When I was planning my initial voyage from Indiana to Los Angeles to attend UCLA in 2012, my family and I were frequently assured that the UCLA campus was located in a very “safe” neighborhood. Westwood was always referred to as a safe place. The brochures said as much, and the public image of the little Hollywood hamlet was squeaky clean, especially when compared to its crosstown rival, USC, located in South Central Los Angeles, which is widely considered to be a “bad neighborhood.”
Westwood, on the other end of town, was clean and nice, filled with rhododendrons and ivy, an active police force committed to keeping the peace, relatively few homeless, and hardly any crime. For most of the time I was at UCLA, it felt like a sheltered summer camp, a bubble within greater L.A. Westwood was small and insulated, but not lacking in the touches of Los Angeles glitz; billboards, palm trees, beautiful Mediterranean architecture, golden stars embedded on the sidewalk with the names of celebrities, our own little walk of fame.
The UCLA campus was where the movie Old School, starring Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson was shot. Some scenes from The Godfather were shot there (Francis Ford Coppola was an alum) as well as Legally Blonde, where Royce Hall and Powell Library were used as stand-ins for Harvard’s Georgian edifices (mainly inside shots). In 1993’s Menace II Society, a black character tells a white insurance agent who is attempting to hire him steal a car: “Man, get the fuck out of here? Don’t bring your narrow ass up in here no more! Go on back to Westwood where you belong! Hope you find your way down Compton Avenue, motherfucker!” Westwood has long been thought of as Compton’s Angeleno antipode.
It was a quiet place, a safe place for strolls at night. There were only two major alcohol-serving destinations. So far as night life was concerned, Westwood was pretty dead. Working at one of the two bars, then-O’Hara’s (now Rocco’s Tavern), I learned that there was even a no-dancing rule, like the one in little Bomont, OK, from the movie Footloose. I would never have guessed that Westwood had been one of the most thriving spots to go out in LA a few decades before. Nor did I have any idea that the whole culture of the village—and LA at-large—shifted dramatically in 1988, when a random act of violence claimed the life of a young woman.
Karen Toshima was a 27-year-old graphic artist in 1988. She was out celebrating in Westwood on January 30, 1988. She had had just received a promotion at the Studio City Ad Agency where she worked. She was strolling down Broxton Avenue when a gang member from South Central fired on a rival gang-member, but missed. The bullet instead struck Karen in the temple. She died a day later.
Toshima became a tragic figure in the media, an innocent bystander, victimized by the brutal gang-warfare that many associated with the Los Angeles black community. She became not only a martyr, but a political weapon, used to evoke fear and eventually, to attack gang-violence at its point of origin. Sandy Banks of the LA Times wrote in 1989: “Karen Toshima came to represent ‘everywoman,’ and her death made all of Los Angeles feel more vulnerable.” Then-LA county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said: “You knew instantly that the press would blow this thing into a cause celebre, and that Westwood was going to be portrayed as a place that was no longer safe.” For his part, Yaroslavsky urged the Los Angeles City council to offer a $25,000 reward for the capture of Toshima’s killer, which precipitated a strong backlash from the black community, who objected to the disparity between the bounty for Toshima’s killer and the vastly smaller rewards offered up for the killers of black citizens—if there were rewards offered at all.
Yaroslavsky was right about the media. They seized upon Toshima’s murder to monger fear of black violence creeping into white areas. Toshima’s murder gave credence to white Angelenos fears of the wild animals to the South and East. John M. Glionna of the LA Times wrote in 1998 that story reached across the nation, striking fear into people who lived miles from Los Angeles. Citizens of neighboring cities reported noticing “Los Angeles-style gang graffiti and gang attacks” in their own neighborhoods. Gang crime in Los Angeles in the 1980s was viewed as an epidemic. It was addressed not as a pathological failure, instead attacked in its symptomatic manifestation.
