Riots

ANDREI CODRESCU

May 11, 1992|By ANDREI CODRESCU

NEW ORLEANS. — New Orleans -- I was in Detroit in 1967. We were driving down John Dodge Expressway and listening to Jose Feliciano sing ''C'mon Baby, Light My Fire.'' At that moment, downtown Detroit went up in flames.

The first day was like a festival or a block party. Neighborhood people, black and white, old and young, walked out of stores with brand-new TV sets and stereos, and some of them met for the first time. When Army tanks from the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions started rumbling up Woodward Avenue, the mood changed. If anybody stuck their head out of the window after curfew the soldiers riddled the building with machine-gun fire.

I was new to this country, and the astonishing experience of finding myself in a war zone did not fit very well with the image of the America where the sidewalks are paved with gold, or as my grandmother used to say, ''dogs walk around with pretzels on their tails.''

I learned very quickly that some people's dogs were indeed covered with gold while other people's sidewalks were covered with dog pretzels, and not the edible kind. It's different now in 1992. The people with the gold have more of it, and the others are living more of a dog's life than ever. The riot in L.A. looked just like the riot in Detroit but the angry young blacks on the streets don't have anyone explaining the world to them. No Black Panthers, no SNCC, no radical left, not even liberal white agendas. Gangs have stepped into the vacuum left by the suppression of radical politics.

My son, who is 13, is playing Jem in ''To Kill a Mockingbird.'' The play opened on the night of the Los Angeles riot. Set in the 1930s, the play is about the unfair trial of a black man accused of rape in a small Southern town. Everyone in the audience was painfully aware that things hadn't changed that much. My son wasn't even born in 1967, but he already feels some of the energy and anger of that time. He wears tie-died shirts and listens to the protest music of the Sixties. Black kids his age also are looking back to that time: They are quoting Malcolm X and wearing big angry Xs on their shirts.

I'm not a new American any more. I know where both the gold and the pretzels are. Detroit has not yet recovered from the devastation of 1967. Los Angeles will take a long time to come back, if it ever does. But if somebody doesn't listen to our children, things will be a lot nastier ten years from now.

Andrei Codrescu is editor of Exquisite Corpse.

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