April 25, 2005
Would this be a better world if we didnt have lawyers
and politicians among us, or people who think theyre
better than others and use physical violence or political
finesse to try and prove it?
This is the story of people who cant get along, the
differences between the 90210s of the world (thats
code for Beverly Hills) and the 90011s (the poor Latino
and Black neighborhoods 40 blocks south of downtown Los Angeles).
From L.A. to Great Britain and of course, the oldest saga
of hate and violence, in the Middle East, they all share common
trait What prompts this discussion is the realization that
while we are again having a vigorous debate in the U.S. about
illegal immigration, we are not alone. At the same time, Great
Britain is trying to close its borders to prevent its version
of the unwanted: Indians, Asians, and refugees from anywhere.
There have also been hateful protests in China against Japanese,
including those extorting their public officials to kill Japanese
people. And of course, in the most diverse city in America,
Los Angeles, there is new evidence that we just cant
Kids will always be kids, especially as they go through puberty
and feel the frustrations of finding their own identity, and
of looking or feeling like freaks. From bad hair days, pimples,
and trying to figure out the opposite sex, kids in Urban Americas
high schools today also have to deal with class status. The
real irony is that even among poor people, there are fights
over class status.
Sometimes it is about skin color, language, or whether someone
can afford to wear $100-pairs of shoes, $50-shirts or jackets,
etc. There seem to be rules and standards everywhere for looking
cool. It happened when I was in high school and certainly
when you dragged yourself through the humiliation that grades
nine to twelve reserves for all of us.
However, it seems some people have forgotten the ugly ritual
of growing up and competing for attention and affection in
high school and the fact that violence is very much a part
of that experience. It always has been a part, whether it
was hazing, or proving that one person is tougher than the
This all brings me to the great trouble I am having with
how the media and politicians are dealing with the recent
Latino and Black clashes at one of the oldest schools in L.A.,
Thomas Jefferson High School. The school and the community
it serves sit about two miles south of the tall buildings
of L.A.s downtown, immediately west of the Alameda Corridor
that straddles the industrial areas of L.A., South Gate and
Vernon, and that move thousands of ship containers from the
ports to the rest of America.
Its an area with a violent history, where the Black
Panthers of the 1960s and the LAPD had an infamous shootout
at 41st Street and Central Avenue. Its also the area
of another famous shootout between LAPD and the group that
kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst 31 years ago, the
Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA as the media called them.
For generations, this was strictly a Black community. But
like the rest of South L.A., the Black population has flowed
out and the Latino masses have flowed in. If you didnt
know the history of this area, you would think large parts
of it resemble a Little Tijuana. Spanish is the coin of the
realm and that appears to be part of the problem at Jefferson
Last week, some ugly fighting broke out between kids at Jeff.
Fights are a part of growing up in tough neighborhoods. The
fights are, and always have been, about some perverse validation
of manhood, and of course, status. The status of proving youre
better than the next guy, smarter, tougher, richer, better
looking, more sexually active, you name it and kids will try
to prove theyre the best at it. But it isnt just
racial fighting. It happens in white schools too.
That is life in the communities where housing projects are
old, poverty reigns, illiteracy controls success, and gangs
make the rules. We expect the police to stop the violence
and drugs that the gangs breed, and generally expect parents
to pick up their share of the burden.
But the media reaction to the latest fights at Jefferson
High have been about race, about the friction that having
Latinos and Blacks coexist in close quarters brings out, and
about how there is no limit to the ways in which politicians
and other headline seekers will stoop to exploit a situation.
The Jefferson High story is about a lot more than race. Its
mostly about the one-upmanship that is an organic part of
being 14 to 18 years old. That, however, hasnt stopped
the ugliness that only adults can bring to this story. After
the first fight, LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, the Boston Brawler,
showed up and declared that his depat-ment (in
his Boston brogue) would not tolerate violence in schools.
That approach, of course, had not been approved by the chief
of the L.A. SCHOOL Police, Alan Kerstein, whose ego is rivaled
only by that of Boston Bill. When the second fight took place,
and a students leg was broken, the LAPD Chief was nowhere
to be found. There should never have been a second problem.