The Los Angeles PD used the killing as an excuse to ramp up anti-gang programs across Los Angeles, and to further militarize the police force. Glionna writes that the murder and the subsequent crackdown “sparked resentment in black and Latino communities, which grew outraged that one gang-related murder in Westwood seemed to matter more than the thousands that had occurred in South and East Los Angeles.” Indeed, the travails of the black community in Los Angeles had been largely ignored by police and went uncovered by the media. Robert Reinhold for the New York Times wrote of one case in particular—the drive-by shooting of DeAndre Brown, a 9-year-old boy, also caught between the crossfire of street gangs—as going relatively undiscussed in public, like the 386 other gang-related killings in 1987. Reinhold writes that it wasn’t until gang violence struck in the mostly-white, wealthy neighborhood of Westwood did LAPD decide to crack down on gang violence. Many in the black community were outraged.
US Representative Maxine Waters, then a California Assemblywoman, told the LA Times: “The black community has known for years that a problem is not a problem until it hits the white community…There is a deep feeling in the black community that the philosophy of the police department was, ‘Let ’em kill each other in South-Central L.A.’” Glionna wrote in 1998: “The Westwood killing hit Los Angeles in its living room, shattering the naivete of Angelenos who assumed that gangs were confined to inner-city minority neighborhoods. It forced people to acknowledge that gang violence, which had jumped 50% since the late 1970s, was out of control.” What it did not force people to do was consider the systemic reasons that gang violence had gained such a foothold in Los Angeles.
Instead, Karen Toshima’s death resulted in heightened fear in white communities, and a push for more punitive paramilitary tactics from the Los Angeles police force. After Toshima was killed in ’88, the police departments of Los Angeles gathered together for a “gang summit,” to discuss ways to combat the increase of gang violence in the city. They collectively determined 1988 to be “The Year Of The Gang.”
Los Angeles police departments seized the opportunity to bolster their anti-gang unit. Just months after the murder, the city of Los Angeles hired 650 new police officers and poured $6 million into programs combating gang violence. Spearheaded by Police Chief Darryl F. Gates, LAPD’s “Operation Hammer” conducted numerous large scale sweeps of gang-ridden areas. In one weekend in April of that year, the LAPD arrested 1,453 people for gang-related crime. Then-Deputy Chief Bill Rathburn called the Operation an “outgrowth of a lot of frustration and an outrageous level of violence . . . which all seemed to crystallize in the city when Karen was killed.” Rathburn acknowledged that Toshima’s murder was integral to the heightened crackdown on gang violence in LA. “Before that, we in the police department knew that the gang problem had gotten out of hand … but the politicians had escaped any responsibility for it. The Karen Toshima homicide put the gang problem very high on the public agenda. It has remained high since then.” Toshima’s image was the perfect weapon for the LAPD; her death was the perfect excuse to hyper-militarize the police force, and launch a full-scale assault on South Central Los Angeles.
Daryl F. Gates was a police officer’s Police Chief. He took an iron-fisted approach to handling crime in the black community. Many in the black community considered him a racist. In his song The Wrong N***a To Fuck With, Ice Cube raps: “Don’t let me catch Daryl Gates in traffic;/I gotta have it to peel his cap backwards./I hope he wear a vest, too,/And his best blue,/Goin up against the Zulu.” Gates was a police commander during the 1962 Watts riots, an explosion of racial tension in LA which left 34 dead and more than 1,000 injured. In his 2010 obituary from the LA Times, Gates was quoted as saying of the Watts riots: “We had no idea how to deal with this.” When he became the police chief for all of Los Angeles, he dealt with the black community with a punitive philosophy.
Gates didn’t recognize the Los Angeles he had inherited in 1978. As Patt Morrison wrote for the LA Times in 2010: “Daryl Gates’ problem was Los Angeles’ problem. 1960s L.A., that ‘white spot’ the city once advertised itself to be, looked in the mirror of 1980s L.A. and didn’t recognize itself.” The city had become vastly more diverse since those Halcyon days. The multicultural muddle of Los Angeles had lost the image of a pure, palm-lined paradise of Hollywoodland—a place where crime was mysterious, scandalous and worthy of noir-flicks, not brutal and barbaric. The PD’s response was to militarize the police force. Fighting fire with fire. Gates was responsible for developing the first SWAT teams in America. The teams were used to conduct raids on the strongholds of black political groups.
