September 29, 2006

Beyond Just Getting Along

Third of Six-Part Series
By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz
New America Media

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a six-part series on the role of longtime black and Latino community leaders in creating amicable relations in South Los Angeles, which has been suddenly transformed by the massive influx of Latinos.

SOUTH VERMONT AVENUE—”Ted Hayes and the Minutemen had 12 people in their anti-immigration rally in Leimert Park and got a lot of coverage,” chuckles Aurea Montes-Rod-riquez, associate director of the generically named Community Coalition on South Vermont Avenue, a short distance from Watts.

By contrast, a hundred people, the majority of them black, came to the Coalition’s forum two weeks ago on the immigration controversy, Montes-Rod-riguez says. “We’ve had hundreds of African Americans come to the protests against the House immigration bill,” she adds, “but no one seems to notice.”

Montes-Rodriguez has been with the coalition since 1997. She came to the United States when she was 6 and her family naturalized in 1986. She has a master’s in social work and has always lived in South L.A.

She vividly remembers that her brother and she were in a car during the Rodney King riots. “Blacks were unfairly depicted as the main rioters, but my brother and I saw that Latinos were the ones doing most of the looting. It was a bad time of joblessness and crack and in a way we’re still trying to change the same things.”

At the height of the immigrant marches last spring, a local reporter quipped that talk of escalating black-brown tensions had spawned a “brown-black dialogue industry,” casting cynicism on the effectiveness of such exchanges.


The Community Coalition didn’t set out to build interethnic unity as an end in itself or simply through dialogues. Its successful campaigns against drugs, crime and poor schools required black-brown collaboration.

These grassroots efforts to tackle immediate problems plaguing shared neighborhoods, schools and services have been more potent at bringing together Latinos and African Americans, resulting in easy working relations among neighborhood advocates and residents.

“African Americans and Latinos have lived together, worked together and struggled together here,” says Marqueece Harris-Dawson, current executive director of the coalition. “Conflicts between them are isolated incidents.”

The coalition’s offices on South Vermont Avenue are in a windowless, flat building with a security camera on the front door. There’s good reason — it’s just a mile away from the intersection of Florence and Normandy, the explosive epicenter of the 1992 Rodney King riots. There are still pockets of drug-fed crime.

Renters, mostly immigrants, live on one side of the avenue in bleak buildings and stucco houses. Just across on the other side are homeowners, mostly blacks, with well-kept homes and tidy front lawns. Though not of equal economic means, many of these residents come together for meetings and strategy sessions in the coal-ition’s redoubt.


Responding to the crisis, Karen Bass, now a State Assembly member, led a neighborhood anti-substance abuse group in 1990 in plans to target crack houses for closure. But a survey of residents showed that liquor stores were more powerful magnets of criminal activity.

There were some 700 liquor stores for 80,000 residents, reportedly twice as many as in the entire state of Rhode Island. Fortuitously, the 1992 Rodney King riots destroyed about 200 of them.

Bass founded the Community Coalition, made up of African American and Latino residents. It began a furious drive to stop the stores as well as sex-and-drugs motels from rebuilding. By expertly badgering land use hearings, through protests and a petition drive that drew 35,000 signatures, the community blocked the return of 150 liquor stores.

There are still too many for comfort, and the Coalition continues to train residents — African Americans and Latinos — in land-use activism in preparation for more battles. But a slow transformation has begun. Small clothing and hardware shops, grocery stores and coin laundries have replaced a score of the liquor stores. Proud of their success, residents helped put the popular Bass in the state legislature.


Harris-Dawson’s own family moved out to Pasadena during the crack epidemic, when he was in high school. After attending Morehouse College in Atlanta he came back to South Los Angeles as an activist.

It’s friendly territory. The area has the highest union membership in the city and neighborhood councils and block associations proliferate, a legacy of trade unionism in the heyday of manufacturing and the aerospace industry and a boon to present-day grass-roots advocacy.

“It’s a hardworking community, despite the unemployment figures,” he says. An underground economy sustains many immigrant families. Young African Americans and Latinos have gravitated to the coalition, drawn by its family, neighborhood and education-centered agenda.

In a six-year campaign that started in 2000, youths trained by the coalition won a major victory by convincing the L.A. school board to reform the curriculum. South L.A. schools were dominated by vocational courses, while well-off districts had plenty of college preparatory subjects. The coalition’s youths demanded and won equal access to college prep courses.


“It was truly a joint effort by both black and brown students,” Sheilagh Polk, a spokesperson for the group, told the Los Angeles Sentinel. The students belonged to the South Central Youth Empowered through Action (SCYEA, pronounced Say Yeah) program of the coalition.

Say Yeah in 1996 distributed disposable cameras to a score of Latino and African American students to document the deteriorating state of South LA’s public schools. One high school, for example, had one toilet for its 3,000 students. Meanwhile, most of the city’s $2 billion school improvement fund was being slated for wealthier neighborhoods.

Gathering pictures and other evidence, the students shocked school officials into setting aside $153 million for improvements, resulting in nearly 2,000 repairs in 120 schools.

Real victories such as these have brought the core of the coalition’s nearly 4,000 dues-paying members closer together. Funding from mostly private foundations has enabled the group to run several campaigns, family services, gang-prevention activities and organizer-training workshops.

Neighborhood residents old and young are in its offices almost every day. “They are ordinary people in the community that lead campaigns and work areas themselves,” explains Montes-Rodriguez.

“There may be strong differences of opinion sometimes, but other members make sure the discussions stay cool. They are very conscious of our unity,” says Harris-Dawson proudly.

Depending on the agenda, meeting attendances shift between black and Latino majorities — more black homeowners for zoning and land use, more Latinos for parenting issues, nearly equal numbers for school reform or crime prevention.

“Residents, especially the ones who have lived here a long time dream of a renaissance of South Vermont Avenue, with small businesses and sit-down restaurants that serve our families,” says Montes-Rodriguez. “We’re talking to foundations on how that can be done.”

Rene Ciria-Cruz as a Racial Justice Fellow of the USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism.

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