Los Angeles Times
Riots that tell the future
In late April when the jacarandas bloom, I recall the 1992 riots. Back then, I saw the purple flowering trees as if for the first time, their blooms bright against L.A.’s ashy streets.
I spent the evening that April 29th downtown, across from Parker Center with first hundreds, then thousands who gathered, outraged at the acquittal of four LAPD officers charged in the beating of Rodney King.
Two weeks later, I interviewed for a teaching position at a little community college in the orange groves of Irvine. Driving down the 405, I couldn’t help but consider the white flight that had followed that route after the 1965 Watts riots.
I am neither especially white nor especially flighty. But there that history was, like worrying smoke in the rearview mirror. I got the job. I made the move.
In the quarter-century since, I have taught a generation of students freshman composition. Even such basic classes must be about something. Mine have been about California, and how we live in this place together, for better and worse. In those first years, I taught the riots; I taught Rodney King. Many students had seen the smoke with their own eyes, as had their counterparts in ’65, as a distant urban wildfire, visible from their suburban backyards.
For a few years, the students recognized the name Rodney King, remembered the televised turmoil. Today, not so much. Now the college is bigger, the orange groves thinner. It’s not unusual for me to teach children of former students. As always, some have never visited Los Angeles. Imagine that.
But they recognize new names, new flashpoints. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Florida, Ferguson, NYC. Closer to home, in a new textbook, they read about the 2011 beating death of Kelly Thomas — homeless, mentally ill — at the hands of Fullerton police officers who, as in the King beating, were acquitted. They are shocked, moved, curious. Prompted, they discover more names, more outrages: Caesar Cruz, Monique Deckard, Manuel Diaz all dead in Orange County.
When you’ve seen jacarandas in bloom against a fireline, you don’t forget it. Just like you don’t forget, once seen, the footage of King’s beating or the last moments of Garner’s life or Thomas begging for his. Riots are, to be sure, an L.A. story. But Los Angeles, like California, it is said, tells the future for the rest of the country. My students are living in that future today, the past reliably, vividly, embarrassingly blossoming. Lisa Alvarez was a graduate student in 1992 and working at Beyond Baroque in Venice. She is an English professor at Irvine Valley College.