Preferred Citation: Chávez, Lydia. The Color Bind: California's Battle to End Affirmative Action. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

6 The Ground War at Ground Zero

Anthony Thigpen and South Los Angeles

March 23, 1996, was that rarity in Los Angeles—a bright clear day. The downtown buildings of granite and glass were


etched in sharp lines against the blue sky. Traffic moved efficiently. The air actually smelled good. It was exactly the kind of morning community organizers wanted for election day. Early in the election cycle, however, this was the kind of day that could keep volunteers away; there were better places to be on such a splendid Saturday morning than inside a church listening to speakers talk about a political battle nearly nine months away. Worse still, the regional finals of the NCAA basketball championships were on television, and the game pitting Kentucky against Wake Forest promised to be a good one.

But Thigpen, who was organizing a morning rally and training session at St. Brigid's Catholic Church in South-Central, was unperturbed. Six-feet-four and as lithe as a basketball player, Thigpen wandered between the church and the classrooms, where glazed donuts and hot coffee had been laid out for prospective volunteers. Except for the clipboard in his hand, it was difficult to tell that Thigpen was in charge. Like others on the staff, he prepared the seminar rooms, emptied boxes filled with flyers, and checked who had arrived. By 8:30 A.M. cars began to turn into the church's asphalt parking lot; when it filled up, they began parking up and down Western Avenue and along 52nd Street. By 9 A.M. 250 volunteers, mostly African Americans, were seated inside—ready to start on time, just as Thigpen liked.

The forty-three-year-old organizer had worked in this community for years. He was born not far away, on 103rd Street in Watts, where his grandparents owned a duplex and where he lived with his parents, brother, and sister until he was thirteen. When Watts exploded in flames in 1965 his father swept up the family, threw a tent in the trunk of the car, and took them camping. "It was something we didn't want to be a part of," said James Thigpen, Anthony's father.[11]

James Thigpen, interview, December 14, 1996.

"We didn't want to watch our community getting a bad name and getting destroyed." When they returned, thirty-four people lay dead and 200 buildings had been destroyed.[12]

Understand the Riots. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times, 1992, p. 10.

The National Guard


patrolled the streets. A guard stood in their back yard. What had been 103rd Street became known as Charcoal Alley.[13]

James Thigpen, interview, December 14, 1996.

The Thigpens moved to Pacoima, in the San Fernando Valley, and the elder Thigpen commuted to his job in South Los Angeles as a meter reader for the Department of Water and Power. He watched as white families, and some African American families, packed up and moved away. Although he was disturbed by the growing isolation of South Los Angeles, Thigpen was happy to have his family in Pacoima. On Saturday mornings he would gather his three children together and read to them from Plato and Aristotle or listen to Martin Luther King, Jr., on the radio.[14]


His son Anthony thrived and graduated from San Fernando Valley High School in 1971, the same year President Richard Nixon announced a "new American Revolution." A different insurrection called to Anthony. "Something happened to him there at Northridge," said his father referring to California State University at Northridge, where his son had enrolled.[15]


"I don't know what it was, he started reading books like Black Rage ," he said. Thigpen left Northridge to join the Black Panthers in Oakland. In less than two years, he returned to Los Angeles, disillusioned with the Panthers but committed to doing community work. "The rhetoric didn't match the reality," said Thigpen of his Panther experience.

When Thigpen returned to Los Angeles in 1974, Tom Bradley, the city's first black mayor, had been in office for a year. Bradley was elected by a coalition of West Side liberals and South Los Angeles activists, but most of the mayor's development plans focused on downtown. When the new skyline emerged, developers skipped over the mayor's core constituencies in South Los Angeles and continued building on the West Side. What was left behind receded even further from mainstream Los Angeles.

