Harry Cleaver on the LA Riots, from London Notes #1 1992.
Austin, Texas, May 1, 1992
We haven't had a May 1st like this in years. The massive upheavals shaking the United States, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, from Atlanta to New York, are more than protests against the "not guilty" verdict in the trial of the policemen who brutally beat Rodney King. The verdict touched off a rebellion whose energies spring from many sources. As rebellion spread, first flaming across Los Angeles and then exploding across the United States, the angry cry that has accompanied it "NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!" refers not only to the verdict but to life in America, especially life in the central cities during these last years of the Reagan-Bush administrations. "NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!" is an outcry of fed-up rebellion against systematically unjust state policies of slashing wages, welfare programmes and decent paying jobs. It is also an outcry against the flagrant racism of this last decade of economic repression and especially that of the Bush presidency born wrapped in the racist iconography of Willie Horton. The American "years of lead" have weighed most heavily on the people now in revolt. Their fires, it seems, are melting the lead, those years are over.
As in the Watts Rebellion of 1965, the anger boiling out into the streets has been expressed primarily in massive direct appropriation and the burning of almost two thousand buildings in Los Angeles. While mass media reports have tended to emphasise scattered incidents of brutality - such as a truck driver being dragged from his vehicle and beaten - the vast majority of actions have been directed against business property. Based on past experience, it is highly likely that the actual number of crimes against individuals has actually decreased during the rebellion.
As in the rebellions of the 1960's, reports and interviews have portrayed, mixed in with the anger, a carnivalesque atmosphere of community appropriation as thousands of citizens have collectively smashed down the glass and steel separating them from the things they need. This appropriation was systematic and spread well beyond South-Central L.A., where the rebellion began, into high-priced shopping malls and boutiques such as those of wealthy Beverley Hills.
All these "Riots", denounced by President Bush as an impermissible breakdown in law and order, have actually been creating new laws of distribution and a new kind of money-less order in which vast quantities of wealth are being, very quickly, transferred from the businesses which have, to those who do not. Beyond such direct appropriation, however, we must also see the political statement of the burnings: the demand for an end to the institutions of exploitation themselves. Sociologists may well label these rebellions, as they did those of the 1960's, "commodity riots" but we must also recognise that the rupture of the merchantile circuits of capitalist society is a political blow to its lifeblood.
THE LANGUAGE OF CLASS:
Riot = business governmental and media derogatory term for “popular rebellion”
Looting = business governmental and media derogatory term for “direct appropriation” or “proletarian shopping”
Vandalism = business governmental and media derogatory term for “wiping out the institutions of exploitation”
Law = euphemism for the rules of capitalist exploitation
Remarkable in the dynamics of the rebellions has been the failure of the forces of mediation. When the verdict came in on the night of Wednesday the 29th, every respectable "community leader" in Los Angeles, from black Mayor Bradley on down, strove to avert rebellion by channelling anger into manageable channels. Meetings in churches were organised, passionate gospel music was mixed with equally impassioned speeches of outrage - all designed to permit a powerless, cathartic venting of emotion. At the biggest meeting, covered by Network Television, the desperate Mayor went so far as to make an explicit plea for no action. Just as good business trade unions see their primary job as imposing contracts and maintaining labour peace, so did the good community leaders see theirs as the maintenance of "order". They failed.
Over and over again, such local leaders, city officials (including the notorious Chief of Police Gates) and the White House have tried to draw a line between a "lawless" few young thugs (the Willie Horton icon again) and the "law-abiding" majority of the community. But reports have made it clear that all kinds of people have been participating in the rebellion. Nor has this been a "black" rebellion, even though it began in a predominantly black neighborhood. Even the elite New York Times (1, May, 1992) has reported both of these phenomena, signalling to the ruling class the seriousness of the explosion:
"Some areas took on the atmosphere of a street party as black, white, Hispanic and Asian residents mingled to share in a carnival of looting. As the greatly outnumbered police looked on, people of all ages [and genders], some carrying small children, wandered in and out of stores and supermarkets with shopping bags and armloads of shoes, liquor, radios, groceries, wigs, auto parts, gumball machines and guns. Some stood patiently in line to take their turn."
Like the Brixton "Riots" in the early 1980's, this has been a multiracial community uprising. What some have called the "impossible class" and others "the tribe of moles" has coalesced and surfaced once again - against a police and against an economic system which have done their best to make their lives miserable.
A Riot in a Community
a Wildcat Strike in a Factory
Across the country, these scenes have been repeated on a smaller scale and have been supported by dozens of other kinds of demonstrations protesting against the injustice of the Rodney King verdict and articulating at least some of the outcries of the rebels. Here in Austin, capitol of the state of Texas and home to the University of Texas, high-tech electronic firms and a sizeable population of blacks and Mexican Americans, news of the uprising in Los Angeles also brought people spontaneously out of their homes and jobs and into the streets. Within hours, first at the downtown, central police station and then at the state capitol building, a cross-section of the city - of all colours and ethnic backgrounds - was speaking out angrily about the developing events. In both gatherings, chants of "NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!" echoed those of Los Angeles.
Everywhere people are meeting, discussing, arguing, debating and taking action as the struggle circulates across the nation. In school classrooms and in open areas to which they have marched, in elementary schools and universities, students are participating in this discussion and organizing for action. A week ago the nation watched as two natural earthquakes shook Northern California and wondered if "the big one" would be next ["The Big One" is the long-predicted large-scale earthquake which will cause massive destruction along the San Andreas fault in California]. Today a social earthquake in Southern California has sent shockwaves rippling across the continent, making us all wonder if the revolutionary "big one” is far off.