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7.23.2017

why do we need to say black lives matter? a brief and partial history lesson

The African American experience in Los Angeles County, California: a brief and selected timeline of sorts.*

From 1940-1960, thousands of African Americans migrated from Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and other southern states to California, hoping to find decent jobs, affordable housing, and equality of opportunity.

California was not quite as welcoming as advertised. Housing was strictly segregated. The Los Angeles Police Department under the governance of Chief William Parker functioned as an occupying army in all-Black neighbourhoods. The only contacts between the all-white police force and the black residents of L.A. were roundups, traffic stops, arrests, humiliations, and beatings.

August 1965. With the community at a boiling point, a traffic stop gone awry precipitates the uprising known as the Watts Riots. During the riots, Parker says: "These people came in and flooded the community. We didn't ask these people to come here."

("These people" were Americans, who supposedly enjoy a Constitutional right to travel freely between states. Author Walter Mosely on the Watts Riots: "Someone asked me, did all blacks feel this way? I told him, 99% of us do, but the other 1% is really angry.")

1982. Under Police Chief Daryl Gates, the occupation expands. When the LAPD is questioned about the many African Americans who died in police chokeholds, Gates says that African Americans were more likely "to die from chokeholds because their veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people."**

From 1987 to 1991, Gates uses "Operation Hammer" to supposedly clean up gang violence. With no attempt to speak with or involve the community, the LAPD deploys thousands of police to African American and Latino neighbourhoods. Families are rounded up, pushed face-down in the dirt, humiliated, demeaned, arrested, beaten, with little regard for evidence. Tens of thousands are arrested; but in the majority of cases, no charges are filed.

August 1, 1988. As part of Operation Hammer, police forcibly enter apartments at 39th Street and Dalton Avenue, holding residents at gunpoint while they vandalize and destroy everything in the homes. They smash appliances, mirrors, toilets; they shred clothes and children's toys; they rip up furniture and family photos. Police spray-paint "LAPD Rules" and other slogans on the apartment walls.

The raid nets six ounces of marijuana and less than one ounce of cocaine.**

March 3, 1991. A taxi driver named Rodney King is pulled over after leading LAPD on high-speed chase. A group of officers surround King, beat him with metal batons and kick him as he lay writhing on the ground. In an age before cell phones videos, a neighbour videotapes the beating and sends it to a local news station. The beating is shown continually on TV news. Four officers are charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. The defense claims that the beating was a function of the city's ban on police chokeholds.

Despite the irrefutable evidence that all of America had seen day in and day out, none of the four officers are convicted of anything.

It is often said that the 1992 uprising/riots followed the Rodney King beating. This is incorrect. The riots were in response to the Rodney King verdict. The African American community trusted in the judicial system, believing that this time, with incontrovertible proof, there would be justice. I think of the Rodney King case whenever I hear Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll": "Now is the time for your tears."

March 16, 1991. Soon Ja Du, a shopkeeper, incorrectly assumes that 15-year-old Latasha Harlins is stealing a bottle of orange juice. A scuffle ensues. As Latasha walks away, Du produces a gun and shoots the teenager in the back of the head, killing her.

Security footage captures the incident, leaving no doubt that Du's claims of self-defense were false.

Du is fined $500 and sentenced to 400 hours of community service.

This is just some context. Context before Oscar Grant, before Michael Brown, before Trayvon Martin, before Eric Garner, before Philando Castile. Before these people in 2015, and these people in 2016, and these people, so far this year. One American city, and a few famous incidents.

If you call the US a police state, you'll be accused of hyperbole. "Go live in [current hated country] and see what a real police state looks like!" Or closer to home, just be black or brown and live in the wrong zip code.

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* This post was inspired by watching "OJ: Made In America," a five-part documentary series, part of ESPN's excellent "30 For 30" docs. I may write about the OJ movie another time. This post is not intended for discussion of anything OJ-related.

** One of the US war resisters in Canada recognized army raids on Iraqi homes as a version of the police raids that were a regular feature of his neighborhood in East L.A. From that similarity, he began to see the US as an occupying power.

*** Gates is often heralded for ushering in the era of SWAT policing and the DARE anti-drug program. The former has escalated police violence while failing to protect communities, while the latter was a colossal waste of money, finally discontinued in 2002 after all studies proved it was a total failure.

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