Realities of the Rebellion

Against the Current, No. 39, July/August 1992

Mike Davis

I WANT TO TALK a bit today about the social forces that have provoked this uprising in Los Angeles. But first I have to deal with what is called in high-falutin’ language its “epistemology”: How do we know what we think we know about what happened in this city?

Here’s a copy of the Kerner Commission report, a real collector’s item, repressed in the collective memory of America. One of the interesting things about its study of the inner city insurrections in 1967 was that it totally threw out the explanations advanced by almost all the other reports, including the Los Angeles McCone Commission (study of 1965 Watts rebellion–ed.), as having any analytic value at all.

The Kerner Commission cautioned the readers of its report that what the media and most of the country were dismissing as race riots were, in its own words, “far more irregular, complex and absolutely unpredictable.” In a sense the greatest advance of the Kerner Commission study was precisely this admission that each of the insurrections had a particular complex local history as well as a common role in a national crisis.

How do we know what we think we know about Los Angeles? I should probably begin with an apology: Why do I, or most of us here, have any right to discuss this event before we have heard the actual voices of the people who participated?

About a week ago I was at a news conference in Inglewood under the auspices of a local Muslim leader, Imam Aziz, who brought together the Bloods and Crips leaders in Inglewood to announce a peace in what has been an incredibly bloody gang war there. It was the first chance for most of the media to hear any of the kids they have spent years talking about and vilifying.

One of the youths made an interesting comment: He turned to the news media and said, “You know, this riot has been our media.” And everything that’s happened would be in vain unless we ensure that those voices are heard.

We’re talking about two voiceless communities in Los Angeles. One are gang youths, about whom we probably know the absolute least in terms of their real intentions, their beliefs and what lies in their hearts. In the last week some remarkable things came to light, one of which is nothing less than a purported joint Bloods-Crips program for the reconstruction of Los Angeles, called “Give Us the Hammer and Nails, We Will Rebuild the City.” This shows, if anything, the danger of underestimating the capacity of this generation of kids in the inner city, or their political intelligence.

The other voiceless community is the immigrants of Los Angeles, particularly the most recent layers–Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants in the Pico Union and MacArthur Park areas. So whatever I or anyone else claiming to be an analyst or journalist may say, is less important than the voices of participants–and if we don’t hear those voices, then in a sense the riot would have to happen all over again.

One of the great tragedies in the history of Los Angeles was the McCone Commission’s utter failure to hear the voices of the community, from which only a couple of people were allowed to testify at any length; all it heard were the voices already in its mind.

What the Media Hid

The Kerner Commission has a whole section on media coverage during the 1967 riots. It makes absolutely necessary reading today, because almost every critique made of the TV coverage in 1967 applies: the failure to provide context to people’s actions, to depict the underlying conditions, the emphasis on lurid violent acts, the failure to include community spokespersons, the race of most of the newspeople covering it.

All these things are true today with redoubled force–because even though the same bias has been brought, the news media are far more potent. This riot coverage differs from the others in that it has the illusion of giving total immersion in the events with their roving minicams and helicopters, creating a spectacle far more powerful than what we used to see. There’s this hallucination that you’re right in the streets, when in fact you only see broken-up edited bits and pieces of an extremely complex process.

It was only yesterday or the day before, for instance, that the Los Angeles Times published an account of the events immediately preceding the beating of the white truck driver. Indeed the account was buried in an article devoted to the heroism of the working cops of the 77th Division; but if you managed to get through all this sickening praise for the cops, in the middle of the article it referred to the fact that there had been this incident where the police chased, beat up and hog-tied a high school kid, and later had to release him because they had nothing to hold him on.

This was obviously one of the provocations that made people so angry on the corner of Normandie and Florence. But of course most of the public don’t know that happened, they’ve only seen the result of the provocation, the raw anger. A Black civil rights leader in Detroit once said, “The Black man is the white man’s intelligence test.” I think white people in this city have scored some of the lowest IQ scores in history.

The news media have abetted this in such an invidious way by robbing us of the context, showing us just bits and pieces of the events. Even more harrowing and frightening, while they’ve brought all the Black-white and Black-Latino violence to the forefront, they show almost nothing of the of the police violence during the uprising. The foreign press has carried images of people being beaten and kicked and otherwise brutalized by the police, but if you saw the special color section of the LA Times you saw none of that.

