The second part of The Good Society focuses on Los Angeles and tells the stories of people who have long recognized the need for cooperative action to benefit the community as a whole. Bill Moyers features individuals in schools, churches, and grassroots organizations who share their ideas about how to best build community in economically devastated urban areas.
BILL MOYERS: Next on Listening to America, “The Good Society”: Can Los Angeles rebuild?
Back in May, when the riots in Los Angeles broke upon us in stunning pictures, one image proved unforgettable to me. It was this – one man trying with a single bucket to douse the flames, showing the futility of fighting alone.
That’s the message of a book I read this spring called The Good Society. The authors say that to move America forward, we have to work together to reform the institutions that provide us with our common ground. I’ll be speaking with Robert Bellah, one of the five authors, later in this broadcast.
Tonight, as we continue to explore what makes a good society, we return to the images of Los Angeles, not just of individual men and women working alone, but to communities and partnerships which depend on collaboration. We decided to go back to a city which many had condemned a few months ago to visit people who are determined that it rise again from the ashes.
DEMONSTRATORS: No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!
BILL MOYERS: When the Los Angeles riots erupted last April, much of America was stunned. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been.
KERMAN MADDOX, Community College Professor: If you have paid attention to some of the problems in this community and if you’ve paid attention to what’s going on in poor communities, you understand that there’s this anger, this frustration, this rage that frankly reached a boiling point. So one of the things that I’ve noticed in the press is that they have painted a picture of African-Americans who just went crazy, who are lawless, irresponsible people, and that is simply not the case. You had a group of people – myself, when I first heard the verdict, I was stunned. I was outraged. And I’m probably as docile as anybody, but as I was driving home from work, I felt like throwing a brick through somebody’s window just to kind of express the outrage I felt.
BILL MOYERS: For several days it looked as if all of the great city’s civic institutions had broken down.
JIN LEE, Store Owner: My feeling was not toward the people who looted, who burned my store. As a Christian, I can forgive them, forgive all the looters and arsonists who did it. But I cannot forgive the government.
BILL MOYERS: In the aftermath of the riots many wondered if Los Angeles, a city divided into rich and poor, a city as diverse as any in the nation’s history, could ever really find a way to cross the cultural barriers that separate its people.
CLERGYMAN: Raise your hand, those who live near a Hispanic, please. Look at this. Look at this! Thank you. I think you answered my question. We live together, my brothers and sisters. We live together. And if we live together, it’s time for us to start dialoging!
MICHAEL WOO, City Council: In my council district, there are more than 40 separate languages in dialects spoken by the people who live in the Hollywood area. In the city at large, there are more than 80 separate languages and dialects. We have neighborhoods all across the city that don’t talk to each other. People get into their cars, they turn on the radio or the air conditioning, they get to work and then they turn around at the end of the day and they don’t communicate with each other.
BILL MOYERS: Long before the riots there were people in troubled neighborhoods throughout L.A., people you’ll meet in this report, who were striving to work through their families, schools, churches and other institutions to build the city up instead of to burn it down. Their work continues, but the obstacles are enormous.
RABBI HARVEY FIELDS: We’re, you know, building high walls. We’re talking about, you know, safety and security and “Let’s get ourselves a gun.” And what are we going to end up? We’re going to end up with living in a community that we all detest.
BILL MOYERS: Bowna Lee’s supermarket was burned down in the riots. Later she tried to stop people she believed were taking scrap metal from the wreckage.
BOWNA LEE, Store Owner: Why are you taking, OK? That’s not yours. Why you take that, OK? Why you take that? How come that is yours, OK?
MAN: It’s no good. It’s no good.
BOWNA LEE: You have no right to take anything from our property, OK? [crosstalk] There is a big sign, “No trespass,” you know? This is my property. This is still my money’s in here. This is all my 20 years’ money’s in here, you stupid – and they don’t even fear anything guilty. They don’t even think anything bad about it. You know, they think that it is right. You know, where is the justice about here? You know, there is no justice?
BILL MOYERS: American injustice may have come as a surprise to many Korean immigrants in Los Angeles. Most came here with the dream of prosperity and a desire to live in a good society.
ANGELA OH, Korean-American Bar Association: The fundamental things that people are looking for is decent housing, an education for their children, a quality of life that, you know, is not mired by the kind of violence and poverty that you see in too many of our large urban centers in this country.
BILL MOYERS: Angela Oh is part of the large and growing Korean population in Los Angeles.
ANGELA OH: It’s an 85 percent immigrant population and it’s one that is very much living or trying to pursue the American dream. I think both the first generation and the second generation would have to say that one of the basic things that an ideal society would reflect is mutual respect for those who are different from ourselves, cultures that are different from the ones that we came from. We don’t have that in this society, in this country. There has been a paradigm of what is the ideal family and it doesn’t look black, brown or Asian. And it doesn’t look Jewish, either, for that matter. And so I think that what L.A. has the opportunity to do now is to take all of these differences and maybe say, “These differences are here and we can appreciate them and it’s OK for these differences to exist and let’s find a way to move forward together.”
BILL MOYERS: But tensions here have been high between some blacks and Koreans. Just one year before the riots, this videotape was shown again and again on L.A. television stations. In it, a black customer named Latasha Harlins is seen hitting a Korean merchant over the counter during a dispute. As Latasha Harlins turns to leave, she is shot in the back by the store owner. Many people were outraged that after being convicted, the Korean woman received no jail time.
