What sparks a rebellion?

May 2, 2012

The conditions that led to the Los Angeles Rebellion 20 years ago are still with us.

"RODNEY KING is the symbol that links unleashed police racism in Los Angeles to the crisis of Black life everywhere, from Las Vegas to Toronto. Indeed, it is becoming clear that the King case may be almost as much of a watershed in American history as Dred Scott, a test of the very meaning of the citizenship for which African Americans have struggled for 400 years."

That's how author Mike Davis described the outrage 20 years ago when the American "justice" system acquitted four Los Angeles police officers who savagely beat Black motorist Rodney King.

The verdict set off a rebellion in the streets of Los Angeles, giving expression to the simmering anger in the Black community of LA and many other cities, not only about brutal police, but all the facets of racism in U.S. society. And contrary to the story told by politicians and the press, the LA Rebellion had a multiracial dimension. Back in 1992, Socialist Worker called it "not only a Black revolt against racism, but also a revolt of the have-nots of all races against the haves."

Protesters bring their rage into the streets after the not-guilty verdict for police who beat Rodney King
Protesters bring their rage into the streets after the not-guilty verdict for police who beat Rodney King

Twenty years later, many of the same grievances that sparked the LA Rebellion--an epidemic of police violence, record incarceration of Black Americans, discrimination and inequality shot through every element of life in the U.S.--still burn today.

In a society like ours today, where the consequences of oppression and exploitation weigh so heavily on so many people's lives every day, anyone who cares about social justice will find themselves trying to answer the question of what it will take for anger to erupt into action. The story of the LA Rebellion--and what did and didn't come of it--has much to teach us, not only about what's wrong with this society and why, but what it will take to transform it.

THE POLICE assault on Rodney King--in which he was Tasered, kicked in the head and beaten with batons by a crowd of officers--might have gotten no attention at all, like so many other instances of brutality, before and since.

But the beating was caught on videotape. Millions and millions of people around the U.S. and the world saw King crawling on the ground as police surrounded him and took turns pummeling him. The brutality of the assault was undeniable, and mainstream media outlets were forced, for once, to report on the racism, abuse and violence that African Americans face at the hands of police.

The outcry was so great that four officers were actually indicted for using excessive force. But their trial was moved from Los Angeles to mostly white and affluent Simi Valley, where the defendants were guaranteed a jury without a single Black person on it. In other words, it was a trial set up to exonerate the police, showing the public at large what African Americans had known all along--that the scales of justice are tilted against you if you are Black and poor.

The response to the not-guilty verdict was immediate--hundreds of people gathered outside LA County courthouse and police headquarters. In South Central LA, riots and looting broke out and continued for several days--with special attention paid to symbols of power and oppression.

Rodney King wasn't the only name on the lips of protesters--there were many other victims of the racist violence. Like 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, who was shot in the back of the head the year before by a Korean storeowner in a dispute over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. She died with the money to pay for the juice in her hand. The storeowner who shot her was given probation.

Although the LA Rebellion was an explosion of anger at racism and police brutality, the physical targets of looters and rioters weren't always the source of these grievances. Korean businesses bore the brunt of the property destruction in African American neighborhoods. Larger forces were to blame for the poverty of poor LA neighborhoods but Korean-owned stores were viewed, as Mike Davis said in an interview with SW, as a "middleman community between people in the ghetto, Black and Mexican, and big capital." Unfortunately, little distinction was made between racist storeowners like the one who murdered Latasha Harlins and those who weren't racist.

ANGER AT the racist verdict in the King case was felt across racial and ethnic groups--and many people who weren't African American took part in the protests. A USA Today poll after the verdict showed that 90 percent of Blacks and 63 percent of whites said the King case was evidence of widespread racism in U.S. society.

Willie Brown, speaker of the California Assembly, described the reality of the rioting for the 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.

An analysis of the first 5,000 arrests from around LA revealed that 52 percent were poor Latinos, 10 percent whites and only 38 percent Blacks. As Davis wrote in a Nation article, "[T]he nation's first multiracial riot was as much about empty bellies and broken hearts as it was about police batons and Rodney King."

At the heart of the LA Rebellion was the widespread public reckoning that the so-called American Dream was a lie. The promise of a good job, a home and education for your children, though never accessible to the whole U.S. working class, especially Blacks, had by now become no more than a mirage for the majority of ordinary people.

Declining living standards for workers could be read in the history of LA's auto industry. It was the second-largest in the country in the mid-1960s, employing some 15,000 workers. The last auto plant in the region closed in Van Nuys in 1992.

