National Sections of the L5I:

The LA riots - a revolt against racism

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THOUSANDS OF troops, National Guardsmen and police patrolling the streets. A curfew. Over forty people dead. Thousands more injured and arrested. Los Angeles resembled war-torn Kuwait with buildings gutted and neighbourhoods destroyed.

The Los Angeles epicentre of the US uprisings produced these images and they hit television screens across the globe. The wealthiest state of the wealthiest country in the world was suddenly unmasked and the rotten core of discrimination, poverty and oppression revealed.

Thousands of black and Latino youth took to the streets in protest. The anger was unleashed after the racist verdict which acquitted four white LA policemen. These four officers had been filmed delivering 56 truncheon blows to a black motorist, Rodney King.

The uprising in Los Angeles, and the spread of demonstrations, protest and risings to other cities symbolised anger and resistance to this blatant racism. There was outrage at the injustice of the verdict, but it was fuelled by the fact that state racism and police repression are part of the normal pattern. The King case was unusual, not for its brutality, but because it was recorded on a video camera and broadcast on television for all to see.

Black people know that this was one horrific example of the daily repression they face. A Washington Post survey revealed that while a majority of whites thought the verdict was wrong, only one in four thought that it showed that “blacks cannot get justice in this country”, while three out of four black people thought this was the case.

The racism of the courts is real. Blacks get longer sentences for the same crime. Racism combines with poverty to criminalise blacks on a massive scale. One quarter of all young black men in the USA are either behind bars, on probation or on parole. Forty per cent of those on Death Row, compared with 12% of the general population, are black.

The poverty of blacks and Latinos in the USA has increased enormously over the Reagan/Bush years. The American dream, the culture of opportunity and initiative, has always been based on the few getting rich at the expense of the mass of the population. The contrast between rich and poor in the USA, and in Los Angeles in particular, is more marked and more repulsive than anywhere else in the world. And the poverty is largely black poverty.

In the past twenty years black unemployment has risen from 1.9 times that of whites to 2.8 times as high. Between 1973 and 1990 the average income of black high school graduates declined by 44% in real terms. Over half of black children are born into households below the poverty line.

No wonder that when the state forces were caught off guard and temporarily unable to control the streets, masses of people flooded into the shops and looted. People have been tortured with the consumerism of modern culture and yet denied the opportunity to participate for too long.

The story of the police attack on Rodney King in March 1991 was one of racism in action throughout. After the amateur video of the King beating was broadcast, George Bush was forced to declare it “sickening”. But what happened then?

It took an official Commission report to force the resignation of racist police chief Daryl Gates. And even as he left he had the endorsement of George Bush ringing in his ears—”an exemplary police chief”.

The four police officers responsible for the assault were being taken to court—in a safe white suburb which ensured a jury that included no African-Americans.

The uprising was there in waiting. But it took on an undirected and often brutal form. The lack of an effective political leadership of militant blacks, combined with the failure of the white working class to fight racism, meant that the anger was not channelled into a strategy which could really challenge racism and the capitalist system that perpetuates it.

The targets of the riot reflect this lack of direction. Looting and destruction of shops was not confined to rich white areas, but included many small businesses. Much anger was wrongly directed. Because a Korean shopkeeper had recently got off with a light sentence after fatally shooting a black shoplifter, this combined with a resentment of the small privileges of some Koreans to produce a dangerous inter-ethnic conflict.

Violence directed towards individual whites has claimed the attention of much of the press. “Mobs”, “thugs”, “venom”, “mindless violence” and other choice phrases have been tapped out by white journalists to describe the uprising.

This reaction has added to the feelings of anger amongst the black community. Black youth are killed daily, often by the police, and no public outrage is expressed. During the uprising the focus on white victims has been yet another example of racism. The majority of the victims have in fact been black, many killed by the police.

Individual random violence against whites does show that the anti-racist explosion is undirected and could be quickly demobilised by a combination of repression and exhaustion. But this should not blind us to the fact that the riots were an expression of justified rage—the fury of the oppressed. Now we must defend the oppressed against the further state violence that is being meted out.

The response of the politicians was to launch a crackdown. Whatever the “anguish” felt by George Bush at the verdict, he had no hesitation in ordering thousands of National Guards and troops onto the streets of LA. Both the Republican Governor of California, and the black Democrat Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, co-operated in organising the repression including a state of emergency and curfew.

Thousands more youth will now pay the price in jail sentences. So will the small shopkeepers who will not survive the aftermath of the uprising, unlike the big companies whose top insurance firms will pay up. And whatever redress the US legal system now allows Rodney King, it will be a tiny token compared to the continuing daily oppression of America’s poor and black population.

Now the rage must find another way forward, one that can mount an effective challenge to racism and deprivation—one that challenges the system of exploitation and profiteering that the “American dream” is really about.n