From “race riots” to multiracial urban rebellions (pt. 1: LA 1992)


In 1991–92, the beaten Black man was Rodney King and the perpetrators were Los Angeles Police Department officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano. The fires began across Los Angeles on the afternoon of their acquittal.

The morning after the LA riots began, a trusted friend at my high school asked if I “beat myself up last night.” (I’m biracial.) Because that was the paradigm for understanding a Black-led uprising in response to police brutality: a race riot. As in Tracy Chapman’s “Across the Lines” (1988):

Little black girl gets assaulted
Ain’t no reason why
Newspaper prints the story
And racist tempers fly
Next day it starts a riot
Knives and guns are drawn
Two black boys get killed
One white boy goes blind

Choose sides
Run for your life
Tonight the riots begin
On the back streets of America
They kill the dream of America

On the streets of South Central LA, but above all at one intersection, Florence and Normandie, the antagonism of the first day did run on race line and target white, Latino, and Asian civilians for violence and humiliation. The beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was dragged from his trailer and beaten until his skull fractured, became the first national symbol of the riot, a chromatic negative of King’s beating made flesh. This brutal scenario had evolved out of a nearby confrontation with police earlier in the afternoon, but took on a momentum of its own.

In fact, “virtually all of the victims [at Florence and Normandie on that first day] were struggling Hispanic and Asian immigrants who spoke little or no English,” (per U.S. News) but the national narrative was set: “black rage, white fear,” as a New York Times headline would read on May 4, 1992. In any case, it was cast as a “race riot” — a term that can encompass and conceal many historical events under a single category: white massacres of post-Civil War freedmen communities (from Memphis 1866 to Tulsa 1921); genuine clashes of white and Black civilians aided by white-dominated police forces (Detroit 1943); and Black uprisings against police violence (notably the Long, Hot Summer of 1967). The framing of “race riot” conceals questions of power, authority, and domination within the guise of ethnic antagonism. The only question left in this frame in that posed by a distraught Rodney King: “Can we all get along?”

And yet, the six days of civil disorder in Los Angeles was many other things.

The anger and fearlessness and outrage were contagious and they spread widely. They targeted not just racial adversaries but first of all the police, and secondly an economic system that excluded many. On the same morning-after page of the New York Times that cast the riots as “racial disorder,” there was the account of a “rainbow of rage”:

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Peru convicts Walter Aduviri, acquits seventeen others in Aymarazo verdict [Guest Post]

This guest post is by Kellie Cavagnaro (website|Twitter: @KellieCavagnaro), a Vanderbilt graduate student in Anthropology who is conducting fieldwork in the Puno region of Peru.

As of Thursday afternoon, the fates of eighteen indigenous activists who were indicted for their leadership in the 2011 anti-mining protests in Puno region, Peru, have been decided. Sixteen men and one woman of the Aymara Nation have been acquitted today for their involvement in organizing and leading a region-wide uprising—known as El Aymarazo—against the Santa Ana silver mining project (Wikipedia) owned by Vancouver-based Bear Creek Mining. Only the movement’s widely-recognized leader, Walter Aduviri, stands convicted on a count of inspiring destruction of state and corporate property. (All 18 defendants were acquitted of the charge of extortion.)  He left court in high spirits nonetheless, surrounded by loyal supporters who marched behind him through the urban center of Puno, the capital city of the region.

Video: Aduviri leaving Puno’s Palacio de Justicia at nightfall amid wide support from Quechua and Aymara activists

Aduviri faces the likelihood of seven years in prison and a fine of two million Peruvian Nuevo Soles (about $575,000 USD). His final sentencing is scheduled for July 18th, 2017, but today’s provisional sentencing carries heavy consequences for the political future of this region’s indigenous citizens.  As a result of the court’s decision, Aduviri, who held political ambitions for 2018 regional governance in Puno, may lose his lands and campaign financing in attempt to pay the exorbitant fees, and be ineligible for public service once his sentence is finalized. Aduviri runs on a stringently anti-mining campaign platform, and his political symbol, a blue gotita (droplet) of water with a winking face, is painted along myriad houses and community buildings all along the highway tracing the southern shores of Titicaca.

The politically-charged consequences of these financial sanctions have incensed many of Aduviri’s Aymara and Quechua supporters, who demonstrated en masse, braving the cold and waving wiphala flags in support of “Hermano Walter”. Discussion and planning is already underway for a new wave of Aymara protests, road blocks, and regional strikes, though citizens are awaiting the final sentencing in a few weeks. Just after the decision was announced, I raced north across the city the recording studio at Pachamama Radio with Aymara communicator and women’s rights activist Rosa Palomino. She and her communications team broadcasted their weekly Aymara language news and culture show, Wiñay Pankara (Always Blooming), with a focus on the day’s legal proceedings. On the air were Palomino and her associates from the Union of Aymara Women of Abya Yala, or UMA, and invited guest Lucio Ramos, a local yatiri, or Aymara spiritual leader and educator, who encouraged listeners to take charge of their indigenous communities’ bienestar (wellbeing) and “train-up” to be indigenous sociologists, anthropologists, and community reporters. Central to the program’s discussion was the theme of representation; from the state’s refusal to address collective land rights issues, to the mainstream media’s avoidance of indigenous rights violations and neglect of Aymara perspectives on illegal land concessions and corporate manipulation of local governors.

The proposed Santa Ana mine at the center of today’s conflict is located in the Aymara village of Huacullani, an Andean community of the altiplano, the arid high-altitude plain that traverses the Peru-Bolivia border along the shores of Lake Titicaca. Back in 2011, the conflict over unwanted mining infiltration at Huacullani ignited the El Aymarazo uprising, which quickly spread to protests and demonstrations against various extraction projects throughout the region, all of which were operating against the United Nations’  ILO 169, which guarantees indigenous communities the right to free, prior, and informed consent on all extraction and development projects on their territories. It remains to be seen if a second wave of El Aymarazo will retain the same strength in numbers as the 2011 movement that successfully halted state and municipal roadways, and shut down the center of Puno for days on end. But after Thursday’s momentous court decision, across the radio fields of the altiplano, cries for a new “Quechuazo y Aymarazo” echoed into the night.

— Kellie Cavagnaro

Photo above headline: Palacio de Justicia surrounded by Aymara and Quechua activists waving the Andean wiphala. (photo by: Kellie Cavagnaro)