The fire this time: L.A. rebellion unveils the shape of tomorrow

Aftermath of the LA riots. A burnt building with a person walking in front of it wearing a helmet.
Aftermath of the LA riots. Photo: Flickr
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“Hell no! We won’t take it!” Wednesday, April 29, 1992. Following the acquittal of four cop-terrorists who bludgeoned Rodney King senseless last year, enraged youth from the ghettoes, barrios, and housing projects of Los Angeles ignited the biggest and most multi-racial riot/revolt in the U.S. in this century.

It was violent and compassionate, chaotic and orderly, surprising and predictable. It exposed the powers-that-be and intimated the power that could be.

It was a rebellion against police brutality – and much more. It was a shout of fury against the economics and politics that have impoverished, drugged, brutalized, exploited and marginalized Blacks – and in addition to Blacks, all people of color, women, and gays. It was an explosion against a system in which previously comfortable workers are afflicted with debt, anxiety, and living standards in free fall, while the most oppressed workers are living in hell. One-third of the half-million people in South Central L.A. officially live in poverty.

The uprising was a violent rebuke to a violent ruling structure, an outcry loud enough for the whole world to hear. It was a defining moment in U.S. history.

And it is far from over. It was still echoing in July, when Washington Heights in New York City went up in flames for two days after a white cop shot and killed 23-year-old Jose Garcia, a Dominican-American. Neighborhood residents, who are mostly Latino immigrants, said, “¡Basta! – Enough!” in the language of arson and guns.

No peace possible without justice. Forty-five people died during the three days of rioting in Los Angeles, 11 more than were killed when Watts blew up for six days in August 1965. At least 11 were slain by the incredible array of police and troops called out – a total of 20,238, including 5,000 L.A. cops; 9,975 National Guard; 3,313 federal troops; and 4,273 others.

Though the media portrayed L.A. as out of control for days on end, almost all the looting and burning was already over before troops appeared on the streets on Friday afternoon.

Nevertheless, the dusk-to-dawn curfew was not lifted until after Sunday night. Schools were closed for three days. The city shut down the South Central post offices, held repair crews back, stopped bus service, blockaded freeway access, and closed the beaches.

Seventeen thousand people were arrested; 4,000 were arrested during Watts. Forty-five percent of those arrested were Latinos, several hundred of whom were then illegally deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Two nations, rich and poor. This was no race riot. Blacks, Latinos, whites, men, women, kids and parents – all joined in.

Many of the torched or raided, shops were owned by Korean Americans. Undoubtedly, anger over insensitive or racist treatment by some merchants contributed to this destruction. But mainly, the businesses that were hit were hit simply because they were there. “It was a riot of have-nots venting their frustration,” said one Korean grocer.

The Kerner Commission, which studied the riots of the ’60s, reached the famous conclusion that the U.S. was split into “two societies, one black, one white.” The L.A. riots of 1992 roiled from and reveal an even more fundamental division: two societies, one have-nots, one haves.

Not just an L.A. thing. The protest spread overnight to cities across the country and even around the world: Toronto, Berlin, Melbourne.

• In San Francisco, Mayor Frank Jordan responded to outpourings of disgust at the verdict with a state of emergency, a curfew, and full-throttle repression of the right to assemble. (Please see Merle Woo’s account on page seven.)

• In Portland, Oregon, a crowd of 2,000 protested the verdict at a rally originally initiated to show outrage over the beating of a Black man by Nazi skinheads, an assault that the police refuse to prosecute as a hate crime.

• Two nights of riots and a week of rallies ensued in Seattle. Students shut down freeways. The Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women were two sponsors of a broad-based press conference that called for dropping felony charges against all those arrested.

• In New York City, five demonstrations materialized in two days. Police completely cordoned off an interracial rally called by the Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence. At a May Day coffeehouse hosted by FSP and RW, a discussion of the institutionalized violence of the system versus the individual violence of looters took center stage.

“Law and order” no solution. As upheavals broke out all over, politicians of all colors began backing up President George Bush’s law-and-order line – ignoring the fact that troops didn’t stop the L.A. rioters; they stopped themselves.

A martial crackdown will do no more to solve the problem now than it did in 1965 or 1967. The cities are in flames because people are poor; they have no jobs, no health care, no way up or out; they are constantly discriminated against, harassed, and insulted; and they are fed up with police brutality.

Capitalism is out of time, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put this broken Humpty Dumpty back together again .

In our hands is placed the power. The job of cleaning up and creating something new is in the hands of the people who have long suffered with things as they are. Los Angelenos showed this understanding as they worked together across color boundaries to douse fires, get care for the injured, stretch electrical cords across streets to keep neighbors’ refrigerators going, and share food and shelter.

The looters and the people who swept up – and they were sometimes the same people – show two sides of the same resolve: The exploited and oppressed see the necessity to take matters into their own hands.

The most impassioned and explicit demands for radical change come from women of color, enraged at the systematic, callous brutality against themselves and their sons and daughters.

What’s needed are more leaders bold enough to say, Let’s stop messing around. Let’s tell the truth. Let’s forget about trying to save ourselves by backing Democrats or building up Black capitalism with no capital. Let’s get rid of the profit system and go for socialism.

And these leaders will come forward, because the situation demands it. One step taken: the Crips and Bloods, L.A.’s two major gangs, are observing a truce. They have come up with a program for reconstruction called “Give Us the Hammer and the Nails, We Will Rebuild the City.”

The vision exists. The vehicle for making that vision come to life could be a massive new multi-racial, feminist, anti-capitalist party.

Let’s organize a real challenge to this damned government; let’s turn riot into revolution.

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