Blacks vs. Browns

Behind the Los Angeles riot lay a grim economic competition between Latinos and African-Americans, which is intensifying and which poses a stern challenge to U.S. domestic and foreign policy, as well as to sentimental cultural attitudes about immigration

DURING THE 1980S, ACCORDING TO CENSUS figures released last May 11, the United States admitted 8.6 million immigrants. In the context of U.S. immigration history this is a staggering number—more than in any decade since 1900-1910. Worldwide, half the decade's emigrants had made the United States their destination. Of them, 11 percent—more than three quarters of a million-further specified their choice as Los Angeles. By the end of the decade 40 percent of all Angelenos were foreign-born; 49.9 percent spoke a language other than English at home; 35.3 percent spoke Spanish. This is the city where, two weeks before those figures were released, the most violent urban riot in American history broke out: fifty-one people were killed, and property worth $ 750 million or more was lost. Though the occasion for the riot was the acquittal of four white policemen on charges of assaulting a black traffic offender, Latinos as well as African-Americans rioted. Why? What was Rodney King to Latinos? Did a race riot, once begun, degenerate—or progress—into a bread riot? Was it a vast crime spree, as devoid of political content as the looting that followed the 1977 blackout in New York City? Of those arrested afterward—-of whom more than half were Latino 40 percent already had criminal records. Was the riot a defeat of the police? If it was a hybrid of all these, was it, finally, an aberration from which, by hard work, America's second-largest city could recover? Or was it the annunciation of a new and permanent state of affairs?

I work at the Los Angeles Times, writing a column for that newspaper's book supplement and unsigned editorials three or four times a week for its editorial page. On the day after the first night of the riot, one of my colleagues said to me, as we left to hunt for a still-open restaurant, "When the barbarians sacked Rome in 410, the Romans thought it was the end of civilization. You smile—but what followed was the Dark Ages." Think of what follows here as the voice of a worried Roman—in front of a television set, watching the Goths at their sack.

Meeting Latino Los Angeles

I CAME TO LOS ANGELES IN 1978, TO WORK AS AN EDITOR in the branch office of the University of California Press at UCLA. The first home I owned here was a house trailer in Malibu. In 1981 a Santa Ana—one of the notorious local windstorms—ripped off the carport attached to the trailer and did some further damage to the roof. My wife and I had some insurance, but not enough. To help me complete my do-it-yourself repairs, I hired two Mexican boys from the pool of laborers who gathered daily near a shopping center just off the Pacific Coast Highway. One of the two, Ricky Rodriguez (not his real name), just fifteen years old when we met him, would become almost literally a member of our family.

One Sunday afternoon, after Ricky had been working with me part-time for several weeks, a Coast Highway landslide cut Malibu in half, and we invited Ricky to stay overnight. The buses weren't running. His alternatives, both illegal, were sleeping on the beach and sleeping in some neglected patch of brush along the road. He accepted the invitation and on the morrow brought my wife and me a breakfast in bed consisting of flied eggs and peanut butter sandwiches. In the sudden, unforeseen intimacy of the moment, a kind of conversation began different from any we had yet had. We began to learn something about his family.

Ricky, his mother, two sisters, and a brother were living in City Terrace Park, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles, as the permanent houseguests of another sister, her husband, and their two small children: nine people in a two-bedroom cottage. Ricky's brother-in-law, at the time the only American citizen in the family, was a cook whose generous employer had bought him this cottage. (Later, Juan Jose—called Juanjo for short—would open his own burrito shop.) Ricky invited me to visit his family, and I did so. I had never been in the barrio before.

Ricky continued working for us over several months. Relations remained friendly, and he eventually asked if we would adopt him, purely for legal reasons: to make him a citizen. His mother and I visited a sympathetic Chicano immigration lawyer, but Mexico's laws protecting its children made the move legally complicated. I did agree, however, to tutor Ricky through his remaining two years of high school—and here we return to the riot as an event in a mecca for immigrants.

