The rage undammed

UCLA rally shortly after the Rodney King Verdict.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 107 June/July 1992

‘lt is no coincidence, either, that it all happened in the American city that most epitomises the burgeoning growth under Presidents Reagan and Bush, of a powerless underclass – a Rich v Poor polarisation in a city here the world’s most obscene conspicuous consumption of wealth exists so closely alongside Third World-type ghettoes, where Bel Air can seem like exclusive parts of Johannesburg and South Central Los Angeles more like Soweto.’ Andrew Stephen, Observer  

On 29 April, following the acquittal of four police filmed beating a black man, Los Angeles erupted in the fiercest uprising seen in the US since the 1960s. The rising left 58 people – mostly black or Hispanic – dead, 12,000 arrested, 3,700 buildings and 10,000 businesses destroyed. An estimated $1 billion damage was done. The fighting, which continued for over two days, only stopped when the Bush government deployed 5,000 police, 1,590 sheriffs, 2,300 state police, 1,000 FBI, 6,000 National Guard, 3,000 7th Infantry and 1,500 marines.

The jury’s verdict was delivered at 3.15pm and within an hour crowds had gathered and begun to attack property and police. By 8pm it had spread and LA Police Headquarters, the courthouse, City Hall and the LA Times building had been targeted for assault. Determined crowds, including gang members, attempted to spread it to rich areas of Beverley Hills and the Hollywood dream factory itself, but it was around these and around the police HQ, courthouse and newspaper buildings that the police and military presence was concentrated. $1 million had been set aside in advance of the trial to prepare this response. Those store owners in South Central LA, asking where were the police when their buildings were burned or looted, need look no further than these rich areas. Damage was concentrated in the poor areas simply because the police and army were used to prevent it spreading to the rich areas.

As news of the verdict spread nationwide, outbursts began to hit Atlanta, San Jose, Las Vegas, New York and, most seriously San Francisco where 1.400 people were arrested when police used tear gas to break up protests.

An open and shut case

The immediate cause of this massive outburst was the acquittal of the police officers who had been filmed brutally beating Rodney King. They were seen using an electric stun gun on an unresisting King and landing 56 blows with their batons causing facial fractures, a broken leg and extensive bruising.

This beating was shown extensively on television and even the police radio messages about the event were heard. The police were heard calling black people ‘monkeys’, ‘bumboys’ and saying of King: ‘I haven’t beaten anyone that bad in a long time’. These embarrassing revelations brought forth pious exclamations of shock from the LA Police Chief, President Bush and other public figures. Here, after all, was clear and irrefutable evidence of police racist brutality. Surely nothing could stop a conviction? Indeed many black leaders cooled the situation when the film was first shown last year by arguing precisely that. Surely the US justice system, imperfect as it is, would not allow this blatant act to remain unpunished, they said.

And it is precisely at this vulnerable point that the shock of the verdict hit home. The jury and the court saw the reality of life for black people in vivid film, saw the racism of the police, saw the way in which black people are beaten like dogs on the street and said – ‘it’s OK, that’s what we expect our police to do to black people’. As a result many commentators have called the jury ‘innocent and naive’. Such commentators had supposed the jury would be sophisticated enough to go along with the game of pretend that would convict the odd policeman who had been caught red-handed in order better to protect a system that is racist to the core.

Alexander Cockburn put his finger on the point:

‘The jurors ... had two options. They could have accepted the arguments of the prosecution and the apparent evidence of the video footage and convicted the four LA police officers. Amid rousing cantatas as to the “basic fairness of the system”, life would have continued on its usual unfair course. Or the jurors could have taken the path they did in fact elect, which was to go to the very heart of the matter and conclude that these officers were only doing what they had been trained to do and that all the famous video footage demonstrated was that they had indeed gone by the book.’ (New Statesman, 8 May 1992)

By choosing the second option, the jury (whom 50% of whites polled thought reached an understandable verdict) has exposed what many in the US, including middle class black leaders, desperately want to keep hidden. For years, indeed since the days of the Civil Rights movement, the argument has been that the US system could be gradually purged of its racism. That the granting of civil rights and steps towards equality of opportunity could create a more fair society. The jury in LA pulled aside this curtain of myth and showed a society which has become more and not less polarised. In which to be black is increasingly to be poor, to be in prison, to be the victim of the police. Conditions have not got better for the majority of black people, they have got worse. And a sizeable number of Hispanics and whites share that poverty and brutalisation. They too – the Have Nots of US society – joined the riots. They too recognised the message of the LA court: ‘We are wealthy and have something to protect. We will protect it with a police force which uses any means necessary to keep you out of our areas and out of our minds.’

