Recently, I told a group of my students at Boston College how much I’d like their help in organizing an event to commemorate the Los Angeles riots. Their response: Can you tell us more about what the riots were? What were they about? Why were they important? I was stunned by their questions for a moment, and then I realized the students are barely twenty. Newborns at best when the riots occurred. And so for them the riots had already passed out of living memory, something they have no way of knowing except maybe as story.
This is how I explained it, more or less: On March 3, 1991, Rodney King and two of his friends took a late night ride in his Hyundai Excel. King had been released from prison the previous Christmas -- he had tried to rob a Korean merchant with a tire iron, was fended off by the merchant, and shortly thereafter was apprehended by the police. It seems possible King was enjoying his newfound freedom a little too much that early spring evening. When he and his friends were first spotted by the police, the officer who called in their pursuit claimed King was driving at speeds of 110 to 115 miles per hour. By the time the chase ended, more than two dozen officers surrounded King’s car. George Halliday, an Argentinian-born plumbing supplies salesman, was awoken by the noise and immediately took out his camcorder. This is what he captured: a heart-pulsing image of a man on the ground, one arm stretched outward to protect his face, uniformed figures wielding steel batons against him.
Many people felt that the video would convict the officers involved for excessive use of force. Thus the surprise and outrage when instead, on April 29, 1992, a mostly white jury in Simi valley found three of the officers involved not guilty; they were undecided about the fourth. Over the next five days, 54 people died as a direct result of the riots, more than 2000 people were injured, more than 800 buildings were burned to the ground, and the region suffered nearly $1 billion in property damages. About half of the 12,000 people arrested were Latinos, and of these about 80% were from Guatemala and El Salvador. Roughly half of all property damages were suffered by Korean American merchants, with another significance percentage suffered by Latino-owned businesses.
I didn’t tell the students that I was a senior in college at the time, on my way to graduate school to study literature. I eventually landed a teaching job, but found myself unable to put the L.A. riots out of mind. The ten-year anniversary was just around the corner then and, as now, they remained painful and urgent to understand. I ended up writing Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. The book is less about what happened during or immediately after the riots, and more about the ways in which the riots offered us a vocabulary for talking about some real, but hard-to-articulate, anxieties. One of these anxieties, I argued, is the fear that America is in national decline. I thought that point would get the most attention, but as it turns out, I’ve had to field the most questions about my decision to call it the riots.
I’d considered the other possibilities. But an “uprising” or “rebellion” felt to me to romanticize something that was deadly serious. “Unrest” felt misleadingly neutral. And “Sa-I-Gu,” which literally means April 29 in Korean, was too focused on a specific community for what I was trying to do. I tried to be diplomatic about this word choice, saying one could use these other terms but that one needed to do so with deliberate purpose. And given these choices, the “riots” felt equally inadequate but still marginally better. I understand its reactionary implications, and have been pointedly reminded of them on several occasions. Yet, if I were writing this book now, I’d go further to say that I strongly prefer calling this event the riots because the word compactly and vividly conjures its disorderliness. When I say disorderliness, what I mostly mean is that the riots broke up the order of more reassuring narratives about the nation.
Here's an example. Before the riots, I think it’s fair to say, many in this country were under the spell of the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan’s speech-writer. The phrase “It’s morning in America again” encapsulated the kind of renewal Reagan’s brand of conservatism had supposedly brought to a country brought to its knees by liberalism run amok -- what supposedly began with the New Deal and ended with the failures of Jimmy Carter.
The commercial that popularized this phrase worked narrative magic, from its opening shot of a tugboat on a harbor, to the scene of a father and son moving a rolled-up carpet into their new home, to the delighted smile of a matronly woman at the sight of a young couple getting married. The music is stirring, the voiceover authoritative while reassuring -- personifying the avuncular. The lighting is subtle but dramatic. It evokes an America of vibrant cities, industrious farms, and orderly homes, without a hint of cynicism or doubt. No wonder this commercial is consistently ranked as one of the most effective ever produced, its catchphrase deemed more memorable than “Where’s the beef?” and “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.”
In the presence of this enchanting vision of America circa 1984, it feels churlish for me to point out that under Reagan, inequality in income and wealth grew more pronounced. The number of prisoners spiked. Unions weakened. The manufacturing base was steadily eroding. The police completed its decisive turn toward militarization. As we have seen this past fall, even campus police can now look a lot like the military when facing off against students. (All of this, as the ad pointedly foregrounds, was part of a policy that privileged control of inflation. It was as if all of our prosperity depended on making sure that a dollar today was more-or-less the same dollar tomorrow, and as a result anything could be sacrificed to this one principle. The free market would save us from there.)
