A few days after the Los Angeles riots began, I was finally able to reach my friend Rob on the phone. I don't live near the USC campus anymore, and I wasn't sure how near he might have been to the fires and violence there. Rob said he was fine, and I told him that although the fires around 1st and Vermont were uncomfortably near, I hadn't been hurt, either. We never got into a general discussion of the rioting: Why it happened, what it meant, and so forth. We are black males. That kind of discussion would have been superfluous.
The verdict in the beating of Rodney G. King wasn't reached a week and a half ago when the jurors, nearly all white, exonerated four Los Angeles police officers. It came down last November, when the trial was moved from multiracial Los Angeles County to lily-white Simi Valley. The change of venue was the judicial equivalent of a reassuring wink to the four white officers. They weren't going to be hanged by some conglomeration of blacks and Latinos.
From there, most of L.A.'s black community could have written the trial's scenario with their eyes closed. We would hear about the terrible danger the cops thought they were in. After all, what chance did 15 of them have against one PCP-crazed suspect, unless they used every weapon of torture they could get their hands on? We would see the videotape again and again, but the defense would ask for more definitive proof.
The rioting, too, was a foregone conclusion. In recent days, many black "leaders" have asserted that the violence, arson and looting didn't solve anything. They've pointed out, correctly, that blacks will be those who suffer most in the riot's aftermath. But that's not the issue. The rioters weren't trying to solve anything. The point is that they don't think there is a solution.
And however they chose to express this futility, they're probably right.
Think about it. Forget the rhetoric about how wonderful things would be if the city's many ethnic groups could just come together. Peace marches are self-congratulatory orgies for people who fervently want to believe that they can keep young blacks out of jail or stop police brutality by just singing "We Shall Overcome." And before anyone sits down at a word processer to tell me about the glorious civil-rights gains of the '60s, I would ask him or her to survey the ruins of Los Angeles and then tell me how far we've really come. As for anyone who believes that liberal social reforms are the cause of our current troubles, my answer is that I can hardly support the Reagan era's "screw the minorities" mentality.
The proposed Christopher Commission reforms, embodied in Charter Amendment F, aren't going to stop police brutality. Thousands of terrified white people, a friend reminds me, will rush to the polls next month to make sure that police can use as much force as necessary if another riot breaks out. This is especially true now that the rioting is being dismissed as "the work of thugs."
There is the bitter irony. Some of the same people who were shocked and appalled by the King verdict--good white liberals, mind you--and who would eagerly acknowledge that blacks can't get justice under our system, and seem to realize that a social upheaval is necessary to correct this situation, just can't free themselves from the same type of stereotypes that conservatives revel in. Geez, they say these "punks" are just taking advantage of the King verdict. They don't really care about society's problems; they can't even understand them. Go ahead and sweep the real issue under the rug, ladies and gentlemen; the Mercedes will still be in the garage tomorrow morning. Oh, am I stereotyping?
No, racism and its related pariahs aren't going to go away anytime soon.
I realize that my cynicism is going to be seen as counterproductive, but as a black male, I feel as though I'm running blindly through a minefield. I dodge cops who want to harass me, because I'm in an area where I "shouldn't be." I sidestep a department-store clerk who is following me around and who usually manages a plastic "How ya doin', pal?" if I make eye contact. A false step forward could find me dealing with a landlord who tells me there are no vacancies when a huge sign clearly indicates otherwise.
I'm not looking for your sympathy. I don't want it. And I'm not saying that there's no point in living. I'm going to do the best I can. But I'm going to do it with the realistic understanding that people like me are at a distinct disadvantage, and will continue to be so throughout my lifetime. Call it a survival tactic.