on the scene
For there are those who live in darkness,
And those who live in light,
Those in brightness you see,
Those in darkness, out of sight.
- Bertolt Brecht
Panama, Iraq, now Los Angeles. True, as one Marine put it, "It's not as cut and dried here as in Desert Storm - you don't who your enemy is." but the 10,000 troops, shipped in mostly after the upheaval was over, found plenty to do. Machine-gun-toting detachments of the National Guard sealed off the basketball courts and bike and skate paths of Venice Beach. Platoons of soldiers secured their positions under the burned-out palm trees of the Civil Center. Some 45 miles from the epicenter of the disturbances, desert-camouflaged armor stood sentinel over a string of shopping malls as white suburbanites went binge-buying, stocking up on food, treats and videos before the dust-to-dawn curfew fell again. At the boutique markets - the Gelson's and Pavilions - polished Jags and buffed-out Range Rovers shared parking space with Humvees and APCs as the patrons weathered two-hour checkout lines. Soldiers also kept the freeways open as those who could afford it raced away, booking every $350-a-night resort room on the white-sands beaches of Santa Barbara, Laguna and Dana Point over their cellular phones.
|Another 1,000 Marines roared into the heart of LA's black ghetto, past still-smoldering fires and blocks of collapsed buildings, cautiously eyeing another set of anxious citizens lined up three and four abreast. But this was no frenzy for food or gasoline or videotapes. All that was long gone, either looted or incinerated. South Central residents endured hours under the smoke-filtered sun from the moment the curfew lifted to deep into the afternoon, to pick up their welfare and Social Security checks from a paralyzed Post Office - in the vain hope that, if you got there early enough, there might be time to head north for supplies and beat it back before nightfall.|
South Central certainly did not greet the soldiers with confetti and yellow ribbons. But given the Hobson's choice of being policed either by the black-uniformed LAPD, with its "super sniper squads" and battering rams under the command of Chief Daryl F. Gates, or by the winter soldiers temporarily dispatched by Mayor Tom Bradley and Governor Pete Wilson, well...there was hardly a contest.
|After all, it was Chief Gates and his free-swinging clubbers who got LA into this mess in the first place. The not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King case not only launched the phosphorous flare signaling that it is completely legal to beat the stuffing out of black men, and that justice is a word reserved for whites only, but also ignited 27 years of boundless fury and frustration bottled up since the last uprising.|
|By early Sunday morning, the tally was 10,000 business laid waste, 58 corpses at the morgue, 9,500 people arrested and a price tap approaching $1 billion dollars. A small, multiracial detail of civilians, armed with brooms and dustpans and led by actor Eddie Olmos, was busy sweeping the street. With the official media and bewildered political leaders latching onto this operation as "just what the city needed" and "the beginning of the healing process," reality was disappearing from the spotlight, threatening to turn this exercise of civil goodwill into one more ritual of collective denial.|
What looks to the television cameras like so many mounds of rubble is, in reality, a mosaic of anger over decades of LAPD brutality, of agony over a court system that sends a black man to jail for shooting a dog while freeing a Korean shopkeeper who shot a black teenager, of frustration over an economy that no longer provides a real living, of discontent with a welfare system that punishes. The growing heap being carted to the city dump contains the recognition by blacks, Latinos and disenfranchised whites that they are not merely discriminated against, they are abandoned, written off as "losers."
"The people who were responding with such violence today are not people for whom the problem is Daryl Gates," said on black activist. "The problem is the notion that some people count and some don't."
At the height of the looting and rioting, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that the turmoil most benefited on man: Chief Daryl Gates. In the week before the Rodney King verdict, Gates - alone among city officials and public leaders - predicted widespread violence should officers Timothy Wind, Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno and Stacey Koon walk free. The chief triumphantly declared that he had set aside a million dollars to pay overtime for putting down an uprising. But when the uprising began, Gates appeared to be hiding.
|The shock wave that emanated from the Simi Valley Courthouse became deadly at approximately 5 p.m. Wednesday. At the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, practically dead center in South Central LA, what began as bottle and rock-throwing soon turned to the looting of a liquor store and a small neighborhood market by perhaps two dozen people. As television news helicopters arrived, the situation turned ugly. Live, unedited, on every station along the dial, a macabre, public reenactment of the Rodney King beating was broadcast. This time, however, it was whites being pummeled by a crowd of blacks - just as Gates had warned. for an hour or more, the audience of electronic onlookers watched three motorists being clobbered with fists and rocks. Back at the anchor desks, the talking heads confidently intoned at first, "I'm sure the police are on the way." Later, it became a panicky wail: "Where are the police? Where are the police?"|
By the time the last victim, ill-fated truck driver Reginald Denny, rolled his 18-wheeler smack into the middle of the deadly mayhem, TV news crews were practically frantic. Pleading for a police presence, they narrated an attempted murder. One man yanked Denny from his cab, two others kicked and stomped him as he lay helpless on the asphalt. Finally a third man grabbed the fire extinguisher from his truck and crashed it down upon Denny's skull. While he lay on the ground, another man came up to him and slowly went through his pockets, fleeing with Denny's wallet. It was a pitiful, wrenching picture, and the whole city was watching.
