THE FIRE THIS TIME : NO CRYSTAL STAIR: African-Americans in the City of Angels, By Lynell George (Verso: $24.95; 221 pp.)
“When L.A. was wild in flames last spring, I supposed this time the world outside expected placards. Sit ins. Candlelight vigils. Mumbled Bible verses and hands clasped tight in private prayer. Maybe an angry display downtown at LAPD headquarters in Parker Center, some objects thrown, a few arrests made. To test the boundaries of civil disobedience, possibly a boisterous (but organized) demonstration in front of the courtroom in Simi Valley, or a rally at the front doors of each and every one of those twelve jurors’ homes.”
As we now know all too well, this vision of polite protest, which begins Lynell George’s “No Crystal Stair,” turned out to be mere fantasy. In reality, George explains, “people get weary”:
“This rage’s kindling was fatigue. It was stroked by generations of ostracism, fortified by neglect, the long fuse lit by a baffling justice system that did much more than support the status quo. This jury’s verdict implied, more explicitly than it realized, what African Americans have surmised all along, that in the eyes of white America--’a black life ain’t worth a damn.’ ”
Having lived through the disturbances in Watts in 1965, I share these sentiments exactly. African-Americans have grown “weary” from living in a country that tries hard to ignore their needs and hopes, a country that taxes them equally while sending their sons and daughters off to fight wars in faraway places to help “save the world” for a democracy they don’t have in their own home town.
In 1992, as in 1965, the biggest threat to democracy for African-American Angelenos was the Los Angeles Police Department. George, a staff writer for the L.A. Weekly, conducts numerous interviews which show the LAPD more as predator than protector. Having suffered from Los Angeles’ “men in blue” myself during the late 1960s, I felt great empathy for Mary Davis, a law-abiding, African-American mother of two who was caught in a police sweep as she picked up her 16-year-old daughter last April:
“First they tried to say I was a gang member because I was ‘fraternizing in a cocaine area,’ ” Davis, a Los Angeles County employee with no police record, tells George. “Mind you, I know they sell drugs around here, but economics predict where you live. ‘Well, you were there,’ the transporting officer told me. ‘This wouldn’t have ever happened if you hadn’t been there.’ ”
Here is Davis’ detention as George describes it: “Police took her to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. There she was fingerprinted and booked under harsh stadium lights and herded into a crowded bus that served as a makeshift holding cell. The media came later, the playing field a tangle of wire and cable, and were told about ‘Operation Hammer’--the police’s attempt to make the streets safe. But Mary Davis has a different memory: ‘It’s sort of like being enslaved. They make a little number on your hand and then they ask you if you’re a gang member or not. ‘You no longer have any rights,’ my arresting officer told me: ‘I’m your master; your rights are gone.’ ”
This could well be a page out of the old passbook laws of South Africa. As one African-American man tells George, “People here complain about South Africa. It’s no better here.”
Obviously there are objective differences between the two countries, but Davis is only one of many in these pages who give poignant testimony to the difficulties of feeling free in a city where all blacks are viewed as potential criminals. Ask baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan about this perception, or former L. A. Laker basketball great Jamal Wilkes, or rising movie star Wesley Snipes, all of whom have been manhandled by the LAPD.
While the LAPD argues that only through this aggressive policing can it snare drug dealers and gang killers, George shows that even despite a dramatic increase in police sweeps in 1988, gang killings increased 15% over the previous year; the only effect was to antagonize law-abiding citizens.
“No Crystal Stair,” a collection of pieces, versions of which appeared in the L.A. Weekly or L.A. Style, is divided into three parts. “Reportage,” “Arts” and “Essays.” George has a fine novelist’s touch for evoking characters and scenes: We see “Mayor Tom Bradley, whose face doesn’t seem able to accommodate any more fatigue, standing solemn at the pulpit at First African Methodist Episcopal church, trying not to flinch when pelted with boos.”
George is at her best when conveying her own experience: “Driving through the Silver Lake Hills to avoid Sunset Boulevard’s panicked snarl, I climb along the incline. People are out jogging and walking their dogs, even though fires have moved closer, are no longer a distant TV hell. The higher I climb, the more I see residents take note of my car’s make and color; they mentally record the license number, but most importantly my unfamiliar deep-brown face, any distinguishing marks. They look at me as if they will at any moment join together to form a human barricade if I make a wrong or abrupt move. Later, across town, a blond man in the next lane looks over, L.A. pickup casual, then quickly lifts his smoked glass window.
“The video feeds that have inspired their terror have fueled my own curiosity, augmented my pain. For hours I’ve been transfixed, watching childhood landmarks swallowed up in the surprisingly liquid aspects of billowing smoke and flames--stores, streets, memories, futures. I’m watching my old neighborhood blister, turn to embers, rendered entirely foreign. I hear the fear in the voices of my relatives and friends who’ve been trying to track the course of the flames, guess the trajectory of anger.”
