicts.
By the end of Jackson’s stay, his catch phrases, like those of a man running for office, had become numbingly familiar: “The King verdict was the caboose on a long train of abuse. . . . We must go from pain to partnership, not pain to polarization. . . . Keep hope alive, rebuild America.”
Jackson heads the National Rainbow Coalition, which he founded in 1983 to increase voter registration among the poor, minorities and the working class. Today the Rainbow, as he calls it, is involved in a number of political pursuits, and Jackson is being touted as the first senator if Washington attains statehood. But Jackson always makes time to address the nation’s latest crisis.
In an attempt to reach out to Los Angeles’ white community, Jackson said, he addressed an overflowing crowd at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena on Sunday morning. His style was heartfelt, but low-key, similar to his fund-raising approach at the church.
“I can’t do the kind of preaching I do on a Bush grant,” he tells a group of parishioners who gathered in a church meeting room after the services. “We need your help to support the Rainbow Coalition.”
While Jackson was cheered during his sermon, some outside the church were skeptical. Richard Hansen, who waited with hundreds of people for a glimpse of Jackson, said: “I was curious about his appearance. But you still have to wonder if he’s here to help or to get votes for 1996.”
Before Jackson spoke at Praises of Zion Baptist Church, the church reverend spent several minutes pushing for donations to the Rainbow Coalition, asking for at least $100, calling out the names of clergymen he wanted to write checks immediately. In the wake of almost $1 billion worth of damage in their community, Jackson was asked if it was unseemly to ask parishioners to make, at great sacrifice, donations to a nationwide organization.
“There are differences in traditions between how different cultures fund-raise,” he said while he was backstage, preparing for his appearance on the “Arsenio Hall Show.” “Some religions do it the traditional way: They work out a budget and make plans. I came out here on faith.
“We don’t get honorariums. These ministers sponsored our coming. Some ministers take care of our car, others handle the hotel. That’s the way we sustain ourselves.”
After the fund-raising, Jackson gave a sermon that was similar in substance to his early address at the Episcopal church in Pasadena but decidedly different in style. This was the charismatic Jackson people waited three hours in a hot church to see. He made his points with a pounding fist, dragging out his words, sweating and bobbing behind the podium, his voice rising and falling and then thundering, bringing everyone to their feet, shouting and clapping.
Many at the church said they wanted him in Los Angeles because he could express their feelings, their motivations, their side of the story. And because, when Jesse Jackson appears on the scene, people listen.
In the days of reflection following the unrest, many see African-Americans as the perpetrators, Jackson said. He sees them as the victims. Others call the unrest “a riot"; Jackson calls it “a rebellion.” Politicians talk of Peter Ueberroth, appointed to head Los Angeles’ rebuilding effort, as a savior; Jackson said that he should share the power with a panel of African-Americans, women, Latinos and Asians.
And while many in middle America view the looting, the burning and the beating as simply criminal acts, and speak of personal responsibility, Jackson talks of political abandonment.
“This is the logical conclusion of 12 years of abandonment from the Reagan and Bush years,” he said. “There is a connection between neglect, resentment and reaction . . . What we saw was a kind of spontaneous combustion, and you can’t have spontaneous combustion without discarded materials. And what you find in urban areas is people who have been discarded for a long time. They finally exploded.”
While Jackson tries to give a voice to the views of the poor, the neglected, the disenfranchised, he also tries to tell African-Americans that last week’s violence was not the answer. “Seize the power,” he tells high school students, church members, television viewers and radio listeners. And the way to do that, he tells them, is to register to vote.
Jackson is currently working with a coalition of progressive members of Congress, he said, to focus attention on the need for immediate fiscal aid to urban America. The legislators, he said, have agreed to push for aid to American cities in bills that offer financial assistance to Russian republics or relief for the Savings and Loan industry.
On Tuesday, during his last day in Los Angeles, Jackson’s hectic schedule began at 3:45 a.m. for an appearance on “Good Morning America,” followed by another full day of speeches and visits. At dusk, Jackson was on his way to a radio station for an interview, a chat with singer Stevie Wonder and a telephone call from Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who was in Santa Barbara.
“When this verdict was announced I knew it had a lot of serious ramifications for this country,” Jackson said. “I knew this was a defining moment for our era.”
And, as he has proved so many times in the past, whenever there is a defining moment in modern history, Jesse Jackson plans to be there. With his staff notifying the press, well in advance.