Race, Class and Rage

Against the Current, No. 39, July/August 1992

Dolores Trevizo

TO UNDERSTAND THE Los Angeles rebellion we need to focus not only on the intersection of race and class, but on those aspects in which the two are relatively autonomous. While it is very difficult to separate race from class effects, because Blacks and Latinos are over-represented in the super-poor sections of the working class, it is necessary to recognize the specific character of each.

The desperate situation that economic restructuring produced in the last twenty years, especially in the Black working class, was a necessary but insufficient condition for producing the rebellion of 1992. The primary cause was political: A sense of racial injustice poured over a community that has felt like the collective Rodney King at the hands of an ever more belligerent state.

Where is Justice?

Outrage was felt throughout Los Angeles as people struggled with a reality that seemed surreal, the acquittal by a white-suburban jury, on all but one charge of excessive force and officer misconduct, of the four Los Angeles Police Department officers whom the world had
witnessed brutally beating Rodney King.

For many (whites) the verdict of innocence shocked the senses; for most others it reaffirmed that there are not even formal rights, let alone substantive democracy for African-Americans in the country that is willing to spill the blood of soldiers of color on foreign soils ostensively in the name of democracy.

Black and Brown mothers have long been asking: Where is the justice? The verdict that so shocked the nation came as no surprise to an African-American community still angered by the case in which a white judge sentenced to a mere six months probation a Korean merchant, captured on video shooting Latasha Harlins in the back.

In the past year alone four minority youth were “legally” murdered, that is, shot in the back by law enforcement agents in the African American and Latino communities in the County of Los Angeles. Countless others are stopped, searched and harassed, often illegally but always with the blessings of the state which has declared a war on drugs, the battle cry of the war against minority youth.

The police can (for example) legally shoot an unarmed fifteen-year-old Mexican American boy in the back, or a mentally retarded Black youth lying face down on the pavement, if the officers in their “line of duty” deem the situation to be “life threatening.”

The juridical double standard reflects the fact that the state recognizes only one criminal: the Black/Brown male. The statistics are revealing. The composition of state and federal prisons is fully 46% African American and 12.6% Latino; Black males are incarcerated at a rate four times that of their brothers in South Africa; as many as 25% of Black men aged 20-29 are under the control of the criminal justice system. While the crime rate has dropped 3.5% since 1980, the prison population has doubled.

Back to Business

By the Monday following the King verdict, the state could proclaim assurance that the City of Angels was pacified and was to “return to work.” It failed to acknowledge that roughly 14,000 individuals had been incarcerated, many illegally picked up en masse at peaceful demonstrations, most without the possibility of exercising the legal right to a speedy arraignment. Over 12,000 “Desert Storm”-trained national guardsmen, marines and other federal troops occupied posts in those parts of Los Angeles that white Angelenos only read about.

So severe and yet so hidden was the state’s response, precisely in the generally ignored “dark communities,” that the media failed to report the sweeps of at least a couple of thousand Mexicano and Centro-Americano immigrants by la migra, the Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS) deployed in Los Angeles as part of the national troops. INS agents were strategically placed in Latino communities where they would be free to round up and rough up non-English speaking “illegals.”

Just as no official reports emerged about the deportation of 2000 immigrants captured by INS agents through invasions of apartments and the like, the LAPD reluctantly admitted only to having turned over to the INS (violating official department policy) 263 of the 1044 “illegal immigrants” incarcerated for rebellion-related activities.

While the international camera tuned to the violence of the “dark masses,” which was blamed for sixty lost lives, 2383 injuries and 5400 structures set ablaze (all figures that have now been radically revised downward), the even more powerful quasi-legal violence on the part of the state went unwatched and unreported.