As a taxpayer, I was surprised—not that I wasn't happy for our young friend—to discover that his status as an illegal immigrant was no bar to his attending high school at state expense. He did have to show a birth certificate; but, interestingly, his mother, a short, stout, indomitably cheerful woman who had crossed the border as a single mother with four children, of whom the youngest was a toddler at the time, had brought birth certificates with her. She had had education on her mind from the start, and a Guadalajara certificate was certificate enough for Wilson High School, which received money from the state on a per capita basis and would have lost money had illegal immigrants been denied admission.

Another surprise came in Ricky's senior year, when he asked if I would accompany him to the Department of Motor Vehicles and permit him to take a driving test in my car. (My presence and signature may have been required in some other capacity as well; I can no longer quite remember.) I knew by then that illegal immigrants commonly drove the streets and freeways of Los Angeles without any kind of driver's license. Ricky wanted a license mainly because it provided an identification card and a degree of cover for someone seeking work. He took and passed the test in the Lincoln Heights DMV office not far from downtown Los Angeles.

But here again I was surprised that no proof of legal residency was requested for the receipt of a California driver's license. On the Coast Highway, I had witnessed hair-raising "sweeps" by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents on the very corner where I had hired Ricky. Such chases farther south, at an INS checkpoint on Interstate 5, north of San Diego, led with grim frequency to traffic deaths. Why did the INS not simply come to the DMV office in Lincoln Heights and arrest applicants? As we waited in line to deliver Ricky's completed written test, we overheard the clerk administering the same test orally—in Spanish—to a short older man with a coppery Amerindian face. He would have fallen one answer short of the passing grade had she not given him a broad hint.

The DMV office had as foreign a feel to it as the correo in Mexico City. One heard almost no English at all. Ricky took his test not long after Election Day that year. The contrast between the two populations—the one in the polling station, the other at the DMV was overwhelming. The DMV office seemed to be a part of the American administration of some foreign—or indigenous but subject—population.

A Latino Riot?

BACK TO THE RIOT: WAS THERE A POLITICAL MOtive for the Latino rioting? There is a radical fringe of Chicano activists with a political agenda for the land they call Aztlan: northwest Mexico and the southwest United States. They claim, not without reason, that Chicano farm workers now sweat on land stolen from their ancestors. But Ricky and his family take a different view. I learned in passing that as an eighthgrader Ricky had donned a feather headdress and a loincloth and danced in a "folkloric" group organized by one of his teachers, but the Aztecs meant no more to him than the Illinois did to me as a Boy Scout in Chicago. Ricky's older brother, Victor, once asked me in puzzlement why Americans gave Spanish names to their houses and boats. Why not English names? A rich and interesting question, perhaps, but not one that betrayed a political agenda.

We learned later that in fact many if not most of the Latino rioters were either Central Americans or very recent Mexican immigrants, and that what the riot might have been to us Anglos, it was also, to some considerable extent, to the established Mexican-American political leadership. They, too, were wondering about a huge, strange, possibly angry, Spanish-speaking population in their midst. Who were these people, and what did they want? If they had no political agenda, if they were common criminals, well, that, too—given their growing numbers and the demonstrated inadequacy of the police— was news, wasn't it? The population of South Central Los Angeles had doubled since 1965. For every black in the area there was now at least one Latino. That had to make a difference. But what kind of difference?

In the weeks following the riot, Latino leaders from East Los Angeles were concerned that the sudden spotlight on South Central Los Angeles would rob them of scarce government funds. They were on guard against the possibility that South Central Los Angeles would be rewarded for its violence and East Los Angeles punished for its good behavior. "Just because we didn't erupt in East L.A., does that translate into us being ignored or missing out on the funds that are funneling into the communities?" asked Geraldine Zapata, the executive director of the Plaza Community Center. But the more immediate challenge to Mexican East Los Angeles was coming to terms with Central American South Central Los Angeles.

The Watts II Paradigm: Blacks vs. Whites

THE MAINSTREAM INTERPRETATION HAD LITtle to say about either Mexicans or Central Americans. It took the riot to be Watts II, a repetition of the 1965 black riot, touched off by the verdict in the King case but growing out of the deeper frustrations of the black population over rising unemployment, institutionalized police brutality, and eroded public assistance. That interpretation was surely right as far as it went. Those who mentally bracketed the riot between the videotaped beatings of King by a gang of white policemen and of Reginald Denny, a white trucker, by a gang of black rioters were not altogether wrong to do so.

