In the days that followed the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, I found I had little to say. I’d mutter some pessimism about us, as a society, never being able to progress forward. Then I found myself telling friends about the riots in Brooklyn, NY, when Martin Luther King was shot. I was twelve and lived in the apartment over my parent’s hardware store in Bushwick. In my sixth grade class, I was one of two non-Hispanic White students. The day after Dr. King was shot, my class was on a field trip. I don’t recall from where we were returning, or the name of the high school from which students poured onto our subway car, but word reached me that our teacher and Estela, a Puerto Rican girl whose skin was fairer than my own, had gotten off the train because they had been attacked by the high school students. Classmates surrounded me and swore they would protect me. A few accompanied me all the way home.
Riots were rumored that night. We waited. My father stood in front of his store with our two German shepherds; the patrons of the bar next door, all Black, gave my father their hearty support for protecting the block. Across the street a gang of youth hurled a garbage can through a storefront. Oh, those riots were so peaceful.
Later, in 1977, the riots were not so peaceful. There were major blackouts in NYC that summer, and when the lights went out, in many neighborhoods, including my now old one, there was looting and vandalism. A section of the elevated subway caught fire and had to be closed. In the aftermath, my old neighborhood was discovered by the media. Over 90 percent unemployment was found. Many of the old, wooden houses had burned, and residents were left homeless. Few stores were left standing in which to shop.
My father’s store was left standing. He almost regretted it. The neighborhood was so depressed, burning seemed the only way out—even though his fire insurance had long ago been cancelled because the area presented too great a risk. Why was his block left untouched? We joked that it was too poor to loot— most of the stores were empty. I also liked to think that perhaps his store was spared because people knew my father—knew that he raised his family there, that he provided merchandise and services that weren’t overprice and dispensed lots of free advice, that he was simply trying to make a living.
When I think of the riots at King’s death I understand them. I understand the absolute rage at having someone who offered hope and a path being taken away. I understand the rage at being denied a voice and a leader. And I can’t condone but can somewhat understand what happened in 1977. I understand the frustration of hopelessness, and although I am White and left the old neighborhood, I also learned there how it feels to be treated as if you’re not going to amount to anything.
What does this have to do with Woodstock? My parents lent our family’s tent to a group of Black and Puerto Rican guys from the neighborhood. Our tent went to Woodstock, but we did not.
I am on the tail end of the sixties generation. In my elementary school class we sang “The Ink is Black,” “The House I Live In,” and “No Man is an Island”; we read success stories about people of every ethnic background; and we learned about “freedom and justice for all.” I believed every word of it. I was always filled with great hope and expectation—for an integrated society, a just society, a caring society. I thought we all shared that hope.
We’ve heard that the ideals of the sixties were bankrupt, that the progressive generation quickly “matured” into the “me” generation of self-fulfillment to the exclusion of all else. Yes, many went from long-haired hippies to materialistic yuppies—for some perhaps the sixties was more style than conviction. But there was also a lot of conviction and hope and promise.
It took me weeks and dreams of urban streets to find my true reaction to the Los Angeles riots. I was overwhelmed with a profound sense of failure—a failure by all of us, as individuals and as a society, to make a just and right society. We have failed to build a world where one group doesn’t gain success and security by denying those things to others; we have failed to build a world where no one forgets nor denies the integrity of another living being.
We must try again, try harder. Lending the tent to those neighborhood guys was more important than being there ourselves.
[Taken from article originally published in The Montgomery Journal, July 9, 1992]