A generation found that it can fight back

April 1, 2011

The Los Angeles Rebellion of April 1992 was sparked when four white police officers were acquitted in the savage videotaped beating of African American motorist Rodney King within an inch of his life. The six-day rebellion became an expression of the decades of accumulated anger and frustration at racism and class inequality.

A week after the rebellion, Los Angeles journalist and author of City of Quartz Mike Davis spoke with Lance Selfa about the uprising's significance. This interview was originally published in the May 1992 issue of Socialist Worker.

HOW WOULD you describe the uprising?

EVEN THE Los Angeles Times editorially acknowledged the relationship between the globalization of the Los Angeles economy, which has undermined employment structures in South Los Angeles, and the outbreak of the country's first modern multi-ethnic riot. But I think there were, in a way, three separate kinds of social processes of revolt woven into the complex fabric of this riot.

First, Rodney King was a lightning rod for the accumulated grievances of youth on the streets of LA who've only known a constant regime of brutality from the LAPD. Rodney King is the link in the consciousness of millions of people between the conditions in Los Angeles and the kind of crisis felt by African-Americans everywhere in the United States--and even in Canada.

Secondly, however, although the outburst began directed against whites and directed against the police, the brunt of the destruction--at least the property damage and also some of the deaths from the riot--were directed at the Korean community.

Los Angeles erupted in protest and rioting when the cops who beat Rodney King were found not guilty
Los Angeles erupted in protest and rioting when the cops who beat Rodney King were found not guilty

The Korean community is the middleman community between people in the ghetto, Black and Mexican, and big capital. There have been enormous grievances, which have coalesced around the images of the Korean liquor stores or the Korean swap meets.

In particular, the name you heard most frequently on people's lips during the uprising was Latisha Harlins, the 15-year-old Black girl who was killed by a Korean shop owner over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice last March.

The shopkeeper was convicted, but let off with a $500 fine and some community service--a much lighter sentence than homeless people arrested for curfew violations, who have to spend 10 days in jail. Or somebody who looted some sunflower seeds who may get two years in jail.

So Latisha Harlins was a kind of rallying cry, but Korean shopkeepers have come to represent everything the international Pacific Rim economy has done to South Central LAThe disappearance of local jobs under foreign competition, racist remarks by Japanese ministers--all of that has kind of coalesced together with the sense that Black customers are usually treated either rudely or impolitely by Korean store owners. Unlike the Jewish storeowners who they replaced, they don't employ Black youth.

So the result has been a kind of catastrophic collapse of any relations between the Black and Korean communities. Something like 2,000 Korean stores have been looted or destroyed.

The third aspect, which is apparent to anyone looking at the images, but which never until the last moment did the news commentators grasp, is that from the beginning of the looting, this turned into a kind of postmodern equivalent to traditional bread riots--an uprising of the poor.

In many places, it was totally good-humored, indeed, almost like a carnival. People looted sometimes for luxury goods, but on the whole were just looting necessities of life.

And to understand why this occurred on the scale that it did, involving as many poor Salvadoran and Mexican immigrants as African-Americans, you need some understanding of the impact of two years of recession on Los Angeles, which has cut most deeply into the ranks of new immigrants.

Unemployment has tripled. People are homeless or crammed together, several families in a single house. It's a real crisis of life, probably the worst social emergency in the County of LA since the Great Depression. What you saw was this new immiseration translated into looting.

WHAT ABOUT the truce that has emerged between the two major Black gangs, the Crips and the Bloods?

THE EVENT was really complex. Also, it involved something else, which I think is enormously important and positive: the suspension of gang warfare. Something that a lot of people would have thought was impossible has occurred, and it is deepening, defining permanent truces on a local level in Inglewood ad Watts, which are now spreading throughout the city. The cultural transmission and impact of this, particularly through the hip-hop rap scene, will be enormous.

What it is doing is it's taking away a lot of the luster of the tough street gangster and substituting an image of Black unity, of Black power. You're seeing an enormous reassertion, no matter how temporary a truce this may be, of an identity of being Black freedom fighters, or being a Black liberation movement.

Of course, its ideological horizons are Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan being the one national political figure that any of the gang kids I've talked to or heard speak make any allusion to.

In Inglewood, under the auspices of a local mosque, all the local gangs--rival Crips and Bloods--spoke before the local media. In a sense, they were not speaking to the media, but using the white media to speak to the Black community to transmit some of their hurt and anger about the fact that none of the elder leadership, with the possible exception of [U.S. Rep.] Maxine Waters, had recognized the riot as the rebellion that it was.

They said, "Look, we're trying to be Black men and do the things you accused us of not doing--struggling to defend the community and take care of women and children and be freedom fighters. This is a slave rebellion like other slave rebellions in Black history. We're proud of what we've done."

The other night there was a meeting of between 600 and 700 Crips and Bloods to make peace in Watts. The police came with SWAT teams and the whole bit, and arrested 50 or 60 people, which normally would have been a provocation to riot. But people were extremely cool and basically said, "We'll deal with the pigs later, but the key thing now is to establish peace between ourselves, to put the war on hold."

Even if for some reason the truce were to break and some gangs go back to fighting, the residue would be an awful lot of kids who I don't think would go back to the gang-banging scene, but now see themselves, in some sense, as rebels or freedom fighters.

CAN YOU explain more how the rebellion forged unity between Blacks and Latinos?

BLACKS IN California are in the process of going from the largest minority to being the third-largest in the new multiethnic composition of Los Angeles County, but eventually in all of California. Latinos will be the largest group, although not a majority.

The Latino community--Latinos compromise about one-half the population of South Central LA--lags far behind everyone else in political representation and jobs in proportion to their numbers. So there has been a lot of friction between Blacks and Latinos.

