Rebellion, decay and alienation

I lived through the Rodney King uprising at a time when L.A. seemed to be disintegrating both physically and socially.



It is 1992, a warm Thursday afternoon in April and the verdict has just come in. The cops involved in the Rodney King beating have been acquitted. Reaction on the streets starts slowly as the word spreads. I sit huddled in my tiny Koreatown apartment, safely watching the uprising on TV as the media coverage cranks up.

The excitement builds as fires break out in more areas of South Central Los Angeles. I sit back and take in the spectacle like it was some big-budget disaster movie.

But by afternoon the scene has changed. Images of innocuous entertainment on my TV have suddenly thrust their way into my real life. From the window I can see columns of thick black smoke in the distance. The fires come closer, sweeping in from the south and the east until there are dozens in view.

The air is thick with smoke and danger, punctuated by the crackling of automatic weapons.

On the roof of the market down the street I can see Koreans in battle fatigues firing down at those who have come to loot and burn, or just to watch.

Panic sweeps over me and I have the urge to flee the city for the suburbs, but now it’s too late and there is no safe way out.

Flipping through the channels, I watch my neighborhood burn from the perspective of the helicopters that rumble overhead. Local “news” personalities yammer moronically, bursting with excitement over the big story and the stunning footage, but trying to appear cool and professional lest it seem they were reveling in the destruction. Baffled and clueless, they whine: “How can this be happening?” Nothing in their privileged upbringing has prepared them for this. They call it senseless, stupid, inexplicable. Such violence can only be perpetrated by “bad” people, by criminals, and their analysis of the rebellion goes no deeper than this.

“Fuck the Police” graffiti in rubble

The next day I venture outside. Buildings are still burning. Firefighters dash from fire to fire. People are still looting. There are no police to be seen. Yet there is none of the usual sense of fear in the neighborhood. Instead, an almost carnival-like atmosphere prevails on the crowded streets. Everyone is friendly, talking and laughing and taking pictures of the destruction. Torn from our daily routine of work and habits of psychological subjugation, we are momentarily living pure anarchy.

Is this the beginning of the Revolution? Will a new world finally rise from the ashes? Or is it the Apocalypse?

My City

If you drive around the South Bronx you’ll see block after block of rubble and burned-out buildings. In Newark the concrete in the bridges and roads is cracked and crumbling, and you don’t have to look far to see abandoned factories slowly collapsing under their own weight into ugly piles of bricks and weeds. But Los Angeles is younger, and the physical decay is not as evident as it is in many other cities.

The first clue that all is not well in the City of Angels is the graffiti.

Graffiti on disintegrating wall

Tagging is everywhere—on street signs, buses, trucks, freeway overpasses, on buildings in shitty neighborhoods and buildings in good neighborhoods. Rarely overtly political, it is nevertheless a revolt against alienation, a testament to the irrepressibility of the oppressed.

The subtle signs of decay are elsewhere as well. You can see them in the huge potholes that proliferate faster than the overworked street maintenance crews can patch them; in the black smoke belching out of buses, in the hazy orange air that stings your eyes. You can see them too in the buildings with iron bars across every window and door; in the ramshackle mom-and-pop convenience stores with dusty, half-empty shelves.

We can look at physical decay that is occurring in all our cities as a metaphor for a much more important underlying reality: social decay. And while the visual signs of disintegration in Los Angeles may be more subtle, there is no lack of the usual angst, unrest, and desperation that typify other U.S. cities.

In Los Angeles destitution is everywhere, and spreading. Even in “good” areas you can see the unskilled, the unemployed, the immigrants, hanging out on street corners, killing the day with talk and drugs and booze. Those who still have hope gather near paint stores and lumber yards, trying to get picked up by contractors who will offer them a few dollars for their labor and hopefully not rip them off after a hard day’s work.

Parts of downtown Los Angeles look like scenes from a science fiction movie about the end of the world.

Homeless on street

Hundreds of homeless people live in cardboard boxes or lean-tos built from the debris of disintegrating buildings. Angry and resentful, they swarm like hungry locusts over the garbage-strewn streets and sidewalks. The smell of urine hangs in the smoggy air. Even the pigeons look dazed.