BOWNA LEE: They talking about, you know, another – the Korean merchant shooting another, you know, Latasha Harlins stories, you know? Why they not mention how many Korean merchant died of black people’s gun, you know?
BONG HUAN KIM, Korean Youth Center: Ever since the tragic shooting of the African-American girl, the media has really portrayed this situation as a black-Korean conflict, so-called. And basically the media’s approach has been to show an angry African-American face and say, “We want Koreans out of our neighborhood” and the balanced presentation of that, the so-called balanced presentation of that would be to put an angry Korean face on there and say, “All blacks steal.” What that does, it not only adds fuel to the fire of rage, you know, that is happening in South Central, in terms of the disenfranchised, the level of poverty, the violence, the drugs, but it also deflects attention from the real source of the problem, which is – you know, Korean merchants are not going to solve the problem of South Central. We may be able to provide a few jobs, but basically we’re just one rung up on the ladder.
BILL MOYERS: Many Koreans feel they’ve been thrown off the ladder entirely, as the riots brought such widespread destruction to their livelihoods.
BONG HUAN KIM: It’s very overwhelming experience. There is a tremendous amount of emotional trauma that our whole community is just undergoing right now.
BOWNA LEE: I’m supposed to be, you know, understanding their anger and trying to forgive them, you know, but who going to understanding my anger inside my mind, you know? Who going to pay all, you know, this, you know – how can I express my feeling, like – you know, like them, vandalism and hatred?
BONG HUAN KIM: A lot of people have lost their only source of income. Whatever they have lost within those four walls, what burned up in the fire, that store is symbolic of something much deeper than just inventory or goods. It’s symbolic of a dream, of hopes and aspirations that they gave up their roots for.
BOWNA LEE: When I was little, I always dream about America is the country of the, you know, opportunity, country of the freedom, you know? That’s why I always want to coming over here.
BONG HUAN KIM: They gave up all that they knew in Korea, you know, to come here and to get a foothold into this society and that is a tremendous – a tremendous shock and I think people are still trying to recover.
BILL MOYERS: The Korean community, well-known for supporting each other in business, is now pulling together in a relief effort for families whose businesses were destroyed.
Rev. HYUN SEUNG YANG, Oriental Mission Church: We sharing our love. They are emotionally depressed, emotionally very loneliness. We hand out our love. We sharing our stress. We sharing our suffering.
JIN LEE: I came here to this country when I was 18. Before I came down here, I had no relation with different race because Korea’s a homogeneous country. We have only one race. So we never experienced about the racial tensions. And I love American movie and American drama and every time I turn on TV and go to a movie theater, oh, the drug addicts or the hookers or the thieves – and they’re all black. So they portray black people as a bad people so they educate us automatically having a stereotype about the black people. That’s why it’s so hard for the Korean people to have good relations with black people, because they already think the blacks are all bad. I mean, come on, let’s be honest. Every race has some kind of bad apple. You know, I don’t care if you’re Korean, I don’t care if you’re Hispanic or white. I mean, we have a lot of bad people in Korea. If you’re all good, the jail in Korea doesn’t have to exist, right? So my complaint is toward media is personally. I sponsored three basketball games with the black youth and Korean youths and I breached it with the Korean church and black church to have services together. When I call the media, they never come. If one Korean man got killed by a black robber, it’s big news, front page, you know? But when I do something positive, they don’t do it.
BILL MOYERS: Jin Lee is a 27-year-old Korean immigrant. He came to L.A. in 1983 and was married several years later. He and his wife are raising their one-year-old daughter here. In April, his store was burned to the ground. He lost almost everything he owned. In the wake of the riots, Jin Lee is helping mobilize the Korean community. He helped found an association to push for aid to the arson victims.
JIN LEE: [at meeting] The purpose is to try to help the victims not to lose their home.
BILL MOYERS: Since the riots, some Korean immigrants are discovering that building a business also means building links to other institutions. Jin Lee has taken a lead in mediating between Korean-Americans and government agencies and is working with his church in the relief effort.
Shortly before his store was destroyed, Jin Lee made a home video to show relatives back in Korea. In it, his uncle proudly holds up the different items Jin Lee stocked.
JIN LEE: My store is kind of medium-sized store. It’s not too big. It’s not too small. It’s not supermarket, but it’s pretty big. I had a full line of meat and produce, milk and grocery and beer and wine. I was serving my community as a corner store. That’s my uncle. See, a lot of people don’t know that we have a tremendous relationship between two race. Mostly the black people are very humble, but somehow people has stereotyped idea about the black people. That’s my wife and baby. You know, that’s how she worked, right after – four months after labor. We had to work that hard to make a living. A lot of people think that we are just well-off, you know, rich. But it doesn’t come easy. You have to work very hard. When we get married three years ago, I was behind the cash register in tuxedo because my wedding was 12:00 o’clock – no, no. I’m sorry, 3:00 o’clock and I had to open the store in the morning in tuxedo and I was working behind the cash register until 12:00 o’clock. I went to my church and got married and came back with my wife and closed the store at 8:00 o’clock. We didn’t go on a honeymoon trip. I worked that hard, you know, and everything went into ash overnight.
