The Fire Next Time (June 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

Reflections on the L.A. Riots

by Billie Silvey
June, 1992

The mountain of tinder was there. Letting off the Los Angeles policemen who beat the black man was just the match that set it off. Just like letting off the Korean grocer who shot a black teenager in the back could have ignited a few weeks earlier. Or it could have been as simple as the police pulling over a black motorist. It was in 1965.

Our cities are primed and waiting to explode. Tensions are high. Decades of neglect, injustice, racism, poor education, bad roads and too-many-people-and-not-enough-pie have formed the tinderheap.

Education budgets are being cut and teachers laid off just as the number of languages spoken in our schools tops 80. Classes of 45 students with many not speaking English are common. Bored, frustrated students pick fights. And teachers are supposed to educate students about values, sex, and cultural diversity as well as teach reading and writing?

Our freeways are clogged. A thirty-minute drive easily stretches to an hour and a half as traffic stops, then creeps forward, then stops again. Tempers flare, and people shout, flash obscene gestures and occasionally fire guns.

I’ve watched at our local post office as a Vietnamese and a black mail clerk struggle to decipher the needs of Hispanics and Koreans and people from India. And the rest of us stand in line, checking our watches, and complaining about how slow services.

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” James Baldwin wrote three decades ago. We didn’t listen. How much burning will it take before we wake up to the decay of our cities?

I’ve just spent a week watching my city go up in flames. “I Love LA” is more than a slogan to me. I came as a student in 1965 and have never thought of leaving. I spent 12 years in South-Central Los Angeles and worship with a church there to this day.

Currently, we live in a racially-diverse area where 85% of the students in our high school district are so-called “minorities.” Both my kids graduated here, and my daughter teaches in the district.

I watched the same television coverage everybody else did. But I recognized many of the stores I saw burning. I’d shopped there.

“Why were the looters attacking their own neighborhoods?” many aked. One reason was that holy American icon, Greed. There was more truth than we might like to admit in the political cartoon that showed one looter saying to another, “Just like Wall Street in the ’80s!”

Another was poverty and need. I saw people carrying rolls of toilet paper and boxes of Pampers – hardly big-ticket items on the black market.

Janet Clayton, an editor for the Los Angeles Times, quotes a friend who explains it this way: “Haven’t you ever been so mad you hit your own hand and hurt it? Why is that so hard for people to understand? It’s like a man who is belittled and put down by his boss constantly, and then comes home and takes it out on his wife and family. It’s not right, but there’s a lot of self-hate involved.”

Wednesday I sat in stunned silence, thankful that my husband warned me about the trouble before I drove in to teach my Bible class just blocks from the intersection where the trucker was beaten. Where were the police? They’re usually thick in the area.

Thursday I struggled to get calls through to see if our church building was still standing and to check on a friend.

Then I had to pick up groceries for the week. We waited in lines that stretched to the back of the building, then bagged our own groceries. We talked and joked with strangers. People have never been so courteous – “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” “Could I, please?”

The tensions was so thick you could see it in the air. We were afraid of each other. We were afraid of ourselves if things got out of hand.

Saturday we drove down riot-torn streets that could have been Beirut, or Mexico City after the earthquake – any place but home. We were searching for a place to unload our shovels and brooms and get to work.

Three Unitarian friends from a mostly white suburb went with us. We pulled up beside a van with the words “Normandie Church of Christ” printed on the side.

“Do you know where we can help?” we yelled.

“Just follow us,” they called back.

We all worked together to put things back together. Before we finished, there must have been 50 people in our group alone.

I was especially impressed with the Hispanic workers in their green T-shirts with a company logo. When I asked them what it meant, they explained that they worked for a maintenance service. They cleaned all week and were donating their time to do the same on the weekend!

We worked together – as one friend put it, “showing each other that we trust each other” – a diverse group of races and ages.

Still I was struck by the futility of it all. We were cleaning the sidewalks so people could shop in a neighborhood where most of the stores had been gutted. Next would come the heavy equipment to level the charred walls that were still standing. Then, hopefully, eventually, someone would build or rebuild. But what would touch real problems?

The next Sunday, John Jefferson preached to s on “Wouldn’t It Be Wonderful …?” He didn’t say anything new. He just talked about Jesus, about treating each other right, about forgiving. But sitting in that building, hearing the sirens and the helicopters overhead, feeling the devastation around us, his words took on a new and vital meaning.

When he slapped the pulpit to make a point, I must have jumped a foot. Nobody slept through that sermon. We talk about revitalizing worship, but maybe a healthy dose of reality is all it takes.

Now the rioting is over, the curfew’s been lifted, the National Guard has been pulled back, and most of us are back at work and school. But that pile of tinder still smolders. Our cities are just waiting to explode into flames.

What can we do about it? What can we do about Christian people who fear other Christian people because of the color of their skin? How can we reassure people of “liberty and justice for all” when they can’t walk down certain streets without being stopped and frisked by the police? How can we cut through the red tape of loan forms and building permits for people who are only marginally literate? With budget cuts everywhere, how can we promise their children a better chance?

I don’t know the answers. I only know that if we don’t start figuring them out, the whole horror will be repeated with the next match. And this time it might be struck in our neighborhood.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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