During the following decade Thigpen worked as a machinist by day and with the Coalition Against Police Abuse at night;


two of his friends had been killed in incidents with the police. It was a time when the LAPD could get away with almost anything. The epidemic of crack and gangs frustrated the city's civil rights leadership as much as it did its most conservative whites. In hopes of controlling gang violence, they refrained from pressing the police for accountability and inadvertently insulated Chief Daryl Gates and his force.[16]

Mike Davis, City of Quartz. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

"Chief Gates was only emboldened. … Following a rash of LAPD 'chokehold' killings of young black men in custody, he advanced the extraordinary theory that the deaths were the fault of the victims' racial anatomy, not excessive police force."[17]

Ibid., p. 272.

Anthony's younger brother, Ron, who would later become an executive vice president of the Family Savings Banks in Los Angeles, worried that Anthony would become another police fatality. "It was happening a lot back then and with him being politically active, I knew he was at risk," Ron Thigpen said. "He was the type who didn't care. He wasn't going to back down."[18]

Ron Thigpen, interview, December 12, 1996.

No political movement in the 1980s in Los Angeles—not Thigpen's modest work or the boom years of Mayor Bradley's 20-year regime—could rival the longer-range changes that were happening in the state and in Los Angeles in particular. "Some 400,000 migrants per year poured in during the 1980s (versus 300,000 births). … The human flash flood completely transfigured the face of California's people and cities. … From one of the whitest states in the U.S. in the 1960s, California became the most polyglot. … School districts found themselves trying to educate millions of new children, as enrollment grew from 3.1 million in 1980 to 5.1 million in 1990."[19]

Richard Walker, "California Rages Against the Dying of the Light," New Left Review, Vol. 209, 1995, p. 46.

These changes were particularly sharp in Los Angeles. Nearly one and a half million new residents moved into the county, and 93 percent of them were Latino.[20]

Understand the Riots. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times, 1992, p. 26.

Neighborhoods in South Los Angeles that were once majority African American were becoming majority Latino.

The newest California rush coincided with a severe statewide recession. Seventy thousand manufacturing jobs


had left South Los Angeles by 1990, and the area was already scraping bottom when the state economy collapsed.[21]

Davis, City of Quartz.

The high-paying union jobs created by the auto industry had left. In their place entrepreneurs set up nonunion shops, and African Americans competed against the influx of immigrants for low-paying jobs. Thigpen said he could feel the tension building. Unlike his own family, residents there did not have options or a safety net. Daily life grew steadily more brutal. Gangs turned 18th Street, Central Avenue, and Broadway into combat zones. Drive-ins that had once served up hamburgers and fries were abandoned, and the new squatters operating behind boarded-up windows sold crack, cocaine, or heroin. South-Central had the feel of an armed camp. Virtually the only people willing to run legitimate businesses there were Korean immigrants, who often operated their small corner grocery stores from cash registers sheltered behind thick bulletproof glass.

In this environment, residents could not summon any response but rage. "There was a tendency in any community meeting you'd hold for people to just vent and vent about how bad things were and how they would never change and how they were frustrated with the political system and nearly every elected official," Thigpen said.[22]

Anthony Thigpen, interview, December 29, 1996.

Instead of pursuing development projects that had been proposed, or developing their own, residents vehemently opposed everything. Something was bound to happen, and the LAPD provided the spark. On March 3, 1991, an amateur video photographer filmed Rodney King, a twenty-five-year-old part-time groundskeeper on parole for second-degree robbery, being beaten by members of the LAPD. South Los Angeles watched this grainy video over and over on television, and when an all-white jury acquitted the officers of wrongdoing on April 29, 1992, the city exploded. This time Thigpen stayed and watched the worst civil disturbance in the city's history. The toll was far greater than in Watts: forty-five people were killed, thousands were injured, and damage exceeded $1 billion. Two hundred liquor


stores, many of them owned by Korean immigrants, burned to the ground.

