LA: Days of Rage
Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Supplement to 1917, May 1992
With the “end of communism” America’s rulers dreamed of a “new world order” in which the oppressed would meekly submit to their oppressors. The fires that swept Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King verdict proclaimed that such an order is not to be. In the greatest explosion of anger since the ghetto upheavals of the 1960s, tens of thousands of blacks and Latinos took to the streets of the country’s second largest city to serve notice that they would no longer endure deepening poverty and rampant racist terror without fighting back.
In most respects the incident that ignited the LA explosion–the near-fatal beating of an unarmed and defenseless black man–was nothing new. Escalating police violence and lethal force against inner-city blacks and other minorities–from Philadelphia to New York to Miami–has been the calling-card of the Reagan-Bush era. The badges and batons of the LAPD, which pioneered the choke hold and the doctrine of massive police “response,” have long been symbols of racist terror on the streets [of] the South-Central and East-Side ghettos. The assault on Rodney King was different only because it was captured in agonizing detail on videotape and broadcast continually on TV screens throughout the country for over a year before the trial. So clear-cut, in fact, was the case against the police, that the LA judiciary and District Attorney–part of the same repressive apparatus as the LAPD–probably feared that any inner-city jury would make too harsh an example of the four uniformed marauders. It was no doubt to prevent such an outcome that the presiding judge transferred the venue of the trial to Simi Valley, a prosperous white suburban enclave which is home to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, as well as 2000 of the 8300-member LA police force.
But the tactic backfired. It was widely expected that even the most right-wing jury, confronted with the irrefutable evidence of their senses, would at least try to maintain the outward appearance of justice by imposing light prison terms on one or two of the indicted cops. However, in the racist climate of the 1990s, the overwhelmingly white jury was not concerned with appearances. Their verdict merely affirmed explicitly what Bush, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Congress have been saying implicitly for years: that blacks are less human than whites; that the kind of treatment meted out to Rodney King is not only to be winked at, but commended; that thousands of victims of police terror can expect more of the same without hope of redress in the courts; that batons and bullets, overcrowded prison cells and lethal injections are a degenerate system’s only answer to the despair of America’s impoverished urban ghettoes. As revolutionary Marxists, we share the rage of South-Central Los Angeles.
LA: “City of the Future”
The conditions that led to the South-Central upheaval are not confined to Los Angeles; they are endemic to all major urban centers in the U.S. But Los Angeles, more than any other American metropolis, is widely perceived as the “city of the future”–the most concentrated expression of major trends in national life. And, indeed, the city’s social geography reveals in a starker form the contrasts typical of the country as a whole: on the one hand, fortified suburban islands of affluence, where the rich and well-off indulge in narcissistic life styles; on the other hand, an increasingly desolate urban core–populated by blacks, Hispanics and Asian immigrants–whose streets resemble third-world battle zones.
The “future” revealed by LA’s ghettos is grim. As is to be expected in this profoundly racist society, it is blacks who suffer most acutely from U.S. capitalism’s economic decline. The statistics speak for themselves: almost half the black families in central LA fall below the official poverty line, while unemployment among black youth has remained steady at almost 50 percent since the 1970s. The few decently paid blue-collar jobs that were available have been steadily disappearing, as those industries that have not moved their operations abroad or folded entirely, flee the inner city for outlying industrial parks. Most of the jobs that remain are in the low-wage sweatshops that have mushroomed in recent years.
The effects of this economic erosion are compounded by a government policy of “malign neglect.” The “anti-poverty” programs initiated to help put a lid back on the ghettos after the 1960s rebellions have been all but eliminated. The Neighborhood Youth Corps was dismantled under the Nixon administration, and Reagan followed suit by terminating the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). Public school classrooms in central LA, the country’s second largest school district, are today more crowded than those in Mississippi; high schools have a 30-50 percent dropout rate.
In the face of hopeless unemployment and poverty, it is hardly surprising that inner-city youth have turned in large numbers to the only available source of income: the underground drug economy. In the mid-1980s LA became the main U.S. pipeline for a new, highly concentrated form of cocaine–rock cocaine or crack–shipped in by drug cartels. Many members of LA’s biggest street gangs, the Crips and Bloods, together with hundreds of smaller gangs, plugged into this deadly traffic to become street-level pushers.
