By Bill Boyarsky
While Occupy Wall Street and similar movements around the country take aim at financial institutions and their political cronies for taking the country into recession, let’s not forget those at the very bottom who were victims of economic depression long before the current collapse.
Connie Rice, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney, writes about their plight in a powerful new book, “Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America, From the Courtroom to the Kill Zones.” She tells the story of how she and her colleagues have worked to free poor neighborhoods of the evils of gang killings, police brutality, poorly run schools and bad health. They are doing it in a civil rights organization with a hands-on approach called the Advancement Project.
“Our experts fret over a Great Recession but ignore the permanent Great Depression beneath their penthouses,” Rice writes.
Recalling Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for a radical restructuring of our society, Rice says his dream “barely survives 40 years of Southern Strategy race baiting, wrecking-ball destruction of safety nets, failure of public institutions, unhinged greed from our banking and financial sectors, a caste of American untouchables abandoned to prisons and an underground economy increasingly dominated by gangs that grow in power and reach.”
“It was the mission [of the Advancement Project] to make sure our poorest kids also reached the mountaintop that Martin Luther King Jr. glimpsed right before he died—and to sound the alarm that the final cost of their chronic destitution would be our own destruction,” she writes.
After reading the book, I visited the Advancement Project, a few miles north of a gang-heavy neighborhood. A major program is the Urban Peace Academy, where former gang members learn the difficult art of working with current gang members and their families, police officers and community members. The goal is to prevent murders and other violence.
I interviewed Fernando Rejon, manager of the academy. He told me how the gang workers, whose pay is provided by the city of Los Angeles and a number of foundations, are selected and trained.
The academy, Rejon said, “looks for motivation, an overall ability to learn.” Gangs are as segregated as Los Angeles itself, and “we keep things balanced between black and brown,” he said. Speaking of Los Angeles’ neighborhoods, he said, “you have different nations.”
One series of classes is on post-traumatic stress disorder, which afflicts gang members and the cops who are pitted against them. Ethnic dynamics are explored. Conflict resolution is a major topic, including how to handle things when gang members follow someone into a hospital emergency room, seeking to administer sympathy or revenge.
After completing the course, graduates use various techniques in the field. “Some have enough of a rep to get people to stand down,” Rejon said. “Or they talk to a mother [of a gang member] informally.” The idea is to delay.
“The more time passes, things slow down,” he said. The gang workers have a message: “I can help you change your life and find your way out of this.”
As for the gang workers’ feeling about their jobs, one told Rejon, “I put my life on the line for negatives, now I am putting it on the line for positives.”
In addition, the academy trains police officers, with the goal of putting 200 supervisors from the Police and Sheriff’s departments into the most violent gang neighborhoods.
How successful is the effort? Crime is down despite the recession, but nobody really knows why. Gang violence has declined in areas around parks where the gang workers and the city cooperated with local communities in a program called Summer Night Lights to make the parks safe. Rejon said there was a 57 percent drop in homicides in such parks.
The effort requires intensive work on the streets, in government buildings and with corporate-backed foundations on behalf of what Rice calls “the invisible L.A.,” a population that wins little public support.
The Occupy movement has focused attention on many issues that are related, including rapacious and overpaid bankers, jobs, corporate chicanery, a stacked political system, and an economy in which 1 percent hold most of the wealth. Rice writes about neighborhoods where the impact of these evils is felt strongly. The victims are people such as “Pygmy,” a 9-year-old boy she encountered in South Los Angeles.
“Tell the lady what you do for a livin’,” said a gang member who employed him. “I kill,” Pygmy said. “See,” the gang member told Rice. “Pygmy do the job and go to juvi. Leave us free.”
“How had we allowed sociopaths to twist a child into a robotic killer?” Rice asks. “What kind of toxic indifference had spawned this outrage? It should not have been possible—not anywhere in the richest country the planet has ever known.”
Rice’s book, completed before the emergence of Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots, serves as an invaluable guide to activists pressing forward for social change in the inner cities and elsewhere.
AP / Thomas Watkins
Residents hang out at the basketball court at Algin Sutton Recreation Center in South Los Angeles. The center is included in the city’s Summer Night Lights program aimed at reducing gang violence.