GELFAND’S WORLD-For those of us who lived through the civil rights era, the documentary Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race is a must see. So I'll just tell you right off that you should tune into PBS-SoCal on Tuesday, August 18 at 8 PM (channel 50.1 over the air; check your listings if you have cable). It's a remarkably well made story, barely 56 minutes long, that tells of a region beset by racism a nd police brutality. But Los Angeles was also a town that became the first predominantly white, large American city to elect an African American as its mayor. Tom Bradley was central to the two decades he served, and is a worthy subject for consideration at this time.
The film begins, interestingly enough, with the Watts riots, now almost precisely 50 years in our past (August 11, 1965). There is reason and method in this structure, because Bradley's story involves the history of a police force characterized by endemic racism. Worse yet, this racism was personified by the city's police chiefs. William Parker was brought in to abolish police corruption. He did so, but replaced it with force and brutality.
Tom Bradley was an upcoming officer in Parker's police department, a former UCLA student and the first African American to become an LAPD Lieutenant. As the film reveals, when it was suggested to Chief Parker that Bradley be promoted to Captain, Parker made it clear that nobody of Bradley's kind would become a captain in his police department. This story sounds strange to the modern ear, but it was, sadly enough, the case in that era in Los Angeles.
Tom Bradley chose to leave police work and become a lawyer. He went to law school, graduated, and passed the California Bar. But politics was in his future, and he accomplished another first by getting elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1963.
The film explains Bradley's political success as his ability to forge coalitions out of disparate groups. Los Angeles has never had a Black majority, so it is necessary for the minority politician to reach out to whites in order to be successful at the citywide level.
Bradley ran for mayor in 1969. As the film shows in painful detail, the campaign run by his opponent Sam Yorty was shameful but successful. Yorty is shown responding to a newsman's question by claiming with certitude that if Bradley won, the city would be taken over by radicals. The word Communist was used, a term that, at the time, would be on a par with calling somebody a child molester today. Yorty won.
Bradley came back in 1973 to run another mayoral campaign. Those of us who were in L.A. at the time recall how the city was waiting in anticipation of another surprise smear from the Yorty side. Perhaps due to all the public discussion, the anticipated attack did not occur, but the possibility was a concern.
We also remember the victory celebration. As the film shows, the Bradley campaign developed a large corps of volunteers and did a tremendous job of outreach to the entire community. Bradley was elected mayor and kept the job for 20 years.
As the film points out, the modern Los Angeles, with its downtown skyline and developing mass transit, is Tom Bradley's vision brought to life. The film also takes pains to argue that had it not been for Tom Bradley, there would have been no Obama presidency, as Bradley pioneered the process of building coalitions across racial and ethnic divides.
The most interesting subtext in the film involves the decades long struggle to bring the LAPD and its chief under some semblance of civilian control. For most of LA's modern history, Los Angeles police chiefs enjoyed civil service protection. It was nearly impossible to get rid of them. Daryl Gates was a continuing frustration to Bradley. It was only after the Rodney King riots that LA passed a Charter Amendment that got rid of civil service protection for the Chief of Police.
On Monday evening, August 10, there was a panel discussion and showing of the film hosted by Raphael Sonenshein of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles. Practically everybody who was anybody was there, ranging from County Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas, to former City Council members Cindy Miscikowski, Mike Woo, and Tom LaBonge, to former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
One topic came up both in the film and in the panel discussion that is of immediate interest to Los Angeles residents. The film talked about the 1984 Olympic Games, and how Los Angeles managed to avoid the financial disasters that other cities such as Montreal had endured. During his remarks in the panel discussion, Zev Yaroslavsky explained how the city passed a rule that essentially forbade it from spending its own money. At one point, Bradley even offered a motion to withdraw the Los Angeles application, on the basis that the International Olympic Committee was making unreasonable demands. The IOC backed down, Los Angeles got the games, and we even made a profit. As Zev pointed out, if Los Angeles is really to make a bid for the games (now that Boston has pulled out), it is necessary to hold to the same principle. Otherwise, he said, the various sports authorities will demand all manner of new facilities, and this will run up the bill enormously.
The evening was a chance to celebrate Tom Bradley's life and career, to reflect on victories that were won and victories that are yet to be won. There was consensus that the LAPD is much improved in terms of its previous history of racism and brutality. There was agreement that race remains the defining issue in American life, but as one elected official pointed out, it should not be the single defining issue of a person's accomplishment.
Viewers came away with a memory of the man who led Los Angeles through times that alternated between turbulent and peaceful, and who developed and perfected the modern approach to coalition politics.
Charles Bukowski, another pioneering Angeleno
This Sunday, August 16, there will be a 95th birthday tribute to the late poet and writer Charles Bukowski, to be held in San Pedro, where he lived the final years of his life. The tribute, The Laughing Heart, will include a film as well as discussions and readings. (Disclosure: I am involved in the San Pedro International Film Festival, which is sponsoring the event.) Bukowski authored numerous books, thousands of poems, and hundreds of short stories, as you can discover by checking out his Wikipedia page and other online sources. To locals, it is of note that at one time, Bukowski wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vol 13 Issue 66
Pub: Aug 14, 2015