IT WAS A LIFETIME AGO, a few years before the Riot of 1992. A student in my 10th-grade English class at Locke High convinced me of the validity of his unbelievable tale of woe, and I had a hunch that Los Angeles would explode. The gist of it was this: the reason he was failing, and hadn’t been to class in so long, was because the police jacked his cocaine money. I’d heard a lot of bullshit reasons for not coming to class, but this one, as my mother would say, took the cake:
So, we out slinging and the police roll up and I toss my shit, like my boy do and we ain’t got nothing on us but cash, so they gank that, so you know, that’s how it goes, but then they drive our asses out to the Forum and tell us to walk back to Main through all these blood hoods. Nigga gonna get kilt. My boy say why you want us to die and the fucking police clocks him big time. Knocked him clean out. They laugh, hop in the patrol car and leave us there, stranded with me looking down at my boy, still knocked, out and I’m thinking I have to bail on his ass if some slobs come up, but we made it back Now, we owe money to the dope man and we got to be on the run until we can pay it back.
I didn’t want to believe him. Why would the police steal drug money? What if they were caught? They’d lose their retirement and health coverage, benefits that I had just come to appreciate as a new high school teacher. But this was the world back then, drug- and gang-inspired murder and mayhem on the streets and a police force that could be only described as vicious or demented, certainly corrupt. Sheriffs with the emblem of South Africa on the grill of their patrol car, an LAPD officer with a swastika ring on his finger. Latasha Harlins was gunned down at the age of 15 in 1991, and her murderer got less time than one would get for shooting a dog in the street. LA was on the verge of exploding, if you had eyes, if you weren’t behind the Maginot Line on the Westside. The media seemed to think that LA was still a metropolis populated by white people. Erin Aubrey Kaplan got on as a reporter at the LA Times in 1992, she has told me, because some white reporters were getting intimidated, to say the least, trying to cover the worst civil disturbance in the history of the United States.
The Village Voice ran a piece years ago entitled the “Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing,” and LA, even after the explosion, proved it bicoastal. Los Angeles seemed frightened of itself, of its narrative. Little literature came out of the Riot or Uprising or however you’d like to call it, except for Anna Deavere’s Smith’s masterful Twilight, and then a decade later, a handful of books including mine, A Geography of Rage, an ill-fated collection of first-person narratives of Angelinos surviving the riots, Gary Phillips’s Violent Spring, and Hector Tobar’s Tattooed Soldier. It was as though, otherwise, Los Angeles experienced amnesia, and the riot was expunged from memory. The few jagged shards that remain are vapid entertainments like the film Crash (2004) that posits the bullshit notion that all race relations are brutal, self-serving for everyone involved, and occasionally cathartic. Paul Haggis’s screenplay embodies the fear that once you wander east of La Brea or ...read more