It wasn’t just no-knock raids. Federal agencies worked with the LAPD to undermine black groups in Los Angeles in the 1960s. A shooting at UCLA’s Campbell Hall, resulting in the deaths of Black Panther members Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins Jr. took place in 1969. The killings were the result of infighting between black radical groups. The alleged shooter, Claude Hubert, was a member of the black group Us. Though it was never cleanly proven that the attack was coordinated by members of federal or state agencies – though some have suggested FBI involvement, or instigated by the Los Angeles PD’s own CCS (Criminal Conspiracy Section), which was almost exclusively dedicated to subverting black militant groups – the UCLA shooting represents the sort of internecine in-fighting that law enforcement groups sowed within black radical groups in the ‘60s. Throughout the decade, the FBI’s COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram) worked with the LAPD to perform violent raids on Black Panther groups with impunity. Many Panthers were killed by police during these raids, which took place across the country. Most notable among the murdered was the young Fred Hampton, who was chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP).
Hampton left Chicago in early November, 1969 for Los Angeles, where he would meet with BPP leadership, and deliver a speech to the UCLA Law Students Association. While he was gone, two Chicago Police Officers were killed in a shootout with Black Panther Party members. One Panther, 19-year-old Spurgeon Winter Jr. was killed. The Chicago Tribune published an article on November 13 with the title “No Quarter For Wild Beasts,” which encouraged Police not to hold back on Black Panthers. “They have declared war on society,” the columnist writes. “They therefore have forfeited the right to considerations ordinary violators of the law might claim.” The writer advised that officers “should be ordered to be ready to shoot.” On December 4, Fred Hampton was shot twice in the head at point blank range, despite not resisting officers. In fact, he couldn’t. FBI informant William O’Neal, who had infiltrated the group as an undercover officer, admitted in 1990 that he had drugged Fred Hampton with the barbiturate Secobarbital, rendering him unable to move. Jakobi Williams writes in his book From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther that when officer’s found Hampton’s unconscious body, they called out in excitement “That’s Fred Hampton!” This implied that his assassination was the raid’s primary intent. He also writes that fellow BPP member Harold Bell heard the following exchange:
(First Voice): “That’s Fred Hampton.”
(Second Voice): “Is he dead? Bring him out [of his bedroom].”
(First Voice): “He’s barely alive; he’ll make it.”
(Two shots ring out and a third voice, believed to be Carmody’s, states) “He’s good and dead now.”
As Deputy Chief under Ed Davis, LAPD chief from 1969–1978 (and later a state senator), Daryl Gates headed up the city’s “red squad.” Red Squad’s date back to the 1920s, and refer to groups dedicated to unearthing political groups—originally groups involved in the Communist party, hence “red”—and bringing them to justice. The LA Red Squad was formally called the Los Angeles Public Disorder and Intelligence Division (PDID). Red Squads are the reactionary result of public hysteria regarding a perceived political threat. The first red squads were used to break up strikes and derail trade unions, and use force to politically repress radical groups—or any group, really, that bothered the police department or opponents of government officials . In his book Big Brother in Blue: Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America, Frank Donner defines the political repression that red squads effected as: “police behavior motivated or influenced in whole or in part by hostility to protest, dissent and related activities perceived as a threat to the status quo.” That is, activism of any kind, or any group of people that threatens the capital class, the ruling class, who benefit from the state of things remaining static.
The LAPD was a family, and Gates had his family’s back. The LAPD was also one family Gates could fix. If a cop stepped out of line, it was a matter for the family to take care of — not some discipline-by-public-committee. When he became chief, he dumped the swags of gold braid that had made some chiefs look like operetta admirals and put on the plain ink-blue uniform of the LAPD cop. They loved him for that too.
LA Times columnist Bill Boyarsky wrote in his review of Donner’s book: “Here, the cops infiltrated black and Latino advocacy organizations. In the late ’60s and ’70s, the anti-war movement was a target. Today, it is vaguely defined as ‘terrorists.’” Boyarsky argues that Donner fails to provide an answer to the burgeoning police state. He offers one of his own:
The answer…is that law enforcement already has that capability through line officers investigating all sorts of crime. They’re regular cops, subject to department oversight and discipline. Treat threats of terrorism the same way as threats of bank robberies, with the investigators subject to the same control–civilian and uniformed–as any other detectives.
