Los Angeles' Future in L.A.'s Past: A Struggle for a Livable City

Anyone seeking insight into the often cutting edge of U.S. human rights history as represented by 20th century social activism in Los Angeles would have been well served by attending the free lecture given last Thursday in SMC's Concert Hall by Dr. Robert Gottlieb, co-author with three others of a new book entitled, "The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City."

As the Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Environmental Studies and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, plus author of innumerable other writings, Gottlieb is an expert on issues of livability from a urban holistic perspective.

Dr. Gottlieb described his integrated approach as a paradigm through which to address problems affecting L.A. Then he gave a rough chronology, as detailed in his book, to illustrate the area's progressive social movements, especially those either "hidden" or less known.

"We are at a moment politically, economically and socially as to where the Los Angeles community will be in the future," said Gottlieb. "We are at a pivotal moment."

By using the context of that template for his talk, Gottlieb tied past struggles to present ones.

"The mobilization of activists during the 2004 Presidential election-cycle was more significant than any other found in recent elections," said Gottlieb.

The idea for the book came during a 1998 conference commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 1923 arrest of Upton Sinclair who had read aloud the U.S. Bill of Rights to striking dockworkers on Liberty Hill in San Pedro.

That seminal event fired the American imagination and resulted in the unforeseen consequence of empowering a surging labor movement.

Sinclair, part of the Socialist Party and a spokesman for social justice, later ran as a Democrat for California Governor, winning the 1934 primary.

"There was an enormous mobilization to defeat him in the general election," said Gottlieb.

With big business employing the P.R. industry in framing public debate, Sinclair lost in the general election.

And that continued ability to "spin" the news by the media contributes to today's often cynical view of labor unions now in deep trouble. "It needs to become a social movement again," said Gottlieb.

An awareness of such deficiencies in the fight for social justice made the conference a chance for seasoned activists to reassess political linkages, share collective insights and explore evolving coalitions for the future of L.A.

"We wanted to develop an awareness of historical L.A. social movements and reactionary moments of that history," said Gottlieb.

Recognizing that history has generally been painted through the lenses of the prevailing powers-that-be, these writers wanted to tell a different story, one previously untold from the point of view of radicals and reformers who have fought for democracy, economic and social justice, but who due to their embrace of socialistic ideas, have been demonized or marginalized.

Furthermore, they wanted to describe the multi-ethnic coalitions and community-oriented environmental efforts that have arisen as successful countermeasures in the asymmetrical struggles for social justice and equality.

William Selby, a SMC professor of geography, was equivocal when asked of his assessment of the lecture. "In Los Angeles, everything you can find to hate, you can find something else to love," he said.

The book is written as an academic primer and a resource to help today's progressives understand tactics and strategies used in battles already fought. It is an aid for successful future engagements.