Books

'Power Concedes Nothing' Tells of a Life Spent Balancing the Scales of Justice

Carolyn Kellogg
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
Author Connie Rice

Legal activist Connie Rice has a big, important story to tell: of her passion, her history, her legal record and her connection to both the powerful and the underprivileged in Los Angeles.


Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman's Quest for Social Justice in America, from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones

Publisher: Scribner
Length: 368 pages
Author: Connie Rice
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-01
Amazon

Connie Rice is known in Los Angeles as a brilliant civil rights advocate and agitator, but people farther afield have often confused her with Condi, the former secretary of State. Connie narrowly escaped being Condoleezza, a family name; the two Rices are second cousins (and hold disparate political beliefs). Connie Rice dispenses with any confusion in the first pages of her memoir Power Concedes Nothing so she can get down to the business of telling her story.

That story begins with a family history that stretches back to slaves, slave owners and Native Americans. The way she sees it, her predecessors came out of servitude with tiny advantages — stability, resources, skills, determination — that set them on a trajectory to success. Rice was born to a career Air Force man and a biology teacher who valued learning; despite her peripatetic youth, Rice was confident, easily found a social niche and achieved academically.

Yet from a young age, she was aware that not everyone shared her fortune. The light-skinned Rice tells the story of a darker boy on an Arizona playground who asked, “What IS you?” — he couldn’t believe that they were both black. With an uneasy sense of commonality, she pushed — something she does again and again in her life — and visited his home; it was her first genuine encounter with the deprivations of poverty. Rice looks back to that encounter not because of their shared identity but for what it revealed to her: the disparity of opportunity and circumstance. By her teens, steeped in the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and moved by Rep. Barbara Jordan, she was convinced she must “end the inequality conspiracy, not join it.”

This passionate conviction drove her to Harvard-Radcliffe, then law school at New York University. The summer internships that law students take their second year have classically been thought of as a line to a career with that firm, and Rice landed one at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF). That was 1982, the summer that decisions by the Supreme Court meant that states could renew their pursuit of death penalty cases. “We had vowed to do whatever it took to keep everyone alive,” Rice writes of the stance that she and a pair of determined fellow interns took. “We were too inexperienced to know that it could not be done.” She recounts near round-the-clock work, including late-night filings and Southern court conflicts, with breathless detail.

She spends less time on her personal life: In one notable elision, she mentions without any attribution that her dedicated study of taekwondo began after being attacked in a college dorm. Her marriage and amicable divorce take up only a few pages. “I became free,” she concludes, “to once again live alone and for my work.” If this bold feminist assertion merits further discussion, she hasn’t got room for it. There is social justice work to do.

It landed with a blast not long after she came to lead the Los Angeles office of the LDF; she was still getting her bearings when the videotaped beating of Rodney King by officers of the LAPD in 1991 changed the game. The LDF became an advocate for police reform, in both its regular external dealings with the community and internally, where long-standing traditions stood in the way of racial and gender equality and voices for change. The LDF helped to launch class-action lawsuits against the LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to challenge different aspects of systemic abuse. (Full disclosure: At the time I was employed by the ACLU of Southern California, one of the organizations that partnered with the LDF.) Tensions rode high: Rice was even bodily thrown out of the offices of the Police Protective League.

That conflict made what happened later all the more remarkable: After news of police abuses blew up into the Rampart corruption scandal, it was the Police Protective League that called Rice. The league felt higher-ups, who’d been given a pass, should also be held responsible and thought an investigative report from its harshest critics might be the best way forward. Rice signed on to work with Erwin Chemerinsky, now head of the UC Irvine law school, and with a few bumps, found allies among her adversaries. In settling a suit against the LAPD’s K-9 unit, for example, she discovered its own officers were ready to implement reforms of their own devising. All it took was finding the right lever to move obstacles out of the way.

One obstacle was Bernard Parks. In general, Rice resists pointing accusatory fingers, but she singles out Parks as resisting and undermining police reforms while he was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. “I told him that the voters of Los Angeles had approved the creation of an inspector general and that he had no right to overturn their decision,” she writes. “He looked amused for a second, then replied that the voters did not run the LAPD. When it came to the LAPD, he said, ‘I am the law.’”

She is shocked and outraged, an emotional brew that long simmered underneath both her advocacy and action. Years earlier it sent her to the Jordan Downs public housing project, a shattered community in the grips of gang violence. In the early '90s, the neighborhood’s unemployment was at 65 percent; 75 percent of its adults were functionally illiterate; 75 percent of its high school students dropped out after ninth grade; and its murder rates were 500 times higher than Rice’s own neighborhood.

“We had accepted this litany of catastrophic failure as a reasonable state,” she writes. Rice relied on key members of the community to be colleagues and guides. She sat in on gang truce negotiations, visited prisons where former football great Jim Brown’s Amer-I-Can classes seemed to bring about real emotional change, and herself became someone who could pass messages from the street to the police — that is, after Bill Bratton took charge of the LAPD. In an unusual move, Rice left LDF to begin anew with the Advancement Project, a small law firm she and her partners call an “action tank”.

All these efforts culminated in a massive 2007 report to the City Council, “A Call to Action: A Case for a Comprehensive Solution to L.A.’s Gang Violence Epidemic”. Over more than 1,000 pages, it innovatively positioned gang violence as a public health issue and children’s public safety as a right. Rice allows glimpses behind the scenes of how the report came to be, including a critical meeting between her and Mayor Villaraigosa, a former civil rights ally whose support was uncertain. Yet this scene shows how thin other parts of her narrative are — the research and partnerships that built the report get little attention.

At times, the result feels uneven, more personal here, more procedural there. But she has a big, important story to tell: of her passion, her history, her legal record and her connection to both the powerful and the underprivileged in Los Angeles.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.