Ruminations on Riots

By Wanda ColemanMay 2, 2012

Ruminations on Riots

1992 Los Angeles Riots (cc) waltarrrr

NO MATTER THE WEATHER OR TIME OF DAY, when I crisscross Los Angeles, I travel backwards through time, recall the faces, voices and sounds that defined the dramas and dreams of my young womanhood. Long-vanished landmarks appear — the churches, clubs, cultural events, liquor stores and nightspots that once catered to a booming Black clientele — a static sprawl extending into the surrounding reaches of Pacoima, Diamond Bar, Duarte, Long Beach, Victorville, Riverside and some spots east in the Inland Empire, but largely concentrated in South and Central Los Angeles. The snatches of stomp-down blues and rollicking gospel emanating from storefronts, the cacophony of radios and stereos cranking party favorites, the canned chatter of TVs blasting showdowns and soap operas echo about me as I drive, ignoring backfires and disembodied boisterous shouts of "Hey!"

Occasionally, I speak to the person sitting in the passenger's seat: a friend, a literary colleague, my husband or son. I extend my arm, point, and describe the particulars of some long-gone moment crowding in on me, my tone of voice prompting their concerned question:  "What's wrong?"

Frequently, as if from a parallel nightmare, a second scene from a more recent past superimposes itself over this vast urban specter. It plays to the hypnotic thunk-swoosh of wiper blades clearing away the rain of love bugs against the windshield as the SUV races along a Mississippi highway at sunset, three Black women sheltered inside. In this flash forward, I am the passenger. America has survived the Y2K scare and 9/11, and the new century is progressing nicely toward economic collapse. But for the moment, a false prosperity reigns. Looking out the window on my right, I am enthralled by the miles of giant leafage that blankets twists of bushes, moss, vines and trees. It, too, is a vine, a beauteous terror smothering everything beneath it. Hushed, I stare too long and too hard.

"That," says the driver, "is kudzu. It's everywhere Down Here Abouts."

"Yeah," says her friend, "They cain't kill it hard as They try."

"Um-hmm," I say, as if saying "thanks for the info," not wanting to be impolite or flip, not wanting to offend.  I don't say that I've waited for more than a generation to see this scourge imported from Japan; have read articles on it, and, in the late 70s-early 80s, submitted poetry to a literary magazine, now defunct, called Kudzu.  I simply stop staring and relax into the rhythms of the road and chitchat with my new companions, who go on to educate me on the particulars of their home turf. However, throughout my visit, I am haunted by that kudzu. Visions of it follow me home to SoCal, trouble my thoughts in the months and years ahead. From time-to-time, I speculate that I'm subconsciously writing a poem about it — a poem that never emerges.

As of right-now-today, it's 46 years since the August 1965 Watts Riots, and 20 years since the April 29th 1992 riots following the acquittal of 3 police officers in the Rodney King Beating Case, and the jury's failure to reach a verdict on the 4th officer. I have grown up and grown old. Once again, I am called upon to make note and speak out, as the city pauses to plumb its memory in this bizarre ritual commemorating the single largest episode of urban violence in the history of the United States — not quite an anniversary celebration.

Civic leaders, newscasters, publishers, reporters, and community spokespersons (like me) will once again rake over the ashes to assess the city's progress. But for the African-American population in Southern California, the largest in the U.S. outside Cook County, Illinois, according to an article by Reed Johnson in the Los Angeles Times, little that's positive has taken place, and in the wake of America's 2008 economic collapse, the disparities in education, housing, leadership, media attention, transportation, etc., that have characterized our communities since the post-World War II boom years, not only continue unabated but have deepened.

Despite the plethora of reporters jockeying for Pulitzers, what happened in the danger zones of April-May 1992 largely eluded reporters at the Los Angeles Times — no matter what the color — as in 1965 — although one might consider the plethora evidence of progress.  Today, despite the softening of its overtly racist internal culture, the Los Angeles Times — an active player in the political and cultural life of the region — now keeps its Black or African-American reporters up front and fully visible, alongside the Latinos. That could be said to be a positive, since, when Watts burned in 1965, the violence went unreported for the first three days because White reporters feared so greatly for their lives. At that time there were no Black reporters on staff at the Times, and the paper was forced to recruit, and instantly educate, an out-of-the-newsroom worker in order to obtain some semblance of story coverage.

In excruciating contrast, following April 29th, there were plenty of reporters and Black spokespersons other than Rodney King himself, including  celebrities and filmmakers, willing to make noise during curfew and in the contentious aftermath; however, many of the African-Americans or Blacks put before microphones and cameras lived outside South Central; were flown in from the Bay Area, Chicago and New York. Many of them — such as John Singleton and Spike Lee — had emerged as known quantities in the 47 years since Watts burned. These individuals, while ill-informed and virtually inarticulate or silent about the particulars of Black rage in South Central, could — at least — provide a larger, general historical context, that finally, metaphorically, united "the left coast" or "west coast" with Black communities throughout the nation.

