This is an essay about poverty and neglect of the urban poor. I wrote it shortly after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, and it originally appeared in the June 1992 issue of a zine called Rotten Fruit.

"The Rodney King verdict was not the cause of the rebellion that followed—it was just the trigger. The cause was poverty. Poverty breeds despair, and despair leads to violence."

On Thursday morning, the second day of the Rodney King rebellion, I sat huddled in my tiny Koreatown apartment, safely watching the uprising on my TV like it was some big-budget disaster movie. But by afternoon the scene had changed. I began to recognize some of the places being burned and looted, as the anger spilled out of South Central L.A. and into my own neighborhood. I no longer needed a TV; from my apartment I could see the fires coming closer. Panic swept over me and I had to fight the urge to flee the city for the "safe" suburbs as automatic weapons fire erupted from Korean merchants protecting their stores. Suddenly, the problems of the underclass were my problems.

The revolt after the Rodney King beating verdict should have come as no surprise to anyone who lives in Los Angeles and is really in touch with the rhythms of the city. If the economic depression is hurting the middle class, you can imagine the pain of the poor. Destitution is everywhere, not just in the black neighborhoods. The unskilled unemployed stand on street corners, not even daring to dream of better days, while immigrants who still have hope wait by the hundreds at paint and building supply stores trying to get picked up as laborers for a few dollars a day. Panhandlers hanging out at liquor stores are growing more numerous and more surly. Parts of downtown L.A. look like the setting of a science fiction movie about the end of the world. Crowds of homeless, living out of cardboard boxes or lean-tos built from the debris of decaying buildings, swarm like hungry locusts over the garbage-strewn streets and sidewalks, while buzzards circle overhead. The scent of anger and resentment mixed with urine hangs in the smoggy air. Even the pigeons look down and out: scruffy, sick, balding.

The Rodney King verdict was not the cause of the rebellion that followed—it was just the trigger. The cause was poverty. Poverty breeds despair, and despair leads to violence. The despair was there before the revolt (so was the violence), and it is still there, only more so. The burning and looting simply made it visible to the outside world for a few days. The rebellion was a death spasm, a brief acceleration in the continuing disintegration of a city, of a society.

But no one understood, or so it seemed. President Bush, Governor Wilson, Mayor Bradley and Police Chief Gates all declared the need for more force and more police, blaming it all on "thugs," a "criminal element" and "mob brutality." "Tragic," whined the media moguls from behind the walls of their Beverly Hills castles. "Why all this senseless violence?"

On the Saturday after the rebellion the Koreans held a huge, spontaneous peace march along Western Avenue. Many of the signs called for justice, which could have meant criminal justice for Rodney King as well as social justice for blacks. But the Koreans also felt they were victims in all this, since many of the businesses they worked hard to make successful were burned down. Outside of South Central L.A., Koreatown was the hardest hit by looting and arson, the result of long-standing animosity between the Black and Asian communities. What the Korean community must understand is the same thing that more prosperous communities everywhere must understand—they will not be safe until they share some of their prosperity with their neighbors. Because, as the slogan says, there will be no justice for anyone until there is justice for everyone.

The policies so much in vogue now—free enterprise, laissez faire capitalism, deregulation, cutting of government programs in favor of volunteerism or corporate charity—while producing more wealth for the wealthy, are razing the cities. More money needs to be spent on education, not less. Job training programs must be increased, not cut. Minority-owned businesses must have access to loans, instead of being redlined by the banks. None of these programs are handouts that will lead to "welfare dependency." Access to quality education, adult job training and affordable business loans will create jobs and skilled workers in the inner cities, giving people pride, self-esteem, and most importantly, hope.

All this of course would mean higher taxes for the rich and middle class, so it probably won't happen, at least not on the scale it needs to. But if Americans think they can remain aloof from the problems of the poor, they're wrong. Just ask the Koreans. Suburbanites beware: people in the cities are pissed. And they have guns. They have Molotov cocktails. They have cars. They may be coming to your town soon.





Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control and The Ecology of Fear
In this pamphlet written after the 1991 L.A. riots, Mike Davis (City of Quartz) extrapolates a nightmarish future for Los Angeles based on current trends: mini-citadels for the old and rich, free fire zones for the young and poor, social control districts, toxic waste regions, simulated urban enclaves for tourist consumption, increasing repression, class warfare and terrorism.

Los Angeles-A City in Stress
For the serious researcher: key government studies and documents produced in the aftermath of the Rodney King rebellion.

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