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

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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Storming the Bastille, and what makes an event revolutionary

Etching depicting the assault of the Bastille

Historian William Sewell makes a striking claim about how the taking of the Bastille, 226 years ago today, marked not just the key moment in the French revolution, but an originary point for the very concept of revolution in the Western world. “It was by this process,” Sewell claims, “that the modern concept of revolution definitively entered French political cuiture, effecting a hitherto undreamed of but henceforth enduring articulation of popular violence to popular sovereignty.” The argument takes up a whole chapter in his book Logics of History (2005), and it’s worth your time, but here are three excerpts on the Bastille and its place.Read More »

Chris Dixon’s Another Politics: A vital introduction to North American radical politics today

I’m reposting my review of Chris Dixon‘s excellent Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements. If you want to understand my politics, and the activist experiences it grew out of, reading this book would be a good place to start. The review originally appears here in WIN Magazine. WIN just published its final issue, which includes an amazing look back at debates within organized nonviolence in the USA over the past 90 years. Another Politics is available directly from the publisher.

Book Review

Another Politics 9780520279025Over the past two decades, a certain kind of radical politics has surfaced and resurfaced, most recently within the whirlwind of activism that made up the Occupy movement. As the movement spread and encampments grew, occupiers sought to deepen their critiques and build democracy amongst themselves. Participants looked beyond a single demand to a systemic challenge, through which “all our grievances are connected” — confronting a multiplicity of forms of power, while insisting that the very process of confrontation must be rethought as well. Chris Dixon has assembled a number of self-conscious practitioners of this critical, bottom-up, and egalitarian politics, which he calls the anti-authoritarian current, in a remarkable and many-voiced synthesis of their praxis.Read More »