This is very fine writing, full of poetry and deep insight. What keen vision to see “their terror,” meaning the terror of whites, coexisting with “the fear in the voices of my relatives” as they all tracked “the course of the flames” and guessed at the “trajectory of” the flames’ “anger” as they burned Los Angeles. Whereas the burning of Watts physically touched only the African-American community, this “riot” affected everyone--mentally, spiritually and physically.
But “No Crystal Stair” isn’t only about “the riot.” It is also a sort of memoir of George’s life and her love affair and displeasure with a complicated city. There are fine portraits here of people like legendary Los Angeles community organizer and activist Levi Kingston and Reverend Howard Gloyd, pastor of Ward A.M.E. church. There are hilarious portraits, in the chapter entitled “Freed Man,” of all the activities surrounding Nelson Mandela’s 1990 summer visit to L.A.: “African-Americans selling all kinds of African merchandise outside the offices of the Nelson Mandela Reception Committee: and a woman taking home the Mandelas’ unfinished vegetables as ‘a piece of history for her refrigerator.’ ”
The problems I have with “No Crystal Stair” are minor; they are the arbitrary way George organized the book and the unevocative, matter-of-fact way she writes about some of the people. For instance, some pieces that come under “Reportage” could just as well have come under “Essays,” a problem that could have been resolved by giving each section a thematic title or designation and letting it go at that.
George writes very fine portraits when she’s on top of her game. But sometimes, as when she writes about Korean-Americans in her chapter called “Going Between,” we get no feel for who the people are; there is no personal touch here. She can make a scene or a person live and breathe with a few deft writing strokes, but she leaves Jai Lee Wong, Halford Fairchild (who is of mixed African-American and Japanese-American ancestry), Jan Sunoo and Marcia Choo lifeless, cardboard figures for the reader to digest.
But these are minor quibbles, because overall, “No Crystal Stair” is a finely written, sensitive, powerful book, mostly about African-Americans but also about Asians, Latinos and whites. Her chapter entitled “City of Specters” is absolutely brilliant, powerful and disturbing. When Jean Sanders, an African-American vice president of the second-oldest black cemetery west of the Mississippi River says, “We’ve lost the ability to love, especially the black race. We just can’t seem to love ourselves,” it brought tears to my eyes.
In this chapter George writes of seeing, in Compton, young African-Americans with “empty eyes, those clouded, spiritless faces all over. Yet I’m struck by the chill that returns a well-intentioned smile. Along this stretch of East Compton Boulevard, this chill moves through the core.” But the saddest commentary of all is that nobody pays attention:
“For some time the papers ignored this community and others like it across the Southland. They ignored the residents who, to avoid a stray bullet, curled near the baseboards to find sleep. They ignored children who stepped over stiff, bloodied bodies on their way to homeroom. They ignored young mothers who worked themselves to the quick to keep their children in private schools, off the street and hidden from harm.
“They ignored the survivors.”
“They,” the white power structure of Los Angeles, ignored this community largely because their lily-white enclaves left them uninformed and unconcerned about the African-American experience. What did that mostly all-white Simi Valley jury in the Rodney King trial know about African-American problems? The overwhelming majority of whites in this country see African-Americans as our chief social problem while never viewing themselves as part of that problem. Racism and indifference breed exclusion, poverty and crime. It is a never-ending cycle.
The United States is a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious and multiracial country, whether one likes it or not; it has been this way since the beginning. In the final analysis, we will either sink, or swim, together. Diversity is not an evil, but a necessity if we are to survive as a great and thriving country.
Predators and Pawns
In a recently released book, “L.A. Justice: Lessons From the Firestorm” (Focus on the Family Publishing/Word Books, distributor), Robert Vernon, assistant chief of the LAPD under Daryl Gates, offers his view of last year’s upheaval in the city. The following excerpt comes from the chapter titled “The Nature of the Riots.” Vernon recently retired after 37 years on the force.
Some argue the riots were a spontaneous outburst of rage. I agree that may have motivated a few of the rioters. I don’t believe that’s what motivated most of them, however. Many of the rioters didn’t even know who Rodney King was. One reporter asked a looter, “Are you doing this for Rodney King?” The rioter responded, “I don’t follow sports that closely.”
Time magazine reported in its May 1, 1992, issue the results of a survey regarding the riots. In response to questions about the motivation for the riots, the largest percentage of blacks (46%) said they thought looters were taking advantage of the situation. Only 15% of black respondents thought the riots were justified.
I agree with those black poll respondents. A host of opportunists took advantage of a situation. For most, their participation was not an uncontrollable outburst of emotion. But there was evidence of some criminal conspiracy. My opinion is that a relatively few habitual predators were waiting for an opportunity to do with vigor what they enjoy doing. Once they started their dirty work, others, weak in character, saw their chance to join in the looting.
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