Connie Rice and the Ayecha challenge

“Where are you?” This is the first question in the Torah. Asked by God, directed to Adam, this foundational question — ayecha in Hebrew — echoes as more than mere inquiry about physical location. Ayecha is a piercing question about character: “What matters to you?” “What do you stand for?” “What do you do about what you see?”

Los Angeles civil rights icon Connie Rice recounts a version of her own ayecha moment in her gripping new book, “Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America, From the Courtroom to the Kill Zones” (Scribner, $26). But her context is a world away from the Garden of Eden. Attempting to intervene amid deadly tensions between African-American and Latino residents in a Watts housing project, Rice introduces herself at a community meeting as a lawyer for the venerable NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which, led by Thurgood Marshall, successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case. She is immediately interrupted by a furious African-American woman who shouts, “NAACP ma’ ass! … Where the f*** was you when they gunned down both of ma’ sons in a gutter? Where the f*** was you when the bullets was flying through our walls so bad we had to put our babies to bed in the damn bathtub? TELL ME …WHERE THE F*** WAS YOU?”

Rice’s response? “Yes ma’am you’re right. … You have a right to be angry at all of us who’ve left you in a war zone with no help. But I am here now.” Faced with an ayecha challenge, Rice delivered a hineni — here I am — response. It would not be too much to speculate that Rice’s remarkable career — winning billions of dollars of legal settlements on behalf of the poor and marginalized, dozens of civic awards, a reputation as one of the savviest social justice strategists in Los Angeles — has been driven in part by her determination to make sure she would never again be without a good answer to the question “where was you?”

Rice, a second cousin of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, chronicles the myriad ways she and her often unlikely allies — including former gang members, police, civil rights lawyers, public health experts and military leaders — have fought to loosen the grip of the steel traps of gang violence, police brutality and educational dysfunction that have marred Los Angeles for generations.

Her war stories reveal perversions that all of us have tolerated and which should make anyone claiming to live in a civilized society unbearably ashamed: children forced into gangs or murdered when they refuse to join; police shooting unarmed people and planting guns on them; seventh-grade drop-out rates used to forecast future prison populations; the City of Los Angeles investing 24 cents a day per child for gang prevention in violent neighborhoods while, she writes, they are spending $1 million per elephant at the L.A. Zoo’s new elephant preserve. And lest you think these are just somebody else’s problems, Rice is forthright in warning that “tacit destruction of the underclass inevitably leads to middle class destruction” and notes the billions of dollars violence and destitution among the despised and the dispossessed cost our entire state.

Rice’s book should not be read to induce a paralyzing guilt or to indulge in empty gestures of vicarious atonement. It is best understood as a call to action and as a reminder that the kind of fearless, creative and compassionate action demonstrated by Rice and her colleagues can actually make a difference. We read of a gang truce modeled on the Israeli-Egyptian Sinai accords; “search and destroy” cops evolving into genuine public servants; a program of wraparound social services for youth in a gang “hot zone” producing a violence-free summer in a neighborhood that had suffered dozens of deaths, shootings and rapes during the previous summer.

Reading the book called to mind the lesson I heard most often repeated by my rabbi growing up, a Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaching: “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, all are responsible.” And while the book is free from sanctimony, and Rice counts herself as among those who have stood idly by the blood of our neighbors, the question of our unmet moral responsibilities looms large over its pages. As does that most ancient of questions: Ayecha?

Connie Rice will discuss and sign her book, “Power Concedes Nothing,” during an event sponsored by Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice on March 19, 7 p.m. at Congregation Beth Chayim Chadishim.

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Eric Greene is the Southern California director of Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice. He once served as a paralegal to Rice at the Legal Defense Fund.