I have lived through one city-wide riot in my life: Los Angeles, 1992. In Hollywood it wasn’t “ground zero”, but you could see the rioters coming, block by block, up the long, straight road known as Normandie Ave.
Just as unpredictable as a wild fire caused by flinging a lit cigarette out of a car window, riots like this are nimble, incendiary events, fueled by the anger and frustration of a community that has simply had enough. Masses of people don’t take to the streets, destroying everything in their line of site, and senselessly looting stores like Fredericks of Hollywood just to get that last, remaining fuscia-colored sized 42DDD bra and matching leopard print thong, without some reason other than a hankering for cheesy women’s lingerie (and yes, plenty of these items ended up in tag sales countless weekends after the riots ended).
Something bigger is always at work…
That’s why I had some LA riot flashbacks reading today’s New York Times, and their account of how the protests started in Lhasa, Tibet.
First, the lack of immediate police response:
Foreigners and Lhasa residents who witnessed the violence were stunned by what they saw, and by what they did not see: the police. Riot police officers fled after an initial skirmish and then were often nowhere to be found. Some Chinese shopkeepers begged for protection.
“The whole day I didn’t see a single police officer or soldier,” said an American woman who spent hours navigating the riot scene. “The Tibetans were just running free.”
For those unfamiliar with the timeline of the LA riots, one of the most controversial parts was the fact that LA Police Chief Darryl Gates was at a fundraiser while the riots were underway and was roundly criticized for not keeping his eye on what was a potentially (and then actually) explosive situation.
In Tibet, it also seems the person who should have been manning the ship was engaged elsewhere:
Ultimately, the man responsible for public order in Lhasa is Mr. Zhang, Tibet’s party chief.
Mr. Zhang also has an excuse; he was at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. When the violence started, Mr. Zhang had just completed a two-hour online discussion about China’s Supreme Court, according to a government Web site. It is unclear when Mr. Zhang was told of the violence, or if he made the final decision on how to respond.
In Los Angeles, where Darryl Gates was routinely criticized for encouraging over-the-top police tactics that violated civil rights, this initial lack of response led to a number of conspiracy theories, stating that Gates wanted the riots to initially spiral out of control so that he could justify more brutal tactics on the part of law enforcement in the wake of an out-of-control populace.
It would not surprise me if similar thoughts are quietly being voiced in Tibet and other sections of China right now.
The LA riots weren’t caused by “the Rodney King clique”. Indeed, no one man can create this level of public unrest, rather there are always underlying causes that are waiting for a moment in time – that lit cigarette flung out the window – to serve as the spark that ignites a pent up frustration.
In the case of the LA riots the frustration was one of a perception – justified in my mind – that in the matters of police brutality and judicial review there was a double standard that treated African Americans far differently from all of the other racial groups in the city. One year prior to the LA riots, a Korean shopkeeper shot Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American girl, dead in the back over a scuffle arising from a small bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper, Soon Ja Du, was sentenced to probation, community service and a $500 fine by judge Joyce Karlin. This directly contradicted the jury’s recommendation that Du serve a 16-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter.
This sentence, widely publicized and discussed in Los Angeles, solidified in the minds of many African Americans that they could not expect the system to give them fair treatment. The brutal beating of Rodney King and subsequent aquittal of three Los Angeles police officers from charges of police brutality was the spark that caused people to take to the streets.
Riots like these are spontaneous reactions to a building feeling of injustice and isolation. To say that one man can use his magic telepathy-telephone and will people to take to the streets is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.
This eyewitness account is particularly telling (again, from the NY Times):
“This wasn’t organized, but it was very clear that they wanted the Chinese out,” said the American woman who witnessed the riots and asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. She said Tibetan grievances exploded in anger.
A responsible government at a certain point will recognize the feelings that started a riot on this scale. Although the systemic problems of racial injustice are far from being resolved in our country, the initial steps of firing Darryl Gates and setting up the independent Christopher Commission to investigate the riots were positive steps in the right direction.
If the Chinese authorities truly want this conflict to end and peace to be restored, the first step on that path is a vocal acknowledgement of the grievances of those who engaged (and likely are still engaging) in this riot. Anything less will just allow the same feelings of isolation and injustice to fester, under the surface, until the next inconvenient outburst occurs.
ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece – Activists angered by China’s crackdown in Tibet upstaged an Olympic flame-lighting ceremony here Monday, unfurling a banner and calling for a boycott to the Beijing Summer Games before they were arrested by police.
The incident occurred as Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee, was addressing thousands of spectators, dignitaries and Olympic officials, minutes into a flame-lighting ceremony guarded by 1,000 police officers and commandos concealed in laurel groves.
The brief disruption was broadcast live by Greek national television but China state TV cut away to a prerecorded scene, blocking millions of Chinese views from watching the tumultuous start to their nation’s Games.
Again, if the plan here is to sweep this under the rug (and, indeed, that seems to be the plan)…it ain’t gonna work. There are too many activists involved who are too organized and they’re not going to let this issue quietly die down.