Gates enhanced surveillance and he militarized until the LAPD resembled a highly-armed battalion. The Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, or CRASH, became part of the LAPD in 1979. The program was originally called Total Resources Against Street Hoodlums—acronymically “TRASH”—but was forced to change the term “after civic leaders objected to the implication that human beings, even gangsters, were no better than trash,” as Tom Diaz writes in his book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (though the last word in the acronym receives no criticism for being racially-coded). The original eponym better suited CRASH’s mission, which was, as an LAPD officer told LA Times Columnist Gregory Boyle, was harassment and destruction. “Our strategy is a simple one: Make life as miserable as we possibly can for the gang member.”
CRASH spearheaded the “Operation Hammer” program institute by the LAPD after Toshima’s killing. It was disbanded in 1998 following several scandals involving Rampart Police Officers involved with the CRASH unit. One officer beat and choked a gang member when he refused to confess to his affiliation until the man being interrogated vomited blood. Another officer, in a deal with prosecutors for stealing six pounds of cocaine from evidence, told prosecutors that he and his partner had shot and paralyzed an unarmed gang member, then testified that he had assaulted them. In 1999, Boyle wrote in his column that virtually every gang member to whom he had spoken had a negative story to tell about CRASH officers involving “gun and ‘dope’ plantings, prolonged beatings and being deposited by officers in the heart of rival gang territory.” The CRASH unit, marked by a desire to frame, maim and kill, was the epitome of the “us vs. them” mentality that is inevitable of a militaristic philosophy of policing. But that was the way Daryl Gates saw the LAPD’s role, to stem the tide of crime, to meet violence with violence.
When Gates’s tenure at the LAPD ended ignominiously after his police force’s failure to properly “handle” the 1992 LA riots, he worked with video game developer Sierra On-Line to create a computer game based on the LAPD. It was called Police Quest: Open Season (literally, they named it open season). It was the fourth installment of the hardcore police video game series Police Quest. In the game, you play a police detective, John Carey, who is hunting the South Central thug who killed his partner. Duncan Fyfe, in his piece on the video game for Vice.com, writes of the various racist and brutal aspects of the game. Los Angeles, Fyfe writes, is depicted as a fallen arcadia, transformed by the animals of urban gangs. Fyfe writes: “Naturally, per Gates, gang terror is enabled by social welfare programs: ‘This is an all-girl Hispanic gang,’ Carey reads in the LAPD files. ‘To enter and stay in the gang a girl must rob at gun-point a retail business. Many of these girls are unwed mothers and receive public assistance.’ Fyfe points to more examples of racism and a simplistic view of Los Angeles’s gang crisis:
In this LA, a city of “dirtbags, creeps and losers,” graffiti is an “urban blight.” Mothers entreat the police to “make [the] streets safe for the children,” and the cops can’t bear “to see the little children and the innocent families hurt by all the street violence.” A cop is killed walking a woman to her car. A little girl hugs Carey when he solves the gruesome murder of her father. Gay men and sex workers are lascivious. Black characters say things like “Yo, I be fly today!” and “This be my ‘hood. I be Raymond Jones da third.” (Asked to comment by Vibe on that, Gates ducked the blame: “I told [Sierra] that these people use the same language that you and I use.”) Fyfe explains how the game not only denigrates the black characters, but glorifies the police officers as knights in the darkness, trying to clean up the streets.“Of Gates’ elite C.R.A.S.H. team…one cop enthuses: ‘Now those boys are men!’ In-game banners promote D.A.R.E., Gates’ anti-drug education program. If you try to touch one, the game protests: ‘Leave the banner in place. It’s a source of pride for the department.’ A desk sergeant even recommends Gates’ autobiography: ‘I learned a few things.’