When it was over, Thigpen headed to the Montana mountains to clear his head and figure out what his role should be in Los Angeles after Rodney King. He returned six weeks later with plans for a new organization, AGENDA—an acronym that gave urgency to its longer iteration, Action for Grassroots Empowerment & Neighborhood Development Alternatives. As he had hiked through the Montana wilderness, Thigpen decided that although plenty of social service agencies tried to serve South Los Angeles, no one—other than political leaders with private electoral agendas—actually organized residents to help themselves. "There is a need for an independent entity or institution that really pays attention to grassroots organizing and that both keeps established leaders accountable and also builds the kind of alliances that need to be built," Thigpen said.[23]


"People need to organize, but around an agenda and not just in reaction to what others propose."

Before South Los Angeles had time to develop an agenda, however, Governor Pete Wilson launched a barrage of initiatives that ended up aggravating rather than healing the tensions among its African American, Latino, and Korean residents. Initially, African Americans were inclined to support Proposition 187 and its promise of cutting off illegal immigration, and Latinos and Koreans—many of them recent immigrants—resented them for it. Another initiative, known as three-strikes, which was designed to keep repeat felons behind bars, was equally divisive. Latinos and Koreans tended to support it, and African Americans were divided.

All of this bitter history—Watts, Bradley's benign neglect, Rodney King, and the ethnic infighting—had brought Thigpen and the 250-odd volunteers to St. Brigid's on that brilliant Saturday morning. Something needed to change, and Thigpen hoped that organizing against Proposition 209 would be a turning point. He sat on the hard pew and watched as the meeting began.


"What is at issue is respect. Those with power only respect power," said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. Dressed in a white shirt and sports coat, Ridley-Thomas looked more professorial than political; in fact, he was both. He had linked up with Thigpen years earlier when both were working with the Coalition Against Police Abuse. At the time, Ridley-Thomas was studying toward a master's degree in religious studies from Immaculate Heart College. Both men liked to talk philosophy and politics, and they were both committed to doing something for the city's black community.

It was Thigpen who convinced Ridley-Thomas to run for office in 1985, and it was Thigpen who ran his field operation.[24]

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, interview, December 23, 1996.

After narrowly winning the first time around, Ridley-Thomas returned to office in 1995 with 89 percent of the vote, the highest approval rating in the city. "He makes a habit of doing good work," said a staff member of a local state senator.[25]

Interview, December 30, 1996.

What Ridley-Thomas did that Saturday in March was tell the assembled men and women the truth: The powerful would never pay attention to South Los Angeles unless residents demonstrated their power in the voting booth.

Connie Rice, Western Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, followed Ridley-Thomas with a message at least as blunt. "The future of civil rights lies in your hands. Mother Rosa Parks asked me 'Are you gonna beat this thing in California? If not, I refused to give up my seat for nothing.'" The crowd answered, "Amen." Rice, however, was not there to preach. She told them straight: "The black population in California is small," she said. "We cannot beat this alone. We need to make a strategic alliance with women and others of color. We are in the majority when we link with Latinos, with white women, and with the 25 percent of white men who will support us."

Rice's talk of strategic links wasn't just theoretical. The previous summer Thigpen had joined with Ridley-Thomas and a number of churches to form the South Los Angeles Affirmative


Action Project, known as SLAAAP. To extend SLAAAP's reach in Los Angeles, Thigpen helped create the Metropolitan Alliance, an umbrella organization that linked South Los Angeles to white, Latino, and Asian organizers in West Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Pedro, Huntington Park, Inglewood, and elsewhere.

Although there had been considerable rhetoric about interminority unity, real collaborations were rare and often controversial. But the one that really riled other black leaders was Thigpen's decision to ally with the Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women. Black leaders in Los Angeles were still smarting from remarks made by NOW's Los Angeles director, Tammy Bruce, after the O. J. Simpson acquittal. "What we need to teach our children is … not about racism but is about violence against women," Bruce told Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline after the verdict. Although her remarks were condemned by Patricia Ireland, the president of NOW, they did not endear feminist groups to black leaders.

