Race riots are within my scope of knowledge, you might say, not to brag or anything, having lived through what social scientists call the “index case,” Watts in 1965, and having family ties, you might say, to the second most important public disturbance in modern America, also in Los Angeles, in 1992, after the acquittal of police officers for the beating of black motorist Rodney King.
It was also my fate to be in China during the Tiananmen Square protests although those were not my protests, in any way, not being Chinese myself and with no Negroes involved, and because of my distance at the time from the capital. Being in largely-rural south China, not in Shanghai or in Beijing, events in Tiananmen Square struck me more as a distant rumble than as an earthquake. But the thing that strikes me about most public unrest, as an African-American and having a certain expertise, is that it is warm-weather phenomena, almost exclusively June to August, including Ferguson, Baltimore and Tiananmen. When the weather is warm, you might say, a young man’s fancy turns to throwing a brick through a plate glass window. This has continued to be true even in the age of almost universal air conditioning, at least in this country. When it’s hot, people are just less tolerant of bullshit. Have you noticed?
We’re in early summer now, it’s already a scorcher, and the local newspaper has begun carrying notices about expected demonstrations, like music lineups—who’s playing where—or like bar openings, what kind of protest will be served, which is a novel but probably important use of newsprint. So many people today seem to have a grievance that is taking them to the streets: Trump’s people and the people opposed to Trump, women, gun nuts and anti-gun nuts. Islamaphobes and Islamaphiles. Pro and anti-same sex marriage, pro and anti-abortion, people who want to deport Latinos, Latinos who don’t want to be deported and black people who still haven’t gotten over slavery and Jim Crow. My preference is to stick with African-Americans who have well defined and familiar grievances, at least to me. But what should be noted is that protest that begins with one group may spread to another. What everyone has in common, no matter their color or political stripe, is that they’re angry about what’s going down.
In the case of China, back in the day, my sympathies were originally with the students because what university students lack in information they more than make up for with heart. In the years since Tiananmen however my belated support has edged in favor of the tanks, thanks to historical analysis and the understanding that, whatever the faults of the Chinese Communist Party, it has helped create a prosperous and secure People’s Republic, even at the expense of certain civil liberties. But that’s an unpopular opinion today and one best shared with only a few hundred of my closest friends. The thing about being African-American and hearing people of other races prattle on about the role and outcomes for blacks in this society is that, as regards other races and lands, and China specifically, even though I spent two long years there, and speak or spoke bad Mandarin, I know that I don’t know what I’m talking about and I try to keep it short when voicing my opinions. L.A. was a lot easier for me. I was nine years old, we had just moved to the city, to an area on the edge of the ‘hood and, as with practically every other black person in the city, there was no doubt who the bad guys were: the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department. It was a joy every morning to wake up and see, from our apartment balcony, the smoke rising. My older brother and I got on our bikes and cruised the edge of the carnage but we were not allowed to go on Crenshaw Avenue where there was actual gunfire.
Our apartment complex was on Adams Boulevard, which runs into Crenshaw, and is kind of a thoroughfare, and two sights there stick in my mind and define my experience of racial liberation in this country. The California National Guard was called in by the governor and the troops were prone to riding in Jeeps with .50-caliber machineguns mounted on back, moving up and down Adams, going to or from some disturbance or another. It has struck me since then—benefit of more historical analysis—that those soldiers on the Jeeps had easy duty because the alternative to “peacekeeping” in L.A. was combat in Vietnam, where my sympathies were already leaning toward the Viet Cong by the way, on the theory that anyone who was shooting at white people in uniform was doing the world a service. So, soldiers patrolling L.A.’s streets was actually a good thing, for me and for them. The other sight was LAPD’s famous black-and-whites, which were suddenly carrying three officers, two in front and a guy with a shotgun in the back seat. Not to get sentimental or anything, but it was a beautiful sight to me because it signified fear. My family had just come from the South, living in small town Alabama, where I attended segregated schooling in a majority-black community and where whites still called all the shots. The thought that you could frighten white people in positions of authority was, somehow, liberating.