That absence has distorted the whole discussion of the police. The Webster Commission on the basis of its present mandate appears to be investigating only problems of police deployment, why they were “passive” at the beginning, why they didn’t shoot looters or something. Pressure needs to be brought to force this commission to investigate instances of police brutality, and of course, each and every death that took place.

But the most catastrophic failure of the media is that they’ve covered something called “the riot,” and shown Black rage and Latino rage–although they’re incapable of making distinctions; you hear commentators going on and on about Black youths while in fact you’re seeing other ethnicities on the screen–yet utterly failed to represent what must be the largest repression, the largest mass arrests and draconian crackdown that we’ve seen since the Nixon administration.

An Orgy of Repression

The 18,000 people arrested, most of them after the looting ended from Friday on; the massive overcharging; the federalization of the mop-up and repression, which prefigures what will happen in other American cities; now the layering of new federal charges on top of others with the probability that the RICO (federal racketeering) law will be brought to add on even more felonies; the suspension of the Bill of Rights downtown for two weeks, when some demonstrations were allowed and others weren’t; the innumerable instances which the Central America Refugee Center is now reporting of people who have had their doors kicked in, and if you have a new sofa or TV and can’t produce a bill of sale you get arrested and charged with a felony; the 610 known people deported without any charge by the Immigration Service with the complicity of the LAPD–this amounts to literally one of the most serious repressions in the last twenty years.

Who in the rest of the country is aware of this? Five times as many people have been arrested as in 1965, charges are much stiffer. The whole role of the media has been to deny context, to suppress motivations of people’s actions, to show their images but never broadcast their own words.

For historians of course this isn’t a new problem. The blood of revolution is well-known, while the blood of counterrevolution hardly enters the history books. We know about the Red Terror but never the White Terror (terms borrowed from the Russian Revolution–ed.). So along with the incredibly high priority of listening to the voices of people involved, the second priority is to bring attention and focus to the repression that has occurred, and the ominous precedent it sets as the likely model for the rest of the country.

Three Components of the Explosion

Having said all this about how we know what we know, I want to advance a little theory. I am very intrigued by the different characterizations of the events. Progressive analysts seem to have swung between two extremes: There are those who call it the first Rainbow Uprising, a unified multi-racial rising of the have-nots. Another extreme view, best represented by Harold Meyerson of the LA Weekly and Democratic Socialists of America, characterizes this fundamentally as a kind of social nihilism, a Hobbesian state of war of all against all, a total interethnic gridlock of hatred and violence unleashed because of the weakness and atrophy of the labor movement and progressive politics in LA.

Obviously both these explanations are “essentialist”–they try to find in the complex events of the last three weeks a single meaning. What’s happened is a complex social event, by its very nature a hybrid that contains different angers, different social processes, different actors–sometimes convergent in their actions and sometimes just moving in a parallel way.

I went down to the Pico Union on Thursday at the height of the looting; and I compared notes with someone who went down an hour earlier. It struck me when I was there as an atmosphere of fiesta, with people actually helping each other loot and holding up grates, a real feeling of community there. One woman even came up to me and said, “I don’t really think this is stealing, it’s like a TV game show where we all get to win–don’t you?”

But the person who was there an hour earlier talked about “a river of anger” flowing through the MacArthur Park area in terms of the people who first broke the windows. It seems to me that the accounts aren’t discrepant; we are just talking about different times and different groups of people. Any analyses have to take into account those different groups that were involved.

This riot has had three major components: First, a revolutionary-democratic component that links it to the insurrections of the 1960s. Second, an interethnic component that made it sometimes almost like a pogrom. Third, the first postmodern bread riot, in fact a multi-ethnic rising of the poor of the city.

The difficulty is that these three dimensions tended to be going on simultaneously, so it’s an event whose meaning and implications are highly contradictory. We can find cause for despair in these events, but also resources of hope. I will just discuss them briefly as a set of hypotheses.

Rebellion and the Meaning of Citizenship

In the riots of 1967, the Kerner Commission observed that most were caused by basically trivial incidents; there was such an accumulation and super-saturation of grievances and racism that almost any incident could precipitate them. What set off the riot wasn’t that important.

What’s happened here is obviously just the opposite: The Rodney King/police beating trial has become a kind of international test of the meaning of African- American citizenship in this society. It’s not merely a question of justice, but of what 450 years of struggle has been all about. In the face of the entire world, it’s very clear who’s guilty and why. In that sense the Rodney King incident becomes a counterpart of such landmarks in the history of racism and African-American struggle as the Dred Scott decision, or other constitutional watersheds that tested the meaning of Black citizenship.

