Twenty (-Six) Years After the L.A. Riots: How Things Have Changed

Originally published April 26, 2012

The time could not be more fitting. I just got home after one of those more frustrating nights, or, you know, one of those nights where you just want to burst through your door to run to your bed and take hold of your pillows. Not because you want to cry into them, but because you want to scream into them.

Or you know, one of those nights where you just really need a good walk, or just a really good drink, or just any god-damn really good something because god damn it can be so fucked up out there sometimes. You know, one of those nights where you have to tell someone what the hell just happened to you.

Yeah, let me tell you.

Earlier today I posted a couple of articles about the Los Angeles riots of 1992. It came to my attention that twenty years ago, just this same weekend, the streets of my beloved city burst into flames and destruction following the outrageous verdict of the Rodney King case.

I was probably what, a single year old, in a cradle somewhere, crying.

It’s likely. But what I’ll tell you with certainty is that I wasn’t crying about the apocalypse right outside of the apartment at the time. What I’m sure about is that I wasn’t crying for Rodney King, or for any of the families who had their business looted, or for any of the racist jurors who denied Rodney some dignity. No way.

But tonight, twenty years later, I do precisely just that.

Because well, when I had a moment to really think about the city today, and when I had a moment to place into perspective all of the madness we’ve been through together, when I thought about our time out these streets, not to mention our time out through its schools, with its businesses, and elsewhere, well it started to really hurt, in this way.

The fact of the matter is, L.A. hasn’t learned shit since Rodney King in 1992.

Nothing has changed.

Nothing.

And that might sound a bit extreme, and just a little pessimistic, but this is where we seriously have to stop bullshitting ourselves when it comes to “anniversaries” like these. Honestly, when it comes to reflection and critical thought about such tragic moments, those of us who consider ourselves learned of history should have enough respect for the real people who suffered the real horror of the spaces in times that we only know as stories, to say what the real deal is today, no matter how unpleasant the truth might be.

The truth today being that despite all this time, we as a people in Los Angeles haven’t learned jack shit.

That nothing has changed, and that in fact, things are arguably worse now than they were before.

Because while conditions in L.A. in 2012 might seem like they’re better than they were in 1992, racial tensions today are as high as they’ve ever been, with not only the police department and their injustice system still targeting people of color based on racial profiling, but with so much of our white supremacy firmly intact in and out of L.A.’s jail cells.

Consider this. From 1992 to 1997 alone, incarceration in California rose by 30 percent, and what did those prisoners look like? Those were Black and Brown people of California, with the former being sent to our state’s prisons at a starkly higher rate.

Think about that for a second, as tonight, at this very moment right now, there are more Black and Brown people sitting in California’s prisons than any other ethnic group of this state. Does that feel at all animalistic, or teeming with animosity somehow? It is.

And think about those Black and Brown skinned people a little more for a second, and imagine what those cells look like, and what those cafeterias look like, and what those yards look like.

They stand divided, separated by race, always just a hair away from erupting into some of the ugliest melees the ground of this land will ever come to know.

In fact, it’s only been a little over two years since a prison riot in Chino left over 55 people critically injured after severe stabbing wounds that involved over 250 brawling inmates. What do you think those hospitalized people looked like? They were Black and Brown men. They’re always Black and Brown in California. So for anyone wondering if racial tension and hostile policing in L.A. continues, it’s crystal clear that they are still firmly in place here, it’s just that they’re more concealed now is all…

But now, most people we know won’t ever find out about any incidents like these, or if they do find out, they won’t ever really care because well, that’s what happens when you get incarcerated, right? That’s why you should be a good citizen and just get a good job and obey the law, right?

Well, don’t we wish things were so simple, because unfortunately the fact of that matter prisons exist far beyond the steel bolted doors of California’ jail cells. Unfortunately, prison as a policing and power culture is everywhere, and most destructively, it’s in the blind mind of the arrogant White man who’s had to care for absolutely no one’s reality in Los Angeles but his own.

Similarly to a prison, it’s disconnected from the rest of the world, where he has little to no space to consider the rest of his fellow human beings. More frighteningly, this prison mentality asserts that in order to do well in this life, he must kill or be killed.

As a result, it is this same prison mentality that has incarcerated the human race more than any other group in time in all the history of civilization, and which has kept L.A. right down that same shithole from 1992 and even before then, burying us deeper in it as time goes on.

This prison mentality has robbed the world of so much of its life, love, beauty and innocence.

And this evening, this prison [mentality] ruined my night.

Earlier today, at around 9pm, at a Starbucks in Hollywood, a Black man wanted to use the restroom. He was a classy gentleman from out of town, probably in his mid to late thirties, clad in that traveling business kind of outfit, with a fine collar shirt, creased dress pants and dress shoes, and who just wanted to charge his phone and relieve himself before he headed back out to enjoy the city for a bit.

I had the fortune of being seated next to him for a moment. I was on my computer, checking a few of my notifications, and actually writing a response to a question about one of those articles I told you I posted up earlier. I was also just browsing for a little bit, just picking up sources here and there, and learning of some of the numbers and dates that I presented earlier in this piece.