On the subject of L.A.’s second big burn, after the Rodney King beating, my views are less personal but better informed. My older sister Melanie was a lawyer in L.A. at the time and served as what today would be called a “bundler” of contributions for Tom Bradley, the city’s first and so far only black mayor. In return for her fundraising prowess Mayor Bradley, who was himself a former LAPD lieutenant and the first big city black mayor in the country elected by white people, appointed Melanie to the city’s Airport Commission, where she was royally bored. I was out of the country at the time but the story recounted to me by my mother was that Melanie pleaded and pleaded with Bradley to be reassigned, and eventually was picked as vice-president of the Police Commission, where she served as second banana to a stately and chronically-ill African-American attorney who had the chair. “This is my ticket,” my mother quoted my sister, about being placed on the commission with oversight of LAPD. It was her ticket, on a trip she and the city didn’t yet realize they didn’t really want to take, and certainly not with Melanie at the wheel. Almost immediately after the beating of Rodney King, the president of the police commission resigned for health reasons and Melanie took over. It turned out to be a rough ride for everyone concerned although, credit to Melanie, I must say, the city eventually got where it needed to go.
When the riots began, as I said, I was out of the country, in Israel, actually, working nights in a chocolate factory—don’t ask—but my mother updated me in that non-Internet age, at a time when a long distance call cost real money, by letter. The back story is that police chief in Los Angeles has always been a high profile, political job. Mayor Bradley viewed then-Chief Daryl Gates as a political threat, a view that Gates made no effort to dispel. In the streets, conflict was over race and respect while at City Hall and at Parker Center, headquarters of LAPD, the struggle was about power. Bradley himself had first been elected to city council because of a LAPD uniform, and Gates had the same uniform with four stars on his collar. There was a very good chance that he was going to run for mayor, or governor, or something, and he was hated by black people. After Watts, LAPD had slowly returned to its abuse mode, one feature of which was widespread use of a chokehold that killed a black suspect in the months before the King beating. Questioned about that particular restraint, Chief Gates went into an ill-advised anatomical explanation that concluded with a comment that blacks were more susceptible to choking “than normal people.” That was it for the African-American community in L.A., Gates needed to go, and like any good politician Mayor Bradley decided to use one aim to achieve another, in this case the reforms required of the department, by the beating and eventually by civil unrest, to get rid of a political rival. That was his instruction to my sister: to get rid of the chief, which needed to be done to better the police, but also to protect the mayor.
Melanie (she’s dead now, they’re all dead, Melanie, Tom Bradley and Gates: the chief actually outlasted his two opponents and quietly expired in a California beach town a few years ago; in pace requiescat) was an interesting woman and not because she was my sister. There were six of us kids in our family, three boys and three girls, and Melanie was the middle girl and always considered the most intellectually-challenged among us. She read Harlequin romances, which were fifty-cent bodice-rippers, she religiously watched soap operas even in law school, and didn’t understand references to life and civil rights in black music. She thought that music was merely to dance to. Despite these limitations she was relentlessly calculating, fearless, and a particularly vicious in-fighter, all skills that were necessary in Los Angeles at the time. When Bradley gave his instructions regarding getting rid of the chief, it was clear to my siblings, my mother and me who was going to win this particular confrontation. I actually felt sorry for Chief Gates because, as Melanie’s little brother, I’d seen her footwork and body work up close—she never left scars, but you knew you had taken a beating. Have you ever read Roman history? Melanie certainly hadn’t, but in her campaign against Gates she took a leaf from a Roman senator during the time of Rome’s great competition for supremacy with the African city Carthage. Whatever the subject of the debate in the Senate, whether about building an aqueduct, or pacifying the Gauls, or paying for more gladiatorial games, Cato the Elder always stood up and said, “Carthage must be destroyed.” And eventually Carthage was destroyed by Rome. Melanie did pretty much the same thing to Chief Gates. Every time she spoke to the press, or went into the black community, to the black churches, to speak, she said, “Chief Gates must go,” or “Chief Gates must resign,” words to that effect. Mostly though she did a lot of close-in body work on Gates, biting and gouging and kneeing if she could get away with it, but also shots to the kidneys, shots to the groin. She didn’t want, it seems to me now, a big public knockdown, because she didn’t want to be seen as a confrontational black woman which was considered even more threatening then than now. Instead she wanted Gates to come out for a round and just collapse, or go fetal, and she could act like he was a pussy or he didn’t have the guts to fight for what was best for the city. This was Melanie, calculating with each breath, and pretty effective. Her mouth was a loaded weapon. Sometime later, this is germane, I had a recurring dream—a nightmare, some might call it. I was alone on a desert island with Melanie and Oprah Winfrey. They wouldn’t stop talking. On the island I had a gun but only one bullet. The dream always ended the same way. I shot myself. I think that’s the way Chief Gates felt too.
