Personal Reflections on the LA Riots Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Reflections on the LA Riots

It’s crazy to believe that the LA Riots or “civil unrest” was 20 years ago.  As the media has been starting to take people back to what happened 20 years ago, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my experience that week.  I’d love to share with you some of my reflections and invite you to share yours of what you may remember. This will likely be a 3 part series over the next few days.

It’s a fascinating exercise because looking back I see more and see differently than I did then.  I was 17 years old, a junior in high school.  I went to Long Beach Poly High School, an urban high school not too far from the downtown part of Long Beach, California.  Long Beach Poly is known for a couple things nationally – having sent more pro football players to the NFL than any other high school and also having produced no shortage of rap icons.  Snoop Dogg was there for a couple of my years in high school among others.  It was an extremely ethnically diverse school at the time, and even more so now.

Long Beach, part of LA county, is about 25-30 minutes southwest from South Central LA where the riots broke out.  But the riots didn’t stay contained to South Central Los Angeles and spread to a couple parts of Long Beach including the surrounding area of my high school.  An indicator of the strangeness and perhaps surreal nature of what was taking place is reflected in the fact that I had friends who spend much of that time helping their families protect their stores and I had other friends who did some looting. It was crazy.

I remember Rodney King, the video footage of his beating by white cops, the trial, the acquittal, and the great rage which had been brewing.  As a white person watching, the clearest and most vivid memory was seeing the coverage of the beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was pulled out of his cab and beaten unconscious.  As a white person, the truth of the matter was pretty evident and powerful – that could have been me.  That wasn’t the first time I had experienced racism directed at me as a white person, but it was the first time where I realized that if I were in the wrong place at the wrong time I could end up like Denny – that I could be harmed because of the color of my skin.

One of more memorable elements of that time was the decision to go to school the next day after the riots broke out in South Central LA.  For background, from fifth grade to twelfth grade I attended public school about 30 minutes across town from where I lived.  Part of the strategy for ethnic diversity and integration was the establishment of various academic programs in the more urban and predominantly ethnic minority communities.  At the time of the riots, while I was in high school, my youngest sister was at the Junior High I went to that was even farther away.  Watching the news, which showed where the rioting was breaking out with little mini fire icons over city maps, generated a lot of anxiety for some. It was a strange feeling for a while to see the fire icons “getting closer” wondering how bad things were going to get.

Many of the white parents chose not to send their kids to school the next day or day after, especially when they were sending their kids across town.  Looking back I find it interesting that my sister and I both didn’t blink and we wanted to go school, never really considering not going. I remember being asked if I thought I should take the day off because of the potential racial conflicts that were breaking out and as a white person I might be an object of racist hate or violence.  I blew that notion off without much thought, but I could tell at the time that there were a lot of nervous parents that day.

I remember vividly driving to school during that time with a couple friends and seeing buildings near the school that had been burnt down and signs of unrest that had spilled over into that part of the city.  Usually I felt very secure at the school and I don’t remember it being that different that day.  There was in fact a significant conflict or “fight” on campus that first day as I remember, but ironically it didn’t involve Caucasians. Life continued to happen while there was still a lot of chaos in the city at large.

When my sister and I got home, I remember my mom asking us how it was and if there ever was any moment where we felt fearful or threatened.  My sister, who was 14 at the time and in 8th grade, had the best response which we’ve laughed about ever since.  She said, “It was fine, no problems. The only thing really that wasn’t normal was a bunch of students yelling ‘We hate white people!’”  We get a kick out of my sister’s nonchalance at the time now, but I’m sure my mom loved hearing that at the time.

Looking back I remember two distinct emotional realities.  First, the great rage felt especially by the black community.  I understand the dynamics much more now than I did then.  Back then it was hard to understand the systemic realities and injustice and even hopelessness for many that true justice could be served.  The rally cry, “No Justice, No Peace” is about a clear a call for those in power to wake up and pay attention to a community as there can be.  Racism and systemic oppression were on display throughout the whole process, maybe most notoriously through the dispatching of many from the police force to “protect” Beverly Hills while there was great need to restore order where the riots had broken out in the inner city.  Power at work preserving itself again.

