The problem of white supremacy is not rocket science

A LAPD car is overturn and set ablaze near the LAPD headquarters, in downtown Los Angeles. Los Angeles has undergone several days of rioting due to the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. Hundreds of businesses were burned to the ground and over 55 people have been killed. (Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images)

I was losing my temper.

I was sitting in the cinema in central London watching LA 92. The spark, I’m sure, was the soundtrack. As if the beating of Rodney King’s bones, the breaking of his skin and flesh, required this exaggeration of music. As if the Los Angeles riots – the looting, the shooting, the deplorable attacks on drivers – required this orchestral melodrama. As if, I was thinking while squirming in the second row from the back, we could be weaned off white supremacy with violins.

Afterwards, a friendly stranger holding a beer and a rollie said it reminded him of Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake. He was referring to the use of archive footage spliced together with newsreels, and the absence of a narrator. But I don’t think this comparison is helpful. Bitter Lake is a sophisticated attempt to expose simplistic Western narratives of good and evil, focusing specifically on Western politicians’ hypocritical approach to militant Islam and Saudi Arabia and their disregard for Afghanistan. LA 92 is a choreographed reproduction of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that reinforces lazy narratives on racism and violence.

We see the astonishing police attack on Rodney King on 3 March 1991 and, thirteen days later, the shooting of another African-American, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, by a female Korean shopkeeper. We see a lot of media footage of the trials that followed both events, leading to the acquittal of the four white police officers, who pounded King so relentlessly with their batons, and a $500 fine to the woman who was found guilty of the involuntary manslaughter of Harlins. We watch the riots unfold and escalate. We see the assaults on drivers by several African-American men, who manage to stop moving cars and trucks on the road. The attacks on two truck drivers – Reginald Denny, a white man, and Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant – are horrendous. Both men were dragged from their vehicles, their bodies smashed and kicked repeatedly. We see Lopez lying on the road being spray-painted black as he goes in and out of consciousness. We see Korean shopkeepers in a shoot-out in front of their stores. We see an elderly woman weeping. We see much to make us gasp, to make us want to shield our eyes from the screen.

It is challenging viewing, particularly near the end when we are shown the mesmerizing footage of King, stuttering and blinking and appealing for calm: “Can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?” Watching this made me feel even more agitated. It looked like King was being used by the authorities. His call for calm seemed to be a call to the black community, as if the black community was the problem. Sitting in the cinema in central London, surrounded mainly by other white audience members, it felt like we were all being let off the hook. Here was the bashful, broken African-American man, beaten up and beaten down by racist white cops, now close to tears, begging everyone to just get along. And here he was doing what the cops and the army could not do – ending the riots.

LA 92 is topped and tailed with a slice of black and white footage from a 1965 television report, Watts – Riot or Revolt? The white American journalist, Bill Stout, looks into the camera and asks: “What shall it avail our nation if we can place a man on the moon but cannot cure the sickness in our cities?” This question was posed by the McCone Commission, which investigated the causes of the 1965 Los Angeles riots as well as proposing what might be done to avoid a repeat. By book-ending LA 92 with this particular clip, the film’s makers seem to be posing the same question in 2017 for the 1992 riots. Well, it may have seemed pertinent in 1965, four years before Neil Armstrong took man’s first steps on the moon, but it is limp in 2017. The problem of white supremacy is not rocket science.

Six days before I sat down to watch LA 92, I went to another London cinema to see I Am Not Your Negro. Both films are documentaries made of archival footage. Both films attend to racism in the United States. Both films look back. And so the similarities end. Whereas LA 92 runs without narration, I Am Not Your Negro threads James Baldwin’s words over the images, read (perhaps a little too) slow and deep by Samuel L Jackson. Whereas LA 92 shows beating and kicking and stealing and lying and crying, I Am Not Your Negro gives us shopping, TV shows, consumers, demonstrators, democracy and Doris Day singing and dancing. Whereas LA 92 reproduces the idea that there is “a Negro problem” and reduces responsibility for racism to the far away far right, a few bad apples in the police force and a couple of deluded right-wing judges, I Am Not Your Negro insists that there is not and never was “a Negro problem” because the problem is white people’s refusal to see ourselves and to take responsibility for our history. I Am Not Your Negro questions the true value of consumption and capital. It urges us – even nice white, left-leaning people who go to the cinema to watch critical films about race in the States – to consider who we are, what our ancestors have done, what we are still doing and how we are benefitting from the white supremacist system in which we live.

