I lived through the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Whole parts of my city vanished. The beauty shop that my mom and I frequented every Saturday morning—gone. The barber shop where the neighborhood guys gave daps and talked trash—gone. The familiar rent-to-own appliance warehouses—gone.
My most vivid memories of the fire and brimstone that showered the city came not from what I witnessed first-hand, in real-time, but from the newscasts projected through my television set. My parents wouldn’t let us out of the house that week. And the church youth group picnic that I was supposed to attend—cancelled. I knew that people were rioting and looting, but stuck in a self-absorbed, pre-teen state of mind, I couldn’t understand why that meant that I couldn’t attend a barbecue with my friends. Why were the riots ruining my social life?
But my social life wasn’t the only thing in ruins. Burnt buildings and broken glass were as commonplace as weeds springing from concrete, and my beauty shop was now anything but beautiful.
Was this how New Yorkers felt nearly two decades later when terrorists gouged a hole in their beloved city?
It was hard to know exactly whom to blame for this particular loss. Who was more guilty: the officers who brutally beat Rodney King, the jury that let them off, or the rioters who expressed their rage at the verdict? How could I blame those who rioted for speaking a language ladened with violence and robbery, when it was the same language that the officers who beat King spoke, and the same language that the system that acquitted the officers had modeled for centuries?
I couldn’t be mad at them. I couldn’t be mad at my parents either; their number one priority was keeping me safe. This is why as kids, my sister and I were never allowed to stick our hands through the car windows to feel the wind between our fingers. One accidental flash of anything that resembled a gang sign would endanger our entire family.
A part of me is embarrassed that I was concerned with a picnic in the park while thousands of people were injured and more than fifty others died. Another part of me is thankful that my pre-adolescent mind wasn’t bombarded with the brutal realities of race and class in America, played out in my neighborhood streets.
Years later I would come to recognize the anger that the rioters felt.
Memories of racial profiling, of racial brutality, brew beneath the surface, until an incident triggers an emotional flashback that pulls you into a torrential thunderstorm with no shield. Perhaps the incident is when you realize that the BMW SUV that your post-college Korean roommate drives was paid for by her parents’ lucrative beauty supply shop. You flashback to the cameras that follow you in these stores. You remember Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old Black girl who was killed by a Korean shop owner who thought that she was trying to steal a bottle of O.J. You’re angry at the lack of prison time, you’re angry at the economic engine that empowers Koreans and disempowers African Americans, and you don’t know how to feel about your roommate whose only assault on you was leaving the jar of kimchi uncovered on the kitchen counter for too long.
Neither are you prepared for the rage you feel when you walk into the convenience store downstairs from your new fancy media relations job and the clerk ignores you to help a white man, even though you’ve been standing right in front of him for minutes, waiting patiently. In that moment, your emotions remember Rodney, and Latasha, and Emmett, and the centuries of lynchings and beatings, and the clerks who follow you and your cousins around Nordstrom, and your best friend who spent the night in L.A. county jail on your birthday just because the police felt like putting him in there.
When this emotional thunderstorm erupts, you don’t just understand black rage. You feel it. You know why they rioted, why we riot. You cannot separate yourself from them or “other” them in anyway, even if you disagree with their methods. You are them, just as much as you are Trayvon. You are not ashamed of them, of us. You are sad for us, for we did unto others—not what we’d have them do unto us—but what they did unto us.
Twenty-five years after the streets literally burned with fire, Los Angeles is no longer under curfew. But parts of it—parts of us—still feel on edge. Not to the point of keeping kids inside, but living with the gripping fear of being pulled over by the police and having our lives and limbs extinguished as a result of a single officer’s whim.
Ta-Nehisi Coates paints our reality: “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”
No one, except for the nearly 12,000 people who were arrested during the Riots.
Chanté Griffin is a Los Angeles-based writer and entertainer. She majored in Media Studies at Pomona College and Spelman College, studying how the media constructs and intersects with race, culture, and gender. When she’s not blogging at Beneath the Surface, she’s producing her YouTube sketch series, 14 Days of Funny. Tweet with her! @yougochante