South LA voters could play tiebreaker in the mayoral election

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imageIn Tuesday’s mayoral election, about one-third of voters cast their ballots for Councilman Eric Garcetti and one-third for Wendy Greuel, propelling both candidates on to the May 21 runoff election. In the coming months, it’s all eyes on that remaining third–a group that includes many South L.A.voters.

Most of Garcetti’s votes came from the Westside through Hollywood and out into the East side. Greuel cleaned up in the Valley, where she used to be a councilwoman. Conservative Kevin James picked up more than 16 percent of the vote–with pockets of support scattered around the city. Councilwoman Jan Perry got just shy of 16 percent of the vote–with the vast majority of her votes coming from South L.A. Perry took 60 or 70 percent of the vote in some South LA neighborhoods.

“She dominated in South L.A.,” said Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi of The South Los Angeles Power Coalition. “Which puts her and her voters in a very, very strong position to determine who the next mayor will be.”

South L.A.’s voters–many of whom are African-American, could go either way in May.

“I think they’re up for grabs,” said former Los Angeles Daily News Editor Ron Kaye. “The question is will anybody vote? And is anything at stake that makes people want to vote?”

Perry’s primary campaign was more critical of Greuel than it was of Garcetti, which may improve Garcetti’s chances with her supporters. And many Latino groups have thrown support behind Garcetti, which could be significant in South LA, where more than 60 percent of residents are Latino. The Latino Coalition of Los Angeles PAC–an organization focused on representing the political interests of South American and Central Americans–officially endorsed Garcetti before the primary.

“Garcetti is a coalition builder,” said Latino Coalition president and founder Raul Claros. “He’s embraces the Latino coaltion’s focus.”

The group is also backing Ana Cubas in the Council District 9 election.

“When we met with them, Cubas and Garcetti had a comprehensive, logistical, practical and concrete plan for South LA,” said Claros.

Jitahidi said both Greuel and Garcetti have made promises to South L.A., and wants someone who will keep their promises to be elected. He said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa courted South L.A. in his mayoral campaign, but failed to deliver on his pledges.

“Both of them have given rhetoric to working with South L.A.,” Jitahidi said. “I think whoever wins has to be committed to actually making those promises true. I think only way we do that is if South L.A. really organizes in a coordinated and consistent way.”

He says he’ll be focused on boosting voter turnout. Turnout around the city was just 16 percent Tuesday, and even lower in South L.A.

Southside Stories: Harnessing diversity for political change in South LA

This story is part of a semester-long project by USC Annenberg students spotlighting South LA. Stories featured on Intersections South LA have been written by students in USC Professor Robert Hernandez’s class. See more Southside Stories here.

The Vermont Square neighborhood has a diverse population of about 60,000 individuals. While the ethnic and social diversity reflects a desirable kaleidoscopic landscape, the community also faces a wide array of issues and concerns with 60,000 individual opinions on how to solve them.

The South LA Power Coalition, which launched earlier this year, is working to harness the diversity in South LA for political change. The coalition hopes to give political power to residents of South LA through common ground and a shared political movement.

One way the coalition tries to preserve unity is by finding common ground between the large Hispanic and African American communities in South LA. image

“I can’t think of any issue that we’re talking about that doesn’t affect all of our community. That’s why we’re here,” said Ron Gochez, a member of the South LA Power Coalition and a candidate for Los Angeles Council District 9.

The coalition, realizing the need for the unity between these two groups began a Black and Latino workshop where they discussed issues affecting both communities and worked to find ways to solve them.

“The objective was not just to talk about the issues, but to try to come up with some ways, some objectives, some concrete ways of things that we can do as a black and brown community to work together,” said Gochez.

The South LA Power Coalition feels that they have an advantage in reaching out to the diverse population of South LA because they are not affiliated with any group or political party. The coalition is an autonomous group of people passionate about seeing South LA empowered for political change.

image“There’s a degree of independence and an ability for us to take stances and take positions that other more prominent organizations can’t do because they’re tied to this or they’re tied to that,” said Njideka Obijiaku, an active member of the South LA Power Coalition and the Ma’at Institute for Community Change.

