Saturday, April 28, 2012 / 7:17 am
Los Angeles Riots: 1992
No justice, no peace.
Wednesday, April 29, 1992
The alarm buzzes and I am up and out of my comfy bed. It takes a while to get my nine year old son John up and ready for school.
I take him to McDonalds for his breakfast. It's right across the street from his school. It's the only way I can figure out how to make sure he's okay. No day care for him No money for that. I climb back into my car, drive past the well-tended landscape of the school, and make the long drive to South Central and my job as teacher of fourth graders at 61st Street School.
It's always painful leaving John. I worry.
But the morning drive is glorious – the dramatic, curvy drive alongside cliffs through Malibu Canyon, opening to the long, flat horizon line of the Pacific Ocean, down the Pacific Coast Highway through the tony neighborhoods of the elite. With a cup of coffee and the radio tuned to my favorite station, it's a great way to start the day.
The road widens at the Santa Monica tunnel into a full-fledged freeway with its jam of cars. I eventually navigate the interchange off the 10 onto the 110, get to my exit and drop down to a busy street corner in South Central, my other world.
The neighborhood is urban. Bungalows hug the broad, packed streets. The small yards are almost all neat, as neat and trimmed as those in the suburban neighborhood I've just come from. But there is a difference. In this neighborhood there are bars on the windows and doors. No supermarkets or high end restaurants, just strip malls with little bodegas and mom&pop restaurants. Smog browns the air. There are no white people here, just Blacks and Latinos.
There is a steady stream of mothers pushing strollers surrounded by their children in little bunches. All the children head right to the cafeteria for their breakfasts and then they take off for the asphalt playground where not a blade of grass exists. (That's because of the cost of upkeep, I'm told.) There is nothing on that hard scape to relieve the intolerable heat of the summer and the stench of the exhaust from the cars on the freeway less than 100 feet away.
I think about how different it is in Thousand Oaks. Children are dropped off at the school by moms or dads who drive up in their later model cars. Most kids have already had their breakfasts at home so they run out to the well-tended lawns and manicured baseball diamonds of their playground to hang out with their friends.
The inequality of those two playgrounds maddens me.
I put those thoughts away as I turn the corner and pull into the school parking lot.
The day is its usual wonderful self. Our routines unfold nicely. Things are good. Normal. All the children, stories, work and play, are smooth and easy. I absolutely and completely love teaching here. I have never loved a job as much or as thoroughly as this one.
By the time the bell rings to bring the day to a close, my students and I are packed and out the door. A quick stop to sign out at the office and I am in the wind. If nothing goes wrong I will be home by 3:30 just a little bit after John gets home.
I am always anxious on my way home. John is alone after school until I get home. In 1992 there is no cell phone to keep us connected. It costs waaaay too much for me to get one. Only rich folks own them.. So anxiety is intense as I drive. It takes an hour on a good day, three on a bad, to get home. I always hold my breath until I walk through the door and touch my boy.
The afternoon drive from my school to my home is the opposite of the morning drive. It's a bitch. People are tired and cranky. There are slowdowns and complete stops. Lines of cars creep along and I get to toe-tapping with frustration.
I get home after my long, cranky drive and find my dear son, safe and sound. Relief. I throw my things on the couch, turn on the TV and see … a riot.
(TV is a teleportation machine. Your eyes, ears and brain are instantaneously transported anywhere a camera can go – outer space, China, South Central L.A. You are literally there, witnessing things in real time in a real place.)
I am in a helicopter, looking down on the neighborhood that is exactly 1.7 miles from my school. I recognize it all. The wide city streets. The mini malls. The gas stations. But throngs of people are milling around with unusual energy.
Something's happenin' here. What it is ain't exactly clear.
What the hell??!? I was just there an hour ago…
And then I realize what's happened.
The Rodney King verdict. All those kicking, beating, bone-crunching cops are declared innocent. It is just …too much!
The result has touched off the fury of people who have had enough. The folks I watch from my perch in the sky are the warriors of South Central tearing down The Man.