And this interpretation was reinforced during the weeks following the riot by the competing rhetoric of black rappets on the one hand and the police on the other. On June 26, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates's last day on the job, Amnesty International released a report, "Police Brutality in Los Angeles," claiming that the department used its Taser guns and turned loose its dogs on suspects who were not resisting arrest or had already been taken into custody. LAPD brutality, the report claimed, "has even amounted to torture." Gates replied by denouncing the organization as "a bunch of knucklehead liberals" who "attack everything that is good in the country ... and good in the world."

Earlier, Sergeant Stacey C. Koon, the commanding ofricer in the King beating, had discussed his unpublished memoir, "The Ides of March," with reporters, apparently in an attempt to sell it. The manuscript includes the following description of Koon's treatment of a Latino said to be under the influence of the drug PCP (the same was said, wrongly, of Rodney King):

My boot came from the area of lower California and connected with the suspect's scrotum about lower Missouri. My boot stopped about Ohio, but the suspect's testicles continued into upper Maine. The suspect was literally liked off the ground. The suspect tried to speak, but it appeared he had something in his throat— probably his balls.

That beating, captured on videotape, became a popular training tool for young officers. "The tape was to become a legend in its own time," Koon wrote. A Latino may thus have been Koon's most abused victim. However, it was Koon's reference to King as "Mandingo" that attracted the most outraged comment. In general, the more postriot analysis concentrated on violence and the police, the closer it stayed to the Watts II, black-white interpretation.

The same interpretation, though with one important qualification, was fostered by the popularity—among whites as well as blacks—of virulently racist, grotesquely violent black music, much of it originating in Los Angeles. On June 23 both the city council and the county board of supervisors called on Time Warner and local retailers to discontinue sales of Ice-T's album Body Count. Later Willie L. Williams, the newly sworn-in black police chief, did the same. "Cop Killer," then one of the cuts on that album, includes the chorus:

COP KILLER, it's better you than me.
COP KILLER, fuck police brutality!
COP KILLER, I know your family's grievin'
COP KILLER, but tonight we get even.

Ice-T defended himself rather in the manner of a novelist. He told a New York audience, "At no point do I go out and say, 'Let's do it.' I'm singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. I ain't never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it." This justification was a little thin for the grieving widow and daughter ("Fuck 'em!") of a slain officer who had testified before the city council. Norma Williams's husband, Tom, was murdered by Daniel Jenkins, against whom he had testified in an armed-robbery case. Jenkins ambushed Williams as the policeman was picking up his six-year-old son at a day-care center, pumping eight bullets into the detective's body while the boy watched and later, according to the testimony of an accomplice, describing with pleasure how the victim's body convulsed with the impact of each bullet. "Cop Killer" has a spoken, prose prologue:

This next record is dedicated to some personal friends of mine, the LAPD. For every cop that has ever taken advantage of somebody, beat 'em down or hurt 'em, because they got long hair, listen to the wrong kind of music, the wrong color, whatever they thought was the reason to do it, for every one of those fuckin' police, I'd like to take a pig out here in this parkin' lot and shoot 'em in their motherfuckin' face.

Willie Williams's reaction to this was "I have major problems with it as an American, as a parent, and as a police officer. I have buried five police officers during my career .... I think it's a disgrace that any singer would use such vulgarity and give the implication that killing an officer is okay." Williams was joined by relatives of the slain officer as he called on Time Warner to withdraw the album: "I think that, minding the Constitution, it should be voluntarily withdrawn." Los Angeles's African-American Peace Officers' Association disagreed with the new chief, but on balance the "Cop Killer" controversy had kept the focus on blacks and the police and away from more complex, multi-ethnic readings of the riot.

