Friday, April 27, 2012 / 5:00 am

Chicken Pox and Napoleon

A hot time in the ole town tonight is recalled.

by Gary Phillips

L.A. '92
a fire in Mid-City

On this 20th anniversary of the ’92 riots, in the last two weeks I’ve done a panel, a radio  broadcast, as well as written a couple of other pieces recounting and reflecting on those events.  I take this not as a sign of any sagacity I’ve gained in the last couple of decades, but of age – that simply by being around long enough and having done certain things, you get asked to look back.

In fact, a decade before, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of those events, I’d done a piece for Geography of Rage, a collection of essays and reflections on the conflagration edited by Jervey Tervalon, published by the late, lamented local press, Really Great Books. 

There were several highpoints, if that’s the right word, for me during the riots.  Robin Cannon, a South Central community activist and a friend of my wife Gilda, was as shit jumped off at Normandie and Florence, sitting in Gilda’s Community Scholars class.  As going home that night seemed dicey, she stayed with us and during the lull the next day, Gilda took her home.  The Vons near our house in Mid-City on Pico and Fairfax got looted but the workers and some neighbors prevented it from being torched.  Me and a few other friends witnessed an old lady with a pistol in her apron pocket and her feisty girlfriends preventing some knuckleheads from torching the Texaco station at Ogden and Pico.

That Friday evening as Gilda left with our then small kids to stay with friends in the Valley, I camped at the crib to protect it with my .357 and a bottle of Jack Daniels – what could go wrong?  Turned out the rumor going around that gangbangers would be targeting my neighborhood was bogus, and so a semi-drunken man wielding a deadly weapon cut down by police was not to be my fate.  Oh, and I got chicken pox after the riots, and so did my dad – who lived with us but was away visiting relatives in Kansas City as L.A. burned.

Our kids had been exposed in the pre-school, and of course you’re supposed to let them get the ailment to develop immunity.  On the second day of the unrest, me, Gilda, some friends and their kids were all in the living room of our friends’ duplex for several hours.  We watched the riot unfold on TV while also viewing smoke from nearby fires through the windows.  I’d called pop to ask him if I ever had chicken pox and he said I must have.  Turns out, nope, I’d somehow hadn’t contracted the nasty business when I was a kid and neither had my eightysomething dad.  And nasty it is when you’re an adult and you get the infection as various complications like encephalitis, pneumonia or sepsis can result.

Fortunately, aside from being miserable for a few days, none of that happened to me or my dad.  But as I unknowingly incubated the pox, I accompanied Sarah Cooper (sans pistol), the then director of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research (SCL) into South Central in her beloved Rambler to see about the Library. 

SCL’s roots went back to the Red Scare ‘50s when communists, socialists, lefties, labor organizers and the like were throwing out their progressive pamphlets, books, lapel pins and what have you, least they be branded un-American.  Emil Freed, Communist Party USA member by temperament and an electrical engineer by training, collected that material and secreted them away all over L.A.  In the ‘60s he and some others bought the shell of an appliance store on Vermont Avenue, between Slauson and Gage (near where I grew up on Slauson and Flower Street) and this became the Southern California Library, a repository that continues today for left and progressive history.

I was on the Library’s board – in my thirties then I brought up the median age on the board by a few decades – then and when Sarah and I got down to south Vermont, we were relieved to see there was graffiti on the building but it hadn’t been damaged or looted.  The reason SCL was unharmed was due to Chester Murray.  He was the Library’s handyman and lived in the neighborhood.  Chester had gone out on the street cooling down hot heads and reminding them that the Library was part of the community, that SCL was about people’s history.

Maybe some of those cats out in the streets expressing their frustrations had come to the Library in August of 1990 when we marked the 25th anniversary of the previous unrest, the 1965 Watts Rebellion with an all-day conference.  Or maybe a couple of them had seen the photo exhibit centered around the anniversary.  Could be they heard the Curfew Zone, an oral history from the likes of pioneering jazz saxman Buddy Collette, John Eric Priestly, co-founder of the socio-political wordsmiths, the Watts Prophets, or Edna Guillary, who’d moved to watts in the ‘40s to work at an aircraft plant, that aired on KPFK. 

Post the riots there was a cottage industry of nonfiction and fiction books and documentaries that sprang up.  Among the offerings was a book published by one of the four cops on trail that day, Sgt. Stacy Koon (with Robert Deitz), whose book Presumed Guilty, posited that once you had all the evidence, why you’d be cheering for the officers who beat the living shit out of Rodney King.

Napoleon supposedly said, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”  Twenty years hence, we have a black president and intense white backlash designed to fully gut gains made during the Civil Rights Movement and under President Johnson’s Great Society policies.  Like Koon, the Limbaughists, the teabaggers, Fixed News and their ilk seek to erase reality; erase from history the legacy of the New Deal, have textbooks state as fact bullshit about the world only being 6,000 years old, allow Wall Street to continue its financial rape and pillage and on and on

“Can we all get along?” Rodney King asked plaintively as the fires burned.  How about can we all open our eyes?  Saigu, the Korean word for 4/29 and what it symbolized should be learned from, not repeated.

the aftermath
Gary Phillips' latest is Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, a collection of his short stories.

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