It’s fall in New York. The muggy heat of summer is gone and now the air is crisp and cool. The leaves are turning. There’s a spring in my step as I hurry down West 86 Street toward Central Park for my morning run. As I enter the park and approach the jogging trail, I see a homeless man asleep on a park bench. His clothes are filthy and tattered. I’m close enough to smell his stench. His arm drops down off the bench and dangles toward the ground. He clutches something in his fist and as his hand opens, the object falls to the pavement below. I move closer and pick it up. It’s a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” button with a black fist raised in protest. I hesitate and think back in my mind to the first time I felt the weight of Black Power. Back 25 years ago to the Rodney King Riots in LA in the spring of 1992. I close my eyes and remember the video that started it all. The video that rocked the nation.
~ ~ ~
In the darkness, you couldn’t see the uniforms or the badges. The only thing you could see was the beating; the repeated, savage blows to the face and head of a solitary large man, surrounded by a gang of thugs. The big man staggered and fell to his knees slammed by Billy clubs that cracked his skull, split his lips, and ripped his earlobe apart. He tried to shield his face with his hands but it was useless. They converged all at once; too many of them to count, attacking him relentlessly. When the beating finally stopped, the big man groveled in the dirt, backlit by glaring headlights through a cloud of dust, until two more men appeared, kicking him while the others held him down.
And what was different about this random act of violence, separating it from so many other beatings just like it?
It was recorded.
For weeks, images from that grainy black and white video inundated the news and made headlines in every major newspaper, not to mention the covers of Time and Newsweek. Back in the days before Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, there we no ranting Tweets in all CAPS taking sides or pointing fingers. But that didn’t stop the video from going viral. National TV and radio talk shows fed the media frenzy until they literally slit the wrists of this city, with wounds so deep its scars may never heal.
And the subsequent police brutality trial?
That was the final breaking point.
Within hours of the “not guilty” verdict, violence flared at the corner of Florence and Normandy, spreading faster than a wildfire in Malibu Canyon until thick smoke engulfed the entire horizon. Los Angeles was now a war zone. Up close and personal. In your face with its bigotry and black power, and it’s low-lying clouds of suspension of disbelief. If you were in L.A. during the Rodney King riots, it’s something you will never forget. Looking back now with the hindsight of Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, and so many other cities where senseless acts of police violence have ignited fevered protests, this is what I remember…
~ ~ ~
This morning it’s raining ash. From the balcony of my apartment, I stare out across my South Central neighborhood until I notice a fine layer of gray powder blanketing my guardrail. Normally my neighbor’s potted palms and patio furniture bask in the sunshine on her balcony, but today they are blackened with soot. I hear gunshots, a distant siren, and a baby crying downstairs. “Mayhem” doesn’t even come close to describing the past days’ events. It reminds me of watching the Persian Gulf War unfold on CNN just a few months earlier, with live footage of neon green tracers raining over Baghdad. Except this time the war zone isn’t halfway around the world.
An explosion echoes down my street and fire engines periodically scream past my home outside. Yet I lay on my couch watching continuous “live riot coverage” with surprising detachment. It’s difficult to connect the images on TV with my own neighborhood. Even when I recognize the burning buildings it seems more like war torn Bosnia than my home.
When I first moved here from Mississippi, Los Angeles seemed like another planet. But it grows on you, little by little. Especially with the love I found with my teammates through my basketball scholarship at USC. But even now, after living in South Central L.A. for six years, I still find this hard to believe.
Thousands of people are arrested each hour. The police resort to using duct tape since they’ve run out of handcuffs. It doesn’t seem possible, such blatant anarchy and rampant looting, most of it committed by ordinary people. On every network, Eyewitness News teams race to get there first, broadcasting arson, robbery, random shootings, and even two women fist fighting in the street over some dresses they’ve just stolen from the Sears store in Hollywood.
The mayor imposes mandatory curfews and martial law. The governor mobilizes the National Guard and asks Congress to declare the City of Angels a disaster area. All the while, just like a carnival barker at a media freak show, Police Chief Gates stages sidewalk press conferences outside the Hill Street station, begging people to stay at home. Lying on my couch, I feel like a Palestinian refugee under house arrest on the Gaza strip. I can’t sleep at night with all the endless gunfire, police helicopters, and sirens.
