These days I am thinking back through several evolutions of my writing and going back some 20 odd years. As I present materials here, I am doing so in collaboration with an oral history project sponsored by Polytechnic School in Pasadena. I have presented them the following essay as well as some background materials from my old websites. There are three contexts of interest in looking back.
- Firstly is my own evolution as a writer in expressing more directly what I think and feel and my commitment to clarity rather than cleverness. It was my desire to be artistic and clever that obscured the few things I had worth saying back in the day.
- Second is expansion upon the idea that Americans are drawn to the political aspects of social control in much of their politics. I used to speak often of the 'political majority' with the direct implication that they wished to use law and order issues to clumsily exert control through police on political minorities, including and especially me. I still find politics overburdened with social traffic and it is still my number one issue when it comes to politics, but I appreciate more the dissonance inherent and the lack of continuity in governance.
- Third is my satisfaction with my own appreciation for and explanation of black rage in American politics. I wonder if it will remain as front of mind and captivating in these coming post-Obama years. I suspect that as soon as the King is out of office, these will become the 'good old days' of racial amity. But it's certainly not as called for these days as it was when America lived in fear of NWA, Public Enemy, Khalid Muhammad and Spike Lee.
To the essay:
In the days after the beating of Rodney King, I thought a lot about whether or not it was reasonable to distrust police. I myself had never feared police, but I did get a lot of police attention. Having lived all over Los Angeles County, I had a variety of experiences with cops. One day, long from LA I counted the number and it was 17. 16 traffic stops and detentions and one arrest, for a traffic warrant on a car I no longer drove. 2 citations, maybe 3. I was part of a captive population, a population driven to fear gangs and rap. I was caught up in the crosswinds.
There have been many times since that I have tried to make something out of all that because it's something many people want to hear. But the truth of it all is very simple. None of that truly hurt me.
Nevertheless while I still lived in Los Angeles, I couldn't do nothing. And so I did what I thought I should, which was to take my weekends up driving around and searching for police brutality. I had never been struck by an officer, but surely somebody had. I had never been cursed by an officer, but surely somebody had. I have seen officers behaving rudely and in one case my girlfriend and I had our parking space stolen by an off duty cop. She told me that he threatened her after the fact, and although I never saw it myself, I supported her testimony in court. I hear he was severely reprimanded. And yet I have never been a victim. I have never been frightened. I have been unsure. I have been angry. I have even been disgusted. I have never been hurt. But I wanted to find somebody who had, and so I searched. I thought it would be an easy search because I was convinced we were over-policed.
I searched up and down Crenshaw Boulevard. I searched Inglewood. I searched Leimert Park. I followed the sirens in my BMW. I followed them with my videocamera, because surely I had seen the black youth cuffed on the curb. That happened all the time, right? But when I looked I didn't find what I was searching for. I arrived at car accidents minutes after the fact. I arrived at fires. After having given up far too many weekend afternoons looking for trouble and finding none, I found myself in Mar Vista one day. I followed yet another squad car and stumbled onto a bonanza. At least 6 cars were just behind Venice High School. It was a charity basketball game. The cops weren't giving bruises, they were giving prizes. And so I stopped searching.
But everyone was still angry. Everyone could recite the names by heart. Latasha Harlins got no justice. Rodney King got no justice. Michael Zinzun lost an eye. We all still yelled about Ron Settles. We all knew about Don Jackson and the plate glass window. We lived in a time of loud talk and misunderstanding. Ahh when do we not? And we all had plenty to say. But I was a writer, probably not a very good one, as I look back in retrospect, but not a bad one either. I was a guerrilla poet. A YouTuber before the days of YouTube trying to get my footage on community TV. My words from those days still evoke the world of those days. They expressed the searching for meaning in the anger and frustration. They expressed the desire for truth in a sea of uncertainty. They sought the head bobs of recognition and the head shakes of sadness. But what was the end?
