March 29, 1993

Article at Jordan on Authory

City of Fire: A Review of Literature on the L.A. Riots

The verdicts and the violence which followed have spawned a lot of talk, and a lot of publishing. The following reviews evaluate four significant publications on the topic. No doubt we have missed books that are worthy subjects for review. We regret these omissions and expect to continue to review books on the topic of race relations.

Why L.A. Happened: Implications of the ’92 Los Angeles Rebellion. Haki R. Madhubuti, Editor. Third World Press, P.O. Box 19730, Chicago, IL 60619. 1993. 287 pp., $14.95. ISBN 0-88378-094-1.

In his introduction, Haki Madhubuti points out the link between the aspirations of the 1960s and last year’s violence in Los Angeles. While many right wing commentators blame the riots on the experimentation and rebellion of the 60s, Madhubuti sees the methods of the 60s as the way out of violence, not the way in:

The '60s volcanic motion produced a significant number of men and women — of all backgrounds and races — who will never settle for the easy answers or compromises. . . . That within the L.A. rebellion there were people who looted, killed and took advantage of the crisis must not be understated or condoned. However, we feel there are other stories that are not being told.

The essays and poems in Why L.A. Happened explore and elucidate some of these other stories. Why L.A. Happened sets out to present a wide range of left wing African-American thought on the rebellion and racism. The works range from Haki R. Madhubuti's multicultural agenda which fondly recalls the Movement's unity in the 60s to Frances Cress Welsing's incendiary accusation that all white people are racist.

Madhubuti, in an essay midway through the book, decries the lack of a unified movement in the black community as an organizing force to channel black youth into constructive avenues. Madhubuti also decries the virtually total absence of men in the black urban family.

While I commend Madhubuti for the broad scope of this book, I found some things disturbing, particularly in Welsing's piece. Welsing sees racism as a Darwinian struggle for survival between the races: “all white people have the spoken or unspoken mandate to participate actively in their collective struggle for global white genetic survival.” This oversimplification rankles in its absolute attack on people based on the color of their skin. This is precisely what we must work to get beyond.

Welsing's comments on television also deserve comment. Speaking of Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine, Welsing writes: “There was / is no such similar weekly television portrayal of a well dressed white male as a female and transvestite in the white supremacy system and culture.” What about Milton Berle, whose comedy in drag is at the center of early television history? Welsing is misinformed and divisive.

The best of the essays present detailed and documented analyses of America's race problem. Donna Williams provides important analysis of the impact of the Rodney King verdicts on black children: “Here was yet another fine mess I had to explain to my six year-old son Michael. Why, in 1992, did police brutality and white injustice still have to be a part of his education?” Several writers weigh in on Atlanta, calling it, in the wake of rioting there, an example of the failure of the New South. Joyce Ann Joyce provides a compelling analysis of the film Heat Wave, which dealt will the causes of the 1965 Watts Riots, and goes on to denounce the lack of response from the black community when the venue in the trial was changed and call for more coordinated action in the future.

Why L.A. Happened presents important essays on the causes and aftermaths of the Rodney King case. It is unfortunate, however, that several of the writers do not share Madhubuti's constructive and multicultural perspective. Part of the proceeds from Why L.A. Happened will be donated to the Third World Press Prison Literature Fund, which, in 1991, donated over 10,000 books to inmates.

The Verdict Is In. Kathi Georges and Jennifer Joseph, Editors. Manic D Press, P. 0. Box 410804, San Francisco, CA 94141. 1992. 94 pp., no price listed. ISBN 0-91639:-25-4.

Ezra Pound said that “Literature is news that STAYS news.” While this description seems valid, it can leave a couple of poetic genres, specifically the occasional poem and the political poem, without a raison d'être. Many of the poems in this strikingly designed anthology will no doubt seem dated in twenty years, yet the force they have now cannot be denied. And it is difficult to say, as close as we are to the events of last April and May, which of these poems will ‘stay news’ and which will not.

Eric Trules’ poem “Fallen Angels” concerns a self-described “white jew boy with soul” who feels the need to drive from Santa Monica into South Central with his girlfriend on the day after the riots began. His car runs out of gas on the corner of Crenshaw and Rodeo, and the two were “a side show / my blond friend wearing all white like a flashing racist alarm / and me, multi-cultural trules, shitting rainbow bricks of fear." That fear conjures up an intensely imagined racial confrontation:

we’re gonna take your honky white ass
and your manicured madonna friend
an’ mess wid you
we’re gonna carve you up
fuck you up
your vacation’s over

After Trules realizes that no one actually said these words, he finds out that the guy really said, “Hey man, you need a hand?” Trules’ poem rushes along through a believable series of fears and friendships; it ends with an encouraging ability to laugh at himself.

The book also contains short prose, such as Jon Longhi’s description of the rioting in San Francisco. Although the analysis he provides seems predictable, the description of the events themselves is a powerful document. Peter Plate contributes a two-page surreal dystopia, entitled “The Last Juror,” in which the last juror — on earth? — is subjected to unspeakable torture at the hands of less-than-human police.

One of the most powerful pieces in the book is Wanda Coleman’s “Letter to Jamal.” Coleman details the inabilities of people to get along. Regionalism and the desire to bolt “for the crossover door, trying to be Niggah-of-the-minute” divides blacks from each other. Whites seem insincere in their attempts at “multiculturalism.” Coleman describes an incidence of her own stereotyping, a time when she expected someone, based on the lack of black characters in his writing, to be an “imperialist racist dog lackey of The System.” She found him instead to be charming and personable:

”What a lovely man,” I thought, and felt a little ashamed of myself. Considerably less ashamed than I imagine some of the looters are feeling about now. The bottom line still is: You can't judge a book by its cover nor man / woman / child by color. Yeah. Another platitude.

