In the aftermath of the Los Angels riots Americans are looking for answers to the problems that plague our urban neighborhoods. Democratic liberals are using this as an excuse to revive their nearly moribund agenda of government-dominated approaches to social change. Republican conservatives, on the other hand, see an opportunity to nail shut the coffin of New Deal/Great Society welfare socialism. Despite this apparent antagonism, both parties believe that the key to solving the urban crisis is economic development. They both focus on providing more jobs, better incomes, and property ownership to individuals in the urban neighborhoods. Jack Kemp and Ben Hooks may disagree about the means, but they agree about the goals.
Yet this understanding of the urban crisis fails to address the main issue raised by the L.A. riots and the verdict that set them off. That issue is fear. Fear turned the accused policemen from professionals into thugs. It prejudiced the judgment of the jurors. It brought L.A.'s neighborhoods to the brink of open war. For wherever human beings lack the ability to live without fear, there is war.
The L.A. riots themselves illustrate this point. For several days citizens in the afflicted neighborhoods looted, trashed and burned the businesses that provide jobs for their community. It's too easy to assume that the rioters acted irrationally, destroying the businesses that symbolized what they wanted most. It makes more sense to assume that what the rioters de- stroyed, and what they rioted about, symbolized what they hated most -- outside influences, outside powers, and the fact that outsiders dominate every aspect of their lives.
Because they have power over nothing, nothing in their environment reflects their own image. Because they see themselves in nothing, it is not long before they see nothing in themselves. And it is not long again until this emptiness itself becomes their identity. The self becomes an anti-self, a moral vacuum that sucks all meaning from the things and people around it.
The Fact that many urban neighborhoods have fallen under the sway of the anti-self does not mean that all the people who live in them have given up the struggle. On the contrary, many have not. They work, they have families, they try to raise children. But they are the unarmed inhabitants of a war zone, caught in the crossfire between the criminal forces of the anti-self and the outside forces represented by the police. Individually these people are still strongly motivated to take responsibility for themselves. But almost nothing in their environment permits them to extend this sense of responsibility to the community in which they live. As individuals they resist the anti-self. As a community they do not exist.
This fact has a decisive effect on the attitudes of the police. Since the decent people in the neighborhood do not function as a community, the police cannot clearly see themselves as acting on their behalf. Their real allegiance belongs to the outside world, represented by the bureaucracy that structures their work and has the power to punish or reward them for it.
For the police, the neighborhood is chiefly defined by the forces of the anti-self. These forces also have the power to punish and reward. The policy must be on guard against the danger they represent in either case -- the threat of physical harm as well as the temptations of corruption. Within the neighborhood, therefore, the policemen's role is defined by the evil they fight against, not the good they defend.
The situation of the police illustrates the position of all the outside agencies operating within the neighborhood, from the welfare office to the hospital emergency room, from the unemployment line to the business enterprise. Each has reason to respect the negative elements that define or threaten their function more than they respect the neighborhood's decent inhabitants.
The fundamental issue posed by the L.A. riots, therefore, is how to restore to decent people in our urban neighborhoods the power to establish and maintain their community's moral identity. Neither the Democrats' warmed-over socialism nor the Republicans' ideas of economic empowerment address this issue. The Democrats see the need for community action, but their obsession with national solutions keeps them from promoting the development of power at the appropriate, grassroots level. The Republicans see the need for empowerment, but their preoccupation with individual economic solutions keeps them from promoting the development of community-based institutions.
Neither has rediscovered the concept that alone provides for an effective combination of individual private enterprise and public action -- the concept of grassroots commu- nity self-government.
When the Great Society program first began, its progenitors included something of this concept of local self-government. The early Community Action Agencies worked with councils elected by the inhabitants of the neighborhoods. But when these experiments in democratic self-government threatened existing political arrangements, the Great Society programs were shifted away from community-based administration, into the bureaucratic model that has since been the norm. Efforts at community self-government collapsed, leaving the neighborhoods without even the semblance of community representation.
This meant that the liberal welfare state adopted, in effect, the oppressive bureaucratic model which Soviet communism carried to the extreme. Bureaucracies are inherently anti-democratic. Bureaucrats derive their power from their position in the structure, not from their relations with the people they are supposed to serve. The people are not the masters of the bureaucracy, but its clients. They receive services, but only insofar as they conform to its authority. The bureaucracy is like a computer. It responds only to those who address it in the proper form. In this sense a bureaucratic government program has a double meaning. The program serves its clients, but it also programs them.
