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Land of the Silenced Jorge Luis Ortiz-Duran

This is America.

On March 3rd, 1992, Rodney King, a 25 year-old black man, is viciously beaten by four policemen. The entire ordeal was caught on tape. ©Lawrence Steward

This photo of Rodney King was taken on March 6, 1991, three days after police officers beat him savagely. The photo is one of three introduced into evidence by the prosecution in the trial of four L.A.P.D. officers in a Simi Valley, Calif., courtroom in 1992.

©AP

Abstract

How do the L.A. riots and the experiences of the characters portrayed in the play, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, by Anna Deavere Smith, perform the racial tensions in America, and how do these tensions contradict the narrative of America being "the land of the free and the home of the brave”?

To start, I would have never known about the L.A. riots in 1992 if it weren't for the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, by Anna Deavere Smith. More people must become aware of those five days of violence in Los Angeles, and when people of color were ready to stick it to white-dominated America. The riots were provoked by events that fueled the anger and frustration that communities of color had towards America and the way it treated them. People of color face so many injustices every day and our society and government remain unresponsive. American society is racially divided and, soon, peace amongst races will not be an option. I want to analyze the L.A. riots as a social performance and the experiences of the characters portrayed in the play, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, to see how the riots and rioters present the racial tensions that are so prevalent in America and how these tensions contradict the narrative of America being “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. The rioters rioted to convey a powerful message to everyone about being unheard and othered as a person of color in white America. Racial tensions have been brewing, and some have dared to light the spark, like those in L.A., because freedom from racial discrimination doesn't seem very accessible nowadays. The L.A. rioters were brave fighting for racial justice, but is that was America meant by "land of the free and the home of the brave"? I will read and watch the play and analyze the meaning of these riots and what each character in the had to say when knowing about the events of Rodney King and Latasha Harlins. I will also be looking online to find articles on the subject and add further evidence to answer the prompt for my essay.

Protestors peacefully march to Las Vegas City Hall on May 2, 1992, following the acquittal of four L.A.P.D. officers in the Rodney King beating. ©Las Vegas Review
"'The jury’s verdict will never blind the world to what we saw on the videotape'" (Press 2017).
A looter wheels a shopping cart full of diapers past a burning market on April 30. ©Los Angeles Times

Beneath: Police stand over a group of handcuffed looting suspects in Los Angeles on April 30, 1992, as rioting continued throughout the area. ©AP

Above: A National Guardsman stands at alert near graffiti that spells out support for Rodney King. ©Los Angeles Times

Essay

The Los Angeles riots in 1992 were a social performance performed by people of color that emphasized their struggle to remain free of discrimination in the nation. America promises a life bound to the privilege of freedom and security, so there is nothing to fear, right? Wrong. America tears down and marginalizes communities of color and sets them up to be disadvantaged in every aspect of society compared to the majority. White people never worry about being racially profiled because of the color of their skin. White people don't need to feel threatened by a police officer. White people do not have to worry about being called a "criminal" because of their skin color. White people do not have to fear for their lives every day, pondering if America will allow them another day. Rodney King and Latasha Harlins had fallen victim to the daily struggle of being a person of color in America. The rioters in L.A. looked to support Rodney King and Latasha Harlins and fuel the fight for racial justice in American society.

Look what you create.

A shopping mall in flames at La Brea Avenue and Pico Boulevard. ©Los Angeles Times

how Can you even look at yourself in the mirror, America?