For a time, the riots forced the political establishment to wake up and take note of the consequences of racial injustice in America. 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 first day of the riot], this has changed.

But unlike the Watts rebellion of 1965 and the urban uprisings around the U.S. that followed, the 1992 LA Rebellion came on the heels not of a powerful civil rights movement, but a decades-long decline in any struggle for social justice. The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. spent years waging a many-pronged assault on U.S. workers, attacking their unions, shredding the social safety net and scapegoating Black Americans with racist stereotypes about "criminals" and "welfare cheats."

So when the LA Rebellion happened, political leaders did their best to shift the discussion away from racial injustice and rampant police brutality--and back to the familiar rhetoric about "lawlessness" in Black communties and poor people refusing to take "personal responsibility."

President Bush sent federal law enforcement to LA "to use whatever force necessary" to crush the rebellion. Bush's press secretary Marlin Fitzwater actually blamed the uprising on "the liberal programs of the '60s and '70s" that "redistribute the wealth or that deal with direct handouts."

For his part, Bush's opponent in the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton, acknowledged the problem of poverty in Black America. But he also went out of his way to vilify the "savage" looters, claiming, "They do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support."

Once in office, Clinton continued the Republicans' assault on U.S. workers, especially Black America. Clinton specialized in using the language of "personal responsibility" as an excuse to shred social programs that Republicans had long wanted to cut, but couldn't get away with it. Clinton signed welfare deform into law, encouraged the attack on affirmative action and facilitated the incarceration boom with two draconian crime bills.

Bill Clinton helped turn back the clock on the most important gains of the civil rights era--and then turned around and called it a new "post-racial" America.

TWENTY YEARS later, many of the conditions that sparked the LA Rebellion still exist.

Instances of police harassment and murder abound in 2012 America--the list of names of African Americans killed by police grows by the day: Oscar Grant, Stephon Watts, Rekia Boyd, Kendrec McDade...

Largely as a result of the "war on drugs," a generation of African Americans has been subjected to mass incarceration. Their lives are forever changed--jobs, housing, education, voting and other rights stolen from them--because they had the misfortune to come in contact with the criminal "justice" system.

According to The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, there are more African Americans under control of the correctional system today--in prison or jail, on probation or parole--than were enslaved in 1850.

And the other central cause of the LA Rebellion--economic inequality--is even worse today.

In the aftermath of the LA Rebellion, a special committee of the California legislature released a report, titled To Rebuild is Not Enough, that--like the post-Watts Rebellion McCone Commission before it--recommended several priorities for improvement, including housing, education and jobs. Today, pick any one of these areas, and you'll find that conditions for African Americans in LA or other cities around the country are no better--and in many cases are worse.

In housing, predatory sub-prime loans during the 2000s mortgage mania spelled financial disaster for many Black families. Minorities were more than three times as likely as whites homeowners to end up with risky loans, with exploding adjustable rates, deceptive teaser rates or balloon payments. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, foreclosures are expected to affect one in 10 African American borrowers.

In the area of education, the story gets worse, not better. American schools are resegregating--probably the most disturbing example of the clock being turned back on the gains of the civil rights movement. According to a 2009 study by UCLA's Civil Rights Project, 40 percent of Black and Latino students in the U.S. go to schools that are more than 90 percent segregated. Those schools are poorer, too--the average Black student attends a school where 59 percent of kids live in poverty.

As for jobs, the official Black unemployment rate, while it has fallen from its peak, is still 13.6 percent, roughly twice as high as joblessness for whites. And the official figures leave out large numbers of people. According to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study, in big cities around the U.S., on average, just over half of working-age African American men were employed.

By any measure, racism and economic inequality are the status quo in U.S. society. But the politicians still chalking it up to a lack of "personal responsibility"--from Republican Newt Gingrich calling for poor children to pick up a mop and replace school janitors to Democrat Barack Obama making his yearly Father's Day speech that blame single-parent families for high crime rates in African American communities.

Political leaders of both parties are keen to divert attention from the real source of inequality--a continued bonanza for the rich that workers are expected to pay for. At the same time, disgust over this situation is growing. As the economic crisis continues to strike working Americans while the rich profit hand over fist, many more people are asking the question: Which side are you on?

This is a climate in which a growing number of people will see that solidarity is our strongest weapon--and where the spirit of rebellion can grow.

Further Reading

From the archives