So long as the violence of the crack trade was confined to the ghetto, municipal authorities were content to maintain police repression at “normal” levels. But as ever larger amounts of drug money hit the streets, gangs required more sophisticated weaponry to protect their investments. When gun battles, often waged with Uzi submachine guns, escalated and began to spill over into adjoining white neighborhoods, stopping “gang violence” became a media crusade and a favorite hobby horse for local pols. The city administration responded with what is becoming the capitalist state’s preferred method of solving inner-city problems: police terror on a quasi-military scale.
In 1988, LA police chief Daryl Gates launched “Operation HAMMER,” a massive, indiscriminate police sweep of South-Central for the ostensible purpose of curbing drug traffic. This was not the first time the area had been subjected to Gates’ hammer-blows. The LAPD, long infamous as a gang of trigger-happy rednecks, had recently mounted nine smaller dragnet operations there. South-Central also remembers Eulia Love, a 39-year-old black widow gunned down in a 1979 dispute with police over unpaid gas bills. Moreover, in 1982 Chief Gates responded to criticisms concerning the choke-hold deaths of young black men in custody by saying that the “veins and arteries [of blacks] do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.”
But “Operation HAMMER” surpassed all previous LAPD thrusts. Billed as the “D-Day of law enforcement,” it was probably the single largest application of force in a black ghetto since the Philadelphia MOVE massacre of 1985 (which Gates has publicly praised). In the first phase, over a thousand cops, backed by elite tactical squads, swooped down upon ten square miles of central LA, arresting nearly 1500 black youths. In the months that followed: an unarmed teenager was shot and killed by police because he was alleged to be reaching suspiciously into his trousers; an 81-year-old retiree died after being pumped full of buckshot when police mistook his residence for a “crack house”; a group of apartments was attacked by almost 90 shotgun and sledgehammer-brandishing police, who shouted racist epithets, and proceeded to spray-paint walls, smash furniture and appliances, and force residents to run a gauntlet of fists and flashlights.
By 1990, the LAPD and sheriffs of adjacent municipalities had rounded up a total of 50,000 “suspects.” There are only 100,000 black youths in Los Angeles! One member of the district attorney’s office, commented that “Operation HAMMER” was “Vietnam here.” It has been officially discontinued only to be replaced by permanent, institutionalized police sweeps.
The beating of Rodney King must be understood in this context: as a minor episode in the transformation of South-Central into a “free-fire zone.” Such developments are by no means unique to Los Angeles. King was at least lucky enough to escape with his life–unlike many other innocent victims of heightened police brutality from coast to coast. Yet Los Angeles has led the way in investing that brutality with a military dimension, thus showing the entire ruling class how to handle “surplus populations” in a period of economic contraction, and once again living up to its reputation as the “city of the future.”
BEOs, Democrats and Black Capitalism: No Answer
The Los Angeles events again demonstrate the utter folly of attempting to fight racism and police brutality by putting black elected officials (BEOs) or more Democrats in office. LA has had a black mayor–Tom Bradley–for the last 17 years. After capturing office on a program of “social activism,” Bradley presided over drastic reductions in city budget allocations for South-Central in favor of greater spending for LA’s affluent Westside residential neighborhood and the downtown business district. Bradley has been almost as zealous in proving his loyalty to the ruling class as his East-Coast counterpart, Wilson Goode, who, as Philadelphia’s first black mayor, ordered the 1985 terror-bombing of the MOVE compound. Until the King tapes were broadcast, Bradley backed Daryl Gates and his “law-and-order” grandstanding.