And I can relate, Brothers and Sisters. I can relate.
I think about the Universe granted me the gift of poverty. I don't mean that sarcastically. I was white and middle class but fell on hard times. Twenty five years of hard times. I was in a daily struggle of living on the edge. I experienced every mortification, hardship, fear, and stress that poverty creates. I also found out how much effort it takes to survive. When money is scarce it takes a huge amount of ingenuity and a gigantic amount of labor just to keep body and soul together. Nothing is simple when there is no money. It is all very, very hard – harder than anything I have ever known. And the deep and abiding lesson of that part of my life was that it is a matter of luck about where your station is in life. And that is the gift. Deep and abiding respect for those who struggle.
And when you have four kids … quadruple that.
* * *
I sit watching the riot on TV.
I watch the helicopter footage of running black men throwing rocks at cars and trucks. I watch the milling and the yelling of the people in my neighborhood.
I am, in a curious way, proud of the rioters who loot the stores and rampage. Don't get me wrong. I am a pacifist and a sit-in kinda person, always. But there is something spontaneous and uncontrollable and strong going on.
Yeah, yeah. I know. You don't need to say it. I don't want civilization to crumble into chaos any more than you do. But I want to be completely honest. I feel the satisfaction of a kind of primal justice in my gut. It doesn't matter that the destruction is in our own neighborhood. It doesn't matter that people will think poorly of us. It doesn't matter that laws and commandments are being broken. It is the expression of pure outrage against The System that had ONCE AGAIN slapped down those who have no money, no power, no standing in their own society.
But then it gets deadly. I see footage of Reginald Denny being pulled from his truck and nearly beaten to death. It looks a lot like the Rodney King beating except for one thing. Denny is rescued by Bobby Green, a black man, who risks his own life to protect that white man..
I am conflicted. My emotions are fear of the hatred and almost-killing of Denny, pride in the hero who rescues a man who is white, a hero who saw a working guy in his truck, not the Oppresser. And saved him.
Here's a pretty good compilation of what I saw.
If you watch this video you will hear the voice of a woman who was of one of the members of the Rodney King jury. She denies that the verdict had anything to do with the rioting.
That woman's attitude is what I'm talking about. Her denial of responsibility, blinders firmly in place, self-righteousness oozing from her tiny soul, is exactly why the riots happened.
Here's something else I think you will find interesting. It is part of a response to the riots by Midge Decter, a neoconservative writer and member of the Heritage Foundation.
“[h]ow 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 to look at these boys of the underclass … and imagine that they either want or could hold on to jobs?”
From her lofty perch above it all, she looks down her nose at the “underclass” and pronounces them beneath saving.
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is why I feel so intense about equality and justice.
The riots served a good purpose. The riots said, “There is some shit we will not eat!”
Of course, the tsk-tsking of the Right continues to this day. But not as loudly. Careful there, Right Wing, you just might stir up more than you can deal with.
* * *
I continue to watch the coverage Wednesday night, all Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Five days after the beginning of the upheaval schools across LA open on Monday morning.
Son John is nervous about me going back. “It's fine,” I tell him. (But years later he tells me that he was always scared after that when I went to work.) But I've got to put food on the table and a roof over our heads.
On Monday morning I take that pretty drive to school, eager to find out what had happened.
When I pull up to the school's parking lot I look around and see … everything on the school campus is perfectly fine. Not a hair on its pretty head is touched.
That isn't true of some of the businesses across the street. Burned out. Windows smashed. Lots of that. Some of the homes down the street are burned. An apartment building has some damage, too.
But the school stands firmly on its foundation with a happy smile on its face.
I think to myself, “The people love their school.” Even though our playground is asphalt. Even though the freeway roars past us all day. Even though, even though, even though… it is our school.
It turns out not one school in all of Los Angeles was harmed.
So I unlock my classroom, put my purse away, get crayons and paper out. I walk over to the office. Check in. (There is a bit of chatter about all the action in the neighborhood.) I walk back across the playground over to the teachers' lunchroom and chat with some of my buddies. The bell rings. I go out to the playground and gather up my little rosebuds.