In the end, Coleman suggests that the racism of our society runs too deep, that there is no way out. Though she and we cannot persist without faith, we also share the fear that, as Haki Madhubuti says, "America is a race problem."

The Verdict Is In has a vibrancy and an immediacy one cannot help but admire. Some of the poems in the book, however, suffer from the curse of occasional poetry. These poems will feel dated soon; their craft needs work. To its credit, this book presents only work which reflects the true, and often conflicting, emotions of Angelenos and San Franciscans in those days of rage. As such, The Verdict Is In should long stand as an important document of the riots.

Understanding The Riots: Los Angeles Before and After the Rodney King Case. The Staff of the LA Times. The LA Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. 1992. 160 pp., paper: $14.95. ISBN 0-961-9095-9-5.

The Los Angeles Times has produced a well-documented volume about the events preceding the riots and the riots themselves. The wealth of photography and reportage here will make this book an important primary source reference work far into the future.

For the most part, Understanding the Riots is full of unbiased, comprehensive reporting. However, in trying to be “objective,” the Times staffers occasionally fail to be critical in the way that a free press is obliged to be. One example: “In the cross-fire of bullets fired by looters, security guards, and police, [Edward Song] Lee collapsed onto the pavement and died in an expanding stain of blood. It was unclear who shot Lee, except that officials said it was not a police officer” (88). This statement begs for clarification. Why did the “officials” say what they did? Had the police been accused of killing Lee? What evidence, if any, did they offer to prove that the police were not responsible for Lee’s death? The book occasionally leaves questions like these dangling, and, by default or design, accepting the official version.

On the other hand, it is important to note that the Times writers are refreshingly critical of the history of their own paper. Here's how an early section of the book describes Proposition 14 (racist housing legislation passed by California voters in November 1964): “It was an outrageous insult, endorsed by The Times and made worse by the fact that the initiative so clearly violated the new federal civil rights law and was destined to be found unconstitutional.”

Though The Times' writers are sometimes uncritical of the huge mass of material they have assembled, they have fashioned a book containing a broad selection of the varied experiences of people on all sides of the conflict. The Times reporters risked their lives to record the events, and the stories and photographs they returned with will be valuable to any future attempt to make sense of what happened to us. In this regard, as a reference, the lack of an index is surprising.

Sidebars give milestones in Los Angeles' history of race problems, and, later in the book, capsule stories of life during the riots. The book concludes with a section, on gray paper, of powerful personal reporting by a racially diverse collection of reporters.

But the real contribution of this book lies in its incredible photo-journalism. Much has been said — here in Bakunin and elsewhere — about the shoddy television coverage of the riots, about the purposive manipulation of images. The Times photos are compelling. If there is any doubt that still photographs are more conducive than video to deep thought, as opposed to mere reaction, this book should dispel it.

The Verdict and the Violence. A Special Edition of High Performance Magazine. Wanda Coleman, Guest Editor. 1641 18th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90404. Summer 1992. 88 pp. $6. ISSN 0160-9769. Includes CD.

Wanda Coleman has assembled a truly broad sampling of responses to the verdicts and the violence that came out of them. The words and images here electrify with immediacy, confronting racial misunderstandings head on.

Carl Byron compares the town of his birth, Beirut, to Los Angeles. Russell Leong, in a passionate poem, calls multiculturalism "the M word" and points out its failures. Chungmi Kim presents the argument that the media has exacerbated the conflict between the black and Korean communities. Referring to Soon Ja Du's killing of Latasha Harlins, Kim writes: “One Korean merchant’s act of crime became a burden of guilt to be carried by all Korean-Americans.” Ayofemi Faloyan, in her article “Everything Must Change” puts the verdicts in the context of the failure of America to live up to its ideals when it comes to race. Sesshu Foster’s prose poems give us the raw pain of American racial hatred: “I was the Chinese woman a floor below the street bent over her machine, I was the only white guy on a Mexican railroad crew.”

The artwork and photography is of a uniform high-quality. Mike Ayars’ collage, “Normal #1 Forty Acres and a Mule,” combines an image of Daryl Gates, identified as ”Normal,” and a plan of a slave ship.

Nancy MacLeod contributes a heart-felt poem about Simi Valley, where she lives. Unfortunately, the poem is weak, unevocative: “Drive by the high school & laugh / a place where we never fit in / cheerleaders, athletes, honor students, / speech & debate, drama, teacher's pets, / & stoners.”

The real gem here is the spoken word CD which accompanies the magazine. Keith Antar Mason and The Hittite Empire provide a much-misunderstood performance piece entitled “reginald denny, he ain't dead,” which addresses the fact that the media spent a great deal of time discussing the fate of Denny, but tended to ignore the blacks who died in the riots. Amy Hill contributes “Amy’s Camp Dialogue,” a chatty personal reminiscence describing how those who went to the Japanese internment camps did not discuss them for decades. Linda Albertano’s rant “Good Americans” challenges the images of good Americans our culture gives us as right wing and racially exclusionary.

A montage of music, sirens, police dispatches, and television voiceovers separates the spoken word pieces from each other. These fillers contribute to the tension in the well-performed pieces. The sound quality is perfect; the performances compelling.

At $6, this is a literary bargain. Buy it, but expect your assumptions — pretty much whatever they are — to be challenged.

Jordan Jones. “City of Fire: A Review of Literature on the L.A. Riots.” Authory online at; citing Bakunin, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Simi Valley, California: Spring 1993), pp. 102–106.