Please not to portray this as black and Korean tension. You know, this is economic problem. This is money problem. If everybody has a Cadillac, a nice home, it won’t happen because they got something to lose and those black people didn’t have anything to lose. If I was black kid living in ghetto, being into jail for a couple times, you know, I have no father – when I watching the TV, if I was watching the TV that day, I would have go out to do exactly the same thing because I have no respect, you know? Well, Dan Quayle said – I don’t even like him, but he said one thing right. Family values is very important. So we have to work in human relation, family value, communication and understanding.
BILL MOYERS: Televised images like these may cause you to think of South Central Los Angeles as mainly a place of lawlessness. In fact, despite the gangs and poverty, this is home mostly to responsible citizens with community institutions that provide support. In South Central and in neighboring Inglewood, African-American families like Joe and Joyce Wilson suffered during the riots. The Wilsons lost their business, too, Pop’s Restaurant.
JOE WILSON, Restaurant Owner: You know, it hurts because I put 15, 16 hours a day, every day, for three years almost and then it got so we – I could have started taking, like, one day off. But when you put in all this sweat and all this time, and the years you put in here and all the stuff we had accumulated in here, then it all just go in about less than 20 minutes or 30 minutes – you know, it hurts.
JOYCE WILSON, Restaurant Owner: There was a lot of looting. The looters would put their stuff down, come into the store, get them a soda or a cake. They say, “Are you all right?” We say, ”Yes, we’re all right.” They say, ”We’re going to come back to see if you’re fine.” We said, “Thank you. And they did. And these little kids, these little kids – and they talk about the future. That was the future that was out here tearing these buildings down, you know? And everybody was talking about a Rodney King thing. This was no Rodney King thing. This was a people thing. They did what they wanted to do. You know, like Rodney King said, for the first two hours I could understand them being angry, but after the first two hours you had time to think. You know, and there with the TV, everybody sitting in front of their TV’s, looking, the people telling the other people where to go, where there’s kids that don’t go to the Foot Locker. You know, but they’re telling them that, “Here’s a Foot Locker over here,” you know, “No policemens around! You can come over here.” They didn’t say it, but that’s what they meant!
I want to say that this is not our crew, you know? I don’t know where this crew come from, you know?
BILL MOYERS: One of the ironies of the L.A. riots – the clean-up has created jobs in a neighborhood where work is scarce.
JOYCE WILSON: How could you stop? The gentleman with the white hat on said that he was out of a job, but now he has a job. So what am I to say?
I’m a Baptist. I go to Paradise Baptist Church on 51st and Broadway. Joe is a Muslim. Ishona [sp?] is a Baptist and a Muslim. She can’t make up her mind which one she wants to be. She goes to a Muslim school and we try to keep her in a private school because she’s not public school material. Why I say she’s not public school material, she’s kind of hyper and we would not put her in the regular school because a regular school system, they’re not as tough as they used to be.
When I give you your lunch money every day, what do I tell you?
ISHONA: Don’t get no free lunch.
JOYCE WILSON: And don’t go in there pretending like that you don’t have money and then you keep your money. Isn’t that what I tell you?
JOYCE WILSON: OK. That’s the same thing it is about looting. Instead of you going out looting, you go to work and you-
ISHONA: You go to work and buy stuff.
JOYCE WILSON: And that’s the same way-
ISHONA: You don’t just go and loot.
KERMAN MADDOX: This church has been the hub or the center of the outreach for everybody. Right after the rebellion, or even during it, people didn’t call City Hall. People didn’t call their elected officials. Everybody called here because the word was out in advance that no matter what happens the day of the verdict, we’re going to meet here.
BILL MOYERS: This is the First African Methodist Episcopalian Church. In ordinary times First A.M.E. not only provides a vibrant Sunday service, but registers voters, shelters the homeless, offers drug counseling and feeds the hungry. During the riots it reached out even further to the stricken.
KERMAN MADDOX: Originally, we thought we were going to have a celebration, but as time passed it was clear we were not going to celebrate. So the idea was to come together and figure out what do we do now, because we have a problem. Well, the word got out and from that point forward, everybody who wanted to participate called here, people who donated cars, clothing, food, job opportunities, Disney, things like that.
BILL MOYERS: In the wake of the riots, representatives of Disney came here offering to interview young people for 200 entry-level jobs at Disneyland. They were startled and pleased when over 600 high-caliber applicants showed up.
KERMAN MADDOX: If you were white and you didn’t know anything about this community, all you would think is that every young African-American man between the age of 17 and 25 is in a gang, he’s irresponsible, he doesn’t want to work, he’s a thug. The overwhelming majority of young people in this community are like myself. They want to work. They’re responsible. They believe in the system. They want to get ahead just like everybody else. All we’re asking for is for young people in this community to have the same opportunity that young people in other communities have, a chance to make a living. That’s all. It’s amazing what money does in a person’s pocket. It gives them the opportunity to take care of your children, take care of your husband, take care of your wife. And then it doesn’t even – you don’t even think about doing anything else because what you’re trying to do is move ahead and make it, just like everybody else.