Thigpen, however, believed Katherine Spillar and the Feminist Majority to be among the few progressive leaders and organizations with the money and the focus to run a campaign. He knew that Proposition 209 was not going to be defeated by minority voters alone. "All you had to do was look at the voting patterns to see that we couldn't beat 209 with just people of color," Thigpen said.[26]

Anthony Thigpen, interview, December 29, 1996.

"The logical allies were women." Those who opposed the alliance, he said, "weren't looking at the numbers."

At St. Brigid's Thigpen handed out pie charts illustrating how such alliances could make the black community stronger. Then he got to the point: what South Los Angeles needed to do. He told his audience that he'd "been out walking precincts since November" and that "residents were largely unaware of" the California Civil Rights Initiative. "At this point our community is not organized. There are no mysteries, no shortcuts about what has to be done. We have to walk the precincts. We need


you to multiply your vote by fifty. It's our watch. To win will require us to do more than we like, more than we want to do."

Thigpen wasn't being theatrical. There was nothing easy about grassroots precinct work—least of all in South Los Angeles, where walking door to door during the day was dreary and at night was downright dangerous. Thigpen's plan envisioned organizing as many as 500 precincts in South Los Angeles and 1,000 citywide. The goal was to find seventy-five "occasional" voters in each precinct and make sure that on November 5 they got to the polls and got there with plenty of information on Proposition 209. "If anyone can do it, it's Anthony," said Steve Smith from the state Democratic Party.[27]

Steve Smith, interview, May 2, 1996.

"He's the best in the business. We'd love to have him."

Thigpen's early precinct walks and talks to church groups were disheartening. Many of the residents were too isolated from the mainstream to understand the connection between affirmative action and their lives—if indeed there was one. Most had never competed against whites for jobs or for places at the state's elite universities. "First we had to convince people that affirmative action had something to do with them," Thigpen recalled.[28]

Anthony Thigpen, interview, November 8, 1996.

"It wasn't obvious to them, so we had to do a huge education drive. I'd ask, 'Who knows anyone working for the post office or police,' and hands would go up. That was affirmative action. And then I'd talk about their children in schools. Still the degree that it touches them in their daily lives is small." Nevertheless, Thigpen believed that saving affirmative action was important. "There is a need to draw the line," Thigpen said.[29]

Anthony Thigpen, interview, December 29, 1996.

"All of this is part of a right wing agenda to ignore these communities."

Nearly every weekend from March on Thigpen, his staff, and Councilman Ridley-Thomas would go to churches, sign up more volunteers, and train them to walk precincts. House by house, block by block, an electoral machine was being assembled. But progress was slow. "People are still so confused," said Thigpen in the early summer.[30]

Anthony Thigpen, interview, June 6, 1996.

"The challenge of educating so many people is daunting." Every day Thigpen's precinct


workers had the same frustrating experience. Voters were confused; many believed CCRI was a civil rights initiative that would be good for them. "If we don't go to their doors, we're going to lose them, but the numbers say that we aren't getting to enough people," Thigpen said.[31]


By summer organizers were in 50 to 100 precincts, but a Los Angeles Times poll showed that the majority of black and Latino voters in Los Angeles County still favored the proposition.[32]

Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1996, p. A1.

To increase their numbers faster, Thigpen added smaller meetings during the week to the large weekend meetings at churches. If an AGENDA worker found a resident interested in doing precinct work, a staffer would offer to go to the recruit's house and give an evening training session with anyone from the neighborhood. The house meetings worked well, and Thigpen began to feel the momentum grow. The word coming back from others in the Metropolitan Alliance was also positive. The organizers decided to call a mass meeting of the alliance for late September to test the validity of those reports. Was the alliance a true vehicle for organizing, or was it, like so many of its predecessors, an empty shell?

