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Smoke Signals

When L.A. went up in smoke and fire back in April of ’92, cars burning and windows smashing and white folks ducking and diving every which way, this black man was watching all the action from what by all rights should have been ground fucking zero, the first and maybe even last place black folks should have gone to demonstrate their righteous indignation over the Rodney King non-verdict: Simi Valley. Yeah, that Simi Valley. That‘s where I was living at the time, though I wasn’t particularly proud of it, even before the burg became internationally infamous for being home to some of the most racist and ignorant suburbanites ever to do time in a jury box.

But my homies never came to Simi. Rather than hop in the hoopty and bring their bricks and bats out to the source of all the madness, they confined their show of destruction and we-ain‘t-havin’-this-shit-no-more contempt for the white man‘s latest insult to the hood, laying waste to Vernon and Slauson and Normandie and Washington, instead of Simi’s Madera Drive and Los Angeles Avenue. Cynics would say the TVs were just as good at Fedco on La Cienega and Rodeo, why the hell waste the gas?

But a reasonable man like myself could also see the wisdom in tearing shit up that Five-Oh wasn‘t even going to try and defend -- rather than so much as look cross-eyed at a fire hydrant out in Ventura County, which the local police, hell, the National Guard, would’ve probably used napalm to protect.

When news of the non-verdict (that‘s right, non-verdict) broke, I was in the El Segundo office of the computer-maintenance firm that employed me at the time, one of four or five technicians waiting around for our next repair call. Amazingly, only I and J.B., an older white man who already feared us black folks in the everyday, normal course of things, seemed to understand that our Wednesday afternoon had just changed for the worse. No one else in the office got it. While I started making plans to haul ass home and J.B. began looking around for a good place to dig a foxhole, our associates were humming about like it was business as usual, no disaster prep necessary. A trouble call came in for Dan U., a short, 40-something nice guy of Hawaiian descent, and he was gearing up to take it. Somebody’s printer was eating paper at a meatpacking plant out in Vernon, and this little pale-faced doughboy was about to drive out there to fix it, blind as blind could be to the probability that the route he would have to take into Vernon was already fast becoming a war zone just looking to claim someone like him as its first victim.

But see, such was, and continues to be, the state of most people‘s ignorance of the black man’s plight in America. Nobody ever sees our shit coming, because they aren‘t even aware of our constant proximity to The Edge, that precipice of insanity we are perpetually forced to teeter upon by the injustices to which we are regularly and systematically subjected. (Like being told the beating poor Rodney took under the nightsticks of four ”officers of the law“ was not an abomination worthy of jail time. Uh-huh.) Hence, the unenlightened react with shock, shock! mind you, when the black man goes off every generation or so to make his injuries known, his need for justice recognized. Oblivious to the root causes of all the violence, and disproportionately appalled by the moronic vandalism that invariably accompanies it, they write our urban uprisings off as simple animal hooliganism and pray for the swift restoration of order.

Political context? What political context? It’s been exactly 10 years since it happened last. Life in Los Angeles for poor people of color is pretty much in the same sorry state now as it was then. Another fire is surely coming, somewhere down the road, as America‘s undying tolerance for racism all but guarantees. And as that dark day approaches, what I find myself wondering most of all is this: Will my boy Dan U. be any wiser about the signs of smoke in the air this time? Or will they still take him completely by surprise?


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