The uprising in Los Angeles
New Zealand writer Anna Rankin reports from Los Angeles.
Last Friday afternoon, I went downtown to a protest outside the enormous Los Angeles Police Department headquarters on 1st Street. The LAPD had set up cordons, placing orange cones across streets to block traffic. Arms crossed, they stood with a wide stance outside their building. A crowd began to assemble; one of many across the city. People held signs reading I CAN’T BREATHE, a man led the people in chanting through a loudspeaker. The crowd was young, diverse. It was emotional—not peaceful, exactly—because the sadness and anger fused into a heavy emotion that seemed to tremble the line between harmony and tension.
I think back to the fact that a man was killed for a twenty-dollar bill. He needed 20 bucks, and he allegedly passed a counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes. George Floyd was a restaurant worker, a truck driver, a security guard at a restaurant and nightclub. He had been at the restaurant for five years but had lost his job because of Covid-19. In a toxicology report Covid would show in his system as would pain medication and opioid fentanyl, and considered together these amount to structural damage inflicted on a person by the injustices of inequality. We know who is dying of Covid and we know that white supremacy creates and feeds off substance abuse and addiction; these are not discreet phenomena; they are part of the overall design of the project of oppression.
He was 46 years old and he died on a Monday. He was a father and he had the knee of a cop pressed into his neck for almost nine minutes while handcuffed face down in the street. I think again about that bill and that it takes such desperation to risk using a counterfeit bill in this punitive country. To take such a risk means you don’t have 20 bucks—testament to the racial character of capitalism that tells us an overwhelming portion of this nation do not have enough.
During Friday’s protest, a leader of BLM told a reporter they “wanted to go to places of white affluence, so that the pain and outrage that was felt can be put right in their faces”. The goal was not to cause looting, she said, but to send a message. The shifting geographies of protest have seen South LA protected. That the location of the demonstrations dominate downtown and the wealthy enclave of the Westside is a striking difference from the mass uprisings of the past, where the scenes of burning were not on palm-tree-lined boulevards, or outside high-end designer stores and mansions with the Hollywood sign looming in the distance. Daily, there are calls from BLM online galvanizing the social body to show up—active calls for white people to block police lines and protect black bodies— and people show up. The call is for transformative justice and it is happening via a multi-generational, multi-racial coalition who not only roil against the killing of black bodies and the structural racism endemic to policing, but the widening gulf of economic inequality and disparity that continues to dehumanize and subjugate millions of people in America; for the most part minorities.
It is impossible to even begin to atone without a shared consensus of understanding and recognition that it is white supremacy upon which this nation was built. It was 52 years ago that Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our nation's summers of riots are caused by our winter’s delay”. You read this and you think: Yes, how long can people wait? How long must they? Why must they? You get the sense that things don’t change around here. And now that our seasons are themselves so distorted - droughts in spring, two-week winters - perhaps one interpretation of this holds that we live now in a protracted summer of burning and there will be no metaphorical winter, where people hunker down in quiet, there will be only the scorching sun that clarifies every surface and reveals to us with blinding clarity that the foundations on which we’ve built a world are calcified husks that will crumble in their brittleness.
Everywhere, here, you get the feeling that white America genuinely wants black America kept indoors, out of sight, other than the realm of entertainment and cultural exploitation. Everything here is designed with my, which is to say the white, experience in mind. Everything is made with white navigation in mind. Covid-19 has shown America to be a failed state not only by but including the fact that black Americans are disproportionally dying at higher rate than whites, that they’re on the frontlines for job losses and when Trump calls protestors "thugs" and declares it legitimate to shoot protestors we know exactly to which social body he’s referring. There is a reckoning forcibly afoot where people can no longer wilfully turn their face from the scorching truth that it is white supremacy and its attendant political and social structures that both undergird and control a nation that has always been at war with itself, existentially and otherwise.
In Franz Fanon’s classic anti-colonial text The Wretched of the Earth (1963), he wrote: “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” How that line resonates with the death of George Floyd, so violently suffocated to death – a killing that was sanctioned by white supremacy, and we must call it that for ‘racism’ shirks precision. The more precise we are with language, the better we are to deal with weeding it out. To name something is to know it, and to give it its rightful name is to address it.