The second strong emotional reality was that of anxiety and fear among the white community.  I don’t know if I felt it as much because I was young, had grown up amidst great diversity, or what, but I clearly saw it around me.  White people aren’t used to being targeted in such ways and it was unnerving for most.  Part of the anxiety was because I don’t think most white folk then (and even now) were able to understand the underlying dynamics of why such hostility and anger finally boiled over.  So what was in many ways an angry response to real and perceived injustice, many whites interpreted as only racist lashing out by the uneducated poor and criminal.  White people were very fearful and anxious in general during that time from what I remember. They experienced the events primarily through the lens of “Are we safe?” as opposed to trying to understand what had driven people to such action and what this all meant.

The riots brought to the surface much of what had been there all along – and it’s with great confidence I can say that many white men and women missed what was truly at work in that time under the surface, even if much of the expression of anger in the civil unrest was in fact criminal and illegal. The criminal element should not have negated the pain of the community which was being expressed in many ways. This pain had been a ticking time bomb that the acquittals of the police officers set off.

When I look back, it seems surreal.  For a season it was extremely intense, then life went back to normal.  But the experience stuck with me, even though I didn’t have the experience or frame of reference that I do now.

I walked through that experience with an extremely diverse group of friends and the next post will focus on my reflections and memories of how the events and experience of the Riots was processed in that context.

Where were you? How old were you? 

What do you remember and how do you see it differently now than you did then?

Reflections on the LA Riots Pt 2 – Exposing the Post-Racial

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Reflections on the LA Riots

For those that tracked my last post, I’m taking a break from the series I’ve been doing on statistics, interpretation, and knowing to do some reflection on the LA riots which occured 20 years ago (as of Sunday, April 29th).

In my last post I shared some of my recollections of how I experienced the LA Riots as a high schooler going to school in urban Long Beach, site of some of the rioting activity.  In this post I want to reflect on more of my social context and how I processed the meaning of the riots…or didn’t if that be a better description 🙂

From age 10 to 18 in Long Beach I had a very diverse community of friends, mostly provided through the educational opportunities mentioned in the last post.  In high school that expanded even more so because of the addition of playing high school baseball as well in addition to the diversity of the academic program I was in.

Some of my fondest memories of high school were Friday afternoons in the fall.  I hosted a Friday afternoon tackle football game at the park near my house. There would be anywhere between 16 to 20 guys usually on Friday.  We’d beat each other up, we’d order pizza at my house, then we’d all head over to watch our high school football team play Friday night (we’d all usually be limping pretty good).

My mom has shared and spoken a couple times using these afternoon’s as an example of what was a big part of her own cross-cultural development. Every Friday in the fall she had a high school United Nations in her home of sorts.  If I could paint a picture – I remember once in high school observing that out of about 20 or so guys, there were actually 13 different cultures or ethnicities represented.  If you were there you’d have seen white, black, hispanic, Indian (South Asian), Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, Filipino, and several others represented.  That was my normal for most of my adolescence.  And I loved it.  Looking back, God used those guys in my life in some great ways then and to prepare me for how I live and what I do now.

We could have been the poster children for what some wish was true for us today – the post-racial society. Except we weren’t post-racial.  We were 16, 17, 18 and doing life and we recognized cultural difference but rarely did we enter into those realities.  So none of us would blink if someone called home and instinctively switched into a different language.  None of us really blinked if we visited someone’s house and either had to take our shoes off or saw a shrine or anything else. It was normal to me, but my understanding was minimal. That being said – what we did experience put us light years ahead of the curve compared to what many our age at the time experienced throughout the country and I’m really thankful for it.

There were great friendships and a great loyalty with my friends, but I didn’t really know their stories – really.  I wish I had a greater capacity at the time to inquire and learn. High school is an interesting sub-culture (then and now I’m sure).  When in high school, we knew that we were experiencing something cool and at times even almost utopian.  We had several cross-cultural fair’s and celebrations on campus, culture and ethnicity was honored and lifted up like in few places at the time. But, at the end of the day – everybody usually goes back to their own worlds in which culture and ethnicity play a huge role in shaping and defining who we are.

So what does this have to do with the riots? 🙂

My junior year of high school a group of my friends and I (maybe about 7-8) had to do a creative project that reflected insights from the year’s literature we had to read.  The sketch comedy show ‘In Living Color’ was at the height of its powers at the time, so the idea was born to do something similar. So 7-8 of us 17 year old high school boys (at least 5 different ethnicities involved) began to create a half hour creative/comedic sketch of the year.

