Sunday, May 3, 1992
Yesterday, half a dozen people called to say they would not be coming to our Day of Mindfulness. They were going down to south-central Los Angeles to help with the cleanup. The rest of us practice meditation for one period and then pass around the talking stone. Each one of us speaks in turn. Each person speaks for all. There is so much hurt and anger, confusion and sadness. No single person can express it all. After everyone has spoken we agree that the only possible continuation for our Day of Mindfulness is to go out towards the center of the city until we find a way to help, to engage.
It is the first time I had been east from Venice since Wednesday—the day that the Rodney King verdict was announced. We drive south on Vermont Avenue. The charred remains are still smoking. Stores are boarded up. Sometimes you can't tell if they were boarded for their protection or if they have already been looted and burned. There are burned buildings on almost every block, but since all this volunteer support arrived the streets are cleaner than they've ever been. A sign is painted across one of the boarded windows "Human Owned Por Favor." We continue south. The streets are choked with cars. People who never visit this part of the city have come to gape, others are looking for some way to lend a hand. Armed Marines have replaced the National Guard. Three of four stand at a Pioneer Chicken fast food outlet. It is the last intact building on the block. Around it stand the stark twisted remains of a mini-mall. In front, the forty-foot Pioneer Chicken covered wagon symbol still stands. I catch sight of another Marine watching from the roof. The image is unnerving, eerie, comical. A year ago these Marines were still in the Gulf. Symbolic figures of power continue to protect a symbolic way of life. Five fire-trucks go by, also manned by Marines. Sirens blaring and lights flashing. One of the drivers waves at the Marines on the street.
An African-American slowly and deliberately takes photographs. He has two cameras slung around his neck, and two expensive telephoto lenses. I make some ironic remark to the others in our van about how new his gear looks and where he might have acquired it. We mock the stereotyping we have been coaxed into by four days of television. But part of me believes that his cameras are the prize of a recent looting spree. With them he deliberately and methodically photographs the burned out mall, the marines, the fire-trucks. Another part of me considers that perhaps, after all, he's a journalist for the New York Times.
There's a long line of people outside the African American Unity Community Center, a converted church at the comer of 53rd Street. It turns out that the center needs people to sort huge piles of donated clothes and to bag the food that's coming in by the truck load. I spend the afternoon trying to fit clothes to people and people to clothes as they are filtered through a large room at the back of the center. Suddenly I feel lighter, joking with people who come through; Hispanics, Blacks, Whites, Asians. A truck pulls up and half a dozen Koreans from Orange County unload box after box of brand new designer clothes. I open the boxes and find a pair of pants large enough to fit the enormous man who has been hunting through piles of clothes trying to find something he can use. Then I find a sweater fancy enough to satisfy my new friend, seven years old and very fastidious. She has already acquired her first pair of high heel shoes. The sweater makes a perfect match. Others who come through are silent and sullen, shamed and confused by what is referred to already as "the war." Others are happy, playful. Many are delighted to see white faces and tell us so.
I realize that although countless lives have been shattered by the events of the last few days, for many people things have not changed much. When there is no hope to begin with how can things become worse? Burning your own neighborhood is a kind of collective suicide, burning the future because it promises nothing.
Is this "war" about race or is it about economics? Clearly it is about both. The two things are inseparable. The burning and looting has been an expression of a collective sorrow. People of all ethnic and economic backgrounds participated. It is a sorrow that cannot be expunged by access to the proverbial American dream, even if that delusion were possible. I fear for the children. I fear for what is to come. The issues of race and economics are so pressing that the more ominous issues of longer term population increase, environmental degradation, the gradual breakdown of infrastructures, are unseen or ignored. Economists on television, black and white, discuss the problems of inner-city America as though these other issues had no bearing on the situation.
Tuesday, May 5
At our center we have often discussed ways we might help, ways we might engage with the heartbeat of the city. There are half a dozen mainly Anglo-oriented Buddhist centers slightly west of downtown in what is referred to as Koreatown. For the most part the simple fact of their presence there is their main engagement with the local community. So how can we, over in Venice, a tiny multi-racial community in the middle of the white west-side middle-class enclave, expect to engage in any meaningful way?
My wife, Michele, and I are delivering food packages. We travel allover south-central L.A. I am happy to see parts of the city I have never even visited before. We are treated with indifference at some of our destinations, welcomed at others. There seems something vaguely awkward and incongruous about our participation in this massive attempt to give help to the victims. How many outsiders will still be in these areas in a month, in a year? How much can charity actually help?
I remember a man I met a few months ago who offered to clean the windows of my car in the parking lot of our local store. He was African-American, living on the streets. I told him that I had no cash. He asked me how I was going to pay in the store.
I said, "With a check."
"Then buy me a pack of cigarettes."
When I came out he was still cleaning the windows. I told him to take his time, that I was in no hurry.
He was surprised. "Well you must be the only one; you and me. Everyone's rushing around as though they meant to get some place."
He explained how he had once owned several houses. Things had been fine. But somehow the economy had taken its toll and now he had nothing. He seemed perfectly happy as he described his former troubles.
"You know," he said, "if people just paid attention to the sun. If people just remembered where they came from. Without the sun there'd be no life, but the sun just gives it all away for free."
He laughed. I gave him his pack of cigarettes.
A day or so ago in Santa Monica someone was overheard commenting on the way they felt about having to stay at home through the curfew, ''I'm so bored, I hate not being able to go out at night"
We drive through a predominantly middle class black neighborhood. I notice a large billboard showing a picture of Martin Luther King gazing skyward. In the sky floats the caption, "The fulfillment of the dream is in financial security."
In the evening, driving home on the Santa Monica freeway, I notice that the brush which grows under the freeway overpasses is being bulldozed clear. This is a place where many homeless people find shelter. Does someone actually imagine that the problems of the homeless can be addressed in this way? Does someone think that homeless people will magically disappear?
On Friday, all over the west side, shops were crowded. Is this our response? Riots and burning throughout the city while on the west side people go shopping? Baskets filled with crab meat and artichokes, fine wine, corn chips for a long night in front of the TV?
I realize that perhaps our center in Venice is not so far away from those parts of the city that are deep in crisis after all.