The "language of the unheard" is how King famously described riots. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside King in the Selma civil rights march of 1965, said that the future of America would depend on its response to the legacy of King. This statement is a lodestar. It is clear as to how it has responded. It is afraid of him. Afraid that he saw through everything and told the truth of what he saw. And people fear what they do not understand, and this fear becomes hate, which blinds us to the extent that what is inarguably evident and true can be ignored until, by our own design, it is scarcely visible, or not seen because we only see what we choose to look at and we can close our eyes when it is convenient, and convenience becomes habitually encoded. We cannot close our eyes to this eruptive surfacing of pain—not this time.
When a white officer murders a black man on camera there is not the sense that the white ‘community’ (should such a thing exist) will seriously and with commitment address what happened, hold one another to account and vow to never again let it happen. We merely distance ourselves from that particular actor. We feel ashamed for being white. Shame becomes like a silencer on a handgun. There may be joining in protest, uniting with others and so on, but no real sense that we commit to examining what is within us that produces this without having those that we subjugate educate, organise, articulate—do it—for us.
When the facts are so stark the only sane response is truth, eventually, when it finds a moment to combust, and this truth will always manifest in anger because that is how truth expresses itself. It results in people taking things they do not even desire as a way to express in chaotic terms the theft of what was, is, rightfully theirs that goes beyond what language can articulate. It’s in the very land. Razing what was built on that land is a way to return to truth.
Of things, I mean things like shoes, like armfuls of clothes, like two girls on the corner of Broadway and Spring during Saturday night’s uprising downtown. Standing amid smoke bombs and sirens and the loud clacking of choppers and bats smashing into glass windows the pair stood, laden, with about fifteen or twenty designer handbags lifted from Nordstrom’s around their arms, price tags dangling. A police truck pulled up beside them, glanced, looked away. The least of their concerns. Around the corner piles of empty cardboard Nike boxes stacked against a trash can, velvet jewellery boxes pried open tossed amongst glass, wooden coat-hangers splayed all over the street.
I do not have a moral opinion formed on looting stores other than it is contingent on whom is looting whom. Looting is then a question of power—who has it, who does not— not the extent to which an action is right or wrong. But it is framed as such here because white America is obsessed with goodness, as though that defines morality. It is a sentimental, childish interpretation. To be good here is to be right, to be desired. Not just, not truthful. Anger is a moral response.
As I write this, mid-week in the middle of a devastating year, there is an earthquake that rattles the table. "As if things couldn't get worse," Mayor Eric Garcetti says in reference to the shake during a live news conference downtown, where behind him a large demonstration swells among the buzz of helicopters. As I write this, the same sound of choppers continues above my apartment, the wail of sirens, the blare of my phone issuing an emergency alert of a curfew that has changed twice in a short amount of time wherein we’re instructed to remain indoors from 5pm until 6am. It’s the tenth week of a stay-at-home order, the ninth night of sustained protests and the fourth night a curfew has been issued, and there is confusion all round, because the updates keep changing. These curfews haven’t been imposed on such a scale since the response to the assassination of King in 1968.
Trump - yesterday? the day before? - announced he was mobilising all federal, civilian and military resources to thwart rioting and looting. He strongly recommended that every governor deploy the National Guard to ensure "domination". City officials must establish an "overwhelming" law enforcement presence until the "violence has been quelled", he said, and if a city or state refuses to adhere he will deploy the US military and "quickly solve the problem for them". If there were any further evidence required that the US is under a brazen authoritarian I don’t know what evidence would suffice.
To read that he calls governors weak, instructs them to make arrests, to hear him threaten to dispatch thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers, to hear him declare that rioters will be arrested, detained and prosecuted to "the fullest extent of the law"— and describe America as being "founded upon the rule of law", is terrifying. In referring to his governance as that of "law and order" he conjures Nixon, who won the presidency on the same platform after the ‘68 riots, and correspondingly this suggests that he may exploit this uprising as a means to galvanise his base. In one sentence he associates rioters with "criminals", describes protest as "domestic terror" and cynically invokes God by decrying such acts as a crime against God. He violates citizen rights holding a Bible as a prop.
