On May 4, 1992, when the verdicts acquitting the officers who brutally beat Rodney King were announced at 3:15pm, my BFA acting class and I were between performances at the Globe theatre in West Hollywood, showcases for an audience of agents and casting directors meant to be our coming out to The Industry, the grand unveiling of our 4 years of classes and tuition.
We did not have a full house for the second performance.
We all spent most of the next week hunkered down, watching the city burn on television; those of us living on campus, near the center of the destruction, relocated to friends’ & families’ homes outside the area. No one joined in. I think I’m correct in saying no one thought of joining in. Black or White. That is one of the main differences between then and now. I was in Hollywood then. I now live two miles from where George Floyd was murdered.
The Rodney King riots were a reaction to an acquittal. Any hope for justice in that case was shattered. Remember, this was long before smart phones. Capturing police brutality on film was rare, and I think people had some hope that the visual evidence would force America to see what Black people put up with regularly in LA and elsewhere; that police would finally be punished because the hidden racism and brutality had been brought into the light. We can certainly debate the racist use of the word “riot” but this was, after the brief, initial protest, pretty much a riot. It was pain and rage made visible. And the participation, as far as I can remember, was entirely African-American. My friends & I certainly felt it wasn’t our place to be there, although we all sympathized, to greater or lesser degrees, with the outrage behind it. There were also rare but awful reports of White people being brutally attacked if they veered into riot areas. Reginald Denny’s story is the most notorious, but I also remember hearing about a White guy who was severely beaten? killed? after driving his motorcycle into an unstable area to evacuate a Black friend. Most White people just tried to stay out of the way.
There was also racial tension between Korean shop owners and Black residents in predominantly Black neighborhoods in LA. 15-year-old Latasha Harlins has been murdered by a Korean shop owner a year earlier, shot in the back of the head as she was leaving the store, over a mistaken assumption that she was stealing a bottle of orange juice. Six months before the King verdict, a jury had convicted Soon Ja Du of manslaughter and recommended a 16 year sentence for the shop owner. But the judge in the case overturned the sentence and gave Du only 6 months of probation; this slap on the wrist for the killing of a child was later upheld by a state appeals court. Even when justice bent in the direction of Black victims, the system went out of its way to snatch it back and diminish the value of their lives.
So the destruction was about the cops, about the system, about racism in general. And while a business with a Black Owned sign scrawled on the front might be spared the rage of rioters, Korean shops were targeted and Asian businessmen stood on the roofs of their shops with shotguns. Buildings were burned and looted all over the city, but mostly in the poorer, Black neighborhoods.
I can’t say how others felt after it simmered down, but I spent years in LA in Peak Guilt around African-Americans I didn’t know. I went out of my way to be SuperNice! to Black people at my retail job, to show I was NotLikeTheCops! I was also subject to a couple of questionable actions from Black people on the street in those years, the worst when I was attacked by two young Black women who apparently just wanted to fuck me up. I was prevented from being stabbed by a good samaritan – a Latino guy – who held the lead girl’s arm as she attacked me. No one said “This is because of Rodney King!” but, you know, the tension was there. While I was raised in a manner that meant my sympathies would always be with the Black community, I didn’t see anything that I could really do to help, I didn’t investigate what could be done to help, and I didn’t feel my help was wanted. I was young and scared and ashamed to be White and also, let’s be honest, absorbed with my own life.
As I remember (feel free to factcheck me) there were some nominal changes in the LAPD after the riots, and the police chief was finally forced to step down, but there wasn’t signficant progress and there was no impact outside of California. This was an LA thing, an LA problem. LA, with all its gang violence and racial tension and earthquakes and mudslides and droughts. I mean, the media drew intellectual comparisons with NY and other cities in the media, but that was about it.
The murder of George Floyd is nightmarishly familiar. But the reaction is completely different.
I was among thousands of people at the first protest against the murder of George Floyd on the night after his death in Minneapolis. There, and at the other cleanups and protests I’ve attended, and every one I’ve watched on Unicorn Riot, and the wave of protests on the news across the country, the crowds are always multiracial. I totally understand if Black folks in the crowds hate White people, but I’m not feeling it. And the protective signs hastily posted on businesses here are as likely to say “minority owned” as “Black owned” and both are equally protected. Or targeted.
That is big difference number two. The presence of White Supremacists (violent, proud White Supremacists, not just all of us regular White people who tacitly endorse White supremacy with our privilege: there is a difference). When people started burning minority-owned businesses here, and driving around our neighborhoods with guns in cars without license plates, and leaving threatening notes on houses with Black Lives Matter signs, it got scary. For me, for a few days, it got End of The World scary, largely because of the Commander-in-Chief’s tacit support of these groups. The threat isn’t over, though it is quieter here in most neighborhoods. I don’t know where this is going or how many supporters those killers have or what they’re willing to do or sacrifice. I did have a moment during the big protest at the State Capital on Sunday when I thought, “this would be an excellent place for a mass shooting,” and actually felt happy for the presence of the National Guard around the area. I’m not saying that’s right or rational; it’s just the way I felt.
Despite that, difference number three is hope. Even in the devastation after the revelation of George Floyd’s murder there was hope, because there had been no acquittal yet, and cops had already been fired, (an unprecedented move), and our local politicians called the murder by its name. People were marching for something, for the arrest and conviction of the cops. Even if people, understandably, did not feel hopeful, they acted with hope, not despair. And because there have been activists in the trenches crafting policies and demands and deep analysis of the root of injustice for years, the changes being made and considered as a result are deep and wide, including the removal of the case from the County Attorney’s office, and public and private institutions severing their ties with the Minneapolis Police Department. It seems insensitive to say George Floyd’s murder, Breonna Taylor’s murder, Ahmaud Arbery’s murder were not in vain, because that is cold comfort to the many people who loved them, but I guess it’s better than nothing. And maybe it will change the lives of the ones they loved for the better. The calls for change are not parochial today, and real change is happening across the country.
This piece is all about change – West coast to Midwest, separation to multiculturalism, hopelessness to something else – and I’ll wrap up with my own journey. I am in a very different place than I was in May of ’92. I’ve been facilitating conversations about race for 8 years; and aggressively educating myself on white supremacy through formal classes on Equity and Inclusion, Zen center courses on Unpacking Whiteness, dialogues on academic writing on the history, psychology, politics of race and White supremacy, and Zoom practice on how to talk to people about race. I’ve helped organize a half dozen trainings on race and equity at my job, attended as many talks on Whiteness and Blackness, and used all this as an excuse to expand my fiction and nonfiction book collection as well. Sometimes I’m shamed by how much the young folk I interact with already know, how much work they are doing in this field, how much time I have wasted with my own selfish little life. But I am where I am, and at this moment I am ready to offer my imperfect offering to the fight. Until I figure out exactly where my talents and experience can be best utilized, I’ll keep doing what I can.
Letting go of fear and embracing discomfort sounds scary, folks. But it is also incredibly liberating. Join me if you’re ready. Let me know if I can help.
**update: I realize I failed to address the influence of Coronavirus on the protests. That may be worth a separate post.