New York Newsday, May 4, 1992
About Los Angeles: This Means War
By Michael Letwin
IT DIDN’T TAKE AN eruption of violence, the arrival of the National Guard and reinforcement by federal troops to put Los Angeles on a war footing.
The city has long been at war. a war rooted in long-established social and governmental policies: the exclusion of minority inner-city residents from the mainstream economy (also true in many other cities); an extreme paramilitary mindset on the part of an overwhelmingly white police department determined to “contain” drugs, crime and violence; and policymakers who remained silent as long as the results of their policies were not videotaped and televised.
The Watts rebellion of 1965 represented protest against black exclusion from the Southern California economic boom of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and against a dramatic increase in police abuse dating from the early 1950s and initiated by LAPD Chief Daryl Gates’ mentor, William Parker. To put down the rebellion, thousands of police and National Guard saturated the area. In the wake of the rioting, 34 were dead.
Affluent Los Angeles reacted to Watts by lifting the drawbridge. Apart from relatively short-lived job opportunities created by the Vietnam-driven economy, the Vietnam war itself remained the main employment “opportunity” for many Chicano and black youth during the remainder of the ’60s.
In the early ’70s, with the end of the war and also of movements for social and economic justice, idle and alienated youth turned to gangs. The LAPD, in turn, escalated its aggressive tactics, including highly mobile patrol units, helicopters and SWAT teams, to keep a lid on seething black and Latino youths,
By the late ’70s aid early ’80s, inner-city residents were reeling from the one-two punch of massive social spending cuts and the flight of remaining industry. The results were soaring unemployment, deepening poverty, a further decline of housing, schools and recreation, and rising gang violence. Police brutality also increased, including the use of the “chokehold.” (Gates defended this frequently fatal tactic on the grounds that African-Americans were anatomically different from “normal people.”)
In the mid’80s, the Medellin drug cartel filled the economic void by introducing crack to Los Angeles. “Rock cocaine,” as it is known locally, soon provided jobs for thousands of inner-city youths, a lucrative trade over which rival gang members killed not only one another, but also innocent bystanders. Emboldened by middle-class hysteria — white and black — following a December, 1987, drive-by shooting in affluent Westwood Village, Chief Gates tapped his $400-million budget to launch a massive “drug war” in black South Central Los Angeles with the enthusiastic support of Mayor Thomas Bradley, District Attorney Ira Reiner and ambitious politicians of all political stripes.
The symbol of this all-out assault was Operation Hammer. Openly targeting black and Latino youths with huge “search and destroy” missions and “body counts,” the program sanctioned mass roundups, illegal break-ins spearheaded by mechanical battering rams, random beatings, blanket curfews, street barricades and deadly hollow-point ammunition, and has resulted in the highest rate of unjustified shootings by any large police department in the nation. Ironically, these draconian, and often arbitrary, measures have had little impact on gang-related crime and violence. Fewer than a third of the 50,000 youths detained in the early stages of Operation Hammer were charged with crimes, and most of these were minor.
Although civil damages to police-abuse victims rose from $553,000 in 1972 to $13.8 million in 1991, internal LAPD investigations upheld only 42 of 2,152 citizen complaints between 1986 and 1990. And, until the King beating, nearly all politicians remained silent on the issue.
Until there is a change in the policy of using police to “contain” minority communities, we should not be surprised when victims of the resulting abuse retaliate in kind and riot. Maybe we need to rethink our battles against crime and other social ills. Declaring “war” on drugs and “war” on crime encourages and legitimizes paramilitary violence that, rather than reducing their incidence, simply boosts the body count of human casualties.
Michael Letwin, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, was a frequent guest commentator on the Courtroom Television Network during the Rodney King trial.