The following is an excerpt of an introductory essay to Joseph Rodriguez’s “LAPD 1994.”
I’m writing this in the dead of Pandemic Summer 2020, also the Summer of Black Lives Matter, to give some context for my dear friend Joseph Rodriguez’s photographs from another moment that tore open the soul of America.
Joseph’s decision to collect his New York Times Magazine ride-along shots and produce this book is a deeply personal, political act. The photos display his subjectivity — sketched out by Lauren Lee White in her foreword — as much as that of the cops and the civilians. Those civilians, victims and sometimes perpetrators of violence, often are the target of the cops’ casual inhumanity — or worse. It is a portrait of a city in pain.
“LAPD 1994” joins a body of work representing the city of Los Angeles to itself, its images part of a movement of creative self-expression among working class communities of color that had many precursors but crystallized in the 1990s — the moment in which South Central and East L.A., queer L.A., even homeless L.A. started telling their own stories.
Immersing you in the 1990s is essential because photography, after all, is about time — the moment the frame captures and the past and future it alludes to. It also is about place. Joseph’s images produce an overwhelming sense-memory for me: I survived and, honestly, thrived in that time and in that place, Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula.
The ’90s prologue has its own prologues. You can keep going back in time, 2011, 1992, 1965-68, 1943, all years of major uprisings in America. For the deepest antecedents, you can go all the way to independence and the contradicted pronouncements of the Founding Fathers. “Uprising” might not be the perfect descriptor, but unlike the reactionary “race riot,” at least it affords a clear agency to the subjected bodies that collectively say “basta” and rise up with what Malcolm X called “intelligence” to defend their lives and dignity.
The old L.A. WASP power structure began crumbling with the decadent mayoralty of Sam Yorty (1961-1973), an overtly racist buffoon. Then a Black-Jewish alliance ushered in an era of mild reformism with the 1973 election of Tom Bradley, the city’s first African American mayor, whose two decades in power were shrouded by the 1992 uprising. Latinos in Los Angeles began emerging in the power structure on the heels of African Americans. Among other breakthroughs, the Eastside in 1991 elected a Chicana, Gloria Molina, to the tremendously powerful County Board of Supervisors.
Policing has long been at the center of American urban political struggle — law and order for conservatives, reigning in excessive force for liberals, a binary blown open recently with the new movement to abolish/defund the police.
Click right and left to see a few of Rodriguez's powerful photographs:
But change at the LAPD over time was more symbolic than substantive. Mayor Bradley, himself an LAPD veteran, seemed well-positioned to transform the department. Instead, it became the last bulwark of the old order, anchored by the downtown business and media elites, impervious to demographic change and labor and civil rights.
Starting in the mid-1980s, L.A. added multiculturalism and its location on the Pacific Rim to its longstanding “city of the future” motif in a bid for global status. City Hall’s timid centrism and the Reagan-Bush era of tightened budgets, however, darkened prospects citywide, but especially in Black and Brown L.A. All the while, frustration was building in East L.A. and South Central’s housing projects, where branding as gangsta territory served both the LAPD’s paramilitary containment designs and the claim to authenticity of o.g. rappers like N.W.A. The frustration percolated in the immigrant tenements of Pico-Union, in the rust belt shadow of stilled factories, among the ever-growing homeless population downtown.