Thursday, February 18, 2016

Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race (PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago, after KPBS showed the Independent Lens documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, they showed another film that took some of the same events and ran them through a very different historical and ideological future: Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race. The film’s focus is on former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, son of sharecroppers from Texas; he was born in 1917 and when he was seven his family moved to Los Angeles because it was a burgeoning community and the Bradleys thought they could make a better living in California and also encounter less race prejudice. They were largely right about the first and largely wrong about the second, though the institutionalized racism of the Los Angeles Police Department and their notorious habit of stopping people in the Black community for no particular reason and harassing them[1] didn’t deter Bradley himself, looking for a career as a young man, from joining the LAPD in 1940. Quite the contrary: he said later he always thought of himself as a change agent who would work from inside the department to change its attitudes. Bradley served 21 years in the LAPD and rose to the rank of lieutenant, but his further promotion to the rank of captain was apparently forestalled by the department’s openly racist chief, William Parker, who reportedly told an aide that the captain’s rank would never go to “one of them.” Parker had been hired as Los Angeles chief of police in 1950 to get rid of the department’s chronic corruption — as part of his campaign he demanded, and received, totally independent power to the point where even the mayor and city council couldn’t fire him except for “cause” (which remained a prerogative of the L.A. police chief until the Christopher Commission reforms were adopted late in Bradley’s mayoralty after the devastating 1992 Los Angeles riots). Like J. Edgar Hoover similarly cleaning up a corrupt FBI a quarter-century earlier, Parker carefully constructed an image of himself as an incorruptible crime-fighter but also used the powers of his office to indulge his own racist prejudices to the max. In 1961 Bradley, running smack against the “glass ceiling” Parker had put in place to keep any Black officer from rising to the top echelons of the department, quit, and two years later he ran for the Los Angeles City Council and won. He did it by putting together a multi-racial coalition whose bulwarks were African-Americans and Jewish-Americans, but which also attracted support from the Latino and Asian communities as well as liberal whites. Bradley served on the City Council and did what he could until 1969, when L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty’s term was expiring and he was up for re-election. Bradley geared up his coalition and ran a hard-fought but above-board campaign.

The opposition was outright racist in a way almost no candidate for office in the U.S. would dare to be today (when racially biased “code words” are the order of the day so you can promote and promise racist policies while retaining the appearance of racial neutrality); Yorty’s campaign actually put out signs and leaflets saying, “Will Your Home Be Safe with Bradley as Mayor?” Bradley believed in the closing stages of the campaign that he had won — he’d forced Yorty into a runoff, itself a major political accomplishment — but he lost. Four years later he took on Yorty again in what filmmakers Lyn Goldfarb and Alison Sotomayor called a less “charged” time — between 1969 and 1973 the Viet Nam war had largely wound down, there were far fewer radical activists in the streets, and the police at all levels of government — national, state, local — were more concerned about the increase in the rate of common crimes than in shutting down political activity by a radical Left movement that by then had pretty much ceased to exist as a mass force. (This was largely because the ferocity of the repression directed against groups like the Black Panthers and white organizations like Students for a Democratic Society had been effective in discouraging people from joining them, but also because the Left itself had become less hospitable and less effective. It had already begun its slow slide into social irrelevance with insane obsessions with political correctness and internal democracy that have hamstrung it ever since.) Bradley’s second run for Mayor occurred during a growing awareness among white Angelenos that their city’s ability to grow, develop and take advantage of the growing trade between the U.S. and Asian countries (including China, with which we had re-established relations in 1972) was being hamstrung by the old-fashioned good-ol’-boy leadership of people like Sam Yorty, who governed what had become the U.S.’s second-largest city (eclipsing the traditional “second city,” Chicago) as if it were still a Midwestern small town. (This is strange given that I live in San Diego, the U.S.’s sixth largest city and one that is still governed like a Midwestern small town, with a series of bland Republican mayors — Dick Murphy, Jerry Sanders and now Kevin Faulconer — who essentially give away the city to the business community; though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the city of San Diego, Democrats generally don’t contest the mayor’s race, and when they do they’re quickly driven out of office over their personal flaws.)

Bradley won in 1973 and governed as a moderate, building ties to L.A.’s business community and attempting to keep the city’s economy going through waves of deindustrialization, globalization and gentrification that were essentially attacking the city’s working and (eventually) middle classes. He managed to hold on to the mayoralty for 20 years, finally retiring in 1993 — and it was a measure of how much the Zeitgeist had changed that he was succeeded by Richard Riordan, a Republican businessman who’d never held elective office before and who won basically by selling himself as a competent manager. The main point Goldfarb and Sotomayor were making was that in putting together a multiracial coalition Bradley was anticipating Barack Obama’s strategy in his two Presidential campaigns, and though the connections between the various groups in Bradley’s coalition got strained over the years (the film shows a speech Louis Farrakhan gave in Los Angeles that was largely an attack on Jews, creating tension between the two largest and most politically effective groups in Bradley’s coalition), it was able to come together one last time to pass the Christopher Commission recommendations for reforming the LAPD as an amendment to the City Charter in 1993. Given the juxtaposition of this program with the one on the Black Panthers, it was hard to escape the connections between two groups of dedicated Black leaders, one led by a member of an older generation who saw the African-American community’s salvation as working within the system and bringing about change from the inside, and one by members of a younger generation who saw salvation in turning their backs on American democracy and rendering themselves virtually ungovernable in their dealings with authority.

If anything, watching The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race back-to-back is a depressing experience, since in today’s America the cops are, if anything, stepping up their level of unmotivated violence against the Black community, both in frequency and in severity. Incidents that once might have led to the cops hassling and arresting someone on the streets now all too often end with the cops shooting the Blacks and getting away with it. Electing a Black Mayor didn’t seem to stop the police violence against the Black communities; not even electing a Black President seemed to do it; and the confrontations the Panthers got involved in didn’t help either, since people outside the Black community still saw the police as “our friends” and the Panthers as dangerous radicals who wanted to abolish capitalism and therefore had to be defeated (to rip off their own phrase) “by any means necessary.” Of course, the show also mentioned what happened when Tom Bradley ran for Governor of California to succeed Jerry Brown in 1982; he easily won the Democratic primary and was sure he would win because the polls had him ahead. Instead he lost, and the difference between what the polls had said he would get and the votes he actually got became known in polling as the “Bradley Effect” — the 5 to 10 percent of the voting population who were too racist to vote for a Black candidate but too ashamed of their own racism to tell that to a pollster. The “Bradley Effect” has continued in plenty of elections since — including Obama’s Presidential win in 2008; the final polls had Obama winning by 10 points and he actually won by five.

[1] — The late jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, also a Texas transplant to L.A., recalled that in the 1950’s, when he was walking home late at night from a gig or rehearsal session carrying his instrument, the L.A. cops would frequently pull him over, demand that he open the instrument case, put together the horn and play it for them. Their stated purpose was to make sure he hadn’t stolen it.