“The first need of a free people is to define their own terms.”
--Stokely Carmichael, 1967
It is the one topic everyone in L.A. still discusses with passion.
But as people discover in awkward mid-sentence pauses, three months after the fact, the city is still far from agreement on a basic point: What are we talking about?
People calling public radio station KPFK know for sure that the violence of April 29 and 30 was a righteous uprising.
Listen to conservative George Putnam’s radio show and callers fume about the lawless, anarchic riot.
The small but animated cadre of Revolutionary Communist Party members storming through Los Angeles the night after the not guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating trial figured they were participating in the first battle of the long-awaited revolution to topple capitalist Amerikkka.
Other folks stammer euphemistically about the event .
Confusion over nomenclature in such matters is hardly new.
Twenty-seven years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. surveyed a smoldering Los Angeles and called what had happened “a class revolt of the underprivileged against the privileged.”
Most Americans still call that the Watts riots.
And now, as then, how people label the killing, looting and burning says a lot about their views on the other big questions still open to debate: Why did whateveritwas happen in the first place, and will it happen again?
“We don’t call it that,” Sandra Cox says firmly, whenever she hears someone use the “wrong” R-word.
The president of the 100-member Southern California Assn. of Black Psychologists first encountered the semantic chasm in early May, at a meeting of the Los Angeles County Council on Self Esteem, where she found colleagues railing: “They’re rioters! They’re wrong!”
Cox rebelled, urging them to reconsider their terminology.
“They never stopped to think that this country was conceived in this manner . . . that America was conceived in violence,” Cox said. “The people they’re referring to as antisocial and lawbreakers are people addressing grievances in the only way they know how.”
In May, Cox organized psychologists and social workers into the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals, and the group promptly voted to use the term insurrection exclusively.
“The word riot has such negative connotations that we refuse to use it,” she said. Insurrection, on the other hand, has a noble history.
“I think what we’re seeing here closely resembles the French Revolution. Remember when Marie Antoinette said: ‘Let them eat cake?’ I see the same thing happening here. . . . People are suffering.”
In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens portrayed the 18th-Century crowds that overthrew the French government as a roaring drunk or a raging beast. People lost self-control, the novelist implied, and got caught up in something akin to a force of nature--sort of the “riot-as-earthquake” metaphor often heard in Los Angeles.
Most academics interested in upheaval favored this mass psychology approach early in this century, said Sarah Maza, a history professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Then, as the Marxist-Leninist class struggle analysis of events gained credence, the theory of crowd dynamics fell into disuse, discredited as “unscientific.”
But the word riot, with its connotations of extreme and undirected disorder, and rebellion, which suggests a sense of purpose, are employed differently according to one’s political persuasions, Maza said.
“People on the left are squeamish in describing what crowds do if they’re violent and lawless. They focus instead on the composition of the crowd and the short- and long-term causes. The right is interested in what the crowd does and not who they are or why.”
While addressing a job-training conference in June, Rebuild L.A. czar Peter V. Ueberroth referred to the riots. “I like to keep calling it that, even though others do not,” he said.
Conservative black essayist Stanley Crouch is more pointed, if less concise: “It was flat out opportunism resulting from very poor police work and irresponsible behavior and the kind of mass hysteria that can result when order falls by the wayside and the great temptation to anarchy--which is the fundamental enemy to civilization--takes over.”
And Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block says that ultimately it does not matter if someone lobs a Molotov cocktail in revolt against injustice or because he is a rioting pyromaniac. “We have to deal with the action and the consequences of the action. To do otherwise, we would really be a nation of people without laws.”
But folks who view what happened in political terms suggest that those who discount the words rebellion or revolt do so at their own risk.
For 20 years, historian Joseph Boskin, director of the urban studies program at Boston University, has taught police officers nationwide--including in Los Angeles--about riots and uprisings.
The tradition of public disorder as a form of protest may be as old as civilization, Boskin and others who study the issue say. Mass violence, they point out, has been triggered by everything from esoteric questions about the nature of Christ to anger over tea taxes.
Dozens of ethnic riots--mainly between Irish immigrants and native-born whites--shook American cities in the 19th Century.
In the first few decades of this century, race riots erupted throughout urban America. Almost invariably, Boskin says, whites swarmed out of their neighborhoods to beat and kill blacks indiscriminately, in some cases leveling whole communities in anger over perceived job competition.
That pattern did not change until 1935, when rumors spread through New York’s Harlem that a black child had been beaten by a white store manager. Simmering anger over what a riot commission would later term “resentments against racial discrimination and poverty in the midst of plenty” flared into what Boskin and others call the Harlem Revolt.
In that “new style” uprising, blacks pelted the police with rocks and bottles and destroyed 200 stores, doing millions of dollars in damage.
“It was called a race riot, but to my way of thinking it wasn’t. It was the precursor of what happened in the 1960s. Blacks rebelled against their circumstances,” said Boskin, one of nine consultants to the McCone Commission, which investigated the violence and looting that swept Watts in 1965.