After the screening of LA 92, there was a Q&A. Chairing the discussion was Bonnie Greer OBE, the novelist, playwright, broadcaster and critic. Also on stage were LA 92 producer, Simon Chinn, and David Lammy, Labour’s candidate for MP for Tottenham, and author of Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots. Greer began by praising Chinn emphatically for what she described as a work of art. At some point, someone in the audience asked about the decision not to have a narrator. Responding, Chinn said that the riots and King’s beating had been so heavily mediated already – on private cameras as well as by professional news crews – that he and the LA 92 team had not wanted to mediate the story any further. In so many words, he said that they had wanted to avoid injecting their own opinions onto the film – as if choosing footage, editing it and splicing it together is not a deeply subjective act of mediation.

I wanted to say so many things, I ought to have walked out. But my temper got the better of me and my hand shot up and before I knew it, I was holding a mic, telling the audience how angry I was. My frustration was such that I became quite inarticulate. Failing to string a decent sentence together, a string of questions fell from my lips. Noting that the audience was almost entirely white, I asked why the panel thought minority communities needed to do more work to fix divisions and reduce anger and violence, when most white people haven’t even begun to consider their whiteness, let alone the system of white supremacy. I complained that documentary films are not being made about the Bullingdon Club, whose members can smash up restaurants without facing charges or losing their place at Oxford University or their chance to govern the country. I said something positive about two other films Chinn had produced – Man on Wire (2008) and Searching for Sugarman (2012) – before stating frankly that I hadn’t liked this one at all. At some point, Greer interrupted me. Not unfairly, she asked me to make my point. Defeated, I remember saying: “I’m angry, I’m angry, I’m just so angry and I want you to know that.” A woman a few seats away clapped very quietly and leaned over to whisper that she agreed with me, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d actually said. I thought about Baldwin. Every time he’s seen speaking publicly in I Am Not Your Negro, he looks close to tears, he chain smokes, and rage and hurt are oozing from his pores. Yet Baldwin is always articulate, considered, brave and candid. What a fool I had just made of myself. What a missed opportunity.

As the Q&A continued, so I continued bubbling over with anger. I was thinking that the documentary we had just watched seemed to suggest that the police beating of Rodney King was somehow equal to the protesters’ attacks on the two truck drivers. Of course, they are all horrific acts of violence – but they are not the same and they are not equal. They have different meanings that need to be unpacked. If the film didn’t do that for us, then we, the audience, should do it for ourselves. And we should have that conversation publicly. I was thinking about the man who captured King being beaten on his personal camera. I think it was Greer who commented that this act of filming meant, finally, everyone could see how police regularly treated African-American men. This may be true, but 25 years on and it doesn’t seem to have stopped the shootings and the beatings. Surely we, the white-skinned public, need to put our own bodies on the line. We need to take risks with our own bones and flesh. We need to physically intervene when we witness racist violence taking place. Filming is too easy.

I was also thinking about the context in which we had been watching this film. In London, many of us take it for granted that white Americans are more racist than we are, that we can look down on their crude and cruel ways because we are better and kinder. I was wishing that we were discussing white supremacy, acknowledging that this is the system in which we are living – in the States, in the UK and throughout Europe. I was thinking about all the London dinner tables I’ve sat at, listening to highly educated white people insist they would never vote Conservative but are quite happy, over lemon meringue pie, to make ignorant comments about “Africa”, choosing words like “primitive” and “under-developed” to emphasize their point of view.

If you are still wondering what my point is, let me try to be more clear. Racism is not confined to the KKK and the neo-Nazis, or even the Republican Party and Britain’s Conservatives. There are many white people who feel afraid when they see a black man on their street, who imagine that this black male body will do them harm. There are many white people who don’t want a black family moving in next door. There are many white parents who do not trust a black teacher to educate their child as well as a white teacher. There are many white people who understand themselves to be superior because that is how they have been encouraged to think. These white people may read the Guardian. These white people may enjoy dancing to Bob Marley. These white people may enjoy going on safari. These white people may appreciate Lenny Henry. These white people may live in Brixton. These white people may send money to Comic Relief. These white people may boast about their multicultural community. These white people may love Doris Day. They may not think about John Wayne. These white people may admire Barack Obama. These white people may love Nelson Mandela. These white people take their whiteness for granted. They know white supremacy has nothing to do with them, these white people.

Further Reading

Mobilizing in Disorder

Post the looting and failed insurrection, what would it mean for the South African left to undertake a populist political strategy? And should it look to South America for inspiration? A long read.

Rage as love under duress

To riff off James Baldwin, there will be a fire next time in South Africa. The embers and kindling are in place. What matters is what South Africans do between this fire and the next.

Makeshift modernity

The rise of African Speculative Fiction and other exciting cultural production indicates that modernity is not an exercise in “catching up” with Europe, but an entirely new condition.

Breaking the shackles

Ghana is slowly developing its mental health care to protect human rights. Yet sensationalist journalism, including in the progressive media, continues to portray the treatment of mental health in the country as backward and abusive.