As a riot paradigm, Watts II had two versions: the black and the white, or (almost, but not quite, the same) the liberal and the conservative. An independent commission, chaired by the former deputy secretary of state Warren Christopher, had investigated the LAPD after the Rodney King beating and recommended major changes. The most important of them—limiting the chief's tenure in office and making him and the police department more clearly subordinate to elected government than they had been under the civil-service model—were overwhelmingly approved by the voters in June. Liberals saw the future in that vote. Conservatives saw the future less in the vote than in the 64 percent jump in handgun purchases which followed the riot.

Welcoming the Troops

THERE IS IN FACT FACT MORE CONVERGENCE HERE than meets the eye. Proposition F, the policereform measure, passed despite fierce opposition by the chief and much of the police department, but it didn't pass because the voters wanted less policing. The LAPD has been a quasi-military, cold, hard, swift, but—most important—small and low-cost police force. The police have been in effect the domestic Marines, flying in to put down insurrections. They have not been an occupying force, and yet an occupying force is precisely what the population wants and needs.

"Community policing," the alternative whose revival (there's nothing new about it) was urged by the Christopher Commission, amounts to a steady, low-level involvement by a resident force with the law-abiding portion of the population in the interests of more effectively controlling the lawbreaking portion. During the riot the National Guard, which came and went in a matter of days, was far more like a community police force than the community's own police force. The news photographs— Guardsmen talking to children, strolling in pairs down the sidewalks, and so forth—were of scenes that would be noticeably out of character for the hard-assed LAPD. An English friend of mine who a few years ago approached an LAPD officer in downtown Los Angeles to ask for directions was told, "Buy a map." Whatever Los Angeles cops are, they are not helpful bobbies. "Smoked Pork," the opening cut on Body Count, begins with a playlet. A young black approaches a cop asking for help with a flat tire. The cop snarls, "No! That's not my job! My job is not to help your fuckin' ass out!" The black then "smokes" him.

The Guardsmen seemed young, small, out of shape, and amateurish by comparison with the LAPD, but the sentiment universally expressed when their withdrawal was announced was a wish that they would stay longer. Since the LAPD had failed to stop the outbreak of the riot, few had much confidence that it could stop a recurrence. More than that, there was a faint sense that the Guard had arrived not to reinforce the LAPD but as a peacekeeping force placed between the out-of-control citizenry and its out-of-control police force.

An Austrian-born editor of my acquaintance says that the way New Yorkers cope with street crime reminds him of the way ordinary Europeans navigated between the Nazis and the Resistance under Nazi occupation. The Resistance saw every citizen not known to be a partisan as potentially a collaborator, and therefore an enemy. The Nazis saw every ordinary citizen not known to be a collaborator as potentially a partisan, and therefore an enemy. In New York, my friend says, street criminals and the police, for different reasons, both look on ordinary citizens as potentially the enemy. Life for the ordinary citizen becomes, as a result, an endless round of precautions. One is never not on guard.

This comparison gives a paradoxical, probably unwelcome, confirmation to the black leaders who insisted on calling the Rodney King riot an "uprising." Though triggered by an action of the government, the riot had no real political content. The largely white Revolutionary Communist Party, the American affiliate of Peru's Shining Path guerrillas, did join in on the first night, but it was utterly peripheral to the main action. Those who used the word "uprising" were right in one regard, however. The riot was just a brief, high-intensity episode in a longerrunning, low-intensity conflict for which some word with a longer time frame built into it had to be found.

The trouble, increasingly, was that the mass of citizens were on neither side: not, obviously, with the criminals, our urban terrorists, but not quite with the police either. This was the truth that lurked in the welcome given the troops. If an extended occupation could somehow rein in both sides, law-abiding Angelenos of all races would welcome it. (Think how insurance rates would go down!) And most would greatly prefer benign military occupation—or, if you will, a vastly increased community police force—to the wildcat do-it-yourself policing of private gun ownership.

The ratio of police officers to residents in Los Angeles is 2:1,000, the lowest in the nation. And the horizontal immensity of the city's geography further complicates its policing problems. Los Angeles deploys fifteen officers per square mile, as compared with eighty-nine per square mile in New York. Changing the city's numbers would cost money, and neither liberalism nor conservatism has had the will even to make the case for the change. Liberalism wants to spend tax money on other needs first. Conservatism doesn't want to spend money on anything, not even public safety.