I see the uprising as having a revolutionary democratic content simply because each of these conflicts has usually been resolved around the fact that these citizenship rights cannot be minimally satisfied through the supposedly democratic institutions of this society. This has forced the struggle for elementary democratic rights to take a different form, sometimes an insurrectionary form; certainly this was true in Los Angeles and all the actions from Las Vegas to Toronto in solidarity with events in LA. The struggles for those minimal rights have to flow back into the streets.

Of course, in the streets of South Central LA people’s motivations might be determined a little differently. If you talk to youth who were out on the streets they would say things like, “Rodney King is only the trigger. We have so many grievances, so many dead homeboys, so many people of color murdered in this city.” And this forces you to confront Los Angeles’ extraordinary history, where for at least fifty years, and probably more, the African-American community and its allies have been struggling to establish one single precedent of justice in relation to police treatment of Blacks.

As we all know, there isn’t a year, sometimes hardly a month, in which there isn’t an African American brutalized and usually killed by the police or sheriffs. There have been, in the lifetime of some people in this room, forty defense cases–and never once, on any single occasion, has justice been meted out for African Americans. The police have won every single case. The weight of that history without even a symbolic victory exploded Wednesday two weeks ago.

It’s also this extraordinary so-called war against drugs and gangs by the police in Los Angeles, which has succeeded in criminalizing the youth of color in the city without exception, removing any social or class privilege that even middle class African-American youth might enjoy. They’re forced down to the pavement too. And of course this has been a repressive campaign widely tolerated by the liberals in this city.

We have to talk frankly in this room today about why, when Operation Hammer (LAPD’s “anti-gang” campaign–ed.) began, and the civil rights of Black youth were reduced to less than zero, most of the civil liberties establishment in this city chose not to focus on it, were more absorbed in other causes. We are seeing the consequences of that today.

The Black youth who rose up that Wednesday fought the police and acted, as I’ve stated, in a revolutionary democratic way. But the Armageddon that many had anticipated–including most of the cops, for whom it was going to be their equivalent of Vietnam, which they both relished and dreaded–didn’t happen. I think there was some system of mutual deterrence operating, where the police realized they couldn’t go all-out blowing people away as they did in 1965. And the youth weren’t suicidal.

Rebellion and Interethnic Crisis

The second process of revolt and anger is of course an interethnic tension. There was a systematic and very political destruction, visited on the Korean community. And that of course isn’t to deny that very important African-American institutions were burned, that Latino merchants suffered in South Central and in Hollywood and MacArthur Park. But we can’t get around the fact that Korean stores were systematically targeted, and that the vast majority of them in South Central were burned to the ground.

Again the news media did a fundamental disservice in the first three or four days, by hardly if ever mentioning the name that, along with Rodney King, was on the lips of youth in the community: Latasha Harlins. The failure to achieve justice for a fifteen-year-old child murdered by a store owner has been just as fundamental to these events, at least in Los Angeles, as the beating of Rodney King. But of course events went far beyond simply Latasha Harlins, and have led to a chasm that might become an abyss between the two communities.

I don’t believe this was random or spontaneous. It had a political purpose (targeting of Korean enterprises), which was to remove the ethnic entrepreneurs who are the middlemen in South Central and I believe to clear the way possibly for Black enterprises. That ontradiction has to be faced openly; its consequences for a Rainbow Coalition in this city are pretty grim.

The Rising of the Poor

The third aspect of the uprising of course is the rising of poor people, a festival of the oppressed. Again the news media to this very day have failed to give us the most important motivation for tens of thousands of hard-working blue-collar people to participate in looting–we hear instead about the BMWs and the opportunists who sacked the camera shop–ordinary people, I think many more than in 1965, maybe 40-50,000 active participants and maybe 200,000 passive.

The fundamental fact is that there’s a recession. In the media it’s been represented by the hard-luck stories of aerospace engineers in El Segundo and Burbank, but the real savage edge of the recession cuts basically through the communities and new immigrants in Los Angeles, where unemployment rates have tripled and there’s basically no social safety net. People are in free fall, their lives are literally falling apart as they lose their minimum-wage jobs.

You see the symptoms almost everywhere, if you want to: Before Christmas, 20,000 Latino women and their children waiting in line for turkeys. Why? A single story in the LA Times that unemployment rolls tripled. The appearance of new colonies of homeless, Latino workers on top of Crown Hill, in the bed of the Los Angeles River. All around us is a recession turning to depression and destroying the hopes of the immigrants, particularly the most recent layers.