The infamy of a Republican like Gates does not change the fact that LA has for decades been in the hands of a Democratic municipal administration. According to Mike Davis (whose 1990 book, City of Quartz, provides a compelling portrait of contemporary LA) Democratic District Attorney James Hahn, the immediate predecessor of the present DA, “probably traveled further than any metropolitan law enforcement official in the country towards establishing the legal infrastructure of an American police state.” Hahn’s legal strategy aimed at extending criminal liability for drug-related offenses from individual perpetrators to those who supposedly aid and abet them. By criminalizing whole groups of people, Hahn created the legal framework for super-sweeps like “Operation HAMMER.” Such measures, concludes Davis:
“imply a ‘West Bank’ towards the troubled neighborhoods of Southcentral LA. The ‘terrorism’ metaphor has metastasized as Hahn and Reiner have criminalized successive strata of the community: ‘gang members,’ then ‘gang parents,’ followed by whole ‘gang families,’ ‘gang neighborhoods,’ and perhaps even a ‘gang generation.”’
In LA as in Peru, the “war on drugs” functions as a camouflage for the repression needed to maintain capitalist law and order among the most oppressed and desperate social layers. And this class warfare by the bourgeoisie, on the home front and abroad, is, as ever, a truly “bipartisan” affair.
Just as futile as electing BEOs is the notion of “black capitalism”–the solution to the plight of the ghetto advocated by everyone from George Bush and his housing secretary, Jack Kemp, to Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. Capitalist America is not the society of hardworking, prosperous small businessmen conjured up in Frank Capra films. It is a highly polarized class society, where a permanent underclass of unemployed and semi-employed act as a brake upon the wages of employed workers. Blacks have always comprised a disproportionate part of this economically marginal population. It is simply a petty-bourgeois pipe-dream to think that the government or the banks are going to underwrite the creation of new black businesses when many white-owned businesses are going to the wall and millions of people who only yesterday considered themselves “middle class” can no longer pay their mortgages or afford to visit a hospital.
The crack trade now thriving on the streets of South Central LA is the only kind of “black capitalism” available to a whole generation of lumpenized street youth; because it is illegal, drug trafficking is one of the few forms of commerce not monopolized by “legitimate” capitalists. And repression is the only answer of the capitalist state for millions of black, Hispanic and other minority youth who can no longer survive by living within the rules of the larger society. Not “black capitalism,” but socialism–a society in which production is based on human need instead of profit–is the answer to the desperation of South-Central and inner-city ghettos throughout the land. The fight against racism and police brutality must be a central part of the struggle to forge the multi-racial party of the working class necessary to break the power of the capitalist state and lay the foundations for a socialist future. It is in light of these goals that we assess the Los Angeles upheaval.
Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
In the wake of the LA events, bourgeois media and politicians are quick to remind us that “rioting accomplishes nothing.” This may be true in the long term, but it is also true that every paltry reform or gesture toward racial justice that the capitalist state has made in the past has been in direct response to anger in the streets. LBJ’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s was aimed at keeping social peace in the wake of nationwide ghetto explosions. When things settled down, the “Great Society” spigot was almost entirely turned off. The only reason that one of Rodney King’s club-wielding assailants, Laurence Powell, will stand trial a second time (unfortunately not before an all-black and Hispanic jury) is because of the South-Central eruption. Voting for BEOs and Democrats, on the other hand, has only led to a deepening of black poverty and an escalation of police brutality.
The bourgeois media is full of admonishments that all citizens must “respect the law.” But since when has the American legal system ever treated blacks as equals? The response to the beating of the white truck driver, Reginald Denny, exposes the “neutrality” of the state when dealing with the rage of poor black ghetto residents. Four black men, identified from videotape as participants in the beating and robbing of Denny, were immediately arrested (one by Chief Gates himself), and dragged into court wearing prison overalls. The four cops who beat King, by comparison, were allowed to turn themselves in and immediately posted bond. Further, while the LAPD thugs were charged with assault and “using excessive force,” three of the four arrested for assaulting Denny were charged with attempted murder–which carries an almost guaranteed life sentence in California.