MARGO WAINWRIGHT, Youth Intervention Program: One of the most disturbing things that I hear people say, supposedly intelligent people, is that we’ve lost a whole generation of kids. You cannot lose a generation that will be here until they’re 60 or 70. You’ve got to find out what is not working and clean that up. Do you plan to kill them off so that they do not exist? Is that the plan? Is it a plan to jail and put them all in institutions so that they will just go away and society won’t know that they’re here? That does not work.
BILL MOYERS: This is South Central L.A.’s Youth Intervention Program, a fully-accredited school for youngsters on probation run by Margo Wainwright.
MARGO WAINWRIGHT: [to students] You guys can get back to work. We are not on a break any longer. It’s over.
BILL MOYERS: Margo gave up her life as a successful businesswoman manufacturing casters because she wanted to give something back to her community. The school has become an institution in South Central, providing hope for many kids others had given up on.
TEACHER: [to students] Once you have the verb, you just ask yourself who or what is doing the action.
MARGO WAINWRIGHT: They’re willing to work. What’s really amazing is they’re willing to work. What’s even more amazing is they do one hell of a good job once they’re allowed to work. More times than not, we’re told when we get kids into our program, ”You do understand that these kids have no values. They care for nothing. They have no sense of identity or responsibility.” That’s a lie. They do have values. What we resent is, they have placed their values on the kids that they run around with. They have learned from each other, be it good or bad.
BILL MOYERS: Even though some of Margo’s students face serious difficulties, she tries to encourage them to imagine and work toward a better life.
MARGO WAINWRIGHT: You determined what you wanted to do with your life. There’s a young lady that I counseled with named Andrea and she has some real problems because she has a two-year-old son and she’s concerned with him being taken away from her.
[to Andrea] The mother has to be really in left field for the courts to take a child from his mother. There is no way in the world that we’re going to stand by and let somebody just take your child from you. That’s crazy. That’s the last thing you have to worry about and you don’t need to work yourself up like that. But we will next week check into a nurse’s training class and see how many weeks it’ll take. And what we’ll do first is either get something like in the medical assistant field and continue in school to either get your LPN or your RN so that you can get some form of a license that’ll pay you enough money so that you can become self–sufficient. That’s going to take you about two years.
It’s amazing how we think that the problem’s not ours, that the problem is theirs. In order for a kid to become strong and stable, they need guidance. They need leadership. They need role models. They need to be talked to. They need to be able to watch what you do in order to emulate what it is that they need to do. If we are so busy as a society that we don’t have time for that, then we’re missing the most important food that any society needs.
BILL MOYERS: Knowing that schooling alone wasn’t enough to get their young people back on track, Margo and two of her teachers – also businesspeople – bought and renovated a condemned house and turned it into a home for their male students.
MARGO WAINWRIGHT: Jobs like this are so huge and massive that there’s no one individual here in this world, or any worlds to come, that could possibly fill the needs of these kids individually.
BILL MOYERS: The Watson Manor houses 26 kids who are in transition between juvenile hall and mainstream society.
RESIDENT: It’s all right in some ways, but in other ways it’s not, you know? Like – like, some of the rules they’ve got around here – they’ve got some way-out rules.
KENNETH “SMOKEY” RILEY, Counselor: That’s right. We got rules for them. You know, they got to do – they got to take their shower at a certain time. They got to eat at a certain time. You know, the majority of them ain’t been, you know – they didn’t come from – where they come from, they didn’t have to do that stuff. You know, they was running around doing their own program, growing up wherever they was growing up at, you know what I’m saying? So being – taking – having orders, people telling you what to do, is hard for some of them, you know? But that’s the price they got to pay for getting in the trouble they did, you know? I mean, like we tell them, we ain’t the one that brought you here, you know? We here to try to help you, you see what I’m saying, so don’t try to go off on us. Don’t try to – don’t try to, you know, get mad with us because of certain rules. Because if we let you all run wild, this stuff, this house’d be tore up. You know, as you can see, this is a nice house and it was nicer than this before a bunch of them came. We had nice furniture up in here. They tore it up. That’s why we got these beanbags. It’ll take them a little longer to tear this up.
I can’t change the society, man. The society going to be like it is already. You know, when they go back out to the streets, it’s going to be the same peer pressures. It’s going to be the same problem, you know? I mean, what I want for them is to be better to deal with the problems they’re going to be facing, you know, because I faced the same problems every day, you know, and I faced them when I was growing up. I was a lot like a lot of them that’s in here now, you know, but something, you know – somebody helped me, you know, and showed me a better way. That’s why I changed, you know. I used to be involved in gangs, used to sell dope. You know, I used to do it all. But, you know, by me meeting Margo five, six years ago, you know, she changed me, you know, and brought me into the program and I’ve been with it ever since and I love what I’m doing, you know, trying to help young brothers, you understand me, not go through the same things that I went through.
MARGO WAINWRIGHT: I think that the most important thing in a society is that everyone looks out for everyone else. When it starts to become selfish or self-centered or “I’m concerned with my problem, that’s your problem,” then you lose out on the basic things that make you strong.
When I was growing up as a child, the community was your extended family. If anybody in the community saw you doing something you shouldn’t do, they said, “Now, honey, you know you should not be doing that. Now, I’m going to tell your mother.” You need everybody in your community to work for the solution.
BILL MOYERS: Poverty is routine in parts of Los Angeles and offers the most persistent challenge to the city’s institutions. In East L.A., for example, the poor and the jobless must coexist with drugs, violence and gangs. But despair has given way to hope in at least one of its neighborhoods.