Particularly, there have been a lot of fights and riots between Blacks and Latinos in prisons. At the beginning of this uprising, some Latinos were attacked and brutally beaten.

But the major aspect of it, particularly on the east side of the ghetto--which is totally mixed, Black and Latino, and where every Latino kid has a Black friend and vice versa--the looting was totally biracial. And there is a broad interface between Black youth culture and Latino youth culture.

Subsequently, the reaction of the rap community--which to young people in the inner city is the most important group in defining issues and trends--has been interesting. Kid Frost, who is the leading Chicano rapper, has totally identified with the rebellion. A famous local group of Samoan rappers have said that the rebellion was great, but that it should have been directed from the Korean stores to the rich people in Beverly Hills.

This is very important, because this will transmit itself to inner-city youth all over the country, with these new images of Black power and militant unity of inner-city kids. The celebrity of gangs is gone, and the celebrity of rebellion is in.

HOW HAVE the authorities responded?

ABOUT 17,000 people are in jail. President Bush has federalized the mop-up in LA--the federal marshals, the FBI and so on. Federal prosecutors have particularly targeted gang youth because they are most worried about this and the potential politicization of gang youth in the uprising.

The extraordinary thing is that the mass arrests really began not at the height of the looting, but the day after, on Friday [May 1]. People who began to be arrested were, for instance, the people scavenging in burned ruins, or curfew violators--homeless street people or Latino immigrants who don't speak English and didn't know of the curfew. Increasingly, they've been arresting people in their homes, for possession of loot or receiving stolen goods.

You've had this enormous military occupation, not just by the National Guard or police from all over California, but by rapid-deployment infantry from Fort Ord and the Marines who landed in Compton. The city has been subjected to a routine of regular sweeps, mass sweeps, through Black and Latino neighborhoods.

In the area that I live on the edge of MacArthur Park--the largest Central American community in the country--you had the Border Patrol brought in from as far away as Texas. Something like 450, possibly as many as 500 people, have already been deported--immediately deported to Mexico.

These are people who weren't charged, but who were picked up during the riot and just deported. So people in the neighborhood are talking about "desaparecidos" ["the disappeared"], just like back home in El Salvador.

You have 17,000 people who were arrested, and they're throwing the book at them, demanding maximum sentences. They're not plea-bargaining. This is totally different from what they did in 1965 [during the Watts rebellion], making crimes that would normally be small misdemeanors into felonies. They've almost blown up their own criminal justice system, just by the number of people they put in there.

It's clear now--and I don't think this fact is well understood across the country--that really the prosecution of all this is becoming federalized. The Bush administration has had a direct hand in it. The idea is to make an example of people here.

For poor or unemployed people, the sheer economic burden of jail time and lost income and criminal records is going to be enormous. At this moment, the single most important thing is to struggle against this repression. People who violated curfew should just be released immediately.

HOW DID race and class interact? What about whites who were involved in protesting the King verdict and in the looting?

I THOUGHT the history of the 1960s was recapitulated and compressed into a few days. These events have produced an enormous manifestation of solidarity across the country. In the Bay Area, several thousand people have been arrested.

But here it brought kids out of high schools. It brought an incredibly mixed crowd out to lay siege to Parker Center [the police headquarters]. We've had hundreds of demonstrators arrested totally illegally. They even had to dismiss the charges against them.

So another of the positive things has been the crystallization of a much broader multiethnic left and progressive, anti-racist movement. There have been demonstrations on the West Side [in mostly white, middle-class areas near the University of California at Los Angeles]. It really has forced people to take a stand. For the people who have taken a stand, it has really reinvigorated left and oppositional politics in this city.

WHAT DOES the LA rebellion mean about the future?

IN 1965, LA prefigured the 100 rebellions in 1967 and 1968. A lot of us thought that by the 1970s, the para-militarization of the police was so formidable that riots couldn't happen--that people would just be shot down.

Well, one thing that this riot has proved, even with the enormous repression that occurred, is that people can stand up and rebel--as they did to an extraordinary degree, gaining control of the inner city.

You're getting a weird thing now of people who condemned the Rodney King decision acting as if the police should have shot looters. But once it got started, it spread with great rapidity.

By that time, so many people were taking part in it, and it was happening over such a diverse terrain--in so many different parts of the city, from gays in Hollywood to Latinos in MacArthur park and so on--that it couldn't be controlled without militarization, or by police firing into crowds.

On the other hand, you'll see now the lesson learned from all this may be the kind of immediate federalization--not to wait three or four days--but to have the equivalent of rapid deployment forces in the U.S. You might have federal anti-riot, anti-insurgent stocks that could be moved in almost immediately into our cities. LA was a rehearsal.

WHAT WILL be the impact around the country of the LA rebellion?

I THINK it spurs revolt. It emboldens people to rebel. It sharpens the sense of injustice. It presents people with the image of Black and Brown and other groups united with class and racial anger combined.

In LA itself, the biggest contradiction of the revolt was the attack on the Korean community. You might be able to justify attacks on specific racist merchants and so on, but there is a kind of logic behind this, a kind of Farrakhan-like logic, that I think a progressive or socialist would find totally unacceptable.

All unorganized rebellions tend to have their negative or contradictory elements. But the overwhelming thrust of this, which has been enormously positive, has been that a generation has found that it can fight back. The whole effort to turn American big cities into criminalized Third World nations--people are resisting that.

I think that's very exciting. But people have to understand, as Regis Debray [a French writer popular on the 1960s left] once said, that the revolution revolutionizes the counterrevolution. And I think, particularly on the national level, they're going to learn how to be more effective and immediate in responding to these.

Further Reading

From the archives