Ironically, Chief Daryl Gates, the one man in a position to halt what up to then appeared to be an isolated incident, was on his way to a fundraiser in opposition to Proposition F - the June charter amendment written after the King beating to reform the LAPD. "There are going to be situations where people are without assistance," Gates said as he was leaving the cushy Brentwood fundraiser. "That's just the facts of life."
|The man who said he'd never let it happen in his town, who had fattened the public purse with a million dollars in anticipation of a general insurrection, declared no tactical alert, issued no orders to block off the streets leading to and from Normandie and Florence, offered no police escorts to ambulances and fire trucks. (In fact, it was Mayor Bradley who finally ordered police to the scene, and on May 4th the Police Commission announced an official inquiry into the delay.) The garrulous Chief, usually given to incendiary remarks, and decisive action, was silent. "Daryl Gates was in a position to allow the black community to go up in flames," an aide to black state Senator Diane Watson said, "and he did."|
Even after Governor Wilson granted Mayor Bradley's request for National Guard militia, Gates took a day and a half to deploy the first 500 citizens-soldiers out of a complement of 6,000.
|It was vintage Daryl Gates. What other police department would allow its cops to beat an innocent man to within an inch of his life, leaving him emotionally and allegedly brain-damaged, and 14 months later sit idly by as three other innocents were nearly beaten to death? Gates's message was loud and clear: Now you see what it is like when you don't want an effective police department, a force that cracks heads. The boss of LA's Police Protective League quickly seconded Gates, wagging his finger at complacent liberals: This is what you get when you have a police department that is "understaffed and undermanned."|
Gates's inflammatory omissions were hardly improvised. From the very moment KTLA News aired amateur photographer George Holliday's video of Rodney King's assault, Gates has successfully stared down Mayor Bradley and his liberal allies. The Chief's seeming omnipotence stems not only from his limitless arrogance but from the policy of appeasement pursued by the Bradley coalition of downtown businessmen, black community leaders and Westside liberals - the key supporters of the Christopher Commission reforms. Like a Latin American colonel to who democratically elected leaders are always kowtowing, Gates can usually count upon his opponents to temporize and back peddle for fear that they may arouse the pro-police constituency to action. Hemmed in by antiquated local ordinances insulating Gates behind civil-service protections, the Bradley establishment has been unwilling to tap into the anger of its natural constituency, the black and Latino communities. Like their national counterparts in the Democratic Party, Bradley and his handpicked police commissioners, as well as his allied on the City Council, prefer to appease conservative swing voters in the San Fernando Valley rather than mobilize the mass of unregistered and potentially volatile voters at the bottom of LA's food chain.
"We didn't want to offend Daryl Gates," Meir Westreich, a civil rights attorney and author of the police reforms appearing on the June ballot, said. "We felt we had to tiptoe around." The conciliatory stance, designed to nudge Gates aside, was a failure from its inception. In March of last year, at Bradley's insistence and with the blessings of the City Attorney, the Police Commission suspended Gates. Within days, the City Council - angered by the commission's newfound independence - overruled them, with five of Gates's erstwhile liberal opponents providing the swing votes. It was a flip-flopping fiasco, only to compounded later, in July, when Gates made a written promise to leave the department by April of 1992. By late summer, the Christopher Commission gave the official stamp to the public's dismal rating of the LAPD as a brutal, racist, autocratic occupying force. Still, Gates persevered, despite his promise to resign. And, once again, the City Council, the mayor and the Police Commission acquiesced, insisting that Gates would be gone by April, when a new police chief would be on board and the reform initiative would be before the voters.
And so the charade went, right up to the eve of the riots. One week before chaos brought the months-long waffling to a cold, sobering halt, Police Commission President Stanley Sheinbaum and Chief Gates got into a shouting match. Gates announced he was making promotions and changes along the echelon at Parker Center - a direct slap in the face of chief-designate Willie Williams, the black police commissioner of Philadelphia. Sheinbaum - the gruff, seventyish, left-liberal rainmaker, financier of Ramparts magazine and former head of the ACLU Foundation - was unequivocal. Gates would make no such appointments. By Tuesday, 24 hours before LA went up in flames, the Bradley minions wimped out one last time. Gates could make his staffing changes - thereby prolonging his paramilitary legacy - so long as the commission "oversaw" the new appointments. Once again, the Chief snickered as his opponents backed down.