Father GREG BOYLE: You know, this is the poorest community – it’s the poorest parish in the city, but I would defy any other pocket or community in the city to have a higher quality of living than we have here, in terms of human qualities. It’s – in human terms, this is a graced place.
[to teenagers] You know what I’m going to have you do? This is a big-ass – like, trust you big-time. Can I do it?
TEENAGER: You can trust me and my brother.
FATHER GREG BOYLE: All right. Well, I know these guys’ll beat your ass if you cash their check. It’s just you’ll save me a lot of time.
BILL MOYERS: Father Gregory Boyle is the Roman Catholic pastor of the Dolores Mission, where he employs over 70 young people. The mission also runs an alternative school, provides child care for 25 families and offers meals and shelter to over 300 homeless people. But perhaps most important is that Father Boyle has offered young men here an alternative to the intimidation and violence they call “gang-banging.”
LEONARDO VILCHIS, Parish Activist: Five years ago or six years ago there was a lot of tension between the gangs and the community and the community, little by little, started discovering that rather than turning the gang member into the enemy, it was better to become friends with the gang member and to try to understand what are the problems that happen with them. And once they decided accepting Greg, the decided to take a further step on helping them on getting the job.
ARNOLD MACHADO: He doesn’t always come – you know, come up to you and start preaching to you, like, you know, “God this” and “God that.” You know, he’s still a priest and everything, but he has a different way of getting to people, you know, and it works.
FATHER GREG BOYLE: You’re not going to say hi, or what?
ARNOLD MACHADO: He talks like a regular homeboy, you know?
FATHER GREG BOYLE: How’re you doing?
MAN ON BICYCLE: All right.
FATHER GREG BOYLE: Nice seeing you. When’d you get out?
MAN ON BICYCLE: About a week ago.
FATHER GREG BOYLE: When are we going to work and do all that stuff?
ARNOLD MACHADO: That’s how come everybody, you know, gets along with him good because he knows how to talk to a person.
FATHER GREG BOYLE: Good for you. Thanks for writing, you know?
[to teenagers] I’m going to give you a ticket, a one-way ticket. Hey, I hear a lot of kick-ass about – about attitude at school. Right?
I’m writing these checks for all the workers who – I have about 60 who work all over the city, a gardening crew, maintenance, construction, counselors from our program over there, people work in offices and the warehouse.
[to teenagers] Did you work at all this week?
TEENAGER: Yeah, man.
FATHER GREG BOYLE: I have Ralph Jimenez. I have Juan-
At the moment, I’m writing more rubber checks than a U.S. Congressman, but hopefully I’ll have enough money to cover it come Monday morning.
TEENAGER: My next paycheck will be about two-what, $240 a week, $250?
FATHER GREG BOYLE: Is that why they call you “Dreamer,” because in your dreams you’re going to get paid that much?
All right, you guys. What time will I see you?
TEENAGER: About 1:00?
FATHER GREG BOYLE: Kick back one second. Let me tell you what time to come in.
TEENAGER: At 12:30?
FATHER GREG BOYLE: OK, 1:00 o’clock on Monday.
TEENAGER: All right.
CESAR OROZCO: Everybody on check. You know, everybody, like, you know, kind of respects the man, you know, respects him with a lot of heart because he did a lot for everybody. You know, he – he went out of his way for us so we’re kind of going out of our way for him.
If it wasn’t for G, we wouldn’t be working right now. We wouldn’t be working because nobody – nobody – you know, they look at us, they see where we come from and all they see is the bad – you know, the bad things about it. You know, they don’t – they don’t stop and think, “Oh, maybe he’s trying to change his life,” you know, “Maybe he wants to get a job to change his life.”
FATHER GREG BOYLE: The principle is if they have a reason to get up in the morning and work, then they have a reason what? Not to gangbang at night.
[to teenagers] Am I full of it? Does that make sense? That makes sense? Good.
TEENAGER: We’ll be too tired.
FATHER GREG BOYLE: Oh, you’ll be too tired? OK. You’ll be – sounds like no moral principle there. We’re just dang too tired to bang. OK.
DAVID MERRITT: I was making good money out there on the street. All I did was just mess it up with drugs and women, buying cars. And what I have to show for it now out of all that money? Nothing.
BILL MOYERS: David Merritt is a gang member from Dolores Mission who’s trying to turn his life around. He works for an organization which takes surplus food from stores and restaurants, food still edible, and gives it out to the hungry every day.
DAVID MERRITT: I just got tired of going to jail, you know what I mean, and started realizing that that wasn’t a life. I kind of asked Father Greg for some help and he helped me out. He went out and got me a job here and just asked me, because I was kind of older, to help out and supervise some of the younger guys and keep them out of trouble and, you know, talk with them a little bit. So that’s what I do. That’s when I started here and I’ve been busting my butt, working, working and finally, I moved up to supervisor.
JIM SULLIVAN, Vice President, “Love Is Feeding Everybody”: David was outstanding from the get-go. He’s very dedicated, shows up every day, willing to take direction, and basically sees this as his opportunity to get off the streets. He’s the kind of person that can go on and succeed in a “real job” in the real world and I’d like to see him do that. That’s a door-opener for the others that can follow behind him.