Marxists can have nothing but contempt for the hypocritical condemnations of “violence” and “lawlessness” now gushing forth from newsrooms, pulpits and capitalist presidential aspirants. Yet serious militants must also recognize that racism, poverty and the violence of the capitalist state will not be ended by unorganized explosions of black and minority rage, however justified. Because the black masses lack the program and the leadership to fight for a real social revolution, their spontaneous anger often strikes at the wrong targets, and leaves their real exploiters and oppressors untouched. The burning and looting of the stores of petty capitalists in the ghetto does nothing to break the stranglehold of the multi-billion-dollar banks and corporations who own the major means of producing and distributing wealth, and who are the real power behind the small-time frontmen. Attacks upon Korean businesses and a few white people who happen to pass through only punish other powerless individuals and families, many of whom are also victims of the current ruling-class offensive against workers and the poor. Such senseless and indefensible acts are partially explained by the fact that many black youth, in the isolation of inner-city wastelands, are inclined to misperceive local non-black businessmen, landlords and whites in general as representatives of a malignant and incomprehensible power structure bent upon destroying them with drugs, AIDS and police bullets. But part of the responsibility must also be laid at the door to black demagogues like Sharpton and Farrakhan, who trade on the fears of the ghetto by spewing forth anti-Semitic and anti-white poison.
The key to black emancipation lies not in spontaneous ghetto upheavals, “black capitalism” or “community control,” but in the fight for socialist revolution. Such a revolution requires that the outrage of the black ghetto masses be linked to the struggles of the only force with both the social power and objective interest in uprooting the existing social order–the integrated American working class, and especially its organized, trade-union component.
Many blacks believe that the white working class, blinded by the racism that runs so deep in this country’s history, has more in common with the white capitalist ruling class than the beleaguered residents of Harlem, South-Side Chicago or South-Central LA. The more backward white workers believe the same thing. The LA events will undoubtedly drive some of them deeper into the arms of open racists like David Duke and Pat Buchanan. George Bush is busy blaming the LA explosion on 1960s social programs in a disgusting attempt to parlay the “white backlash” into four more years in the White House.
But the Los Angeles upheaval could also be a forerunner of another, potentially much larger “backlash”: the “backlash” of ordinary people–black, brown, yellow and white–against the unrelenting attacks by the ruling class upon their standard of living over the past 20 years. While blacks and minorities have been hit hardest by these attacks, millions of whites have also been forced to pay the price of American capitalism’s economic decline. Union busting, obscene tax breaks for the rich, longer working hours for lower pay, speed-up, drastic cuts in social services and soaring health-care costs–these are the bitter fruits of the capitalist offensive on the home front, begun under Democrat Jimmy Carter and intensified during the Reagan-Bush years. Looting on the streets of LA is trifling by comparison to the $500-billion Savings and Loan bailout, which is correctly understood by most citizens as the massive looting of public coffers by the rich.
Revulsion against the class arrogance of this country’s rulers is not limited to blacks and minorities. It is reflected in a disillusionment with the twin parties of capitalism so widespread that even Democratic hacks like Jerry Brown and billionaires like Ross Perot feel compelled to pander to it, cynically posing as “political outsiders.” It is registered in polls which show that 76 percent of whites disapprove of the Rodney King verdict and that 54 percent of whites are not happy with the way Bush is handling race relations (New York Times, 11 May). It is confirmed by the fact that many white youths joined with blacks in demonstrating their outrage over the King verdict on the streets of LA. These are strong indications that the only effective response to years of capitalist attacks–integrated class struggle–is a real possibility today.
Blacks and minorities form a large percentage of the industrial working class in the U.S. They are also concentrated in the unions that maintain the nation’s cities. These workers run the buses and trains, collect the garbage, sweep the streets and staff the hospitals. They can provide the necessary link between the ghetto and the organized working class. A single general strike against police brutality could bring cities like LA to a halt, and would prove an infinitely more potent weapon than a hundred ghetto upheavals. Such strikes could open the way for a powerful working-class counteroffensive against racism and capitalist austerity. But this requires a militant, class-struggle leadership committed to breaking the stranglehold of trade-union bureaucrats and Democratic Party BEOs. The Bolshevik Tendency is dedicated to the task of forging such a leadership in the struggle for a socialist society, which can alone deliver justice to Rodney King and countless other victims of the “new world order.”