The game’s overall message, Fyfe writes, is all Gates: “If the police fall, everyone dies. So stay the fuck out of our way.” Gates even puts himself in Police Quest, as the chief of police, encouraging John Carey in his pursuit. Police Quest was Gates’s self-restoration, a virtual rendering of the way policing has to be, in a world that is quickly going to hell. In a review of the game from the magazine Computer Gaming World in March, 1994, Dennis Owens writes:
Many games over the years have encouraged that lack of consideration for NPCs [non-player characters]. The tendency to slaughter all and take all in role- playing games has been so pervasive that the few games which punish such behavior could be counted on one hand. But to run across such selfishness in a game like this seems incredibly damning — and heartrending — because it’s true to life. We treat each other, the game implies, in our attempts merely to cope with the problems with which we are faced, like NPCs.
During Gates’s reign, the use of surveillance was expanded through the Special Investigations Section, which was founded in 1965 as a unit meant to apprehend robbers and burglars. Allyson Collins writes in her book Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States that LAPD Captain Dennis Conte defended the extraordinarily high kill-rate for a unit specializing in robbers and burglars by saying: Public safety is a concern, but we have to look beyond that because if we arrest someone for attempt [sic], the likelihood of a conviction is not great.” Surveillance units routinely transformed potential non-violent crimes—like robberies—into violent ones, by surprising perpetrators with their guns already raised. They also neglected to inform local police departments about their investigations, which, as Hills writes, added “to the danger and confusion at the scene of crimes.” In a 1988 expose on the SIS written by David Freed of the LA Times, Freed writes:
The Times found that in 17 of the 32 cases examined, SIS detectives had apparent justification to arrest the criminals they were following before serious crimes were committed. Instead, the detectives watched robberies or burglaries occur even though the criminals were already wanted on arrest warrants.” suit claims that the SIS is a “death squad” whose officers routinely allow criminal suspects that they follow to commit crimes and then open fire on them while making arrests.
In 1989, a six-year-old boy whose father was shot by police in an attempted bank robbery claimed that officers follow and observe criminal suspects, then allow them to commit crimes and open fire on them. In 1991, Gates publicly defended officers from the SIS for shooting and killing three robbers and wounding another one. More than one lawsuit was filed against the SIS for the violation of civil liberties. In 1992, four men alleged to have robbed a McDonald’s while the SIS observed without intervening. As they were leaving, the SIS blocked their car, claimed to see a gun, and opened fire, killing three and injuring a fourth. In a subsequent lawsuit, Collins writes, the families of the deceased were awarded a $44,000 settlement to be paid the SIS officers and Daryl Gates himself. In the end, the city footed the bill. In 1996, a suit was filed by Robert Cunningham against the LAPD’s SIS unit. The suit alleged that the officers followed Cunningham and Daniel Soly after they robbed a convenience store, and, without announcing themselves, fired 15 times with shotguns into the automobile in which the two robbers were sitting. The SIS has since been disbanded. The suit claimed that the officers would have shot Cunningham “in their unbridled lust,” had it not been for the intervention of a fire captain.
These proactive police forces — like the SIS and the red squads and PDID officers who busted down doors and attacked political rabble-rousers for the potential violence they presented, a threat of “chaos,” as is labeled any possible alteration to the state — makes the Police Department into a machine that craves crime, feeds on it, and inevitably would be nothing without it. Would be bored without it. Finally, it creates in officers a personal, moral vendetta on crime, believing themselves the “thin blue line” between order and chaos. In a 1992 exit-interview following the disaster of the LA riots, Daryl Gates reflected: “If I’d used deadly force, the spin would have been, ‘There goes Gates again — old Rambo.’ It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The solution, as Boyarsky wrote, is to don’t. To be willing, and able to be damned, judged and tried for its mistakes? Is that not the responsibility of the state? To feel and accomodate the will of the people, oblige it, rather than fighting to maintain dominance over the populace it is meant to represent and protect? Yet any deviance from the status quo is seen as a presage of chaos, and is met with bullets and cudgels. “But if we don’t support our system of justice in this nation, we have sown the seeds of anarchy.”
