For many of my generation, those known as "Millenials", the beating of Rodney King, the acquittal of the cops responsible, and the riots in the streets of Los Angeles serve as the first memories of racial tension and unrest in our lifetimes. We were incredibly young, and those memories may be distant and confusing, wrapped up in childhood innocence and obliviousness, but that moment has served as the backdrop to the way we’ve come to understand race and racism in this country. It’s an immediately recognizable reference point for comparison to the instances of racial injustice we have had to face in our adolescence/young adulthood.
We’ve had our own “Rodney King moments,” understood here as an event involving gross police misconduct resulting in the brutal beating or death of a Black person in which the police responsible escape relatively unscathed. Sean Bell and Oscar Grant immediately come to mind. Most recently, though the police were not directly responsible for his death, we had Trayvon Martin. What they all share is the bubbling to the surface of the anger of Black youth. It’s one of the greatest misconception about Black Millenials that we are apathetic. We are a generation politicized by the events of 9/11, the Iraq War, and Hurricane Katrina; there’s no way we couldn’t engage the world. The difference is in the way we engage, which makes the question “will there ever be another L.A. riot?” come across as obtuse. The answer: maybe…but probably not.
It has nothing to do with whether Black youth are less angry, less committed to ending racism, or are “post-race.” None of these things are true. We appear more complacent to our elders because we’re not out in the streets every other week marching or protesting. I’m sure if those were the only tools available to us, that’s exactly where we would take the fight, but our generation has a much deeper war chest and different outlook.
The riots in L.A. were a horrific scene, but for quite a few observers they were the natural outgrowth of the volatility brewing throughout the Reagan/Bush years. Between trickle down economics and the “war on drugs,” what happened in L.A. was the product of lighting a match next an overflowing powder keg.
We, speaking of Black Millenials, think back to that time or watch the footage now, of people burning down storefronts, looting, viciously beating people in the streets, and mostly come away with the question: “what did that accomplish?” It’s an episode of total chaos, and at the end of it all, the cops still got off. You’re not going to find too many Black Millenials that are down for that shit.
What our elders forget, or what they don’t want to acknowledge, is that we are a generation of relative privilege. We have access and resources they were denied during their youth. To them, it makes us soft. But for us, it’s a matter of defining the fight on new terms. When the Jena Six were facing trumped up charges that would have robbed them their entire lives for a schoolyard fight, we took our outrage to Facebook and pushed traditional media to cover the story, then made our way into the streets. We showed up to the polls to vote in record numbers in hopes that a charismatic politician from Chicago would alter the course of American history. We tweeted each other the video of Oscar Grant being shot en masse when we realized not much had changed. We care deeply, we just know now that what our grandparents/parents/aunts/uncles did won’t necessarily work for us.
We get pegged for being selfish, and I’ll agree that’s not completely off base. But sometimes what is derided as selfishness is us doing as we were told. Since birth it has been ingrained in us that we would have more opportunities than any generation of Black folks to come before us, and we shouldn’t waste them. Too many had fought and sacrificed their lives for us to allow their blood to spoil. So we did. We’ve basically been taught that our personal success is the success of the group. If I achieve, we all do. This, to my mind, is what prevents us as a generation for formulating a cohesive movement. We are able to respond quickly to moments of crisis, but we lack in being proactive becomes our day-to-day work of self-improvement leaves little space for movement building. But that’s what was asked of us. We’ve been taught to fulfill Dr. King’s (misinterpreted) dream, not create one of our own.
The result is a generation that does care about issues of social justice, but is at a loss on how to reconcile that with their personal aspirations of acquiring massive amounts of material wealth and power. This is a conversation we have to have among ourselves, but it should never be read as if we are simply apathetic. We just need time to figure some shit out.
When we do, our movement will look nothing like anything we read about in our history books or saw on our television sets as confused youngsters. And our rage will likely never boil over in the way it did in the spring of ‘92 in L.A. I don’t rule it out, as nothing is impossible, and I’m generalizing a very diverse group based on some shared experiences, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The fight may be the same, but our weapons have definitely changed.