Urban Warfare: Grappling With Asan Akbar's Descent
When I hear pundits discuss the rationale of preemptive war, I think of the logic of the drive-by shooting. Both are about payback and the notion that you'd best do unto others before they do it to you. Forbearance, coalition and patience are tiresome compared to the cathartic energy of a shotgun blast from a moving car, or a big-ass war in a convenient Third World country.
At first I wasn't sure that I knew Asan Akbar, the Army sergeant who last week attacked his commanding officers, killing two with a grenade. Akbar attended Locke High School in South-Central Los Angeles in 1988, and I taught there for five years during the same period. I had hundreds of students in that time and knew many more, but his yearbook photo jogged my memory. Yes, he was that well-spoken, neatly dressed, intelligent young man.
I didn't know him very well, but I knew he had the respect of his teachers and his peers. That meant a lot at Locke High, where failure for black male students is epidemic. Akbar and those like him, the college-bound, had overcome such difficult odds that it was impossible not to feel deep admiration for their achievements. What these students contend with isn't just monumentally difficult but overwhelmingly so: In the years I taught there, I had five students shot, three killed. It wasn't just overt violence that these kids had to wrestle with, though. Psychological pressures took their toll as well. But at a school where nurses didn't even have Band-Aids, a school psychiatrist on hand to help with issues of mental health was too much to hope for. It's almost as if poor and working-class students of color don't become mentally ill.
Often, kids I was sure had their heads on right would crack up. A student of mine, an intelligent, college-bound athlete who was a classmate of Akbar's, pretty much had a nervous breakdown during lunch. He began to rap for friends and stopped and dared anyone to make him continue. Then he began to cry uncontrollably until his mother came for him and took him to the hospital.
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With luck, good teachers and the love of family and friends, young black men do make it through, but the values you learn at school and the values you learn on the street are so different that the tension between the two can make a young man despair.
I suspect part of the reason why Akbar did what he did, an act of violence as a protest against violence, can only be understood if you know where that intelligent young man came from. The world he came to maturity in is the world of "Killa" King/Drew Medical Center, where military surgeons receive their training on sucking cavity wounds. It's the world of Rampart, of the drive-by.
Kids like Akbar succeed because they somehow generate a countervailing force equal to the force that's exerted upon them. Somehow these kids don't get crushed by BET-inspired "bling-bling" consumerism, or Tupac-like gangster martyrdom. They can handle the vicious streets of Los Angeles, the gangbangers who want to get up on them. They see the teachers who know what they're up against and who want them to succeed. Then they go into the world, the mainstream world, the white world, hoping to make it. Some do. They learn to decompress, to chill, to make positive choices, prioritize (greet police with a smile and hands visible). But others just boil with rage. That countervailing pressure that kept them going in South-Central now explodes outward. Everyone is trying to get up on you, take advantage of you; white people are insidious and tricky. They seduce you with the promise of inclusion, but the reality is that they think you're standoffish, arrogant, the prototypical angry black man, and if you're a Muslim like Akbar, the pressure is doubled. I think, finally, Akbar came to believe that he was despised by his peers and superiors in the army. The reporters say he was difficult and moody, angry and unreachable, in other words, an angry black man. I've lost many friends very much like this, intelligent men of promise who exploded in rage and paid the price: incarceration, drug abuse, death.
Akbar was quoted as saying, "You want to invade our country, rape our women, kill our children," but his act of preemptive violence didn't do squat to prevent the invasion of Iraq. If he chose to conscientiously object, maybe he could have made a difference. What he did manage to do is to bring suspicion on Muslims in the armed services, because he couldn't channel the rage he felt. If it's proved that he did commit the fragging of his commanding officers, for me it'll fall into the category of the bitter logic of the drive-by.
As the patriarch behind the New York Post's infamous (sorry, wait, nefarious) "Page Six," Richard Johnson may wield the weightiest, nastiest pen in the land.
Just last week, Johnson blasted Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Samuel Jackson, Susan Sarandon, Laurence Fishburne, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, Jackson Browne, Fred Durst, Sheryl Crow, Janeane Garofalo, Danny Glover and Martin Sheen for their anti-war activism — and that was all in one day. With that much power in hand, you'd think midlist celebrities would line up to kiss his ring, but that's not what happened when Johnson sat in the booth at Star 98.7 FM with Jamie White (who really is that sexy in real life) and Danny Bonaduce (who really is that funny-looking) for their morning show.