He said in an interview, or wrote later in his autobiography, I can’t remember which, that he went to meetings with Melanie, just him and her, billed as opportunities to resolve their differences, and sitting there together they would agree to do thus-and-so, and not speak publicly about it, just get it done, and after the meeting Melanie would walk out and call a press conference and tell the world what Chief Gates had just told her in private. I could have warned him if he had asked me, but I wouldn’t have because, as Melanie said, Gates needed to go. Melanie and the mayor were right about that, merely the methods employed give us pause on retrospect, during the historical analysis, and not much pause at that.
In the end they all went, actually. After the riots and after former Secretary of State Warren Christopher was brought in to lead a blue-ribbon commission on LAPD, the Christopher Commission recommended Gates resign but also wanted Melanie out, as a divisive figure. And then, suddenly, Bradley was gone too, he didn’t run the next year for re-election, his handling of the police department and civil unrest was publicly questioned. L.A’s first Republican mayor was elected. My point? That’s the thing about civil unrest, it shuffles the deck. People who think they’re holding strong hands are forced completely from the game, like Tom Bradley and my sister. It seems to me that in my hometown, Austin, Texas, we need that kind of re-shuffling now.
At heart Austin is a small Southern town, not so unlike Tuskegee, Alabama when I was a kid, before my family beat a hasty retreat to L.A. In this Texas capital city there’s been a white side of town and a black side of town, a segregated major state university and mostly-segregated public schools as well as a white police force that has, usually once a year, shot an unarmed black man to death for no good reason. The jail and criminal justice system was and still is mostly full of blacks, Hispanics and the poor, who are on the receiving end while whites dispense justice. This is the city with the greatest economic segregation in the country, lest it be forgotten, and the only major metropolitan area that continues to lose black population, at an alarming rate. Austin gets a lot of good press, as Live Music Capital of the World, and for high tech and the plastic arts, SXSW and Google fiber, and the white people of the city tend to believe what they read about themselves, but minorities are less sanguine about the city’s history and its future. A few days of mass chaos, which is what I’ll be describing here, could change all that.
Our mayor, who is a developer (although he somehow has a Wikipedia entry describing him as a civil rights lawyer by trade) is attempting to amend zoning in a way that will put the final nails in the coffin of black presence in the city. It’s not that he’s opposed to black people, it’s that what land remains in our hands is central, and valuable to redevelopment. This is just business, as far as he and the Chamber of Commerce are concerned. In the historical context Mayor Adler often reminds me of the Dutch buying Manhattan for 24 dollars, or sixty guilders at then-going rate. The mayor has the same kind of paternalistic, exploitative attitude towards minorities that the Dutch had to Native Americans, although he’s actually better than our last mayor, who wasn’t even offering the 24 dollars. You don’t have to believe what I say, you don’t have to agree with my analysis, just assume there’s some truth to it, as a point of departure for a discussion of civil unrest. Blacks are largely not happy with our outcomes in the city, that’s a fact. There has been some discussion in learned quarters about whether our outcomes here would have been better had we “taken it to the streets,” to quote the Doobie Brothers. Assume for the moment that’s true. What would that mean here? How would unrest evolve? The big thing to remember about civil unrest is that no one’s safe. Literally. But also—a lot of good can come. Because it shuffles the deck.
In Israel, back in the day, when I was making bad chocolate, there was a television on the factory room floor and during breaks I watched the post-Rodney King riot in L.A. There was one sight that chapped my scrotum, so to speak: one scene that pissed me off despite my general approval of then-current events. Blacks had run all the risks, confronted the police and broken the shop windows, but who did you see climbing out of those windows with high-dollar electronics like flat screen TVs? Hispanics. Latinos. Our Mexican-American brothers and sisters. What was up with that? We were taking all the risks but not profiting from the breakdown in law and order that we orchestrated. That seems to me now, due to further historical analysis, to be a metaphor for black-Latino relations in this country even today.
