No justice! No peace!
In May 1992, the four police officers who had beaten Black motorist Rodney King within an inch of his life the year before were acquitted--and the streets of Los Angeles exploded in rebellion. Despite what politicians and the media said about the riots being the work of "outlaws," the rebellion was multiracial and spread quickly--giving expression to the brewing anger over decades of systematic racism, police brutality and economic inequality.
Here, we reprint the editorial from a Socialist Worker special supplement published May 18, 1992. This special issue also featured an interview with journalist and City of Quartz author Mike Davis that was recently republished by SocialistWorker.org.
THE EXPLOSION of anger that rocked Los Angeles after the acquittal of four cops who beat Rodney King last year is a watershed event in U.S, politics. Already the repercussions of the Rodney King case can be seen nationally. Most obviously, the verdict has exposed the racism that is endemic in the U.S.
From the Chicago Tribune to the Atlanta Constitution, recent front-page stories detailed the persistence of systematic inequality and police violence--the reality of Black America that exists in every city across the country but that has been ignored for years.
As far as the injustice Blacks have come to expect from U.S. courts, the verdict in the Rodney King case is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg.
In Los Angeles, the trial of a Korean grocer--who shot and killed a 15-year-old Black girl last March in a dispute over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice--illustrated the point. The judge in the case ruled last month that the grocer acted "under great provocation and duress" and therefore will not go to jail.
Meanwhile, in nearby San Francisco, a postal worker who shot and killed a German shepherd dog was sentenced to six months in jail.
The Rodney King case only served to highlight a simple fact: that there is no justice for Blacks in the U.S.
An astonishing 100 percent of Blacks and 86 percent of whites surveyed by USA Today said the verdict was wrong. And 95 percent of Blacks and 79 percent of whites agreed that the cops in the King trial should be tried on civil rights charges.
Other polls showed that a majority of Blacks and whites believed that racism played a decisive role in the jury's decision to clear the cops.
USA Today's poll showed that 90 percent of Blacks and 63 percent of whites said the King case was evidence of widespread racism in U.S. society. In the words of Andrew Hacker, author of Two Nations: Black and White, the jury's verdict sent a clear message: "This is war, martial law applies, and the cops can't be stopped."
THE MESSAGE created semi-insurrectionary mood in South Central Los Angeles. But the open rebellion against symbols of authority and oppression affected not only residents of South Central LA but also people in dozens of other cities across North America.
Only the intervention of community and gang leaders prevented the outbreak of full-scale riot. Significantly, the LA rebellion was not only a Black revolt against racism, but also a revolt of the have-nots of all races against the haves.
Blacks, Latinos, Asians and whites all took part in looting in Los Angeles. Hundreds of people of all races laid siege to Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters, on the night the verdict was announced.
Even those politicians and pundits normally inclined to dismiss such events as "race riots" conceded the multiracial character of the LA rebellion. Wrote Willie Brown, speaker of the California Assembly, in the May 3 San Francisco Examiner:
[T]he violence was not contained in the inner city; it spread to outlying and upscale neighborhoods...For the first time in American history, many of the demonstrations and much of the violence and crime, especially the looting, was multiracial--Blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians were all involved.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lamented, "Most of the people who were engaged in the violence [in the center of the city] were young whites. Blacks were involved in the south part of the city; and everyone seems to be using this as a means of "celebrating" for themselves."
As a watershed event, the Los Angeles rebellion and the reaction to it laid bare central questions about the nature of U.S. capitalism.
First, it showed the fundamental injustice at the core of the American legal system. Millions of Americans who saw the Rodney King video cannot believe that the police were cleared.
A Time magazine survey showed that majorities of Blacks and whites believed that the verdict would have been different if any Blacks had been on the jury and if the police had been Black and the victim white. The same survey showed that 43 percent of whites polled (and 84 percent of Blacks) said the legal system favors whites over Blacks.