Every abuse of power committed by the SIS and the LAPD was justified by Gates by his ardent commitment to law and order; the interpretation of all groups of societal upheaval as threats to peace, despite their often peaceful methods. There’s a major difference between promoting peace and “keeping the peace,” the mission of police officers (or peace officers, as they’re sometimes called). Keeping the peace implies that there is peace already, as things are. Yet inequality and suffering are everywhere. The presumption it takes to view all groups dedicated to political movement is to define anything slightly deviant as potentially criminal.
The culture that Gates had fostered in the Los Angeles Police Department ultimately incited an explosive reaction, after the four officers arrested for savagely beating Rodney King were acquitted of all charges. The riot that subsequently took place in Los Angeles county in April and May of 1992 saw 63 people killed and 2,383 people injured. Gates had not conceded that there was a culture of violent repression in the LAPD, but called the incident an “aberration.”
Inevitably, Gates was forced to turn in his badge. He later wrote in his autobiography that “Not speaking boldly of the horror I felt [at the tape] proved to be . . . a significant error on my part — in dealing with a crisis that would only grow worse.” Whether or not he truly regretted it, or really felt the “horror” he claims after the fact, it was undeniable that Gates had created a culture within the LAPD of racist, paramilitary, and “any means necessary” tactics to deal with crime. And yet his legacy continues, three decades later. It’s a legacy of simplification, of addressing symptoms—aggressively, brutally—rather than even considering systemic cause. An unsympathetic approach to policing that views potential criminals as “bad guys,” and non-player characters. Hillary Clinton called them “superpredators” in 1996: “They’re not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators. No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
When you don’t critically or humanely consider criminals from minority, underprivileged backgrounds, your insight deadens at the skin. You start to associate criminality with blackness or brownness. All black or brown men become thugs, hoodlums; irredeemable, inhuman. That’s how black and brown people were often viewed by LAPD officers. Killings or crimes involving only minority victims and perps were often referred to as “NHI” crimes—No humans involved. Psychologist Abraham Maslau wrote: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
A culture that believes in an absolute, objective, immutable state can exist at a local level through a subset of absolutist ideas that pervade the populace. Complacency is not a hypnotic, trance-like state; it is a fervent, tight grip on absolutist beliefs. There must be both a threat and threatened-party. Oppressed parties seeking equality or demanding a shift in the class hierarchy threaten the status quo, and threaten the identity of an individual member of the dominant party. Thus, these domestic “enemies of the state” are demonized in order to make stomping them out morally palatable. It isn’t just the process of using media to label black gang members thugs, mindless, animalistic, killers. It’s the confluence of systems of oppression that do the media’s work for them, by producing characters whose only options to fight the oppressor is violence.
Durrel DeWitt Collins, a 19-year-old member of the Rolling 60s Crips, was the young man who shot Karen Toshima. During Collins’ trial, a letter penned by Karen Toshima’s younger brother Kevin was read in court: “Durrel Collins has a long history of violence, which his criminal record shows, but even more disdaining is his attitude of total disregard for other people and his disregard for another’s life. He doesn’t have any respect for human life and that makes him dangerous.”
When Collins was found guilty, Santa Monica Superior Court Judge James A. Albracht had the option to sentence Collins to two consecutive life terms for the crime. Albracht admitted that he felt a “human desire” for vengeance against Collins. But justice, he said, was not retributive or wantonly punitive. He had to consider the context of Collins’s act, and the factors that had influenced Collins to become involved in the gang life. “It happens again and again,” Albracht said. “He didn’t burst on the scene in Westwood. These young people are no secret to us. They are walking time bombs. We failed the Durrell Collinses of the world. We failed ourselves as a society.” Collins was sentenced to 27-years to life for the murder of Karen Toshima.
An anonymous opinion piece submitted to the LA Times in 1989 lamented the “weak” sentence and offered an opposite view: “The warm and caring judge feels that society failed the poor and neglected Collins. In reality, Collins failed himself, and society has no responsibility to help such sub-humans.” The writer adds that Collins should have been sentenced to death.