“It gives us, really, the freedom to be able to do analysis, to pick things apart, and align them with just our values and values that are associated with working families,” said Obijiaku.

None of the group’s active members will call themselves leaders. They are all part of different organizations and groups in their communities and chose to come together to form a collaborative group in South LA.

“We’ve been working in our communities for several years and we understand the importance of not working independently of each other,” said Gochez.

While the members of the coalition are very politically educated and active, they are the exception for South LA—an area that consistently has an extremely low voter turnout rate. During the 2012 presidential election, the coalition stated that there were precincts where less than half of the registered voters came out to vote.

“But the problem is that it’s not that people don’t want to be active. People don’t clearly sometimes know how, and how being active impacts your life and your livelihood,” said Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi, one of the organizers of the South LA Power Coalition and member of MA’AT Institute for Community Change.

The South LA Power Coalition strives to educate residents in South LA on how to vote and how it can impact their daily lives.

Prior to the 2012 election, the coalition held a voter education workshop at the Maya Angelou High School where they released a voter guide and educated the community about different measures on the ballot.

While the voter guide gave specific ways in which to vote for each proposition, the coalition’s main goal is not to advocate a specific group or political position. According to their founding members, their goal is to help the residents of South LA define a vision for themselves and work to see it put into action. The coalition believes that the issues and problems in South LA are a result of residents not being empowered. image

“People who are most impacted are not empowered, and have not been empowered, to participate in a meaningful way in the political process, to make independent decisions for themselves—people are spoken on behalf of, but not worked with,” said Jitahidi.

As the South LA Power Coalition continues their work in South LA and continues to develop as a group, the members hope to not only change policy, but to also gain political representation.

“We have to make this grassroots movement translate to political power. If we’re going to get the changes and if we’re going to effectively fight around the status quo, we’ve got to be able to translate that into political power,” said Jitahidi.

Black-Latino dialogue begins “beautifully” at community issues forum

Hundred-degree heat pressed resolutely on the walls of Mercado la Paloma’s meeting room Saturday morning, but inside, a collective commitment to honesty kept the South L.A. Power Coalition’s first-ever Black and Latino Community Issues Forum cool.

Around 70 people attended the forum, in spite of warnings that the event would fail to create the respectful dialogue it hoped for.

“No one wanted to talk about these issues. We had threats, pressures, warnings leading up to this,” said Koyaki Jitahidi, one of the event’s organizers and a member of the Ma’at Institute for Community Change. “We had a similar workshop in May, and it got contentious; there was arguing, shouting. People said, ‘maybe we shouldn’t do this, maybe it’s too soon,’ but we’ve got all this stuff going on right now,” like Los Angeles’s spring redistricting and elections in November and March. “We can’t wait.”

Rhetoric: Disenfranchisement and empowerment

The forum marked both African and Latino culture in its opening statements. Moderators greeted attendees in English, Spanish, and Swahili. Then they led people in a power clap, a United Farm Workers sign of solidarity, and a Harambee chant, which cries the word “harambee,” Swahili for “all put together,” seven times.

imageRosalie Peterson of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment raises her fist in the Community Issues Forum’s introductory Harambee chant.

Moderators Carlos Montes and Dr Maulana Karenga each spoke about the history of black and Latino unity in the Americas before discussion of present community issues began. Montes, whose Chicano-Latino activism began with the Brown Berets in the 1960s, harkened to black-brown coalitions in the unified Third World fighting U.S. imperialism during the Cold War. “When we were attacked, we supported each other,” he said.

imageModerators Carlos Montes and Maulana Karenga analyze a participant’s comment before responding to his question.

Much of the morning’s rhetoric reflected its organizers’ backgrounds in radical and even militant activism. Karenga, chair of the African Studies department at California State University, Long Beach and creator of the pan-African holiday Kwanzaa, headed a black nationalist group that competed with the Black Panthers in the 1960s. That group, The Organization Us, maintains an office near Leimert Park.

“We struggle like this because together we will win,” said Karenga. “We are soldiers on the battlefield for something better… and we must talk often and productively with one another.”

