By June 1, 2020
Photo: Ronnie Mendoza
The scene along Melrose Avenue, one of L.A’s most renowned shopping districts, is now one of vengeance. Shards of glass litter the sidewalk. Storefronts are graffitied. The smell of smoke is still fresh in the early-morning air. Here was the epicenter of the looting that took place on Saturday night, shortly before Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a city-wide emergency and an 8 PM curfew. Garcetti later called on Governor Newsom to bring in the National Guard, marking the first time the Guard has roamed L.A.’s streets since 1992, when the Rodney King verdict was released. Today, Sunday, military humvees and troops protect what remains after the weekend’s display of mass anger and hurt.
Stoking public fear, Fox News called the destruction following Saturday’s protests “violent riots.” The hometown L.A. Times made sure to make the point that there were “divisions among the protesters,” and then went on to criminalize the looters. And on Sunday morning, Trump declared that his government would designate Antifa a terrorist organization. Indeed, the protestors who descended upon the streets of Los Angeles to voice their collective anger over the murder of George Floyd, were, like Los Angeles itself, a diverse crowd with diverse intentions.
The people who became known as the looters were a fraction of those who stayed behind after the earlier protests dispersed. They are now deemed “thugs” and “thieves” by those who find it easy to write off their palpable frustration, which spread to Santa Monica and across Long Beach by Sunday evening. Writing it off, however, not only ignores America’s systemic racism, but also neglects to address our dire social stratification. As displayed this past weekend on the streets of L.A. and elsewhere, the upheaval taking place across the country is now as much about class as it is about racial injustice and police brutality.
Trump, in his own egotistical way, hoped for this outcome, stating that he desired to be a “wartime president”. Wish granted. The flames Trump has fanned since taking office have sparked America’s tinder box and the fire is burning on his doorstep. What we are now witnessing is full-fledged class warfare. No doubt, it’s been a perfect storm of events; the effects of Covid-19’s massive unemployment, some 40 million, the virus’s death disparity, the continued assault of black lives by a militarized police force along with a corporatized government that intentionally fails to protect its most vulnerable citizens.
The looting of stores is inherently a class issue, whether you look upon it favorably or not (there are always exceptions of course). The act of looting is a long-standing American tradition, dating back to the theft of Native lands and African enslavement. And today, while wealthy people don’t loot strip malls, they are adept at looting natural resources and labor, from the coalfields of West Virginia to Jeff Bezo’s Amazon warehouses. The poor, exerting their nominal power—even in a destructive and violent manner—display an entirely natural reaction to a continually powerless state of being. For them, looting is a cry for help, an expression of hopelessness.
We’ve all seen the hideous video. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in broad daylight; Floyd, suffocating, cried for his mother’s help. We’ve all watched the callous white vigilantes, one an ex-detective, hunt down the jogger Ahmaud Arbery in a pickup truck before killing him. We are all familiar with the long list of Black men shot to death by cops at a staggering rate—2.5 times greater than whites. We also know that 20% of the entire Black population, even before the Covid crisis, was living in severe poverty, some 9 million people. Conditions across the country are even worse today, and as a result, violence will continue to erupt.
Of course, both the seething acrimony among our country’s poor and the brutality perpetrated on Black people by government-sponsored gangsters predates the Trump Administration. Cornel West pointed this out Friday night on Anderson Cooper 360:
“You’ve got a neoliberal wing of the Democratic party that is now in the driver’s seat … and they really don’t know what to do because all they want to do is show more black faces—show more black faces. But often times those black faces are losing legitimacy too because the Black Lives Matter movement emerged under a black president, a black attorney general, and a black Homeland Security [Secretary] and they couldn’t deliver.”
Do you think this past weekend was dreadful? Just wait. If Derek Chauvin is let off the hook for the murder of George Floyd, the recent protests will seem minor. To be sure, some of these disruptions, like the looting of minority businesses, are counterproductive, which is why the left has an obligation to organize and direct this rage at the real perpetrators, the capitalist class and their defenders.
Economic and racial oppression in America has finally reached a boiling point. Systemic change will take a systemic realignment of the economic and political structure in the United States. Despair may be driving some of these acts, from the arsons to the broken windows. Yet, it is the underlying racial and class dynamics, the consequence of being a conquered population, that will continue to fuel the rebellion—a serious and extended uprising that no imposed curfew from a city mayor will be able to curtail for very long.
All photos by Ronnie Mendoza.