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My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

April 30, 2019: Rodney King in Context: The LAPD

[On April 29th, 1992, civil unrest erupted in Los Angeles after the four officers who had beaten Rodney King on video were acquitted on all charges. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy King himself and other contexts for and representations of the LA riots, leading up to a special weekend post on the narrative of “race riots” itself.]
On two mid-20th century riots that collectively anticipated the Rodney King story.
On Christmas Eve, 1951, a pair of Los Angeles policemen got into an extended altercation with seven young men (five of them Mexican American) at the Showboat Bar, a conflict that by Christmas morning had turned into violent arrests of and subsequent police brutality directed at the seven men. The LAPD initially attempted to sweep that police violence, which came to be known as Bloody Christmas, under the rug, but significant pressure from the city’s Mexican American community forced an internal investigation that resulted in a record number of indictments, suspensions, and other punishments for police officers. The incident, fictionalized in the James Ellroy novel L.A. Confidential (1990) and the 1997 film of the same name, reflected a police department that seemingly felt empowered to exercise extreme brutality against private citizens, particularly those from minority communities. Thanks to pressure from local communities the officers and department did not get away with that brutality in this case, but such incidents made clear that the relationship between these elements of Los Angeles society was a fraught and fragile one at best.
Such mid-century tensions in the city were not limited to any particular communities, however, as illustrated by another violent event: the June 1943 Zoot Suit Riots. This complex historical event originated in part out of a pair of specific World War II trends: the striking number of servicemen stationed in Los Angeles, most of them from other parts of the country; and the narrative that zoot suits, a popular form of apparel for young people (especially from minority communities such as Mexican, Filipino, and African Americans), represented a waste of precious wartime fabric. Certainly exclusionary bigotry and prejudice also played into the riots, however, which featured sailors and other servicemen attacking groups of young men and attempting to strip them of their zoot suits. While the police were not the direct sources of violence in this case, their principal roles across the six days of rioting seem to have been aiding and abetting the white supremacist rioters, both by refusing to stop or arrest them and by instead arresting more than 500 Mexican Americans on charges such as “rioting” and “vagrancy.” Which is to say, while the Zoot Suit Riots reflected particular WWII-era communal tensions, they certainly anticipated the forms of police profiling and brutality that would come to the fore less than a decade later in the Bloody Christmas incident.
Half a century later, the Rodney King incident and riots reflected and extended both sides of these histories: police brutality that targeted minority citizens in particular; and related but even more overarching communal tensions that exploded into days of destructive violence. Among the many ways in which better remembering the earlier histories might affect and shift our sense of the more recent ones, I would highlight this in particular (about which I’ve written elsewhere as well): far too often, if not indeed all of the time, when we refer to an event with the phrase “race riot” in our media or collective conversations we mean a riot featuring Americans of color. Yet while of course each of these historical riots did include such communities, they were driven, as so many of our historical riots have been, by both white mobs and white supremacist ideologies and systems. And those systems often include law enforcement and other official institutions in leading roles, not only in helping define the riots in very particular and exclusionary ways, but even in providing the impetus for the conflicts in the first phrase. The more we remember events like Bloody Christmas and the Zoot Suit Riots, the more equipped we are to recognize when and how those histories repeat themselves, as was the case with the Rodney King beating and riots to be sure.
Next King context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

