What I Saw at the Revolution: A First-Person Account of the L.A. Protests

A native Angeleno’s misadventures on the front lines of a movement that was generations in the making
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What no one tells you about watching a police cruiser set aflame is that before it becomes a skeletal crisp—before the shattering explosion of infernal heat and twisted steel—the horn starts uncontrollably honking for a good 15 minutes. It’s like the screeching death rattle of a metallic beast begging to be doused so it can return to stalking its prey. But eventually, if no one comes to its rescue, it relents and accepts its fate, and it keeps burning and burning until the final combustion.

Depending on your race, age, and income, you may be horrified by the prospect of a sedan flambé served up by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. But I can assure you that it was a spiritual experience for everyone in attendance that afternoon. After all, the coronavirus had canceled all ecumenical congregations, so I and a crowd that eventually grew to about 50 people sat and watched the rapture—a beautiful, cleansing burn—as all the toxic spirits, the bad-faith traffic stops, and the excessive-force beatings, were expunged in the glorious, gilded light of Santa Monica. Just a lovely little Sunday by the water, as close to paradise as Armageddon can get.

Twenty-four hours prior, provocation from law enforcement turned a peaceful, impassioned Black Lives Matter march from Pan Pacific Park near Fairfax into an orgy of police brutality, cop car auto-da-fes, and an anti-capitalist blitz of graffiti ripped from Banksy’s wildest dreams. Twenty-four hours from now, I will be shackled, stripped of my possessions, and slammed into the back of an overcrowded sheriff’s department jail bus, heading to an indeterminate location. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. For the moment, we’re at Sunday, May 31, in the seaside luxury resort once known as the People’s Republic of Santa Monica. Civic Center and Fourth. The one-time progressive Dogtown controlled by Tom Hayden and the Z-Boys now has an average rent approaching $4,000 a month. The revolution arrived 50 years late, and it was Instagram Lived.

If you’re old enough to remember the 1992 riots, it’s unlikely that you can fathom what an exotic social-media trophy it was for these kids to get a picture posing in front of a Crown Victoria holocaust. But if you’ve ever been to nearby Muscle Beach and watched the bodybuilders preen for the camera, it was a similar idea, except instead of bicep flexes, they were raising their middle fingers before this charred totem of oppression.

There is perhaps a certain tragedy that the Santa Monica Sandinistas didn’t reap the benefits of seeing the sulfurous fruits of their design. Initially, it was just me and them, as though I’d stumbled into a Hollywood Bowl rehearsal of the Philharmonic performing The Rite of Spring. Such virtuosity and delicacy, such swiftness. Draped in all-black bandannas and backwards hats, the pyromaniacal duo looked like G’d up ninjas. First, they splintered the windshield with a droog’s glee. Next, the driver’s side window went bang. The tires were punctured. Then their real work began.

Several rags were dipped in flammable liquid. A BBQ lighter was deployed to ignite the bonfire. They took a few seconds to admire their handiwork and ensure that things were about to turn into a Rage Against the Machine song: sleep now in the fire. Leaving nothing to chance, they glided like seditious ghosts into an awaiting coupe, peeled out back onto Fourth, and accelerated back onto the 10 East. Across the street, no one at the Doubletree Suites even noticed.

protest santa monica
Protesters in Santa Monica photograph themselves with a car in flames

Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Maybe you’re a law-and-order type—aghast at such open insurrection. But this was a largely victimless crime. With an annual budget of 3.5 billion, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department can well afford it. Besides, earlier, the deputies had conspicuously abandoned two cars blocks from the protests and looting that had been rocking downtown Santa Monica. They might as well have had written “Light My Fire” on the side of the automobile, just above the florid script that boasts, “A Tradition of Service Since 1850.”

Ultimately, this was about more than the anarchist thrill of turning two cop cars into a funeral pyre. There was, of course, the reductive explanation that rebellious kids like to light shit on fire because lighting shit on fire is cool. And, sure, there was a degree of that. But it was also a nakedly subversive act, as close as anyone will get to watching someone storm the Bastille in Supreme.

Whether or not the “rioters” were familiar with the scandals associated with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, they were intuitively aware of their violence, corruption, and the sneering disdain for the people they ostensibly serve. It’s difficult to conceive an organization so literally steeped in skullduggery—to the point where the Banditos, one of the several sheriff’s department gangs currently under investigation by the F.B.I.—actually have matching tattoos of pistol-clutching skeletons in sombreros and bandoliers.

Where to even begin chronicling the department’s taxpayer-funded misdeeds? It starts with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, branded the “Donald Trump of law enforcement,” an opportunist currently immersed in a civil war with the County Board of Supervisors over everything from the LASD’s already obscene treasure chest, to COVID-19 strategy, to his insistence on rehiring deputies accused of despicable abuses. According to the ACLU, out of 400 agencies in California, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department is the only one that refuses to furnish the public with documents pertaining to officer misconduct (per legal mandate). Kobe Bryant’s widow is currently suing a coven of ghoulish deputies who shared crime-scene photos from the helicopter crash that killed the former Lakers great. Then there’s Lee Baca, the most influential local sheriff of the millennium, a publicity-mad Skeletor who reigned from 1998 until 2014, and is currently in a federal prison in Texas for his role in covering up a massive F.B.I. investigation into the Abu Ghraib-style sadism within the county’s jail system. None of this even remotely encompasses the LAPD, a distinct organization with its own well-documented history of racist thuggery.

So what you might call casual arson was another’s person’s karmic comeuppance. This is why the audience of fire worshippers only continued to multiply that afternoon. Sirens wailed in the distance. Police helicopters droned overhead. But a multi-racial coalition of “Fuck the Cops” connoisseurs kept building in a concrete alley across the street from Santa Monica High School. Dreadlocked, 20-something bicyclists in College Dropout hoodies; young Japanese expats filming the proceedings with jaws agape—it looked like an ACAB Benetton ad.

A new cluster of Latino dudes arrived, shattering the windows of another police car and taking turns posing on the roof—crouched down and throwing up hand signs. A towhead in a UFC T-shirt and Bermuda shorts nodded his head happily, holding up a poster that read, “Never Again,” with the names of a half-dozen Black men killed by law enforcement scrawled underneath.

Everyone driving past us shouted a similar version of the same incantation: Fuck the police! From the windows of a white Civic came a sign featuring an erect penis with an officer’s cap atop the head. The words said, “COPS CAN EAT A DICK.” You could dismiss it all as crass posturing, but this was visceral, primal, untrammeled rage at the failures of over a half-century of rope-a-dope reforms and chronic injustice. This is why the motto for so many now is the same as it was in ’92: no justice, no peace. It’s why so little has changed from the credo of ’65: Burn, baby, burn. On cue, the fire department finally arrived to quell the raging vehicular inferno, and the crowd scattered.

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It’s impossible to start at the beginning unless you consider the root. From practically its founding, Los Angeles County enshrined housing covenants and sundown towns. The name South Central specifically refers to the restricted ghetto where Black people were required to settle. With the influx of Southerners heading west during the Second Great Migration, the city’s white power structure only sharpened its talons. Just two years after dim, pale sailors terrorized Mexican American teenagers in the Zoot Suit Riots, Chester Himes published If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), which chronicled the searing prejudices that Black Angelenos faced in the defense industry and elsewhere. Himes said that his experience in Los Angeles was worse than the seven and a half years he spent in prison and the five he suffered through in Depression-era Cleveland. No less than Jack Warner fired Himes from a screenwriting job with Warner Bros, telling an underling that “I don’t want no niggers on this lot.” In his autobiography, Himes later wrote that “under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles, I became bitter and saturated with hate.”

