Los Angeles, the next Mogadishu?

Published December 23, 2004 7:00PM (EST)

As far as we can tell, the battle against urban poverty and crime is probably not real high on the Bush administration's war-making agenda right now. But L.A. civil rights attorney Connie Rice -- yes, she's Condi's cousin -- says that in the long term, California's southern metropolis may be headed for disaster.

She starts with Rio by comparison, but it doesn't take too much imagination to substitute L.A. as the location: "In Brazil's favelas, murder is the leading cause of death for 10-year-olds. In these urban hyper-barrios, police patrol in helicopter gunships. Any delusion of crime prevention gave way to containment and suppression long ago. At night, black children hide from both rogue cops and gang members; the rich venture from their fortress homes nearby only in armored vehicles or private planes. In the midst of Rio de Janeiro's splendor, favelas are at a tipping point -- on the way to joining Mogadishu as wholly failed 'feral' cities, engulfed by gangs, black markets, rapacious crime and dysfunction.

"Could Los Angeles be headed down this road? No, not anytime soon, at least for the vast majority of the city. But the hot spots of underclass Los Angeles are well on the way. If ignored, they will metastasize, and eventually pose a real danger to the larger region. L.A.'s hot zones are tiny, intensely dangerous areas where nothing works, where law has broken down and mainstream institutions simply fail. Places where mail carriers and meter readers balk when the bullets fly. Where paramedics and firefighters are hesitant to enter because of the crossfire. Where police officers go in only heavily reinforced or with helicopters; in the LAPD's South Bureau there was an 80% increase in sniper fire on police in 2004, according to a report by LAPD Chief William Bratton."

Southern California may be a far cry from Somalia, but Rice's warning doesn't sound so completely off the map when you start to think about the exploding federal deficit, the huge Bush tax cuts for the rich, the numerous policemen now deployed overseas with the Army reserves... even with the access Rice might have to a well-known Bush Cabinet official, one doesn't get a strong sense that help is on the way.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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