I was a young boy in 1965 when we moved into an area of Los Angeles where many New Orleans expatriates settled. I got to watch my older brothers and their friends run like rabbits when the pigs would roll by. At one point I thought that’s what you called the police, “pigs,” but Gregory, my second oldest brother said don’t you ever call them that to their faces. Once, when the police roared up on us with their high beams, Gregory dragged me like a limp doll to escape. All these well-built, tough-ass knuckleheads scattered to avoid arrest or worse. Their crime: smoking weed and drinking beer on the steps of our house. Gregory threw me down behind a hedge and covered me with his body while the police looked for someone to apprehend. They didn’t see us, but the impression stayed with me. The police were to be feared.
So when a 21-year-old black man, arrested for drunk driving in Watts was treated so brutally by the police that the crowd watching reacted like what they were, a combustible material that just needed a spark of a reason to explode, nobody should have been surprised. Six days of rioting, resulting in 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, and almost 4,000 arrests, and the destruction of property valued at $40 million and, most importantly, the fear of a nation of millions who were comfortable with having a foot on the neck of black and brown folk, nobody should have been surprised either
‘‘The only way we can ever get anybody to listen to us is to start a riot’’ was the common sentiment.
On my way to the liquor store to buy candy I could see the National Guard in the back of WWII vintage trucks wearing helmets, carrying rifles heading east on Exposition Boulevard to stop the black people from rebelling in Watts. It was kind of exciting, in a war movie way, if we weren’t the enemy to be stopped. The fire in the sky and the smoke in the streets just continued to spread and it feels like it never really stopped. We segued from James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” to the Last Poets’ “Niggers are Scared of Revolution,” to NWA’s “Fuck the Police.”
Then came 1992.
I don’t think that Los Angeles much wants to remember the largest and costliest civil disturbance in the history of the US. No, it’s almost as though the city has some sort of amnesia or maybe it’s fear; fear that what happened then could jump up and bite us again.
For some Angelinos that riot was almost a random event, linked tenuously to the Rodney King beating; another example of those damn black and brown folk getting out of hand again. At least that’s what the media fed us. I guess their reasoning was that the minorities accepted police abuse before and didn’t try to burn the city down like back in the Watt’s Riot of 1965, so why should 1992 be much different? This kind of thinking is only viable when the natives are so far off you can’t hear the drums pounding away, venting rage.
My wife at the time didn’t want me to go, insisting that it was a stupid thing to do when the television shows were being pre-empted by breaking footage of rioters setting ablaze palm trees in front of Parker Center. I told her not to worry, that as a big brown-skinned man, wearing his Malcolm X beanie man with a walking stick and a seventy-five pound Siberian husky on a leash, I felt fully capable of handling whatever might happen my way. Yeah, I was a fool.
The protestors started downtown at Parker Center and seemed much like the Greens and other social activists protesting World Bank and IMF gatherings, but that was only the beginning; the turmoil rolled on, gathering in strength and viciousness and by that time the fires had spread to dozens of neighborhoods and got huge legs and the rioting involved seemingly much of the central city and beyond. I shared that rage, that the police were sadistic pigs; that the city had earned its bitter harvest—but I didn’t know then how intensely the fires were burning, or how sharp the odor of burned-out homes and looted businesses would be.
I turned onto Prospect Boulevard, that lovely tree-lined street with the occasional mansion designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or the Green Brothers. By the time I reached Arroyo, the street that overlooks the Rose Bowl, I heard the faint but unmistakable sound of staccato gunfire coming from around the stadium. I heard it again, this time the sound of various caliber weapons. I was genuinely panicked. Looking into the darkness, I strained to see what was jumping off down below. Then tires squealed and I saw various cars roaring away from the road that encircled the bowl; where we jogged and cyclists buzzed by in their crazed Peloton. I heard it again, closer. Looking into the weirdly dark roads below I saw various cars roaring away from the Rose Bowl, flashes from the muzzles of their guns, up towards the sweet, moneyed Prospect neighborhood. The neighborhood I was walking in. They’d see my big white husky and me and think I was a rich bastard that needed shooting.
What preceded the Rodney King rebellion of 1992 was the 1965 riots but maybe there wasn’t really a gap of decades between these events, maybe it was one continuous through line: incoherent rage becomes coherent rage and shit happens.
I trotted back to my working-class neighborhood, but not so quickly as to miss noticing how deserted the streets were. Just about home, I saw a black woman working on her car; adroitly using an engine jack to drop her engine all by herself. I shouted to her that some fools were shooting up the Rose Bowl. She sighed and shook her head. “I told those idiots not to be doing that. Nothing good is gonna come out of shooting up the city. That’s not gonna do nothing for nobody.” I remember that woman’s words more clearly than Rodney King’s “Can we all get along?”
Now, in an ever-diversifying LA, and with more police accountability, we seem to be getting along for the moment, hopefully a very long moment before another riot fueled by discontent and rage happens our way.
[Image via Getty]