During the 1992 riots, protests began in front of the Parker Center, the glass Death Star named after William Parker, the founder of the modern LAPD. The duality couldn’t have been starker. To the force, Parker was a heroic patron saint, where even 26 years after his death, his ex-chauffeur and bodyguard Daryl Gates still commanded the paramilitary mercenaries with an iron fist. To Black and brown Angelenos, Parker was the drunken bigot who summed up the 1965 Watts rebellion as “one person threw a rock and then, like monkeys in a zoo, others started throwing rocks.” He said Mexican American immigrants weren’t “far removed from the wild tribes of Mexico.”

Pick a decade and you’ll find an LAPD scandal: from Operation Hammer to Rampart to the “elite” Metropolitan Division’s latest misadventures in racial profiling and allegedly falsifying gang data. It’s a systemic corruption baked into our self-mythology (see Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and all of film noir, really). Even the universal cop epithet “12”—as in “Fuck 12”—comes from the ’60s police procedural Adam-12. That was Jack Webb’s sequel to Dragnet, the principal difference being that on Dragnet, William Parker had script approval. If you’re behind a big gate in Brentwood, this probably doesn’t sound that bad to you. But if you’re from one of the city’s historically disenfranchised communities, it’s like watching the evangelization of the Gestapo.

The militarized legacy of that time lingers eternally. These are not cruel abstractions of history: these are the lived-in experiences of our parents and grandparents.

The militarized legacy of that time lingers eternally. These are not cruel abstractions of history: these are the lived-in experiences of our parents and grandparents. We are extraordinary creatures, able to literally believe biblical fairy tales from several millennia ago, but somehow still cocooning ourselves in the delusion that 50-year-old traumas (let alone 400-year-old ones) have no bearing on the present moment. It is the final form of white privilege. So when anyone asks what people have been protesting about, this is but one of many explanations. It is George Floyd, but also the brunt and burden of a gruesome lineage. It is the orange white supremacist in the Oval Office ripping open racial scabs and salting the wounds with Cheeto dust and allowing his henchmen to secretly dole out billions in corporate slush funds as people struggle for survival amid a plague. Trump is both Nero and Caligula, but with the power to tweet out the nuclear codes.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. In Los Angeles, the chief nemesis of the Black Lives Matter movement is the city’s first Black DA, Jackie Lacey. A South Central-raised ex-prosecutor, Lacey has consistently failed to pursue criminal charges against officers accused of misconduct, despite L.A.’s frequent placement atop national rankings of cities with the most police shootings. BLM-LA counts over 600 residents murdered by cops since Lacey’s first full year in office, most of them Black and Latino males. (The Los Angeles Times homicide report counts 329 since 2013.) Things became so heated the day before Lacey’s March primary that her husband brandished a gun at Black Lives Matter protestors on the couple’s front lawn. So it was little surprise that the May 30  Pan Pacific Park protest that set off the initial uprising focused heavily on the embattled DA as the apotheosis of an inequitable system of mass incarceration and qualified police immunity.

A protester in the Fairfax area

Rob Liggins

Maybe I’m naive, but if you’d told me that that Saturday afternoon would culminate in torched Metro buses, the police outpost at the Grove burned at the stake, and “eat the rich” graffitied in front of the iconic Beverly Hills city sign, I would’ve raised an eyebrow. There had been looting the night before in downtown, and at one point, the temporary occupation of the 110. But it seemed tame compared to Minneapolis earlier that week, where an entire police precinct turned to cinders. The positivity, focus, and sense of control was never properly conveyed in subsequent reports about that boiling-point afternoon. Granted, the first person I saw that day was a skateboarder in a bucket hat and tie-dye shirt with a sign reading “suck my dick, pig bitch, black lives matter,” but he had a valid point.

There was nothing incendiary about the speeches, other than the inflammatory nature of the grievances themselves. A supplication from Pastor Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie set it off. Libations for ancestors were poured. Orations resonated from BLM-LA co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Melina Abdullah, and the activist-actor Kendrick Sampson (Insecure).

“We’re living in the middle of an uprising,” Cullors declaimed. “Let’s be clear—we are in an uprising for Black life.”

Abdullah preached, “They have told us we got a right to mourn and be in pain—fuck that shit! We got the right to be angry!”

“Our first demand is for them to prosecute killer cops,” Sampson said, segueing into a call-and-response chant. “Our second demand: defund the police. We have to abolish the school-to-prison pipeline. We have to abolish the cages.”

The audience swelled to several thousand. People scaled the fences on the baseball diamond to get a better look. Signs spotted: “how to be a good cop—1) quit,” “end white silence,” “white ppl—let’s speak up,” “we demand police accountability,” “jackie lacey must go,” “la needs a district attorney who will prosecute killer cops: vote for a new d.a. in november.” There are litanies of the dead and signs memorializing George Floyd’s last plea, waved to the heavens for chilling effect. A thin cardboard poster features a 1962 quote from Malcolm X equating the racism of Los Angeles to the Deep South.

The name, “Kenneth Ross Jr” was loudly chanted several times. In 2018, Gardena police officers gunned down the 25-year-old like a game of Call of Duty. The body-cam footage is grisly and unequivocal: Ross frantically sprinting away from his pursuers through a park and boom. The officers said he had a gun; the victim’s family and their attorneys vehemently deny the claim. The cops were quickly absolved of wrongdoing, because that’s how it goes. Ross’s mother, Fouzia Almarou, spoke at the protest, still fresh with grief.

To understand the modern moment is to realize how numbingly circular it all feels. A sense of vertigo induced by multi-generational damage and the tedious platitudes from nominally liberal politicians vowing change. Reforms that feel cosmetic at best, spurious at worst. Consider this passage from Thomas Pynchon, written directly after the 1966 murder of Leonard Deadwyler in Watts, when police officers stopped him for speeding while trying to take his pregnant wife to the hospital. Switch the names and locations and it sounds as familiar as the day it was written.

The killing of Leonard Deadwyler has once again brought it all into sharp focus; brought back longstanding pain, reminded everybody of how very often the cop does approach you with his revolver ready, so that nothing he does with it can then really be accidental; of how, especially, at night, everything can suddenly reduce to a matter of reflexes: your life trembling in the crook of a cop’s finger because it is dark, and Watts, and the history of this place and these times makes it impossible for the cop to come on any different, or for you to hate him any less. Both of you are caught in something neither of you wants, and yet night after night, with casualties or without, these traditional scenes continue to be played out all over the south-central part of this city.

So everyone marched. Down Beverly Boulevard heading west, towards the neighboring Grove, this opulent Disneyland Main Street mall, a shimmering husk of hangover capitalism and overly documented day trips by influencer scarecrows. If the Grove is the Los Angeles of lame excess and unsubtle luxury, the flowing river of bodies represented the real masses that gather once a decade, or roughly whenever the Lakers win a championship. Black people led a coalition of Asians, Jews, Muslims, the children of El Salvadoran, Mexican, and Guatemalan emigres, and the descendants of Chicanos persecuted during the second World War. The masked proudly waved flags in search of liberation, balled fists in open rebellion, chanting continuously for justice and the the unjustly slaughtered. There were signs touting the importance of Black Trans Lives, and transplanted white allies who came to this city because it offered the promise of exactly this. It was the best of L.A. temporarily unified. But this evanescent dream could only last uncontested for so long.

The rest is folklore, both good and bad. For whatever reason, I lingered toward the back. Police choppers neurotically scudded above our heads. After a while, someone mentioned that the march was starting to break up. I headed back to my car, because I had to go to work anyway. But “break up” is in the eye of the beholder. What happened next depended on who you asked. Speak to anyone protesting and they’ll tell you that the police escalated an already tense moment. The cops naturally blamed it on someone throwing a stick, a bottle, a Funko Pop doll. Does it matter? Throughout the years, there’s always been an excuse for good, old-fashioned police goonery.

