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As Change Again Overtakes Compton, So Do Tensions : Community: Latino plurality seeks power. A generation after winning it, blacks find bias charges a bitter pill.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three decades ago, Compton’s African American majority ousted the city’s entrenched white leadership in a heated battle that reflected the social tumult of the 1960s.

For a time, the tough city in south Los Angeles County was the most populous community west of the Mississippi where blacks held political sway, a national symbol of political empowerment despite its persistent poverty. Here, refugees from the Jim Crow South acquired their piece of the American Dream, using the ballot box to overcome discrimination.

Now, a grainy video image of a black police officer beating a Latino teen-ager has given impetus to cries for a new political revolution.

This time, those alleging discrimination are Latinos--now the presumed majority in an extraordinary demographic shift after the massive emigration from Mexico and Central America that accelerated in the early 1980s. The much-publicized allegations of racial prejudice have galvanized Latinos’ demands for power in a city where blacks have a lock on city government, a beleaguered school system and most municipal jobs.

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“This is racism perpetuated by one minority group against another,” said Pedro Pallan, a 60-year-old baker and unsuccessful council candidate who has been one of the most outspoken Latino advocates.

The uproar has created a besieged atmosphere in City Hall, polarized black and Latino leaders whose constituents have generally enjoyed cordial relations, and left African Americans in the ironic position of responding to allegations of discrimination.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” said Police Chief Hourie L. Taylor, who is black. His 125-officer department, at the vortex of the swirling controversy, includes 14 Latinos.

Compton’s embattled black leadership has responded angrily to the challenge, dismissing allegations of discrimination while characterizing Latino activists as a self-serving clique of non-resident merchants.

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“I see this as a well-constructed attempt to utilize the historical implications of the African American civil rights movement for the benefit of a few people, who in fact probably don’t even consider themselves nonwhite,” said Mayor Omar Bradley, a 36-year-old high school English teacher and Compton native. “This is really all about power and privilege.”

The black-brown dispute may provide a glimpse into the potential for future political upheaval in many Southern California communities where immigration has drastically altered the demographic mix. Compton is one test case in the politics of the new Southland, an indication of bumpy times ahead as newcomers’ demands clash with established power blocs resistant to change.

Yet, despite the supercharged rhetoric, some see an opportunity for cooperation and coalition-building.

“People need to have a more inclusionary, larger political vision,” said Joe R. Hicks, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, an African American civil rights group. “This is really an issue of poor folks struggling over jobs and opportunities. . . . Unless you have a vision of human relations as quite inclusionary, you end up circling the wagons, and lobbing hand grenades at each other in what is seen as racial or ethnic interest. We all lose in that scenario.”

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Even some African American clerics and others in Compton have called on politicians to open up their city to Latinos.

“We are today the entrenched group trying to keep out intruders, just as whites were once the entrenched group and we were the intruders,” said the Rev. William R. Johnson Jr., pastor of Curry Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Spearheading the call for political change is a vocal group of Latino leaders, mostly merchants, who have formed Latinos United Coalition of Compton, headed by Pallan, a longtime activist who has the most political experience. Also included in the organization are a grocery store owner, a juice shop operator, a real estate investor and a lawyer. Participants meet in the back room of a Mexican restaurant to discuss strategy, assisted by national Latino groups.

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Latinos are pressing several demands, including creation of a civilian board to review police behavior, a federal investigation into racial and ethnic conflict in the city, and establishment of an affirmative action and job-training program targeted toward increasing Latino participation.

Black officials have tended to paint the coalition as “outside agitators,” in the words of several top city officials.

Arnulfo Alatorre, one of the coalition leaders, acknowledges that he resides in nearby Downey, but adds that his Compton grocery store has been in business for years and that he lived in Compton for most of his life. He and other commuting businessmen view their presence in Compton as crucial to a city with high unemployment and a low tax base.

But Alatorre and his allies face a major hurdle. The vast majority of Latinos are believed to be non-citizens and therefore unable to vote in elections dominated by the black middle class, including many civic-minded elderly who migrated from the South.

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Meanwhile, Latino coalition members, mostly U.S.-born and middle class, are more politically advanced than the immigrant population whom they seek to represent.

Among new immigrants, major concerns tend to focus on providing for families in an environment rife with gang warfare and street crime, and ensuring that their children get good educations in a school system lacking bilingual personnel and troubled by clashes between black and Latino high school students.

“It’s like we live only to live,” said Graciela Munoz, a mother of seven from Mexico, who was having an impromptu birthday celebration for a daughter at a fast-food emporium. “One feels useless; we’re unable to participate.”

For black leaders, that lack of participation is the true culprit--not institutional discrimination by the African American power structure.

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“What does the African American do to empower them (Latinos) when it’s constitutionally illegal (for non-citizens to vote)?” asks Bradley. He sees his city caught in what he calls a virtual open-door immigration policy that is beyond local control. “As they continue to come, schools become crowded, (and) dwindling resources in cities such as Compton become more sparse. Animosity and friction (are) the natural product of these things, and that’s what we’re seeing.”

The 1990 census indicated that blacks made up 55% of Compton’s population of 93,500; Latinos accounted for 42%. Many believe that Latinos now represent a majority.

This diversity is hardly represented in City Hall, where several departments are almost entirely African American. Bradley and three of the four City Council members are black; the other is white. The mayor estimates that perhaps 10-15% of the city work force of 600 is Latino, while up to 80% is black--a fact that he and others attribute not to racism, but to low turnover among blacks and a longtime paucity of Latino applicants.