Two participants in the South L.A. Power Coalition’s forum greet each other with a handshake and an embrace.

imageTwo participants in the South L.A. Power Coalition’s forum greet each other with a handshake and an embrace.

The community’s challenges

But cooperation is hardly as rosy as the facilitators described it in theory. Thandi Chimurenga, a freelance journalist, broached the black community’s concern that often Latino police officers, not just whites, commit violence against blacks.

Chimurenga called specifically on Latina women, addressing them as “mis hermanas,” to react to those killings in solidarity with their black neighbors.

“I need to hear a human cry from the community, and I need it to be translated into English and in Spanish. When a black person is murdered, I need to hear a human voice,” Chimurenga said. Scattered applause and encouraging murmurs followed.

In response, SLAPC member Blanca Cruz said Latinos who join the police force often become “rasa” – people who oppress their own people. “Cops… represent the oppressive system,” she said, no matter what ethnicity they claim.

Karenga hypothesized that the police department plays on historical neighborhood rivalry and uses Latinos against blacks. If so, “this is a battle strategy conversation. They’re trying to destroy our unity,” he said. “We must not let our oppressor” – that is, traditional white centers of power – “be our teacher about who we like, who we trust, or who we let across the border,” he said.

Also, reminded Montes, many in the Latino community have denounced Sheriff Lee Baca.

Another pertinent comment touched on the South Central Neighborhood’s Council recent resolution against the disproportionate rate of black student suspensions at Santee Educational Complex. Just 5 percent of Santee’s students are black, but 23 percent of them were suspended in 2011-2012, CityWatch LA reported (

Ron Gochez, a history teacher at Santee and vice president of the SCNC, addressed the problem as one of black-brown unity: rather than allowing the majority group (Latinos) to dominate the minority (blacks), both must come to a place of cultural understanding.

As a long-term remedy, Gochez proposed institutionalized ethnic studies programs in L.A. schools. Educating black and Latino students about their shared history, particularly during civil rights and labor movements, could help reduce inter-group violence and animosity.

“We need a vigorous multiculturalism, and I don’t mean food, fashion or festival,” Karenga said. “We share responsibility. We must practice reciprocal solidarity.”

Finally, thinly veiled calls to political action bubbled under the forum’s ideological surface. Two City Council candidates and a City Controller candidate addressed the crowd. But March’s election will be the first decided by new council district lines.

Black councilmembers have represented District 9, which encompasses much of South Central L.A., since 1963.

Gochez, who is running for the seat, encouraged residents to choose the person who could best represent both black and Latino residents.

Jitahidi also stressed unity in his closing remarks. District 9 cannot belong to a distinct group, he said.

“We’re not trying to be the best Democrats or the best Republicans or the best decline-to-state voters. We’re trying to kill the status quo” by continuing to elect “brave and courageous leaders,” Jitahidi said.

The SLAPC has not yet declared support for any candidate in L.A.’s March elections.

“Next time, we’ll need more time”

Long before polls open, however, the forum’s attendees must start working, Jitahidi said in his closing remarks. SLAPC officers cut off the line of attendees waiting to speak after more than 80 minutes of questions and suggestions. Still, only about a third of the forum’s participants addressed the crowd.

One of its final speakers requested monthly meetings. The crowd replied with fervent nods and a few supportive whistles.

Arnetta Mack, another organizer of the conference, affirmed these plans. “It was good for a first attempt,” she said. “Next time, we’ll need more time and more space.”

One Afro-Latina member of Karenga’s Organization Us, Hasani Soto, expressed the importance of educating community members in conversations like these. In identifying with both cultures, Hasani said she shares both groups’ knowledge and responsibilities.

“We need to study more, and not just TV or radio. We need to read more,” Soto said. “If we don’t do the studying and we don’t have the dialogue, the issues will still be there.”

Still, though, Soto was delighted by Saturday’s attempt. “It was excellent. It was beautiful,” she said.

However, Kahllid A. Al-Alim of the Park Mesa Heights Neighborhood Council warned that, to be effected, the forum needed to maintain organization.

With so many nonprofits and political activist organizations working on such a variance of issues, “This could be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen,” Al-Alim said.