Even as I point out what seems to me to be plain facts, I suspect they will only be received as such by those already skeptical of the Reagan feel-good vision. In 1984, Reagan went on to win every single state of the union except Minnesota, and would in the process claim more electoral votes than any presidential candidate before or since. His campaign, and that commercial, breathed life into a feeling that had power independent from facts. That feeling spoke directly to a longing for a social ideal that to many people probably seemed, if not a reality, then nearly so. The riots were in many ways an epilogue to the Reagan presidency, and a retort to that feeling. Not only did they help defeat George Herbert Walker Bush in his bid for reelection, but they foregrounded the ways the legacies of Reagan’s presidency were felt by those living in places like South Los Angeles and Koreatown. The riots gave expression to a kind of counter-feeling, one that rebuts the carefully managed and orchestrated dominance of a morning without end. It does so not by offering an equally managed and orchestrated narrative of renewal and hope; rather, this unplanned outburst of sharply negative emotions -- anger, resentment, grief, fear -- resisted narrative. The images we remember the riots by are for the most part amateurish, out of focus, grainy, fragmented. They aren’t experienced, as was Reagan’s ad, in thoughtful narrative order, a succession of polished and market-tested images. They are instead frenetically repeated images, shown juxtaposed against each other without a lot of premeditation, as newscasters tried to keep abreast of something that occurred quickly, in multiple locations, to a lot of different people.
If we remember the riots at all, we remember the video of King being beaten. We might also remember another video, this time from a convenience-store security camera, which shows 15-year-old Latasha Harlins turning sharply around when a Korean American merchant catches hold of her backpack, claiming she has stolen a carton of orange juice. Harlins punches the merchant two or three times, hard, on the face, then is shot in the back of the head just as quickly. At her trial, Soon Ja Du, the merchant, was sentenced to probation, community service, and a $500 fine. Some of the animosity directed at Korean American merchants was attributed to anger over this ruling. There was also Reginald Denny, the white truck driver who accidentally drove through the epicenter of the riots as it started to spin out of control, and mercifully lost consciousness as a group of black teenagers beat him with as much force as the police beat Rodney King. A news helicopter captured Denny being beaten from up high, the camera looking down, foreshortening bodies, miniaturizing and distancing. It wasn’t at all like the movies. And there is Charles Kim, a young Korean American son of a merchant who went out into the riots in a quixotic attempt to protect stores owned by Korean Americans, only to be shot to death accidentally by another Korean American. As the documentary Sa-I-Gu brilliantly recalls, the image most circulated of Kim’s corpse appeared first in black and white and then again in shocking bright-red.
These are a riot of images. They encourage multiple and competing interpretations. And, they make watching Reagan’s “Prouder, Stronger, Better” difficult. The social ideal that ad envisions begins to seem gravely suspect, with its almost-all white faces and idyllic settings, staged to stand in for a vast, heterogeneous, and complex country. Whom did this neat vision erase? After seeing the incredible racial and ethnic and social diversity on display during the riots, the complex social weave that laced and bound the city of Los Angeles to itself, it was more possible to ask this question, and to think more forcefully about how Reagan’s ideal was both a mirage and a reduction of what we are. After the riot of images, the conservative movement itself was made more visible as something that did not speak for the nation as a whole, but for segments who yearned nostalgically for a nation in which the rest of America did not, and might again not, figure. After the riots, it was less easy to claim that there was only one America. In many ways, the riots were the first major historical event of the post-Reagan era to cast doubt on the confidence that the choices being made regarding the well-being of the country were leading inexorably to greater social harmony. It would not be the last.
Consider a final set of images: planes flying into buildings, the amateurish videos, the chaos in the streets, the sharp tang of negative emotions, the unnerving sense of lost control. At first glance, 9/11 may not seem comparable to the riots. This is partly because it has for the most part been successfully narrated as a story about heroism, action conquering grief, and a call to nationalism. As a result, its major anniversaries, unlike the riots’, have become a time to affirm what is admirable about this country -- and to brush aside reminders of the wars fought abroad, the civil liberties suspended at home, and the vulnerable populations targeted for special scrutiny that also occurred in its wake. Nevertheless, similarities continue to linger that make comparisons worthwhile: For most of us, the experience of 9/11 was mediated by a riot of images which, like the videotape of Rodney King being beaten, keep whispering to us that the future is not what had been promised.
*Adapted from a talk given at Pomona College, April 24, 2012.
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Min Hyoung Song teaches English at Boston College, and is the author of Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. He's just finished a new book entitled The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American, out next spring.
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