The fully developed project of neighborhood self-government begins with a definition of the neighborhood, and includes a description of the institutions through which to empower its decent inhabitants.
A neighborhood is an area defined so that a representative body chosen by the people of the area includes only dividuals who live in and with the same conditions as the people who selected them. Geographically the area may be large or small, densely or sparsely populated. In practice, though, the people who live in the neighborhood have the best understanding of its defining boundaries.
Each neighborhood should elect a neighborhood council or governing body, which would be empowered to pass ordinances concerning the peace, order and welfare of the neighborhood. ++ This body would have the power to levy a small tax on the gross revenues of persons doing business in the neighborhood, and to appoint necessary administrative and clerical staff.
Each neighborhood should elect a sheriff and those he appoints should receive a course of training at the police academy of the city, county or state in which the neighborhood is located. His salary, and that of his deputies, should be paid out of funds raised by the neighborhood council to whom he should answer for all raises, citations or other forms of recognition.
In addition to his deputies, the sheriff would be responsible for organizing an auxiliary force of neighborhood residents to act as a militia, or posse comitatus, that would aid him and his deputies in the performance of their neighborhood watch. The constabulary would rely upon the professional police force of the city, county or state for aid, and would be subject to the jurisdiction of these police forces when dealing with violations of city, county or state law, or the apprehension of fugitives from other jurisdictions.
Each community should elect one or more justices of the peace or magistrates to adjudicate violations of community ordinances. These magistrates should be empowered to impose sentences including fines, confiscations and periods of neighborhood service.
In addition to these basic institutions, the federal and state governments should work with the neighborhood councils to transfer the administration of social-welfare programs into the hands of persons chosen by and answering to the councils. The councils would receive the federal or state funds to administer the programs, and would be subject to guidelines and oversight from the federal or state governments. However, they should be given reasonable autonomy in applying these guidelines to suit neighborhood circumstances.
In addition to handling relations with other neighborhoods and other levels of government, the councils should be empowered to maintain relations with the business sector. To support this role the councils should be given jurisdiction over the application of certain zoning and other ordinances within the neighborhood, subject to review by appropriate city, county or state bodies.
From this bare sketch of its basic institutions and functions we cannot begin to understand the importance of neighborhood self-government. That requires a more detailed consideration of its impact upon the various elements of the community's life. Its most dramatic effect should of course be on the actual and potential leadership elements of the community. At last they will have a visible, community-based platform of authority.
As things stand today, even where such leadership elements are active, their work is almost invisible and largely bereft of formal legitimacy. Their presumed right to speak for the community results from the sufferance of the outside institutions they deal .. with, not the suffrage of those they represent. This makes them suspect, even though they belong to the community and often have its vital interests at heart. Lacking formal legitimacy, they must frequently re-establish their authority in other ways. In order to prove that they have not been co-opted by outside forces, they may take strident public stands against them. At the same time, in order to get support for community projects, they must approach these same outsiders as supplicants.
Neighborhood self-government would help to resolve this dilemma. As elected representatives of the neighborhood, leaders would not be under constant pressure to prove their legitimacy. Working from a base that includes independent resources, they would be able to undertake at least some community action without begging outsiders for support.
As it stands, the only visible authorities the young see on the streets are the criminals and the police. The decent folk caught in the crossfire appear helpless and contemptible. In general the institution of neighborhood self-government should provide an opportunity for decent older people to appeal for the allegiance and respect of younger residents. It should provide a venue for cooperation across generational lines, with some semblance of pride restored to the older generation.
By restoring a judicial authority to the neighborhood level, community self-government arms this pride with something more than appearances. Today, the judicial process appears to confirm the belief that criminals acts are blows struck against domination by outsiders. Being subject to a neighborhood magistrate, younger offenders would be reminded that their actions injure their own community. The local magistrate could also impose punishments that redirect their attention and energies back toward the community.
Both the unrest in Los Angeles and the episode of injustice that occasioned it focus our attention on the community's vulnerability to violence, as well as its lack of trust in, and control over, law enforcement and the judiciary. But its most important weakness may be the fact that the community itself has no authority over the many government programs that affect its individual inhabitants. Because of this deficiency there is no connection between the help the individual receives and the decent mores the community needs to encourage.
Neighborhood self-government makes it possible to rectify this deficiency by placing the administration of these programs under the jurisdiction of the representative neighborhood body and in the hands of people from the neighborhood itself.
Alan Keyes is the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland. A longer version of this article first appeared in the National Review. (c) 1992 by National Review Inc. 150 E. 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016. Reprinted by permission.