The Uncomfortable Truths of Compton

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a staff writer at the LA Weekly

On June 5, Compton elected itself a new mayor, which means we will no longer have to read about the misadventures of Omar Bradley, the controversial Compton leader who, in his 10 years as mayor, managed to set local black politics back another 20. During Bradley's tenure, Compton became the stage for a kind of running political theater of the absurd, a tragicomedy of ever-greater legal and ethical transgressions. This is not how it was supposed to be.

Back when he first ran in 1991, the young and outspoken Bradley cast himself as a new breed of black leader who could dramatically alter the faltering course of one of the region's few remaining significantly black enclaves. In the end, though, choked by his own myopic ambitions and determination to prevail at any cost, Bradley wound up doing very little to distinguish himself from the worst impulses of the old breed.

The story of Compton is a complicated and cautionary tale, and, despite steady reports of high drama, it is a tale that's never really been told. One reason for this is the ambivalent, even condescending, way the media cover black communities. Bradley got lots of attention because he was a stock, recognizable black character of the '90s--streetwise, trash-talking and combative, a political incarnation of rogue rap mogul and fellow Comptonite Suge Knight. His antics--forcing out the police chief who crossed him, having aides taste his food before he ate it, calling for an investigation of Spanish-surname voters--were always good for a quick "wild-and-wacky-Omar" piece. Bradley was entertaining: Compton and its civic and social ills were not. Bradley coverage was very nearly a thing unto itself, with Compton a mere backdrop to the real show.

Race influenced the way the story was treated in another way as well. Comptonites have long grumbled that if some of the more outrageous and patently illegal things that have gone on in Compton had happened nearly anywhere else in Southern California--Beverly Hills, Redondo Beach, West Hollywood--the Justice Department would have come in and shut down the city. Newspapers and television stations would have dedicated substantial resources to full-fledged investigations. Compton was more an interesting diversion, something to be observed, not addressed. Whether from an excess of caution about stepping on black toes or some other misguided notion of ethnic protocol, it's essentially racist to feel that a town populated by black and brown people doesn't merit serious analysis and investigation. Because of this, Compton, despite being in the news more often than other local cities its size, never occasioned much outrage and so allowed Bradley to operate unchecked.

Folks in town say the rest of the county wrote them off long ago, repeatedly dismissing their troubles with "It's only Compton." But that's only a fraction of the problem. There is also the more painful issue of how things escaped the scrutiny of the community that saw it all on a daily basis, the issue of how and why black people did not enforce accountability among themselves and had not for a long time. Bradley's greatest contribution was that his oppressive presence advertised not just his own failure of leadership, but also that of everyone else.

Between Bradley's iron grip and the dubious history of black governance in general, confidence in change was hard to come by. Even in the last year, with activism at a record high, Compton didn't always believe in itself. In the end, it looked to a higher power for help. It took a Christian crusade to run the thief out of the temple: Mayor-elect Eric Perrodin, a Catholic, got much of his support from a coalition of Compton clergy that officially acknowledged there could be no real accountability with Omar in office. The coalition was a productive twist on piety, something often abused in black politics. Whenever things got bumpy for Omar, he was quick to remind his public that he was a man of faith. This was hardly original. Religion and politics are a traditional but increasingly uneasy combination in black communities; everybody from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to disgraced ex-Compton Mayor Walter Tucker Jr. (now an ex-con) invokes God and ultimate justice when they run afoul of the law or of public good will. Sanctimony is a big impediment to holding black leaders accountable, and the lay version--casting the most self-serving acts as sacrifice and progress for the long-suffering black community--is an even bigger one. Appealing to ethnic, family and spiritual solidarity, however hypocritical, remains powerful; that a significant number of Compton pastors overcame their own uncertainties to side with a white Catholic priest and Latinos with whom they have virtually no history is more than encouraging. It is, dare I say it, progress. And the progress is ironically sweet because of its catalyst: It was Bradley--whose inflammatory statements and pathological unwillingness to share power with the city's emerging Latino majority soured black-brown relations in Compton--who brought Latinos and blacks together as they united to vote him out of office.

And that was not the only good news. The most heartening revelation of the election was that people in Compton still care, that they have stayed vested in a place many of them could have left long ago. The media may have acted like the city didn't matter, but they have been proved more than wrong. Many people in Compton have roots going back 40 years or more, and for them, caring about the fate of Compton is not heroic or extraordinary--it is necessary. The citizenry was genuinely upset when Omar led his charge against the Compton Police Department last summer. The force didn't hire its first black cop until the early '60s, and since then had been a particular point of local pride. Over the police and other issues, people evidenced the kind of concern that we all believed was pretty much gone from Compton, but that is simply assumed in communities with less baggage and greater fortune. All of which means that while Compton's civic boosters may not consider themselves heroes, they are heroic, and at least as noteworthy as their larger-than-life mayor. Their story, destined to be ignored, was always the real story of Compton.

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