Rage, Riots, & Respect

What Los Angeles needs is a little respect


Of all the cities in the United States, Los Angeles is one I never expected to call home. It is, after all, a strange place for a political intellectual who won't exercise and can't get a tan. And to love a city is strange, especially when it is huge and sprawling and not especially green. But I love L.A.

Which is why I found the riots so heart-breaking—and the political response to them so infuriating. For me, Los Angeles is a real city. For too many pontificators, it is merely a useful symbol.

People have invoked the riots to push every conceivable agenda—from a vague call for an "urban Marshall Plan" to a denunciation of mini-mall architecture. They have used the riots to condemn Oliver North and bash the S&L bailout. Some commentators have blamed conservative neglect, others liberal immigration policy.

I, too, am tempted to pump pet causes: Can we really restore the inner cities without legalizing the drugs whose trade enriches and arms terrorist gangs? How can we talk about creating jobs while smog regulators shut down Latino furniture makers and black barbecue restaurants? Just about any agenda can be reflected in the fires of L.A.

But living here makes me resist using the riots that way. My agenda may be valid, but it doesn't answer the big, troubling questions: What caused the riots? How do we prevent them from recurring? What is wrong in our city?

Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn says we had riots because "some people are rotten," without conscience or empathy. He's right—to a point.

Only people without empathy could drag motorists out of their cars and beat them within an inch of their lives. Only people without empathy could burn and loot the lives and dreams of their neighbors. Only people without empathy could fail to see the humanity in Rodney King.

But human nature exists year round, and rotten people terrorize South Los Angeles every day. Riots occur once in a generation. Rottenness was necessary to the riots, but it wasn't sufficient.

To turn rottenness into riots took two other conditions: opportunity and rage. The opportunity was obvious and well documented. On April 29, violent mobs massed on the streets of Los Angeles, the police retreated, and a state of nature ensued. Soon the city was in flames, protected only by armed property owners and urban sprawl. Were Los Angeles the size of Boston, there would be nothing left.

The rage is trickier and more often misrepresented. Black Angelenos, black Americans, are very, very angry. Most of them did not riot; many saw their stores burn, their dreams explode, their lives suddenly get harder. Nor were all rioters either black or angry: A plurality of looters arrested were Latino; many rioters in Hollywood and downtown were white; and whoever stole Madonna's bra from the Frederick's of Hollywood museum wasn't making a political point. In these riots, as in most, the majority of participants were out for fun and profit.

But rage did fuel the riots, at least at the beginning. To violent people, the not-guilty verdicts—and the rage they engendered among the general public—provided a signal to riot, to converge at once on shops and passersby. Rage supplied cover for more venal motivations. And it spurred the political apologies for the rioters, all the pronouncements that started, "Nobody condones rioting but.…"

More important for the long run, the attention generated by the rioters gave nonviolent people a chance to voice their rage. And if you listen to what those people are actually saying—often in loud and angry voices—you will not hear the clichés of pundits and politicians. The Great Society, pro or con, will not come up.

Instead, you will hear this: The criminal justice system does not protect black Americans. It does not make their streets safe from violence. It does not rally to the side of black crime victims. It sees black people only as criminals, never as citizens. It does not give them respect.

Notice that this complaint has very little to do with economics. Rodney King was beaten, not laid off. Latasha Harlins was shot, not overcharged. Yusuf Hawkins was murdered, not underpaid. "No Justice, No Peace" says nothing about a guaranteed annual income.

In a race-haunted country, this is a difficult complaint to address. It would be far easier to dump a few hundred million dollars on the cities and be done with it. That's why urban riots tend to produce calls for more aid, more money, more redistribution. Money is easy. Respect is hard.

Riots command attention but they do not command respect. They inspire fear, hatred, and multiracial flight to the suburbs. They allow riot-torn communities to be turned into symbols, stripped of their humanity. Ritual invocations of haves and have-nots, calls for new transfer programs, and condemnations of "greedy" middle America all serve to exacerbate this process.

To heal our city, we must move from ritual to respect. And to do so, we must first understand what respect is. It is not compassion. It is not pity. It is not love. Respect does not require that we think of one another as brothers and sisters, only as human beings and fellow Americans. It demands recognition of one another as individuals, not as an undifferentiated "them."