BILL MOYERS: Eight gang members from the mission now work here, their salaries paid by the parish until they prove themselves. David is the first of the young men to move off Father Boyle’s payroll and to be hired full-time starting at $6 an hour. He now hopes to finish high school and eventually go into welding.
DAVID MERRITT: It feels good. You know, it gave me the confidence in doing again, you know, I mean, instead of out there selling drugs and gang-banging.
FATHER GREG BOYLE: I believe it’s the only thing that, in the end, silences the bullets around this place, you know? I mean, it doesn’t really require people to sit down and have big peace treaties. It’s more a question of getting kids working and having purposeful activity and a reason to get up the next morning and – and – but, you know, this is a small, tiny drop in a big, huge bucket.
CESAR OROZCO: I’ve been lucky. I got shot at, you know, a lot of times, but I never got hit. I’ve been lucky.
DANNY CABRAL: I got shot in the supermarket and I got shot in the back. I didn’t feel it, at first, right? Oh, I was, like, “Damn, they missed,” you know? I got up and I said, “Damn, they got me,” you know? I told my cousin Bear. He didn’t believe me, right, my cousin resting in peace right now. He carried me, took me to the car and drove me down to the hospital.
BILL MOYERS: Danny survived his wound, but his cousin was soon murdered with a shotgun in a drive-by shooting.
DANNY CABRAL: He was known, popular out here. Everybody knew him as Bear. He was, like, one of the people that had respect. Everybody respected him. Wherever you walked, he was that person who had respect.
FATHER GREG BOYLE: The last three years have been real hard. We had one summer that was just horrendous, in terms of funerals.
[to teenager] Here you go, Holmes. You won the lottery. See you on Monday, 9:00 o’clock.
Well, I’ve buried 26 kids in mainly the last four years. Whew! And so that’s how violent it is. When the kids get killed, you know, what do you have? You have car washes. You have bake sales. You have people coming together to pay for the funeral expenses, you know? There’s not a sense of people doing anything in isolation, you know? If it’s not in the community, you know, it’s – it doesn’t have a lot of worth here. There are no Lone Rangers. Martin Luther King used to say, “The church is a place you go from,” you know, not the place you go to. And that’s what happens here, too.
BILL MOYERS: While many parts of L.A. burned during the riots, the Dolores Mission area was quiet.
DANNY CABRAL: Yeah, Father Greg – because of Father Greg, you know, nothing really happened down here. I think if he wouldn’t have been here, the truth, stores’d be getting robbed, you know? But in a way, we would have probably thought, too, like, some of us, we are some – but there’s always a knucklehead, you know, in the crowd, “Let’s do this,” you know, always one knucklehead that just pumps another one up and another one and it goes on like that, just one knucklehead. But see, he talks to the knuckleheads and he gets it to them, see?
FATHER GREG BOYLE: I was riding on my bike one night about 8:00 o’clock and it was still light. And you have to kind of take in the whole scene here. We had 100 homeless men, 100, 200 homeless men lined up for food. We had about 15, 20 homeboys from gangs hanging out by this bell tower. We had 200 people, adults going to English as a second language class. We had a women’s leadership training program upstairs on the third floor. People were going to that. We had an AA meeting that was going on at the same time and it was just – as we say in Spanish, [unintelligible}, like a madhouse, all this activity. And this guy pulled up in his car and he goes – and he stopped me and he goes, “Are you the priest here?” And I said, ”Yeah.” And he goes, ”You know, I grew up here. I was baptized here, First Communion.” And he looks around and he takes all this in and he kind of shakes his head. He shakes his head and kind of goes, ”You know, this used to be a church,” like that, you know? And I said, ”You know, that’s funny you should say that because all the people around here say it’s finally a church,” you know?
BILL MOYERS: The church will soon be faced with continuing Father Boyle’s work without our Father Boyle. As a Jesuit priest, Father Boyle is transferred about every seven years. Before the summer is out, he’ll be starting his work all over again in Detroit.
LEONARDO VILCHIS: A lot of them are very, very sad because he’s leaving and they feel that now maybe things are not going to be the same. Except part of the challenge for us is to show that it actually can be done. Greg created the space and gave the push, but it was all a community effort. If the community didn’t want to have the gang members in this neighborhood, that would have happened. So once the community have accepted them, they have accepted the homeless and they have developed a relationship with the single mothers and worked with them to develop a child care center, they have to realize that this has been also an effort – a communal effort. And now is the big challenge for the community because Father Greg is going.
BILL MOYERS: The task of carrying on the mission’s work now falls on active parishioners like Leonardo Vilchis.
LEONARDO VILCHIS: As I guess, the challenge for right now, if you look at it in terms of what happened in Los Angeles, could you have all these affluent, powerful groups trying to help? But I think the most important thing is to try to listen before you start doing anything. And if you start listening and you say – listen to what kind of solutions these communities have for their own problems and start supporting those solutions, things will change.
FATHER GREG BOYLE: They’re aware of how, in a lot of other places, you know, you remove a priest and whatever good has been begun, or whatever, it ends. And I will have considered myself a great failure if that happen because if it’s not theirs, if they don’t own it, then it’s not going to continue. And they’re very much aware – I mean, I think that’s half the battle, the fact of how highly conscious they are of just not permitting it to happen, you know, and I really hope that that will be the case.