Out of the blue, the black gentleman tapped me on the shoulder, and he said, “excuse me my man, I don’t mean to bother you, but would you happen to know the code to the restroom? Apparently you need to buy something to have the access code.”

It’s funny, I didn’t have the code because I actually hadn’t bought anything myself at the Starbucks either since I only planned on sitting there for a moment to write the response and then go home. It was a long Saturday after work.

I thought it was strange that the man needed to buy something in order to get the code, and instinctively, I told him I thought that policy was bullshit.

He agreed with me, and we laughed about it for a moment, before he got up from his chair to go ask someone else. Unfortunately for the gentleman, that someone else didn’t have the code either. I felt bad for him, but what could I do? I just got back to my browsing and brushed the moment off.

About a minute later however, after asking maybe the third person for the code without getting a hold of it, the gentleman came back and sat down right as I spotted someone coming out of the restroom. And well my friends, this someone coming out of the restroom just so happened to be a white man. He was in jeans and a blazer, wearing some expensive boots, and probably in his mid to late forties.

I motioned to the Black gentleman to ask the guy as I figured he had to have known the code to the restroom seeing as he had just gotten out of there, and so the black gentleman went up to the man and began to ask, as politely as he had done so with me, when before he could even finish his greeting the white man cut and waved him off saying he didn’t have the code.

On seeing this: instinctively, I thought ‘fuck that’.

Fuck that because I get paid to be nice to customers all day but I wasn’t at work then and I didn’t like how he responded to the Black gentleman. He cut him off before he could finish speaking, and then had the nerve to stick his hand out to him like he didn’t deserve the time.

And well, something came over me, because I had to call bullshit, and so I looked the white man straight in the eyes and said to him, “You’re a lying piece of garbage, I just saw you come out of the restroom.”

And oh if you could have seen the look on this guy’s face, you’d think someone had just spit at him.

He said “Excuse me?”

And I repeated what I said, except louder, “YOU’RE A LYING PIECE OF GARBAGE, I JUST SAW YOU COME OUT OF THE RESTROOM.”

And that’s where things just took a turn.

After giving me the evil eye a few times, he headed back to his table and apparently considered his options.

He chose to be a prisoner, as he walked over to one of the baristas, pointed at me and the Black gentleman, and complained.

As he stuck his index finger pointing me out at me from near the counter, I stuck my middle finger out at him. Seriously, fuck him. The Black gentlemen agreed.

And well my friends, of course the barista he complained to just so happened to be a young white woman in her twenties. She looked over at us for a second and got on the phone.

I repeat, she looked over at us, and instead of asking us if there was a problem, she got on the phone.

But whatever, right? What are they gonna do? I hadn’t done anything wrong, and neither had the Black gentleman. In fact, right afterwards, he finally decided to make a purchase so he could use the restroom, buying a cookie for himself.

When he came back to sit down after finally relieving himself, he was laughing at the absurdity of it all, and I told him that I apologized on behalf of my city.

“It’s alright man, you’re cool people,” he said, and just before I was about to ask him for his name, guess who came marching through the Starbucks door.

Two police officers. Both white, both ready to kick some ass the way they like to do.

On making eye contact with them from across the counter the barista pointed at me and the gentleman, and then at the white man. One of the police officers went over and spoke to the man, while the other stood in front of the table in front of me and the gentleman.

At that point, I was just disgusted. I feared for my safety as the big white cop harassed me with that infamous big white death stare, and I got my things to just get up and leave.

“Sit down, you’re not going anywhere,” he said.

Of course not. It was his town, and I was just his subject.

But you know what? Fuck that anyway. I didn’t do anything except call a douchebag a douchebag, and I told the cops just that. The Black gentlemen didn’t do anything either, and in fact he had bought the freaking cookie too, so to hell with their entitlement.

But of course, what we said or what the truth was didn’t matter, because we weren’t tall white men in blazers and jeans in expensive boots.

No, we were a Black gentlemen in dress clothes and a little brown kid with a laptop and a backpack.

Their town, their subjects. Oh, how things have changed.

After speaking to the barista again, the cops told us we had to leave. I was two steps ahead of them. As you can probably guess, I didn’t want to be where I knew I wasn’t wanted, so I just packed up my stuff and stood up to head out.

“This is wrong though man, we didn’t do anything wrong,” I told one of the police officers.

“That’s just how it is,” said the cop.

Ah right, that’s just how it is. Silly of me to forget that.

I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the black gentleman since he was busy requesting to speak to the manager. When the cops diverted their attention to him, I just walked the hell on out.

As I crossed the street two more cops came out of a squad car parked in the middle of the road heading in the direction of the store. I didn’t look any of them in the eye. As they walked right past me, I just sped up my pace.

And well, it’s crazy, because twenty years ago just this same weekend when the streets of L.A. fell in mayhem to this shit, I was just learning how to walk.

Twenty years later, as the saga continues, I’m just learning how to walk away.

J.T.

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