The American dream founders…

Myths die hard. Especially when they are myths peddled to keep the poor in their place. Hence President Bush declared himself ‘frustrated’ at the verdict. Hence too, the ritual calls by black leaders for the police concerned to be prosecuted under civil rights law. They appear to believe that such a step would restore black faith in the judicial system. They miss the point. Most black or other minority groups know, and many reasonably honest whites admit, the beating was not in the least unusual. A Commission investigating the LA police last year, found them to be habitually racist and brutal. It was not, for instance, until there was an outcry following 16 deaths caused by police choke holds, that this method of subduing people was stopped. Daryl Gates, the Police Chief, said at the time that choke holds killed black people because their neck arteries did not work like those of ‘normal people’.

Nor was the acquittal of the police concerned an unusual event. The US courts are consistently biased against black people. The trial of the LA police had been switched to Ventura County, a rich suburban area where many police live, and there were no black people on the jury. The 1 in 3 black men who have been through the police/court/prison system have few illusions in its fairness. But there is a difference between thinking that a system works unfairly and thinking that a system is designed to be unfair. The first may be reformed but the second can only be destroyed. The jury’s verdict reflected the polarisation of US society that has taken place, the end of its brief brush with liberalism, the drawing of battle lines. And the response of the oppressed too recognised that changed reality. The middle ground has disappeared.

This is a bitter blow to those who had peddled the gradual improvement myth. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was a mighty movement for the enfranchisement of black people. They won their basic civil and democratic rights. But the reality has not been the Promised Land of which Martin Luther King spoke to the parents of the LA rioters.

...on the rock of economic reality

The Promised Land, often only a mile away from the ghettoes, is mainly white and very luxurious indeed. But the condition of black people is wretched. Although they make up 12% of the US population, they receive only 7.8% of personal incomes. The median household income of black people is 60% that of whites, exactly the same as it was in 1967. 45% of black children live below the official poverty line (reflecting the impoverished state of many mothers) and their infant mortality is double the national average. Hardly surprising that stores were looted for such ‘luxuries’ as nappies, meat and clothing. Alongside this unremitting poverty go the bleak statistics of wasted and blighted lives. In Washington last year 42% of black males aged between 18 and 35 were involved in the criminal justice system; 70% had been arrested by the age of 35. Half all US murder victims are black. There are more black men in prison than there are in higher education. 30% of AIDS cases are among black people. In Los Angeles last year 700 young people were shot dead in gang fights.

After the riots of 1967, President Johnson appointed a Commission of politicians, industrialists and Police Chiefs to investigate the causes. The Commission found widespread discrimination, poverty and lack of opportunity to escape from these conditions. This very moderate body said:

‘Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society ... The major need is to generate new will – the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary to meet the vital needs of the nation’.

Johnson implemented various public programmes in housing and anti-poverty fields. But the main result was not the alleviation of poverty but the enlargement of the black middle class employed to administer such programmes. In 1967 the Commission had already commented that there was a growing black middle class but: ‘the development of a small but steadily increasing Negro middle class while the greater part of the Negro population is stagnating economically is creating a growing gap between Negro haves and have-nots’. Today the realisation has certainly sunk in that no country, even the richest imperialist country in the world, can consist entirely of the middle classes. And under Reagan and Bush even this small ladder of opportunity has diminished. The programmes have disappeared. In the 1990s black men with degrees earn 79% of white salaries, the same as whites with only high school education. Between 1973 and 1990 the average yearly income of black high school graduates fell in real terms by 44%.

In the 1960s when the US, despite its war in Vietnam, was a great deal richer than today, it proved impossible to change the condition of the majority of black people. Those leading the struggle were murdered one by one – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Panther leadership. The black struggle was left without leadership and black areas became even more demoralised. In the 1980s under Reagan, taxes were cut, the rich got richer and the greatest sufferers were the black population. As the US de-industrialised, the need for unskilled labour fell further and the jobs available were the very rock bottom service jobs and few of those. Unemployment in black areas is now over 50%.