Technically, Johnson was here stumping for the New York Post, which will begin same-day home distribution in Los Angeles later this month, but that was not the topic of the day. Bonaduce started right in talking about his drinking days back in New York and how one morning he arrived at his DJ job barely sober, bruised and covered in puke and wondering what the hell happened, only to open up the Post to read Johnson going on about how he was drunk as hell running around in clubs the night before. So maybe this was sweet revenge or maybe this was just their morning shtick, but either way it was open season.
The first target was Johnson's style. He showed up wearing a black Izod golf shirt with a pair of Ray-Ban-style glasses hanging from his neck.
"Hey, Richard," Bonaduce said, "the '80s called, and they want their wardrobe back."
Never mind that Johnson's got a tough-guy image. He once wrote, "The only thing Mickey Rourke can box is pizza," and when Rourke claimed Johnson was hiding behind his column, the next day's "Page Six" carried his reply: "Hey Mickey, anytime, anywhere."
Bonaduce stands 5-foot-skinny to Johnson's more-than-6-foot frame, but that wasn't stopping him from questioning Johnson's sexuality. That didn't go over so well, considering Johnson's both mildly conservative and recently separated. But, then again, Bonaduce's got that silly goatee and is wearing snakeskin boots — so go figure.
All of this was slightly surprising, perhaps, because Johnson didn't come to town to find himself in the line of fire, but to be the guy pulling the trigger. His quarry? The Los Angeles Times.
See, the Post isn't just moving in on L.A., they're aiming to take over. The way they figure it, Los Angeles is full of New York transplants just aching for their kind of coverage. In the past few months, the Post opened a printing plant in nearby Ontario, California, and has been busy getting into newsstands and setting up corner kiosks.
"We fill a need," says Johnson. "The L.A. Times is much too serious for gossip. Plus, this is such a one-industry town, the Times can't do what we do. Everyone knows each other too well. They can't go have dinner with friends one night and write bad about them in the morning; they'd step on too many toes, they'd lose all their contacts."
And maybe he's right, but even the Post's famously fanged take on American celebrity has its limits. Soon after Johnson left 98.7 to head down the road to Sam Rubin's morning show on KTLA (Rubin, coincidentally, works for the Tribune Company, which owns the L.A. Times), he was pushing right up against those limits. In the time it took to drive from one station to the next, over in Iraq, Operation Shazam had commenced. What followed may have been one of the strangest pieces of on-air theater in recent radio history.
Sam Rubin fled the studio to broadcast live in front of the Film Academy where the Oscar folks were busy trying to decide if their awards show must go on. He Ô
interviewed passersby about the future of the Oscars and the future of the war, while simultaneously interviewing Johnson about the Post coming to town and the relative importance of his work (Ladies and gentlemen, gossip in a time of war!). And at the same time, the radio station kept cutting both Johnson and Rubin off to go to Channel 5 news, which was somehow feeding CNN's Wolf Blitzkrieg's live coverage from Baghdad. Overtopping all three were interviews with people calling in to support our troops or prognosticate Academy decisions or both.
Rubin, not knowing what else to do, opened the floor to Johnson, who, not knowing what to do, went into late-night infomercial mode: "Well, if you want to subscribe, just head to our Web site, ny post.com, or call 1-800-552-7678."
And then Sam Rubin said something like, "That was gossip guru Richard Johnson, thank you very much, and now, back to the war."
Which kind of said it all.
I was driving down Sunset Boulevard and looking at all the movie billboards for Paramount and Sony, and it occurred to me that they were just throwing money at me. Effectively, that's what advertising is. People don't think of it that way, but I looked into doing some for myself, and it costs tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars to do a real campaign," said D.B. "Dan" Weiss.
Dan was driving up Fairfax on a Tuesday evening, heading for Hollywood's Virgin Megastore, where he planned to take a more cost-effective approach to promoting something — himself.
