In August 1965, the late Bayard Rustin, one of the major civil-rights leaders of that day, traveled to Los Angeles to see for himself the results of the massive outbreak of violence, arson, and looting that was henceforth to be known simply as “Watts.” In the course of the melee, 34 people had been killed, more than 1,000 injured, and local businesses and services almost totally wiped out. As Rustin would later write,1 during his tour he came upon a street-corner meeting at which a twenty-year-old unemployed black man was shouting, “We won! We won!”
“‘How have you won? ’” Rustin reported challenging the young man. “‘Homes have been destroyed, Negroes are lying dead in the streets, the stores from which you buy food and clothes are destroyed. . . . ’”
“‘We won,’” came the answer, “‘because we made the whole world pay attention to us. The police chief never came here before. The mayor always stayed uptown.’”
Rustin, though no sympathizer with violence, black or any other kind, was persuaded. He most certainly did not condone the behavior of the Watts rioters, but he did in the end conclude that Watts deserved to be dignified as a “manifesto”:
The first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism . . . carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life.
Today, some 27 years later, in the wake of a riot in a section of Los Angeles not all that far from Watts which left nearly twice as many dead and injured, that young man’s declaration of victory has taken on more meaning than was ever dreamed of in Bayard Rustin’s philosophy.
The story of the many riots which have erupted in the inner cities of America since the mid-60’s, including this most recent one in South-Central Los Angeles, is invariably quite simple. First there is a putative “cause.” Often the claimed incitement is no more than a soon forgotten attempted arrest, or perhaps an automobile accident; only very rarely is it something as historically weighty as the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., or as loaded as, in this case, the acquittal of four police officers known to have brutalized a black man (indeed, seen doing so on videotape by the whole country). Next, some individual or group finds the occasion a sufficient reason for a bit of avenging mayhem in the form of a fire or a broken window or two. And then, as they say, all hell breaks loose: one fire leads to another; broken windows and doors offer the temptation of the goods arrayed behind them; a push leads to a beating which leads to general bloodlust which leads to gunfire; and finally the normally peaceable are drawn irresistibly by the lure of free merchandise, and full-scale looting commences. What brings all this to an end? External force, without doubt, but probably to some extent also sheer fatigue, the goods all carried off, the fires all damped.
Obviously, not all eruptions of the inner city follow this pattern in every precise particular. Neighborhood geography, for instance, is an important influence on both the direction and velocity of a rioting mob. But certain general conditions do usually seem to be present—reasonably warm weather, for example, and a critical mass of young people, particularly young men, hanging around with nothing much to do.
Given that there have been many such riots in the past quarter of a century, it might seem odd that the whole country should have responded to the outbreak of April 29-May 3 in Los Angeles with such a flood of social theory and such a fury of sociological chatter—quite as if everyone, white and black, were being confronted by a new phenomenon in need of fresh explanation.
To be sure, the Los Angeles riot was exceptionally murderous and destructive: perhaps, as has been claimed in a weird parody of local booster-ism, this will even turn out to have been the biggest and worst riot ever. Moreover, to reinforce the images of mayhem broadcast night and day on television—pictures of beating and burning, shooting and stealing, coming at the audience with the immediacy that has been made possible by the technology of the camcorder—there has emerged a new cadre of journalists who seem positively blown away by the discovery that all is not well among America’s inner-city blacks. Add to this the fact that we are in a presidential election year, a time when politicians, too, are given to unearthing de novo each of our very old and long-accustomed problems, and you have the ingredients of an even more voluble round of the ritualistic position-taking which has come to constitute the nation’s normal discussion of race policy.
Strangely enough for an event of this kind, there is no dispute about what actually happened. On Wednesday, April 29, at 3:30 P.M., the jury in the trial of the four Los Angeles policemen who had beaten up a young black man named Rodney King brought in a verdict of not guilty on all charges (except for one charge against one defendant, on which they had been deadlocked). “Today the system has failed us,” the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, declared, and anticipating what might happen, he also pleaded for calm.
Within an hour and a half, however, billows of smoke could already be seen rising from South-Central L.A., and soon after that, also from nearby districts, particularly the one called Koreatown. Before quiet was to be restored, days later, fires would be set, and some looting would be done, in places far beyond the boundaries of South-Central L.A., places as distant and supposedly out of reach as Beverly Hills to the north and Long Beach to the south. But the main violence and damage were confined (as usual) to the slums where the rioters themselves lived and/or did their shopping.