Through black protest, or even more confrontational activity, we have opened the door—or broken the window, on occasion—and Latinos have stepped through. Even today if you talk to many blacks you hear the same complaint, that Hispanics have relied on black activism to make their lives easier in this country. There’s some pointed questioning of “whose side Latinos are on,” and “Do they think they’re white?” although in the Trump era that question is being answered by the federal government and the answer is, “No, you’re not.” In any case some of our complaints about Latinos are justified or kind of justified, but mostly, with the benefit of age and wisdom, having seen the world so to speak, I've come to the conclusion that most people, including black people, do what’s in their own best interests and that means Latinos are making the choices they think are best for them. One sidelight of potential unrest in the black community is that, whether Latinos come out to play, or not, when whites have to cede power, because they’re getting their asses kicked by black people for example, they prefer to cede power to Latinos. Mayor Adler out of office would still be Mayor Adler out of office, and if Latinos pick up the power His Honor loses, that's cool. Power to them, literally: Latinos are almost as numerous as whites in this city, and growing in population, and they should have the influence that goes along with that growth. Outcomes probably won’t improve demonstrably for blacks either way, my experience is that my brown brothers and sisters are just as enamored of big business as are whites, but the process will be less exploitative if only because The White Man is no longer in charge. That’s a long view. What we’re concerned with here though is trouble in the short term, in the streets.
The issue of who goes in or comes out the broken shop window is still germane, if there is unrest in Austin, but less so than in L.A. There’s nothing really worth taking from shops downtown here. Not much merchandise to liberate, really. I know, I’ve looked. One of the few possibilities is a store on Guadalupe Street near City Hall that sells the kind of outdoor gear white people wear everywhere here—tights for the women and high-tech hoodies for the guys—so popular in Austin, but that the self-respecting, fashion-conscious African-American looter would turn his nose up at, not to be a snob or anything. Closer to the Capitol, there’s only like one jewelry store on Congress Avenue, been there forever, and on a personal level they gave me, free of charge, a battery for my watch a few years ago and you don’t repay an act of kindness like that by breaking the glass in the middle of a civil disturbance and swiping a handful of engagement rings, do you? Besides, everything seems to go into the safe at night, the display windows are practically empty of the good stuff. In San Francisco where I did graduate school a couple of years ago there was a Mac Store downtown, and if there were one in downtown Austin then we could discuss the chance to re-distribute wealth through direct action, but there’s not really that opportunity in the Texas capital city, sad to say. What Austin does have, in this context, social upheaval, which still makes it an attractive locale for protest and for a potential breakdown of law and order is the world famous Sixth Street, with a wide gamut of bar and club venues, and close packing of potential political targets nearby.
I still remember riding my bike in L.A., watching the smoke rise and being so happy. But things have changed, in L.A. probably, and here as well. The police are no longer my enemy. The local Police Department is not the organization it was even five years ago. There are still bad cops, but I like to think there are still, despite gentrification, just as many bad Negroes that things are kind of, you know, balancing out? Austin has, per report, the best-educated and best-paid police department in the state and gradually that’s beginning to show. Cops are, it seems to me now, basically just bureaucrats with guns. There are some hotshots and hotheads, but these guys and girls are worried about their pensions and their paychecks just like everybody else. In Austin because the city is in contract negotiation with the police union right now, there's a move to punish the police for past wrongdoing, and that’s understandable. There’s also the concern that public safety eats up too much of the municipal budget, the way defense does with federal money. That’s a valid concern, too. But it seems to me you want to pay the police well and get the best because the alternative is unsupportable. And there have been changes, for the better, in local cops even in the last few years. This is completely subjective—I’ll say that at the outset—but I got pulled over by an officer on Congress Avenue a few weeks ago for riding my bike on the sidewalk, hardly a capital offense, and I went into my righteous black warrior persona, which was enough to get someone killed in this town in years past (the last killing of a cop in Austin, on the other hand, right before my arrival in the city in ’78, was an officer who hassled a couple of Black Muslims selling Muhammad Speaks just up the street, on Congress; in the struggle they took the officer’s gun and shot him with it: in pace requiescat.) Anyway, I found myself getting a little upset at being stopped, and I found myself giving the officer, who was a young white guy, a hard time, provoking him, you might even say. And you know what happened? Nothing. He wouldn’t take the bait. He said what he had to say to me but he was polite and respectful, and tried to understand my point of view when I said you can get killed riding a bike in the street in this town. I told him, “Austin has the third highest rate of bicycle fatalities in the country,” which I kind of made up on the spot, in case there was a ticket looming, and he said, “I didn’t know that,” like he was actually listening to me. It turned into a genuine conversation, I’m almost ashamed to say.
