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And Justice for All?

Tue, Oct 16, 2001 00:01AM -0600

This is what got the wheels grinding:

It's so nice to see the security in the parking lot now. Ever since that Thing That Happened Last Month, they've been out there.

It got me thinking. Security. Police. Guns and badges. They don't make me more comfortable. Mr. Ashcroft, I don't want more security. Didn't Thomas Jefferson say "Those who desire to give up Freedom for Security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one"? Maybe it's because I'm a person of color. Not that I've ever been a victim of racial hate crimes or racial profiling (yet), but I've seen first hand how the system can break down, and I realize that my mistrust of the law began on April 29, 1992

In a way, it was worse than the Thing That Happened Last Month. Sure, there weren't any planes crashing into buildings, there weren't any anthrax spores in the air. But it happened in the city I lived in. It was our own people fighting our own people (We're all American, right? Regardless of the color of our skin?) In effect, a miniature civil war, and it happened because our trust in the law was betrayed.

Truth to tell, there are two videos that probably disturb me more than the video of United Flight 175 slamming into the South Tower of the World Trade Center: the clip of four LAPD officers repeatedly bashing and kicking Rodney King, and the clip of rioters attacking Reginald Denny and throwing rocks and bricks at him even after he was already unconscious and sprawled on the ground. This is pretty much what exemplifies the utter baseness of humanity for me: our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and compatriots, trying to kill each other with bare hands. You don't need missiles and bombs or even box-cutters and razorblades to commit evil.

While the rioting was bad, the fact that it was police officers who, simplistically speaking, pretty much provoked it made it worse. If you can't trust the police, who can you trust? This is the kind of thing that makes people carry concealed weapons. This is the kind of thing that causes violence to escalate, much more rapidly than any act of terrorism.

And yes, the rioting was bad. On the evening of April 29, I remember watching pockets of the city just light up with fire on T.V., the smell of smoke filling the air. The next day, the sky was black with smoke, and the idea of trying to go outside was ludicrous. People were breaking windows at the Sav-On and the Wherehouse less than a mile from my house, just down the hill, probably just for the fuck of it. It wasn't until years later that I watched a documentary, and saw pictures of dead bodies on the streets. Sure, the body count wasn't in the thousands, but like I said, it was us killing ourselves.

In the United States, there really is this myth of invulnerability. I never thought that I'd get to drive through the aftermath of what, for all intents and purposes, was a battlefield, still smouldering from the fires, shattered glass everywhere, chalk outlines here and there, just a couple of miles from the very place I was born. I will never forget driving down the Glendale Freeway with a squadron of helicopters overhead, like some reenactment of a scene out of "Apocalypse Now" or "Full Metal Jacket." Or following a caravan of military vehicles filled with M16-toting soldiers down the street that a day before was on live television, where a gun battle had been brewing, with snipers lining the rooftops, and rioters ready to burn the place down. I figure that these are scenes that are pretty familiar out in Lebanon or Bosnia. Who'd have thought that I'd be seeing them on the corner of Pico and Alvarado, only a few blocks from my high school. There was a curfew and barricades, guns pointed, and tension all around. In a way, I think back upon these memories more with wonderment than anything else.

But what will always live with me is the fact that the National Guard mobilized to defend Bel Air and Beverly Hills and not Koreatown and South Central L.A. It doesn't take a sociologist to figure this one out. I think in those three days of rioting I gained more insight into the heart of America than I have in my almost 20 years of formal education. There are serious things wrong with this country (though they are fixable if we are patient and wise and continue to honor the spirit of the Constitution and Bill of Rights). Don't let the constant flag-waving blind you. More than anything else, the flag stands for an idea. In the words of one of the greatest Americans born, it stands for a Dream. We haven't reached that Dream yet. Make sure you are waving your flag in honor of that Dream, and not for this flawed status quo.

Yes, Los Angeles has taught me hard lessons about law and security. I hate to put it in words so baldly and simplistically, but what I learned is that if you're not white and you don't have money, then you won't have security either, and your freedom will likely always be on the line. Just two years later the O.J. Simpson trial came up, in many ways making a mockery of the lessons we should have learned from the riots, and definitely making a mockery of the apparatus of the law. The race "card" became nothing more than a gimmick, a gambit to be played. White people's fears of rioting and people-of-colors' enthusiasm for rioting made me equally sick. Another lesson learned: fame and fortune can purchase "justice," and no one really cares about what's at stake.

And the worse thing is, is that in almost 10 years, nothing has allayed my fears. Proposition 187, Proposition 209, repeated accusations of racial profiling (and repeated denials), initially blaming Oklahoma City on Arabs. Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo. The Rampart Division scandal (was this even a surprise?) School children in Okinawa being raped by our military. The 2000 election debacle. The U.S. bombing the shit out of poor countries for media brownie points: Iraq, former Yugoslavia, Sudan, and now Afghanistan. The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, Wall Street cheering when unemployment goes up. Is it really any surprise we're in as much deep shit as we're in?

And it gets me thinking. Maybe we should try fixing our own problems before we go trying to save the world.

The founding fathers may have been racist mother-fuckers, but they knew that freedom was more important than anything else. More important than security, more important than life itself. The Union soldiers who died in Gettysburg might have understood this too. Abraham Lincoln certainly did, and he paid with his life to prove it. Somewhere in our imperialist wars, our wars of hegemony, the wrong crowd took control and we lost our way. Ironically, this fervor for freedom carried over to our colonial subjects. I think the people who died in Bataan and Corregidor, American and Filipino, and the people who took to the hills of Luzon to wage guerilla warfare against the Japanese understood the supremacy of freedom, too. But all is not lost. The Civil Rights movement, the student protests, the protest against the imperialist wars in Southeast Asia, show that faith in the Constitution and in the Bill of Rights isn't quite lost. (I know that no Movement is without sin, but we shouldn't throw the wheat away with the chaff.)

What am I trying to get to? To paraphrase one of our founding fathers: I'd rather die free with anthrax growing in my lungs, than live without disease but with a collar on my neck and a gun at my back.

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