The sound of a ringing telephone early in the morning never means good news. In twenty years as a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles, I’ve had my share of shattering midnight calls from police and gang intervention workers, clients and social workers, all with urgent summons to crime scenes, confrontations, and emergency rooms. But few calls rattled my world like the one that came on a quiet Jacaranda June morning in 2008.
The day had started peacefully enough. The neighborhood rooster had just begun his sun-raising reveille as my blue Prius rolled silently into the predawn darkness that hid the lilac splendor of the Jacaranda trees. Other than spending the night at work, this was my only way to avoid Los Angeles’s homicide-inducing rush hour, and to steal some time to think before the chaos of the day kicked in. With the red-light gods asleep, I blazed the nineteen-mile drive from my mountainside home to downtown L.A. in record time, arriving at work just as the sun sliced between the glass-and-chrome towers.
With no other soul in sight, I sailed up the elevator to my office at the Advancement Project, the “action tank” that my law partners, Molly Munger, Steve English, Penda Hair, and I founded to finish what Martin Luther King Jr. started. Once upstairs, I scooped up the newspapers, cut through the kitchen, brewed some tea, and slipped across the hall into the cool darkness of my windowless den. I’d tossed the papers onto the desk and picked up my steaming cup when the phone rang.
“Hello?” I barked at the interruption. There was no good reason for anyone being on my office phone that early. Emergency calls would have rung on my cell or home phone.
The jarred caller caught his breath. “Hello, ma’am, I’m looking for Miss Connie Rice.”
I frowned; part of me resisted being called “ma’am,” and all of me hated “miss.” But he meant no harm, just respect.
“This is she. Who is this?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he quavered, “I’m Captain Mendel1 calling from DOD—the Defense Department in Washington—”
“Then you need my cousin,” I interrupted. “She’s around the corner from you, at the State Department—” I was about to add the obligatory “I’m ConNIE, she’s ConDI,” but it was his turn to cut me off.
“No, no, ma’am, I’m looking for the Connie Rice in Los Angeles,” he said. “My C.O. just heard that you have a gang training academy, and we need to come out and see it.”
Who had told his commanding officer that our fledgling gang-intervention training courses were a full-blown “academy”? Barely eighteen months had passed since we’d unleashed our blockbuster report, A Call to Action: A Case for a Comprehensive Solution to Los Angeles’ Gang Epidemic. In it we’d rebuked L.A. County’s thirty-year “war on gangs” and demanded a bold switch from mindless “war” to holistic prevention and family/neighborhood building. Some politicians had cursed it, but the Los Angeles Daily News had hailed the report as “a Marshall plan for L.A. gangs.” Eighteen months had not been enough time to adjust to the strong support it had won from the police agencies we used to sue. Los Angeles Police Department Chief William Bratton and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, L.A.’s top cops, had even backed our call for an academy to professionalize gang intervention workers, former gang leaders who worked the streets to cut gang violence.
Ending up allied with the police agencies I had repeatedly sued from 1990 to 2006 was a strange place for a civil rights lawyer to be. But it was the right place if the traumatized first-graders of the gang zones were ever to learn reading before they learned to duck bullets in a bathtub. In their neighborhoods, guns and gangs ruled, not civil rights.
Before that June morning in 2008, my most alarming call had involved an ex-gangster and a good cop, both saying I had to foil a curbside execution of a fugitive homicide suspect—by police. But after years of fighting for and winning police reform, we had closed ranks with the good cops and, with a battalion of gang interventionists, had turned to fight L.A.’s widening epidemic of gang power and violence. This DOD call made me worry once again that we were doing way too little, far too late. But we had no choice. To win the civil rights battle of the twenty-first century for safety and viable education—or ever get more than the delusion of homeland security—the “savage inequalities” of L.A.’s gang zones had to end.
It was clear why our report had captured L.A.’s attention. But DOD’s?
“Would you mind telling me why DOD is interested in our gang work?” I asked, setting down my tea and trying to sound casual.
“Ma’am, your gangs are like the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he replied with forthright military stoicism. “And you are using strategies that win cooperation from some gangs to reduce violence. We need your help.”
My first thought was: If DOD thinks our work can help in Baghdad, things outside the Green Zone must be truly desperate. Then his words sank in: Our gangs were like insurgents? Under the whirlwind of thoughts beginning to spin in my head, my gut told me the man on the phone represented something important. But before going down any road with the military, I’d have to think deeply about the likely blowback.
The last thing L.A.’s gang epidemic needed was more militarization. After a thirty-year $25 billion war on gangs, L.A. had racked up an impressive scorecard of a million arrests—but also six times as many gangs and enough gang violence to alarm the World Health Organization. “War” had boosted the number of gangs and done nothing to stop the spread of gang ideology, influence, and power. The country had made a similar shock-and-awe mistake in the “war on terrorism,” and now this hapless captain had to seek help for Operation Iraqi Freedom from us. I was deeply disturbed by the war in Iraq, but I knew that as the secretary of state, Condoleezza had been pushing hard for diplomacy and community building. The captain’s request signaled a similar change in at least a corner of the Pentagon. But what did it signal for L.A.?
My mind ran through the parallels between L.A. and Baghdad that the captain must have seen. Both had hot zones engulfed by violence that too few had the political will to stop. In L.A., we had no will to end the conditions and culture that had spawned a thousand gangs. In Baghdad, there had been no will to halt vicious ethnic and religious clashes. A failed war on gangs finally had driven L.A. to go beyond search-and-destroy policing. And a faltering war of choice in Iraq had driven the military to go beyond search-and-destroy terrorist hunting. Both places had expended tons of blood and treasure on strategies that fueled the spread of violent ideology. Both were hobbled by rigid bureaucracies that were incapable of streamlined cooperation. Both had enforcers who finally understood they had to win the hearts and trust of the people by protecting them instead of hostilely occupying their neighborhoods. And both places had to make tactical alliances with selected insurgents.
The good news was that in 2008 Americans were spending billions of dollars to remedy the conditions that fueled street violence. The bad news was that we were doing it in Baghdad and Khandahar, not in L.A.
The gang violence epidemic in Los Angeles, however, was not a military or police failure. It was a socioeconomic, policy, and cultural failure. With eighty thousand gang members county-wide, we would never arrest or litigate our way out of the problem. L.A. needed to stabilize gang violence, invest in prevention, help neighborhoods and families counter the pull of gang ideology, and push alternatives to la vida loca with jobs, good schools, and a cultural movement that rejects violence.
Clear. Hold. Build. Educate. Employ.
Maybe Captain Mendel had called the right place after all. I reassured him that we’d find a way to help, signed off, and then sat in wondrous consternation over his request to observe our work.
At the time, I had no idea that this unsettling call would lead to far more alarming military assessments that would catapult all of our gang and police reform work to the transnational level—and send me down an even more dangerous road. Yet in many ways, this road resembled others I’d been forced to take. It was the road of risk, counterintuitive tactics, unlikely alliances, and unorthodox actions that anyone on a mission to win basic civil rights in America’s kill zones had to take.
It was the mission to make sure our poorest kids also reached the mountaintop that Martin Luther King Jr. glimpsed right before he died—and to sound the alarm that the final cost of their chronic destitution would be our own destruction. It was a mission for which I had trained my entire life, one that would take everything I’d ever accomplished in order to fulfill the dreams of my ancestors.