I just saw Straight Outta Compton near my home, in a tiny theater that dates back to the silent era (1913) and which has miraculously survived the wrecking ball. It brought up so many vivid memories and thoughts since N.W.A.'s music was kinda the soundtrack of my life as I grew into adulthood and was politicized by events depicted in the film.
And it necessitates a disclaimer: I deplore the misogyny in the film as much as I do in the music. Regardless, the music's rebellious anti-police message was a reflection of the spirit of resistance during that era, which has amazing resonance with Black Lives Matter today. And the time of the film's release is fitting too, as it's the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion (which ended 50 years ago tomorrow, after igniting Los Angeles -- not just Watts -- with 6 days of rioting).
Now the personal stuff: I was born in Long Beach, which touches Compton on its southeast border, and many of my older relatives lived in these municipalities of southern LA County when the area was heavily industrialized with well-paid jobs for the white working class. Much like the transformations in Ferguson, Missouri, Compton is predominately a residential bedroom community that has always relied on surrounding cites for jobs. And as the area began to deindustrialize, it went from being almost exclusively white in the 1950s to majority black by the 1970s. Then it transformed again in the 1990s and became majority Latina/o as the last of the Fordist factories closed and most of the few jobs that still exist today serve the supply chain extending from the LA/Long Beach port complex 10 miles away, to bring manufactured products from elsewhere -- mostly Asia -- through this international gateway.
As areas like South Central Los Angeles and surrounding towns suffered the devastation of economic hollowing out and unemployment, in the era of Ronald Reagan the state-level response to this social crisis was unleashing police repression and prison building. The Los Angeles Police Department created elite units, like Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) in 1979 and they were a rapid-response force to gang violence (in the tradition of LAPD's SWAT team, created in response to Watts).
As a 17-year-old I experienced their "kick asses and take names later" approach the summer after I graduated from a central LA high school in 1980. On one sweltering hot night my friends and I were drinking beer on the sports field of our closed-for-summer high school and got the stupid idea of walking around the campus. Unbeknownst to us, a 24-hour security guard was stationed in a newly constructed building. He phoned the cops and said he was being overrun by a street gang. CRASH arrived, having been dispatched from the infamous nearby Rampart Division, swinging batons and if we didn't get whacked right after getting chased down and tackled, we got handcuffed and thrown onto the hoods of the squadcars, with the cops gratuitously slamming our heads into the sheetmetal. The scene in Straight Outta Compton where Ice Cube has the exact same thing done to him by LAPD goons right in front of his parents is straight outta my memory (and he's from South Central LA, not next door in Compton). The CRASH cops kept asking us what our "set" (gang) was, but when we didn't understand they brought us into a more lighted area and saw the absurdity of a gang of a half dozen Latino, Asian and white kids who looked more like skateboarders than gangbangers. The cops simply uncuffed and let us go, as though nothing had happened.
I knew LAPD were pigs, as I'd watched the 1974 shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army live on TV, but I also learned that being white was no immunity to getting my ass kicked by the men-in-blue. That same summer, it happened again but this time at a house party just a block away from my former high school. A Filipina classmate and her brother had a house party on a weekend that their parents were away. Pretty typical, they cleared all the furniture out of the living room of their humble single family house to be a dance floor with one of their friends being DJ. It was like a mini-UN that reflected the diverse students I'd just finished high school with. There were only a dozen or so black kids in my graduating class, and they were all there. So were kids from families that had immigrated from China, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Central and South America, and white kids of European descent like myself. It was a pretty mellow party and all of us were having fun, dancing and drinking.
Some of us were in the kitchen at the back of the house when we noticed the "ghetto bird," the LAPD helicopter shining its spotlight over the house and sending rays of intense light through the windows. Which is nothing unusual in LA, just the pigs prowling overhead looking for crime breakers (Mike Davis pointed out that LAPD choppers logged in more airtime than the British military did in all of Northern Ireland). Since we were inside and it was only around 11:00 p.m. and the music wasn't that loud, we thought nothing of it -- until out the windows we saw the riots helmets of a dozen or so SWAT team members running down the driveway along the side of the house. We immediately locked the back door and looked for an escape. As we made our way to the front, we saw the girl who was the party host standing at the front door attempting to negotiate with the pigs. Once the front door was fully open, they simply grabbed her and pulled her down the outside steps and sent her sprawling on the front lawn. The SWAT pigs formed a gauntlet and ordered all of us through it and out onto the sidewalk and into the street. If someone didn't pass them quickly enough, they got a jab with the riot baton or a whack across their backs -- sometimes both.
My friends and I had been at the back of the house, so when it was our turn to exit the house we practically ran outside and through the gauntlet and didn't stop till we were a block away. There, we looked back and saw some of our friends lying face-down on the lawn being handcuffed, all this punctuated by the pig copter that hovered in arcs overhead, illuminating the whole scene like light flares in World War I trench warfare. We counted around 15 squad cars clustered in the middle of the street, meaning at least 30 pigs to bust a party with 50 kids. Typical LAPD overkill, just like the film depicts, except in 1987 LAPD Chief Darryl Gates escalated this domestic war when he launched Operation Hammer as a campaign to racially profile, corral and arrest thousands of black and brown youth for essentially no reason -- although the media spectacle presented it as a crackdown on gang violence.
Straight Outta Compton does an excellent job of showing all this heavy-handed policing, including scenes of battering rams purportedly being used to raid crack houses. A must-read to understand all this is Gerald Horne's The Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s to get a sense of how the struggle against police harassment preceded Watts -- its roots date back to the LAPD Red Squads created in the aftermath of the dynamiting of the LA Times Building, which killed 21 during a strike in 1910, allegedly by the anarchist McNamara brothers -- and how since then it has been a highly militarized police state that regularly brutalizes anyone homeless, poor, working class, radical, queer, non-conformist (like wearing a zoot suit), and especially a person of color. Watch Cle "Bone" Sloan's' Bastards of the Party to see how the Crips and Bloods were born out of self-defense against white racist gangs that LAPD condoned. And watch Straight Outta Compton to see the events and listen to the soundtrack of the conditions that gave rise to the Rodney King Rebellion. Critique the misogyny, homophobia, and corrosive effects of fame and wealth (and Ice Cube's brief flirtation with anti-Semitism), but see the open expression of contempt for the pigs as the spirit that also animates Black Lives Matter. It's the same struggle.
It was true in 1965, 1992, and it is still true today, whether in Oakland, Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore or LA: FUCK THE POLICE!