Alexis Hunley

The thin blue thrashing of the Chicano Moratorium march in the summer of 1970 may not have been captured on high-def video, but now everyone has at least an ObamaPhone. Separated by a half-century, the similarities are depressing. About 5,000 Chicano activists gathered in East L.A. to protest the drafting of “Aztlan citizens” to fight in Vietnam, and the police suddenly appeared to “disperse the crowd” with teargas and billy clubs. As Mike Davis and Jon Wiener wrote in the history Set the Night on Fire, the “ranks went berserk. Skirmish lines disintegrated as troops chased rock throwers, attacked unresisting people leaving the park, and then launched furious forays into the neighboring streets.” In the end, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department killed award-winning, Mexican American L.A. Times journalist Ruben Salazar via a teargas projectile, in what was criminal negligence at best, cold-blooded homicide at worst.

From here until the day the police are abolished, the behavior of William Parker’s great-grandsons on May 30 will be remembered. A journalist reported being punched in the stomach. A 26-year-old woman later sued the LAPD for $10 million, accusing them of shooting a 40-millimeter projectile through her open driver’s side window as she was driving to Target. (She reportedly spent nine days at Cedars-Sinai.) The police teargassed a mob in front of the Erewhon. Allow me to repeat that sentence: The police teargassed a mob in front of the Erewhon.

There are those for whom the police are strictly benevolent figures: usually white, landed, or at least old enough to have aged out of being deemed a reasonable threat. Those types were not out there on Beverly and Fairfax that Saturday. The violence that proceeded was an atavistic wail from the streets: young people cooped up for months from COVID-19, ignored, duped, and patronized by spineless politicians, inflamed by atrocities captured on camera, and exploited by a racist pyramid system. You were expecting them not to burn cop cars?

Rodeo Drive, that international mecca of morbid decadence, received an unfamiliar set of pilgrims: a kneeling crowd reminding anyone within miles that they existed and needed to be heard. If Alexander McQueen had a few $1,500 backpacks looted later (by those unconnected to the protest), so be it. Few people will despair for the Kering corporation, McQueen’s owner, which made a $2.3 billion profit last year. Down the street, The Gucci store and Hermès got re-decorated with graffiti that read “Defund LAPD,” “The Revolution is Coming!” and “ACAB.”

Over those next few hours, a pulse that had become faint and irregular returned to a vitality that L.A. hadn’t seen in decades. Absurd high-fashion billboards had Black Lives Matter tagged all over them to massive rounds of applause. As the helicopters sneered, crowds chanted George Floyd’s name and “This is what democracy looks like.” These blocks, once vibrant, but mostly now owned and operated by emissaries of extreme wealth, were taken back. There were massive trash fires in the middle of Fairfax Boulevard just like Odd Future had always prophesized. And by the time darkness encroached, and a strictly enforced curfew was clamped down, it was clear that there would be no returning to exactly what had been.

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The National Guard was moving into downtown by midnight. After Beverly Boulevard turned into a badlands, the mayor set an 8 p.m. curfew and called in the troops, haunted by the memories of ’92. But this time around, the protests were far more coherent, targeted, and intentional: South Central, Watts, and Compton would remain untouched as protestors streamed into the highest tax bracket neighborhoods. In 1992, I was still in elementary school during what white people called “The Riots” and Black people called “The Rebellion.” Old enough to remember the images of wrath and vengeance penetrating through the TV as blow-dried news anchors tallied the cataclysmic levels of destruction: 63 deaths, 2,383 injuries, and over a billion dollars in property damage.

One of the startling memories of my childhood was seeing what felt like the entire city reduced to smoldering rubble. For almost a decade, parts of South Central looked like they had been firebombed. K-Town lay in ruins. The destruction was the inevitable product of blind rage: the Rodney King verdict detonating a pent-up apoplexy at police brutality and untrammeled American capitalism literally built off Black exploitation. Subsequent, halting attempts at police reform followed, but the gap in economic inequality grew deeper. According the Institute for Policy Studies, in just three months of the quarantine, the combined wealth of U.S. billionaires rose by $637 billion—more than the collected net worth of the country’s 59 million Latinx residents, and equal to 75 percent of all Black wealth.

It’s difficult to comprehend why downtown L.A. was ransacked that final May weekend without fathoming the collective hopelessness that has pervaded large swaths of the city. In the event that the American dream was ever real, it has receded with the rise of a bloated military-industrial complex and politicians mesmerized by billionaire backers. The combined law enforcement budget for L.A. County exceeds $7 billion a year, but somehow we can’t find a way to find shelter for 60,000 of our homeless citizens. According to a 2016 Public Policy Institute of California study, roughly half of L.A.’s  children now live at or near the poverty level. Amid such pervasive and depressing poverty, sometimes the Footaction on Broadway will get plundered.

Around 10 p.m. on Saturday night, a few friends and I parked downtown. We were greeted by a screaming relay of adolescents in pink hoodies and Kangols. Sprinting through the foggy streets, they dropped empty shoeboxes in the middle of the road. But you could barely hear their celebration above the wicked roar of sirens echoing from every direction. Weed smoke hung in the air. All the bars were boarded up. Homeless people staggered aimlessly or slumped into the sour lemon light of ATM vestibules. A street over, 30 LAPD officers did a running sweep in wishbone formation. The only way it could’ve felt more like Blade Runner was if one turned out to be a replicant offering a death monologue about tears in the rain.

Nothing says apocalypse like seeing the Pantry closed. But it was closed like everything else, reminding you that we were also in the throes of a once-in-a-century pandemic. An amiable dude with a bandanna breezed past us and said, sighing, “They just opened up a jewelry store, but there was nothing there!” A peeling and frayed poster of Kobe read, “Forever in Our Hearts” next to the names of everyone who perished that awful morning. A male and female pair of anarchists took turns swigging from a fifth of Jack. A homeless man pushed his life in a shopping cart yelling to no one in particular about stuffing people into pancakes. Most people wore masks and walked quickly, heads down, searching for the next score. Plenty of others were out just to see what the police were going to do.

Despite what Tucker Carlson would love your mom or grandma to believe, no one was Antifa, and there were no generalizations to be drawn about “the type of looter.” They were L.A. kids—which is to say, of all races and ethnicities, united by rage and boredom. They had a point, too. Most of the new downtown doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s a corporate laboratory of Chipotles, artisanal tequila bars, boutique hotels, and overpriced Edison-bulb condos filled with over-the-hill EDM DJs worried about paying their homeowner’s fees.

When Ridley Scott filmed Blade Runner in the early ’80s, downtown L.A. epitomized the ravages of urban decay. Its once-gorgeous art deco theaters were long shuttered, the crack trade flourished, and transients committed a slow suicide in Skid Row bars and vermin-infested flophouses. In some respects, the vaunted “downtown renaissance” that followed has been better; in others, worse. The billions poured into rehabilitation caused the homeless epidemic to metastasize as housing prices rose. After pushing the dispossessed a few blocks east and south, the city now faces a human-rights crisis so severe that a U.N. observer compared it to Syrian refugee camps. It’s slightly safer on some blocks, and there’s more to do, but there are also $4,000-a-month lofts where you have to step over corpses to enter. Grauman’s Rialto Theatre was embalmed into an Urban Outfitters. What a surprise that the long-time city council representative Jose Huizar is being investigated by the F.B.I. for allegedly accepting over a million dollars in illegal bribes from a Chinese developer.

