(The following post is an abbreviated version of a longer feature that appears behind a subscription wall on The Nation‘s site. The full post can be read here with the author’s permission.)
There’s nothing all that remarkable about Rustin High School in West Chester, Pennsylvania—except that it is named for a gay black man who was a pacifist and a socialist. Even more amazing is that it was a Republican-dominated school board, in a conservative district that’s 89 percent white, that voted in 2002 to name the new school after Bayard Rustin, who grew up in West Chester.
Rustin helped catalyze the civil rights movement with courageous acts of resistance. In 1947 he led the first Freedom Rides and wound up serving 30 days on a chain gang, one of many times he was arrested for civil disobedience. He was the chief behind-the-scenes organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
The 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots has triggered a number of fascinating reports examining the underlying causes of the unrest and the changes (in attitudes and actions) that have taken place in the past two decades.
Scholars at the University of Southern California produced a report called L.A. Rising: The 1992 Civil Unrest, the Arc of Social Justice Organizing, and the Lessons for Today’s Movement Building. Their counterparts at L.A.’s Loyola Marymount University, published 20th Anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots Survey. And my colleagues at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (on whose board I proudly serve) published a series of reflections by L.A. activists called Rage and Reflection: Meditations on LA’s 1992 Civil Unrest and the Ongoing Transformation of a City.
Here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know: Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 law was born in a Walmart.
Yes, the inspiration for the most draconian anti-immigrant legislation in the nation, a measure that permits law enforcement to ask about immigration status, one that swings the door wide open for racial profiling—SB 1070—reportedly sprang from a moment of inspiration at a Walmart checkstand.
This origins story is brought to you courtesy of the Ministry of Citizenship, a faux MinuteMan-style group that purports to be a fan of the legislation. According to the Ministry, it happened this way: state representative Russell Pearce, the measure’s sponsor, “hatched the idea for SB 1070 late one night while waiting in the checkout line at Walmart.”
“Here I was just trying to buy some Cheetos and cat litter, and the crowds were just horrendous,” the Ministry quotes Pearce as saying.
Memory is not only highly selective, but fatefully idiosyncratic. We remember – or forget – based on where we were, who we were with and, more elementally, who we are.
In April 1992, I was a 28-year-old editor of a now long-defunct weekly, the Village View. When violence erupted following the unfathomable not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial, I was where I usually was in those days – knee deep in the grind of getting a paper to press. I wish I could recall exactly what I was doing, or who I was with, but those details are lost to history.
What I do know is that, because of who I was – the news editor of an alternative paper with few of the traditional restrictions that most journalists live with – my reaction to, and experience of, the civil unrest were defined not only by the fear and dread shared by many Angelenos,
What I mostly remember about the riots is the smell of an urban fire – not the consoling, woody scent that wafts from a campfire, but the melting-telephone smell of a city’s guts ablaze. There was also the smoke, thick as tule fog – and the not-knowing, when you drove into it, if you’d come out on the other side.
There was something else about that week – a feeling that the world had been jolted a bit off its axis and nothing would ever be the same again, the way you feel after a breakup or car accident. The worst of it came on April 30. I had gone to a film screening in Santa Monica, and took my friend Kent to cheer him up from losing his job repairing pay phones. I was reviewing the movie for the L.A. Weekly, where I worked as an editor.