These individuals, though, were considered "safe," if media savvy. They lacked "street cred," or the bravado and excitement offered by those desperadoes who inhabited the underbelly of Black Los Angeles — the very thugs contemptuously denigrated on local news broadcasts — the Crips, Bloods, Brims, Rolling 60s, et al. Rather than engage L.A.'s resident African-American scholars, intellectuals, literati, political activists and artists — who were considered non-newsworthy or forced to complete with one another for media attention — the focus of the post-riot media blitz settled on "da hoods." It was the gangsters who inspired diminutive blondes to brave extinction, waving book contracts and advance checks from limousine windows. 

(At the behest of a friend, I led a German film crew through the still-smoldering streets of South Central in an ice cream truck.  Before we set off, I explained to them that it wasn't unusual for street vendors to double as drug dealers. They told me they already knew. I then introduced them to the Bloods who lived across the street from my childhood residence, and left them to finish the tour on their own.)

As hip hop culture readily embraced the red or blue bandanas and baggies of L.A.'s gangster counterculture, a new breed of rapper emerged nationwide, fed by the dominant-culture media, as they posed and postured, verbally challenging the mainstream (even as they joined it), and, if they failed to back up their mouths with significant political and social actions, at least they succeeded royally in elevating those who pimp-walked in the shadows of Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim — those like Monster Cody and Stanley Tookie Williams — to hero status. In the wake of Sa-I-Gu (meaning 4-2-9, Korean for the first day of rioting), gangster glam was born.

(It's this writer's speculation that, in a city rife with hundreds of excellent-to-great poets and writers of all stripes, Williams' nomination for the 2005 Nobel Prize, the only African-American male in recent history so nominated, a nod received two years after the 10th "celebration" of the Rodney King riot, was attributable not only to this twisted phenomenon, but a logical outcome.)

While celebrities and thugstas were being interviewed ad nauseam, several newsworthy incidents went underreported or unreported following Sa-I-Gu.  For example, eyewitnesses Downtown reported that Whites in luxury cars and limousines were pulling curbside and, acting as de facto fences, paying cash to indigents and drug addicts in exchange for stolen goods, encouraging them to loot department stores, jewelry stores, and gun shops.  Another eyewitness reported on angry young Whites sniping at vehicles along the Harbor Freeway. Other witnesses complained that Mexican, Hispanic, and Latino citizens were being arrested by the droves and deported across the border into Mexico — left to sort out matters of legitimate citizenship on their own and at the expense of family and friends.

In another form of disjuncture and deportation, African Americans have been exiled within their own communities, isolated from the transformative prosperity necessary to improve our quality of life, and then systematically forced out of those communities for the sake of survival — to get away from gangs, noise, and oppressive applications of the law by police — exiled to the outskirts to reconstruct our difficult lives under still-difficult circumstances, if less so. The 60s name for this process — now called "gentrification" — was "urban removal." Landowners and realtors have openly catered to immigrant constituencies, fostered their growth, using the new arrivals to disperse dense concentrations of African-American residents.

In its heyday, areas like Downtown, Midtown, Venice, the San Fernando Valley, and a Glendale notorious for its "get out of town by sundown" reputation rarely welcomed Black businesses. While the staggering costs of liquor licenses, permits, taxes, and other fees associated with upward mobility circumscribed Black entrepreneurs, Whites and Latinos of all origins, Chinese, and Filipinos prospered as Space Age prosperity segued into an affluent 60s and 70s, ultimately giving way to Reaganomics. As these ethnic groups moved further up the economic chain, over the backs and purses of African Americans, they were displaced by Central Americans, Russians, Armenians and Koreans.  In the Black economic underground of each era, advice was freely given that one had to have a "White front," or a clever attorney, in order to establish a successful business in any community outside South Central or areas where a Black population was predominant. Black resentment over this tacit containment policy — and the apparent ability of Koreans to outstrip our community when it came to growth — emphatically underscored the events that triggered the rages of August '65 and April '92.