Organisers of "terror" will face severe criminal penalties and lengthy sentences in jail, he says. “You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again,” he remarks. This is the first threat of US military crackdown on citizens in decades, and it is horrifying to consider what will happen if in addressing civil unrest he goes against state and local officials and orders widespread military deployments. Coupled with the pandemic crisis and its economic devastation, this moment feels to be a terrifying new phase of American history; a protracted end-of-history-moment which brings some revolutionaries joy but I think of the poor and disenfranchised, who always suffer the greatest in such tumult. And I think of my family here, my friends; it is a country I love.
On Saturday, protests spread across the city to express a rage born of despair at police brutality and centuries of systemic racism. In Fairfax district in Hollywood several hundreds of people marched, chanted, cried, screamed, hugged one another, lit fires, smashed windows, seized goods from stores as others stopped such acts, some set police cars alight, most kneel with fists in the air. There converges a class rebellion with an acknowledgment that racism is the heart of inequality. There were young people, teens, children, the elderly. The protests I witnessed were peaceful until police antagonised the crowds; firing rubber and pepper bullets, tear gas and flash bangs, and eventually arriving in military-style vehicles to clear the streets. As the day advanced, stores were set alight and the tension between the lines of riot police and demonstrators grew taut—escalating into outright violence at times, with clubs used against demonstrators. Most, if not all, accounts blame police for confrontations over the day and this, too, is what I saw. Merely seeing heavily armed law enforcement is enough to inject terror into the atmosphere. It devolves the entire tenor of the moment.
By afternoon, Mayor Garcetti announced an overnight curfew and the governor of California, Gavin Newson, declared a state of emergency. The ordinance and ensuing curfew updates would immediately shut down the Metro system, leaving essential workers stranded on sidewalks, at stations and bus shelters, risking arrest for being out after curfew. That night, downtown felt like a warzone of a citizenry against a police state. A friend who’s already there calls, I can barely hear his voice over the drone of helicopters, tear bombs exploding and sirens. He leaves the area to pick me up around 9pm. We pass the LAPD headquarters which encompasses an entire block and is tonight flanked by endless lines of armed officers who stare into the car through the open window as we pass. Outside the sound of choppers, police recorders and radios is deafening. We park right around from where I used to work, in a lot behind a T-Mobile store on Broadway where a group of young men are huddled. Walking toward Broadway is total chaos—there are people all over the street, clutching clothes, televisions, bags of stuff, there’s smoke —tear gas—everywhere so it’s hard to see and some kind of chemical irritant mixed with gunfire fills the air. There are cars screeching across the street, people running, spraying graffiti. There’s not a surface that isn’t covered with a drawing of a pig, or FTP BLM SAVE A LIFE KILL A COP ACAB RIP GEORGE FLOYD PIGS FUCK 12— the department within LAPD that handle drugs and narcotics. Glass smashing, people screaming, yelling, smashing store windows and busting in, fires being lit, people with bats, glass everywhere. Every store front is covered in graffiti and smashed open; people run pass and slam objects into shards of glass, shattering in the air. All the neighboring places I used to frequent are destroyed, it’s surreal, no less because many were beginning to open that weekend after ten weeks of a stay-at-home order. I’ve been in some dicey situations before but this was surely as close to a warzone I’ve come; the most harrowing part being the irrational violence of police. I saw no violence amongst protestors, only from police slamming people to the ground, getting in their faces, shoving them out the way.
We notice police assembling on either block, kettling us in, so we change course as it’s after curfew and they’re about to make arrests. Walking past T-Mobile toward the car we watch as the group assembled outside slowly move toward one of the large window panes, suddenly smash it, then jump in—it happens so fast I’m impressed—one makes it out and books it past us, a lightening shadow clasping a flat screen TV, another the same who jumps into a waiting car, screaming the whole time as the driver boosts. Another is less lucky and gets slammed to the ground by a dozen cops, who arrest him then drag him to a wall which he slumps against. A helicopter circles above us and we figure they assume we’re part of it as it directs its blue beam into our faces—and an officer begins to approach so we run to the car and drive, passing blocked cordons where fires burn in the street.