The language school where I teach has been closed for two days. Payday was the day before yesterday and I still haven’t gotten my paycheck. I have four dollars and sixty-two cents in my purse and my bank account is overdrawn. There’s no food in the house, but I’m afraid to go out. Damn. I should’ve bought groceries last week, instead of getting that weave. At least my hair looks great. Besides, it’s not the first time I’ve skipped a meal for great looking hair. I look in the bathroom mirror and lightly run my fingers over my plats as my empty stomach growls. How was I to know that this could happen? That normalcy could so completely evaporate.
On the second day of rioting, I’m so hungry I can’t see straight. To hell with the mayor’s “stay home” mandate. I grab my money and head to the corner grocery store.
When I step outside I’m awe struck. This is utterly shocking.
It’s much worse than I’d imagined. Gutted, burned out buildings smolder all along the street where I live. The air stinks like a trash incinerator, making my eyes water. The stench of burning rubber is so thick I can taste it.
Standing on the corner, rubbing my eyes, I notice people streaming in and out of Circuit City Appliance Store, pilfering TVs, microwaves, and DVD players. Anything they want, they walk in and take. A tattered old man stumbles through the intersection, pushing a large entertainment center on wheels. It’s loaded with stereo components, eight surround sound speakers, and a 42-inch TV. He struggles to push it up the concrete embankment underneath a billboard. It starts to roll back on him so I run to help. My six foot one inch frame towers above him. When we reach level ground at the top, he grins.
“Thanks,” he says, eyeing me up and down. “Damn. You play ball?”
“For real?” He shoves his grimy hands in his pockets. “Where?”
“You got it.” Not anxious to tell him my life story, I glance around at his “home” beneath the billboard. “So how you gonna use this stuff without any wall outlets?”
Chuckling, he spits through the gap in his teeth. “Lemme axe you this, you think I care about wall outlets? I ain’t even got any walls.”
He laughs, loud and harsh, and then starts to cough. I hurry back down the embankment to the street below and can still hear his hacking cough behind me.
Approaching the corner, I see two Cadillacs and a BMW screech into the Sac-n-Save parking lot. Immediately the car doors fly open and several people jump out and run inside. I notice that all along the storefront busted out windows gape open like a mouthful of cavities. Shattered glass litters the sidewalk. It crunches underfoot as people come running out of the store with cases of beer, toilet paper, diapers, dog food. Anything they would normally buy, they’re stealing. Why? Because they saw other folks getting away with it on TV, and there’s no one around to stop them.
I jog further down Pico Boulevard toward Korea town. Oddly enough, the grocery store at Pico and Vermont hasn’t been burned or looted. As I near the store entrance, a deafening blast rips across the sky above me. I dive for cover between two black jeeps, the only vehicles in the parking lot. When the shooting stops, I spot three Asian men on the roof of the store with automatic assault rifles.
Growing up in the Deep South, I’ve seen plenty of racial violence, but never like this. And I’ve taught enough ESL classes to know that Asian people are frequently intimidated by my size and my black skin. But right now, I’m so far beyond hungry I don’t care about that crap; all I want is a damn can of soup and some orange juice.
I wave my four dollars over my head and crawl toward the entrance.
Hearing no more shots, I gather myself off the pavement, my hands still raised. Something moves behind me. I turn to find an old woman squatting by the pay phones, urinating on the sidewalk. It’s so pathetic. She stares at me then smiles, exposing her bare gums. When she finishes, she steps across her golden pond of piss; coming so close I can smell cheap wine, urine, and excrement. She reaches out to me and without hesitation I give her my last four dollars. She takes it, laughing, and grabs my hand. Her skin feels like sandpaper.
“Blessed be those who by their kindness entertain angels unaware,” she says, stuffing my money in her shirt. She pulls a 40 oz. Budweiser from her pants and offers it to me. I feel nauseous.
