I spent the last bit of time directly participating in what has become the largest civil rights movement in the history of Earth- the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests related to the death of George Floyd. Some context – I live in Hollywood CA in a small section that is close to both Koreatown and Little Armenia. I have participated and chronicled protests before, notably spending time in Zuccotti Park in NYC during Occupy and marching through Washington DC during the march for sanity just to name a few. I consider protest to be an amazing tool to show the voice of the people and push issues directly into the public sphere.
Los Angeles has a long history of protest, riots, and mistreatment of POC on behalf of the LAPD. As a white man, the experience I have had with police, especially LAPD is completely different than the people of color, who represent the bulk of residents of this incredible city. The very few interactions I have had with LAPD have been pleasant and not once have I been stopped or searched. While aware of my privilege in this area, it is absolutely impossible for me to grasp what others experience when stopped, or when faced with interaction with law enforcement.
When George Floyd was murdered by the MN Police there was justifiably outrage, pain, and despair voiced. After all, Mr. Floyd was the latest in what has been years of publicized mistreatment of POC by police. I had no intention of watching his demise on video thinking that I understood what happened, telling myself that watching the video was akin to trauma porn and that reading the article was enough. It wasn’t. It should go without saying what we saw in that video was a horrible senseless act of cruelty, something so absolutely barbaric that it is difficult to grasp.
I sat at home Saturday (May 30th) only slightly aware of the start of the protests but consumed in work. At a point, (honestly, after the chaos of the last weeks I couldn’t tell you what did it) I turned on the news and saw just how serious the situation was. Protestors gathered not terribly far away down the street that I live off of. They were met with both LAPD and the LASD in full riot gear, armed with rubber bullets and tear gas. Bottles had already been thrown at the police and the crowd had an anger that was palpable through the television (and rightfully so).
At a point, I turned on a police scanner and started hearing LAPD frantically broadcasting requesting backup, munitions, etc. It became apparent they were outnumbered and struggling to hold the line. At this point, the protest became more of a riot and the police decided to push the line of protestors into the residential neighborhoods in an attempt to stop the damage and looting that had started. The residential neighborhood they were targeting was mine and I became immediately uneasy. I started hearing gunshots outside as the crowd moved closer and closer. The mayor called in the National Guard. The scene was absolutely unreal to me and so I made the decision to head downtown to Allen Henson’s apartment. He lives in a fortified building on the second story, a way better situation than my first-floor apartment in the heart of what had become a riot.
To avoid a potential stop I printed an UBER logo and stuck in Cameron’s car. I packed hurriedly, admittedly anxious at this point, trying to find what I could for survival. It was frantic and tense. As the protest and riot swelled I remembered our cities’ long history of incidents that smacked close of this (Rodney King, Watt’s Riots, Zoot Suit Riots). I became concerned the message of the protest would become lost in a struggle with LAPD and I feared for my personal safety (1992 saw such intense and unnecessary violence).
We arrived downtown in record time. As we pulled into the old Federal Reserve building I started to see the absolute pandemonium. As our car sat waiting for the gate to open, several cars pulled up quickly to the Verizon store across the street. A large grouping of people emerged and immediately began violently smashing the windows with baseball bats, crowbars, etc. It was absolute anarchy but my instincts kicked in and I immediately started taking photographs. After getting the car safely parked underground, I entered Allen’s second-floor apartment and began digesting what I had seen. The intensity didn’t stop there, however. Within hours I witnessed an apartment complex broken into, more stores vandalized, and a police response beyond anything I had ever seen. By early morning the National Guard had arrived as I lay in bed, mind racing.
The Next Few Days…
The next few days we were out on the street, camera in hand both participating and documenting. We roamed the streets past curfew (one night at three AM) and chatted with the national guard. Not once did we really get any issue beyond LAPD saying “It’s past curfew, go home.” Not once in these instances did I recognize this as a result of privilege.
Time marched forward and the destruction of downtown, National Guard presence and the massive amount of police seemed to become the norm – quickly – as did the daily marching. The looting and vandalism had dissipated quickly and the real message completely took over.