Every road is now blocked and they’re making arrests of those on the street or in cars within the four block radius, but it’s impossible to get out because traffic is so backed up, which officers appear to ignore as they’re screaming at drivers to back up, flashing red lights and torches in faces. Still the gun shots and screaming and honking continues and as we make a turn we run into the embers of what looks to be a bonfire of burned bicycles.
We park a few blocks away and walk through the streets that run parallel to Broadway, which itself is crammed with what looks to be a blue mass of police in lines blocking streets, their cars parked behind, casting light into faces. Those stores that were already broken into during the day are boarded up with plywood, including a Starbucks that takes up half a block and has half its windows smashed out, the other half covered in tagged ply. The iron embossed doors of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange are roped with chains as thick as my arm. At the foot of the door is a knapsack, inside of which is a coiled rubber hose with sharp metal spikes, a savage object used to puncture tyres. A homeless guy asks me what it is and after my explanation, takes it and drags it down the street, pillow in his other hand. I’ll periodically see this man over a few hours that night, dragging the hose behind. Beside us is an older man blasting rap and smiling at the situation unfolding.
Outside the CVS, which is both smashed and covered in plywood, the same homeless people who generally rest there remain in place, amongst the chaos of cars and fires and people running. Even as cars run red lights they stop for those in wheelchairs and crutches who slowly cross intersections. This is many people’s home, and to see those dragging sleeping bags and tents across the city to find a new place to sleep, not covered in wood or metal or glass or destroyed is devastating. I watch an old, unsheltered lady I’ve seen many times stare at the scene, in the middle of the street. People pass her, encumbered with shoe boxes, shopping carts filled with random household goods and grocery store baskets of food. Some inhabitants try to sleep through the mayhem, covered in blankets. I CAN’T BREATHE is sprayed over blocks of metal garage doors pulled down over stores. A small jewelry store has its grating yanked away, its windows smashed, everything taken. Full panes of glass twice my height lay on the ground, a shard breaks into my shoe. The owner of a burglarized jewelry store clambers out of the wreckage, the door pulled off its hinges and the interior stripped. TAKE OWNERSHIP is sprayed on the foyer of an elegant art deco apartment building and officers shoot rubber bullets at teens from inside a police cruiser.
No one ever urinates in public here as it’s classified as a misdemeanor offence, charged as indecent exposure, in some states categorized as a sex offense, and the fine is a thousand dollars and or six months in jail, but tonight they are, everywhere. Here, one action as benign as urinating in public can have you categorized as a felon thus relegating you to an underclass where your rights to vote are revoked, where you’re considered a criminal on every job application and where the police monitor your every move. The air is thick and it looks as though a tornado hit the district. We pass plundered jewelry store after jewelry store. On a corner, I watch two guys bust into another jewelry store and run out with glittering items. It gets done over quick, in about three minutes, and those too slow turn away. Port-a-loos are tipped over on their side in the middle of the street, Floyd’s name written on the surface. In the back streets of downtown flood lights under shop eaves cast light on those forced to move further out, sleeping on hard concrete.
In the car, heading home, I watch a news video where a woman says that the damage feels necessary. “You know why?” She asks, “Because this is how we feel every day walking down the street. We don’t get to see the beautiful buildings that everybody else gets to see. We get to feel like we don’t belong here. We get to feel like trash. We get to feel like we can’t come here. But we came here because we want to be a part of it.” This is what it’s like to walk down the streets, she says; it’s chaos. She is afraid every time a police officer drives past her.
My friend driving says the same—he’s been beaten up by cops since he was a teenager; some people are scared each time they leave their house because of police and the excessive force they use on one population, he tells me. “Some people are past the point where they want to just hold signs and, you know, yell to the police”, another woman says in a clip, “They want to see some stuff burn."
