Earlier this week, the black and white signs in the adjoining barber shop windows on Crenshaw as it curved north to King Boulevard pricked me with a bit of déjà vu: "Black Owned." Translation: trouble is coming. Or it's already here.
In 1992, signs like these were the pleas from South Central merchants and business owners to rioters who had broken off from the main protest about the not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King trial and begun vandalizing stores and property. The spilling over of anger at the verdict fueled an almost physical need to strike out, to kick over some hypocritical representation of order and stability into the brokenness everybody was feeling.
A bit of the striking out happened in L.A. last weekend after the announcement of the not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, as protests unfolded, faced down police, and fanned out to different parts of the city (Beverly Hills, Hollywood). But the widespread fury that made '92 historically destructive has not followed, not yet anyway. The signs are up as a precautionary measure.
I wasn't sure that the mall at Crenshaw and King where I lead a discussion group of seniors on Wednesday mornings would be accessible yesterday -- recalling '92, I imagined barricades and police lines. Trouble for sure. But the corner was empty and quiet, almost too quiet. If I hadn't known that this had been a hotspot of public dissent just a few hours earlier, I wouldn't have assumed anything out of the ordinary had happened at all.
My class reminded me that something had indeed happened, and they were none too pleased. Not that the verdict surprised them -- they had watched the trial closely and had been predicting for weeks that George Zimmerman would be found not guilty -- but they were still disappointed and pained. They had still been hoping that for once, they would we wrong. Some of them had joined the protests in Leimert Park with their grandchildren.
One of the grandmothers, a retired LAUSD teacher, described how a former student of hers also went to the protests and had a kind of epiphany. The student was a young black man of 23 who had graduated from an Ivy League university and set his sights on being a doctor. During the post-trial protest earlier this week, he was roughed up by LAPD who claimed he had provoked them; after a somewhat harrowing experience he's changed career plans and now wants to spend the rest of his life addressing issues of social justice. I don't know if that qualifies as a silver lining in the whole Trayvon Martin tragedy, but I'll take it.
What struck me hardest about this largely black class, the next-to-last gathering of the summer, was how measured everybody was. Their lack of hardness. Of course they were indignant, even outraged, but that was but a single point along a continuum of coping with oppression that stretches back to their childhoods in Arkansas and Louisiana and Florida. My seniors have gotten very good at the coping, at maintaining personal equilibrium in the face of wild social and racial imbalance that sometimes becomes abundantly, uncomfortably clear.
I'm not nearly as good at coping as they are. I expect too much -- the legacy of my generation, Obama's generation, which was raised on the cautious hope represented by programs like affirmative action; we figured that things could only get more equal. On balance, that hasn't been the case. The case of Trayvon Martin brought that home, again. Crenshaw and King is quiet. It is coping. But it is still waiting.