March 21, 2008

A Diary in Los Angeles Riots

Well, of course my memory of the Watts riots is a bit hazy; after all, I was only three years old when they erupted.

Mostly I'm thinking of the Rodney King riots, and The Riots That Didn't Happen—after the O.J. Simpson verdict. Ace ran a clip last night of the Reginald Denny beating, and just seeing it alluded to brought back a lot of memories. (I think the video has since been taken down—but that's okay. Those days—and the television footage thereof—are seared, seared into my memory.)

During disasters‐natural and man-made—I watch a lot of television, which is different from my normal M.O. (Generally it's difficult for me to remember what day of the week it is, and therefore whether there's something on that I like—furthermore, my time management skills don't allow me to go find a television in time to see what I might actually want to look at. Also, I'm not a channel-surfer: I hate seeing little chunks of television- and movie-salad. Plus, the television is on my husband's side of the house. Okay, okay: I just don't have the self-discipline and attention span that television-watching requires. Are you happy?)

I watched TV during the riots in 1992, and after the earthquake in 1993. I did the same thing most of the day on 9/11. It messed with my sense of time. (Attila the Hub informs me that I was the one who coined the term "riot potatoes" to describe our actions—or lack thereof—after the Rodney King verdicts.)

After The Riots That Weren't (post-O.J. verdict), I didn't watch television. But I remembered us being prepared for "civil unrest" beforehand. I know I went to my mother's house and made her accept one of my guns (she subsequently kept it, the dirty little thief).

But what distinguished the Rodney King riots from the O.J. Simpson verdict non-riots was what happened to race consciousness during the King riots: Outside of South Central, Hollywood, Koreatown, and the other affected areas, the races actually drew closer together in some communities. I waited in line for an hour to buy groceries near my boyfriend's apartment in Glendale—we were preparing to hunker down for a kind of seige—and there were certainly black people in line. We all talked about how horrible it was that it was all happening, and how we hoped it would be quiet, finally, that night.

A black friend of mine talked about growing up in Pacoima, in a rough part of town. His neighborhood was so bad that he and his friends once found a dead body in the trash dumpster. "I never rioted," he declared indignantly. That's how most black people felt. Remember?

So on a weird level, despite the burning and looting and horrific loss of life, the King riots didn't make me feel like I was living in a black-and-white world. They seemed, instead, to open farther the chasm between, as Dennis Prager puts his own dividing line for the human race, "the decent and the indecent."

After the O.J. Simpson verdict, though, I remember walking around and looking at all the black people smiling and honking their horns at each other, and thinking that they all appeared delighted about women getting their heads nearly sliced off, as long as those women happened to be white. It took Rush Limbaugh to put it all into perspective, and to tell his white listeners that the celebrations among African-Americans weren't as they appeared to us—rather, people were happy that, for once in a case that carried a certain level of notoriety, a black man benefited from the legal presumption of innocence in this country. That made me feel a lot better.

But I, for the record, don't think we needed a "national conversation on race." What we need is transcendence. What we need is to cultivate our ability to look at people as individuals, rather than as skin on some kind of goddamned global Pantone Matching System.

What we need is the thing Obama suggested early on in his primary campaign he just might be able to bring to the table—the thing that, despite my disagreements with him on economic issues, filled me with an odd sort of excitement: a sense that history might finally become history, after all. That we had a chance of acquiring to do that skill with race in this country that we have with religion, for the most part—a knack for putting it aside in the public sphere. Not denying it; acknowledging it and getting on with life. Looking at the bigger picture.

And that is the one thing Barack Obama cannot do for this country. The more he opens his mouth, the more any a American's essence appears to be summoned up in how easily he or she can get a freakin' suntan.

That isn't my vision for this country. Is it yours?

Posted by Attila Girl at March 21, 2008 09:10 PM | TrackBack

I remember the Rodney King Riot, I was here on a business trip (this was before I moved back to LA). Whites, Blacks and Browns were burning and looting, and Whites, Blacks and Browns were trying to put out the fires. The Hawthorne Mall never recovered and stands empty to this day. Some want to characterize it as a "peoples uprising," it was no such thing. It was greed.

Posted by: chuck at March 21, 2008 10:28 PM

This is not my vision either.

Posted by: Chuck at March 21, 2008 10:32 PM

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