BILL MOYERS: Robert Bellah, what is, in your judgment, a good society?
ROBERT BELLAH, Co-Author, ”The Good Society”: I think it’s important that nobody has an absolute blueprint that they can slam down and say, “This is it. Take it or leave it.” It’s something we work on as we go along. At the same time, I think our tradition, our civic tradition, our religious tradition does tell us something about a good society. A good society is one which makes it possible for every human being in that society to flourish.
BILL MOYERS: What strikes you about those people we saw in Los Angeles?
ROBERT BELLAH: First of all, they’re extraordinarily impressive people doing some amazing things. We talk about empowering the people from below and that’s important, but we need good leaders and we need to encourage and strengthen good leadership. Our society has had at moments – we’ve been, you know, a little tricky on this one, but we have had responsible elites that have put the interests of the whole society first.
BILL MOYERS: You use the term “elites” almost simultaneously with the word “institutions” and those are two forces in American life with whom we’ve also had this love-hate relationship.
ROBERT BELLAH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: We don’t like cultural elites.
ROBERT BELLAH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And we also battle institutions in the name of our own individuality.
ROBERT BELLAH: Right. I think, again, it’s our utopianism, the notion that we can do without elites altogether, without institutions altogether. The question – we’re not going to do without elites. There’s never been a society in the world without elites. Even the simplest non-literate society, some people have more power than others. Let’s face it. The question then is, are we going to have a rapacious, selfish elite that’s only looking for its own advantage and doesn’t care what happens to the society or are we going to have an elite that says, ”We’re part of this and we’re going to work for the whole society and we’re going to contribute to that and get our self-respect and our social esteem by what we give, not just by what we take”?
BILL MOYERS: What do you think should be the response of, say, the elites in Los Angeles, the leaders of culture, the leaders of business, the leaders of politics to people like those we saw in the report?
ROBERT BELLAH: Well, I think we’ve seen some extraordinary outpour-ings of volunteerism and money-raising from a variety of groups, but I think, wonderful though that is, it tends to be a bit transient and it certainly isn’t enough. We need to change the balance between city and suburb. If we just let the center cities go down the drain because of lack of resources, we can’t be surprised if there’s going to be gangs and shootings and drugs.
BILL MOYERS: We’re afraid of crime. We’re afraid of the guns. We heard Jimmy Carter say in Atlanta, and we saw in the Los Angeles report, that guns become a metaphor for success.
ROBERT BELLAH: Yes. Yes. I think our strongest need at the moment is what Amitai Etzioni calls “domestic disarmament.” I mean, here we are, putting Saddam Hussein up against the wall and saying, “You are not going to build atomic weapons because we’re – the world would not be safe if you had them,” but our immediate problem is teenagers with Uzis and automatic rifles. And if we can stop Hussein from building the atomic bomb, can’t we take the guns out of the hands of these young people and show them that that’s not the way to gain self-respect?
BILL MOYERS: Aren’t you ultimately talking about political power? Because nothing happens voluntarily in this country. People don’t give up power unless they have an advantage to do so or a necessity to do so.
ROBERT BELLAH: Yes. Right. No question. And moving as many of the things we’ve seen from Atlanta and from Los Angeles, I think at moments you might get the feeling that communication, dialogue, getting the different groups together is going to solve the problem. I think that’s part of the solution and very valuable, but money, power – I mean, that’s crucial. If we forget that things happen in a society because of those two factors – in our kind of society, money means power. We need to change the balance with respect to the way those factors operate.
BILL MOYERS: One of the constant criticisms or most consistent criticisms of your book, The Good Society, is that it makes it sound too easy, that if we just all stop being quite as materialistic or quite as individualistic and just think about a better society, we’ll get there. But ultimately, you’re talking about some very tough political-
ROBERT BELLAH: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: – and economic battles. It ain’t easy-
ROBERT BELLAH: Right.
BILL MOYERS: –to build a good society, right?
ROBERT BELLAH: It’s certainly the case. And if you look at features of the American economy and the American political system today in comparison with some of our rival advanced industrial nations, you see that we’re not doing very well in those two areas and they’re critical. You can’t have a good society without a good economy and without a good government.
BILL MOYERS: The headline in a recent The Wall Street Journal – “As America triumphs, Americans are awash in doubt and pessimism.” The story says, “The cold war is won, individual liberty and American market capitalism sweep Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union, yet,” says The Wall Street Journal, “at the moment of victory, a wave of self-doubt sweeps America. Polls indicate that fully three fourths of all Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.” What’s at the root of all this discontent?
ROBERT BELLAH: Well, I think, again, it’s that we’ve bought one side of our tradition recently with too much enthusiasm and we’ve forgotten some of the other strands in our tradition.
BILL MOYERS: And the strands we’ve forgotten, in your judgment, are?
ROBERT BELLAH: What I mentioned, the question of responsibility, of being members, one of another, of thinking about community, of thinking about living in a decent society, not just a walled enclave where I can somehow survive, although the society outside is falling apart.
BILL MOYERS: Those are noble notions, but how-
ROBERT BELLAH: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: – do we get them? How do we reform institutions that then work toward – bend toward, tilt toward –
ROBERT BELLAH: Right.
BILL MOYERS: – those goals?
