A City on Fire: 20th Anniversary of the Rodney King Riots
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rodney King Riots. Today marks the anniversary of the day that my childhood neighborhood became a war zone in what seemed like a matter of minutes after the Los Angeles jury charged with King's case decided to acquit the four police officers that brutally beat him. Today I'm compelled to remember what the human spirit and human bodies can do to space and each other when their rights and their dignity are repeatedly compromised. Today I am reminded that cases like Rodney King's are not causes of mass rioting and violence, but rather catalysts in the context of greater oppressions.
Los Angeles, especially South Central, in the 1980s and into the 1990s was referred to by The New York Times as a war zone of international importance due to the high rates of violence and fatalities. Many factors intersected to create a space that was ripe for rioting and public uproar. The relationship was strong and growing stronger between the crack cocaine boom and the expansion of gang presence and stronghold in many of LA's low-income neighborhoods. The LA police department had a history of racial profiling and limited follow through in the neighborhoods deemed most dangerous and their presence induced fear more than safety at that time in South Central's history.
When the jury found the police officers not guilty people's anger at the verdict spread like wildfire and soon literal fires dominated the landscape of South Central, Koreatown, and other surrounding neighborhoods. Although my memories of this time are blurred in the way that a child's memories tend to be, I vividly recall the oppressive smoke that filled every street and room of our house. The palms of my hands had a layer of soot on them. I tried to lick the grime off and the taste of acid and charcoal was so overpowering that even today when I see images of riots or cities burning my mouth is filled with the memory of the ash. Stores on our block were firebombed. People took to the streets looting, screaming, burning, and raging for days. It was a riot rooted in the classicism and racism often perpetuated by governing institutions that isolate people without access to power turning them against one another in conflicts often drawn along racial lines. The police initially stayed on the Westside trying to contain the spread of the movement. For days we did not see police officers in our neighborhood. People do not often think about US cities losing rule of law, but that was precisely what happened in the days following the verdict.
On May 2nd 10,000 National Guardsmen and the entire LAPD were called into my neighborhood. Again, my memories are blurry, but I do recall the lines of armed men in combat gear. I remember being afraid of them, even at that young age understanding that they did not belong in the community and that their presence signaled danger and an escalation in violence. After that the rioting was contained. Dozens of people were dead, over a thousand seriously injured, and thousands of people's livelihoods were compromised or destroyed. It felt like everything was smoldering. I had no context for understanding tornadoes at that young age, but I now think that it was like an extended tornado full of ill intent had lingered over us for days permanently altering the landscape of our space.
Since the riots much work has been done to rebuild the community. In fact you would not know that South Central had almost burned to the ground if you saw it today. I think for the people who lived there though during that time it is something that is hard to forget. I remember the fire, the smoke, the booming, the shields, and the ascorbic taste I licked off my little chubby child hands. I remember holding my stuffed animal letting him know everything was fine, already understanding the power of reassurance when all other forms of control seem to have left the building.
Today these riots feel far away. I am in Colorado. I am no longer a child. South Central itself has in many respects been transformed. This is a simple blog post about a highly complex issue. Although this time in my life is distant from my present realities, I must honor what happened in 1992 because it was significant not only in my life, but in the lives of the people I loved most, and in the history of our country. I am reminded that when institutions do not honor the humanity of their people it is enough to create a welling of anger so great that it lights a city on fire. The memory of this time reignites a flame in me that fuels my belief that I must in all of my small everyday dealings act in a way that promotes equity, community, and the dignity of all things.
So today I want to honor the people that died and were injured in the riots and the time leading up to the riots. I also want to celebrate the people that stepped up in the wake of the chaos to make their community stronger.
Let's never forget the riots and what they have meant to so many of us.
*for some reason blogger will not allow for paragraphs in this post...hmm...