The real race problem in the city now originates in the Chamber of Commerce and the mayor’s office, and the new chief’s office possibly, as well. The new chief is “old Austin,“ people say it like you should be impressed, which worries me, because of the belief of many whites in the city still that “old Austin” is synonymous with righteousness which it’s not, actually. The new guy is a bean counter not a people person. His degree is in finance from the University of Texas. Also moderately-worrisome is that he is the unanimous choice of the power structure, including the mayor and Chamber. I was looking at the new chief’s calendars the other day, and practically his first meeting after being appointed to the interim position of police chief was to sit down with a couple of Wells Fargo wealth management types at the Quorum Club. I would have preferred to see him taking lunch with the Grand Dragon of the Texas Klan, because it would probably be safer for black people. In the past, blood was shed in this city over selling a Muslim newspaper, as noted, or allegedly reaching for what a dumb cop thought was a gun. Now it will be over money, or its present incarnation in this capital city, land. Still, the powers that be have chosen Chief Manley, that’s his name, so you have to let him have his shot. He’s said to have an eye for the ladies, but so far not in his choices for higher command. But that's for feminists to address. Anyway, because I now talk to the police, not the upper ranks but the troops, I’ve found that I’m not the only one who believes trouble is brewing.
There seems to be some common thought on how unrest might originate. The Watts riots started with a white cop making a traffic stop in the black community and ended with 34 dead, 3400 arrested and 268 buildings destroyed. People were just tired and there's some of that same fatigue among African-Americans in Austin. But here, my feeling is that unrest won’t start on the traditional Eastside or even northeast where so many blacks have been forced to move due to gentrification. I’m thinking more along the lines of Sixth Street and that instead of other people with other agendas, like looking for a good deal on a flat screen, who latch on to black protest, that African-Americans will join in on something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with us at the start, and that we will use the opportunity, so to speak, to address outstanding issues of dissatisfaction with the way we’ve been treated. It’s all good. The local police’s special response team (the riot squad, in less p.c. terms) practices pretty regularly and while people talk about this or that grievance, or Austin’s sense of political consciousness, or Trump, or whatever, my bet is that trouble will begin on a macro scale for the same reason it begins on a micro scale, namely that this is the hardest-drinking town in the state. In other words, one vodka too many. The scenario hasn’t taken full shape in my mind but I see something at night on or just off Sixth Street getting out of hand. A well-informed police officer told me about a scene that didn’t make the newspaper, a few weeks ago, at night, involving AK-47s. There was a kind of standoff, on or just off Sixth Street, between the red-bandana crowd (our local anarchists) and guns-rights nuts (our local reactionaries.) “The officers there,” this officer told me, “said it was the most frightened they’d been as members of the Austin police department.” Guns, alcohol, grievances. Bandanas. Gentrification. We’ve got all the ingredients for a working bomb.
So how, you may ask, would it explode? I have a pretty disorderly mind so it’s kind of easy for me to imagine how disorder would propagate. Everything is in reach from any bar downtown. City Hall is right there. If you've got a grievance against the mayor, for example, where better to show that? Another possible major target for disruption would be the federal courts which, from a black perspective, have been so hostile to civil rights in the city. Only three district judges work there, one is a Democrat and a good guy but the other two are both Republican appointees, one a cracker and the other, Judge Sparks, is also a Democrat but was appointed by Bush the Elder and is somewhere between the cracker and the good guy in his rulings. It depends on what kind of day Sparks is having and if his sciatica is acting up. But it doesn’t matter whether Judge Spark is right or righteous or right-wing, or not, because the federal courthouse was built after the Oklahoma City bombing and that bitch is basically impregnable. I’ve heard there are machineguns and searchlights on the roof. Right now my sources say the federal government is planting land mines in the park in front of the courthouse. You take a wrong step and it's all over. So, like I say, give it a pass—because the state courts which are much more approachable are just a few blocks up the street. And the jail: let my people go, you know? But it’s there, after disrupting the county courthouse that radicals, black or otherwise, would need to stop and reflect. The next step could be fatal.