In any case, by Thursday the smoke was so dense that the air-traffic controllers at Los Angeles International Airport had to close all but one runway. Highways were clogged with frightened people trying to get out of town. Bus and train service stopped. Schools and offices and stores were closed throughout the city. In other words, here were the makings of looters’ heaven.
Athough Mayor Bradley had been apprehensive enough from the first moment to plead for calm, and though things soon got sufficiently out of hand to force him to declare an emergency, the police were amazingly scarce. On the first day, a small contingent of cops made its way to a spot near the now-famous intersection of Normandy and Florence, credited with being the riot’s “epicenter,” but after a brief scuffle with some gang members, the police retreated. Not until the next day would there be even a semblance of force, which by the end would include California National Guardsmen and federal troops called out by the President. Without the police there could be no firefighting, either; for in accordance with the tradition established in the urban ghettos during the 60’s, firemen were assaulted with bricks and bullets as they attempted to go about their work.
It seems reasonable to suppose that at least some policemen, out of solidarity with their four newly-acquitted colleagues, took a certain satisfaction in leaving the cop-hating denizens of South-Central L.A. to fend for themselves. But whether or not their absconding had something in it of Schadenfreude, the famously zealous Los Angeles Police Department was absent for a long and what might have been a critically helpful time; and once the cops were in evidence, particularly in the effort to control the orgy of looting which had almost immediately broken out, they were somewhat less than fully energetic and efficient.
Meanwhile the entire nation, which thanks to television news had for months been witnessing and rewitnessing the pummeling of Rodney King, was now, again thanks to television, watching over and over a group of young blacks pull a white truckdriver out of the cab of his truck, throw him on the ground, and attempt first to kick his head in and then to beat it in with a brick. This, along with the pictures of Korean boys with Uzis keeping watch from a rooftop and the shots of several buildings in full flame, constitute the main iconography of the first 36 or so hours of the riot.
Seen with the eyes of television, the riot seemed to fall into three acts. The first was bloody and frightening, so full of running and shouting and the sound of breaking glass that it might almost have been a crudely overstated scene directed by one of those new young black film-makers.
The second act was quieter, and not without its deeply bitter amusements. This was the period devoted to the theater of looting—men, women, and children coming into view from behind various shapes and degrees of wreckage carrying anything they had been able to get their hands on, from cooking utensils to furniture to rolls of toilet paper and disposable diapers. Girls were seen dragging whole racks of dresses, and of course sneakers—those great emblems of ghetto status—were hanging off the arms of young and old alike.
This was also the act in which the district’s representative in Congress, Maxine Waters, who had flown in from Washington, could be observed rushing around in high spirits, cameramen in tow, crying out to her constituents how much she cared for them and exhorting them to trust her in return. Representative Waters was subsequently to become the star of riot week, with innumerable talk-show appearances and much press coverage. But as one watched her skipping through the still-smoldering rubble, it was hard to banish the thought that probably never before had she had, and probably never again would she have, quite so good a time.
If the second act was not without its moments of involuntary comedy, the third act—clean-up time—provided a number of outright laughs. This was the moment of intervention from Hollywood. As calm at last returned and burned-out storekeepers and residents of the neighborhood tearfully began to dab at the charred ruins where their businesses and homes had once stood, there appeared on the scene a troop of movie stars bearing brooms and speaking soulfully to the cameras about “bringing us all together.”
Movie stars, we know, have become a solemn lot who regularly take themselves and are taken for the heroes they play: Jack Klugman testifies to Congress as Quincy the medical examiner; Meryl Streep becomes a reborn Karen Silkwood, this time warning the authorities against the poisons of alar; and Edward James Olmos, brilliant portrayer in Stand and Deliver of a real-life teacher who got children in a Latino slum to master calculus, arrives in South-Central L.A. to save the children there. But viewers were never to discover just how long Mr. Olmos and his glittering companions stayed around or how much debris actually gave way before them.
As to that debris, no one knows for sure just how much of it was created or how much, in dollars or time, will be required to clear it away. Estimates of property damage vary from $750 million to $1 billion. And even numbers as gigantic as this do not and cannot by themselves tell the whole story, since they do not and cannot include any calculations of the value of the future that has now been wiped out—future efforts, future profits, future salaries. In Watts, undone by a riot more than 25 years ago, few businesses have been restored, or new ones started up, to this very day. Indeed, as a New York Times reporter pointed out (in another bit of inadvertent humor), the boys of Watts, deprived in so many other ways, were now also denied their fair share of the looting, because there were no businesses left in their neighborhood to loot.