One of the first tasks of an occupying force, if we had one, would be disarmament. I dream of a house-by-house search for illegal arms. But we have no such occupying force, and we aren't likely to get one. On the day of his swearing-in, Police Chief Williams found himself in a public disagreement with Mayor Tom Bradley over whether the city could afford to increase its police force. Days after that, because of a catastrophic revenue shortfail at the state level, the question shifted to whether there would have to be a cut.

The smaller and weaker the police force grows, the greater the domestic arms race among the citizens. Gun shops were among the businesses looted during the riot. Thousands of stolen firearms were added to the hundreds of thousands already in circulation. Legal gun sales, as noted, jumped dramatically after the riot. The National Rifle Association has been running large display ads in the newspapers offering free instruction to new gun owners.

Two weeks after the riot David Freed, an investigative reporter, published an extraordinary five-part series in the Times on guns in Los Angeles. Eighteen months earlier Freed had published a similar long and chilling series on law enforcement and justice in the city, titled "Justice in Distress: The Devaluation of Crime in Los Angeles." Its conclusions were that a criminal here stands a small chance of being apprehended, if apprehended a small chance of being convicted, if convicted a small chance of serving a full sentence. In brief, the city appears to be essentially unpoliced. In the new series he was drawing a matching portrait of the public reaction, criminal and otherwise, to that astounding state of affairs. This time, as before, the statistics he marshaled were simply staggering. The rate of death by gunshot homicide in Los Angeles had been less than half the rate of vehicular death in 1970. In 1991 it exceeded that rate. Vehicular safety had improved somewhat, matching the national trend, but the gunshot-homicide rate had tripled: from 464 to 1,554 per 100,000. As for nonfatal shootings, they are so numerous that victims are interviewed briefly or not at all. Strikingly, the understaffed LAPD rarely attempts to trace a weapon. Over the past five years, Freed reported, "466,453 handguns were sold legally in Los Angeles County, one for every 19 residents .... In San Francisco, handgun sales totaled 20,606—a ratio of one for every 35 residents." To these handgun numbers must be added legal sales of rifles and shotguns and also illegal sales of guns of all kinds. And the number of guns sold in any way over a five-year period obviously does not equal the total number of guns in circulation.

The influence of guns on ordinary life in Los Angeles is pervasive and profoundly linked to race. During the days following the riot, blacks complained that they were treated with a tense, elaborate politeness when their fellow citizens couldn't avoid them altogether, but avoidance was the preferred strategy. Los Angeles begins at a low level of mutual understanding. The interracial hyperpoliteness whose artificiality offends many blacks is only a heightened form of the city's notorious laid-back manner. The superficiality of Angeleno conversation, so striking to Europeans, is a defensiveness born of experience: blandness as a protective coloration. One's conversation partner, after all, may be a follower of anyone from Swami Prabhupada to Charles Manson. Why provoke him when for all you know he is not just odd but armed? The diffuse paranoia of a city where so little is shared in the way of common history or securely held values is especially vulnerable to exacerbation by a real-life menace that is both acute and mobile. The automobile, every Angeleno's coat of mail, was no protection from the mob. As all the world knows, motorists were pulled from their vehicles and beaten or killed during the riot.

The entertainment leviathan feeds on this paranoia. Time Warner, the producer of Body Count, whose jacket art included a black fist holding a revolver pointed at the viewer, also produced Lethal Weapon 3. But conservative politics feeds on the same paranoia. By midsummer George Bush, Dan Quayle, some sixty mostly Republican congressmen, and the National Rifle Association had all joined the call for a Time Warner boycott. The Time Warner shareholders managed to face down two blinded police officers who addressed their meeting. Though one could feel sorry for them, freedom of artistic expression was a noble tradition, and then, too, profits were up. But when a pension fund decided to divest itself of Time Warner stock, internal dissent grew, and Ice-T, late in July, announced that he had asked his producer to reissue Body Count without the offending cut. The result was a last spurt in popularity for what is now a collector's item. Meanwhile, Daryl Gates's memoir, Chief.' My Life in the LAPD, rode high on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list for weeks.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In