But entropy is a rule of life. For all of the money lavished on “the downtown revival,” there is the unnerving, inexplicable desire to return to chaos. The cops were somehow everywhere and nowhere that night. Entire caravans sped through empty streets with epileptic lights flashing and the sirens turned up to intimidate. Flash bangs galore. Entire porcine phalanxes ran nervously through the streets, but they were easily avoided. Their strategy seemed to be right out of the shock-and-awe playbook. Loud, expensive toys were impotently deployed, but the bystanders were smart enough to wait for them to pass before hitting licks.

It was 11:00 p.m. on Saturday. Time for the fall of the CVS on Seventh and Spring. It only took one hit to make the window drop. Darkly clad phantoms disappeared into the store, then poked their heads out like groundhogs, one by one, searching for any sign of the police. Success. A duo in skeleton masks emerged clutching overflowing shopping bags. They scattered into the smoke and sodium lights. Another marauder cracked open a hard-earned Amstel light, holding a container of Tide pods in the other hand.

Sirens kept crying in the distance. Out of an SUV emerged a white cameraman and his smarmy-looking anchor. They kept flagging down kids running from the CVS, and asked them why they were looting. But no one was dumb enough to take the bait, and the crowd began heckling them to leave. Finally, the reporters pulled the act on the wrong guy: a fading white dude in his 30s, who looks like Diplo but demented. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he sneered. The Fox-11 flunkies appeared stunned, and struggled to find words. So the vigilante hero emptied a Heineken on their heads and kept zig-zagging west on Seventh. Soon after, the store was cleared of anything that anybody actually wanted—that is, beer and liquor. A horde of cop cars appeared around the corner, but they didn’t notice the shattered glass or gutted pharmacy. They flipped their lights on and zoomed past us with sirens braying like donkeys.

The mood was getting eerier and more militarized, so we headed back to the car, past a homeless women lost in her own lunatic reverie, the boarded up Starbucks, the anarchy signs painted on windows, more whooping caravans of cops, and the “Justice 4 Big Floyd” signs taped to plywood. Every building was tagged “ACAB” and “Fuck 12” and “Die Pig Die.”

Even though all the indistinguishable Levittown lofts looked the same, someone had a sense of history, and in the far-off distance I heard the serpentine G-Funk glide of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. That album—the definitive artifact of the 1992 uprising—boomed from a random balcony, still serrated and menacing 28 years later. It almost seemed inconceivable that L.A. could ever really feel this way again, but I guess it’s like that.

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11:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Several hours before the cop-car beach-blanket bonfire in Santa Monica, I was on Melrose surveying the carnage. A line of unsmiling law-enforcement officers idled in the center of the street, occupying nearly an entire block. They didn’t conform to the historical stereotype of mustached Aryan LAPD officers, and actually resembled a reasonably close Asian, Black, Latinx, and white cross section of the city’s demographics. Defenders of the force would call this evidence of good-faith efforts to increase diversity. With two Black police chiefs in the last quarter century, the city has improved since institutional racism thwarted Tom Bradley from advancing beyond lieutenant. But one of the Black police chiefs, Willie Williams, was hampered in his reform attempts by intransigent white officers who viewed him as an interloper from Philadelphia. While the other Black chief, Bernard Parks, presided over the Rampart scandal.

L.A.’s police department has withstood 28 years of reforms, longer than most protesters have been alive. As of late last year, the Metropolitan Division—the one-time tormentors of the Black Panthers—were still stopping Black people at a rate five times that of the rest of the population. It’s not a pay thing, either. With enough seniority and rank, many LAPD officers make well upwards of $200,000 a year, plus lavish benefits. The unions spend millions to defeat any local candidate who does not demonstrate a sufficiently lockstep, pro-cop stance. Even if you’re a staunch police supporter, there are no good answers as to why the city’s police are so uniformly loathed and feared by a populace they’ve sworn to protect and serve.

The firefighters, though? Nearly everyone appreciates them. At that moment, they were dousing a minor second-story fire in an empty office space above a boutique called Wild Style. Melrose Boulevard was packed with gawkers taking videos and photos, rubbernecking and realizing the strange modern impulse to document every available moment and then abandon it unremembered in iCloud. A shirtless homeless man covered in tattoos sat on the lawn of Fairfax High and let his dog, a small brown mutt in cheap sunglasses, run wild. Sirens blared from every direction. Yellow tape and orange safety cones were ubiquitous, and all businesses were boarded up. A wall of cops furiously safeguarded the Shoe Palace, in case someone tried to snag a gratis pair of Stan Smith’s. Despite the perennial SoCal sunshine, the mood was bleak and dystopian. In the face of seismic unrest, random bystanders blithely strolled past sipping cold brews.

melrose protest
Melrose Avenue on Sunday morning

Gwynedd Stuart

As heralded in Revelations, the Grove had been ravaged. The Nordstrom was out of Comme des Garcons. The Apple store had been bitten. The clocktower at the Farmers Market read “Black Lives Matter,” a rare improvement in modern architecture.

By mid-afternoon, all the graffiti was whitewashed by high-pressure spray machines. But across the street, Britney Spears’s “The Zone”—a “one-of-a-kind pop-up and immersive retail experience”—had become the Britney Spears Autonomous Zone: next to sultry murals of Britney wrapped in a python were the spray-painted catechisms “Fuck the Police,” “BLM,” and “Smash White Supremacy.”

Word arrived that “Santa Monica is going off,” a phrase I never expect to hear again in this lifetime. Because I’m a creature of provincialism, I listened to The Chronic and Sublime’s “April 29, 1992 (Miami)” the whole way: canonical riot testaments from different racial but similar socio-economic backgrounds.

Cruising west on Santa Monica, Beverly Hills was in shambles. The facade of the Beverly Hills Courier was emblazoned with a succinct Wittenberg thesis: “Fuck the 1 Percent,” “Prosecute Killer Cops,” “Fuck Trump,” and “Not Untouchable.”

If Beverly Hills was merely reminded of the existence of the rest of the world, Santa Monica was running a dress rehearsal for the fall of new Rome. After passing a BevMo where about a dozen cops rushed in like Patty Hearst was robbing it, I pulled into the empty parking lot of what will always be Bay Shore Lanes—the bowling alley now temporarily deserted for infectious reasons. It was late afternoon, and a sweating father and his grammar school-age son were stuffing photo equipment into a van, removing makeshift press badges made of masking tape. I asked who they’re shooting for and the dad smiled.

“He’s learning photography and I wanted to take him to see history,” he told me. “We’re actually not covering this for anyone.” He added, “Oh, you’ll need this—it’s fucking hectic out there.”

He removed a tape headband where he’d scrawled “PRESS” in Sharpie, which I took politely but couldn’t use because it made me feel like I was wearing a nametag to a networking happy hour at an Embassy Suites in Gehenna.

He was not wrong, though. It felt like a war zone out there. A jangled and condemned episode, as though at any moment the earth might collapse and we’d descend into a sinkhole. An ominous wind lashed off the ocean just a few blocks away, and the palms swayed nervously against a colorless sky, surrounded by police helicopters. Sirens and sirens and sirens and sirens.

The police erected a barricade across the street from the Olympic freeway entrance. As with all L.A. law-enforcement strategy, it seemed arbitrary and pointless. Santa Monica’s Citizen app was riddled with looting reports, but they seemed more concerned with creating magnets for protestors. As cars raced home to beat the 6 p.m. curfew, a dozen conscientious objectors held up signs and chanted slogans. Just behind them, cops in riot helmets waved their foam-projectile missile launchers like children clutching Super Soakers on the first day of summer.