Back in the day, while W was president, there was a discussion at a Texas Public Safety Commission meeting about what to do in case of a riot in downtown Austin. The Commission controls the Department of Public Safety, including the Rangers, Texas Highway Patrol, Capitol police, the narcs and state intelligence officers, such as they are. At the time W, even though he’d been governor here, was not much more popular than Donald Trump is today, and the state police, like the local police, were all about scenarios and practice. At the time the Austin police were the danger for demonstrators, because the local police were not so well-trained, or tolerant, while more professionalism and restraint was expected from those responsible for Capitol security, in other words DPS. At the meeting, which I attended, the state officer over the Capitol district went through the list of “methods” available to state troopers should it become necessary to defend the complex and he said, for example, that rubber bullets and those guns that fire a kind of bean bag were acceptable, but tear gas was not. The fear, he said, was that the gas would be sucked into the ventilation systems of buildings downtown, principally on Congress, and shut down business. Mostly, the approach outlined by the state was restraint.
Today, the situation is reversed. Austin police are being trained to display restraint, and one presumes that if there was widespread trouble downtown, or elsewhere in the city, that the local authorities would do what well-trained police everywhere do in similar circumstances, back off, if necessary, and even allow some level of property damage, in lieu of shooting people. Mayor Adler is not the Black Man's Friend but he’s not a fool either and only a fool would push escalation. Or an extremist
But one can expect a more robust response from the state. In the case of civil disturbance the governor can decide that he wants to call the shots. Austin police have noticed that recently DPS is more confrontational in demonstrations than they themselves are, and that’s unlikely to change under the present Republican administration. You have a chance of the Texas National Guard with Hummers and .50-caliber machineguns, like in L.A. back in the day, but more likely is state troopers with M-4s. The Governor’s Mansion was torched a few years ago, after all, in a case that has never been solved, but it’s really who occupies the Governor’s Mansion now that is worrisome. Greg Abbott is trying very hard to make a point with the City of Austin, and with Travis County, and state troopers are looking like the Austin police used to look, back in the day, like they wouldn’t mind a little trouble to show who’s in charge. Declaring martial law in Austin would make Gov. Abbott's day. One thing you may have noticed if you go into the Capitol itself on a fairly regular basis, as I do: During prior legislative seasons, in an effort to look reasonable and to prove to visiting lawmakers that DPS really is a diverse organization, for the duration of the session DPS would rotate in black, Hispanic and female troopers to work security. Not this session. It’s all been white guys with big guns. A friend of mine who used to work for Abbott when he was attorney general said Greg Abbott was a reasonable guy as A.G. and this person, my friend, was wondering what has happened to him recently.
There’s a lot of marketing in politics now, on the state and national levels, and Abbott has discovered there’s a demand for extremism. He’s just giving people what they want. If we were living in an age of love and peace, Woodstock and hippies, and hippies voted, Abbott would be smoking a fat one and hanging out on the Capitol grounds, strumming his guitar. But we’re not. Instead, he's dissing this city which is not a big deal to African-Americans, actually, because there’s a lot to diss. My point is though, what better way to win over the rest of the state than showing an iron fist in Austin? As black people, we have to make sure we don’t give him that opportunity. If you’re a nascent African-American revolutionary, and you have—for instance—this is just speculation, do not try this at home—and you have just freed all political prisoners from the Travis County Jail and maybe torched the Travis County Courthouse in the process, think very hard about crossing the street to the Capitol complex. I know it’s just across the street. It may seem like a natural next step, but it may be a last one, too. We have to keep our eye on the prize. The mayor and City Hall are the enemy but Gov. Abbott, personally, like Gov. Perry before him, has never called us nigger. Civil unrest is a way to shuffle the deck, certainly, and a way to get some needed changes for people of color in town. But there’s also a wildcard in this deck, his name is Greg Abbott, and he doesn’t play.