The four police officers indicted for brutalizing black motorist Rodney King in a videotaped attack are shown in these police mug shots taken March 14, 1991. From left, Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, Officer Theodore J. Briseno, Officer Timothy E. Wind, and Officer Laurence Powell. Eventually, two served time in prison and all four lost their careers. ©AP

On April 29, 1992, a year later, after the savage beating of Rodney King, a jury found the four policemen to be not guilty. Video evidence showed the policemen beating King senselessly for 15 minutes as more than a dozen cops stood by watching and commenting on the beating, yet they were found not guilty. This one decision infuriated thousands from coast to coast. The news hit national broadcasts, and everyone watched in shock as America's justice system created the very thing it promised to prevent: injustice. The community was also rattled by the death of Latasha Harlins. A store owner had accused Harlins of stealing an orange juice, so they shot her in the back of the head. The owner only paid a $500 fine, which went to her funeral expenses. Mayhem erupted, and five days of rioting ensued in Los Angeles. The community of color in Los Angeles had already struggled through "years of racial and economic inequality in the city," and the verdict was the final straw. The riots sparked a conversation about "racial and economic disparity and police use of force that continues today" (Sastry 2017). The black community in Los Angeles was tired of pleading for better treatment only to always be deceived in the end.

"Guilty, guilty! We saw it, we know it!" ©Getty Images

Rioters took to the streets and set the city ablaze. The reaction from those in South Los Angeles, in particular, was powerful because tensions had been rising over the years. More than half of the area’s population was black; high rates of unemployment, drug use, gang activity, and violent crime plagued the area (Sastry 2017). Their emotion was strong, and the events of Rodney King and Latasha Harlins heightened the community’s frustration with law enforcement and America’s justice system. They did not feel protected because police constantly harassed them without reason. They could not rely on any public or government official to save them. They wanted to retaliate against such an unfair way of life that was forced upon them because they are not white. White people can safely indulge in the amenities of America, yet communities of color across the nation have to fight for basic rights.

Looters lie prone on the ground behind stores near the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. as officers stand over them. ©Dean Musgrove

Rioters wanted to show America and the world that the demand for racial justice is high, and they were tired of being lied to by a system that was extremely racialized. Even the people that only witnessed it all unfold had to feel like the riots sent a compelling message to get America to look in the mirror. At the time, law enforcement in Los Angeles was particularly discriminative against people of color. The riots offered “an open campaign to suppress and contain the black community” (Sastry 2017). Police were quick to abuse their power and act without probable cause to detain the rioters. The riots embody the mounting of racial tensions in America. Police feed the system in America that promotes the racial hierarchy that marginalizes the lives and experiences of communities of color. The rioters fought for a system that does not benefit the majority at the expense of the minority. Today, people in higher positions of power continue to face resistance from the people because those who claim to protect the liberties bestowed upon the American people will never live up to their word. They will never prioritize the needs of the people over their desire for money and status.

An L.A.P.D. car is set on fire and over turned. ©Los Angeles Times
"'There were four cops in each car that passed by,' Barnett told NPR in 1992. 'They saw us. They looked right through us.'" (Sastry 2017).
Two men suspected of looting are handcuffed. ©Los Angeles Times

In the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, by Anna Deavere Smith, the characters are introduced as being directly or indirectly involved in the worst riots in United States history. They, too, questioned what America had in mind for the people of color it treated so unequally. One character named Rudy Salas Jr. held prejudice against whites. Rudy had hit a cop, and he was locked in a room where four cops beat him up so badly that they fractured his eardrums. Rudy had a preconception about white people. He believed “that whites are physically afraid of minorities, people of color, Blacks, and Mexicans,” so communities of color remain vulnerable to racial discrimination by whites with power (Smith 1992, 4). His hatred only grew after a cop pointed a gun at his son’s head. “How you think a father feels, stuff that happened to me fifty years ago happened to my son?” exclaims Rudy (Smith 1992, 6). Whites were their enemy because they confine people of color like Rudy and his children in a trap that they can not escape. They can not escape the power structure set among races in America that showed no signs of diminishing.

"'Ain't nothing changed but the year it is,' he says" (Sastry 2017).

To explain this power structure, think about how high positions of power are being held by white people, like our current P.O.T.U.S. or the Senate Republican Caucus. These people have money and political power to support other organizations that subjugate the safety and experiences of minority groups. Leading positions of power in 1992 most likely contained even more white people than today. People of color were being racially profiled and criminalized by white people. They were mistreated, and most already struggled to survive.