A baby-faced, husky Latino kid with a bowl cut and Mexican-flag jacket held up a slime-green “justice for floyd” sign. “This is where they want us,” he kept whispering. Against a wall, an angry, meth-rotted white boy took off his shirt and stuffed it into a bookbag, “Lawless” tatted across his chest. Two shirtless dudes in shades leaned out of a swerving Sentra screaming “Fuck the police!” One filmed the crowd, the other waggled a half-empty bottle of Cuervo and flipped off the cops with the other hand. A demure Asian girl rolled down the window out of her black Lexus SUV, removed her blue surgical mask, and inquired with total sincerity, “Excuse me, do you guys know where the riot’s at?”

I crept through Santa Monica, past Latina college students in rhinestone glasses and black ’Pac shirts and ginger-bearded Brians with BLM emblazoned across their tank tops. Courtyard Marriott was painted “ACAB” and an otherwise blank beige wall was marked with “Stop Killing Us.” Adolescent trios stealthily concealed their faces with hoodies and low-brimmed hats, but lugged suitcases loaded with looted goods. No one stopped them because the cops clearly didn’t care. Cops and criminals are hostile first cousins by constitution, sharing a common disdain for the tedious covenants that bind society together. But, unlike the protestors,  the police don’t need to risk their freedom to vent their rage; if they’re having a bad day, there is always someone around to take the brunt of their aggression.

Cops and criminals are hostile first cousins, sharing a common disdain for the tedious covenants that bind society together. But, unlike the protestors,  the police don’t need to risk their freedom to vent their rage.

The protester traditionally needs to believe in something better than this bludgeoning purgatory of cynicism, greed, and irrational hatred—the notion that a mixture of political pressure and appeals to our higher angels, eventually reason and enlightenment will win out. But these are different times. The patience of the ’60s, the unceasing ’90s belief of Boomer manifest destiny, and the hopes of the last decade have fizzled. The growing demands to defund the police reflect a widespread realization that the police have been given enough second chances.

For the first time, the police had begun to vaguely intuit this existential threat. Bivouacking patiently in front of Bloomingdale’s that day, they shared the protestors itch for confrontation.  Endlessly televised scenes of violence and looting worked in their favor. They served to show “ordinary Angelenos” what horrors they’d face if they abandoned their praetorian guard. This was why they sealed the high-end Santa Monica Place mall but ignored the Third Street Promenade and the entirety of Fourth Street, where the less haute shops were apparently fair game. Hundreds of officers had flocked there from all over Southern California: Redondo Beach PD, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s, the Santa Monica force, the National Guard, LAPD. A big blue bullseye, waiting for revenge.

At Fourth and Broadway, a dozen officers squared off with 30 protesters in front of a closed Capital One Café. The crowd, clad in mostly black, went silent, raising clenched fists. Sirens kept wailing. Nearby alleyways were swarmed by roving platoons of looters in dark ski masks and bandannas, hoodies and surgical masks, leaving behind a trail of smoke and explosions. It was like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, except everyone looked like they were in Shoreline Mafia. And as Ohgeesy, the breakout star from that crew, the biggest Mexican American rapper from L.A. since B-Real, bluntly stated: “If everyone was peaceful, it wouldn’t be as strong as a statement and that’s fax.”

A young Meshell Ndegeocello doppelganger with a shaved head advanced before the assembly, wearing oversized black plastic glasses, a grey sweatshirt, and biker shorts. She started hypnotically belting “No Justice!” The chorus instinctively roared, “No Peace!” She thrusted her palms towards a line of police, casting fingers at them, indicting them for centuries of injurious sins, arms outstretched, the two syllables of “justice” become four, then eight. A cantillation of exile just off Main Street; she howled with pain and rage, but also a beatific state of grace. If you didn’t feel it, you can’t feel anything. Behind her, dressed in all black, his face covered, a young boy held up a sign: “we are the unheard.”

Cars stacked up onto Broadway. Two men in backwards snapbacks and masks sat atop a parked Sentra, fists raised in the Black Power salute—one dangling a wooden Africa medallion. From a cream-colored Hyundai Sonata, a burly Latino man leaned against the open driver’s side door, wearing a Kobe mask bumping “Fuck the Police,” middle fingers blazing.  This was L.A.’s heritage—semi-automatic protest music, the barrel pointed back at the cops. It’s a legacy that began with Compton’s Toddy Tee, whose mid-’80s classic “Batterram” directly referenced the obliterating bulldozers that the Daryl Gates-era police force used to destroy the homes of suspected drug dealers. Ice-T’s “6 in the Mornin” was the first gangsta rap anthem to break out of the West Coast. Released in 1986, it featured the future Law & Order star escaping an early morning wake-up call from a 20-man S.W.A.T. team. Of course, there is the original “Fuck the Police,” which led the F.B.I. to threaten N.W.A., and an army of Detroit cops to attempt to arrest Dre, Eazy, Cube, Yella, and Ren mid-concert. The song inspired sequels from rappers in most major American cities, but in intensity and brute force, none of them matched the first salvo from the world’s most dangerous group.

I float back down Fourth Street, which is positively covered in “I Can’t Breathe” signs. Homeless elderly women in masks wearily haul ziggurats of plastic bags. A “justice for floyd” sign sits above an expensive apartment complex with a Fitness Together on the bottom floor. A white hippie wanders past with a “Peace and Love” shirt and a pot of stolen orchids. A staccato clack of explosions rings out from the surrounding blocks. On the ground, I pass a single looted ski, never worn.

Looping around, I stumble past that incinerated cop car, a more suitable replacement for this year’s canceled Burning Man. A block away, a woman with an Angela Davis afro calls out a bunch of fortified Santa Monica cops that look like former Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent: “A buncha bitch asses.” An explosion detonates.

Eventually, I head back to Fourth, but by now the protests have been dispersed, and there is only the wreckage of the street. Vandals shattered the glass window of the Santa Monica branch of JPMorgan Chase and painted dollar signs on the front columns. Surely, Joseph Patagonia himself was aghast at the rummaging of his fleece emporium. The company’s environmental focus is admirable, but I suspect its actual founder, Yvon Chouinard, can survive on his $1.5 billion estimated nest egg. There’s nothing to be defended or glamorized about the looting of small businesses, but there will be few tears shed for the corporate behemoths that drew most of the looter’s attentions.

The actual victims of the looting are insurance companies, who have had the last three decades of relative peace to build money bins of cash, and who surely, will deny half the claims anyway.

So Wasteland was now a literal wasteland. Already boarded up due to COVID-19, someone connected to the vintage store had painted an eerie mural of a disembodied forearm and hand with the words: “After the Plague.” Someone added beneath it: “COMES RIOTS.”  Bird scooters were strewn in the streets. The REI was been ransacked, too, the case of the missing ski solved.

As I and a few others stared into the cavernous, emptied-out store, a despondent, 50-something-year-old woman in a Subaru stepped out of her car to hiss at us, “YOU PEOPLE DID IT ALL WRONG!” But there is no way to appease someone like that without sacrificing the chance to create legitimate change. Reduce all hints of threats to their way of life, and you will merely receive recycled bromides and empty vows for vague reforms. By the very nature of the media, violence and volume beget publicity. And if power comes from the barrel of a gun, the only recourse for the comparatively unarmed is the brick. Either way, it certainly gets you seen a lot faster. There is a tellingly selective memory in this country that white people were so aggrieved by a mere tax on whiskey in 1791 that they started a three-year armed rebellion against George Washington. Now the gentry are up in arms about a few dozen broke kids stealing some slip-on Vans?