The worst damage was suffered by the Koreans, who were deliberately singled out by the blacks for special ruin. But neither were all black-owned businesses spared, not from the torch and certainly not from the looters. One of the more vivid televised vignettes was that of a young black businessman entering his fried-chicken restaurant which had been gutted of just about everything, including even the stoves, as two teenage girls were rummaging around for some leftovers to carry off. “Hey,” he called to them in shock and bewilderment, “you’re not supposed to take from a brother!” They shrugged, and giggled, and walked off a little sheepishly with a couple of pans.
By Friday, May 1, the rioting and looting had spread to a variety of places in the United States, big cities, small cities, and suburbs—Atlanta (which once advertised itself as a “city too busy to hate”), Seattle, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Miami, San Francisco, New Rochelle. All these copycat riots were ostensibly set off by the acquittal of Rodney King’s tormentors, and all were almost completely confined to the rioters’ own neighborhoods. In Las Vegas, nighttime violence was to continue for weeks.
In Manhattan, the news that the ubiquitous black demagogue, the Reverend Al Sharpton, would be leading a protest march down Broadway triggered alarmist rumors that virtually shut the city down by 3:00 P.M. on Friday, and sent an unprecedented torrent of traffic to choke the bridges and the tunnels that are the island’s only avenues of escape. Sharpton had called for a peaceful demonstration, and the police had been both plentiful and highly visible, surrounding the marchers like so many sheepherders. Thus only a small breakaway group got out of control, smashing “only” a few store windows, overturning “only” a few cars, and leaving “only” one Korean shopkeeper paralyzed for life. A bit of violence was also reported in Harlem, but again “only” one shooting and one stabbing, neither fatal.
In the days following, the city’s press and officialdom were beside themselves with pride in this achievement, heaping praise on the mayor, on the police chief, and above all on the demonstrators, who had managed to come through such a difficult pass without destroying too much property or killing anyone.
If it was to take three or four days of military patrolling, as well as nights of strict curfew, to bring the violence in Los Angeles to a final halt, it took hardly more than 24 hours for the pundits and editorialists, not to mention the politicians and the professional black leaders, to commence offering their explanations of what the Los Angeles riot—and, by extension, the others—was really about.
The overwhelming thrust of the comment was simultaneously to deplore and to justify the rioting. George Bush himself more or less took this tack, but that did not prevent his (and Ronald Reagan’s) alleged responsibility for the disorders from becoming a steady subtheme of the justifiers. Naturally, the presidential campaign had something to do with the bruiting of this theme: the Democratic hopeful, Jerry Brown, for instance, found the opportunity on a talk show hosted by his fellow Democrat, Jesse Jackson, to announce that “. . . ten years of building more prisons than ever before, more erosion of civil liberties, more urine testing, more police work, and at the same time exporting millions of jobs, this is what you get.”
For others somewhat more focused than Brown, the charges against the Republicans came down roughly to two. First and most pervasive was the direct connection drawn between the condition of the black slums and the supposed withdrawal of federal funds from the cities. And second was the Bush campaign’s use in 1988 of the notorious Willie Horton commercial, which had encouraged whites, as Michael Kramer of Time wrote, “to demonize blacks.”
But aside from such exploitations of this wonderful opportunity to gain a little fortuitous partisan advantage, there was an instantaneous and wide consensus about the deeper causes of the riot. These were almost universally identified under the quick and handy rubric of “rage and frustration”—the latter, for those inclined to psychological theory, inevitably creating a breeding-ground for the former. “Rage and frustration”—the words were on the lips of everyone from the lowliest local reporter and newscaster to the most esteemed academic and social and political commentator.
Blacks across the spectrum, from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to the columnists Carl Rowan and William Raspberry to the Today-show host Bryant Gumbel, harped continuously on the idea that the people, particularly the young men, of the ghetto had been neglected for too long. According to Rowan, the big cities have been given short shrift under Reagan and Bush because the people who live there, especially blacks, vote Democratic. According to Raspberry, ghetto blacks are “people who don’t register on society’s screen except when they are hurting someone else, or threatening to.” And according to Gumbel, “Maybe [the riot] might help in putting race relations on the front burner, after they’ve been subjugated [sic] for so long as a result of the Reagan years.”
If Gumbel was, characteristically, a touch muddled, most of the black contributors to a special report, “America on Trial,” published in Newsweek (May 11), were quite clear about the role of racism in this neglect. As Norman Amaker, professor of law at Loyola University, bluntly put what many others obviously felt: “African-Americans will draw from this the lesson we’ve always known. Our lives aren’t worth shit.”
