Against the Current, No. 39, July/August 1992
THE FIRST AND ESSENTIAL response to the explosion in Los Angeles must be: This rebellion was justified, as was the 1965 uprising in Watts and those in between. There is a limit to the daily humiliation and outrage that can be inflicted on people, individually and collectively, before they strike back. Analysis, perspective, political directions for a movement–these too are critical, but only after we have taken our stand with the people of South Central, against the ruling class looters of the economy and their hired political elites and police goons.
In the wake of the uprising, the African-American and Latino communities themselves are beginning to articulate their own programs. Against the Bush-Kemp-Clinton “enterprise zone” fraud, for example, they are formulating the idea of “cooperative zones” that would create employment and resources to remain in their communities. The question isn’t whether their struggles will continue–they will, for they have no other choice–but whether they will have allies in a broader movement in the United States.
For such a movement the first responsibility is to Free the L.A. 8000–those who remain arrested on charges of crimes against property or have been turned over for deportation. The LAPD, and the capitalist class it serves and protects, are the criminals. After the acquittal of the officers who brutalized Rodney King, who would be so foolish as to imagine that “looters”–real or alleged–would be tried without bias?
The moral of this: better to beat an African American on video–you’ll walk. Or better to shoot a fourteen-year-old kid in the back of the head–you’ll be fined $500 with some time for community service. Of course, you have to be police officers or a storeowner to qualify.
The jury in Simi Valley probably didn’t make racist remarks–they didn’t have to. They simply identified with the police officers and convinced themselves that Rodney King must have done something to justify the beating. No matter what the visual or historical record shows, African Americans are perceived to be the instigators of violence. It is their fault they are poor, unemployed or underemployed, it is their fault their children go to inferior schools and drop out. If their homes are substandard or “their” infants suffer a Third World infant mortality rate, that’s because of some “choices” they’ve made. U.S. culture rejects any culpability. That is the beauty of institutionalized racism–the victim is turned into the criminal.
This is the quiet racism that blankets our society, the racism of the legislature, the courts, the schools. As Stokley Carmichael remarked, “Racism is as American as apple pie.” Of course this time millions of people around the world had heard the crack of the batons and seen how the Los Angeles police beat up Rodney King. So African Americans thought, “This time everyone can see it for themselves” and a lot of whites thought, “Well the evidence is there for us to see, this time the police clearly went too far.”
But when it came right down to it, whatever Black people or even most white people thought, the system was there to protect “them that have.” That’s been true of every urban rebellion. In the 1960s there were a lot of commissions set up to investigate the causes of the rebellion; but after the fact–long after the police and the National Guard had been called out–the same conditions and the same brutality persist. After Harlem in 1964 there was Watts in 1965 and Detroit in 1967; subsequently Washington D.C., Chicago and other cities in 1968, and Liberty City and less publicized outbreaks in recent years–and now South Central.
Of course, it’s not that spontaneous urban rebellion by itself is a solution for a dying society, or that assaulting merchants from one ethnic group can stop the economic destruction of the African-American community. We oppose those acts that, as Mike Davis puts it in his talk printed in this issue, were “sometimes almost like a pogrom.” (Elsewhere in this issue, interviews with Bloods and Crips and with members of the Korean community discuss whether Korean enterprises were in fact special targets.) But the broader issue must be re-emphasized: It’s not simply that neglect “breeds” rebellion, it’s that neglect and racism make rebellion a necessity.
Indeed, if that was true in 1965 it’s even more true today, in the “New World Order.” Just as that imperialist order depends on the shantytowns and maquiladoras of the Latin and Asian continents, domestically that system requires the kinds of inner cities North America has.
Los Angeles was looted long before May 1992: Over the past three years Los Angeles has lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs. They are both the higher-paying auto jobs and the lower-paying garment jobs. Capital flees to other states, or across borders to find a lower cost of production. But the people who performed those jobs don’t have the mobility of their bosses. Los Angeles, like many other cities across this country, has an inner city that is increasingly impoverished and isolated, yet surrounded on all sides by some of the wealthiest communities, some of the most modern buildings and glitzy shopping malls in the world.
A visitor from another planet might remark, How is your ruling class so disconnected from reality that it can allow such a sea of suffering in the midst of plenty? How do they think they can get away with such a sharp contrast existing so closely together? Over the last decade the rich have become significantly richer, and the poor poorer. It’s the era of diminishing expectations, when workers are supposed to feel lucky they have jobs and envy those who have more. That level of playing with people’s hopes and dreams and fears is dangerous–and rebellion is the inevitable outcome.
But the difference in expectations is precisely what makes the rebellion of 1992 significantly different from Harlem in 1964 or Watts in 1965, in two respects. First: While surveys on the participants in this uprising haven’t been compiled yet, it appears that the proportion of unemployed people was much greater then, with a correspondingly higher level of desperation expressed for example in the looting of grocery stores. Certainly the participation of the Latino population marks a qualitatively new situation as well. Now thousands of Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants, who came to Los Angeles fleeing the poverty of the South and the death squads of Central America, have found that repression follows them here.
Second: Every indication is that the ruling class will not rebuild–rather, they will “teach” the poor and disenfranchised that even rebellion is hopeless. There will be no funds for affirmative action programs for ghetto youth, there will be no jobs program, there will be no antipoverty programs. There’s some money, but the truth is that the ruling class would rather spend it on prisons than on schools.
That’s why the Bush-Quayle team focuses on why the (mythical) “massive social programs” of the 1960s were so dangerous. Their point is that “Great Society” promises provided a level of hope inappropriate to 1990s reality. Instead we hear the rhetoric of enterprise zones, which offer more in the way of government subsidies to corporations than jobs to the community.
If the strategy of the rulers is to bring down the level of expectation and make slaves of us all, then there is the basis for developing an alternate strategy of political action and mass social movements that bring together the vast majority of us who are the victims, not beneficiaries, of the New World Order. But we cannot afford to compromise either with this system’s racism or its prescriptions of what is “realistic.” Any transformation that only dreams part-way fails to make the leap and find the road to freedom.
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July-August 1992, ATC 39