"Had the City Council swing votes put Gates out the door last year," Westreich concluded, "I don't think this city would have reacted with thi level of anger."
Then, too, there is the possibility that Gates may stay on beyond June 30. He has not yet formally submitted his retirement, in writing, to city officials. "Until he does that," Meir Westreich says, "it is a joke."
The whole process of reform, according to one black political insider, depends upon Daryl Gates. In the darkest scenario yet, chief-designate Willie Williams will be dragged down by the rioting. "He will be put into a position that will be construed as compromising his commitment to the department from the standpoint of the police. And he will be attacked, anonymously at first, by police on the line. Then he'll be attacked by the Police Protective League. Then he'll be attacked by Daryl Gates. And then they'll all say, the department gives him a vote of 'no confidence.' Even if Gates cannot ultimately win, he can just fuck the situation up more."
To Michael Zinzun, LA's leading crusader against police abuse (and recipient of a $1.2 million settlement against local police, who punched his eye out), whether Daryl Gates stays or goes has little meaning beyond the purely symbolic. Genuine reform of the LAPD isn't even on the agenda.
"Unless we have police accountability, we won't be able to effectively get community support to weed out the racist elements in the police department who will still be there even when Gates is gone," he says. "Without an independent prosecutor with subpoena power, without direct community participation in the disciplinary proceedings, I think we'll fail just as quickly as we have where blacks have replaced whites in the other institutions in LA, from the mayor to the City Council to the Police Commission.
The South Central convulsion snapped the confines of the 1965 Watts riots, spilling out of the traditional borders of the black ghetto, edging northward and westward, into Downtown and Hollywood, threatening the outskirts of Beverly Hills and leapfrogging the Santa Monica Mountains into the Spanish-speaking areas of the once all-white San Fernando Valley.
Like a computer-generated map pin-wheeling off the screen, the geographical outlines of the violence accurately redrew the boundaries of underclass Los Angeles. While the torched-out shopping districts on Hollywood Boulevard still draw camera-laden tourists from Osaka and Oshkosh, the tattered wooden-frame homes up and along the residential side streets were long ago ceded to the burgeoning numbers of casually employed Latinos who populate city street corners selling oranges, peanuts or a few hours of their physical labor to passing motorists. Looking at the TV charts of looting and arson incidents, there must have been some thousands of white people who finally realized that in this hypersegregated town, it is they who now live in a ghetto - a white ghetto - surrounded by a Third-World city.
|While the columns of smoke towered into the skies and the human and property casualty tolls mounted, it became clear that this was a rebellion not only against the white establishment, but also against its black counterpart. After Watts, the city disenfranchised were told that their redemption resided in electing to office a progressive generation of politicians that could pass on concrete benefits to the grassroots. The 1973 election of Tom Bradley, supported by a coalition of white liberals and supposedly progressive business interests, seemingly vindicated the rioters of 1965. Yet after two decades of a liberal administration by a black mayor, Los Angeles's African-American community now lags farther behind other minority groups and sees its already tenuous economic standing being further eroded.|
Tom Bradley as mayor did nothing to palliate the effects of GM, Goodyear, Firestone and Bethlehem Steel all pulling out of South Central LA in the last 20 years, leaving behind only minimum-wage service jobs, if any. It was Bradley who choked off spending programs for inner-city youth recreation, allocating in 1987 only $30,000 for recreational equipment for 150 centers that supposedly serve tens of thousands of ghetto children. This while black youth unemployment hovers at 50 percent.
|In those early hellacious hours, as the first fires were sprouting, Mayor Bradley and the city's black leadership huddled with a roiling crowd of 2,500 in the preeminent First A.M.E. Church. That first night's meeting collapsed into chaos and outrage. Bradley and several other black politicians and clergy were left literally talking to themselves as the agitated audience moved into the street and melted into the whirlwind of violence sweeping around them. The car of liberal Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky - one of Chief Gates's earliest critics - went up in flames. So did the office of young black Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a former|
|executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles and one of the original leaders - going back some 13 years - of a militant but unsuccessful campaign to place the LAPD under a civilian review board. By the morning light, other symbols of black advance had been reduced to ashes. The Crenshaw shopping district, heart of LA's black middle class and the only significant commercial district in South Central, had burned to the ground.|
A yawning abyss had opened between the new urban poor (not to mention the growing underclass) and an aging black leadership forged in struggle some 30 years ago. "There is an incredible lack of respect for black elected officials," the newly appointed head of the SCLC, Joe Hicks, said. "With all of the flip-flops over the last year from the mayor's office and from the city, people just felt locked out of the political process. They have little respect for the institutions in their own community, and little respect for others' and their own lives."
