III. An Aerial Perspective
When I was growing up, there was a poster of a 1986 color-etching by Richard Diebenkorn called “Green”hanging in the kitchen. It is from his Ocean Park series, which comprises over 100 prints made while he worked in a studio in the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice Beach. The images are abstract, with blue, green, white, red, and yellow shapes intersecting or overlapping, and lightly sketched lines visible underneath. They are not unlike blueprints, a kind of cartography, the aerial view of a landscape that has been divided into sections. In an interview for the Smithsonian, Diebenkorn laments, “It’s one thing that’s always missing for me in abstract painting, that I don’t have this kind of dialogue between something that can be, elements that can be wildly different and can be at war… or in extreme conflict.” Though the Ocean Park series immediately resonates as a depiction of the city, the lines that seem to delineate sectors, districts, communities, and neighborhoods from each other are drained of sociopolitical significance: a civic vision with the serene soundtrack of ocean surf and sea gulls. The city becomes a series of benign shapes pretty enough to hang on a gallery wall.
In a mid-1990s article on the Los Angeles Police Department, Steve Herbert notes, “While discussing the possibility of hostile action, the sergeant repeatedly mentions the ‘vermin’ that plague Los Angeles, the various people who ‘don’t have a life.’” The article goes on to say that, “immoral areas are referred to as ‘dirty’ and in need of police territorial action. In these areas, which are likely to be heavily populated by minorities, officers believe that violence is an inherent part of life and thus that it must be met with violence. Space is thereby purified of its moral pollution and a sense of order is restored.”
The writer Mike Davis published the seminal book City of Quartz just two years before the Rodney King Riots of 1992. In it, he points out that police in Los Angeles had been encouraged to run rampant in poor minority areas, committing acts of violence in the name of the law. Black men in police custody were in danger of dying from “accidental” choke-hold killings, which were at one point blamed on the anatomy of the victim. In 1988, 88 police officers raided the 3900 block near Exposition Park, in search of gangs and weapons. Before taking 32 people into captivity, the officers “spray painted walls with slogans, such as ‘LAPD rules,’” and “punched and kicked” at residents. They were seen throwing “washing machines into bathtubs, pouring bleach over clothes, smashing walls and furniture with sledge hammers and axes, and ripping an outside stairwell away from one building.” Most bizarrely, the residents held in captivity were forced to whistle the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show while being beaten with fists and flashlights. While a small quantity of drugs was recovered, no gangs or weapons were found.
Davis notes that green spaces like Elysian Park were not just patrolled, but “occupied” by police. In a number of incidents, black and Latino children and young men attempting to enjoy open spaces, entertainment centers, and ballparks were frisked, “forced to kiss concrete,” arrested, and taunted with statements about how the area they’d trespassed upon was only “for rich white people.”
These incidents were a response to a shocking increase in gang activity that was beginning to spread through the city. But they may also be an explanation as to why, to the horror of Charlton Heston, the rapper Ice T wrote the following lines:
I got my black shirt on
I got my black gloves on
I got my ski mask on
This shit’s been too long
I got my twelve gauge sawed off
I got my headlights turned off
I’m bout to bust some shots off
I’m bout to dust some cops off.
This song, “Cop Killa,” became an anthem for some blacks, who clearly felt that they were under siege, whether they were in their own homes or dared venture beyond them.