Reflections on the Riots: Misplaced Questions and True Solutions
By Ryan Masaaki Yokota
The L.A. Uprisings were a burning red light like the one you see on your car dashboard when you've run your car in the red zone for too long and with too little oil. Like smoke from your hood it was a visible reminder of the need for desperate change within the structures of Los Angeles and California institutions.
"Riots," as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, "are the language of the unheard," and yet despite all the heat and rage, now, some three years later, nothing has changed, and the problems that had sparked the situation have remained, and in many ways, have intensified to new heights.
It had been my second year here at UCLA when the uprisings erupted here in LA I can still remember the strangeness of those times and the mad unreality of it all. On the television screen flashed images of the wilding that took place in the streets. Innocents were being pulled from cars and beaten. Arson and looting spread like wildfire over a prairie, taking the city by storm.
Back here on the Westside I sat in my apartment wondering at the sheer madness of it all. It reminded me of the previous year when fires over Kuwait were broadcast across the world, and yet the strangest part of it all was that the destruction on the television was something I could smell and see from the top of my apartment building. The war had come home.
But even now the war continues and the civilian bombings are taking place through quiet legislative decisions that are affecting everyone in LA mostly in terms of the judiciary, economic, and social services restrictions that have been placed on the general populace in the aftermath of the Uprisings.
Let's consider the incidents that truly sparked the Uprisings, for when we do so we see that the Uprisings didn't start at Florence and Normandie, but rather with the inhumane treatment of Rodney King by LAPD officers and the long-standing history of police abuse, discrimination, and harassment that has been the hallmark of the LAPD.
Despite the brutality against Rodney King which was caught on film, nothing has changed in terms of the way in which the police hold power in LA
In fact, with the increasing rhetoric of the need for greater police protection (subtly calculated to play on the fears of LA County and California residents who do not live in the inner cities and who do not understand the dynamics of what goes on in LA) politicians have rode into office on pledges of increased police protection in the form of racist legislation such as the "Three Strikes" bill, which fails to take into account that the people most often stopped by police, most often harassed by the police, and most often sentenced to prison, are overwhelmingly people of color.
Even further, the bill fails to recognize the need for civilian control boards to ensure that average citizens will have a clearinghouse for complaints of police abuse. Some people don't seem to understand that increasing police repression and discrimination to deal with a problem that arose out of police repression and discrimination (such as the King beatings) is like throwing gasoline on a raging fire.
People also don't seem to understand that major inequalities underlie the economic situations that keep large portions of the city in poverty.
It seems pretty obvious that the same political "leaders" that have advocated such things as "free enterprise zones" to lure in business in order to "rebuild LA" are at root advocating for tax free business zones for their corporate buddies and donors, and not for a real opening of enterprise in LA, as can be seen by the sort of resistance given to advocates for the full legalization of street vendors in the city.
In fact much of the talk of opening LA to business enterprise only obscures the fact that a monetary supply in the form of corporate investment already exists in LA, though such investments are not "trickling down" to the majority of the city's residents.
City planners may succeed in bringing corporations into LA but that provides no guarantee that such investment will translate into any substantial increase in the standard of living for members of the working poor or other LA residents.
In fact, largely due to the lack of unionization in LA (which would provide better worker wages, health services, and benefits), the lack of adequate public transportation, and the failure of the government to provide decent educational and vocational opportunities, the situation of serious socio-economic inequality has persisted and continues to remain an open scar in the fabric of LA
At this point it seems important to demonstrate the way in which the current immigration debate has been playing itself out in the media, since it has been linked to the Uprisings in many ways.
As outgoing LA school board member Warren Furutani noted, when you consider the associations that come up when you hear the word "South-Central" (where a great deal of the Uprisings occurred) you realize that the phrasing used by the media conjures up images of South and Central America, notorious hotspots of civil unrest, which when connected with the images of Latina/os that were seen during the lootings, provokes severely racist connotations. I doubt this is an idle coincidence.
In fact, with the passage of Proposition 187, California has completed its job in "punishing" its most disenfranchised, vulnerable, and easily scapegoated people for the economic problems that have existed in LA And as with the passage of the "Three Strikes" initiative, the California populace has once again applied a band-aid to the problems in this state, instead of looking to the root causes of the current economic situation.
Many of the problems that had precipitated the crisis of the rebellions had their roots in three things, first, the too long delayed de-escalation of the military industrial complex at the end of the cold war with its effects on the California economy, second, the thirty year process of economic restructuring involving the flight of American industry from LA to (in many times) other countries, and third, the de-unionization of the remaining industries in LA which resulted in the growth of the working poor and homeless population in LA and the increased reliance of the population on government social services due to the continued ghettoization of the inner cities.
In many ways, the point of this article is to explicate on the issues that caused the LA Uprisings and how they still remain in large and malignant ways. Efforts by the California populace have remained consistently misplaced and have constantly failed in addressing the root causes of the current problems in LA
Yet there is still time and there is still hope. We must begin to address these problems by analyzing the roots of racial and economic inequality as they play themselves out in legislative decisions. We must stand firmly in refocusing the debate on change in California from crime and immigration to education and increasing vocational training opportunities.
Also we must continue to demand that our basic human and civil rights are protected from harm. Through it all we must make active steps in our lives to make sure that the problems of inequality in America are erased once and for all so that situations such as the Uprisings never need happen again.
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