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The Boiling Pot By Norman Karr

Abstract

How does 1990’s Los Angeles forefront structural racism and what are some of the performatives that highlight the issues?

The primary performance I would like to analyze is the Rodney King case as well as the riots in 1992 Los Angeles. My primary object of study will be through the many lenses of people in Twilight by Anna Deveare Smith. I would like to examine police brutality as a form of structural racism as well as the lack of representation of African-Americans in many important positions. I.e. The jury for trying the police who beat Rodney King consisted of 10 whites, 1 Latino, and 1 Asian. I also would like to look at the responses from a wide variety of perspectives from Twilight to further understand all issues that led up to the riot. I would also like to analyze the events leading towards the resolution of the riots and juxtapose them against the events that caused them. In analyzing the events, I hope to look at motivations and emotions as opposed to face-value summaries. I.e. the general public’s response to the attack on the white truck driver Reginald Denny. I also would like to take the general idea of racism in Los Angeles and apply it to the 1990s decade as a whole by analyzing the rise of underground rap. When one reads into the lyrics of this genre, one can clearly see that they were written in response to some form of discrimination. I then would like to have a reflection upon the improvements made in society since the riots and compare the modern instances of police brutality as well as the “black lives matter” movement to 1992 Los Angeles.

Key Words:

Structural Racism, Police Brutality, Freedom of Speech, Representation

Anna Deavere Smith

Description

Decades of racism, years of building tension, and one video culminating in a six day riot told through 300 plus people. In the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith acts out interviews and monologues of a wide variety of people directly connected to the 1992 LA riots. Some examples of the wide variety of people that are brought to stage are Reginald Denny, the white truck driver who was dragged out of his truck and beaten into a coma, one of the jurors from the Rodney King trial, and Elaine Young, a Los Angeles real estate agent who escaped to the Beverly Hills hotel during the rioting. Each voice narrates a different frame of reference within the boundaries of Los Angeles. They describe the emotional shifts as well as the social aspirations of each individual all coalescing into an encompassing understanding of the reasons for the riots.

One of the most notorious rap groups of all time, N.W.A. was present at the heart of Los Angeles during these times of tension. N.W.A. was made up of a few African American friends, most famously Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, who created songs without any filter. Along with other artists such as The Notorious B.I.G and Tupac, N.W.A. was able to generate an environment known as the underground rap scene. They openly rapped about all their anger and struggles towards racism creating a medium that minorities were able to follow and identify with.

N.W.A. and all its members
Military Forces arrive to maintain peace (top) A building burned down during the riots (bottom)

Essay

America, historically known as the melting pot for being welcoming of all people, often struggled to live up to its nickname. In fact, 1990’s Los Angeles could very easily be known as a boiling pot as a result of all of the tension and unrest between all racial communities within Los Angeles at the time. Many performatives throughout these times greatly demonstrated these tensions as well as the people’s reactions and responses. The two main performatives I will focus on are Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a one-woman play written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith, and the rise of underground rap such as that depicted in the biographical film about N.W.A. titled Straight Outta Compton.

One of the unfortunate results of these tensions was the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. The riots were a five-day-long series of performatives and civil disturbances in response to the Rodney King case. The Jury had decided to acquit the four white officers, Briseno, Powell, Solano, and Wind who had excessively beat Rodney King on video. The ruling causes outrage amongst the black community because the beating was seen as an act of police brutality and the trial was considered a form of racism and lack of representation. The jury was made up of ten whites, one Latino, and one Asian; only the prosecutor was African American. Nevertheless, African Americans were not the only ones affected, the Korean community was also quite involved within the conflicts as relations between the Korean and African American communities were relatively hostile.

In Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Anna Deavere Smith, who had interviewed over 300 different people about the riots, emulates many of the interviewees through monologue performances. Some of the most important acts are of an anonymous juror from the Rodney King trial, Reginald O. Denny, and Mrs. Young-Soon Han. The juror was among the jury that had decided to acquit the police officers sparking the riots. The performative displayed by the anonymous juror provides an eye-opening scene. He breaks into tears while lamenting his decision in the trial and the aftermath of the verdict. He narrates the guilt he experienced as the judge read the verdict and his expression clearly showed disappointment and disgust. To add insult to injury, the judge publicly released the jury’s names quickly leading to multiple threats on his life. He then painfully narrates how each of the jurors received a letter of gratitude as well as admittance from the KKK. It was as if, with just one decision, each juror had voluntary subscribed to racism.

Reginald O. Denny, a white male truck driver, was one of the first victims in the LA riots; a group known as the L.A. Four physically yanked him out of his truck and beat him into a coma while a helicopter broadcast the beating on national television. Smith’s interview and portrayal of Denny arrive after Denny had recovered from the beatings and was able to voice his feelings and opinions. Despite being a victim of a hate crime, Denny is upbeat, hopeful and feels no anger towards the African American community. He even envisions a day where “there won’t be a color problem.” Another focus of the riots was on Koreatown: 2,300 Korean family businesses were damaged or destroyed during the riots. One of these victims Mrs. Young-Soon Han, who unfortunately witnessed her liquor store be burned down in the riots, had a much more pessimistic view than Denny after the riots. She felt that Korean Americans were severely mistreated and that there exist “too much difference” between the Korean and Black communities to ever exist in harmony. Despite being both victims of hostile attacks from the riot, both people came out with starkly contrasting viewpoints.

Before the riots, there still existed a lot of tension. One of the ways the African American community outlet their pains and complaints through the emergence of underground rap groups. One particular rap group, N.W.A. was at the center of attention. Many of their songs voiced the struggles young black teenagers faced growing up and did not fray away from filtering any of their strong opinions on racial profiling and police hatred. In response to police discrimination, they wrote the famously controversial song “Fuck Tha Police.” One of the lyrics in the song is “A young nigga got it bad 'cause I'm brown, And not the other color so police think, They have the authority to kill a minority.” This lyric, which came before the riots, paired with the Rodney King beating highlights the primary issues behind the state of the Los Angeles law enforcement. By simply being African American, they are treated differently by the police. The line “they have the authority to kill a minority” seems extreme, yet the past few decades has had multiple occurrences of police officers killing unarmed minority individuals.

The corroboration of these performatives forefront the structural racism still prominent in America in the 1990s. Racial profiling and discrimination were relatively prominent in the police force. Police officers are meant to be a symbol of protection and respect, yet the black community lives with fear and hatred towards the badge. The justice system was severely flawed as it featured very little minority representation. For example, they could not call upon a single African American onto Rodney King’s jury. Any American citizen who is over the age of 18 is legally able to be called for jury duty yet in with a plethora of diverse people, LA’s justice system still called upon a jury that was five-sixths white. The riots of Los Angeles also highlighted an issue similar to redlining. The greater Los Angeles contains many distinct zones of people: Koreatown, Compton, Beverly Hills, etc. The majority of Americans are able to associate these names directly with a certain group of people. One of the results of these divisions was the tense relations between the Korean and black communities, both of which were severely affected during the riots.

Idealists believe in the idea that America is a melting pot; people from any background are able to be accepted into an idealistic uniform mixture. However, reality struggles to reflect such an idea. America had too much institutional racism and separation to properly earn the nickname: the melting pot. Even in our current society, there still exists many instances of racial profiling and discrimination such as the Michael Brown shooting and the subsequent formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, as the next generation enters society, the ideal hope is that the boiling pot will finally settle.

This is a video of the beating of Reginald Denny (Warning: Graphic content)

Works Cited

1. Kennedy, G. D. (2018, January 13). The moment N.W.A changed the music world. Retrieved November 21, 2019, from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-nwa-parental-discretion-20171205-htmlstory.html.

2. Smith, A. D. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. (1993).

3. Los Angeles Riots Fast Facts. (2019, April 22). Retrieved November 21, 2019, from https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/18/us/los-angeles-riots-fast-facts/index.html.

4. Gray, G. F. Straight outta Compton. (2015).

5. N.W.A "Fuck Tha Police" Straight Outta Compton (1988)