Paddy McGuinness, The Weekend Australian, June 13-14, 1992, p. 2.
Los Angeles: One of the strangest aspects of all the descriptions and analyses of the Los Angeles riots at the end of April, with all their profound analyses of the tensions due to race, poverty and immigration, is that none of the descriptions matched with what I have seen this week.
There was the place all right — the immensely long Vermont Avenue with burnt-out shops dotted along it, the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues, which most of the world has seen in the footage of the truck driver who was pulled out of his truck and beaten up by the rioters. There were the blacks and Hispanics walking on the streets.
But where were the slums? Whatever the reality of poverty by American standards, the housing on Vermont Avenue and surrounding streets is not bad. Indeed, it is reminiscent of some of the poorer parts of Sydney, comparable with the wooden houses one can see on the way to Sydney airport — not good, but not all that bad.
On the way, I had passed through Baldwin Hills, a black district where a shoe store had been burnt out in the riots — and was taken aback to find that it was quite an attractive suburb, quite as good, with as good a housing standard, as most ordinary suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.
Is this the underclass that is in revolt against racism and poverty? There were schools which, seen from the outside, seemed as good as the ordinary Australian State high school; in Vermont Avenue, there were many badly maintained buildings, but the same can be said of Beverly Hills, not normally considered a deprived area.
But the one fact which struck me powerfully, which I have not seen or read about in any of the reports, was the omnipresence of religion.
In the main stretch of Vermont Avenue, roughly from 51st Street to 87th, I counted more than 100 different churches before I gave up.
Most of them were not what we would think of as a church — large, dedicated free-standing structures with plenty of land. No, these were big or small store-front operations, evangelical for the most part, with names in English or Spanish.
It is a mixed Afro-American and Hispanic area, with a strong concentration of Koreans towards one end. I saw nothing which I recognised as a Korean church or temple. Not so many Catholic churches. There is one significant large church in the middle of the riot area, the Afro-American Community Presbyterian church.
(This church had a queue alongside it for food handouts — many of the food shops were destroyed in the riots — and, as my driver, married to a black woman, cynically observed, a brand new Buick parked in front.)
Clearly, religion looms large in the lives of the “minority” residents of Los Angeles. There was not a single block along Vermont without one or more churches and sometimes there were as many as seven or eight in a block.
As well as the standard denominations, there were many odd little evangelical or fundamentalist outfits, many of them one-offs with bizarre names.
It would be easy to sneer at these with the usual stuff about religion being the opium of the people and make references to the electronic preachers of California, notorious for their mercenary and hypocritical behaviour. But here is clearly a deeply religious people.
There are nearly as many liquor stores as churches and, unlike the churches, many were destroyed in the riots. The hope is frequently expressed that not all of them will reopen. The greater number of small shops which were attacked seemed to have been owned by Koreans, widely hated by the other two groups.
Further down the avenue towards “Koreatown”, the burnings come to an end as the Korean language signs become thicker and thicker. The impression is that a rising tide of incursion by Korean shopkeepers into the black-Hispanic stretch has been one of the elements in the conflict.
On an ordinary day, the district seems at peace, as it must be normally. Despite high rates of unemployment, there were not many people sitting on doorsteps or porches, although it was warm and some sun was penetrating the universal LA smog.
There was the normal amount of life one might see in an inner-city suburban shopping street mid-week — rather more than is normal for the richer parts of Los Angeles, where nobody can be seen on the streets at all. They have the eerie, deserted air of Canberra suburbia.
So what happened? Obviously, the outrage at the acquittal of the police who delivered an unbelievably brutal beating to Rodney King was the spark which set off the riots.
But, as even locals observe, why did the residents of Vermont Avenue and the surrounding districts turn on themselves? Why were they not sophisticated enough to invade Beverley Hills — where, in Rodeo Drive, there is a concentration of shops selling the most expensive “designer” garbage in the world — or downtown LA, with its concentrations of jewellery wholesalers and retailers, etc?
One answer, which is not as silly as it sounds, is simply that the rioters were not pop psychologists looking for simple political messages rooted in the discredited kindergarten Marxism of the 60s and 70s. They do not use words like “underclass”, with all its patronising overtones.
Some were reacting to the clear injustice of the jury verdict; many more were opportunistically riding the wave of burning and looting — Hispanics, who no doubt have no more reason to love the LA Police Department than the blacks, were prominent.
But what were the good people of Baldwin Hills, a suburb which wo9uld be acceptable on appearances to any wage-earner in Sydney or Melbourne, doing pouring out of a shoe store with armfuls of shoes? It may be a ghetto, but it is a gilded ghetto.
It is clear that there is a malaise in American society among the “minorities” — although not a minority in toto in LA, it is predicted that by the end of the century Hispanics alone may well comprise more than 50 per cent of the population of the city. That there is widespread unemployment, drug-taking, poverty and lack of hope for the future is also clear. But the reasons for this are not at all clear.
It is not enough, as the smug white residents of Beverly Hills, Simi Valley — where Rodney King’s assailants were acquitted — or the other high-income areas like to do, not to mention their counterparts in Balmain or Carlton, to condemn the system, to fall back on the scapegoats of racism, capitalism or some other mysterious and intangible conspiracy that makes the poor poor.
Racism undoubtedly exists but there is a growing black middle class whose members, while justifiably resenting discrimination when they encounter it, are doing perfectly well within their own enclaves, watering their lawns and polishing their cars just like anybody else.
To understand what makes the black and Hispanic communities of LA tick, it would be necessary to pay attention to their own concerns and solutions. This is why I find it odd that hitherto there has been little or no reference to the one most obvious and unusual social phenomenon of Vermont Avenue — its religiosity.
This has always been a feature of black communities, perhaps, but it is shared by Hispanics.
The huge number of words poured out about the riots by correct-thinking people have preferred to dwell on the policies and solution which have been shown not to work. It is not fashionable among those who are accustomed to dismiss popular religion and its solaces to take account of what people really think and feel.
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