While a compelling case can be made for a significant expansion of the Los Angeles City Council, a more modest and immediately doable approach to demonstrating our concern with minority rights in these turbulent times would be to free Watts from Council District 15 and join it with Council District 9.
As it stands, Council District 15 includes Watts and San Pedro. Watts is overwhelmed by San Pedro’s much larger population and the vital importance of the Port of Los Angeles as a principal economic engine for Los Angeles. In comparison to San Pedro, Watts has often been an afterthought at best at City Hall. Moreover, the minority populations of Watts have almost nothing in common with the people of San Pedro.
The pandemic and the social unrest from the murder of George Floyd has highlighted the unfairness with which Watts and all of South-Central Los Angeles has been treated. The root cause is a concentration of political power in too few hands. The time is ripe for meaningful change.
Just as the medical pandemic was inevitable, its social and economic impact was inevitable and has been of pandemic proportions. The cause of the medical pandemic is a virus. The cause of the social and economic pandemic is an unequal sharing of political power. The unfair sharing of power has led to an unfair distribution of public resources and abandonment of inner-city communities, especially Black and Brown communities, leaving them vulnerable and susceptible to adversity. The unfair power structure, from which so much inequity arises, underlies the lack of trust Black and Brown communities have for governmental institutions. While it may be a shock to city officials and their more affluent neighbors, it is no surprise to poor people in South Los Angeles that they have been the ones to suffer more during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopelessness and demoralizing neglect are no strangers to South Los Angeles neighborhoods like Watts.
Los Angeles County is divided into eight Service Planning Areas (SPAs). The area called South Central within the City of Los Angeles is in County SPA 6 and official county statistics show that in SPA 6, as many as 42% of residents have not completed high school, only 48% are employed, only 8.6% have post-graduate degrees, 34% are below the federal poverty limit, 10% are homeless, 35% have HIV/AIDS, and there is a 30% homicide rate for those 15-34 years old. If you are born in South Central, your life expectancy is about 12 years less than if you were born on the Westside.
Of those employed in SPA 6, a very significant amount of their income goes to paying for housing. An extraordinary percentage of young Black men are incarcerated (40% of inmates are Black, while Blacks are only 13% of the population). Incarceration is often taken for granted by families and is as common as going to college in other parts of Los Angeles. Only about half of residents have a strong feeling of belonging to their community. It is a population full of pain and sorrow. It is an area least able to absorb blows from a pandemic or anything else. Approximately, 60% of residents of SPA 6 believe their neighborhood is unsafe.
A drive down Central Avenue in Watts and surrounding streets illuminates the neglected condition of the neighborhoods. One notices at once the filth of the poor roads, buildings with broken windows, people lingering about with nothing to do, the tents and sleeping bags of the homeless, and parks built adjacent to mountains of contaminated soil. The visual neglect of South-Central neighborhoods sends the message that no one in power cares. This is the well-described “broken-window” phenomenon: “no one cares enough to fix broken windows, so who cares about the rest of the building.” Have you ever heard of a “brushes up” policy? That’s the policy that allows street sweepers to neglect entire corridors by simply driving by with the brushes up. This way, they still collect the fees for service.
A high percentage of the residents, fortunate enough to have housing, live with many family members crowded together in a few rooms. It doesn’t take a medical genius to know that a highly contagious virus will spread easily in such a setting and cause sickness and death far greater than elsewhere. The important question is “how did South Los Angeles communities, like Watts, end up this way? How did these communities evolve such a perfect culture for the twin pandemics of deepening poverty and highly infectious virus?
A fundamental cause of the distressed condition of inner-city communities like Watts has been a longstanding monopoly of power in Los Angeles. Watts has lacked sufficient political power to elect local politicians, let alone pass legislation that brings resources back to its community of great need. Poorly shared political power has caused city resources to be disproportionately directed to the wealthier parts of the district. If we are honest, we must admit that Watts and other South Los Angeles communities like it, have been at the very bottom rung of the quality of life ladder of distress. It’s like the saying goes, if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re on the menu.
We need to expand the distribution of political power, starting by giving the Watts area of South Los Angeles a stronger voice in City Hall. Watts has been like the lamb depicted in the famous definition of democracy as two wolves and a lamb voting on dinner. Watts has been on the menu. Not much will change unless Watts enlarges its political profile by joining its natural neighbor to the north in CD9 or its less likely neighbor to the west in CD8.
We need to take this historic convergence of twin pandemics to culminate the current rhetoric of aspiration and change into corrective reality. We need to transform the sad events of international grief about systemic racism in America and the terrible global virus into a pivotal moment in the history of Los Angeles. We need to treat the cause rather than the symptoms of these twin diseases. Sure, we can make ourselves feel better by continuing to throw money at various social programs but that is like treating the symptoms than its cause. Instead, we need to confront and cure the structural injustice in our body politic.
Placing Watts in CD 9 is a modest, reasonable and necessary modification of city government. It will go a long way toward creating a more democratic and responsive city government that will enjoy greater legitimacy. It will enhance city government’s ability to work for the welfare of all the people.
Enlarging the area encompassed by CD 9 will begin what could become nothing short of an Urban Marshall Plan capable of transforming many broken communities. A greater voice in the halls of power will contribute to the reduction of racial tyranny and humiliation. We all want the sounds of gunfire exchanged for the sounds of bulldozers, welders, riveters, and carpenters. Enlarging CD 9 will help reduce political disparity and level the playing field.
We cannot shrink from the political struggle that this may entail. It is simply one more mountain to climb on the journey to freedom. We must climb it together so that everyone has an equal chance for upward mobility, an equal chance in the struggle for self-sufficiency and most importantly, self-determination. We are committed and determined to confront with confidence the political battle which may be necessary to achieve our goals. Political battles are, after all, the lifeblood of democracy.
Tim Watkins, Chief Executive Officer Attorney – Los Angeles Watts Labor Community Action Committee
Mark Ravis, M.D., J.D., M.P.A. President, Attorney – Los Angeles, Law Office of Mark Ravis & Associates