Fueled by the Flames : Revolutionary Communist Party Sees L.A. Riots as an Opening to Be Seized
It was one of the more eye-catching newspaper headlines to appear after the riots.
“Wanted!” it declared in bright red print. “Frontline Revolutionary Fighters to Go to L.A. This Summer.”
Inside the June 14 issue of Revolutionary Worker--the Revolutionary Communist Party’s weekly paper--a fold-out, full-sized poster elaborated:
“If in the flames of the L.A. rebellion, you saw the first light of a whole new world, . . . then this call is to you. You should be in L.A.! And you should get down with, work with, live and fight the powers-that-be together with the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade this summer.”
Members of the party and its “youth arm” made a noisy appearance Wednesday at a hearing of the so-called Webster Commission, the panel appointed by the Los Angeles Police Commission to investigate police response to the spring riots.
But there are few other signs that the call to revolution has been heeded. Leaders will not say how many young fighters have responded. Nor will they reveal the number of members already in the group, which for 17 years has stood out as a colorful, sporadically violent sideshow in the carnival of Los Angeles politics.
“Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know,” says national spokesman Carl Dix, allowing himself a wisp of a smile that seems to acknowledge the melodrama of the phrase from Malcolm X.
Founded in 1975 as the self-described “party of the proletariat,” the Maoist RCP is generally dismissed by political observers as an inconsequential extremist band that probably boasts fewer than three dozen active members locally.
Yet even as much of the world performs autopsies on toppled communist states, these revolutionaries see the potential for new vitality in the wreckage of Los Angeles.
When a Ventura County jury delivered its not guilty verdicts in the trial of the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King, Dix was at work on his speech for the party’s annual May Day demonstration--an event with a history of unraveling into bloody clashes with the Los Angeles Police Department.
Dix immediately drafted a statement in support of “the rebellion” that members later distributed through the riot zone and at local high schools.
As he wrote, other members of the group rallied at Parker Center, where television viewers watched a multiracial crowd taunt the police and topple and torch a kiosk. From there, RCP members branched out, spray-painting their slogans on walls from South-Central to Chinatown.
“We tried to see to it that as much got up as could be done,” Dix said during a June interview at a downtown restaurant.
He calmly ran through a catalog of RCP graffiti--mottoes that continue to pop up in media reports on the riots: “It’s Right to Rebel,” “La Revolucion Es La Esperanza de Los Desperados (Revolution is the Hope of the Hopeless),” “No More Rodney Kings.”
“Anything else?” Dix asks the two men who accompany him.
“Murderers, Murderers, No More,” one adds dispassionately.
Dix nods. “Right.”
Police arrested several RCP and Youth Brigade members on a variety of charges during and after the riots, among them a supporter who allegedly struck a police officer with a flag stick. Beyond the actual arrests, there was “no question” that RCP members looted and set fires, Sheriff Sherman Block asserted as the rioting ebbed.
Dix won’t say “yes” or “no” to direct questions about looting and arson. He terms Block’s charges political and says that because the “rebellion” was righteous, no participation should be considered criminal.
“Our watchwords were, ‘Unite with people in expressing their outrage,’ and ‘Determined resistance against the attacks of the enemy,’ ” he says.
While other groups and individuals have voiced the rhetoric of rebellion since April, most get mired in political, social and economic complexities when attempting to define just what sort of society they hope will supplant the one in place.
Not the RCP.
When the “dying monster” of capitalism has been destroyed, party literature explains, it will be replaced by “a new society free of exploitation and oppression of any kind”--a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist society.
The goal of the past four months, Dix says in a second interview, has been “rallying people to wage mass militant struggle against the powers today in preparation for doing what’s really needed--and that’s leading millions of people to rise up in mass armed revolution when the time is right.”
As he talks, Dix is flanked by two youth brigade members on a concrete picnic table in a busy corner of MacArthur Park.
One is Youth Brigade spokesman Joey Johnson, the man whose arrest for burning the American flag at the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas led to a 1989 Supreme Court decision protecting such actions.
A self-described “Army brat” whose voice betrays traces of New York, Johnson sports a Van Dyke beard, a hip haircut and a button depicting the Andes Mountains aflame--a declaration of support for the communist guerrillas of Peru. Well-versed in Maoist philosophy and eager to air his views on the evils of capitalism, it was Johnson who took the floor at the Webster Commission hearing Wednesday to denounce the panel.