As the violence spun out of control and took on increasing tones of self-destruction, another meeting at the First A.M.E. Church was called for the next morning - a closed-door conclave of the 50 top black leaders in the city. Another failure. "That second meeting demonstrated that people just plain didn't know what to do," a young activist who attended said. "It showed that the traditional leadership are comfortable with certain formulas and don't know how to go beyond them....The impulse was to keep the peace, to postpone any action. To put out the line that the people out there rioting do not represent the rest of us. I felt that saying that was to play into the hands of the racists."
And many of those racist hands were tightly gripped around the city's media microphones. With the black leadership refusing for the most part to legitimize if not condone the social explosion, the electronic media took over spin control. This was, after all, ratings sweeps week, where the scheduled reports on pregnant lesbian nuns, on sexy Mexican soap-opera stars and white men who will only sleep with black women were rudely preempted by the searing flash of reality. but no problem, the unfolding urban violence was immediately and deftly repackaged, reshaped and made suitable for maximum ratings impact.
Given opened air time, the TV "news" departments turned the uprising into one continuous, 24-hour-a-day drive-by shooting, all Live from Copter Five. The chauffeur-driven, $600,000-a-year local anchors, whose only contact with South Central is from inside their locked cars en route to Palm Springs, were no wringing their hands about the "innocent victims" of the violence, cowering with their families those "nice little well-kept houses," as Channel 7's Ann Martin put it. "Creeps" is how her partner Paul Moyers described those defying police in the streets. "Hooligans," ruled Channel 2. "Thugs, criminals and gang-bangers," said Channel 4. Look out for the Crips and Bloods gangs, was the drumbeat on Channel 5. "You're going to have to control your language if you're going to be on television," Channel 7 reporter Art Rascon scolded an angry young man who had just blurted out "fuck" a number of times on camera.
By the second day of violence, Channel 7 field reporter Linda Mour was sitting on the news set being interviewed live about her experience reporting on looters. "Did you get the impression that a lot of those people were illegal aliens?" asked anchor Harold Greene.
"Yes," Mour flatly replied.
This tremendous media spin, so comforting to every racists in the signal area, also set off the panic alarms among the few black leaders willing to take a bolder stand than their peers. U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters fought the battle on the national airwaves of CNN and ABC, hotly defending the rage of her constituents. On the local level, state Senator Diane Watson made a tour of the LA television news shows Thursday night and one by one took on the anchors - and their prejudices.
If the reaction registered in Watson's office is any measure, this televised orgy of vilification and criminalization of the poor, this ruthless disparaging of the real anger and frustration of tens of thousands of people in this city, is an accurate rendering of the prevailing attitude among a big chunk of white LA. They had retreated from their offices and cafes as the plebes were having a whack at it, but their able and perfumed representatives still controlled the airwaves and were giving strident voice to their private thoughts. "Once Diane went public, the calls just came pouring in here," one of her aides said. "Those who called from the community were grateful and supportive and saying it was about time someone talked back to the media. But the calls from outside her district, from the Anglos, they're mostly hate calls. They say 'Diane Watson is a reverse bigot and it's her constituents that are burning the city down, you fucking nigger.'"
|Out of the confusion and inertia that hamstrung the city's black leadership, a new activist force was emerging in the heat of events. Gay black organizations seemed to be the only ones willing once again to hoist the banners of aggressive protest. Phill Wilson, the 36-year-old director of the city's AIDS office and leader of the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, attended the same closed-door meeting at the A.M.E. Church that four dozen other activists had on the second day of rioting. Unwilling to call for a blanket social peace, he proposed an ambitious series of public political protests. His call went unheeded - a partial explanation for why the Korean community was able quickly to pull 30,000 people into a street march, whereas organized black political presence was nil.|
"It's not an accident that black lesbians and gays are now taking the initiative where others won't," Wilson said. "We are like those people back in the '50s. We are the ones now who have nothing to lose. My simple existence, as a gay man, in many states is in itself a violation of the law. So when we talk today of following the law or not, sometimes the law we choose to follow is the law of survival. And sometimes surviving means breaking the rules."
