This was an introduction written for a pamphlet called No Justice, No Peace: An Eyewitness Account of the Los Angeles Riots, which was reprinted in two South African editions, one from Backstreet Abortions distro, one from ARM, both based in Johannesburg. Some bits hold up well.
THE FIRE NEXT TIME: LESSONS OF THE LOS ANGELES (LA) UPRISING
At a meeting at the First A.M.E. Church during the first hours of the rioting, the mayor, clergy, and community leaders were booed and ignored by much of the audience. A young black woman charged the podium, and took control of the microphone. “We can’t rely on these people up here to act … I believe they have our best interests at heart, but we cannot rely on them … You know what we need to do … ” (from Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Newsmonthly June 1992. New York)
The LA uprising of 1992 was a class rebellion in the heart of capitalist America. Triggered by the acquittal of four White cops videotaped beating a black truck driver, Rodney King, the uprising spread through dozens of American cities, and even internationally: in Berlin, masked youths battled police under banners calling for the destruction of capitalism and proclaiming “LA did the right thing.” While people of many different backgrounds participated in the action, there is no doubt that poor blacks, one of the most oppressed segments of the US working class led the way. This shows that black liberation must be central to any real working class challenge to the system. By the time the military and police forces of the regime managed to put down the uprising, there had been 58 deaths (mostly black), 4,000 injuries, 12,000 arrests, 10,000 businesses destroyed and countless shops looted.
The bulk of this pamphlet provides an eyewitness account of the revolt as it happened in Los Angeles itself. A final section looks draws out some of the significance of the uprising. In this introduction we argue that this sort of rising can and should be turned into a revolutionary attack on the State and capitalist system. We also suggest what anarchist revolutionaries can do to achieve this.
Its quite clear that capitalism and the State lie at the heart of the oppressive and marginalised experiences faced by working class people in America’s inner-cities. Lower class black Americans were supposedly “emancipated” over a 125 years ago but racism and poverty is still an everyday experience. “Of black men between the ages 20 to 29. 1 in 4 will go to prison or be placed on probation. 60% of women in prison are women of color. Poverty and the absence of other opportunities to escape it compel many black youth to turn to gangs, drugs, and anti- social crime … Half of all black and Hispanic youth of South Central LA belong to gangs. in Central LA, half of the black families fall below the poverty line, and youth unemployment hovers at 50%.” (Love and Rage June 1992).
This oppression is clearly rooted in a racist capitalist order that has roots in the slave trade, where racism was used to justify the sale of human beings. Today, racism still serves the ruling class who divide working class people into fractions on the basis of different levels of privileges and rights (eg. different wages, jobs, social services), with blacks and women at the bottom of the heap. This hampers united resistance, and it makes for super- exploitation of disempowered sections of the workforce. At the same time, the extreme poverty of the inner-cities is linked to capitalism’s incessant hunger for profits, as usual at the expense of people. The inner-cities were mostly built around large factories which have since migrated from the high taxes and wages of the cities to suburbs and third world countries. Here unions are often repressed, wages low, and environmental controls non-existent. At the same time as inner city wages fall, the corporations are making huge profits and the bosses receiving record pay increases (LA Today [date missing] 1992, Minneapolis, p1). In the USA, the top 4% earns as much as the bottom 50% of the population (Plain Words, 1994, New Jersey, p4).
Quite obviously then, we need to destroy capitalism and the State once and for all. We need to establish a new society based on grassroots worker and community councils, and distribution and production according to need not profit. This is anarchism or free socialism (as opposed to the state capitalist dictatorships set up by the Marxist “communists” since 1917). This must be the task of the working class (white- and blue- collar workers, workers’ families and youth, the unemployed and the rural poor).
Why? Firstly, only a productive class can set up a truly free society, for the simple reason that only a productive class does not need to exploit and dominate others in order to survive. Secondly, class position fundamentally shapes the experience of oppression. The black middle/ upper class (professionals and capitalists) that led the civil rights movement has expanded rapidly, living off the sweat of all American workers. While between 1967 and 1990 the proportion of black families at the lowest income level grew by 50%, the percentage of high income black families more than doubled (New York Times, September 25, 1992). Not surprisingly, the black middle class and capitalists firmly supported the military occupation of the ghettos!
Clearly, the arguments of black nationalists that all blacks should unite across color lines is very wrong, basically because blacks do not have the same class interests. Working class blacks have more in common with working class whites, also at the shit end of the bosses stick. But we do not take a simplistic “class unity” line. Precisely because of the historic divisions in the working class, its especially oppressed segments (like women, blacks, and homosexuals) need to organize themselves to be able to put their own specific problems firmly on the agenda of the revolutionary working class movement. This is the basis for a real principled class unity, and a revolution that will smash all oppression.
What can anarchists do to turn revolts such as the LA uprisings in a revolutionary direction? Firstly, we must get involved with and support all genuine working class resistance. At the same time, however, we need to spread the ideals of revolutionary anarchism through the working class. In practical terms this means debate as equals, and cheap revolutionary literature. In both cases we must argue against authoritarian (or top-down) politics on the left and right, spread information about resistance, and draw the lessons of earlier struggles. We must argue that the working class takes direct action to secure its own particular interests (eg. for housing, jobs, peace, and freedom), and to ultimately smash the system. In no case do we assume, as the Marxists do, that our analysis gives us the right to speak for or act in the place of the working class (this is called vanguardism).
Secondly, we need to start to build practical alternative structures which demonstrate the viability of anarchist politics. Some of these demonstrate new ways of organizing production and distribution: collective childcare facilities, community- run clinics, free shops that redistribute old clothes, community gardens, local newspapers, workers theater etc.
Other counter-institutions will play a more confrontational role: street committees, revolutionary trade unions that aim to seize and democratically administer the land and factories, and self- defense units which are internally democratic and accountable to the community. In no case do we place any faith in the parliamentary system…