My last chance for romance was a date to the Umbrellas installation by Christo. It never happened. I decided not to care. For these and other personal and economic reasons, I decided to leave Los Angeles. When I left it, just after my 30th birthday, LA seemed destined in every way to end up as corrupt and dysfunctional as the film 'Strange Days'. My girlfriend at the time met Angela Bassett on the set and they discussed and debated the ending of the film, a film that was about a desperate, corrupt city heading for self-destruction amidst the doomsaying rap prophets of rage at the end of the millennium. So I got sick and tired of Los Angeles and was glad to be rid of the place. I found in New York, a very different kind of view of what happened in my hometown. It was both refreshing and tiresome to hear a completely new kind of misinformation and distance from the seething on the ground in LA. Still, I hated Los Angeles. I couldn't take it any longer.
I continued my writing, determined to keep my real experiences alive. I was part of that mob of disappointment, but I was articulate in a different dimension. I would be heard wherever. New York, now. I would continue with my poetry and my raps and my novel in the East.
The night of the riots found me in my Brooklyn apartment waking up to the news. It was late Thursday evening when I heard about the verdicts. I'm glad I wasn't in Los Angeles, but I felt as though I had a strange kind of brotherhood with the place. I expected that brotherhood to show up in the streets of Brooklyn where they had their own explosions about Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum, whom I didn't care about. So when I went outdoors to exerpeince that street, the street was silent. I walked alone at midnight in Brooklyn, communing with no one. The silence was absurd. Brooklyn cared about Brooklyn, not Los Angeles.
Yet the following day, all of us professionals in Midtown Manhattan were excused to go home early. People who wanted to riot were getting up their nerve, and so the message went out for us to head for the hills. So I did, and I then immediately returned in my street gear and found myself in Times Square. Here was my chance to make myself known - LA is my hometown I said. I was having a whirlwind of associative thoughts in my own head, and I wanted to say what I wanted to say, but the emotion of the day was to be rage. I was no prophet of rage, but I did what I could to rock the boulevard. To my right, on stage at Times Square was the legendary lawyer William Kunstler. Mine was the last speech, and so we departed southbound to Thompkins Square Park. Whose Streets? Our Streets!
I mocked the people who didn't care and I found it ironically delicious that they were now caught up in our crosswinds. They now had to fear our self-righteous condescension instead of the other way around for once. But it wasn't truly rewarding. I ended up corralled by New York's finest who had determined that we wouldn't reach the symbolic ground zero of Thompkins Square, whose radical history I couldn't get a straight answer about weeks afterwards.
But I got no satisfaction. My dense evocative prose collapsed under its own overburdened symbolism. It was atrocious writing that could only make sense to people who shared all of my insights. But I never had an audience to unpack all that weight, to go through it piece by piece and put the right emphasis on the right parts. I learned at long last to put all that in perspective, and I am grateful for the pain and passion I put into that part of my life. In the final measure I have had meaning and richness not only from family and career, but from the life of a writer making sense of himself and his times.
The LA Riots gave us all an opportunity to find out what goes wrong when people fail to trust their democratic institutions. We fall back to our tribes, tribes who cannot support us in the end, like political writing that tries to tie everything of significance to one or two events in history. Analogies always fail. Nothing can ever be summarized. There is not enough text in the world to contain a single soul, so no words here or anywhere can truthfully say what it fully means to the survivors of the dead. They will just be names, and do we know them? No, we don't.
My father spent hours taking photos of the ruins. I got sick of looking at them and pulled them out of my photo album. All the links on my Los Angeles Riot Research Page have gone dead, and only a few scanned pictures remain. Everything has been hacked and repacked, and all that remain are ghosts and echoes.
I have become the man who understands what I didn't as the young man blowing at his own sails thinking I was powering my own ship forward. I can read the crosswinds now and I am relaxed on a friendly shore. I understand our responsibilities better. I recognize the time it takes to capture an idea for what it is alone without pulling in an entire symbolic universe. So I am happy to stand and talk about what I believed and why, what I learned and how, and what I now know and what that means. We are changed.
Today, I think the most important lesson to be learned is similar to what I thought it was then. We are over-policed. We over police ourselves and we don't let go of old ideas and old bad behaviors. We think that everything and everyone can be corrected and thus must be corrected. We pretend to want every kind of justice at all times, but in fact none of us can stand the scrutiny. And sometimes what we need most of all, when we think we can join a brotherhood of righteous anger and contempt just around the corner, is a perfectly silent night.