Leading with fire produces results... whether you like them or not.
Crenshaw Blvd., just off the 10 Freeway, is everything you desire from a five-lane main street: a giant artery for businesses and famous churches that rub shoulders with long-forgotten night spots. Murals and handmade signs adorn the flanks of a 40+ year tradition of African-American cultural pools feeding from its roaring shores even down to a "Hair District" of wig shops and barbers' chairs; even across the now defunct ritual of car clubs and "after the big game" cruising.
While the start of it is literally the demarcation line of the 'hood,' Wilshire Blvd., and its end at the ocean, in the middle, in 1992, Crenshaw Blvd. was ours. And tonight, even though the power was out, from atop a gentle hill that made the 10 Freeway off-ramp, you can still follow the Nile-like passage through the 'hood' by the pockets of fires bleeding smoke into the sky. Billowing signals to the world: The great City of Los Angeles is having a nervous breakdown.
This was the scene two nights into the Los Angeles riots of 1992.
I was an on-air personality at Stevie Wonder's KJLH radio station. Kindness Joy Love and Happiness spread its signal to a L.A. County which sprawled due to an industry-sponsored car culture, while the ravages of freeway construction left a landscape of incorporated and unincorporated cities holding pockets of racial strongholds. Like the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw District area, which was deeply African-American and the home of KJLH. That was the physical reason for our bird's-eye, street-level view of the riots. A more hidden reason for our vantage point was that Crenshaw Blvd. represented another boundary. A deep recession, drugs, and the blood-soaked, gun-encrusted gang economy that crack created left that community at an anxious tilt. Soon, a thick line widened between the foothilled, Crenshaw'd "have-nots" and the elevation of a dozen meters or so to the "haves" in Baldwin Hills. Thus, when it started, Crenshaw became the floor for an open exchange of chaos and I didn't leave for 60 hours straight.
After the Huffington Post piece on our broadcast went up, I began to get calls: Why commemorate the Riots? Yeah, I call them riots. Because after about 20 minutes, common sense was looted by opportunity. Still, there's more to it than the extraordinary things I saw close up for the first time in my life: continual looting, buildings raging in flames, the National Guard in full gear. There were unforgettable moments: when the Lee Michaels (KJLH program director) and others crossed the street to save a Korean store owner from the harm of looters; a loopy interview I did with Jesse Jackson; sitting next to Lindsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman) for no good-goddamned reason.
By the end, the people had reduced the spotless idyllic alters of the City of Angeles to cinders. But there are still lessons in those ashes. Despite what you hear from Fox News, the riots were a reaction to an accumulation of feelings of hopelessness and anger based on decades of uncivil treatment. The King trial verdict was just the final spark that erupted on Florence and Normandie.
There were no countywide riots thru the '80s. No looting after mental patient Keith Hamilton was killed over a non-existent knife. No uprising after Latasha Harlins was shot in the back of the head. No riots after the Holliday tape revealed the King beating. No riots after Soon Ja Du, Harlins's killer, received probation and community service. Democracy is about the messy right to be heard and to participate in governance. There is a constant fight for these rights as evidenced in the women's suffrage movement, the labor movement and the civil rights movement. If, however, We the People, feel as though we're declined basic justice, we may succumb to feelings of hopelessness and anger and then hand reason to anarchy. Why remember the L.A. riots? One name. Trayvon Martin. A student-driven/social network(ed) movement that resuscitated a case initially closed by simply walking over a dead boy's body and going home.
Cincinnati burned for four days in 2001 sparked by the police shooting of Timothy Thomas. France (2005), England (2011), Tunisia (2011)... all with populations that felt on the "outside" of the equitable hands of governance.
And in case anyone believes that tensions here are lower:
1999 (New York): Amadou Diallo was killed in a hail off bullets in his apartment doorway holding nothing but a wallet.
2001 (L.A.): A lil' over 10 years after the LA riots... a bystander videotaped Officer Jeremy Morse punching a handcuffed Donovan Jackson, 16, in the face. The man who recorded it was extradited to Florida for past warrants. The officers were placed off duty but later sued the city for $2.4 million for race discrimination... and won.
2006 (L.A.): Ivory John Webb Jr., 46, shot unarmed Elio Carrion, Iraq War Air Force veteran, point-blank four times as Carrion lay on the ground and obeyed Webb's command. Carrion lived and Webb was acquitted.
2006 (New York): Unarmed Sean Bell, 23, was killed with 50 bullets as he exited a strip club the night before his wedding. The police were acquitted.
2008 (L.A.): Inglewood Police shot and killed Michael Byoune, claiming he and his passengers were firing on them. No weapons were found.
Add these incidents to the bone-chilling, nightmarish howls in the background of a 9-1-1 call of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman fight. Then mix in economic pressures plus social networking, and, when this verdict comes down, we may be seeing communities all over America standing at crossroads similar to where Los Angeles stood back in 1992...
A place that clearly maps out the consequences of a riot. A place that may have the answers to keep a city intact. A place to choose whether or not... to lead with fire.