The idea that someone’s crimes can be attributed to systemic causes rather than personal backwardness is anathema to a certain crowd. It’s viewed as an excuse. Exemplary of this reductionist logic are the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Program) that Daryl Gates founded, which sought to discourage drug use and gang-membership and the famous “Just Say No,” campaign created by Nancy Reagan. Both prevention platforms place the onus on the individual—it’s your responsibility to just say no, it’s your decision to dare to resist drugs and violence—without acknowledging the societal ills that produce drugs and violence. Thus, those involved in drug use and violence are personally responsible for their decisions. After all, white people aren’t joining gangs and shooting each other; white people aren’t smoking crack. It’s all nature over nurture. So the logic went.
Recall in 1989, when First-lady Nancy Reagan participated in a Los Angeles Police SWAT team raid on a house in South Central (by participate, I mean she sat in a motor home parked outside the house while the team battered down the door, chatting with Daryl Gates, who had invited her on the drug-bust). When the raid was finished, 14 people had been arrested. Nancy told reporters: “These people in here are beyond the point of teaching and rehabilitating. There’s no life, and that’s very discouraging.” No life. Beyond rehabilitation. Irredeemable. Animals. The crack that circulated in South Central came from cocaine trafficked by the contra guerrillas of Nicaragua, an operation run by the CIA to fund their covert paramilitary ops to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. President Ronald Reagan had approved the operations.
It comes down to the dehumanization of black and brown people—into criminals, thugs, hoodlums, NPCs, non-humans, dirtbags, creeps and losers, etc. For this system to continue—to feed—there must be innocent victims, bystanders, valuable humans to oppose the cretins. As Allen Feldman writes in On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King: “Beyond and below state formalism, legal codes, and official police procedures, there lies a symbolic logic of the state, animated by empowering micropractices of depersonalization, that is readily fed by and articulated with culturally.” For the state to maintain rigid, definite lines—as more and more people begin to roil against their chains—a heavily militarized police force is needed. To protect the state, as if it is a monolith, immutable entity, and not an organism that ought to constantly be changing. And the state is one that favors the rich and therefore benefits from the division and distraction of the poor, the working class, and requires a squad of brutal enforcers to maintain it.
The phrase “status quo” originates from the Latin phrase Status quo ante bellum, meaning the state of things before the war. In America we know Antebellum days refer to the languid, idyllic southern epoch before the war of northern aggression robbed them of their sovereignty (and simultaneously, though putatively unrelatedly, did away with slavery). The “status quo,” the “peace,” civility and non-violence means a state of changelessness, a calcified, statuesque, inertial condition. Things stay the same – if aynthing, they go backwards. They tend toward a bygone era; they become “great again.” For those who want change, who believe it is necessary, just, overdue – science and history – or the science of history – tell us that state changes occur through pressure, raising the temperature. Water only becomes gas when it reaches a boiling point.
Like it did in Los Angeles in 1992.
Like it did in Ferguson in 2014.
Like it’s doing in Minneapolis in 2020.
And yet, does change last? Not when the “liberals” align with the conservatives in their fearful longing for stasis, a peace that favors them, a separate peace, an insular peace. A comprehensible condition, a human condition if not simply cultivated – but one that must be beaten back and aggressively nonetheless.
Trump has called the protestors, or rioters “thugs,” which I imagine has caused a lot of pearl-clutching among liberals who recognize the racial connotation of the word. But I’m reminded of when President Barack Obama said the same thing of rioters in Baltimore. Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes responded to President Obama thusly: why not “just call them n****s.”
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Of Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violence as a means to fight white supremacy, organizer and civil rights leader Kwame Ture said: “he only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent has to have a conscience. The United States has no conscience.” Whether or not you think ACAB, or that individuals all have moral consciences, the state, the United States, has none. It is an entity, a faceless, soulless monolith, a business, an industry, and it cannot be moved by non-violence. It cannot be swayed by action taken within the laws it has prescribed. Cliché as it might sound, the revolution must begin within ourselves, who have been taught that violence is not the answer. In a sense, we – and I’m speaking to the white population here – fear change to the state as we fear change thrust upon ourselves. But we must embrace both, unless you truly believe that the state of things in America today is just as it should be.