SCAR News Vol VIII, No 1 Winter 1993 

The Fire Burns:  Los Angeles and the Struggle for Racial Equality into the 21st Century  Ray Davis, Executive Director of D.C. SCAR.

Does anyone remember the dark nights of late April, when the  nation had been swept up in flames? Does it so offend our sensibilities and  push into our comfort zone to realize that “Amerikkka's” volatile racial climate can lead to a crisis that paralyzes the nation, leaving confusion and  enormous material damage in its wake? 

The rebellion in LA clearly illustrates the dilemma of the "American  Dream" in the 1990's. For the angry masses in urban Los Angeles, the  uprising represented one of the few available levers of power.

 The events reminded many of us of incidents that we had experienced  with police brutality that have gone unchallenged. But the graphic film  footage of the beating on that March 3rd night made the acquittals  unconscionable. There was something deep and personal about it,  something that ran to the very core of our sensibilities. 

Urban Despair 

The picture of powerlessness in LA is stark. Los Angeles faces  massive decay, job loss and slashed budgets for much-needed programs  and services. The rate of poverty rose from 11 percent in 1969 to 16 percent  in 1979 to 19 percent in 1989. In South Central Los Angeles, the sluggish  economy has contributed to an unemployment rate of more than 30 percent.  In the last ten years, Los Angeles suffered a net loss of 22,000  manufacturing jobs. 

Under such conditions, it was inevitable that a crisis like the  rebellion in Los Angeles occurred, and that such crisis will continue to  explode in the future. 

The Uprising 

The aquittal of the police who beat Rodney King reinforced the  notion that Blacks and other people of color have no rights that White  authorities need respect. The failure to prosecute these officers convinces  White America that such repression is standard procedure and necessary to  keep people of color under control.

 Federal and city officials responded predictably, introducing  massive numbers of SWAT teams and other advanced police personnel,  accompanied by the largest ever deployment of the U.S. military to an  urban district. Street sweeps and shootings became common for several  days. Of the 58 dead, 41 were by gunshot; 11 admittedly by the police.  Additionally, 198 of the injured were hit by bullets. 

Yet in all the turmoil, police reported only 2 or 3 cases of gunshots  fired at police. LA Sheriff's department reports on "riot-related" arrests  show that 45 percent were Latino, 41 percent African-American, and 12  percent White. Of these, only 60 percent lacked any prior criminal records.  Within the first few days of the rebellion, police installed a special hotline so  that neighbors could inform on one another as suspected looters. We have  been put on notice that if we rebel against state abuse and violence, we can  expect even harsher treatment. 

Youth in the Streets 

A major factor in the aftermath of the rebellion was the reaction of  the Street Gangs and other youth groups in L.A. Long considered a source  of violence themselves, the gang members know first-hand about the  brutality of the LAPD, and thus identified with King. For the first time,  hope existed that the gangs could end the violence that was terrorizing the  community, and in fact become a positive force for the needs of the people.

 Clarence Lusane, author of Pipe Dream Blues: Racism and the War  on Drugs (South End Press), would note about the Bloods and the Crips  gang cease-fire and proposal...  "The proposal buries the lie that all gang members are unrepentant  hoodlums whose concern for their community reaches no further than the  barrel of an Uzi. Going beyond the objective of creating peace among  themselves, a number of gang members have shown themselves to be  articulate spokespersons for their community's grievances and aspirations."  (Crossroads, #22, June 1992) 

Aaron Fleming, of the Black Panther Community news service,  analyzed the importance of hip-hop culture on urban youth:  "Rap music, the voice of the urban youth, not only has spread this  message of our discontent, but it has also prophesied the L.A. rebellion.  NWA's 1989 track "Fuck the Police" informed Amerika about the animosity  that existed between police and the African American community... The  1989 Boogie Down Productions rap asked the police "Who will protect us  from you?" Also in 1989 Public Enemy told us to "Fight the Power." This  is finally what happened after the King verdict. Not only did the masses  "Shut em Down," (PE, 1991) but there were cries of "Burn, Hollywood,  Burn," (PE 1990) as the rebellion spread to the white sections of L.A.,  including the movie capital." (From The Black Panther, BCNS, Vol.1, #4,  Fall 1992). 