Chief Brattons troops should have handled it but since
he was on his way to another one of his legendary out-of-town
trips, in an apparent attempt to break former Mayor Sam Yortys
travel record, but Boston Bill dropped the ball. Meanwhile,
the politically wounded L.A. Mayor, Jim Hahn, who appears
ready to have his clock cleaned on Election Day, showed up
for the photo opportunity at Jefferson, and not having his
police chief handy to lean on, declared HE should have legal
control over the schools.
Keep in mind that this is a mayor whose administration is
knee-deep in state and federal investigations and who has
had some of his closest allies, including deputy mayors and
airport commissioners, resign in shame. Hahn also took advantage
of the public relations services, speech-writing, coaching,
etc., from a national communications firm that was being paid
by the citys Water and Power department to convince
ratepayers they should pay more for their water and power.
The Mayor is in a death spiral fight with a councilman who
has been in a few tough scrapes himself, but in the political
sense, when he was the speaker of the state legislatures
Assembly. Antonio Villaraigosa doesnt hesitate to remind
voters that the incumbent lacks energy and focus and has delivered
on very few of the promises he made four years ago.
The Mayor has been a hard guy to find until the election
season. But as the son of a legendary politico in the Black
community, and brother of a smarmy sister who as a councilmember
displays all the hallmarks of her father, Jim Hahn will fight
to the end to keep his family legacy alive and save his job.
He is what many call a two-fer in that he is both
and a lawyer and a lifetime politician.
Knowing the polls show him far behind in his bid to stay
alive politically, and knowing the public is unhappy about
the sad state of education in Los Angeles, Hahn showed up
at Jefferson High and started making promises. Politicians
are very good at that but Hahn has perfected the art.
At the same time, the LAPD Chief and his minions were trying
to stay clear of the place, letting the citys Human
Relations Commission and others develop solutions. So much
for the concept of the LAPD and its so-called community
But the Mayor, who keeps hammering the point that he deserves
re-election because HE brought East Coast police politics
to L.A., has now told the community around Jefferson High
that the LAPD WILL work with school police. Somebody better
track down the Boston Traveler and tell him that Mayor Jim
is telling everyone that Brattons depat-ment
will clean up the Jefferson mess.
Mayor Hahn is also chortling that HE wants the power to appoint
nearly half of the members of the L.A. Board of Education.
Ah, that thirst for raw political power NEVER dies. It always
lives like a virus in some sick politician who will go anywhere,
promise anything, and demand compliance from his Boston Brawler
to try and save his political patronage. Unfortunately for
Hahn, Bill Bratton is gone from the city on his world travels
more between 20 and 25% of the time. It must be nice to get
a full time salary for a part time job. It is also unfortunate
that gangsters and criminals work 24/7 while Bratton and his
troops work only three days a week.
For the poor people of South L.A., who lack not only economic
power, but political power as well, the night falls and another
day of hopelessness and gang violence starts the cycle all
In the mean time, kids will fight because kids do that, and
race isnt always the issue. But the media will report
it that way because it sells, and politicians and chiefs of
police will do their double talking. And in the final analysis,
it doesnt matter whether people are tired of illegal
immigrants from Mexico, India, or the West Bank of the Jordan
River, and whether the thugs are Palestinians, Crips, or Bloods,
the lawyers and the politicians, from here to Kingdom Come,
will ride in and take control.
They wont bring any lasting peace. But theyll
buy time because they known these types of problems will ebb
and flow, unsophisticated people will trust their elected
officials for a while, and kids will be kids. Some more young
people will get hurt at Jefferson High or other schools in
L.A. or anywhere you have explosive mixes of uneducated kids
with high levels of testosterone and unbridled enthusiasm
and that thirst for status and getting their way.
Some more kids will die, either in the streets around the
schools, or from the environment where they were raised and
used by politicians, lawyers, and chiefs of police for their
own selfish promotion and election.
Politicians are a lot like high school kids. They have no
shame, think they are invincible, they always want to be at
the top of the recognition heap, and they will do anything
and use anyone for their own gain. And the media will only
report the promises made and pronounce the establishment of
new dialogue as the end of the story
the next fight on campus or the next taking of a young life
by someone possessed with that unquenchable thirst for power