Power Concedes Nothing:
One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America, from the Courtroom to the
by Connie Rice
Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $26, hardcover
Power Concedes Nothing
reads like a spy novel. Veteran civil rights attorney Connie Rice's riveting accounts of clandestine meetings between rival black gangs and Rice's cajoling of the Los Angeles Police Department brass to consider alternative approaches to reducing street violence are clearly the main strength of the book. Her forays into the underbelly of L.A.'s gangs and the inner workings of the LAPD enable Rice to develop a blueprint for reducing gang violence through a regional strategy designed to strike a balance between suppression and prevention.
Her memoir offers a compelling case for exploring alternatives to litigating systemic civil rights violations. By engendering the trust of both LAPD officers and gang leaders - untenable in the context of a heated lawsuit - Rice is able to forge alliances with and among the two sides that allow for real possibilities of combating gang violence and curtailing police abuse in Los Angeles.
Rice does sometimes address litigation efforts related to violence, but mostly to highlight their limitations. Her antipathy toward the courts is understandable given that she spent much of her legal career (in the 1980s and 1990s) appearing before conservative judges in federal courts appointed by Republican presidents. The book powerfully demonstrates how civil rights often can
(and, given the judicial climate, should
) be addressed without resorting to judicial intervention. Indeed, her efforts as counsel in the gang truce in Watts are widely touted as having helped reduce L.A. street violence, and her 2007 report to the L.A. City Council creatively identified gang violence as a public health issue and established children's public safety as a right.
Rice, a second cousin of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who hardly shares her politics, always maintains focus on the big picture. In settling a relatively minor damages action for persons bitten by police dogs, Rice is confronted by skewed societal perspectives on the value of life. She describes how despite being injured in a comparable manner, individuals who are more educated and gainfully employed received higher damage awards than her clients, blacks and Latinos, who often had no high school education, a history of crime and drug use, and low prospects of employability. Rice also laments how this formula fails to account for "the cost our clients had borne for growing up in a kill zone, the value of drumming them out of bad schools into the streets, and to estimate their worth as fodder for the state's $8 billion prison industrial complex. ... I [also] wanted to tally the cost of brain damage from lead and chemicals dumped in the playgrounds by unregulated companies." Instead, she is forced to accept the bitter disparity in damage awards as a reflection of the lesser value placed on the lives of blacks and Latinos.
In one chilling encounter with members of the Bounty Hunter Bloods gang, Rice is introduced to a nine-year-old boy, Pygmy, who she describes as having eyes without light. The gang members push him forward and instruct him to "tell the lady what you do for a livin'." Pygmy turns toward Rice and spits out: "I kill." She is left to wonder: "How had we allowed sociopaths to twist a child into a robotic killer?"
In an even more depraved incident, Rice describes a Grape Street Crips "recruitment" trip to a local school. Cornered in a bathroom, a cowering 14-year-old boy explains to his tormentors that his mother won't let him join the gang, and that he just wants to play baseball. The gang members return the next day, and he again refuses. The third time, they hand the boy a videotape showing several gangsters raping a girl; the victim is the boy's 11-year-old sister. The boy joins the gang that day.
Until we get a handle on gun proliferation, drugs, and gang violence, our communities will remain unsafe. But with a warrior like Connie Rice bravely and effectively working behind the scenes, we can at least hope for some creative approaches. Her memoir is a must-read for anyone interested in innovative approaches to vexing social problems and the civil rights issues they pose.
Robert Rubin, former legal director at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, continues to focus on civil rights in his private practice in San Francisco.