But like other RCP members, he defers to the 44-year-old Dix on matters of party policy.
With touches of gray in his hair and beard and a brown worker’s cap on his head, Dix traces his radicalization to 1970, when he was drafted and shipped to Ft. Lewis, Wash. With five other soldiers, he refused to go to Vietnam--promptly becoming, in that era of numbered causes celebre , one of the “Ft. Lewis 6.”
Freed after two years in the Army’s Ft. Leavenworth lockup, Dix joined the Marxist-oriented Black Workers’ Congress. In 1975, he and a number of other young communists--he won’t say how many--joined a judge’s son named Bob Avakian in launching the RCP.
“Chairman Avakian” has reportedly been “in exile” in France for about a decade. In early May, he released a message:
“This rebellion,” he wrote, “was the most beautiful, the most heroic and the most powerful action by masses of people in the U.S. for years and years. . . . Glory to those who have risen up with fury! . . . Forward from rebellion to the all-the-way-liberating Proletarian Revolution!”
Much of the party’s literature--sold at the Libros Revolucion bookstore on a seedy stretch of 8th Street downtown--is not so subtle in its political message.
The weekly Revolutionary Worker, with a worldwide circulation of about 7,500, crackles with rhetoric like that in one post-riot story, which praised those “in downtown LA burning the amerikkkan flag and giving the pigs no peace right in their fascist pig faces.”
RCPers long have had a tendency to pop up wherever unrest occurs--even geologic unrest, as evidenced by the members who arrived in the Bay Area after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to rabble-rouse in the rubble of the collapsed Nimitz Freeway.
Last August, after sheriff’s deputies killed Arturo “Smokey” Jimenez at the Ramona Gardens housing project in East Los Angeles, the RCP was quick to arrive with a big red banner reading, in Spanish and English, “No (peace) 4 Racist Pig System.”
While most of the grieving residents reportedly resented the intrusion, about 50 members of the local gang signed an RCP banner that said, “It’s Right to Rebel in Memory of Smokey.” The Los Angeles County Grand Jury offered its own opinion, declining to indict the deputies who shot Jimenez.
The spring riots increased party hopes that the anger of street gangsters and other young people in Los Angeles, who Dix says have been “messed over by the system,” could be channeled into revolutionary purposes.
The party openly embraces the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas in Peru, who are generally portrayed in what the RCP labels “the bourgeois media” as the most fanatical and macabre terrorist group in existence.
Echoing Shining Path rhetoric, some RCP members declared the Pico-Union District a “liberated zone” during the riots.
But the party understands, says Dix, that the specific type of guerrilla warfare being pursued in the slums of Lima won’t work in Los Angeles.
“We’re not naive enough to think we could seize power in one neighborhood and hold it,” Dix says. “What we can do is fortify a neighborhood politically . . . (so that) the authorities have to consider the revolutionaries and what they’re about every time they walk into that area. . . .”
There’s no indication that the RCP or Youth Brigade have had much success, either in recruiting gangsters or establishing neighborhood strongholds. And Dix refuses to point to specific examples of success.
“We’re not going to give the enemy the information to hang us with,” he says.
The RCP has, in fact, been the object of surveillance by law enforcement groups in the past, including an LAPD officer who more than a decade ago infiltrated the group and slept with a member to gain information.
Carol Sobel, an ACLU attorney who has represented the RCP in some of its many skirmishes with the law, says she has never seen anything in party literature that suggests members have overstepped their 1st Amendment right to free expression.
These days, the RCP is focusing much of its post-riot attention on opposing what it calls a “crackdown” by law enforcement as reflected in new “Weed and Seed” programs (though just $1 million in the $19-million federal program is for policing). The group is demanding amnesty for those arrested in the riots and supports the four men arrested in the beating of trucker Reginald Denny--the “LA4,” as the party calls them.
“People say there’s gonna be a new rebellion when they convict the LA4, and what we say to people is, we don’t see no reason to wait and see what they do with the LA4,” Dix says, injecting a touch of street swagger into his generally perfect diction. “Let’s get busy right now in fighting back on these attacks that’s coming down on us, including the persecution of the LA4. . . .”
Critics call the RCP’s efforts to capitalize on riot-related events opportunism.
“It ain’t a question of opportunism,” Dix says. “It’s a question of cold revolutionary reality.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.