“Revolutions often succeed,” wrote historian Lewis Namier, “merely because the men in power despair of themselves, and at the decisive moment dare not order the troops to fire.” For four days in May last spring, revolution or something frighteningly close to it rapped hard on America’s door. Not only did the “man in power” — namely, President Bush — dare not order the troops to fire, to judge from his remarks about the so-called “Rodney King verdict,” the country was lucky the President didn’t get out into the streets and start stealing furniture for his Camp David retreat.
Mr. Bush’s first response to the murder, looting, and anarchy visited upon Los Angeles was to assure the criminals and their demagogue pals that the white policemen acquitted by a jury in an utterly fair and unremarkable trial would be retried by the federal government. He none-too-subtly hinted that, of course, the second trial would not end in acquittal, and then, presumably, we could get on with the hanging. Only well after the City of Angels had turned into Dante’s Inferno did the chief executive send in the Marines, and by then the Korean storeowners and local white people had begun to discover that they really didn’t need Uncle Sam and his help after all, as long as the gun shops were open and the ammunition was dry.
Americans will never know how close the rest of the country actually came to mutating into one huge Los Angeles during those four days, but it may have been a lot closer than they realize. Racial “disturbances” were reported in no less than 12 other cities around the country. In Las Vegas, actual riots continued for some days afterwards. In Atlanta, blacks ransacked a shopping mall and attacked whites at random. Omaha reported at least 11 racially motivated assaults on whites by blacks. In Madison, Wisconsin, the windshields of parked police cars were smashed, and Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Tampa, Birmingham, and other cities also had trouble. These, of course, were only the incidents that made the national news. In the Washington area, there were several reported local black racial assaults on, insults to, and harassment of whites, and other cities and areas no doubt had their own small tales that never made the news at all, as well as innumerable episodes that no one even mentioned. To alert observers looking at the whole country rather than at one metropolitan blob in southern California and a little political blob in the White House, for a few brief moments it seemed as though the whole national edifice might crumble into cinders.
Of course, it didn’t, and there were various reasons why the “revolution” came to a sudden but sullen halt. In the first place, despite the bleating of Mr. Bush, Jack Kemp, and the apparently immortal partisans of Great Society liberalism, the violence had nothing to do with a lack of enterprise zones (no less than five enterprise zones have been fully operational in Los Angeles since 1987, two of them in the very area where the riots began, and none of them did anything whatsoever to prevent or curb the anarchy) or with “neglect,” let alone with the verdict in the trial. It was learned soon after the riots subsided that organized criminal gangs had begun planning the pillage even before the verdict was returned. The Los Angeles Police anticipated disorder and prepared for it by squirreling away a million dollars in extra funds for overtime. Local merchants also knew what to expect and put up signs assuring looters that their stores were owned by blacks.
In the event, however, the plans and preparations weren’t enough, and when the police tried to face down some looters at the very beginnings of the riots, they found themselves outgunned and outmanned and had to retreat. In other words, as Namier said, the troops weren’t ordered to fire at the proper moment, and since they weren’t ready to fire anyway, maybe it’s just as well the orders never came.
In general, there were three reasons why the insurrection in Los Angeles and points east didn’t blossom into full-scale national anarchy: (1) Most other cities don’t have quite the elaborate gang structure that Los Angeles enjoys, and the elements in those cities that would enjoy anarchy simply weren’t ready yet. In Las Vegas, the gangs are well-organized, and they played a key part in instigating the more serious violence there. (2) Since stealing — liquor, guns, furniture, electronic goods, groceries, and whatever else could be picked up and carted off — was a major motivation of most of the rioters, eventually the stock ran dry and there was nothing left to do but go home, forget Rodney King and the curse of racism, and enjoy the swag. (3) Finally, what passes for governing authority in the United States these days resorted to its favorite device of manipulation to get certain elements of the populace to calm down, stop killing white people for a while, and take the day off. As often happens with manipulation, these devices worked, though they solved nothing.
In Atlanta, local officials prudently decided to allow a baseball game to proceed as scheduled, knowing that if they called it off the city would explode. Perhaps this reminds you of certain practices from the history of ancient Rome, though whether the Atlanta city fathers distributed free bread to the proletariat I don’t know. What indeed, other than the most cynical manipulation, was the speedy conscription of Rodney King himself to try to quell the anarchy with his whiny pleading for everybody to “just get along”? What, other than manipulation, can you call the whimpers from Washington in the several weeks after the riots, from Republicans as well as Democrats, that now it was time to help the inner cities with more welfare, more schools, more housing, and more “sensitivity” to the “rage” that “inner city youth” felt? Los Angeles, if it did nothing else, exposed the bankruptcy not only of a presidency but of the whole governing class of the country and proved to just about everyone who wanted to see that the people who insist on staying in power don’t have the faintest notion of how to exercise power.