A couple of evenings before the meeting Thigpen brought together twelve representatives from the alliance at his offices on Vermont Street to prepare. Precinct maps, with colored pins stuck in the blocks that had been covered, hung from the conference room's walls. Thigpen, who generally dressed casually in an open-neck shirt and khakis, wore a tie for the meeting. He went quickly through the Saturday program. When someone at the meeting pointed out that the new buttons printed for the alliance had accidentally used New York City's skyline in the background and not L.A.'s, Thigpen laughed, pinned one on proudly, and moved on to the numbers. The goal was to get 500 "screaming and activated" volunteers from across the city to attend the alliance's kickoff. Only 394 potential recruits had responded positively, and everyone offered excuses as to why they had not reached their goal. "We've got a lot of work to do," Thigpen said calmly. He


urged everyone to get to the telephones, and he adjourned the meeting to make sure they had time.

It was a leadership style that worked. On September 28 nearly 600 volunteers appeared at Holman United Methodist Church on West Adams Boulevard. They mached Thigpen's vision of a new Los Angeles political base: a mix of young and old, Latino, African American, and Asian. The prospective recruits came from as far away as the West Side and Bell Gardens, and they were full of hope and humor. Roger Ponce, a junior from San Fernando Valley High School, wore a Cleveland Indians cap on his head. "If we can just make people aware of the issue," the young Latino said, fiddling with his cap, "we're going to beat this thing." Asked about the fears of white voters and the Mexican flags, he grinned. "They were beautiful, weren't they?"

By October 19, a little more than two weeks before the election, it was clear that even in the most distressed neighborhoods of South Los Angeles some progress had been made.

Matlie Jones, a sixty-four-year-old retiree who lived in an L.A. precinct just off Slauson Avenue, was attending her second training session. Rain threatened, but she straightened her glasses, tied a scarf around her head, and listened closely to Ng'ethe Maina, an AGENDA staffer, explain the tactics of talking to residents. "If they are a certain age," Maina said, "remind them about Jim Crow. They'll remember that and they'll know what you're talking about if you tell them this will send us back to the time of Jim Crow. If they're younger, talk about how it's important for their children to get into special school programs or college."

After getting an explanation on how to ask residents to sign a pledge card and how to mark the voting list, Jones was ready to go. "It's a great beginning, a new beginning," she said, sliding into her beat-up sedan. "I've never witnessed this kind of thing before—all these people working together. It's not a black thing or a brown thing, but a human thing."


Mrs. Jones's walk along 58th Street just off Slauson Avenue met with both hope and despair. At one house two preschool children came to the door and looked out cautiously through the screen. "Oh, I'm feeling sick today," their mother moaned from the dark living room as her children stared out. "Just leave what you have there."

"She's having a bad day," Mrs. Jones said, shaking her head and moving on to the next house, only to find that she had to walk a distance before an address matched one on her list of registered voters. "We've got a lot of work to do here to register these people," she said.

At another house, an older Latina answered the door and invited Mrs. Jones in. She had hoped Mrs. Jones was the repairman who the landlord had promised would fix the large hole in the middle of the living room ceiling, but when she found out otherwise, she quickly fetched her daughter. Yes, they knew about Proposition 209, and yes, they planned to vote against it. The daughter would even volunteer on election day.

At another house thirteen-year-old Curtis Phelps sat on the porch steps sharing a bag of chips with ten-year-old Brenden Funches. "Hey baby, who are you gonna vote for?" Mrs. Jones said as she walked up the steps and rapped on the door.

"Bill Clinton," Curtis said and then asked what Mrs. Jones was doing.

When she mentioned affirmative action, the ten-year-old looked confused.

"You know, affirmative action," the thirteen-year-old jumped in before Mrs. Jones could explain. "It helps us to get into schools because sometimes you know we don't test so well maybe because we're too nervous or something."

The boy knew about it only too well. He was in an outreach program for minority students, and if 209 was approved, it was likely to be cut.


6 The Ground War at Ground Zero

Preferred Citation: Chávez, Lydia. The Color Bind: California's Battle to End Affirmative Action. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.