Beneath: Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz share a moment as President Donald Trump looks on during a bill signing ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House on March 21, 2017. ©Getty Images

Ain't nothing changed but the year it is.

Furthermore, in the play, Jason Sanford presents an opportunity to display the power difference between whites and people of color in American society. Jason is a handsome white man in his late twenties. Concerning the events of Rodney King, Jason states, “I don’t know if I’d been beaten… I don’t think it would have gone as far,” which means he acknowledges his white privilege. “‘Why do you have so many warrants?’” a cop asked Jason. “Ya know… ‘You look like an all-American white boy. You look responsible,’” the cop followed (Smith 1992, 22). “I’m sure I’m seen by the police totally different than a black man,” says Jason (Smith 1992, 23). Race means everything in America. Being white holds more value than being black in American society, and it reflects the ignorance of the majority of America and their biased preconceptions about people of color. White people are seen as “responsible” and friendly, but black people are quickly perceived as “thugs” and untrustworthy. Many people of color experience covert racism where racism is “subtle” and implicit but still “perpetuates systemic injustices as well as policies and practices that keeps a lot of people behind” (Bellamy 2018). Through institutional racism, white people keep their racial hierarchy alive.

Protestors upset over the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial in Simi Valley, California, demonstrate outside of the Fraternal Order of Police headquarters in Washington D.C. on April 30th, 1992. ©Paul J. Richards

South Los Angeles was a black community that had to survive in the poorest of conditions in dilapidated slums. They were given little to no access to power or resources to revitalize the community as a whole, keeping them behind in American society. They were victims of institutional racism. Former congresswoman Maxine Waters knows institutional racism exists, and she asked the president to “deal with the young men who have been dropped off of America’s agenda” (Smith 1992, 160). She asked him to address those who have been silenced. Those who have had their struggles and experiences made insignificant. “Everybody in the street was not a thug or a hood,” good people struggle, and it leads them to crazy things, but they are not criminals (Smith 1992, 161). “The fact of the matter is, whether we like it or not, riot is the voice of the unheard,” declares Waters (Smith 1992, 162). The riots were meant to unite those who knew the struggle and uplight their voices to be heard by a nation that chose not to listen.

Police officers form a line as demonstrators make their point about the verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial. ©Orange County Register

America had betrayed the trust of many communities of color, especially when most believed things had changed with time. But it quickly became evident that things might stay the same. The rioters cried for racial freedom and equality, and they wanted to be heard loud and clear. The riots were meant to achieve the very concept that America promises yet still denies: freedom and equality. Communities of color have become marginalized by white America since America was first referred to as “The New World." Even in 1992, it was evident that America is certainly not on the side of people of color. The events of Rodney King reminded every person of color of their place in America: unimportant, just like America treated the lives and experiences of Rodney King and Latasha Harlins. America promises to be a haven, but people can not exist without discrimination, so they have to be brave enough to stand up and create change in such an oppressive system. America is not "the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It is the land of the silenced and the home of the lies.

Cover Image. ©AP

Bibliography

Bellamy, Wes. "Charlottesville Has Become 'Ground Zero For The Awakening' Of Covert Racism." NPR. August 11, 2018. http://www.npr.org/2018/08/11/637865131/charlottesville-has-become-ground-zero-for-the-awakening-of-covert-racism.

Press, The Associated. "Rodney King Riot: Timeline of Key Events." AP NEWS. April 26, 2017. https://apnews.com/fa4d04d8281443fc8db0e27d6be52081/Rodney-King-riot:-Timeline-of-key-events.

Sastry, Anjuli, and Karen Grigsby Bates. "When LA Erupted In Anger: A Look Back At The Rodney King Riots." NPR. April 26, 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots.

Smith, Anna Deavere. Twilight--Los Angeles, 1992. Dramatists Play Service, 2003

Reflection