The storefront offices of the Committee on Police Abuse have a distinctly ‘60s feel.
At 40, Mafundi Jitahadi seems weary as he sits in the office of the small and beleaguered committee, waving a photocopied list of 15 demands hammered out in the wake of the unrest by another coalition of activists involved in health care, tenant organizing, day care, education, job training, the religious and legal communities and various “street organizations” (a.k.a. gangs).
As traffic roars by on a burned-out stretch of Western Avenue, Jitahadi reads aloud the demands of the coalition, for which he is acting as spokesperson: an end to insurance redlining, a moratorium on new liquor stores, an end to law enforcement programs the group deems oppressive, more recreational facilities, improved housing, more jobs. . . .
Some of the same ideas have been suggested by more mainstream groups and politicians, intent on repairing a Los Angeles ravaged by the riots.
Those who call what happened by other names, however, generally bridle at the notion of “rebuilding” a status quo from which they will again feel excluded.
To Jitahadi, whose activism began in the late ‘60s with the Black Student Union at Manual Arts High School, what happened in April was clearly a rebellion against injustices that have festered in America despite the McCone Commission report, the Kerner Commission report on the urban unrest of the late ‘60s, and the reports after the 1980 upheaval in Dade County, Fla. Unlike most outside observers, he never believed that the black liberation struggle died when the Black Panthers unraveled in the 1970s.
In fact, the pattern of blacks’ struggle for power in America has always been one of overt action followed by an underground phase, says William Van Deburg, an Afro-American studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of “New Day in Babylon,” a soon-to-be published history of the 1960s Black Power movement.
The “Black Power,” “Prepare for Babylon” and “Rise up Black Man” graffiti that blossomed on walls in poor, minority-populated areas this spring after 20 years’ dormancy reflects that pattern, which dates to the era when black slaves rose up against their masters in events they termed rebellions and insurrections.
Those who favor such terms for the events of April believe that the killing of Latasha Harlins and the King verdicts inspired the downtrodden to once again fight the power, as their enslaved forebears did over a century ago.
Those who don’t, don’t.
To make such comparisons is “an insult to the slaves; it demeans their great struggle,” said KABC radio host Dennis Prager. “Rebellion implies that there is an authoritarian oppressor to be overthrown. Those who believe that have helped foment this type of event.”
Prager believes it is more honest to look at inner-city life from the perspective of observers such as black Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who has said that African-Americans have more freedom, rights and opportunity than blacks anywhere else in the world.
“Liberals have said something that has had a terrible effect on blacks. That is: ‘We will judge you by different moral standards than the rest of humanity.’ ”
He points to a reporter’s televised comments on the first night of the violence as an example of how those standards can lead to a dishonest and dangerous misuse of language.
“He was standing on a corner, and he said, and I quote verbatim: ‘I see five black gentlemen throwing stones at cars with white drivers.’
“My motto is very simple,” Prager said. “If you can’t call a black thug a thug, you’re a racist.”
Prager also chides the congressman who said of people arrested for violence: “Those were not criminals. Those were enraged citizens.”
“Show me one criminal who is not enraged,” he said. “The difference between moral people and immoral people . . . is that moral people control their rage.”
Whatever you call it, says Crouch, the unrest offered a good opportunity to evaluate the moral behavior of poor and minority Angelenos, the vast majority of whom “were not out looting, burning and assaulting people.”
“If we learn anything . . . in times of hysteria . . . we learn how fundamentally responsible and honest the bulk of the so-called underclass happens to be,” Crouch said.
“Photographs of some Negroes and some Mexicans pushing shopping carts with stolen goods in them don’t tell us any more about those communities than guys like Ivan Boesky or Michael Milken being arrested for insider trading tell us anything about the Jewish community . . . or John Gotti tells us anything about the Italian community.”
Those who call what happened a revolution, or a rebellion, or an insurrection, should take a closer look at the so-called freedom fighters, the gang members who are now voicing their political demands, he says. Why did the carnage wind down once the National Guard showed up?
“We know these people are very well-armed,” Crouch said. “When the National Guard came in, they had the opportunity to become guerrilla warriors. And they went home and looked at their stolen televisions. So much for their revolutionary fervor--apparently it’s reserved for innocent bystanders and unarmed opposition.”
Shelby Steele, author of the acclaimed and controversial book on race in America, “The Content of Our Character,” is impatient with the terminology debate.
Those who call it a riot, and those who call it a rebellion, revolt, uprising, insurrection, or even intifada, tend to have one thing in common: Most are chasing old rhetoric with old solutions, he says.
To Steele’s way of thinking, what happened was “an opportunity to throw everything up in the air and re-examine all our previous ideas.”
But he sees that window of opportunity slamming shut.
“What happens in the wake,” he said, “is that every group, from the Republican and Democratic party, to some cell of the Communist party somewhere, is going to seize this phenomenon to promote their own point of view.
“I think that’s the tragedy of it. It’s not something that opened up anyone’s thinking. It has solidified their point of view. . . . So we’re pretty much where we were before the riots.”