Spontaneous Combustion


August 16, 1965

I boarded a state-of-the-art 747 at T5, the futuristic TWA terminal at JFK airport. I was 20. I had long hair, a flowered shirt, bellbottom pants, and everyone treated me like an extraterrestrial. My seat was beside a middle-aged black man in a pinstriped suit, impeccable if slightly out of style. His hair and beard were grizzled gray, his eyes were dark and soulful.

“Good afternoon,” he said, waiting for me to return the greeting.

We both settled into our seats. The inflight movie didn’t start for an hour. My seatmate pulled out a compendious tome on WW2 by Basil Lydell Hart but before opening it he said, “My name is Chuck,” and offered his hand.  “Nice to meet you.” 

His hand was rough, the joints knobby with work and arthritis. It didn’t go with his suit.

 “You live in L.A.,” he asked, “or just visiting?”

“It’s home.”

He nodded. “I’m from Minnesota originally,” he said, “but I live in Watts now.”

He leaned in close to me.

“Some of these white folks look scared. I heard two of them talking in the airport. One said to the other ‘I hear they’re shooting at planes from Century Boulevard’ and the other one just nods. The dumb son-of-a-bitch believed him. No black man from Watts is gonna drive to the airport to shoot at an airplane full of white folks when the Police are whooping their asses on 103rd Street. You ever try getting to the airport from Watts? It’s next to impossible. And with all hell breaking loose? A brother wouldn’t make it past Avalon Boulevard. But you’re from L.A. I’m preaching to the choir.”

“How did it start?”

“A white cop pulls over a young black kid for drunk driving when he wasn’t. The neighborhood folks gather around to watch what happens. It’s 95° degrees and everybody is sweating. The kid’s mother comes to see what’s happening and the crowd gets rowdy so cops arrest the kid who did nothing, his friend who did nothing, and his mama for talking back to them. By that time a couple more trucks full of cops arrive and they all start swinging their batons. Boom. The whole place is burning down. That’s anger, man. Righteous anger. You keep turning up the heat and eventually it boils over. That’s what happened on 103rd street. Watts blew. That’s no riot. It’s an uprising.”

Los Angeles, Thursday, April 30, 1992, 2:42 pm

The boss called to tell me not to come in to work. Riots had broken out Wednesday night at Florence and Normandie. The four cops who beat Rodney King to a pulp had been tried in Simi Valley, home to many cops, where a largely white jury had just acquitted them.

Video shot by an amateur from the balcony of his Lake View Terrace apartment was suddenly all over the news. It showed the cops working King over with nightsticks and kicking him on the ground as other officers looked on, laughing and smoking cigarettes.

“They’re looting the Sav-on on Venice Boulevard,” the boss said. “We’re packing up the computers and getting them out of here. I’m closing up shop until after the weekend. We can assess the damage on Monday.”

Our office was in the Helms Building on Venice Boulevard, only two blocks from the looting. On the second night of rioting the flames had spread in wide arcs reaching across the Los Angeles basin. The Watts rebellion had been confined to Watts. The Rodney King riots were not, and white people were getting scared.

We lived in Park Labrea, an apartment community behind the LA County Museum, midway between downtown and the Pacific Ocean, near the center of the L.A. basin. Our building was a 13-story tower. Hearing that the fires were circling the West Side, we went up to the top of our building.

We weren’t alone. A lot of people were on the roof. We had a 360° view of the basin, from the Baldwin Hills to the Hollywood Hills and from downtown to Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, and, on a good day, the Pacific. People who had never talked to each other before were talking. Everyone speculated about the fires which appeared to be encircling us.

We tried buying food but everything was boarded up except for the 7-11 on Third Street which had a line around the block. We decided to drive to Oceanside and spend the weekend with the in-laws. There was only one topic of conversation through our endless card game played against the apocalyptic footage on TV, the beating, the looting, the palms lining the Santa Monica Freeway into downtown burning like torches setting fire to the city.

When we returned to L.A. on Sunday evening the National Guard was camped like an invading army at La Cienega and Jefferson, two miles from work, four miles from home, spitting distance in L.A.

There were no apparent leaders. No group or individual claimed credit. The explosion was spontaneous. Like Watts, without warning, a critical threshold was crossed and desperate people revolted against a life no longer livable. Unlike Watts, the looting and fires were not confined to South Central. The outrage turned against the surrounding white communities, raising a tocsin that was soon smothered and suppressed because it was too frightening to keep top of mind, a warning unheeded.

Skamania County, Washington, May 18, 1980, 12:36 pm.

On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens, in Washington State, erupted, ripping off the entire mountaintop and covering eleven states with ash.

The pressures that caused the eruption built up slowly, incrementally, over a long time, unseen, until they reached critical mass and exploded with energy equal to 26 megatons of TNT, 500 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Ash rose fifteen miles into the atmosphere. The mountain fractured and a subsequent earthquake collapsed the entire north face causing the largest landslide ever recorded

It just happened, although in the aftermath its history could be read and analyzed.

American society is like that mountain. At its deepest and poorest levels, among the most exploited and oppressed, outrages mount daily. Young black men continue to be killed by police for no reason and with no consequence: Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Antwon Rose II, O’Shae Terry, George Floyd, to name just a few. Most whites become inured to them, immune to the outrage, blinding by their own racism. Then another a critical point is reached, a straw breaks another camel’s back, another death ignites another conflagration.

The murder of black men by the police is the most flagrant outrage but the conditions of life have become increasingly untenable for 90% of the people. It is only a matter of time until they, too, refuse to take it any longer, and vent their rage and frustration. The inevitable explosion happens spontaneously, without conscious direction, no steering committee, no politburo, no talking heads. The end result of more riots and uprisings depends upon whether they are violently suppressed by the government or steered by visionary leaders to historical ends and lasting outcomes.

Independent of our wills, these social forces have reached the breaking point, despite the pundits and politicians and populist blowhards. When the uprisings occur, as they inevitably must, the only important question is who can lead them and see them through to a just conclusion? Will winning strategy and tactics yield lasting change built on the only true and stable foundation, equality? The tragedy is not that riots and uprisings occur, that neighborhoods burn, that stores are looted, that people are injured; the tragedy is that they happen for nothing. Only clear-sighted and united leadership can ensure that they lead to a brighter future free from the crippling shackles of racism, greed, and corruption.

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