ROBERT BELLAH: It involves changing consciousness and it involves changing the rules. For instance, one of the problems in American business is a managerial style that’s deeply rooted in a kind of top-down, “Management knows best.” Now, we’re beginning to realize that if workers don’t participate, if they don’t contribute their ideas, if they’re treated as robots, the whole thing isn’t going to work and the whole firm is going to suffer from that. So sort of the pressure of reality is making us change our mind.
BILL MOYERS: But that’s a very good and specific example of what do you mean by changing consciousness.
ROBERT BELLAH: Another one that’s absolutely central is our current profound skepticism about government. And I can’t say that that’s not well founded.
BILL MOYERS: You look at the Vietnam war, when I was Washington-
ROBERT BELLAH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: – the sense of the-
ROBERT BELLAH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: – credibility gap, Watergate, the failure of the Reagan administration to deliver the balanced budget-
ROBERT BELLAH: The savings and loans.
BILL MOYERS: – the savings and loans, the failures of-
ROBERT BELLAH: Right. Right.
BILL MOYERS: – the Democrats in Congress, the failures of the Republican administration-
ROBERT BELLAH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, that cynicism seems-
ROBERT BELLAH: It’s-
BILL MOYERS: -to me to have justifiable roots.
ROBERT BELLAH: But it’s a self-defeating, downward spiral, if we give up on a responsible political system, on political parties that stand for something, on a government that cares for all the people instead of only the top 1 percent. So turning that around is certainly partly a question of consciousness that people could even believe the government could do anything right. And then that won’t happen unless we begin to see government doing things right.
BILL MOYERS: When I think back to our reporting from Los Angeles, I’m struck by how race seems to be the one force that drives us away from each other. And I think of, you know, “e pluribus unum,” ‘out of the”-
ROBERT BELLAH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: -“many, one”- that isn’t happening.
ROBERT BELLAH: I believe in multiculturalism and that we have to respect different cultures, but I think we can kid ourselves by talking about pluralism and diversity, to use that as an excuse. Because take the case of the family, which we heard discussed in this – in the Los Angeles segment. If you actually talk to people in every one of these diverse communities, they all care deeply about the family. It’s not a divisive issue. They want to strengthen the family, whether they’re white or Chicano or black or Asian or whatever. They care deeply about the family. That’s something that can bring us together, not divide us.
BILL MOYERS: What is the incentive for the affluent, the comfortable, the wealthy, the safe to get involved in community, in building, in putting the interest of society as a whole ahead of their own interest?
ROBERT BELLAH: Well, here I’m going to speak from my heart. I think it’s very good for their souls. I don’t want to lay guilt on them, but I want to tell those people, “You will be more fully human, you will be at peace with your Creator if you find yourself giving to society and not just taking from it.”
BILL MOYERS: You’re not talking about just paying more taxes, are you?
ROBERT BELLAH: I’m not at all. I mean getting involved in the kind of civic reconstruction that’s going on in Atlanta, the Atlanta Project, or becoming involved in rebuilding L.A., giving your time, giving your human concern.
BILL MOYERS: But so many people, so many Americans today are over-burdened, have to hold two jobs to make ends meet or both mother and father out working, more activities than they can manage. It’s a tough time to try to make ends meet. They’re harassed. They’ve got a multitude of obligations. And here comes Robert Bellah and his col-leagues saying, “You’ve got to get involved in building better institutions” and they say, “Find me the time.”
ROBERT BELLAH: If we look again at our comparison societies, we find that European societies that are out-competing us work considerably fewer hours a year than we do. Why? Why is because they’re better educated, they have high-paying jobs. We have allowed ourselves too look more and more like a third world country. We’re trying to compete in the world by cutting our labor costs, which makes people have to work more hours. I mean, all these things work together. What’s happening in the economy affects our civic life.
BILL MOYERS: What’s at stake in at least trying to define and peruse a good society, even if we don’t know exactly what it is or where we’re going? What’s at stake?
ROBERT BELLAH: What’s at stake, I think, is the whole of our lives, the notion in America that somehow our real life is our private life and we live at home, maybe romantic love is the main thing we find meaning in – and we know how hard that is and how short the marriages last if that’s the only thing there – our entertainment, our small group of friends. That’s not a rich life. If we want to be fuller, more complete human beings, we have to live in the society. We have to live in the world. We have to care about the planet that we live on and other human beings. And this is not just idealistic hogwash or preaching.
BILL MOYERS: Sounds like it to a lot of people.
ROBERT BELLAH: I know it does, but I’ll tell you this, and this maybe also sound a bit preachy, but I believe it. That is, we are standing under judgment. The way of life that we have embarked upon is so destructive of the environment, of the lives of a large number of people on this planet, of the lives of many people in our own society, that it cannot long continue. There’s something out there, I think, called a “moral law” that does operate, maybe not always quite as quickly and as evenly as we would like, but the price for ignoring it is going to be a heavy price. We’re already paying it. We’re already paying it. We’ve seen the signs of what we’re paying right now.
BILL MOYERS: Well, thanks to you, Robert Bellah, for being with us tonight. And thanks to you and your colleagues for the book The Good Society.
I’m Bill Moyers and thanks to all of you for joining us, Listening to America.
You can view more about the Listening To America on this website.
This transcript was entered on April 8, 2015.