Interestingly enough, however, when it came to justifying the violence in Los Angeles as a response to racist oppression, whites, and especially certain white journalists, were even more outspoken than their black counterparts. In a column in Newsday, for example, the much-lionized Sydney Schanberg asked:
Why do so many white Americans hail protests against human-rights abuses in distant countries and fail to understand the grievances of their own black neighbors?
In a similar vein, David Broder of the Washington Post cautioned both George Bush and his Democratic challenger Bill Clinton that
There is no more important test of character for an American President than what he does to heal the scars that slavery and racism have left on this society. That is the curse that is killing us, and everything else is secondary.
And on the same day, in another column in the Washington Post, Hobart Rowan seconded Broder’s analysis:
America is really two nations, divided along rigid class lines—the privileged who have jobs and the underclass who are denied hope because they were born with skin of the wrong color. This ugliness has been festering for a long time: too many of us turned our faces away from the obvious and refused to look at the reality of racism.
So, too, Anna Quindlen, winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times column, confessed that she had first thought of proposing that we wear ribbons of the kind worn for hostages and AIDS victims, to “repulse racism.” But then she realized how naive this was:
It’s as naive as thinking that because African-Americans go to Harvard and sit in the next booth at Burger King, it cancels out the neon sign that blinks “Nigger” in white minds.
In an effort, presumably, to force us to confront the reality from which we have “turned our faces away,” the ever-enterprising Ted Koppel of Nightline provided a group of young black gang members from Los Angeles with a rich opportunity to make themselves heard and understood in millions of American homes.
Now, as has been so colorfully depicted in several movies and innumerable television dramas, the minority neighborhoods of Los Angeles are riven with violent youth gangs. Their tables of organization, so to speak, as well as their relation to one another, are highly complex. There seem to be two overarching gangs, called the Bloods and the Crips, broken down into subdivisions, and subdivisions of those. Basically what these gangs do is hang out and kill one another’s members, in some longstanding round of retribution and counterretribution whose mythic origin lies back in the mists of history. (One of the reasons the authorities had difficulty at first in calculating the number of deaths attributable to the riot is that a certain number are considered “normal” each week as the wages of gang warfare.)
The gang, or subgang, invited to appear on Nightline was the one involved in sparking the riot, the 8-Trey Gangster Crips. When Koppel asked the boys about the white truck driver who had in full view of the nation been pulled from his truck and beaten, one of them replied, “He knew better. He saw what was happening.” Said a second, “It was a CIA.” A third pointed out, “They saying that, well, we burning down our own community. I mean, we don’t own none of these liquor stores.”
Yet another, named Time Bomb, was surprised that Koppel had never heard of him, “because of my background and my crime.” At Koppel’s urging, Time Bomb began to expand on that background—his years in prison for shooting, breaking and entering, and attempted murder. The member known as Li’l Monster complained that the spotlight was always on them for drive-by shootings or the killing of an innocent victim, “but what about that fly-by the United States just did on Iraq?” The conversation continued in this vein, with Li’l Monster explaining that his father had to be a criminal because he couldn’t feed his family, and now he, Li’l Monster, must be a criminal, and he would in turn hand on his father’s legacy to his son.
Many people were offended by this program, with its suggestion that these young thugs had a genuine case to argue. Yet there was something truly interesting to be learned from Time Bomb and Li’l Monster and the others. And that was how very much they have managed to pick up from the high-toned academic and political generalizations that have for so long served as an excuse for them and their lives. They could speak coolly in one breath of breaking and entering and killing, and in the next of their rage and frustration at the lack of jobs in their community. Or they could explain how, unlike their predecessors in 1965, they had assault rifles, Uzis, hand grenades, bulletproof vests—“not a generation of asskicker takers but . . . giving out asskickers now”—and in the same moment justify themselves by referring to the CIA and the Gulf War.
Thus does liberal ideology make its way to the streetcorners of South-Central Los Angeles.
If, then, the solemn attention which has been paid to the rioters is any measure, they too can claim, as the Watts rioters did to Bayard Rustin in 1965, that they have “won.” By the same measure, the great losers in 1992 are the Koreans, about whom very little has been said.
Ted Koppel did bring up the Koreans in his conversation with the gang members, and so did Tom Morganthau of Newsweek .With a few notable exceptions, however, the Koreans served mainly to introduce into the discussion mournful considerations of just how, in Morganthau’s words, “infinitely sensitive, infinitely complicated” is the relation of race and ethnicity to poverty.