Restructuring and Repression

The looting obviously has economic origins, explainable in terms with which marxists are much more comfortable: the severe deprivation of the inner city, the fact that the majority of Black and Latino adults who live in it are either unemployed, underemployed or simply excluded
from the labor force. Thus the masses of the inner city, young and old, male and female, participated in the widespread small-scale (and short term) redistribution of the local petty wealth, from the high-priced symbols of $150 Reebok shoes and high tech CDs to basic necessities of milk and cereal.

The past twenty years have been devastating to the Black and Latino working classes. In 1974, close to half of all Black males aged 20-24 worked either as semiskilled machine operators or in craft positions at family level wages. By 1986 only 25% of that group worked in such jobs, while the others were forced either into non-union, low-wage service jobs or into unemployment. The situation facing Black youth is even more devastating. The social effect is a wholesale disorganization of the African-American, and to a lesser extent of the Latino, communities.

Faced with the option of getting through the day watching one television rerun after the other, young males with nothing to do organize their lives around the community of a gang. And the community of gang-life is very violent as it is increasingly involved in the use and sale of drugs. In order to contain the effects produced by economic restructuring, the state has responded to growing gang membership and identification with massive force.

The Violence of the State

Under Chief Daryl Gates, the LAPD has pioneered pseudo-legal techniques seen as a model for police departments across the country, the battering ram for example, a military vehicle used to break through the doors of crack houses. Obviously, its use trampled over the rights not only of citizens whose homes were destroyed because of mixups in addresses, but that of real or alleged criminals whose property was wantonly destroyed.

Operation Hammer, another Gates-pioneered military technique that had to be abandoned because of its inherent violation of civil rights, entailed mass roundups of gang “suspects” by police officers combing the streets of South Los Angeles. Hundreds of Black or Latino youth were arrested simply because they wore fashionable urban gear–baggy pants, white T-shirts and thick jackets–and even though their innocence was legally established, their names remain on police files years after their illegal arrest.

Gates’ war on drugs thus became a war against minority youth, complete with increasing incidents of collateral damage<197>a racist war which the Black and Latino communities of South Central Los Angeles have recognized for what it is, a war in which only one side has had the legitimate means of maneuver and lethal force.

As most in the community will tell you, you cannot be a Black male in South Central Los Angeles without being stopped, usually for no reason at all, forced to get on your knees if you’re cooperative, or to kiss pavement if you’re proud, then released after an illegal search of your car and then your person. And if you protest too much you might find yourself not only physically abused but probably without legal recourse.

What made the Rodney King case unique, an aberration, was that the abuse was actually caught on videotape and used as evidence in court. Yet even the trial confirmed what the community had known: There is no legal recourse, no protector of civil rights for Black people. The verdict of innocence proved to be too much. Blacks were going to have to defy the state.

One of the things that was so awesome about the uprising was that for a few short days African Americans and Latinos took the streets, holding their enemy at bay. The alteration of the relationship of forces, however temporary, had a liberating effect for the community as it felt its own power and sensed that the state was not omnipotent. Indeed, the repressive apparatus came off as an awkward and even bumbling machine when the national guard couldn’t be deployed in the first twenty-four hours because the ammunition had been forgotten.

As we know, the state recovered and in fact overcompensated for those few hours when its agents were reduced to spectators of the public violation of law and order. This reassertion of power in the form of a military occupation brought a complete suspension of liberties, the right to public assembly, of free speech, or for the Black and Brown communities, even the right to privacy as the police conducted door to door warrantless searches for loot.

Politics of Race and Rage

What were reported as “indiscriminate looting and arson” on the part of the Black and Brown masses were mostly not as arbitrary as the media presented. Most acts followed the pattern dictated by the politics of race, and therefore the politics of rage. While Korean owned liquor stores and Koreatown as a whole were targeted by youth engaged in arson, most Black- and Latino-owned small businesses were spared, and for defined racial reasons. Black and Latino owners posted signs on their shops that read “Black Owned” or “Spanish Owned.”

