Dear readers of Area/Chicago
I am drinking a cup of coffee with a half tea spoon of sugar and one piece of banana in my apartment in East Village, NYC. I am writing to you about my trip to Los Angeles in last December and what I was looking for, but did not find and what I discovered, that may be more relevant to our concern at Area/Chicago’s next issue on Im/migration.
“Specters of the riot”
As part of a new media – performance art project, I have been researching about the relationship between public spaces of major American cities and popular events of revolt; riot, protest and blueprint for revolution, focused on the period between 1965 to 1992. I learned that there are common patterns in the events and certain conditions that can be met to prevent or incite it. I had a opportunity to visit Los Angeles, I gave a presentation about my research and thoughts at the Public School in Telic Arts Exchange, which lead to an insightful discussion. Next day, I asked a friend to drive me to the sites of Watts riot and Rodney King riot. We drove to see the Watts tower and what remains of the Charcoal Alley. Since I am the prototypical tourist, I was videotaping the journey, hoping to find the ‘Specters of the riot’ a term originally invented by the friends from the Public School, which I borrowed to mean specters as an immaterial remains of the event, memory shared by the community and contemporary issue related to the historic event. The Watts neighborhood was similar to what I read about, endless grid of run down single family homes and a mixture of low income Latino and African American community. I turned off my video camera because I realized the specters that I was looking for could not be documented with it. Los Angeles has a tendency to erase it’s history and locality, and one place can easily substitute for another. I learned that finding the exact sites of old newspaper photographs is more challenging than I anticipated because any part of the town can easily replace another. My idea of working community in this project was not through direct interaction and I did not reach out to a stranger with questions like “Do you remember anything from 1965 riot in this street?” I wanted to at least walk around the streets to experience the space, smell and sound of a place that I have been reading about intensely. However before I had a chance to get out of the car, we were pulled over by the police who suspected us of trying to get drugs from the neighborhood. The police let go of us but my friends wanted to get out of the town before we get into more trouble, and I couldn’t insist to stay because it was their car. We were back on the highway.
May be highways are the largest public space in American cities and yet it feels like we have nothing in common with someone few feets away from us. We are moving in a same direction for a short period of time, but we don’t know who they are and will not find out until a point of contact. My friend wanted to get help to put up a coat of paint in his art studio in East LA and we went to a Home Depot to get supply. While driving out of the parking lot, I saw a group of day laborers under the shade of an elevated highway. A man waved his hand at me because he saw my camera pointing out to the window. My friend freaked out when the man started walking toward us. Before I had a chance to talk to the smiling man, our car was speeding back into the highway.
Later that night we were driving by the MacArthur Park, the city of Los Angeles looked like Fritz Lang’s movie ‘Metropolis’ with brightly lit sky scrapers high up in to the air and congested lines of people waiting in bus stops. We passed by another Home Depot, this time there were no day laborers in sight. I was thinking about the discussion from last night after my talk at the Telic Arts Exchange and thought of Manuel Jamines, an undocumented person from Guatemala who was killed by a police officer in September of 2010. He was often seen waiting for construction work around the Home Depot that I just passed by. According to the police, he was drunk and threatened the public with a knife and was shot to death in MacArthur Park. Manuel Jamines only spoke Mayan, LAPD’s order to drop the knife in English and Spanish must have been hard to understand for the drunk man. There were some protest from the community against police brutality but the case was closed as a rightful use of force under the law. One week after, MacArthur Park was once again festive for the Mexico Independence Day. It is interesting to lay down three events that happened in the MacArthur park, 2007 May Day Melee, a peaceful gathering to advocate immigrant’s rights which turned out to be one of the most brutal police aggression against civilian in recent years, shooting of Jamines and the Mexican parade a week after. After Jamines’ death, there were active protests and events that were described as a riot, but unlike the arrest of Marcus Frey that incited the Watts Riot in 1965 and beating of Rodney King and acquittal of the police officers that triggered a riot in 1992, Jamines death did not lead into a national controversy and a major event. The protesters were accusing the police officer and asking for justice and immigrant’s human rights. Majority of the protester’s status as a recent immigrant limited their involvement in a political event because they can not risk getting arrested and potentially deported. Within the Latino immigrant population of Los Angeles, there are many different communities based on race, language, religion and economic status and each communities do not share the same interest. In other cities of the United States, New York, Chicago, Pheonix, and other cities and agricultural areas, there are undocumented people like Manuel Jamines and places like Home Depot’s parking lot. Their community exists physically and socially, however the community doesn’t exist as a collective body of political beings. They are like an invisible shadow of the United State’s economy, undertaking the harshest job and yet getting paid the least and undocumented and devoid of human rights.
The coffee, sugar and banana I had for breakfast are all imported from Guatemala, which have a free trade agreement with the United States. American corporate plantations exploit laborer and it is one of the reason depriving Guatemala’s local economy. Indigenous Mayan population are some of the poorest people in the country, making them vulnerable to mistreatment and malnutrition, thus leaving to the US in search of job and hope of sending money back to home. The US economy depends on import from third world countries in Latin America and human labor is one of them. On the most personal level, by enjoying my coffee, sugar and banana, I am partially participating in the structure of exploit upon the third world and the undocumented workers in the states. The ‘Specters of the riot’ are actually waiting in many parking lots of hardware stores across the country, working in the service industry and living in inner city slums as the ‘invisible shadows’ of our city and our convenience.