I had noticed at the protest on Friday there were less signs and placards than I’d ordinarily seen at other protests. I had wondered whether that was because, at this point, words have come to feel useless. They are everywhere written and uttered and do not correspond to action. They are hollow promises and reminders of betrayal. They are pleas that go ignored. And when they are spoken, people appear as though they’re listening, but they’re not. And when they are written, people misinterpret what is meant. Perhaps a raised fist will say more than words ever can.
There were more than 1000 arrests over the weekend, and between Tuesday and Saturday 2700 detained. Throughout, the LAPD have been collecting evidence through footage, social media, videos shared online, to find and arrest protestors. There are reports of FBI ops flying over protests; using drones and conducting surveillance on protestors, reports of the federal government monitoring and intercepting calls to locate people.
Over the weekend, law enforcement would deploy increasingly aggressive tactics, meting out violence and enforcing erratically inconsistent curfews to justify mass arrests and sweep the streets in militaristic displays of force; tasing compliant protestors, scooping up homeless people in street sweeps, firing rubber bullets, tear gas and other projectiles at demonstrators. The stories and videos emerging are a collage of inhumane horror; racial profiling, people being held for hours with no water or bathroom access, harassing and violating those in their possession; cramming protestors on buses in the heat, refusing to provide medical care, spitting on demonstrators, sexual violation, bludgeoning civilians as they try to scatter, drawing protestors into bottlenecks, shooting mace in peaceful protestors faces, actively and covertly inciting violence, police SUVs accelerating and ramming into protestors, reversing wildly hitting other bodies. Downtown, an LAPD officer shoots rubber bullets into the face of a disabled homeless man in a wheelchair at close range; he heaves forward in his chair, his mask pulled down, blood streaming from his eye. There are sadistic and cartoonishly evil acts of violence and threat, like seizing protestors bikes so they can’t get home in time for curfew and are thereby tear-gassed and arrested, and horrifying, like aiming guns in people’s faces, beating compliant protestors with batons, forming a phalanx enclosing demonstrators to make arrests and other escalatory tactics inciting fear and violence.
On Sunday morning, for the first time since the civil uprising of ‘92, National Guard troops patrolled the streets, Humvees rolling through downtown. The decision to deploy troops was a reversal of Mayor Garcetti’s original statement, whereby he declared he had no intention of calling in the guard. Instead, around 1000 guard personnel were deployed on Sunday, which I observed as I sat for several hours with my notebook on the concrete steps beside the LAPD headquarters. Waves of police SUVs speed by, military personnel exit their parked vehicles and stand beside lines of tents housing homeless people under the palm trees that line the confines of City Hall, where protestors are gathering.
Beside me were boxes of water and food left for demonstrators. At least two dozen military vehicles were parked around City Hall across the street. I watched police officers install steel railing around the building, the barricades suggesting preparation for an altercation, not resolution. Officers were clad in full riot gear; helmets, body padding and guns. I wondered how it is that at the height of Covid-19 healthcare and medical workers oftentimes had no PPE and had to use garbage bags for protection, and recycle their masks. This is just one indicator that this nation values property and control more than it does human life and justice. As endless helicopters circled the city and what seemed to be hundreds of police cars flew down streets or parked up as road blocks, I considered the obscene amount of money the LAPD absorbs from the city budget—a budget that would be announced in the coming days and could not come at a more opportune time for those who sought to defund and divest the budget into community initiatives.
As I watch the afternoon unfold, I message my brother here who is white, and is married to a woman who is black who, together, have two children. These two are who I think of all the time. I do not want this world for them. I don’t want them to fear for their lives each time they go outside. I want them to be safe, to have every opportunity all children are entitled to. I don’t want them to grow up faster than white children because they must learn things about the world that other children do not. I don’t want them to have to think of their bodies all the time, to be watchful and aware of danger. I don’t want them to be brutalised.