Having suffered the decades-old exploitive practices of so-called honest businesses that regularly charged Blacks higher prices for the same goods sold to Whites and others, having suffered the loathing and ugliness which greeted colored patronage (for example, avoiding contact by placing change on the counter instead of placing it in the palm of the hand and/or being forced to wait ungodly lengths of time for service), having sustained the indignities of shoddy medical services at substandard hospitals and overcrowded emergency rooms, having sustained on-going police brutalities sanctioned by the city fathers before and after the Marcus Frye incident that ignited Watts, having recovered from the trauma of the November 18th, 1978 Jonestown massacre that devastated many African-American families, the stunningly rapid development of the Korean community, and its increasing friction with neighboring Black enclaves, translated instantly into the conflicts that culminated in the shooting of 14-year-old Latasha Harlins by the shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, the video of this March 3rd, 1991 killing set the discontent of L.A.'s African-American communities on slow boil. But there was no eruption because there was no clear issue of right or wrong. And no audio to substantiate arguments pro or con.  However, the March 16th videotape of police officers beating Rodney King — 13 days later — literally evoked cheers in those same enclaves. Finally, here, at last, was the irrefutable proof lacking in every reported incident of police brutality that had preceded it.


"Music," goes the adage, "is universal," and belongs to whoever makes it, adopts it, appreciates it and remembers it. That adage might extend itself to the history of a people when correctly remembered, presented, and not controlled or determined by those outside it, those in power, and/or those seeking to appease the powerfully greedy in societies where cruelty, injustice and oppression reign; however, when it comes to Southern California, a multicultural region that boasts one of the world's busiest seaports, and that has rioted twice in forty-six years, that is decidedly and precisely the case. The memory of Los Angeles — to the extent that it has a memory — is unabashedly a media package, designed to encourage tourism, and governed by the biases of Disneyland, Hollywood, landowners, politicians, realtors, right-wing White voters, the Los Angeles Unified School District, and a list of misguided or nefarious corporations and institutions too numerous to list. And when it comes to us, its African-American residents, L.A. has a calculated and pathological case of amnesia.  (When KCRW's "Which Way L.A.?" aired its programming on the L.A. Riots-20 years later, it attracted considerably fewer listeners than its earlier broadcast on the current resurgence of vinyl records.)

When it comes to matters of race, L.A. would rather forget.

For example, it has forgotten Wesley Gale. Lean, with an artist's sensibility, his masklike face with wide high cheekbones, as if carved from mahogany, broke into a smile whenever we crossed paths as he skittered to or from a cultural event — a drum, blues or jazz festival, religiously at the Watts Festival, celebrating the transformation of riotous civic energies into the positives of "rebuilding." Wesley usually dressed in the latest finery, agbada or dashiki, sometimes sporting a kofi. We were not friends, and did not socialize; however, we saw one another in transit so often we began to speak. Occasionally, he would recommend the best booth with the best items to score, show off a t-shirt, pamphlet, or poster he was particularly proud of having acquired because of its importance to the history of Black Los Angeles, and the city as a whole.

Equally dignified in neo-African garb, if more famous, was jazz drummer Billy Higgins who, in 1989, founded The World Stage cultural center in Leimert Park, the creative heart of the Crenshaw area, a community restricted to Whites until the Baldwin Hills dam burst in December of 1963, creating a flood of opportunities for Black businessmen, home buyers and renters. World Stage offers performance workshops and hosts The Anansi writing workshop, founded in 1990 by Kamau Daood, Anthony Lyons, and Akilah Nayo Oliver, which continues to meet on Wednesday nights. However, subtle changes in the adjacent neighborhoods are making themselves felt. Now a magnet for immigrants from Belize and the African continent, its economy remains buoyed up by local musicians and entertainers, assorted festivals, and the cash flow generated by the Magic Johnson theatre complex. Ironically this area where Higgins invested his later years is one of the last strongholds of African-American cultural awareness, tenaciously clung to by those who value the sacrifices made to establish it and the culture wars still being fought to maintain it.

But why equate the two men, both deceased? What did Gale and Higgins have in common? Both were collectors — of artifacts, recordings, posters, flyers, etc. — all evidence of a vibrant subculture that thrived despite overwhelming obstacles to its existence. They set about documenting the comings, goings and exchanges that defined life in the Black Los Angeles 1965-1992, and beyond. Their archives were potentially a vital part of this city's memory — information to be imparted to future generations in Los Angeles and the world, for the enrichment of the world.  Yet, as I learned two years ago, following their unanticipated deaths, their archives and collections had been destroyed, tragically gathered up and trashed by relatives too short-sighted to appreciate their value. And no one in the larger community had a clue — in this place where so little value is placed on the accomplishments of African-Americans. Who would want all that musty old stuff? Especially an LP autographed by the likes of Thelonious Monk or a pamphlet of the speeches of Malcolm X signed by the author?

How many other African-American archives and collections have been lost because they had no apparent value?

