In the aftermath of the Los Angels riots Americans are looking for answers to the problems that plague our urban neighborhoods. Democratic liberals are using this as an excuse to revive their nearly moribund agenda of government-dominated approaches to social change. Republican conservatives, on the other hand, see an opportunity to nail shut the coffin of New Deal/Great Society welfare socialism. Despite this apparent antagonism, both parties believe that the key to solving the urban crisis is economic development. They both focus on providing more jobs, better incomes, and property ownership to individuals in the urban neighborhoods. Jack Kemp and Ben Hooks may disagree about the means, but they agree about the goals.
Yet this understanding of the urban crisis fails to address the main issue raised by the L.A. riots and the verdict that set them off. That issue is fear. Fear turned the accused policemen from professionals into thugs. It prejudiced the judgment of the jurors. It brought L.A.'s neighborhoods to the brink of open war. For wherever human beings lack the ability to live without fear, there is war.
The L.A. riots themselves illustrate this point. For several days citizens in the afflicted neighborhoods looted, trashed and burned the businesses that provide jobs for their community. It's too easy to assume that the rioters acted irrationally, destroying the businesses that symbolized what they wanted most. It makes more sense to assume that what the rioters de- stroyed, and what they rioted about, symbolized what they hated most -- outside influences, outside powers, and the fact that outsiders dominate every aspect of their lives.
Because they have power over nothing, nothing in their environment reflects their own image. Because they see themselves in nothing, it is not long before they see nothing in themselves. And it is not long again until this emptiness itself becomes their identity. The self becomes an anti-self, a moral vacuum that sucks all meaning from the things and people around it.
The Fact that many urban neighborhoods have fallen under the sway of the anti-self does not mean that all the people who live in them have given up the struggle. On the contrary, many have not. They work, they have families, they try to raise children. But they are the unarmed inhabitants of a war zone, caught in the crossfire between the criminal forces of the anti-self and the outside forces represented by the police. Individually these people are still strongly motivated to take responsibility for themselves. But almost nothing in their environment permits them to extend this sense of responsibility to the community in which they live. As individuals they resist the anti-self. As a community they do not exist.
This fact has a decisive effect on the attitudes of the police. Since the decent people in the neighborhood do not function as a community, the police cannot clearly see themselves as acting on their behalf. Their real allegiance belongs to the outside world, represented by the bureaucracy that structures their work and has the power to punish or reward them for it.
For the police, the neighborhood is chiefly defined by the forces of the anti-self. These forces also have the power to punish and reward. The policy must be on guard against the danger they represent in either case -- the threat of physical harm as well as the temptations of corruption. Within the neighborhood, therefore, the policemen's role is defined by the evil they fight against, not the good they defend.
The situation of the police illustrates the position of all the outside agencies operating within the neighborhood, from the welfare office to the hospital emergency room, from the unemployment line to the business enterprise. Each has reason to respect the negative elements that define or threaten their function more than they respect the neighborhood's decent inhabitants.
The fundamental issue posed by the L.A. riots, therefore, is how to restore to decent people in our urban neighborhoods the power to establish and maintain their community's moral identity. Neither the Democrats' warmed-over socialism nor the Republicans' ideas of economic empowerment address this issue. The Democrats see the need for community action, but their obsession with national solutions keeps them from promoting the development of power at the appropriate, grassroots level. The Republicans see the need for empowerment, but their preoccupation with individual economic solutions keeps them from promoting the development of community-based institutions.
Neither has rediscovered the concept that alone provides for an effective combination of individual private enterprise and public action -- the concept of grassroots commu- nity self-government.