The reasons for the targeting of Korean-owned establishments are numerous and complicated. Suffice it to say here that the relationship that petty merchants have, of economic necessity, with members of their “host” community is experienced through the prism of difference. In the United States, it is race relations that colorize those differences, so that cultural clashes in the context of an exploitative economic relationship are mutually understood as race relations.

The unfortunate fact is that as long as the current economic and political conditions exist, and as long as Koreans occupy the economic position that they do in the Black and Latino communities, social struggles will inevitably take on this peculiar racial character and Korean merchants will be seen wrongly as the problem. The much publicized meetings between the “leaderships”; of the African-American and Korean communities to bring about reconciliation will remain empty gestures if the social and economic devastation of South Central is not reversed.

The Struggles Ahead

At the moment the struggle remains on a political level. The immediate questions before us are: Do we have the right to assemble peacefully? The right to privacy? To a speedy arraignment? To a community free of military occupation? Do the 19,000 deserve amnesty? Do people of color have a right to equal justice?

In our longer-term coalition organizing, the strategy should be both political and economic. Issues of police abuse and the racial double standard in the courts need to be in the forefront if a coalition wants to be seen as responsibly addressing and in solidarity with the concerns of minorities. Not that economic demands should play a minor or even secondary role–on the contrary, while anti-racist solutions should be defining of a coalition, economic demands should be central.

A model attempt at this kind of dual strategy could be seen at a Black and Latino community-wide meeting called by the Coalition Against Police Abuse. About eighty people attended the meeting, from fifteen to twenty community groups. The demands coming out of this meeting were many, but the basic ideas focused on one theme: community control of everything.

A big discussion of Community Control of the Rebuilding Process generated consensus around the notion of a Cooperative Zone, as counterposed to the government’s solution of an Enterprise Zone. The idea was first and foremost to reject the government priority of rebuilding businesses. The positive notion, not yet fleshed out, calls for a major public works project.

Specifically, the coalition wants to set up a public board, to be composed over 50% by South Central residents, responsible for receiving and allocating government monies earmarked for relief, which would employ residents of the community at union wages both in the construction process and at the cooperative association level. The purpose of this strategy is to ensure that the community (a) democratically decides where monies go, since only its real residents know what is needed, and (b) benefits collectively from the redevelopment of the area. In other words, not only should construction contracts not be given to private firms, but what is actually developed should be owned and worked collectively.

There was also a very rich discussion of taking back public housing, with people talking about ways of tapping into other government funds to be used for constructive ends rather than repressive ones such as private police forces. In addition the Coalition voted not only to condemn the cutbacks in health, education and welfare but that these services be increased and paid for by taxing the rich and the corporations.

There was general condemnation of the Justice Department’s “Weed and Seed” program, a strategy for preemptive repression designed to “weed out” the bad elements and “seed” private enterprises. The political demands of course concentrated on stopping the criminalization of our youth, and on winning community control of the police through enacting the elected Civilian Police Review Board proposal. How far the coalition can mobilize the necessary forces for this ambitious, but no less necessary, project remains to be seen.

For the left it is all the more necessary–at a time when President Bush has blamed the uprising on the social programs of the 1960s and `70s–to organize a broad movement uniting forces outside the communities of color with those inside struggling to reinstate and broaden programs in education, health care and, above all, jobs. The militarization of the city has certainly had a dampening effect on organized political mobilization, but the process of coalition building is under way.

The revolt put the long-shelved questions of racism and urban policy back on the national agenda, particularly given the fact that it is an election year. Locally, the positive effects include heightened awareness of the need for unity in a community torn apart by fratricidal gang warfare. In the middle of the rebellion the largest African-American gangs called a truce, announced on the walls with slogans like “Crips and Bloods Together Forever.” For the moment these groups came together for the stated purpose of defending their communities against police abuse. Both they and the state have felt the power of this most despised part of society. Their threat remains emblazoned on the minds of all those who witnessed the events: No Justice, No Peace!

July-August 1992, ATC 39