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Twenty-five Years After the Rodney King Riots


A riot is the language of the unheard.

--Martin Luther King Jr.

On the first of May twenty-five years ago, I woke up in Tijuana, having driven down from Los Angeles the day before to escape the chaos of the Rodney King riots, to escape the National Guard and the enforced curfews, to escape the fires and the smoke, the rage and the fear.

I was on the brink of motherhood but I didn’t know it yet. All I knew was that I was on the edge of something. I had reached a precipice from which I could not turn back.

On the evening after the first day of the riots, I stood on the roof of my apartment building looking out at the city on fire, and the things I’d thought I’d wanted since I was a kid went up in flames too. LA was the city of dreams, where people came in search of celluloid immortality, and it was burning. I’d come for that too, having followed in the footsteps of my aunt, the only woman in my family who had broken out of the mold of woman as mother, as caregiver. She’d left her home town behind her, moved to Los Angeles and become TV’s Wonder Woman. What girl wouldn’t want to be that?

But looking out at the smoke, I felt inexplicably free of these strivings. And I found that what I wanted was a different dream. I wanted out—out of the system that had given birth to such inequality and repression and rage. I wanted to live where there was clean water and air, where there were birds and animals and trees, where there was open space in which to wander and find out who I could be outside of society’s values, where I could discover what really mattered to me.

I left Los Angeles soon after, and eventually I left California too. I made a life in a small town where I raised my children and taught and wrote. Not everyone has the means and the ability to leave the city. I consider myself very lucky. But no matter how far you get from LA, you can’t escape the fundamental issues that gave rise to the riots. Los Angeles might have rebuilt itself, but as a nation we are still mired in the racial inequality and prejudice which the riots helped bring to light. Perhaps we are more aware of it now, but the fact is that little has changed. Though now, people are marching. They are tired of business as usual. They are tired of the way things are. Twenty-five years after the Rodney King riots, I find I am marching too—for the black and the brown lives which matter to us all, for the women who are workers and mothers and providers, for the climate which sustains the earth and the irrefutable science which none of us can escape. We are marching to make the invisible visible. We are marching to be heard.

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