Only 28 percent of whites and 5 percent of Blacks said the legal system treats the races equally. A USA Today poll showed that 47 percent of whites and 63 percent of Blacks characterized the riot as "wrong, but understandable."
Second, the events that followed the verdict of the King case showed that politicians of both parties have no answers to the crisis of urban America. After mobilizing the power of the U.S. state to crush the rebellion and to direct the prosecutions of those arrested, President Bush served up the same warned-over Reaganite policies of urban neglect: enterprise zones, school "choice" and tenant ownership of housing projects.
Democratic frontrunner Bill Clinton, not wanting to appear too sympathetic to the plight of LA's minority residents, called for the suppression of the riots. Rather than demand new government programs to help the nation's cities, he stressed the "personal responsibility" of inner-city residents in overcoming their own problems.
The rebellion also illuminated the role of Black politicians, many of whom owe their positions today to the urban revolts of the 1960s. With few exceptions, Black politicians allied with their white counterparts in denouncing the riots and calling for their suppression.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show to warn, "Don't break the law or we will put you in jail." Black Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and Black police chief Eldrin Bell quelled a mini-riot that broke out in the streets of that city on the day after the King verdict.
In New York and Chicago, where protests remained generally peaceful, Black politicians like New York Mayor David Dinkins and Black city council members in Chicago played key roles in containing antiracist organizing.
The riot showed more clearly than any other event could that Black officials with a stake in the system are obstacles, not allies, in the struggle against racism.
FINALLY, THE LA riot severely jarred the confidence of the U.S. ruling class--after more than two decades of relentless attacks on workers and the poor. After years of accepting attacks on their living standards, hundreds of thousands of workers in the U.S.'s second-largest city rose up and said, "Enough."
For the first time since the mid-1970s, the ruling class was shaken by the prospect of mass revolt in the U.S. For this alone, the LA rebellion marked an important first step in the rebuilding of the confidence of America's dispossessed to fight back.
All major media agree that the rebellion forced the issue of race and racism into the national spotlight. As the Wall Street Journal put it:
Race is returning to the front burner...With little money or resolve to launch new social programs, there has almost been a code of silence among the major presidential candidates about dealing with the problems of America's cities.
Since Wednesday [the day the riot began], this has changed.
The Journal's opinion is only partially accurate. Race has been central to U.S. politics. For almost two decades, both the Democrats and Republicans have used racist code words--like opposition to busing and affirmative action quotas--to cement middle-class electoral support.
They have led an assault on the social programs of the 1960s--based on the claim that racism had been overcome in the U.S. The LA riots proved otherwise. If U.S. society has hardly overcome racism, the rebellion also exposed the gap between rich and poor that has widened to a chasm in the 1980s.
It showed the degree to which race and class are intimately tied together. The multiracial nature of the rebellion proved that. Black politicians' actions showed that Black rioters in South Central LA and elsewhere have more in common with their Latino, Asian and white brothers and sisters than the supposed Black leadership.
In contrast to the late 1960s rebellions, which occurred at the culmination of more than a decade of civil rights and Black Power mobilization, the LA riot occurs after a period of decline and demobilization of the political left.
This accounts for the pre-political nature of the revolt, observed in its spontaneity as well as in its negative aspects--the widespread attacks on Korean shop owners and the beatings of individual whites and others.
Koreans, like other Asians in the U.S., are victims of racism. Many Koreans condemned the Rodney King verdict and could have been won as allies in the Black struggle for justice.
But the blanket targeting of all Koreans--rather than simply those racists like the shopkeeper who killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins--only sows divisions between groups that could be allies.
Likewise, the beating of individual whites, although very rare, will be played to the hilt by every law-and-order politician to justify more repression in the Black community. But the rebellion is of enormous significance. It is a sign of things to come and constitutes the first event in what promises to be a new period of struggle and social upheaval.
A little more than a year ago, George Bush seemed invincible after the Gulf War. Today, he faces not only discontent but open revolt across the U.S. His New World Order lies in ruins--not internationally, but in Los Angeles as well.