The Role of Media

 Inescapable of any analysis of L.A. is the role played by the media  in describing the events themselves, and the peoples reaction to them. We  found ourselves bombarded with images, on TV and in print, of the carnage  and the people involved in the case.

 The images on our TV screens and described in print were of  sensationalized, irrational violence. We were given no context of why the  rage was so explosive nor that it was primarily directed at the police. There  was no coverage of police brutality and misconduct during the rebellion.  Nowhere in the press did we see the violence of these forces during the  riots--for example the hog-tying and beating of a Black youth by police just  before the beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny. And what of the  television footage? We never saw a picture of a policeman using a gun, but  we know that 11 people were killed. Somehow, we do get tight shots of  snipers, and armed shopowners.

 Divide and Conquer: The Asian Question 

Another area that has gotten little attention was the role of the Asian  community in LA, both during and immediately following the rebellion. All  of the media hype was that the Asian community was caught in the wave of  Black and Latino violence, and had to arm themselves to protect their  businesses. But the truth goes much deeper.

 An important issue in the attacks on Asian-owned business was  based on yet another court decision. The lesser sentence (manslaughter)  served on Korean store owner Soon Ja Du following the killing of Latasha  Harlins by Du last year had left an angry, bitter feeling among many African  Americans. The legal process always worked against them, and the jury's  decisions never seemed in the interest of protecting Black life. 

Asian-American activists familiar with multi-racial organizing  immediately addressed the notions that the attacks were some kind of  "reverse racism," and held that the roots of the rebellion were affecting  Asians and Pacific-Islanders as well as African Americans and Latinos.  Asian groups issued press statements within days (conveniently ignored on  most media), and on May 2, three days after the King verdict, led a  demonstration from City Hall to the Police Headquarters.

 Ending Police Brutality 

One positive outcome of the Rodney King affair is that police  brutality, wherever it is, will not go unchallenged by people. This problem  became a national news item, putting limited pressure on police to reform  their policies and halt their violence. Self-defense, a driving force behind the  Black Panther Party, once again spurs action in the community. Legal,  organizational, and community responses will be needed if we are to have  any lasting chance of overcoming this oppression. 

As this article is being written, King's lawyers are trying to finish  the details of an $83 million lawsuit filed against the LAPD. King himself  has been largely under wraps and out of sight, for fear of his safety. Also,  new allegations have surfaced as to the availability of certain prosecution  documents that may have been leaked to the defense counsel of the 6  officers involved in the beating. If so, it was a high-level breach of  procedure in the court system, providing vital information to the officer's  defense team. Sad, isn't it? Does this new allegation of wrongdoing by court  officials to assist the officers surprise anyone? No, rather it is yet another  signal that the police state will break the law to defend itself. Indeed, the  whole case serves as a reminder that the law is nothing more than political  and cultural oppression by other means. 

Where Are We Now? 

Are we heading rapidly for another slippery-slope, where again we  will find chaos, destruction, death and biased, conflicting news reports?  The fact that the conditions that caused the rebellion in LA exist  today is evidence that a broad movement for social justice is needed in this  country. Understanding and ending the racism, economic exploitation, class  and social issues that the rebellion symbolized require a great many people  working to combat and solve these crises on a daily basis.

 Just as Spike Lee's movie "X" about the life of Malcolm X is being  viewed by millions across the nation, it is ever more evident that police  brutalization of our youth must not be tolerated. This is a step forward. If  we can work together and consolidate what we have learned in its aftermath,  then the LA rebellion of 1992 can be remembered as the beginning of a shift  of power from the guns and sticks of the state to the masses of oppressed  people.