On a peaceful Monday night, hundreds gathered at Cal State Los Angeles for the premiere of a new movie about the late Mayor Tom Bradley, honoring his barrier-breaking past. But the present hung over the event like a shroud.
The movie was suffused with racial strife, marked by footage of the Watts riots, which began 50 years ago Tuesday, and the 1992 South Los Angeles firestorm that occurred during the waning months of Bradley's epic 20-year tenure as the city's first — and so far, only — African American mayor. Both were sparked by conflict between law enforcement and African American males.
By eerie coincidence, the theater preview took place as violence threatened a suburb of St. Louis on the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, another African American man whose killing by a police officer unleashed protests nationwide last year.
"As I speak, there is a state of emergency in Ferguson," Cal State Los Angeles President William A. Covino acknowledged at the start of the Bradley celebration.
It seemed like nothing had changed. And that made the movie's title seem almost painful: "Bridging the Divide."
It's convenient for California to see itself as distant from the civil rights struggles of the past, a place better than the South, where African Americans endured so much violence. But here there was violence of other sorts, as the movie reminded.
Tom Bradley, an athlete and UCLA graduate, a Los Angeles Police Department officer, was unable to buy a home for his family because of race restrictions, was unable to advance in his job because of the racism of Chief William Parker, was unable to succeed in his first mayoral election because Mayor Sam Yorty convinced voters that electing the distinguished and fiscally conservative Bradley would turn the city over to black radicals. (Not insignificantly, the city's police and fire forces essentially threatened to quit en masse if he was elected.)
To see the work of filmmakers Lyn Goldfarb and Alison Sotomayor is to see anew how fresh our history is — Bradley's first mayoral campaign was in 1969 — and how undiminished are the problems then and now, here and in places like Ferguson.
In an era where the term "income inequality" is bandied about as the new hot political topic, there is no place where things are more unequal, and have been for so long, than the inner cities. And there is no place where the problems are more likely to defy solutions.
At the start of a question-and-answer session with panelists who had worked with Bradley or — in the case of his daughter Lorraine, lived with him — an audience member rose to ask: Why do we wait for cities to explode before we deal with their problems?
"It's not like it's not predictable," the man said. "All the symptoms are out there, and yet we wait until something happens."
Panelist Maria Elena Durazo, the longtime local labor leader who served as an airport commissioner under Bradley, took a stab at an answer, noting that efforts persist to denude the Voting Rights Act and Head Start, among other relics of the 1960s.
"We make a big mistake in saying we've reached a level of success as far as rights or economic security and then we back off and we relax because we've reached that," she said. "If we don't always keep moving forward, then we've moved back."
Asked how her father would react to today's familiar conditions, Lorraine Bradley said he would be "sad."
"People aren't listening to each other, they're just screaming," she said. "You can't get anything done unless people sit down and want to listen to the other side of the issue so that you come together and come up with solutions."
Not everything is as bad as it was, to be sure. As former Los Angeles Councilman and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky reminded the audience, the LAPD that once came at the African American community like an invading force has altered its ways. That is in no small part due to changes pushed through by Bradley and others after the 1992 riots.
"The Police Department is not perfect," Yaroslavsky said, "but it's far better than it was 20 years ago, thanks to his efforts and his [police] commission's efforts."
But the manufacturing plants that used to serve as a ladder into the middle class have vanished from central Los Angeles, so too have many of the government jobs that served as another path up. The remaking of Los Angeles into a polyglot place has added more competition for jobs and — as in the case of the 1992 conflict, played out in part against Korean shopkeepers — potential for tension.
Labor organizers and others have worked to make disparate ethnicities into collaborators instead of competitors — a move Durazo said is the only way of preventing more violence.
"We can't hold off another 1992 rebellion unless we really use that strength and that coalition to address the poverty and the other issues of racism in our community," she said.
To react to the film celebrating Tom Bradley's life was to hold two competing thoughts: that his tenure in office mattered hugely, and that huge vulnerabilities remain in the city he loved, and in the country as well.
"These are long-standing, simmering issues that have manifested themselves anew across the length and breadth of this nation," said another panel participant, County Supervisor and former Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. "It is unsettling, to put it mildly."
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