My brother wonders why it is now that people are roiling against police brutality—when there have already been so many deaths of black Americans at the hands of police. Why now? he asks. I tell him I think it’s that Covid had already set America on the brink. There are 40 million unemployed, thousands of businesses filing for bankruptcy or closing for good. The economy is in ruins, over 100,000 people are dead from a mismanaged pandemic, whose victims have been disproportionally minorities. Many young people, especially minorities, were gig-economy workers when the pandemic hit, and after ten weeks indoors, out of work and little hope of finding employment, who wouldn’t take to the streets despite the risk of Covid. Some researchers suggest that the overwhelming public outcry and support for an overhaul of law enforcement is linked to national polarisation following Ferguson in 2014, as well as the tone of Trump’s agenda.
That people would risk their lives in the middle of a pandemic and economic collapse shows many really do have nothing to lose, and correspondingly, many are increasingly aware of the racism at the heart of American life. This generation is exhausted. Endless war, two recessions, a pandemic, a reversal of life-expectancy which rarely occurs in the developed world. Living under four years of a Trump agenda has devastated communities, especially those black and Latino. If you’re a black man in LA, you’re 10 times more likely to be homeless than a white man. Police brutality, violence and lack of accountability—you can’t reform or mitigate this. Nor the systemic oppression, debt peonage, student loan debt, disenfranchisement, unlivable minimum wage, existence of trillionaires, undrinkable water, unaffordable health care, unaffordable housing, unaffordable education. Economic disparity and poverty leads to dissent, and in LA the poverty rate is 22 percent, with a median income lower than that at the time of ‘92’s uprising. People are fed up and the anger should, and will, escalate.
After a few hours, a flood of people descend upon the street in front of the LAPD headquarters. Troops in full combat gear, toting M-4 rifles, who had earlier that morning stood outside shattered storefronts in the city centre, now joined with the barricade of police blocking the street. As the masses approach, they stiffen. A kid gets shoved against the wall of a building and arrested, for the apparent crime of standing in the wrong place. A succession of twenty or so police vehicles pass, an armoured truck departs. It is surreal to see throngs of guards in camo and military Humvees lining First Street. Demonstrators in masks walk through the area, stopping for water, milling around. A friend surprises me, pulls down his mask— “get home safe”, he says, “curfew’s at six”. Yeah, I say, are you going to adhere to that? He pauses, laughs. I like that, he says.
I take a walk down Broadway after the morning’s clean up. It’s empty—everything is boarded up. It is so strange to walk through a windowless city and see nothing reflected back at itself. I am reminded of what the girl had said, about what certain people are allowed to see in cities and what others are not. The city has become an empty chamber, or a box where you cannot see in nor out. It is mostly eerily silent, occasionally disrupted by a cavalcade of military vehicles or fire engines. The crannies in which certain homeless men I’d known had lived are abandoned, too. It feels worse than ever, the silence more dangerous than ever.
One store is open, and on it is taped a cardboard sign reading, Please don’t loot Black owned. Wonky lettering under the old Globe theatre reads, AFTER EVERY STORM COMES A RAINBOW and I think of Baldwin’s essay collection, the title of which he took from a slave song lyric: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time. Garage doors over businesses now have FOR LEASE written on their surface, alongside PIGS FUCK COPS ACAB HEALINGFOREORGE. If a business isn’t completely destroyed it’s shielded in ply, and the streets smell of fresh sawdust.
An older black man strolls beside me down the street. He’s taking what he calls a ‘diligent citizens walkabout’ and has been living downtown since the ‘70s. This time is different, he says. It’s people of all classes. “We need to delete these files”, he sighs, “this whole world is like a computer and needs to go back to paper. We need to have paper on the street again”. He tells me that women are the answer to this— “you made us men! What happened?” he jokes. “Yep”, he says, “a woman’s intuition and nurturing…women are the only ones who are going to get us out of this mess”. He gives me his number, “text me how the revolution’s going for you”.
