Violence is intrinsic to arguably any life form on this planet. However, what separates us — humans — from everything else, is that we are conscious of our violence, our own ideas of ethics and morale complicating the ways we denounce or justify violence.
While watching National Geographic‘s L.A. ’92, a documentary featuring archival footage from the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots, there was a thought that initially brought me discomfort, but slowly became understood as the film unraveled.
Giving violence a chance.
Violence is inescapable in L.A. ’92. We witness the first viral video, where Rodney King is surrounded by a circle of white police officers, beaten by batons and tasered until he is left crawling on his hands and knees; a video of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, upright and alive one moment, lying dead on the floor with a bullet in her skull from Soon Ja Du, the next; anonymous white men forcibly removed from their vehicles and beaten to a bloody mess by angry and vengeful black men; Korean store owners shooting potential looters; police officers in a panic as bricks, rocks and trash are thrown in their direction.
The catalyst for the six-day destruction of Los Angeles wasn’t just the beating of King or the death of Harlins, or the acquittal of the police officers that beat King or the reduced sentencing of the woman who killed Harlins. Economic, educational and social inequality; poverty; segregation; police abuse. These are problems black people in America have and continue to deal with each and every day.
The resilience of black America is as admirable as it is deadly. When that threshold breaks it’s inevitable that we respond with violence because our patience and tolerance has run thin. The 1965 Watts Riots were a testament to that, a six-day riot that was the result of more than just the arrests of Rena Price and Marquette and Ronald Frye, but black people tired of being mistreated.
“The whole point of the outbreak in Watts was that it marked the first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism and was carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life,” Bayard Rustin, a black civil rights activist, wrote in a 1966 essay.
Archival footage from the 1965 Watts Riots is placed alongside footage from the 1992 Los Angeles riots in L.A. ’92. The intention is clear — 27 years have passed between the two riots and the problems that led to the unrest are still present not only in California but across the country.
On August 9, 2014, 22 years after the 1992 Los Angeles riots and 49 years after the 1965 Watts riots, came the Ferguson riots. What incited the unrest was similar to its Los Angeles counterpart: Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, with the latter alleging that the former attempted to take his weapon while trying to apprehend Brown.
After several months of deliberation, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson for any criminal charges in relation to the incident. The Ferguson riots were already happening before the verdict was reached, with residents taking to the streets to voice their anger over Brown’s death. Police officers wearing riot gear had mobilized throughout the city, combating the destruction that would take over Ferguson for two weeks. Two more riots occurred in the city following this one: the “second wave” that lasted a week from November 24, 2014, to December 2, 2014; and the “third wave” that lasted only two days from August 9, 2015, to August 11, 2015 — a year after Brown’s death.
But the black people of Ferguson had endured so much even before Brown’s death. Residential segregation, economic and racial inequality — decades worth of resilience had finally hit its tipping point.
“This was a catalyst for something much deeper, the lack of economic opportunities and representation people have,” Etefia Umana, an educator and board member of a community group called Better Family Life, said in an interview with the Washington Post. “A lot of the issues are boiling up.”
Violence as a catalyst for change is often seen as a last resort, and understandably so. Bloody, chaotic, destructive, messy — once violence has occurred it remains with us even after its end, the images, smells and sounds associated with that moment lingering. America was built on violence and as unfortunate as it is to say, progress in this country was made with violence just as much as it was with peace.
In L.A. ’92 footage is shown of the moment King, on the third day of the riots, gave his “Can we all just get along?” speech.
“I just want to say — you know — can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? And…I mean we’ve got enough smog in Los Angeles let alone to deal with setting these fires and things…it’s just not right — it’s not right. And it’s not going to change anything. We’ll get our justice; they’ve won the battle, but they haven’t won the war. We’ll get our day in court and that’s all we want. And, just, uh, I love — I’m neutral, I love every — I love people of color. I’m not like they’re making me out to be. We’ve got to quit — we’ve got to quit; I mean after all, I could understand the first upset for the first two hours after the verdict, but to go on, to keep going on like this and to see the security guard shot on the ground — it’s just not right; it’s just not right, because those people will never go home to their families again. And uh, I mean please, we can, we can get along here. We all can get along — we just gotta, we gotta. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while, let’s, you know let’s try to work it out, let’s try to beat it, you know, let’s try to work it out.”
Under my breath, even before he continued on after repeating the sentiment, I said, “No.” I had to pause the documentary and continue watching it several days later.