But very far from complicated is the hatred of the Koreans on the part of many blacks in South-Central L.A. It is the hatred felt for the enterprising immigrants in their midst by individuals living month to month on government checks, unable to do for themselves or by themselves. To account for these immigrant shopkeepers and small businessmen, a paranoid fantasy has been invented, that the government and/or the banks offer the Koreans special favors—an explanation the fantasists must know in their heart of hearts not to be true. (On the other hand, the complaint that the Koreans look down upon their black customers is very likely true.)
But the point is that among all the predictable cries that something must be done either for or about the black underclass—from Head Start to drug rehabilitation to reconstituting the Civilian Conservation Corps to a tough new clamping-down on crime—one would be hard put to find a suggestion that anyone should pass the hat for the burned-out citizens of Koreatown.
This refusal of empathy with the Los Angeles Koreans on the part of America’s liberal publicists has very deep roots—as does the strange denial involved in the liberal culture’s entire response to the riot. Denial, to be sure, might seem a curious choice of word for such a deal of coverage and scrutiny and such a throaty exploration of meaning. And yet for all the wrapping-up and summing-up to which the world has been treated, the very heart of the matter, staring everyone in the face, has been evaded and obscured.
Leaving aside the hope of taking some partisan political advantage of a crisis—all too easy to understand but under the circumstances despicable—how can so many people with the utmost sincerity have said the things they said about this riot?
How is it possible that anyone, black or white, in speaking of the black underclass should in this day and age use the word “neglect”? After all, there has not been a month or a week or a day since Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his 1965 report on the disintegration of the black family in which diagnoses of the problems of the urban black community and prescriptions for healing them have not filled the American air. That most of these prescriptions have themselves in turn created iatrogenic diseases is irrelevant here: whatever the failures that have followed upon it, attention has certainly been paid—and paid and paid and paid again.
How is it possible that anyone in good conscience should claim that too little money has been spent in, or on, the cities, when more than a trillion dollars has in one way or another been allocated to them by Washington since the 60’s? How is it possible to go on declaring that what will save the young men of South-Central L.A., and the young girls they impregnate, and the illegitimate babies they sire, is jobs? How is it possible for anyone to look at these boys of the underclass—to look at them literally, with one’s own eyes, and actually see them—and imagine that they either want or could hold on to jobs? How is it possible to think that Time Bomb and Li’l Monster, and their counterparts in Chicago, Detroit, New York, are angry and frustrated at the unemployment rate in their communities?
In short, how is it possible to persist in refusing to recognize that the condition of those young men is beyond the reach of government—that, indeed, the efforts of government have done much to undermine their capacity to take charge of their own lives? Yet taking charge of their own lives is the only thing that will save them. As Glenn Loury, the black political scientist, recently remarked, “The problem of the black underclass is a problem that will only be solved one by one and from the inside out.”
This is not so very difficult an idea to grasp and it has become an ever more difficult one to deny. It is equally difficult to continue denying that to hold blacks responsible for themselves would be a mark of respect that has heretofore, despite all passionate protestations, been withheld from them in liberal thought.
Difficult—but not, it would appear, impossible. For not even a quarter of a century of failure has been enough to dislodge the belief that society at large must furnish the means—the magic program or school curriculum or legal reform—to make everything all right for the black underclass. And the reason this belief cannot be shaken when it comes to blacks is that giving it up for them would force the liberal culture to give it up for everyone else as well.
Assuming responsibility for one’s life, for one’s everyday choices as well as for one’s moral conduct, is a practice that has been eroding in American life for a long, long time: every private weakness is by now regarded as a legacy of parental misbehavior, every discomfort as an injustice, every wrong turn as an enforced imposition from outside, every defeat as a malfunction of “the system.” From something as fatal as AIDS to something as nebulous as acquaintance rape, the slightest suggestion that the consequence might be connected with one’s own behavior has become anathema.
This is what accounts for the absurd hue and cry over Vice President Dan Quayle’s disapproving remark about the decision of a TV-sitcom heroine to have a child out of wedlock. Full-page headlines were devoted to this attack on Murphy Brown by the Vice President; talk-show guests shouted at one another about it. People attempted to charge Quayle with triviality, but their very passion in doing so belied their intention. Quayle was suggesting that both the producers and the more privileged consumers of American popular culture have a house of their own to put in order. But this stuffy message, which is to say, this truth, is what the main managers of our public discourse can least bear to hear—never mind the cost to those poor blacks whose interests they have for so long and with such self-exculpating gratification appointed themselves to serve.
1 “The Watts ‘Manifesto’ and the McCone Report,” COMMENTARY, March 1966.