The riots had been one month earlier and as I remember, there were multiple things done that either mocked aspects of the riots (i.e. the looting) or even made light of some of the racist overtones.  Looking back, it’s a clear sign that we were all very much impacted by what we had experienced, but we perhaps were limited in our ability to grasp the realities of it.  I’ll give you the most clear example as it illustrates what I’ve been reflecting on.

Somehow in our project there ended up being a sketch that involved simulating the riots and in particular the centerpiece of violence in some ways – the Reginald Denny beating.  As one of the only two white guys in the group it was decided that I would drive my car into an area where others would be “rioting” and then they would pull me out of my car and pretend to knock me as the white guy senseless. Looking back, it’s a little uncomfortable for me I’ll be honest and it wouldn’t fly in classrooms today. It fact, it took a long time, maybe the full 20 years since to really even identify my honest response to “playing” Reginald Denny in such a sketch.  It surfaces things I was nowhere near being able to digest at the time. Much of what the LA Riots “meant” was obviously still being kept very distant from our engagement with it. I just see things so differently now than I did then.

I’m not writing this to indict what me and my friends did. We had a fantastic time at the time and it was very memorable from a friendship standpoint 🙂  But I think what it illustrates is that we didn’t know what to do with all the uncomfortable elements of the riots or the complex dynamics or elements to what had happened – so we made fun of it.  We as people do that sometimes – seventeen year olds maybe more so than others.

As I look back, the LA Riots were transformative for me in some ways – because I remember asking myself questions I had never asked before.  I saw dynamics (fear, greed, power, anger) that I hadn’t been as sensitive to before.  But it also wasn’t transformative for me at the time because I was still quite young and immature and lacked some of the tools to really understand the link between culture, ethnicity, wealth and power.

I would guess most, if not all, of my friends at the time now would have a different response or perspective on the riots and our engagement over it would differ greatly.  Society has progressed greatly (though not as quickly as needed in some places) in its awareness of culture and race and over time we’ve all grown up and probably all have had to wrestle with our own ethnicity in different ways.

I share this story or reflection because it’s a reminder to me that unity in diversity is not an external thing.  Cultural awareness does not necessarily follow from having a bunch of different types of people together.  My friends and I shared an experience, all within the context of our great diversity, that was awesome and it has no doubt shaped all of our lives as a result. I’m grateful to them frequently as I think of their impact on me.  They did contribute to my cultural awareness, but there were places we didn’t go and things we didn’t really learn at the time (which is ok, we were young) and that was exposed by the LA Riots in a lot of ways.  At one level, we were living the post-racial dream.  At deeper levels, we still were in our own ethnic paradigms and lifestyles with maybe limited range to really connect with other realities, which no doubt affected much of how we experienced things.

There were comedic images in the coverage of the riots – watching people try to transport huge TV’s on shopping carts or skateboards for one. There were so many images that if you lost context, could be extremely comical.  But what happened has grown less funny to me over the years.  A lot of real life pain and a lot of human sin spilled out into open. Lives were lost, livelihoods were ruined, and communities were ravaged.

We can live life in places where we want to believe certain things are true.  But events like the LA riots, or even more recently the Trayvon Martin case, draw out many of the underlying realities in society. In such moments we can enter into them and learn or we can distance ourselves through denial, hollow philosophy, or even humor. I see moments like this at different times of my life and I’ve responded in different ways. I hope I can continue to enter into the truth and the big picture moving forward rather than retreating into my own world.

Do you have moments like this that test your capacity to engage the larger truth of the matter?

What do you do in those moments?

In the next post I want to make some connections moving forward – using Rodney King’s famous exhortation, “Can’t we all just get along?” as a jumping off point.

Reflections on the LA Riots Pt 3 – Getting Along

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Reflections on the LA Riots

“Can’t we all just get along?”

This is one of those soundbites that I can always recall.  I can hear it like it was yesterday.  Maybe I can because this line was repeated perhaps more than any other from that time.  I remember sketch comedy shows, I think it was In Living Color, doing parodies with this iconic phrase. It was part of the common vernacular for quite a long while, continuing through today even.

Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of death, fire, and looting, this was a plea for the end of anarchy, hate crimes, and community destruction. I’ve often wondered looking back what “voice” was behind Rodney King during that famous press conference.  Was it the voice of the average person in these communities – that was being harmed through the lawlessness of a criminal element?  Was it just Rodney King – as the lightning rod of this whole thing who had to deal with the weight of serving as a catalyst for such destruction?  Or was it the message of the establishment, those who put King up to the task, who above all probably just wanted the violence to stop as fast as possible so that these could go back to normal (from a safety standpoint).

I’ve asked these questions not out of deep cynicism, but over time I’ve noticed that similar pleas are made all the time in the face of tension and conflict between those with power and those on the margins. I’ve wondered what “getting along” means, when in reality it means very different things to different people.  Normally, “can’t we all just get along” is the sentiment of those who don’t want anything to change and they just want to be rid of conflict, danger, and anxiety (which I understand).

A little over three years after the LA Riots, I spent over eight weeks serving and ministering in different locations throughout Los Angeles.  Spent a couple weeks downtown at homeless shelters, spent a couple weeks in South Central LA, Compton, and a couple other locations. I didn’t make the link at the time, but one of the factors that drew me to this was going through the riots.  I remember wanting to make sure at some point I visited the intersection of Florance and Normandy (which Denny was beaten and much of the initial activity took place.  I did visit that intersection and it had a strange historical feeling to it.

That summer, serving with Here’s Life Inner City Los Angeles and its various local church and ministry partners, was my introduction to both the concept of racial reconciliation as well as the nature of justice – not as an idea, but as a concrete longing and vision of hope and dignity.  It was the beginning of more intentional thinking about these issues – what does it mean to “get along” and especially when there are unpleasant or even maybe inappropriate expressions of pain and struggle sparked by the presence of injustice or oppression? It was a very significant summer for me on a few levels, but I find it remarkable that I still am recognizing some of the impact of that summer on me almost 17 years later.

Vocationally, I frequently find myself in between worlds.  No – that does mean I’m saying I’m bicultural. Not even close. I just frequently am having to see realities, decisions, and situations through both the majority culture lens as well as the ethnic minority lens. Obviously the white lens comes most naturally – because it’s mine. But I’ve grown in being able to recognize and see from the other vantage point as well, though I still routinely miss quite a lot.

What I’ve observed is that when tension breaks out, whether it’s at a local or national level and if it’s in a ministry or church or even secular contexts, and where there is systemic marginalization (or racism or oppression), there are versions of “can’t we all just get along?” that seem to pop up in the course of trying to work things out.  Now obviously, when buildings are burning and people are dying, there is a need to call for humane and constructive solutions, but King’s soundbite has a kind of typology to it and I’ll venture to offer a couple interpretations for this specific type which I’ll label as a “call to unity.”

First, “Can’t we all just get along?” (be unified) = “Can’t you just go along?”

It’s “Can’t all of you who don’t like what is happening in the grand scheme of things just go along with things and stop causing trouble?” This is where my suspicion of who was behind King’s press conference does come to play.   But the instinct for those in the majority is to keep things clean and efficient.  There’s a path of least resistance mentality that is often at work and the focus is usually given to eliminating the source of discomfort or minimizing tension as opposed to figuring out what a better future would look like (from the vantage point of those on the outside).

Second, “Can’t we all just get along?” = “Can’t we just go back to the way things were?”

This is a continuation of the above thought.  Wanting people to get along amidst various ethnic or socioeconomic driven tensions rarely involves the kind of reflection and conviction that results in a vision of a new future.  That would require such a tenacity and integrity of leadership that is rare.  It’s far more common to want to keep doing more of the same and just try to do it in a way that doesn’t set people over the edge.

There’s a heart check when it comes to majority – minority power tensions.  Do we try to keep things the same and just try to get everyone to cooperate and fall in line? (An obvious ethnocentric approach)  Or do we invest our energies into creating legitimate partnerships and sharing of power for the sake of a different future – the one we usually say we want, but often lack the resolve, awareness, and commitment to pursue.

All this to say, there’s still things to learn from the LA Riots and I’m still learning.  When people are not getting along, there are questions to ask first, before we start wanting to make them get along.  We need to be men and women who can ask those questions, those questions that get to the heart of what is wrong or unacceptable – for if we don’t there surely aren’t many that will.

This is the end of my series reflecting on the LA Riots.  Feel free to share your own reflections or share your own response to what the “Can’t we all get along?” call to unity means. Thanks for reading!