Now, I’ve always known I had privilege. I grew up with a literal white picket fence in front of my house with two parents that took me to the ballet, to Broadway, to Art Museums – but, through this time I started to really recognize just how far my privilege went. I started to really comprehend what was once statistics I could prattle off as the deeply seeded issue it is.
These events culminated in my arrest as part of a mass arrest on behalf of the LAPD. I was flex cuffed and placed on a bus with maybe 11 others immediately after giving an on-air interview on KTLA5 (I saw the police start moving in and lost my wording). They drove us to the metro detention center where they took information from me and released me with a large grouping of others. The entire process probably took 2 hours not including the epic walk back. After release, I was informed by an office to walk down Alameda home as curfew was still in effect and we didn’t want to get stopped again.
After a long walk home, Allen reached out to Colin Kaepernick’s pro bono legal defense team (I reached out shortly after). They were in contact within hours and Allen and I were invited to a press conference the following day.
At The Press Conference…
The next day came fast, and I immediately began to feel a large amount of anxiety. I felt completely and totally out of place being a white man and being given an opportunity to speak – I mean isn’t this part of the problem? I feared that I shouldn’t speak that literally anyone else would do a better job. Allen and I wrote out statements, afraid we would stumble all over our words. We walked to City Hall and met the team of attorneys representing us. The news cameras were on and we were told not to read our prepared statement but to speak from the heart. I couldn’t have been more anxious. When the cameras were finally on me I did my absolute best to speak sincerely and eloquently. To date, I haven’t seen the clip – but to surmise, my main point was that I don’t want to live in a world where “I Can’t Breathe” is a headline. It is absolutely time for systemic change and it starts now.
After the press conference ended we marched to DA Jackie Laci’s office with the legal team. In front of the barricaded steps leading to the DA’s building were flowers galore – a tribute to those that had lost their lives to police brutality. So many names on the signs that hung mournfully on the steel barricade. Our lawyers spoke letting the crowd know they were offering free legal help. The scene was intense but in stark contrast to the days and nights that had preceded this. This was an earnest and somber happening.
In the time that has followed these events my life has returned closer to normal – or at least the “new normal”. I’ve struggled to find the right words to adequately express my feelings on this experience – but more importantly on the Black Lives Matter movement, the systemic racism that exists inside of our country, and on the rampant police brutality POC are disproportionately affected by.
George Floyd was just out getting a pack of smokes when his life was taken from him in a brutal and completely senseless act of violence. He is one of many persons of color that have had their life cut short by a police officer in America – a country founded on slavery that worked hard to deny so many equal rights, and still to this day does. There is anger on the streets, but more importantly, there are calls to change. No one should ever have to fear that the police will take their life because they have the wrong skin color. No one should be treated as subhuman, or less than because of prejudice.
We started 2020 with so much enthusiasm. People were saying things like “2020’s the year! “New decade! Let’s bring back the roaring twenties!”. Then COVID19 became the topic of conversation – our nation all but forgetting the recent botched impeachment of our President. Stores closed, masks were required – the economy went into a tailspin and people were justifiably scared. Then protests started all over the country (the whole world actually) and along with it (albeit briefly) riots and looting. Fear, again, swept the nation and many didn’t know how to react. I can personally say I was scared – I have never seen the National Guard called into action in my life.
It’s easy to let the fear overtake you and to think that 2020 has been an awful year. Letting this happen however completely undermines the real truth of our current situation. Change is scary. Admitting you have privilege seems like you’re taking responsibility for atrocities that you don’t feel responsible for. But to effect change, we each have to look within and understand the complexities of a situation that inherently we can’t understand. 2020 is an amazing year of growth for our nation, and just like your teenage years’ growth is painful, slow, and difficult.
I stand as a person of privilege knowing that my skin color has given me such a large advantage in America. I’ve seen racism first hand – but the way I was raised I didn’t understand how absolutely pervasive it is. Racism seeps through the cracks and presents itself in so many ways that a lot of us don’t recognize. This is the time to make a change. This is the time to stand as human beings and change our system for the better. Stand with what is the most important civil rights movement of our time and let your voice be heard.