Monday, April 29, 2019

April 29, 2019: Rodney King in Context: Rodney King

[On April 29th, 1992, civil unrest erupted in Los Angeles after the four officers who had beaten Rodney King on video were acquitted on all charges. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy King himself and other contexts for and representations of the LA riots, leading up to a special weekend post on the narrative of “race riots” itself.]
On two striking details that can help us push beyond a frequently stereotyped figure.
The frustrating process through which African American victims of police brutality or white supremacist violence are demonized in the media in order to minimize their mistreatment (up to and including murder) has become far too common, if not indeed inevitable, in response to such incidents in the 21st century. And of course such trends had been a central element of the lynching epidemic throughout its century of historic horrors as well. But in some ways Rodney King occupied a pivotal place in that unfolding history—one of the first such demonized victims of the media age, extending those historic trends into the late 20th century period of cable news and constant coverage and so on. And from the first moments after the video of King’s 1991 beating by four LAPD officers emerged, he was linked to and demonized through a series of exaggerated, stereotypical images: his criminal record, his history of drinking, his resistance to the police, his seemingly simplistic statements, even the fact that he was driving a Hyundai. Each of those images had some initial grounding in elements of King’s background or identity, but each was again exaggerated into a caricature that made it easier to minimize or dismiss the unnecessary violence King endured.
Challenging that trend requires multiple forms of response, but in the case of a victim like King who fortunately was not killed in the course of his incident, one important such response is to highlight other nuanced details from across the course of his life. One inspiring such detail for King is that not long before his untimely 2012 death (on which more in a moment), he published an autobiography that also extended his famous comments during the 1992 riots. Co-authored by Lawrence Spagnola, King’s The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption (2012) links his personal experiences and story (before, during, and after the famous early 1990s histories) to broader arguments for unity and peace, ideas and themes that echo his easily mocked but also thoughtful question, “Why can’t we all just get along?” At the very least, anyone who makes fun of King’s perspective or voice based on those snippets of video should be required to read this extended articulation of them, to engage with the layers to the man and his identity rather than such soundbytes and the stereotypical narratives into which they far too often play.
Unfortunately, King passed away just two months after his book was published, and the circumstances of his death add another compelling detail to our understanding of his life and identity. On Father’s Day King’s fiancĂ© found him drowned at the bottom of his swimming pool, in a striking echo of his father’s death: King’s father Ronald King had drowned in his bathtub on Father’s Day, 1984, 28 years to the day before King’s death. Like Ronald, Rodney had struggled with alcoholism throughout his adult life, and a combination of alcohol and drugs in his system had likely precipitated heart problems that led to his death. But it also strikes me as unlikely that the precise date was a coincidence, particularly given that Rodney’s death emulated his father’s on Father’s Day; that is, whether Rodney’s death was in any overt way a suicide, it seems clearly related to the personal and psychological legacies of his father’s death as well as his own struggles. And in any case, this tragic final stage in King’s life clearly reveals a far more complex story and man than any of the stereotypical images and narratives allow for, making plain the need to push far beyond those caricatures in search of the real Rodney King.
Next King context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, April 27, 2019

April 27-28, 2019: April 2019 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
April 1: 80s Comedies: Airplane: An April Fool’s series kicks off with what makes a successful parody, and what makes a truly great one.
April 2: 80s Comedies: Ghostbusters: The series continues with two ways to analyze science and the supernatural in the classic scary comedy.
April 3: 80s Comedies: Back to the Future: What the time travel comedy gets wrong and what it gets rights, as the series laughs on.
April 4: 80s Comedies: Home Alone: The interesting, American layers underneath one of our silliest holiday comedies.
April 5: 80s Comedies: Working Girl: The series concludes with the inspiring and frustrating female characters of a socially thoughtful dramedy.
April 6-7: Crowd-sourced 80s Comedies: My latest crowd-sourced post, featuring the responses and nominations of fellow ComedyStudiers—add yours in comments, please!
April 8: StatueStudying: The Statue of Liberty: A StatueStudying series kicks off with gaps in our memories of an iconic American statue.
April 9: StatueStudying: Saddam: The series continues with an anniversary post on the value of recognizing US hypocrisies and the need to get beyond them.
April 10: StatueStudying: The Shaw Memorial: A historically, culturally, and symbolically crucial statue and monument, as the series rolls on.
April 11: StatueStudying: Christ of the Ozarks: A few illuminating contexts for a ginormous Christian statue.
April 12: StatueStudying: The Spirit of Detroit and the Cleveland War Memorial Fountain: The inspiring messages and missing histories of two linked Midwestern statues.
April 13-14: StatueStudying: Charlottesville Statues and Memorials: The series concludes with two distinct spaces in which Cville seeks to remember, and one hope moving forward.
April 15: Patriots’ Day: My annual Patriots’ Day post, on Martin’s Game of Thrones and the easy and hard forms of patriotism.
April 16: Patriots’ Day Texts: “This Land”: A series on critically patriotic texts kicks off with three layers to Gary Clark Jr.’s raw and compelling song and video.
April 17: Patriots’ Day Texts: “Let America Be America Again”: The series continues with how Langston Hughes’s fiery poems helps us challenge a superficially patriotic slogan.
April 18: Patriots’ Day Texts: “The Land of the Free”: Two critically patriotic texts that together produce one of our best recent cultural works, as the series rolls on.
April 19: Patriots’ Day Texts: The Rise of David Levinsky: The series concludes with a fascinating text that explores, extols, and explodes the rags to riches narrative.
April 20-21: Patriots’ Day Texts: We the People: A special weekend update on my forthcoming book!
April 22: Earth Day Studying: Animated Activisms: An Earth Day series kicks off with three examples of the link between animation and the environment.
April 23: Earth Day Studying: Climate Change Voices: The series continues with how a few inspiring historical voices would suggest we respond to our current crisis.
April 24: Earth Day Studying: Henry David Thoreau: Three ways to honor Thoreau and celebrate Earth Day, as the series rolls on.
April 25: Earth Day Studying: Edward Abbey: How the author and environmentalist reflects three distinct and even contrasting forms of activism.
April 26: Earth Day Studying: Contemporary Works: The series concludes with three recent books that carry environmental writing into the 21st century.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!