Vonderrit Myers, Michael Brown, and the L.A. Riots
It’s been 22 ½ years since the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles, and there has, to date, been nearly no large-scale discussion of their causes and effects. There are a few books from academic presses (such as The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins by Brenda Stevenson and Geography of Rage: Remembering the Los Angeles Riot of 1992 by Jervey Tervalon and Cristian Sierra), a few articles in academic journals, mentions and hints in a few movies, a couple of great songs (check out Ben Harper’s “Like A King” and Sublime’s “April 29, 1992”), and a phenomenal play, “Twilight,” by Anna Deavere Smith.
The media covered the riots sensationally at the time, but, as is usually the case with the media, coverage died away quickly afterward, and there have been almost no retrospectives. What’s more, there have been no books for popular audiences and, even stranger, given the proximity to Hollywood, nearly no movies on the subject.
The LA riots were arguably the worst in the 20th century in the US, with 53 casualties, over 2000 people injured, 3000 buildings destroyed, and overall property damage well over $1 billion. Their underlying causes were certainly decades in the making, though much of the discussion of the riots focused on the flashpoint, rather than the racial inequalities that prefigured it.
Unfortunately, this is usually the case with coverage of racial conflict in the US—the backstory is left out of the discussion, and the conflicts are portrayed as isolated incidents.
Last week, 18-year old Vonderrit Myers was shot 17 times by an off-duty policeman in St Louis, and though the police claim that Myers was armed, they have presented no evidence of it. Myers was black, the policeman who shot him was white, and the shooting took place 20 minute’s drive from Ferguson, almost exactly 2 months after 18-year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. Brown was unarmed, and shot 6 times. Protests have erupted yet again, in the wake of the shooting of Myers, and it has become clear that the substantial racial inequalities that have contributed to these situations have been simmering for, again, decades.
In this period of renewed racial conflict, I think we need to be talking about the LA riots, alongside the Ferguson and St Louis protests, and even the anger around the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida 2 ½ years ago. The LA riots were the most recent and largest race conflict in the US, and we have still not really learned from them.
The questions we should be asking are legion, and very difficult: What can we do as a society to support equality and to remove barriers to it? How can the police be more supportive of black communities? How can we remove the structural support for racism? How can race and heritage inspire the kinds of pride that we aspire to as a diverse culture? We might not immediately have the answers, but at least we should be asking the questions.
The real danger that riots pose to society is not directly from violence, but that once the steam is blown off from them, we might stop talking about the issues that created them, leaving the causes unaddressed, unsolved, and deepening the racial divide.