Do the Riot Thing- A Look at Race, Riots, Inequality, and Morality by Vago Damitio
Just about anyone can tell you how it feels to be overcharged, ripped off, short changed, or screwed over. We’ve all dealt with it. The reason for this is because we are all humans that have been forced to interact with other humans. There is no getting around the fact that everyone who has ever interacted with the population at large has been given the short end of some stick or other. The big question, however, isn’t so much if you have ever been shafted as it is how you dealt with the misfortunes, dirty dealing, or slings and arrows that life has slung your way.
To cheat is human, to riot is divine. Maybe not, but when you have reached the limit of your acceptance and the world keeps piling more baggage on your heavy load…you may explode. Langston Hughes wrote about it, Shakespeare wrote about it, and the reason we know about it is because even if we have not reached the point where we toss a chair through the window of a symbolic oppressor, we have all approached it. If you have quit a job, flipped the bird at another driver, imagined pain or torture upon another human, or worse; than you know what it is to boil over and let your anger spill onto the burner. What it was, what it is, and what it shall be. It ain’t nothing but the truth. Amen.
In Twilight Los Angeles, writer and actress Anna Deavere Smith takes one of the most graphic demonstrations of this sort of pent up frustration, the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King trial, and gives voice to the people of that city before, during, and after the violence of those days. In the film, Representative Maxine Waters of California sums up what the riots were about “The riot was the voice of the unheard.” No kidding. Our society is filled with axes and euphemisms about how to get by and how to get what you want. Teddy Roosevelt is attributed with saying “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” To my mind, the L.A. riots were more or less a result of the speaking softly portion not working and the stick coming into play. Whammo. In an instant the resources of inequality met the resources of opportunity and chaos and destruction ensued.
Simmering tensions were unleashed upon Koreans, Hispanics, blacks, and whites in a way that should have surprised no one. Spike Lee had already made Do the Right Thing and released it in 1989. This was nearly three years before a gang of white LAPD officers beat Rodney King with nightsticks and two years before Latasha Harlans, a black teenager, was shot dead by a Korean convenience store owner in L.A. Do the Right Thing was set on a different coast and involved different tensions, but Spike Lee didn’t have to be psychic to create a story where white cops brutalize poor blacks, oppressed blacks resent upwardly mobile Koreans, Koreans are willing to defend themselves, and a seemingly peaceful and diverse community destroys itself. All he had to do was look at society in the United States of America.
There is a profoundness of place in the United States that supersedes race, economic status, and country of origin. We are all taught that we are all equal. We are all taught that we are the same as everyone else and are deserving of the same opportunities. We are all told through the media, education, and life experience that no one deserves the upper hand over us. This holds true across barriers. Nevadans are as good as New Yorkers, New Yorkers deserve the same treatment as Floridians, and people in Miami deserve the same opportunities as people in people in Los Angeles. This fundamental idea is perceived to be just as true for the smaller divisions within our nation, so how does one reconcile the inequality of opportunity with all of this ‘rights talk’ that we are indoctrinated with?
Why should the police defend Beverly Hills but not Compton? Why does the power go out in Oakland but never in Palo Alto? In Hawaii, a junked and abandoned vehicle in Kahala is gone within a few days but on the Waianae Coast it may sit for several months…why is that? It is because we have been misled, lied to, cheated, and told to accept it all with a stiff upper lip. We are fed the stories of people just like us who have made it by pulling up their bootstraps and expected to never examine the details that show they are not just like us. A recent example of this is the sudden billionaires of YouTube.com. No one ever seems to mention that one of them is married to a senior partner at a venture capitalist firm. The American Dream is a lie.
This is what the riots are about; this is what simmers on the back burner of the American consciousness. Langston Hughes wrote about what happens to a dream deferred and implied that if it is deferred for too long, the results might be disaster. Anna Deavere Smith links the American Dream to a deep black sadness. Spike Lee showed that even if it seems that things are going to be okay, the pressures of time and society may be creating a time bomb. Do the Right Thing is a complex story, but one aspect of it is that a poor white immigrant community, became a poor black community, and is becoming a poor Asian immigrant community. The immigrants move upward and the blacks are forced to remain in a stasis of poverty. Sadness becomes rage as the dream is deferred again and finally it explodes in riot.
The destruction of Sal’s pizzeria in Do the Right Thing was no more senseless than the looting and destruction of Los Angeles in 1992. Both of these can be easily seen as using the big stick once speaking softly has failed. The civil rights movement of the 1960’s which today is memorialized and remembered most often in the tone of Dr. Martin Luther King can be seen as the result of speaking softly. The beating of Rodney King was the result of that soft voice coming to be ignored. It was this incident that incited the people of Los Angeles to remember the second half of Roosevelt’s injunction. The big stick can be likened to the idea of Black Nationalism, Malcolm X, and yes, the riots of 1992 in Los Angeles.
It was not the looting of worthless shit, the destruction of business, or the beating of Reginald Denny that were the message. None of these are acceptable means of using your voice in our society, however, sometimes in the course of human events it becomes important to utilize the big stick in order to remind the powers that be that there is a soft voice which whispers for freedom, equality, and liberty.