Today, only the lonely voice of JK Galbraith reminds us of the liberal era that has passed. In his latest book The Culture of Contentment he calls, just as the Riot Commission of the 1960s did, for increased taxes to provide a programme of public works. He points out, more honestly than most bourgeois ideologists, that what he calls an ‘underclass’ (in reality this ‘underclass’ is the most oppressed layer of the working class) performs a necessary economic function in all advanced capitalist economies. Escape from this class is now firmly blocked and ‘as membership in the underclass becomes stable and enduring – greater resentment and social unrest should be expected.’ The optimism of the 1960s has vanished. He predicts no happy ending because he says, the wealthy will not pay the price of giving real aid. Instead they will guard their rich areas, blame the victims of poverty for their ‘criminal disposition’ and institute ‘increasingly oppressive authority in areas of urban desolation’.

In this Galbraith is merely describing a process well underway already and vividly highlighted in Los Angeles. In his pessimistic tone we can hear the voice of someone who knows the middle ground has vanished. With a federal deficit of $400 billion, there will be no anti-poverty programme. Not only the means is lacking but also the will.

The brief life of US liberalism

In the 1980s voices began to be raised complaining that programmes of affirmative action, designed to open up areas of employment hitherto blocked to black people, had gone too far. This despite the fact that such programmes had achieved negligible results. Grotesquely, white voices were raised complaining that they were now discriminated against. At the same time black ideologists, in line with the facile ‘Whooey you can make it if you think positive’ of US TV game shows, began to argue vociferously that black people were the authors of their own misfortune. Shelby Steele blamed the decline of the black family and a black female author blamed long-suffering black women for ‘emasculating’ their men folk. It did not take a genius to notice that the stage was being set for blaming the victim in order to justify clubbing him. Everybody shifted to the right one pace. Ex-Klansmen ran for public office. White liberals began to whisper about their deep fears of black crime. Democrats began to compete with the Republicans in their espousal of the death penalty.

And Los Angeles has brought them all out of the woodwork both in the US and Britain. Charles Murray in the Sunday Times, argued that:

‘...The white reactions to the riots will be profoundly different from the reaction in the 1960s, because a consensus of whites no longer accepts that whites are to blame for black problems’.

Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph said: ‘Alone among ethnic groups inner-city blacks do not have what it takes to prosper in the land of the free . . . the whites persist in talking about the plight of the black as if it were a material problem rather than a moral problem ...’

and goes on to call for a sinister and vague ‘exercise in coercive social engineering’.

The Economist argued:
‘By every available measure of self-discipline, whether education, sexual morals, willingness to work or vandalism, the black ghettoes of LA are in an appalling state’.

Time and again the commentators refer to the ‘pathology’ of the black family; welfare dependence; lack of self-discipline and loose morals as the cause of black poverty. Such arguments are the timeless responses of the rich when they care to study the lives of the poor and will be found in the self-righteous spoutings of British Victorians studying slum life. The poor are always poor because they deserve to be. In the US today the commentators have merely added a vicious dose of racism.

The US ruling class, built from slavery and from looting the world, dares to talk of morals! It has created a culture in which nothing at all counts other than money and power and the pleasures these can purchase. Ironic that LA, home to the Hollywood purveyors of pornography and violence, should suddenly get a fit of the morals where black people and poor people are concerned.

The facts are rarely heard. The white nuclear family has been decaying at the same rate as the black family over the post war period. Nor is it clear, in the arguments of the racists, how the presence of an unemployed father would ease the transition from poverty to riches. The much cited cost of welfare payments is negligible compared to the benefits paid to the well-off. $50 billion, 56% of housing subsidies, goes to the richest 20% of the population in the form of mortgage relief. The poorest 20% get $15 billion. Social security pensions and Medicare are entirely government funded and almost exclusively benefit the middle classes whereas welfare payments and Medicaid are largely locally funded. It is the rich in the US who get the real handouts.

The poor should certainly be arguing for an end to the culture of dependency – the dependence of the rich on robbing the poor! The dependence of the wealthy on tax handouts and subsidies! The dependence of employers on low-paid workers without rights! The dependence of the wealthy in Beverly Hills on Hispanic maids and gardeners to keep their clothes clean and their beds made!

And in their actions in Los Angeles, in their rage against their own condition, the poor were taking the first steps towards a conscious rejection of the fate to which the rich have consigned them. They will remember their dead and imprisoned and recognise that the power they expressed during the uprising terrified the rich. There will be no reforms this time, to hide the reality of racism and poverty and offer escape to isolated individuals. This time, hopefully, people will learn that their fate lies in the collective action they take to fight a system which is unreformable. In the divided condition of US society, there are millions waiting for this call.

Maxine Williams