As the median skin hue darkened in Los Angeles in the 1970s, developers bulldozed stand after stand of California live oak, pushing the white suburban envelope to the very edge of the county line and beyond through Santa Susana Pass. Succeeding lumps of flesh-colored town homes (all with identical faux-Mexican tile roofs) festered into the metastasizing melanoma known today as Simi Valley. A hundred thousand souls, drawn by "good schools" (read all-white) and relatively low housing costs, set up camp just across the Los Angeles County line, separated from South Central and the Rodney Kings of this world by two mountain ranges and 60 miles of freeway. Before the high-publicity police trial of the last six weeks, Simi's only claim to notoriety was serving as home to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
It was a stroke of genius, then, when the LAPD defense lawyers managed to change the venue of the police-beating trial to this somnolent 'burb. What a laugh they must have had together when Judge Stanley Weisberg acceded to their request, agreeing that adverse, saturation media in Los Angeles had made a fair trial there impossible. No matter that Simi was part of the same LA media market. Judge Weisberg, legal sources say, found the one-hour daily commute from his Beverly Hills home the most attractive and convenient of the options available.
Of the 8,300 officers on the LAPD, a staggering 2,000 of them live in Simi. Then there's the untold number of LA and Ventura County sheriffs out there, coaching Little League and fixing Sunday barbecues. Like some sort of local Huey Long, presiding over and micro-managing the entire Conejo Valley, which includes Simi and the neighboring town of Moorpoark (whose mayor was forced to resign in 1987 after using the word "nigger" twice in a newspaper interview), is state Senator Ed Davis, Daryl Gates's immediate predecessor as police chief (who will always be fondly remembered as the man who suggested that any captured airplane hijacker should be tried on the spot and then hanged "at the airport.")
|The fateful decision made by the Simi Valley jury is destined to be more than an asterisk when the history of this period is written. The sensibilities that underlie that verdict will surface again, in the months to come, when the "solutions" to the uprising are proffered. The tsk-tsking about the destruction of South LA has led many to delude themselves that something good must come of this, that such a wrenching cri de coeur from the LA underclass just cannot go unheeded.|
But these are the '90s, not the '60s. That message was unabashedly transmitted when Mayor Bradley named utility ubermensch Peter Ueberroth as head of the commission to rebuild Los Angeles. This Prophet of Profit immediately warned there would be "no handouts" and that it would be not the state or federal government, God forbid, but the private sector that would reconstruct the ghetto.
But it is that same private sector that has, under Bradley's stewardship, systematically retreated from, abandoned and ultimately strangled South Central Los Angeles. In 1992, 12 years into the Reagan Revolution, are we to believe that these entrepreneurs will experience a moral conversion? All this while Republican Governor Pete Wilson, who had the audacity in the midst of the unrest to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall, will quickly return next week to his preferred political causes, a ballot initiative aimed at a 25 percent cut in welfare. "We are operating in a political atmosphere marked by a myth of scarcity," says Phill Wilson, "so that even people of goodwill believe that the only way for them to survive is to contribute to a poorer community's destruction."
|Indeed, a most insightful social historian, Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, warns that our immediate future is more likely to be determined by the mean, myopic, empty spirit of places like Simi Valley than by the fleeting compassion symbolized by the multiracial clean-up of the riot zone. "The riot in the inner-city will be probably followed by a second, even more devastating riot in the suburbs," Davis wrote as the rage about the Simi Valley verdict burst around him. "The suburbanites won't burn Korean liquor stores or stone Parker Center. They will simply tighten the fiscal vise around the central city - where they will never again venture - and let it bleed. They will organize death-penalty parties and victory parades for the LAPD and the National Guard (Operation Urban Storm?) And Daryl F. Gates's book will top best-seller lists in [the white suburbs of] West Hills and South Pasadena." Perhaps Davis's grim vision was shaded by the death and destruction. But while the Watts outburst of 1965 seemed to some a dress rehearsal for revolution, its 1992 encore was but a rumbling, tectonic shift, an adjustment along the seemingly bottomless fault line of day-to-day despair.|
Once the wrenching was over, Los Angeles was back to business as usual. According to KFWB radio, Sergeant Stacey Koon, acquitted for supervising the beating of Rodney King, had got himself an agent and was negotiating a movie deal.
Marc Cooper and Greg Goldin write frequently for the Village Voice, where a version of this story first appeared.
51 percent of those arrested at the peak of the rioting were Latino, 36 percent black. The largest group was young Latino men ages 18 to 24, who accounted for 30 percent of those arrested. The analysis was made of 5,633 adult arrests on felony and misdemeanor charges. The population make up of Los Angeles according to  census figures is 39 percent Latino, 37 percent white and 13 percent black. [Source: Rand Corporation computer analysis]