It’s difficult to find published dollar figures of the total property damage from those few days of unrest. But the price tag is meager compared to ’92, even without adjusting for inflation. Unlike that earlier insurrection, with a few rare exceptions, looters didn’t set stores on fire. In a city of almost four million, not a single person died. The impulse to condemn any hint of property damage came mostly from those who actually had property to protect. As unemployment soared over the last three months, Americans watched $600 billion meted out to corporations with scarcely any transparency, while a single $1,200 pity payment was mailed out to the poor, accompanied with a note from the ex-CEO of Trump University. The animating principle of the modern Republican Party is that the rich get to freely loot while the white lower-classes get their fill of state-sanctioned racism. Escalating rents, health care, and the cost of education have left millennials and Gen-Zers facing lives of indentured servitude. So in an attempt to make that concept explicit, someone tagged “Dying 4 an Opportunity” on the side of the CitiBank.

A few minutes later I found myself swept into a current of about 100 bodies on Main, all of us aimlessly walking and following a “Say His Name: George Floyd” call-and-response led by a hoodied kid barely out of his teens. The crowd flowed past the police HQ, the front terrace now decorated with “Fuck 12” and “Fuck the Cops.” City Hall had “Police Department” crossed out and replaced with “ACAB.” At the Superior Court Building, “Superior” was x’d in favor of “Fuck the System.” It all seemed juvenile if you had never been caught in the throttling velocity of the criminal-justice chokehold, or observed the grip from close range. But if you had, these gestures felt like a victorious lightning raid—a minor reprieve from the unceasing traps that currently imprison 2.3 million Americans, plus the millions more mired in the probation system.

But the police would have their revenge. It was 7:15 p.m., a full hour and 15 minutes past curfew, when this impromptu parade walked into a block of well-armed cops. As the police began advancing, someone at the front yelled: “THEY’RE SHOOTING TEARGAS—RUN!!!!” Everyone scattered through a narrow gap between buildings, doing their best to avoid trampling one another, but this was pure, helter-skelter mayhem. My friends sprinted ahead, knifing through another opening, desperate for escape. But I randomly slanted right, breaking into a slow, Keyser Söze-in-the-last-scene strut, heading back towards Pico—past five battalions of cops riding in vehicles built for infantrymen. They pointed their rifles and screamed, “GO HOME OR ELSE!” Santa Monica looked gorgeous as ever in the dying purple light, pleasant as the end of days can feel.

When I finally reunited with my group, I found out that one friend didn’t make it out. The cops had him handcuffed on a curb nearby. So we all headed to someone’s house and waited to see if we needed to bail him out. The news was on and the talking heads were clucking their tongues over the looting. “It’s the work of anarchists and extremist groups,” someone in law enforcement said, and the TV haircuts solemnly nodded like it was a decree from Yahweh.

santa monica protest
A man with a looted guitar walks past Santa Barbara County police officers in Santa Monica

AGUSTIN PAULLIER/AFP via Getty Images

You don’t have to work in media to understand why an industry built to monetize conflict would emphasize destruction over peaceful demonstration. Each protest had a different tenor and feel, but they were all opaque to outsiders. The conditions and demands the protestors sought were static, grounded in loftier ideals and actions that might force long-overdue reckonings—the things you can’t put a dollar sign on. A history lesson would have gone a long way, but the news preferred to focus instead on broken glass.

After three anxious hours of waiting, we finally got a text from our friend, letting us know that the police had released him. Around this same time, someone pointed to the TV in total shock and went, “Yo, holy fuckin‘ shit, that’s her! That’s the girl who asked us if we knew where the riots were at!” Sure enough, there she was, temporarily famous, handcuffed and sitting forlornly on a curb, surrounded by a sea of cops.

That evening, LeBron James retweeted a shot of thousands of protestors lying face down with their hands behind their backs, chanting “I can’t breathe” for nine minutes in front of the Colorado capitol building. He commented, “Media showing this???? I bet you they’re not . . . . You know why, cause this is unity, peaceful, beautiful, and love!”

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It’s a strange sensation to have a sniper’s rifle trained on your head—a time-honored Los Angeles law enforcement tradition. The following afternoon, Monday, on June 1, I was standing with a crowd of protestors outside the Federal Building in Westwood. A team of sharpshooters were poised on the roof, guns pointing down, just in case anyone did anything that could be remedied by having their heads blown off.

For the hour before, all of the roughly 200 people assembled in the Wilshire, Veteran, and Sepulveda triangle understood that one wrong move could bring annihilation. Nothing says freedom of speech quite like the awareness that it’s qualified by a 6 p.m. curfew and armed federal militias doing their best to strike terror. A UCLA group called the Student Activist Project had called the demonstration the day before, but it was canceled a few hours later, with no reason given. Signs all over Westwood announced the protest wasn’t happening, but no one gave them a second thought. The mood was jittery and raw. After the weekend’s property damage, politicians were eager to clamp down. The protesters knew they were a target. Both sides felt like the city was under siege.

Outside the modernist cube that houses the F.B.I.’s regional field office, the law was hunkered down in every conceivable direction. Fire trucks screamed past. Police cruisers raced down Wilshire going 60 miles an hour. The sky felt low and mean, pocked with a constellation of police choppers that practically  drowned out the chanting crowds below. A breakaway group of protestors briefly attempted to occupy the 405 freeway, but they got chased back, eventually contenting themselves with blocking the northbound entrance. Just behind us lay the serene oblivion of the Los Angeles National Cemetery, verdant and filled with over 100 bodies of the Buffalo Soldiers, the famed Black regiment who fought for the Union in the Civil War.

Some of the crowd splintered towards the Sepulveda and Wilshire intersection where 50 cops with projectile launchers waited for trouble. The next thing I knew, there were poison vapor clouds, and someone screamed “TEARGAS!” and we booked it south down Sepulveda at top speed, ducking through the parking lot of Westwood Park where I used to work as a camp counselor what now feels like a dozen lifetimes ago. In the same spot where I taught eight-year-olds baseball and basketball, there were National Guard riflemen pointing their barrels at sprinting teenagers in surgical masks, with signs that read “the system is not broken, it was built this way.” The jacarandas were blooming.

Heading back north up Veteran, I observed a cadre of Moon Juice moms sitting cross-legged in the dog park, talking on cell phones, their babies snug in slings, astonishingly unconcerned by the madness adjacent. In a roped off area to my left, under a canopy of trees, were 100 policemen in fatigues, clutching assault rifles, mostly unmasked. The protesters clotted at one corner and unfurled a large American flag adorned with a crown of roses and George Floyd’s face. For all the tumult, it was quite pleasant. People passed out free waters and snacks, caring for each other like benevolent monks.

The familiar chants:

“No justice, no peace—fuck these racist-ass police!”

“Say his name: George Floyd!”

“Hey, ho, Jackie Lacey’s gotta go!”

“Don’t shoot! Hands up!”

“What do we want? Justice! When do want it? Now!”

Around this time, the Twitter timeline exploded with the news of Trump’s latest act of Tricky Dick LARPing, where he stammered about “mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans.” It’s the same playbook they’ve been using for a half-century: the repugnant lies about anarchists and career crooks and whatever alphabet-soup organization is this month’s enemy of the state. This entire movement is a response to the ancient failures and abandoned dreams of the ’60s. Eventually, being reasonable for too long becomes unreasonable.

In front of the Federal Building, there was no trace of anarchy or malice. A car pulled up and started booming Kendrick’s Lamar’s “Alright.” An entire crowd rapped along to what had become a modern civil-rights anthem in the wake of Ferguson, a devotional rap hymn in the vein of “We Shall Overcome,” undergirded by the belief that the arc of the moral universe does eventually bend towards justice. Next came the corollary, YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” a song so ubiquitous during the protests that it might as well have been the new national anthem. If Kendrick channeled the hope that things can be better, YG and Nip harnessed the anger that has existed since long before any of us took our first breath. There is the added power of Nipsey’s martyrdom, the constant heap of scorched-earth fury that increases every time Trump opens up his goldfish mouth, and the blunt efficacy of the hook itself. A hundred people deep, all singing the same benediction: “Fuck Donald Trump . . .Yeah . . .Yeah . . . Fuck Donald Trump.” 