We get to class. Some of the kids are chattering and full of stories while others are silent and listening.
I tell them that we are going to be talking about what happened this past week and try to understand it.
And then I find out things I hadn't heard on television.
I find out that one of the Korean-owned businesses down the street was burned out by its owner. My student saw the whole thing. He said he saw the guy drive up, park, get out of his car with gas cans and go inside. After he came out and drove away, my student saw fire in the store.
Another student talked about how his apartment building started burning. He was really scared. The neighbors all came to help. A couple of men stood on the roof and threw down a rope with a bucket tied to it and other neighbors filled it with water. Over and over and over they hauled those buckets up to keep that roof wet and safe.
Another student talked about being left alone with his little sister. He said he was very, very, very scared. As he talked, the other kids nodded. He said his mother and father had gone out into the night and he didn't know where they were. He didn't know if he'd ever see them again. He didn't know if his house would catch fire. He was scared down to the marrow of his bones.
Another student talked about the noise. Another student talked about the smoke.
They all talked about the fear.
They were nine years old. Nine.
The kids began to draw their experiences. One boy drew streets, kind of an aerial view. Houses and buildings are burning alongside the road. A girl drew the apartment building on fire. A girl drew herself crying. Another girl drew black and red scribbles all over the page.
The day began to take on a semblance of normality and recess came and went. They wanted to get back to normal, to do math, so we did. (Routine makes kids feel safe, you know.) We went to lunch. I sat outside on a bench and watched them talking in groups or running and chasing. We came in and I read them a chapter out of our book. I hung their pictures and stories on the bulletin boards.
And then we began to talk about why it happened.
They knew why it happened. And then I heard, for the first time, “No justice, no peace.”
* * *
The days go by. Things settle down. But the curiosity of the outside world comes into our school. The local newspaper in Thousand Oaks sends a photographer and a reporter to do a story about us. Anyway, I think it is going to be about us. But it is about me. And it embarrasses and humiliates me because it makes me out to be the star. I read the story to the children and tell them how I feel about it, that the reporter just didn't understand what happened here. We talk about it. Then we all write letters to the editor from our point of view.
* * *
About a week later I meet a smiling, thirty-ish white man who lives in Thousand Oaks. He has his own story to tell about the riots. He brags that when he heard about the looting he jumped into his car along with his buddies and looted some stores himself in Los Angeles. He says he knew of some other guys who did it, too. He says it with a satisfied smile on his face.
* * *
More time goes by. The 1992 Presidential election comes swinging along. Jerry Brown comes to my classroom and talks with my kids and then speaks to an assembly on the playground.
John Balzar, a reporter from the LA Times comes to our school. Twice. Writes a couple of wonderful stories about my students.
A Ralphs supermarket comes to the neighborhood.
A wonderful Japanese woman, Miho Awazu, who lives in Thousand Oaks calls me after reading that article in our local newspaper.. She wants to write a story for her Japanese magazine about my students. She includes some of the drawings the children have done. The pictures you see here in this story are taken from that magazine. They're in black and white, not the fiery reds and oranges of the original drawings.
* * *
On a beautiful day in June, 1992, our Graduation ceremony goes on as usual at 61st Street School.
I look out over the audience of parents and grandparents and friends and little brothers and sisters. Balloons dance in the air. The girls have on fancy dresses and the boys are in their suits and ties.
Everyone is happy.
Then I look again at the parents. Most of them have brand new video cameras.
I smile inwardly. A great big smile. (Not that I approve. But I do understand.)
* * *
The South Central Los Angeles 1992 riots, the largest in American history, were a lesson to a society that still has a lot to learn about the injustice of our economic system and its refusal to honor labor with decent wages. It is a lesson about the injustice of the legal system. It is a lesson in how people WILL rise up when things become so horribly skewed in favor of one group over another that something must be done.
It is also a lesson in speaking truth to power. If you don't say anything, do anything, nothing will change.
Nothing at all.