But of course, even if the American governing class were willing to rule and to use force as necessary, there is more than good reason to suspect that it no longer controls the force anyway. It wasn’t reported at all by the American press as far as I am aware, but the London Evening Standard ran an article last May quoting Calvin Howard, a black police official in Atlanta, as warning that black policemen might turn their guns on white cops. “Beware,” Mr. Howard muttered in a statement that ought to have lost him his job, “because you are going to see police officers drawing guns and fighting other officers now. We are not going to accept the verdict as it came down.” Statements by police officials that they are not going to “accept” verdicts handed down by duly constituted juries and courts ought to send most citizens to the local gun store with shopping carts, but Mr. Howard’s sentiments are not isolated.
For the last decade or so, American blacks have swaddled themselves in the ideology of what might be called “Afro-racism,” an ideology far more revolutionary and far more deeply engrained than the metaphysical maunderings of the New Left of the 1960s. Afro-racism offers a full-blown conspiratorial view of history, a myth of black racial superiority and solidarity, a doctrine of black racial supremacy, and a demonology that openly preaches genocide against whites. Even David Duke and Tom Metzger in the ebullience of their youth never spouted the incitements to murder that are today commonplace in the lectures of black college professors, the lyrics of rap groups, and the spontaneous effusions of black celebrities, and indeed it would be hard to find such explicit rhetorical brutality even in the public speeches of Adolf Hitler. The significance of the permeation of the Afro-American mind by the ideological savagery of Afro-racism is that to the extent it has penetrated the attitudes of black police and black soldiers, they cannot be counted on to suppress disorders in which blacks are in conflict with whites.
What is occurring in the United States is in fact a bit more worrisome than what historians and sociologists often call a “revolutionary situation.” What is happening, as suggested by the events of last May, is simply the more-or-less gradual displacement of power and those who exercise it. Unlike a revolutionary situation, the actual functioning of government, economy, and social institutions continues, but the power that flows through the political and social bloodstream is being transfused as those who hold power refuse to use it and those out of power start to apply it. What exists in the United States is a situation in which the governing class refuses to govern and the underclass is virtually ungovernable, while the middle class is shrinking, dispossessed, and alienated. The United States increasingly resembles a ship whose commanders have jumped overboard and which is left to the tender mercies of sea and storm. Sooner or later, the ship will strike a reef and break apart, and whoever at that point is sufficiently well-organized to make use of power will be able to acquire it.
If and when that happens to the United States — and actually, it is a process that, in a society as opposed to a ship, happens over a period of time and not at a particular moment — it is not possible now to predict who will wind up with power. In some areas, it may be the Cosa Nostra or similar criminal gangs that can not only control their own members but also offer the security that is all most people want. In other areas, it may be Afro-racists themselves, though I rather doubt it; for all their swagger, these characters seem to enjoy whining too much and to lack the self-discipline to keep power. In still other parts of the country, the inheritors may be groups that today are completely unknown or not even yet formed.
What is important for Middle Americans to understand is that no one other than themselves is going to give them power or use power to protect them. If indeed the United States is beginning to experience the disintegration that the removal of controlling power at the center produces, there won’t be any troops to fire or the troops will be firing in the wrong direction and at the wrong people. In the aftermath of Los Angeles, Middle Americans showed certain signs that at last they were indeed beginning to understand this. In both Los Angeles and Florida and perhaps in other places as well, the sales of guns doubled in the week after the riots, and those who bought them said they now understood that the government would do nothing to defend them if the riots started again, that they had to defend themselves. The New York Times quoted 20-year-old janitor David Penso, who enjoyed the less-than-bracing thrill of witnessing the looting of a Los Angeles discount store while the police drove by and did nothing. Mr. Penso learned something from the experience. “The cops were there,” he told the Times, “but they didn’t do anything. The only way people can be protected in Los Angeles is if they protect themselves with guns.” So Mr. Penso spent part of his meager salary on pistol lessons. If a 20-year-old janitor understands it, there’s no reason everyone else shouldn’t.
“Guns won’t solve anything,” preaches a character in the film Doc to Doc Holliday. “Oh, you’d be surprised how many things guns can solve,” replies the famous gunslinger as he walks the long walk to the OK Corral. The United States and Middle Americans with it may also be walking into the OK Corral of history, and it does indeed require more than guns, force, and power to preserve the civilization that will be the prize of that showdown. But only one will walk away from it, and whoever that is will be whoever has the instruments of power at his disposal, understands how to use them, and shows that he has the will to fire or order the troops to fire when necessary.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in September 1992.