And the hopes of their children. One of the most harrowing stories I heard was when Mike Hernandez was trying to explain the situation to my local community group–which consists mostly of ex-’60s left and liberal people whose main concern now is getting as many cops or at least private police on the block as possible. Our neighboring high school, Belmont High, is one of the most crowded schools in the United States with 4,500 students and sends thousands more out to the Valley, but there are seven thousand high school age kids in the community not in school at all, not primarily because of drug use or gangs but because they are supporting their families which are in such deep crisis.

So the volcano that erupted in looting across the city was based on despair, on a largely unreported, uncommented upon social emergency in Los Angeles.

After the Explosion: Sources of Hope

If you take my point that this has been a complex and hybrid event–the revolutionary-democratic struggle of African Americans for justice and citizenship, an entrenched and very problematic interethnic rivalry, but also a generally festive and non-violent explosion of the poor–what kind of political conclusions can we draw?

I don’t think we can draw the kind of hopeless conclusions that some like Harold Meyerson draw, that this is just nihilism. We are left with a huge dilemma in the relations between the Black and Korean communities. But we are ultimately left with new resources, new causes for hope. Let me just stress two obvious ones.

This riot has been a miracle: It has at least temporarily ended the gang warfare in South Central Los Angeles, which has been taking hundreds of lives every year. Any ordinary month is equivalent in its human, if not physical, damage to what happened in the riot.

Nothing would be more noxious than just “rebuilding” the depression and misery and powerlessness that created this riot. But it has produced this miracle among the gang youth, as of course 1965 did too. I have a picture on my wall from 1965, an overturned police car with a group of Black youths, some giving the old Watts Gang salute and others the (rival) Slausons sign. 1965 produced five years of gang peace, and led to the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles, which is obviously one of the things the LAPD is most worried about right now.

People who have been totally written off are showing themselves as the architects not only of peace but of a whole political program. And a whole generation of youth in the inner city that the rest of society has long since consigned to a form of social-cultural death have refused to accept this<197>in fact they long ago realized the nihilist consequences of gang warfare, but never before had the opportunity to lay down their arms.

They are also the only “social democratic” group around, with ideas on how to rebuild the city and with a constituency. They are saying: Ueberroth (former baseball commissioner appointed to oversee reconstruction–ed.) bullshit, we want $3.7 billion to be spent on schools, on physical landscape, not only for the Blacks but for the poor community of the city.

I think progressive people in this city must find this a enormous cause for hope. But it’s a highly unstable situation–less so, I think, between people who have taken this step, but still this whole process (of gang peace) is under vicious and almost daily attack by the police. Gang meetings in the projects for the purpose of peace have been raided by the police, who are doing everything they can to incite violence. They’re circulating a leaflet I believe to be bogus calling on gang members to kill police. I believe it’s terribly important that we pull the police off the gangs, to do everything we can to support this gang peace.

The other most progressive outcome is the political direction of the Central American community, a community that finds itself in tremendous peril. It’s not only the deportations and largely unreported violence and repression done to this community; but it’s now clear that the “temporary protected status” that stands between 75,000 people and their families and deportation has now been made political hostage to the development of a nativism right.

Bush just the other day sent (Salvadoran president) Cristiani a letter that basically said: Happy birthday, I’m not going to extend temporary protected status, but I will allow your people to stay for a year and we’ll see what happens. What that really means is that the entire fate of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in Los Angeles is now subject to a sort of political competition. If the Buchanan forces and others in both parties who share that belief have their way, that’s probably the end of temporary protected status. This of course would be a catastrophe for the Central American communities.

The source of hope in this lies in the Central American community itself, which has been so largely focused on providing support to liberation struggles and social movements in Central America, but now must in a very big hurry to catch up and become part of Los Angeles politics. This is a community that a few years ago people were saying was “unorganizable.” In fact it’s been probably one of the most highly organized communities in Los Angeles, but for different purposes.

I think these two things–the emergence of a highly politicized Central American community as an active component of the struggle for progressive politics and some kind of Rainbow Coalition in Los Angeles, and the emergence of gang peace and a new political consciousness among gang members–must be sources of hope. And although the contradiction between the Black and Korean communities is profound, and highly damaging to the hopes of a lot of people, we must keep in mind that this was a hybrid and contradictory event that I believe offers as many resources for hope as for political pessimism.

But at all costs, right now we must focus and bring to light the repression that is going on.

© 2020 Against the Current

July-August 1992, ATC 39