◍◍◍◍

If you are under 40, your entire adult life has been a series of shallow promises and steady deterioration. The institutions you were instructed to believe in turned out to be fraudulent at their core and collapsed under the first bit of pressure. The rich became even more fantastically wealthy, and everyone else sat and speculated about which inevitable catastrophe would eventually force them to create a GoFundMe page. Finally, we were hit by a literal plague. Coupled with one of the most gruesome police murders ever captured on video, the pandemic exposed injustices that have been long transparent to anyone tethered to reality.

It seemed like everything was cursed and destined to keep declining. It felt like there was nothing any of us could ever do to avoid our fate, until that last week of May, when a spontaneous eruption triggered some weird tripwire in the collective psyche.

We may not see anything like this for another three decades or more. Or maybe we will: movements have expiration dates, but energy is an eternal force. The power doesn’t belong to any one person or singular collective. If there is anything redemptive and inextinguishable in the human spirit, it was out there on those streets. If you weren’t there, there is no way to accurately convey the urgency, commitment, and fundamental humanity displayed over those few days.

There was evil, too—the imperial darkness with all its weaponry, unable to restrain its lust for violence even when the entire world was watching. There was a police chief—one of the “good guys”—who claimed the looters were as much to blame for George Floyd’s death as the officer who asphyxiated him. Yes, it was about that fascist ontology, but much more. It was about the possibility of evolving beyond this wretched design that has imprisoned us. The notion that for all the good built into the American architecture, it was constructed on a crumbling foundation that at some point needed to be torn asunder and rebuilt anew. At the very least, it is time to build new statues and anoint new heroes unburdened by the slanders of the past.

By virtue of birthright, I am forever damned to defend Los Angeles, but the last few years have made that increasingly difficult. Gentrification has colonized entire neighborhoods, pushing out the families who built them. As the police swallowed up over 50 percent of the city’s discretionary budget, economic inequality and the homeless metastasized. Independent venues, bookstores, art galleries, dive bars are becoming financially untenable. L.A. is rapidly turning into a luxe Hollywoodland theme park, complete with the requisite haunted mansions. So to see almost all parts of the city come alive and fight for something bigger than our immediate gratification was thrilling and unexpected. A psychedelic recalibration without the need for chemical enhancement. For at least a little while, L.A. was once again alive.

◍◍◍◍

It’s still Monday. A few minutes after the citywide 6 p.m. curfew. A few friends and I are heading back home, the protests seemingly finished for the day. We roll north up Highland, past parked cars and their passengers currently cleaning out the local Walgreens. Hooking a right on Sunset, a small demonstration is going hard up ahead. So we loop around and park on El Centro, next to the Palladium, where about 80 stalwarts are standing in the middle of Sunset Boulevard.

None of this has been planned. The group has no leader. An earlier march on the same route had long dissipated. These aren’t stragglers, but instead those determined to keep pressing forward. The cops are having none of it. In a fitting bit of irony, the LAPD, the CHP, and the sheriffs have commandeered the Gower Gulch strip mall—the site of a long-demolished movie studio that once featured fake cowboys like Gene Autry, John Wayne, and Roy Rogers. From the east, a half-dozen police cars park on Sunset to roadblock both lanes. In full riot gear, they push the protestors back and create a human rampart of about 50 enforcers, clutching their rifles and nightsticks, ready for battle. The crowd immediately begins roaring “Hands up. Don’t shoot!”

Police keep materializing until there are bitter blue lights flashing as far as you can see down Sunset. Helicopters swoop across the sky. As with all the rest of the protests, it’s hard to imagine a more accurate embodiment of Los Angeles: all races, ethnicities and genders, skaters and punks, streetwear junkies, goths, a shirtless hippie with “Choose Love” painted on his back, Echo Park graphic designers, and O.G.s in Rollin 90s Crip insignias bumping “Fuck the Police” from a Lincoln Navigator.

The entire crowd drops to their knees, raising their fists to the sky. In front of me, a tank-topped backpacker hoists a sign that reads “i am black, i’m human.” Directly toe to toe with the cops, a lone person stands. He wears a red bandanna and matching red hoodie—probably Piru, but you better be prepared to ask that question. He makes the Black Power salute proudly, defiantly, glaring at the cops with a soldier’s intensity. This isn’t just a protest. There’s been a war going on outside for a very long time and doesn’t figure to end anytime soon.

Suddenly, without warning, the cops lunge towards the protesters, who respond by fleeing west down Sunset. No order to disperse. No attempt to give people the right to peaceably leave. Just loud screams, flash-bang explosions, and outright bedlam. We immediately whirl around to escape in our car, but the cops have us all surrounded. A column of motorcycle cops stands athwart, blocking off Selma Avenue. Sunset’s walled off, too. Maybe 50 of us are kettled into this trap, and no exit exists.

A frantic group of teens improvise and start hopping a spiked metal fence leading to the Palladium. A few fall, bleeding profusely, desperately wriggling to avoid the encroaching cops. We debate our options: hop the fence, risk getting impaled and then teargassed or shot with rubber bullets, or accept the inevitable and get arrested. The hazards of not heeding to a city-mandated 6 p.m. bedtime.

Consider it white privilege or journalistic entitlement, but a part of me dumbly believed that the cops wouldn’t actually arrest me. In theory, that whole enshrined in the Constitution combo of “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press” should have had me covered. Besides, we were standing right next to our car. All they had to do was move a motorcycle cop or two off the Selma line, and we’d be on our way. Instead, slowly, like cobras about to strangle their prey, the cops slithered over.

“UP AGAINST THE WALL!!! HANDS BEHIND YOUR BACK!!!”

A half-dozen dead-eyed Molochs scream at us like we’re lethal enemies. An old hippie who appears lost on his way to the Monterey Pop Festival is caught in the scrum. He’s near tears and keeps sadly blubbering to the cops.

“I’m just walking home to my studio! It’s two blocks away!”

He looks like he’s wearing a “Adult Groovy Guy” costume purchased last minute at a Spirit Halloween store, but they treat him like he is John Gotti. There are five cops for every one protester; the LAPD has a $3 billion annual budget.

A middle-aged sad-sack officer gruffly approaches and silently shackles my wrists in zip-tie handcuffs. Stripping me of my belongings, he removes my wallet, keys, phone, belt, and anything else in my pockets. Our Miranda Rights aren’t read. I attempt to explain that I’m a journalist, the Bill of Rights, etc. I must be out of my fucking mind because if you think the cops care about the objective truth or the abstractions of the Constitution, I have a tunnel on Second Street to sell you. All that matters are the loose constraints of the law, which can be spliced and manipulated in a thousand different ways. So if your granny were outside at 6:01 p.m. tonight, these Wiggums would lock her up for mere existence.

For an hour, we stand frozen against the wall, while police sweep the surrounding blocks. A few industrious protestors try hiding in a two-story commercial building; but aided by a private security guard, the cops drag them all down, one-by-one. There’s nothing for us to do but stare mutely like cattle, wondering how it’s possible to live in a country where the cops ignore looters to bedevil innocent people protesting centuries of historic injustices.

The police purposely tell you nothing. What you’re being arrested for or where you’re going is immaterial. You just better shut up and do what they say, or else those handcuffs can get an awful lot tighter. The cuffs are already digging deep into my wrists, but they’re not nearly as tight as the ones on my friend, whose arresting officer clearly has issues that it would take years of psychotherapy to unpack.

