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 below Wilshire, it’s all Third World/First World conflict all the time. And through such ephemera the riot vanished from our collective consciousness, even as, along with the not infrequent race-based murder, gay bashing, and general human viciousness, the city continues its inexorable march to greater diversity, complexity, and tolerance.
I’m guilty, too, of Haggis-like projecting onto the riot what I already felt about LA, and I projected it onto Rodney King too. A luckless black man — and unlike me not phobic about drugs and drinking — who became the symbol of repression and fear and who reminded me of my brothers and their friends, guys who could discuss world politics and H.P. Lovecraft on the corner while drinking Heinekens and smoking only the best weed, but who couldn’t seem to get out of their own way. And you can never say enough about that white devil, rock cocaine. I went off to college and left these knuckleheads behind, though they did shadow me. After college, and newly married and newly middle-classed, one of those knuckleheads showed up at my door in Pasadena. I forgot the guy’s name, but one look at me and he asked me about my brothers. He was working at a drug treatment nonprofit and was going door to door handing out brochures about their services. “Glad you got out of the life,” he said, after I didn’t have anything positive to say about my brothers, and I didn’t mention that I was never in the life.
Rodney embodied all of this, the life and the getting out; he at least tried to get out of his own way, away from his problems with the law and substance abuse. One Sunday morning at my home in Altadena — Altadena is also Rodney King’s hometown — I picked up the LA Times Magazine and saw him on the cover in a wetsuit carrying a surfboard, still dripping from the ocean, looking handsome, a black man who turned to the sea for solace. That incongruous image jarred me free from my preconceptions; I didn’t know a damned thing about him. Even my black bohemian ass had been looking through Rodney like the rest of the country looks through LA and even LA looks through LA. I should have known better, we all should know better. Rest in Peace, Rodney.