Everyone with enough money flees to the relative “safety” of rich, white fortresses like Brentwood or Beverly Hills. The rest of us are left behind to fend for ourselves.

In this broken city do seeds lie somewhere, hidden and dormant, that might someday provide the blossoming of human potential at long last?

Or is everything dead and dying, crushed beneath decades of poverty, oppression and neglect?

My Neighborhood

I’m looking out the window of my fifth floor apartment. I see rows of neat front lawns and single-family homes owned by prosperous Koreans. Except for the Hollywood sign barely visible on the smog-shrouded hills in the background, it could be a typical suburban neighborhood. But it’s not. This is no Brentwood, no gated, guarded, hermetically sealed island of privileged whiteness.

I am a part of this neighborhood, but not a part of a community. I don’t know a single one of my neighbors by name. Most of the Koreans try to keep to themselves as well, rarely interacting with the rest of the city. They have their own stores, their own restaurants, their own churches. They try to keep their neighborhood neat and secure. But the reality of the city constantly intrudes.

When I walk in my neighborhood I must be careful of the broken glass—debris from bottles and windshields. Every weekend morning you can find at least one neighborhood car that has been broken into and ransacked. It happened to my car three times (once while it was in a “secured” underground garage). In the space of six months I had two cars stolen.

When I walk in my neighborhood, I keep my head down. Not only to prevent eye contact with beggars and surly gang members, but also to keep from stepping in the human and animal waste that litters the sidewalks.

Los Angeles has to be the spit, shit and vomit capital of the world.

My neighborhood is well armed. This is evidenced by the noisy firefight my neighbors have with the sky every New Year’s eve, blasting away with everything from handguns to heavy machine guns. It doesn’t make me feel any more secure knowing that most of them are (hopefully) “good guys.” During the rest of the year though, the gunfire at night is only sporadic. Much more common night sounds are squealing tires, car alarms, circling police helicopters, sirens, and screams.

Are cultural separatism, isolation and withdrawal trends that finally herald our liberation from the tyranny of mass culture?

Or is it that fear has overwhelmed what is most human in us, so we arm and armor ourselves to protect against anticipated horrors yet to come?

My Home

The apartment building I live in was built in the twenties. It is a large, ponderous, cinder block monolith divided up into small cubicles. About once a month a minor disaster occurs in the building, usually involving electrical or plumbing malfunctions, but occasionally related to domestic violence.

An elaborate system of locks and buzzers are in place to keep out “undesirable characters,” but it often seems as if most of the undesirables in the neighborhood are already inside—they live here.

My cubicle consists of one room roughly the size of a shoebox, with inadequate heat and lots of roaches. Outside light filters through shabby drapes, illuminating a few pieces of beat up furniture: a thrift store table, a desk, a chair, a lumpy mattress on the floor. A partially melted plastic clock (it got too close to the hot plate) sits on the table. The worn carpet is a mosaic of spots and stains. At night the room is lit by a bare light bulb that hangs from the ceiling in the middle of the room. It’s home, and for the most part I like it.

Are the places in which we live designed to instill human values in us, fostering ideals and attitudes to build a truly humanized world?

Or do they encourage us to live like caged animals, frightened and well trained, timidly prowling the tiny territory of freedom we are allotted?

My Life

Sometimes I wake up late at night when it’s eerily quiet and the city seems to be holding its breath, resting up for the next crisis. I find myself lying very still in the cold dark, feeling alone and mortal. With my brain temporarily devoid of daily concerns and illusions, the raw reality of my life sweeps over me with frightening clarity. And I wonder what I am doing living in the belly of this sprawling, wounded beast.

Can the way I live lead to personal liberation, to transcendence, to joy? Is it possible to dig down through the urban rubble and find the very core of life, blazing in all its intensity?

Or am I destined to live among the ruins like the walking dead, permanently numbed by alienation, oppression and fear?


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Text and graphics on this page by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Attribution: James L. VanHise –

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