On April 29th of 1992, the world turned its focus on South Central, Los Angeles, as the acquittal of four L.A.P.D. officers who were charged with violently beating Rodney King helped to spark the six-day racial melee that some call a riot and others an uprising. As we reflect on the 20th anniversary of one of the most significant human events in recent history, politicians, journalists, academics, community leaders, and concerned citizens alike are all pondering on whether or not we are better off now than just two decades before. While I understand the impetus for this kind of thinking, that is -- the way in which we seemingly need to chart human growth in linear terms, the question of "better off now" is, much like the discourse that immediately followed the 1992 uprising, far too simplistic.
As a young Black boy who was born and raised in South Central, Los Angeles I witnessed first hand the kaleidoscopic chaos that was the 1992 uprising, as well as the cultural and political turmoil that preceded the event and the conflicting aftermath. I know friends and family who looted stores and burned buildings, and even more who did not. I knew one young man, Gregory Davis Jr., a promising young football player who played for my stepfather, who was shot in the forehead amidst the cultural disarray. With militarized streets, burned out buildings, curfews in place, the declaration of Martial Law, fear, panic, and the simultaneous feeling of anarchy and heavy-handed government, I have come as close possible to living in a warzone without living in an actual warzone (though I know some who argue it was a warzone). And, still, this does nothing to explain the complex cultural, political, and legal happenings that led to the 1992 uprising.
Those who reduce the uprising to the Rodney King trial not only fail to see how the acquittal was simply the legal straw the broke the camel's back, but they also rhetorically figure Black people as completely irrational beings who are incapable of operating within the law and our legal system. In other words, that kind of contextually absent rendering, which refuses to recognize the robust history of racial injustice Blacks had/have to incur, constructs Black people as violent without talking about the violence enacted on Blacks on an everyday basis. Even those who color up the conversation, so to speak, by adding an analysis of the troubled race relations between Blacks and Asians do so by focusing on incidents like the shooting of then high school student Latasha Harlins by Korean storeowner Soon Ja Du, but those conversations are also ahistorical, lack context, and conflate complex race relations into over glorified moments of violence. Given our complete failure in talking about the past, how do we expect the sufficiently talk about the present and/or the future?
Are we better off now does very little to address Los Angeles' ever changing race and class demographics, and how South Los Angeles (dare I still call it South Central) is a very different city now than just two decades before. It is ill equipped to deal with the ways in which resource reallocation, urban development, and gentrification sparked a whole new set of racial and class-based anxieties (see the development of Downtown, L.A. and the recent Black and Brown conflicts as examples). Perhaps even more troubling than the first two, it is unwilling to have the kinds of conversations needed to be, well, better.
If we learned anything from R.J. Smith's The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance, it is that Los Angeles is not "the capital of forgetting," but a city with a unique way of remembering its own past (ix). The city with three major race riots/revolts in the 20th century alone has a way of masking its issues under the veil of progressive politics, which infuriates the many Angelinos who are regularly told we are imagining the segregation, the ways in which patrolling police forces create racialized gated communities, and the incredible economic disparities still at play. And, asking are we better off now, especially if we dismiss the everyday police harassment and at times cultural unease by focusing solely on the sensational and dramatic events, provides an easy opportunity to turn a blind eye to the racial and class based turmoil that led to the 1992 uprising, much of which still exists today. In this way, I urge an entirely different set of questions: Where have we grown and where have we regressed? Why are refusing to have the kinds of race, class, and legal conversations that forces us to get at the cultural politics that preceded the 1992 uprising and allowed the Rodney King beating? How has the changing of Los Angeles hindered our ability to address our race and class troubles?
Spaces, however, have histories we cannot deny, and our bodies confront those histories the moment in which we enter the given space. Newly constructed buildings, the reurbanization of certain parts of Los Angeles, over patrolling police officers, and constant police harassment are but a few reminders of the 1992 uprising and the cultural anxieties that preceded the racial commotion. As we remember the two decades old uprising, we must take note that we are doing just that, we are re-membering it, that is - we are putting the event back together in the most comfortable way possible. And, until we are willing to step out of our comfort zones to have complex race and class conversations we will always re-member it as one chaotic riot, and not the culmination of a series of racial and class based injustices. Thinking in these terms mean we are not, and perhaps cannot, get "better."