I have known for a while that police brutality is commonplace in Los Angeles, but last week I witnessed an incident that really put a human face on it. I am one of the only white/middle-class people in my neighborhood (maybe the only one!– I’d say it’s 60% latino and 40% black). For those of you who know LA it’s right where the 10 Freeway and La Cienaga intersect. People in the neighborhood work low wage jobs, and there is a good deal of gang activity and sometimes violence. The cops are always around, more during the summer, and lately the police helicopter comes by a couple times a week and circles overhead for 20 or 30 minutes. Cop cars swarm in and they try to apprehend the suspect. The other day, for example, they sealed off three blocks trying to catch a “burglar.”
I realized what attitude the cops had towards poor blacks and latinos when someone’s car was broken into and the burglar made off down the street. My girlfriend and I went out onto the street and asked the cops what was going on. I asked them if there was a lot of crime in the neighborhood, and the two white cops just gave me this look. “This is the West-end of South Central, the armpit of Los Angeles!” one of them said. “Honestly,” the male cop said, slowly and deliberately, “you’re white, and you’re asian (my girlfriend), you look like students, you shouldn’t be living here.”
So last week the police helicopter was hovering overhead and about 10 cop cars swarmed in, patrolling the neighborhood looking for a suspect. A knot of cop cars assembled a few blocks away from where I was, stretching outside my apartment, as I prepared to go running. I started walking down there, and as I did a big crowd of people began to assemble. It was probably 40 people– teenagers and adults, black and latino. As I was walking I saw two cops choking a black guy, and the crowd was yelling at the cops to stop. The guy wasn’t resisting, only protesting that he hadn’t done anything. Then, a group of four cops slammed him hard up against an iron fence, his head smacking an iron bar. The whole crowd was screaming at the cops that the guy had just been walking down the street. The guy’s friend was standing right next to me, saying in a very distressed way that all they had been doing was walking down the street together and that he didn’t do anything, and how fucked up the police were.
Soon they put the guy in the cop car. But, the whole crowd stayed put, circling around about ten cop cars. There was a group of black teenagers next to me, and a girl of maybe 17 pointed to an asian cop. “Isn’t that the one that kicked your ass that one time,” she said to a male friend. “Yeah,” the guy said, “that’s the one who beat the shit out of me and maced me.” The whole group remembered the incident. Someone mentioned another incident that had happened with another cop a few blocks away.
Everybody was getting worked up and yelling at the cops. Nobody believed the guy in the car had done anything; everyone believed the cops had just picked up a random guy because they couldn’t find the real suspect. People around me were making subdued comments about the racism of the police, probably toning it down because I was there. Finally the cops took the guy out of the car and uncuffed him. “I’ll remember this,” the guy said to the ranking officer, an old white guy who wore his face like a pissed off Jr. High School P.E. teacher. “Nothing happened,” the cop said condescendingly, deliberately loudly so the whole crowd could hear. The girl next to me yelled, “you motherfucker, we all know what happened.” Some people were saying “they can do whatever they want, they’re the law.” An older latino woman came out of her house and asked people what was going on. When she heard about what happened, she yelled at the cops — “And you wonder why nobody likes you!” All the cops were wearing their faces stone cold — people said that there were so many because they were afraid of the crowd of people. As they left the girl next to me yelled, “Yeah, that’s right, we hate you — that ain’t illegal, to say we hate you motherfuckers.”
After the cops left I talked to a couple of guys who had been watching– I asked if people had ever done anything to try to stop the cops from behaving like this. “The cops are like a big gang,” a middle-aged black guy said to me. “You can get their badge number or something but that won’t do shit.” Someone else referred to me and said “he’s not a brother, he needs to get the fuck out of here.” It was in fact a very racially tense situation because of the racism of the white and asian cops in picking out a random black guy, brutalizing him, and then telling forty people that “nothing had happened.” Also people were visibly frustrated that the cops could charge in, wrongfully brutalize someone, admit it was a mistake, say it didn’t happen, and leave and come back and do the same thing again the next day.
Imagining this sort of incident happening on a weekly basis in the thousands of neighborhoods just like mine all over Los Angeles gives you a sense of where the LA riots came from, both in terms of what the cops did and the way people began to resist. The guy who wanted me to get out of there because I was white I imagine could see me as a comrade if there was an interracial movement of workers that really took on questions of racism and police brutality while also linking these questions to traditional working class demands.
JOSH SAXE is 22 and a masters student at California State University Los Angeles. He is active in the Progressive Alliance, and Labor’s Militant Voice. He is currently working on his thesis which will analyze the Southern California Grocery strike of 2004.
First published in lefthook.org