Cities Burning: Stories of Riots from 1992 and 2020
This post is not just about California.
During 1992 riots in Los Angeles, I sat on a bench at Loyola Marymount on the bluff for six hours and watched fires pop up all over Los Angeles. From the bluff you can see from Malibu to downtown, and there were fires peppered almost everywhere. I called my uncle to make sure he was okay, because he lived at Loyola High School on Venice between Normandie and Vermont. He said he was okay and not to worry because the neighborhood folks liked the school and they wouldn’t let anything happen to it.
Behind me most of the campus slept through it.
The next day the reports of looting started rolling in.
The day after that, I was working in the food service and a small group of students came through the line talking about how someone had told them that the electronics store down the road had no security and folks had just gone and nabbed all sorts of things from television sets to stereos. They concluded they were on their way down there when it got dark. I don’t know if they were joking, I don’t think so. This was a group of middle class, all white private college students.
In 2000, I walked backwards into tickets to the last Lakers-Pacers game in the NBA finals. Dumb luck really, I happened to sit next to a guy who was in charge of telecommunications circuits and who hated basketball. AT&T was trying to get our company to buy more circuits and their sales rep offered seats, I wound up getting to go. After the game I wandered a bit around downtown. I saw the fans celebrating and I actually saw a crowd set fire to the police car…that wound up being the lead on national television that night. At no point did I feel any more threatened or in danger than I had while visiting Isla Vista on Halloween as a college student. There was some other property damage but I remember, being in the crowd, the overwhelming communal feeling wasn’t anything like rage.
That doesn’t change the fact that once thousands of people started aggregating some folks used that event as cover for busting up a few windows.
Flash forward again: I followed much of the news reporting and the various on-the-ground accounts through Twitter of the protests, and then the riots, in Ferguson when they occurred in 2014. The obvious breaks between the video reports on the ground and what wound up as the lead on CNN was pretty stark.
And now, last night.
Last night I watched another version of this unfold again, in various parts across the nation. Reports of people protesting peacefully, people protesting violently, protesters trying to stop folks from breaking up their town, reporters being arrested or injured, police arresting obvious reporters, people being injured badly, police behaving well, police assaulting protestors.
Right now, in some places, middle class white people are standing up, and for, and with large crowds of people of color.
Right now, in some places, they aren’t. There are reasons. There’s a pandemic on. We’re struggling to preserve this or that sense of normalcy. There are less admirable ones, we see reports of people hurt and our fear wins out.
Right now, in some places, small groups of angry people (mostly young, mostly men, mostly white) are using large crowds protesting racial injustice “to try and tear the whole system down” by busting windows to shops owned or operated by the folks they claim to want to help.
Right now some poor person who has been out of work for two months in a state without sufficient unemployment support is cracking under the need to provide milk for their 6 year old and slipping into a broken store window to get it, because it’s not available otherwise.
Right now people who are over-policed and repressed are justifiably angry and many folks who are supposed allies are doing little or nothing to help, or making it all worse.
Right now folks in Minneapolis, largely poor folks of color, are sweeping up debris and painting over graffiti and doing other work to repair their neighborhoods that may very well be undone tonight.
What is happening right now is an inevitable consequence of a deplorable lack of justice. We, as a society, do far too little to support the least of us.
We, as a society, have never addressed the centuries of direct and indirect repression of people of color, leading to systemic biases that do not just limit opportunity, but actually withhold it almost entirely, to the point where tales of success are “feel good news”.
We blame people who have for generations been locked in these systems for a failure to overcome them, we starve the systems that could help them of resources in the name of preserving our own corner of society, and we are far too willing to excuse violence that keeps them in their place while decrying violence that affects us and ours.
And the “we” here is not all of us, which makes it all the worse.
It’s the majority of us who make up the middle-class to the lower-upper class, the folks just above the median household income.
We’re the voters who determine who wins majorities, folks. Not the poor, who often can’t be registered because they’ve changed addresses three times in two years, and live in gerrymandered areas that ensure that even if they did turn out in equal numbers to us, they’d have fewer representatives.
Not the rich, there’s not that many of them. Yes, they have an outsized impact on policy, but they don’t determine who is the local Alderman or the county Supervisor.
We’re the ones who turn a blind eye to the homeless in our parks, who care not at all about the businesses in the “wrong” part of town, who turn out for Black History events to cheer kids reciting slam poetry but vote against raising taxes to support public education, SCHIP, unemployment, welfare… even while voting to spend more funds on things that make us feel good about our values. And then many of us left of center blame the eponymous “they” for balancing the budget and not being “progressive enough”.
Not every day.
We have our good moments. We’re not “bad” people. But we’re not as good as we pretend, and we’re not holding ourselves to account.
Our good moments don’t come often enough to undo the systems that buttress up our relative comfort at the expense of the poor, and in recent years, we have retreated behind throwing up our arms and claiming that it’s all the fault of the 1/2 of 1%.
It’s the billionaires! They’re ruining everything!
Don’t get me wrong, the 1/2 of 1% isn’t helping in their fair share either. This isn’t a defense of the rich, they’re ruining plenty.
But we are failing, too. Us.
We are failing every time we retreat behind “everything would be better if they voted”…instead of acknowledging how the majority of our brethren vote.
And I’m not just talking about suburbanites in some purple state somewhere, this isn’t specific to national politics. Quite the opposite. We forgive ourselves the consequences from our own decisions based upon the dysfunction of national politics.
We Californians live in the “Nth largest economy in the world”…and we spend thousands of dollars less on education than most of the country…in a state where the cost of living is reliably in the top 5 of all states.
We pass local legislation that protects the historical value of our homes…without also demanding that our city build sufficient affordable housing with the same vigor.
We ensure one actually gets done, without the other…then complain about density.
We can’t have any more cars on our roads, but we can’t increase walkability because that would slow down our commute. We need more public transportation, but we won’t take it ourselves. We demand our city provide more for the less fortunate, and then get angry when each proposed solution is deemed inappropriate, without noting that other folks like us are the ones claiming it’s inappropriate.
Meanwhile the rents rise, and the poor get poorer, and we worry about how to afford college tuition so much we vote against economic relief for newly hatched college graduates who can’t find jobs…in our housing policy, transportation policy, zoning
… and then blame ineffectual Congress for making it worse or not coming to the rescue.
They can do more. They should. This isn’t a defense of Congress either.
But we’re not helping enough. Us.
Please help. Help somebody. Not just today, and not just tomorrow.
And not just in California.