My arresting officer is stuck in the middle. We speak briefly. He asks me for my press pass, and when I try to explain why I don’t have one, he looks bored—a cog hiding behind dark sunglasses. You don’t need to read Eichmann in Jerusalem to understand “the banality of evil.” Just go on a ride around with your average patrolman to see how an unexceptional soul can become a vital transportation intermediary, shipping people off to the gulag. And that’s not me being hyperbolic—the ACLU of Southern California describes downtown’s Men’s Central Jail as “a modern-day medieval dungeon, a dank, windowless place where prisoners live in fear of retaliation and abuse apparently goes unchecked.”

It’s the same sickness endemic in fraternities and all male hierarchical institutions, where the excesses of the worst perpetrators go unchecked. It’s not that everyone agrees with or respects their behavior, but the organizational omerta shames anyone who would dare brook even a mild reproach. And by virtue of condoning these abuses, everyone is complicit.

As the prisoners are herded back onto Sunset, we all broil further. The boulevard is an ocean of blue. Police cars as far as the eye can see, but none is in any rush. Why bother? The longer they take, the more overtime credit racked up. The longer it takes, the more excruciating it will burn, rotator cuffs slowly beginning to shrivel and tear. That’ll teach you to protest again! 

Several news cameras aim in my direction and I ask the officer how the LAPD can justify jailing journalists, while a half-dozen TV correspondents simultaneously revel in our misfortune. Later that night, I’ll see footage of myself being perp-walked on KCAL and KTLA, with one featuring a large chyron about looters arrested in Hollywood. No attempt to clarify that almost everyone around was arrested for a curfew violation. Reports will later verify that of the 585 people arrested that night in Hollywood, only 20 were alleged to be looters.

They’re about to slam us into a trailer-sized L.A. County Sheriff’s Department bus, which presumably will take us to one of the jails scattered across Los Angeles. The officer who cuffed me tells me that he believes that I’m really a journalist, but “it’s out of my hands. Nothing I can do.” He asks for my date of birth, driver’s license number, social security number. I’m sure there’s some citadel where they stash fraying files of subversives. I ask him if I’m required to provide this information by law. The officer shakes his head.

Before loading me into the L.A. Sheriff’s Department COVID coffin, the officer tells me that I can talk to the lieutenant if I want. My freedom is at his discretion. Fantastic. I’m shoved in the direction of a stout officer who looks like a cross between a sourdough loaf and a Smurf.

“I’m busy here, whatthefuckdoyouwant,” the lieutenant snaps.

I tell him that I’m a journalist and a writer and besides, really, this is really a first amendment freedom of speech thing anyway, and none of these violations will actually hold up in a court.

“Well, what are you? A writer or a journalist?” he says.

The lieutenant has pebbly black eyes and it’s obvious that he thinks he’s got me really pinned down here. There’s no point in arguing further. “I know,” the officer sighs, patting me on the shoulder as I get into the bus. “Everyone’s freelance these days.”

The Corona Express isn’t all that miserable at first. Yes, it’s a cramped and filthy metal cage, and only about half of us are wearing masks. Obviously, the cops weren’t about to supply protective gear. But I have reconciled fate and know that in the grand scheme this isn’t that bad. As far as carceral system experiences, this is the best case scenario. Still, it’s bad.

The cops keep packing more and more of us in. I get a cellmate named Adam, a Mexican American guy in his mid-20s, originally from East Los Angeles. We’re both tall, and that makes it far worse, practically sitting on top of each other, compressed into an agonizing cage. An extremely amped-up guy in the back of the bus repeatedly raps the acapella lyrics to Boosie and Webbie’s “Fuck the Police,” the unofficial theme song of the Ferguson protests.

Narcotics, FUCK EM!

FEDS, FUCK EM!

D.A.’s, FUCK EM!

We don’t need you bitches on our street say with me

FUCK DA POLICE! FUCK DA POLICE! 

Without that badge, you a bitch and a half . . .

Later, he starts “Black Lives Matter” and “Fuck Lee Baca” chants. The bus becomes a chaotic babel of voices, grunts, cries, complaints. Everyone is  wondering where they’re taking us. But the cops refuse to answer and keep stashing body after body in these cages. Standing up, my head hits the roof of the bus, and through the dirty windows, I see cops all the way to the vanishing point, the entire force basking in the glow of red and blue flashing lights.

Adam used to work in social media for a tech company until he switched to the CBD oil game. He was at the protests with his girlfriend because they thought it was important to be here and have their voices heard. She’s been arrested, too, and he keeps checking in on her, a few rows up. We talk about the importance of what everyone is doing and I start ranting about how much I hate the media sensationalizing the looting.

“Oh, the looting?” He calmly nods his head. “That’s just a protest against capitalism.”

After another hour, the weak yellow bus lights switch off, replaced with a bizarre twinkling pink illumination that makes it seem like we’re on the world’s worst party bus heading to hell. Suddenly we depart towards parts unknown. My knees keep knocking into a steel encasement that has “Sinaloa” written on it. By now, the handcuffs have my shoulders volcanic, so I stand up to try to stretch them out and watch the city pass by. Down Sunset through East Hollywood, then Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Dodger Stadium. Sunset becomes Cesar Chavez and we hook left onto Vignes, just south of Chinatown, traveling past the shuttered bail bonds shops and the semi-industrial wasteland that surrounds Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers correctional facility.

We assume we’re heading to MCJ, but instead, the bus dips into an adjacent underground parking garage that the LAPD has converted into a processing facility. Unlocking us from our enclosures, we slowly bleed out into its uncomfortable phosphorescence. About 40 new cops stand around drinking coffee and picking their noses, doing absolutely nothing that resembles work. A half-dozen more hunch at plastic folding tables in front of mounds of paperwork and miniature file cabinets. They’re forced to handle bureaucratic detail while the rest of the squad stacks up overtime.

The order is for us to form ten single file lines and stand and wait until it’s our turn to be run through the system. If we don’t have any outstanding warrants we’ll be released. Everyone is here, from young white Hollywood executives to El Monte graffiti writers to kids barely old enough to drive and a very elegant Black man with grey hair who somehow got swooped into the dragnet. Almost no one is a looter. Slumped against the wall, a homeless casualty starts hocking up bile and shouting hexes at unseen demons. After he refuses to listen to the police, they cart him off.

We are tired and thirsty and shot with pain from the cuffs. My shoulders feel like tenderized meat about to fall off the bone. Still, the cops don’t acknowledge most of us. A few detainees successfully sweet talk one into cutting off their binds, but the rest are consigned to suffer. No sense of organization is to be found. The cops start calling the names of people recently hauled in, cutting the line of those of us who have been patiently waiting for hours. A few officers make snide jokes, offering to snap off the cuffs, then refusing at the last second.

Time blurs. My shoulders start spasming, but there’s no point in even complaining, because it seems to me that the pain is their point. A bespectacled officer finally calls my name, and they scissor off my cuffs and the relief is heavenly. They ask me a few cursory questions and tell me that for all of this insanity, I am merely receiving a curfew citation. I can’t leave until I sign my name promising that I will appear in court sometime before March. A few days later, the City Attorney announces that none of us will be prosecuted.

Set loose, stumbling out into the spectral downtown night. My phone is almost dead and it’s nearly 11 p.m. and I still have to figure out how I’m going to get home. I’m dizzy and my shoulders are still wracked with pain and I’m trying to understand exactly where I am and what just happened. Outside of that doomed matrix, standing dazed in a driveway, shaking off the cobwebs. Unlocking my phone, I start to make a call for someone to pick me up, when to the left of me, a militarized police truck flashes its lights and turns on its siren, and over a megaphone one of the officer’s shouts in my direction: “Get out of the driveway immediately!!! Or we will arrest you!!!”


RELATED: Fury, Exhaustion, Hope: Black Photographers Turn Their Lenses on the Protests


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