Shaking my head, I whisper a meek, “No thanks,” and finally manage to pull my hand away from hers. Another round of gunfire explodes overhead.
I hit the pavement face down and cover my head as the sound of shattering glass surrounds me. Dozens more rounds are fired, then nothing. After an extended silence, a siren wails in the distance, and only now do I realize that I’m crying. Tears soak my face, hands, and the concrete beneath me.
Wiping my eyes, I notice the smooth amber-gold puddle of beer spreading slowly across the pavement towards me. I lift my head and see the old woman lying two feet away in a contorted, crumpled heap of rags. I can’t believe this is actually happening. The police finally arrive, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Several more shots are fired then everything’s still and quiet again.
Hardly encouraged by the presence of these squad cars, I crawl up beside the woman and realize she’s dead. My money dangles from the neckline of her shirt with blood spattered on it. I watch the police chase down several gang kids, none of them look a day over thirteen. I grab my money from this corpse then, overwhelmed, I sink to the ground on my hands and knees beside her, unable to hold back the tears. The concrete beneath us shimmers a liquid gold and reeks of warm beer.
I’m sobbing now, crouched like a whipped dog. An eerie silence descends on the parking lot, slow as buzzards circling overhead. Waves of fear, anger, and hatred hang in the air like vultures, homing in on us carrion below, waiting to devour what’s left of this city’s sanity and pick its bones clean. I close my eyes, trying to make it all go away; but the street is still here beneath me, glistening with liquid gold, deep in the burned and broken heart of the City of Angels.
Two days later I join dozens of volunteers at the corner of Florence and Normandy. Off-duty police officers lead our group as we canvas the neighborhood, shoveling debris and painting over gang graffiti. Three elderly men salute us as we pass them on the street.
A woman steps out of a diner with “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS” spray-painted in big red letters across its boarded-up windows. She offers us barbeque and lemonade and calls us “God’s army of angels.”
She laughs as she fills my cup, a big gold tooth parting her full ruby lips. Returning her smile, I think to myself: Maybe she’s right. Trying to imagine halos above our backwards baseball caps, I glance at this paint spattered group around me. I see possibilities sprinkled everywhere, peppered and seasoned with our various skin colors. That nagging ball of fear I felt earlier this morning in the back of my throat vanishes now like a perfect fade-away jumper. One quick swoosh and it’s gone.
Enjoying our barbeque, we sit on empty crates in the shade of the diner’s sooty awning. The owner moves easily between us, refilling our lemonade cups and handing out little angel stickers. She peels off one for each of us and sticks them to our shirts.
These little cherubs amuse us but the bottom line here is easy to see: This woman is not a rarity. Even with all the recent violence there remains a core of true goodness in most folks here.
I lift my shades off my eyes and watch her, a true angel, spreading her wings and reminding us how to fly. She stands there, sweat glistening on her brow as she serves those who have come to clear away the debris of hatred, anger, and fear, and she replaces it with love and compassion. I feel a pang in my heart for her so intense and yet so tender all at once, that I feel like I can fly too. My heart goes out to her and I whisper across the heat and dust, “Thank you.”
Thank you for lifting us up with your simple acts of kindness.
This is how we overcome the aftermath of violence. This is how we refuse to live in a world of rampant racism. This is how we carry ourselves 25, 50 or 100 years into the future to that golden world where people of color are no longer terrorized by unconstitutional travel bans, hate crimes, threats of mass deportation or idiotic chants of “Build that wall!”
~ ~ ~
I smile to myself, remembering that smoldering L.A. street and I summon the strength to continue to fight for that bright future I dreamed of so long ago, one exhausting day at a time. I look down at the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” button in my hand and I approach the man sleeping on the bench who just dropped the button on the ground.
I lean down and pin the button to the man’s frayed lapel. He stirs in his sleep and opens one eye.
I smile at him and whisper, “Peace, my brother.”
He smiles at me then yawns, rolls over, and goes back to sleep on his park bench. A cool wind stirs the trees overhead, as red and orange leaves drop to the ground all around us. I love the feeling of fall in New York, and I cherish the feeling that change is coming. Yes, change is definitely coming.