"I figure, I can't afford to throw gobs of money at people, but I can give them enough for a cup of Starbucks coffee."
He took a sip from his own to-go cup, withdrew a single dollar bill from the breast pocket of his suede jacket and handed it over. Either side of the bill had the word www.luckywanderboy.com written on it in Sharpie marker.
Dan fits the profile of a first-time novelist. Small, East Coast liberal arts college (Wesleyan), then tony MFA program (Iowa Writers' Workshop), then a move to Los Angeles followed by years of dead-end screenwriting efforts (the money is good) and a stint as a copywriter for a failed dot-com (the money was even better). A year ago, his agent sold his first book for a sum Dan refers to as "enough to live off for a year or two, but not necessarily to live well." Like any first-time novelist, his fears have shifted from Will I be published? to Will my book disappear without a trace?
"What I'm attempting to do here is really just advertising you can use," he said, cruising by Melrose. "My royalty is about a dollar per novel sold, so I might even break even."
I offered him his dollar back.
"No really," he said, "you can keep it. I have about 50 of them left."
Dan drove his beige Nissan Maxima into the packed underground garage and passed a minibillboard for the Hummer H2 bearing the slogan "Here's a Real One."
"People think those will make them invincible," said Dan. "I'll tell you what's empowering. Taking a dollar from a guy. What we're about to do feels almost medieval, one human being approaching another with something to sell. It's really strange that direct contact is now embarrassing, but to have layers of advertising isn't at all."
As we came out of the elevator, a plump teenager in hip-hugger jeans and a midriff-baring T-shirt ran at us, shrieking. A friend followed a few steps behind.
"Who's in there?" I asked.
"OZZY!" the guy barked as he stormed past. "OZZZZZEEEEEEE!" Turns out Ozzy and Kelly were here to sign copies of The Osbournes' first-season DVD.
Dan thought it would be slow on Tuesday evening, but with Ozzy on hand, about four dozen customers milled about inside the Virgin Megastore. He positioned himself near a book display in the record section. A big pile of Lucky Wander Boys sat between a quickie Jeff Buckley bio, All American Ads of the '60s, a Spider-Man graphic novel, and Cool Gardens, System of a Down singer Serj Tankian's reflections on life.
A smiling man approached. He was dressed as Kiss drummer Peter Criss — full makeup. The letters C-R-I-S were written from pinky to pointer. He looked a bit like an anthropomorphic, rhinestone-studded cat. Dan made his rehearsed pitch.
Hi, I'd like to give you a dollar. I'm the author of Lucky Wander Boy, a new book that concerns a man whose life is both saved and doomed by his mounting obsession with a game he played as a kid — an obscure, surreal and possibly not-quite-natural video game. There's a pile of my books on display here. It's the yellow one. Check it out. If you choose to buy it, consider the dollar a rebate from the author. If not, just spend it at a store where someone is likely to be interested.
"That's funny, I'm totally here to promote myself too," said faux-Criss. "I'm the guy who does the all-drums Kiss tribute. I also write and perform my own songs and am working on a movie script about my life called The Rock Star Who Won't Go Away." Near his mouth, there was a dribble of red blood makeup covering his white face paint.
Dan offered him a dollar.
"You know, music is my happiness and money is only what you need to make ends meet, but I'm struggling so bad right now that I'm living in my car, so I'll take it."
Ozzy shuffled by, his gait reminiscent of Bernie in the film Weekend at Bernie's. Dan reached out to Ozzy with a dollar.
"He's not signing anything!" said his bodyguard.
"No, no, I just wanted to give him a dollar," said Dan, dejected.
—Alec Hanley Bemis
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LOOKING BACK AT 25 YEARS OF L.A. WEEKLY
"This doesn't mean there's no rationale for the war. The rationale lies in future history, the history we'll probably never see and might not want to see — the history of a world dealing with an unchecked Hussein five years from now, or 10, to perhaps far more disastrous consequences. The war, then, is a gamble that the unfolding of history from a present which does not include this war would instead include a Hussein who threatens the United States and the world more than this war threatens us now. Such are the ambivalent possibilities of history that render ideology simplistic and foolish."
—Steve Erickson, "Bad Faith,"
January 25, 1991
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