And it requires living up to our social contract, a contract that guarantees a good-faith effort to protect life, liberty, and property. When families live in terror of drive-by shootings, when children cannot play outside without fear for their lives, when merchants must pack pistols in the best of times, that contract has been grossly violated.

But here's the rub: Inner-city residents fear crime, but they also fear the police. And if Los Angeles is any indicator, they have reason for their fear.

In Los Angeles, we had our investigating commission before we had our riots. Formed in the wake of the Rodney King beating, the Christopher Commission spent months interviewing residents and reviewing police records. Those investigations revealed a horrifying but not terribly surprising pattern of police harassment and abuse fueled by a casual racial bigotry and a fortress mentality. (The LAPD's unusual canine program, in which dogs are trained to bite every suspect, wasn't on the commission's agenda, but it scares the hell out of me.)

The Christopher Commission made proposals for reforming the police department to make it more accountable to the public. Those proposals, Charter Amendment F, will be on the June ballot, and a new police chief, Willie Williams of Philadelphia, will be arriving soon.

The amendment and the new chief may ameliorate the situation. But they will not make the streets of South L.A. safe—especially since the city's continuing budget crisis limits the funds Williams will have to implement his vision of labor-intensive "community policing." Nor will a few reforms overcome decades of ill will. To restore order to fear-riven neighborhoods, we cannot depend on the old models. We must be creative.

From the riots' aftermath it is clear that foot patrols can reduce crime against persons and property—not by busting criminals but by deterring them. (Patrolling rather than crime solving is also the principle that private security firms use to protect the city's wealthy enclaves, although "rent-a-cops" generally drive.) It is also clear that in neighborhoods where residents felt a sense of power and ownership, places like East Los Angeles and parts of Mid-Wilshire, they were able to keep the peace or run looters away.

The big question is whether these two ideas can be successfully combined, whether community patrols might reclaim the streets of South Los Angeles, or whether safety requires soldiers armed with M-16s. Certainly citizen patrols would need more than community spirit; they would require police training, extra supervision, probably pay, and possibly weapons.

Figuring out even a trial model is tricky. But a citizen-based supplement to regular policing seems to offer both cost-effective crime deterrence and an essential bridge between the police department and the communities it serves. A program of citizen patrols takes violence-prone neighborhoods seriously, both as places to be protected and as sources of protection. It asks residents both what their city can do for them and what they can do for their city. It establishes a relationship based on respect.

Beyond physical safety—a difficult enough goal—lie even greater challenges, the issues of hearts and minds. How do we create a culture of respect? Given the understandable urge to see patterns, and a history that designates people by race, how do we learn to regard one another as individuals?

These are not, for the most part, political questions, although they have political implications. It would help if the law were color-blind, if it treated criminal defendants with equal severity and crime victims with equal sympathy. It would help if racial quotas did not permeate nearly every workplace in America and if congressional districts were not doled out by race. But the law follows the culture, not vice versa.

And in the cultural realm, little things matter. Rhetoric matters. I am not arguing for "political correctness" that declares honest debate out of bounds. Respect requires a willingness to disagree.

But there is something wrong with glib denunciations of rioters as "thugs," "punks," and, worst of all, "animals." Even criminals have free will; even rioters are human beings. Respect includes holding people responsible for evil choices—and recognizing that other, more respectable people have chosen otherwise.

Respect avoids the rhetoric of collective guilt: "They are burning their neighborhood." The words are true—unidentified rioters are burning a neighborhood in which they live—but the implication is insidious. The implication is that black people, as a group, have gotten together and decided to destroy South Los Angeles, that black people, as a group, are savages who wreck their own homes. That is not merely insulting, it is untrue.

To be respected, one must be respectable. Not extraordinary, not heroic, just respectable. That should be enough.

And the truth of the L.A. riots includes the story of ordinary, respectable people, people who stayed in their homes while the city burned, who did nothing either heroic or destructive. When we emerged from our homes, many of us met for the first time. In a city whose map comes in a 203-page book, the riots forced us to turn the pages, to cross over into unfamiliar territory. We chatted in hour-long supermarket lines and pushed brooms in burned-out shopping centers. There were more of "us" than there were of "them," and "we" came in all colors—and shapes and sizes and broom-pushing abilities.

We were people, not undifferentiated symbols, not political tools. And we all deserve a little respect.