Two weeks ago, I shared a piece here that I wrote about ten years ago about coming out as a disabled, gay man. Here is another look back - my latest column in the Claremont Courier, recalling the Los Angeles riots twenty years ago.
THE FIRES FAR AND NOT SO FAR AWAY
He told me to go to Hell. Actually, what he told me to do is not something I can say here. In any case, it certainly was not what I was expecting.
I had called my friend, because I was concerned, because I wanted him to know I was thinking of him. I had called him to find out if he was okay. After all, the city had gone into chaos, with people setting fires and looting and beating and shooting each other, and my friend was living at the heart of it. I wanted to know that he was safe.
I had gone several times to where my friend was living was his mother in what was then called South-Central Los Angeles. His mother, who spoke only Spanish, was proud of the way she kept her house and had a spectacular garden. The home was essentially an oasis in an area that looked and felt dangerous, an area where, to be honest, I wouldn’t have gone if my friend wasn’t staying there.
My friend knew this. He had spent a lot of time with me in Claremont and knew that where I lived was much different. He knew that what I was used to was much different.
So when I called him two or three days after the L.A riots began with the inexplicable not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating trial on April 29, 1992, my friend more or less slapped me over the phone line and told me to snap out of it. He told me he didn’t need my pity. He told me I had no business calling him, that I had no idea of what was going on there, that I was putting my safe comfort in Claremont in his face.
I had not thought of this phone call in years, but it came back to me, painfully, when I read the series of articles in the Los Angeles Times marking the twenty-year anniversary of the riots. It could well be that there were other things going on with my friend that brought out this anger (when I saw him one or two times after this, there was a marked strain in our relationship), but, as was pointed out in many of the Times articles, the King verdicts and the subsequent civil unrest put the differences between people and between neighborhoods or areas into the sharpest of contrasts.
These differences and contrasts were all too evident. Before the riots, I thought the neighborhood where my friend was living was dangerous enough. When I saw the television coverage of the riots, with the fires burning out of control, with people running through the streets and breaking windows and stealing anything they could grab in stores, with the National Guard rolling in and patrolling the dead streets at night with guns, it was like watching something happening faraway, most likely in another country. With all this violence unfolding, with civil society coming undone before my eyes, it was like watching another world from the comfort of my nice, safe living room.
Except it wasn’t. Not really.
I don’t remember if it was before or after I called my friend, but it was seeing a play at Pomona College that made me see that what was going on in L.A wasn’t so far off. For one thing, my parents and I had tickets for a play at the Mark Taper Forum, but the performance was cancelled - due to “mayhem.”
So my mother and I decided to check out the show here. I also don’t recall - this was, after all and as the Times reminded me with its series, twenty years ago - if it was a department production. It may have been a student production, because the play was written by a student.
The student was an African American young woman, and her play was about growing up in poverty. I remember it being quite powerful and emotional, and, although I don’t remember it being a sad play, I remember that suddenly I was about to cry. I suddenly saw how people could be so unhappy and so angry that they not only lash out but also destroy all that they have. I suddenly saw that this was indeed what was going on in L.A, and this made it not so far away.
As the Times stories made clear, things are now better, if not much better, overall, in Los Angeles. Yes, there is high unemployment and other economic hardships, especially among people of color, but the crucial relationship between the police and the community is significantly improved, and the vast majority of people said that they get along and that it is unlikely that such civil unrest will happen again.
I got another reminder not too long afterwards, when the Northridge earthquake struck, damaging the 10 freeway near Santa Monica and causing its (surprisingly briefer than expected) closure. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure about getting to various activities. Summer was coming - could I get to my favorite beach?
Then, there was the Landrum shooting, involving the Claremont Police Department, several years later, and, now, we are being challenged by the Occupy Claremont activists to look at the homeless in Claremont. No, we here in our small town weren’t and aren’t so faraway.