Earlier this year, a young man named Rudy Buchanan Jr. was shot to death by Phoenix police. Buchanan was brandishing a weapon at the time, but police officers fired 89 shots, hitting Buchanan at least 30 times, including several times in the soles of his feet.
Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox had known Rudy all his life. His parents, Molly and Rudy Buchanan Sr., are close friends. Molly works in Wilcox's office. Before Rudy Jr.'s final altercation with the police, Wilcox had written to the court in support of his release from jail on a criminal charge. "I've railed against police brutality. I've supported police programs, too," Wilcox says. "If I don't feel what we're doing is justice, I'm going to say something."
She and her husband, Earl, led a vehement and very public campaign against the Phoenix Police Department; it included press conferences, protests and demands for an independent civilian police review board that would have subpoena power to investigate police misconduct. The Wilcoxes also insisted that large numbers of police--what they called an "occupational force"--be withdrawn from minority neighborhoods.
Casual readers of the daily press could not be blamed for assuming that all of south and southwest Phoenix stood behind Mary Rose and Earl.
In fact, many residents--including Mothers Against Gangs founder Sophia Lopez and a large number of the people who make up the many Blockwatch organizations that have sprouted in the affected communities--were furious.
And that has more to do with history than with a shooting. The long-term residents of southwest Phoenix have a real relationship with the police.
Before there were catchy-named programs and task forces and committees and grants, there were cops. And when no one else gave a damn what happened on the bad side of town, there were cops. Minority teenagers kill each other on the streets of south and southwest Phoenix nearly every day. Lopez lost her own son that way, without the benefit of a public protest.
The law-abiding residents were not under siege by the cops. They were under siege by the gang-bangers and other criminals.
People in this community have slept on the floor so they don't get hit by flying bullets. They have met their children at the door of the school bus so that they make it to the front door. And the cops had been on their side. The cops were at the Blockwatch meetings and the barbecues. The cops knew residents by first name. And a large percentage of the people who live in Mary Rose Wilcox's district were fiercely loyal to the police. For Wilcox to launch this kind of public attack was, frankly, insulting to the residents who had worked so hard to forge a link to the police department. The attack could also be seen as shortsighted, an attempt to divide the community for short-term public relations gain.
The people who opposed the antipolice rhetoric showed up at the public hearings on police brutality. There, they and the Wilcox supporters glared at, intimidated and quietly insulted one another--a subtext generally missed by the outside world. The mutual antipathy is hardly limited to one issue, or one meeting. It is a long-standing feud, a political fault line dividing those who support Mary Rose Wilcox and her political allies--most prominently Phoenix City Councilmember Solomon Leija--from those who vehemently do not.
It is a line that marks the failure of liberal vision in Phoenix.
Southwest Phoenix should have benefited from Lyndon Johnson's push for a "Great Society." Johnson's antipoverty programs unleashed government spending in poor and minority communities and established policies that were expected to provide increased educational, financial and housing opportunities to the disadvantaged. Inherent to the Great Society was a belief that the participation of residents was crucial to the planning and operation of government programs. The Great Society included a racial component. The Voting Rights Act and other legislation led, increasingly, to the creation of districts that were all but certain to elect members of minority groups to public office.
Three decades later, it would seem that the Great Society is imploding. On a national level, a Republican-controlled Congress is attempting to dismantle its core programs. In southwest Phoenix, political activists are doing the dismantling themselves.
Three decades after LBJ, there are, indeed, minority elected officials on the southwest side. There are plenty of governmental and community-based programs.
But the overall quality of life has remained tragically stagnant. The only growth industry seems to be political paranoia and infighting.
Two years ago, this community was home to the first attempted recall of a city councilmember. Now, three school board members face removal petitions. Police reports are filled with allegations of harassment and violence filed by one side against the other.