Leaving Broadway, I return to City Hall where demonstrators are assembled in front of the steps, facing a line of guardsmen in fatigues clutching rifles and police with shields. Periodically, demonstrators yell "I can't breathe," "No justice, no peace," "Black lives matter" and "George Floyd, George Floyd." Through a loudspeaker, one of the organisers describes this moment as being an opportunity for this generation to decide who they want to be as Americans. “I can’t help but think”, he says, “maybe this is the dream that Dr. King died for. “Peace wins,” he says, “We can’t give them any more reason to shoot and kill us. No more names”, and the crowd shouts it back.
A white guy with a red bandanna covering his mouth, wearing cargo shorts and pushing a bike approaches me and starts counting one, two, three undercover cops. I ask him how he can tell. The atmosphere is taut. There is the sense of waiting. But not for anything in particular, just to wait, to be present. Again, I notice a lack of placards and again consider that slogans only go so far, it is the force of bodies, it is raw material, raw power. After around ten minutes, someone whistles. By then, I’ve moved toward the barricade of guardsmen to the left of City Hall, and the crowd shifts position, moving toward the military cordon where I stand on the outskirts. I watch police run toward the crowd in succession and feel chilled. For some reason, the police are far more frightening than the military. Their capacity for violence seems more unchecked, perhaps. I wonder if this is to do with the fact that 44 percent of the military is non-white, and often come from the same low-income communities that police target. For many, joining the military is the only chance they have of accessing higher education.
As the crowd moves, I notice police filing in from the other side of the building, corralling the crowd into one space. It’s after curfew now, and no one is leaving. Demonstrators are verbally confrontational toward troops, but not violent. They yell, “Take a knee”, “George Floyd”. They stand in silence, fists in the air. People write I can’t breathe on the masks covering their faces. “Take a knee and move aside” they repeat to the perimeter of troops. One guy gets close to a guard who stiffens and appears to raise his gun. “Fuck this national guard bullshit!” he cries, “You’d shoot you own fucking people?”. As the tension heightens and the sun lowers, I turn to see a single file stream of LAPD run to join the cordon. It’s the calculated precision of their timing that’s chilling.
Around 7pm, well after curfew, the authorities have had enough, and set up picket line, moving protesters north on Spring Street to disperse demonstrators. This only galvanizes the crowd who again yell, “Take a knee” into the faces of guards and I don’t know why they don’t just do it, yield to the crowd. Some of them appear as though they want to. A reporter next to me says all it takes is one person bumping into that cordon and that’s it—that’s when it really begins. I leave the mass and walk back toward City Hall where groups of people sit on the steps.
The crowd seems to be thinning—people don’t want to risk being arrested. As I try to exit the area, an officer screams at me to get back, but there’s no other way out. I turn in the other direction, past a young kid perched on the steps, playing Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised from a speaker. His friend wears a t-shirt that reads, When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. Another props a sign on his feet, reading Do the Right Thing, in the same colorway and typeface as the film. I later read through reviews of the at-the-time divisive 1989 Spike Lee film, and find one by Peter Travers at Rolling Stone who wrote that Lee offered a “devastating portrait of black America pushed to the limit, with the outcome still to be written. There’s only one way to do the wrong thing about Do the Right Thing: that would be to ignore it.”
I make my way out, after an aggressive and confusing redirection by both police and troops, who refuse to let people out through the clearest exits. All streets surrounding City Hall are lined with enforcement, a sea of navy, tan and olive green. I narrowly miss the mass arrests, which that night total around 700 across the city. I walk home through an atmosphere heavy in its silence which is intermittently interrupted by a blazing procession of 10 police vehicles, their sirens wailing, and the clacking of helicopters circling the sky, tracking the swarm of protestors who roll like a river through the city.
This evening, as is customary, helicopters swarm back and forth over my apartment. How much of the world has to live with this as a constant sound overhead—the endless war and unrest some are subjected to. Again, I think of my niece and nephew here and what I wish for them. I think back several years, to Thanksgiving dinner with my brother and family here. My sister-in-law and I were lying on the floor after eating. She turned to me and sighed. What are you going to do with that mind, she asked. And that heart, she said. And what are you going to do with this, she asked, as she slowly ran the dark back of her palm over my white arm. I was swallowed in that moment. I have never forgotten the generosity of it.
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