In understanding the dynamics that led to both riots, the value placed on the lives of African-Americans and our history is central. Sadly, the powers that govern life in Los Angeles County have not given the matter full weight. Rather than right the social wrongs that plagued, and continue to plague, its Black constituency, the power brokers who run game in Southern California opted to eradicate the problem and decimate those communities, driving African Americans from the city.

Rather than effectively revamping and adequately funding the education of inner city students, SoCal voters not only passed Proposition 13, known as the "[White] People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation," to prevent taxpayers' money from being used to fund the educations of inner city children,  but began pushing for school vouchers and home-schooling, and California lottery set-asides, undermining the "cultural mongrelization," "liberalization" and "racial mixing" thought endemic to an open K-12 public school system. Meanwhile, Black instructors claim that they are being forced out of the community college system by faculty and administrative harassment — an issue ignored by the Teachers Union and an ineffective EEOC.  

Instead of providing safe, clean and decently priced homes and rental housing to African Americans, realtors and landlords have found clever ways to reinstitute the outlawed redlining and restricted housing that had once governed population movement within the region, simultaneously skirting laws against discrimination — raising the prices for "certain people" aside. How? By not returning the phone inquiries of those who lived within certain area codes and/or zip codes and who speak without a foreign accent.  

Instead of encouraging voters to support Black candidates and elected officials, a covert campaign was begun to discredit those too effective in their leadership — an unsubtle nationwide conspiracy that has not gone unnoticed by Black activists — investigating their finances and personal lives, as in the recent attack on U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Gerrymandering, always an effective tool used in the past, was used recently, and will be used in the future by the City Council to curb leadership and deprive politicians — particularly Blacks and women — of their power bases.

Instead of developing quality programming and films that target the interests of the African-American community, Hollywood insists on comedy after comedy, no matter how ludicrous, and insists that "racism is not sexy," avoiding serious dramas rooted in the Black experience.

Instead of including African-American social events in its entertainment reportage, regularly reviewing books by African-Americans outside the obvious exceptions of athletes and entertainers, and including regular reviews of our music events (Higgins), the broadcast and print media keeps its lens on homicides, drug busts, car chases, hate and other crimes, depriving our cultural leaders and activists (Gale) of opportunities to expand their audiences or readerships. Instead of broadening the forums in which Black points of view can be presented, they too, continue to be restricted. How can the average African-American honor the keepers of their cultural flames when those keepers are made invisible by their absence in the media?

(In the early 80s, I personally corralled the then-editor-and-chief of LA Weekly, put him in my car, and drove him through the streets of South Central and adjacent communities, pointing out places frequented by African-Americans who were hungry for information beyond the tired retreads and amateurish reporting of The Sentinel, and would support the Weekly were it made accessible to them. The Weekly had yet to hire its first Black staff writer. As I drove, I argued that my community wanted in! That our working class professionals, blue collar laborers and underground economy would prove a solid basis for distribution of the free tabloid. Of course, that would also mean serving their interests by giving over some of the Weekly's content to Black writers like myself. Our trip climaxed at a nightclub on 120th and San Pedro streets where, as the only White face in the joint, the editor jumpily threw back at me the fact that I could not guarantee 100% distribution. And if I couldn't guarantee it, he couldn't take it to his superiors. End of discussion.)

Driving the city today, the changes are striking. South Park, where I spent my youth, has gone from Black ghetto to barrio, particularly that section of Manchester between Inglewood to the west and Southgate to the east. More African-Americans have settled uncomfortably in the "ghost towns" of Venice and Mar Vista, in Culver City and on the outskirts of Beverly Hills. Koreatown has extended its growth to Westlake, Wilshire Centre, Wilshire Park and Country Club Heights. In the shadow of the staggering new glitz along Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, the once-glossy business parks eastwardly along Santa Monica are blighted. If a riot occurred today, it would not be generated by what's left of the Black portions of the city. One girlfriend summarized the obvious, after I asked her why she had relocated to Rialto.

"Girl," she crowed, "this here's where all the bruthas have gone."

When driving the streets of Los Angeles, I too am gone — beset by a painful sense of loss. The world I loved and lived in is vanished. The home in which my parents invested their lives is now occupied by immigrants from Mexico.  When my passenger asks "What's wrong?" I grope for an answer. It's tough to express my feelings or the thought: It didn't have to be this way. What's wrong is my internal vision of Los Angeles as I once lived it, seeing it in retrospect. Seeing the lives of its hopeful and vibrant community — lives as vibrant as those living things along that Mississippi highway, struggling to escape the oppressive circumstance of an abhorrent imbalance in nature ... reliving the lives of my Black Los Angeles, the place in which I matured between two riots — my community — smothered slowly under the kudzu of a persistent and prolific racism, West Coast style, as deadly as its empty promises of rebuilding and redress.


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