Yet as we tried to conceptualize stories that would translate the public rage into socially meaningful pieces, we began to resemble a dysfunctional family in counseling, grappling for the first time with lifelong agonies. Many of us, myself included, grew incapable of conducting a reasonable discussion about such stories because the riots touched deep-rooted anger or fears that had been suppressed so long in the interest of interracial cordiality. Called upon to suddenly confront this dilemma, we broke down. Gradually, without anybody pronouncing a truce, we stopped our frustrated sputtering and returned to not talking about race. We wrote the stories we needed to write but without the personal collaboration that would have allowed us to grow. We succumbed to that cruel American denial that leaves us perpetually surprised whenever racial fury erupts. It is part of our national character to wistfully wonder whether we can get along with other races while forgetting that the majority of us live such intensely segregated lives that we don't have to worry about it at all.
"People still can get in their BMW in Westwood, drive to an underground parking garage downtown, work all day on the 22nd floor and not understand what's happening--why streets in some parts of town are dirtier, why schools are overcrowded," says City Councilman Mike Hernandez, whose district includes the impoverished Pico-Union neighborhood near downtown. "People still don't understand what happened in the riots."
All my life I have been blessed with a job that forces me out of this segregation and delivers me into the homes of people I would otherwise regard as stereotypes. I leave these homes and return to a world of friends who know what they see on television. I wonder what it would be like if they met.
I think of my best friend since high school, a man who, if we're talking race, would prefer to be known as Ted. He's a white comedy writer who lives in Marina del Rey and until this fall had never registered to vote. And I think of a middle-aged black man who, for this discussion, we'll call William. I met him on a story.
"I think most of the 'haves' feel like I do," Ted said a couple of weeks ago as we drove toward the ocean. "If anything, I'm more of a racist than I was before the riots. I'm more aware of danger. I would feel like a real schmuck if I was always speaking out on behalf of black rights, knowing that if I die before I reach old age it would be because some black guy kills me. I know if he comes after me I'd feel like a jerk saying: 'Hey, I've been sticking up for you guys!' "
A couple weeks before, I'd been in William's den. I'd finished interviewing him, but he asked me to stay a few minutes.
"Let me ask you something," he said gravely, the way people ask you when the world has ceased to make sense and they're groping for truth. "Why do white people fear black people so much? Am I that different? Do you have children? Do you love them? I love mine. I'm just like you."
The riots made only a momentary impression on Ted. "I look at it like some kind of crazy weekend from a long time ago," he said. "Some three-day Mardi Gras kind of thing. The haves, mostly it changed their TV viewing habits for three days."
William lives near an intersection that rioters trashed, that remains vacant and ugly. "I live here," he says simply. "I live in the neighborhood." He takes a box and a broom every morning and sweeps beer bottles and other debris off his street. He knows that to people like Ted, he is an abstraction or, worse, invisible. White people are as confounding to William as black people are dangerous to Ted.
Ted and William and you and I are stuck in this mess, imprisoned by forces we don't understand, our hearts broken and hardened by history. Six months after our city burst, we are besieged by an internal pressure to achieve closure, to quantify our losses, to measure the distance from disaster to renewal, to identify the victims and villains, to punish the culprits and recompense the damaged.
But we are all victims and villains. Each of us plays both roles in a ratio calculated only by conscience. You build me a machine that measures that ratio and we'll talk about the future of Los Angeles. Until then, my friend, don't look forward any farther than your next step. Make that step stand for something. Be the best citizen you can be. Cross your fingers. Take a deep breath. And take another step.