Outraged at being labeled bigots, city leaders see sinister forces behind the sudden public focus on the lack of Latino representation. They cite the cases of Huntington Park and other nearby, longtime overwhelmingly Latino cities that were run until recently by white minorities who seldom faced such scrutiny.

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“Black people are more vulnerable to criticism because we are held to a higher standard,” said City Atty. Legrand Clegg.

However, demands for change come even from Latinos respected by Clegg and other black leaders, such as Gorgonio Sanchez, a longtime Compton resident who, as a member of the school board, is the city’s only elected Latino official.

“They (blacks) have been in power for too long and they are in denial of the fact that they are no longer the majority,” Sanchez said.

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Compton developed rapidly after World War II as a bedroom community. Tract homes built on the westside of town were open to blacks, making it one of the few suburbs where African Americans could own homes. The town remained strictly segregated: blacks clustered to the west, whites in the less densely populated eastside.

The 1965 civil unrest in nearby Watts helped break the pattern of white domination. Soon fleeing in large numbers were whites, and to a lesser extent, Mexican Americans.

By 1968, the power balance had shifted. Blacks gained control of the council and school board. African Americans also supplanted whites in jobs at City Hall and in the schools. Black leaders say this was a natural transition, as few whites or Latinos wanted to work in Compton, which was increasingly stigmatized as a high-crime, black city mired in poverty.

The city began changing again in the 1980s as the wave of immigration via the U.S.-Mexico border gained momentum. These new immigrants found Compton a convenient stop, with cheap rents and access to the then-booming Los Angeles job market. Signs in Spanish are proliferating along Compton streets; taquerias have replaced barbecue joints.

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Compton’s growing racial tensions might never have received national prominence if a resident had not videotaped black police Officer Michael Jackson beating 17-year-old Felipe Soltero on July 29.

Many blacks joined Latinos in condemning a Police Department that, critics say, too often relies on heavy-handed tactics against members of all races. (The killings of two Samoan brothers shot by a Compton police officer in 1991 prompted Samoan representatives to charge police brutality.)

“It could have just as easily been a black man who was beaten like that,” said Vicky D. Lindsey, an African American who was among those protesting recently outside City Hall.

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The police chief and other black leaders generally reacted cautiously to the videotape, reserving judgment on the officer’s actions but downplaying potential racial motivations. They were enraged when Latino activists compared the incident to the beating that Rodney G. King suffered at the hands of white Los Angeles Police Department officers.

“There is no outstanding history of black people beating Latinos,” Bradley said. “Show me where one black man has burned a cross on a Latino’s lawn.”

But Latino leaders say the mayor himself has engaged in provocative hyperbole--when he denounced Latinos for their lack of a public apology for Colonial-era Spaniards’ involvement in the slave trade.

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Among Compton’s Latinos, perhaps nothing inflames passions as much the school system.

About 59% of the 29,000-pupil student body is Latino (compared to 39% black), yet only 5% of certified teachers are Latino (almost 72% are black).

African Americans occupy most administrative posts in the district, which was taken over by the state last year amid financial difficulties, persistently low test scores and widespread allegations of mismanagement. Some black leaders have expressed open hostility to bilingual education--which many immigrant parents call a vital concern.

“I’m afraid there are children who aren’t even learning to read or write because they don’t understand English,” said Concepcion Favela, a Mexican immigrant whose two children attend elementary school.

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Maria Espinoza, a 15-year-old student at Compton High School, bemoans what she calls a misguided curriculum. “I know more about Africa than I do about my own culture, about Mexico,” said Espinoza, who participated in one of the recent protests outside City Hall.

School administrators say they are doing the best they can.

Supt. Harold L. Cebrun blamed state textbooks for a lack of emphasis on Mexican culture and expressed a desire for more Spanish-speaking staff. “I’d be stupid to tell you I’m happy with the number of bilingual teachers,” Cebrun said.

Leaders of both races have expressed fears that the present tensions could carry over this fall to the city’s high schools, where brawls between African American and Latino students last year disrupted learning.

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Hoping to head off trouble, city officials and religious leaders have scheduled a “unity” rally for today.

“We want to calm this down,” said Father Marquis Clif, a priest at Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic parish.

But the rally itself underlines community divisions. Representatives of the activist Latino coalition call the event a city-orchestrated effort to divert attention from Latino non-representation.

“They can have all the rallies they want, but it doesn’t mean anything until they recognize there’s a problem,” said Lorraine Cervantes, a Latino coalition supporter. “Blacks are doing the same thing to Latinos that was done to them.”

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Even amid Compton’s highly charged atmosphere, there is some recognition that ways must be found to accommodate the city’s new majority, though that could mean weakening hard-won African American control.

“All of our wishing and all of our praying is not going to make these people (Latinos) go anyplace else,” said Johnson, who has preached inclusion to his mostly African American congregation. “They are here, they’re part of the community, so why not treat them like a part of the community?”

Compton Profile

Here is a look at the city of Compton:

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* Ethnic background: City officials say Latinos now make up a majority of the population. According to the latest official figures, the city is 55% black, 42% Latino, 1.8% Asian or Pacific Islander, 1% white, and 0.5% American Indian. But officials say Latinos were drastically undercounted.

* Full-time city employees, including police and fire (1992-93): 529. Ethnic background: 78.07% black, 10.78% Latino, 7.75% white, 3.21% Asian/Pacific Islander.

* Police force: 125 officers. Ethnic background: 73 blacks, 34 whites, 14 Latinos, 4 others.

* Compton Unified School District: Ethnic background of students: 59% Latino, 39% black, 2% other.

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* Registered voters: 34,243; 17.98% voted in June primary.

* Median income: $25,699. Median value, single-family home in 1990: $108,000.


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