the body politic

Don’t Call It Rioting

Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

In 1979, Maxine Waters was serving her first term as a California state assemblywoman from Los Angeles when one of her constituents, a 39-year-old widow named Eula Love, was shot eight times and killed in her own front yard after a dispute with police over a $22 gas bill. Love’s case was Waters’s public entrance into the fight against racist policing; she took up Love’s case and publicly lambasted Daryl Gates, Los Angeles’s police chief at the time, in a series of newspaper editorials highlighting the racial disparities of his police department’s record. According to Jamilah King, who wrote about Waters’s involvement in Love’s case in 2017, Waters wrote at least three editorials between 1979 and 1982, demanding that Gates resign his position. But Gates continued to run the Los Angeles police into the 1990s, when members of his department were videotaped brutally beating an unarmed 25-year-old black taxi driver, Rodney King. Waters was by then in her first term as a member of Congress, and parts of the district that she represented were among those to erupt in violent protest in the wake of the 1992 acquittal of four of those officers; during the six days of unrest in Los Angeles, 63 people died and more than 2,000 were injured, and many in the news media and in Los Angeles city government were quick to describe the turmoil as “rioting.” But Waters vocally resisted this; she saw the frustration and fury that undergirded the eruptions as rational political expressions of dissatisfaction and rebellion, and was extremely clear about it: “There are those who would like for me … to tell people to go inside, to be peaceful, that they have to accept the verdict,” Waters said in a 1992 press conference. “I accept the responsibility of asking people not to endanger their lives. I am not asking people not to be angry … I am angry and I have a right to that anger and the people out there have a right to that anger.” During those turbulent days, Waters brought food, water, and diapers to those constituents living without electricity or gas; she continued her decade-long crusade against Gates — who would finally lose his job in 1992 — and refused to give in to the language of rioting, insisting then, as now, on referring to the protests of 1992 as “an insurrection.”

New York talked to Waters in the midst of the 2020 protests against police brutality and the killing of black Americans by the state.

Rebecca Traister: Can you talk about your longtime fight over the language of insurrection and unrest versus rioting? Why does language matter?

Maxine Waters: I’ve been reflecting on what was going on back in the day, when I was confronting Daryl Gates, starting when the police shot Eula Love, which brought me in contact with the police commission and brought me to taking a look at what was going on with police community relations. Take a look at one of the quotes from Daryl Gates on choke holds. [In 1982, in the midst of an investigation of the killing of 20-year-old James Thomas Mincey, who was stopped by the LAPD for a cracked windshield, then beaten with nightsticks, thrown to the ground and killed by choking, Gates famously said of the disproportionate use of choke holds by police against African-Americans, “We may be finding that in some blacks, when it is applied the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.”] He was saying that we in essence die when others, when “normal people,” wouldn’t be dead. He was differentiating “black people” from “normal people.” And if you don’t think of us as being “normal,” you’re not looking out for our welfare. You conclude that because we’re not normal, abnormal things happen to us. That has stuck with me for a very long time.

A lot of negative language gets used against black people, describing what whites often believe is true about us: that language includes “lazy,” “criminal,” and “rioting.” It’s all negative language used far too often in a description of black people by folks who fundamentally don’t see black people the same way they see whites and others. So when they talked about rioting in 1992, what I saw was an explosion of a hopelessness being played out. I’d been working with those children in public housing and understood what was going on with crack cocaine, that these communities had been dropped off of America’s agenda, and the only real interaction they had was with police: the use of a battering ram to break down a door, as Daryl Gates did, or stopping young black men on the street to have them spread their legs to be searched by police. So when this unfortunate situation happened, where we had a lot of these young people in the street, they were acting out in anger and frustration. It reminded me of much of which I saw this past weekend, with people who had been cooped up because of COVID-19, who have lost jobs, whose family members have been getting infected, and then you have this police officer put his knee on the neck of George Floyd and hold it for eight minutes-plus, while his life drained out on the sidewalk … that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. So yes, I said “insurrection”: People acting out of frustration and hopelessness and understanding that they don’t have an establishment — political or otherwise — that really cared about their ability to work or have good health care. Yes, I choose to call it an insurrection.

RT: How much of a direct line do you see between 1992 and this weekend, or more broadly, between the unrest of the 1960s, and the ’90s, and Baltimore and Ferguson, and this weekend?

MW: I had a long talk with my grandson who is very politically aware and pays attention even though he’s in the entertainment industry, about what’s different [about this moment]. He said, “Look grandma, would you agree people have been cooped up because of social distancing, isolation, having been quarantined for a couple of months, plus 40 million people unemployed?” You have seniors graduating from high school who don’t know what they’re going to do, whether there’s going to be college or whether there’s going to be a job. Most know there’s not going to be a job. You’ve got poor people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and looking to government and wondering whether or not they’re going to get more money in the stimulus plan. We talked about this state of mind and atmosphere people find themselves in. Then on top of that, you get this very, very unsettling display of a police officer using the power of that gun and that badge to literally kill somebody in plain daylight with people watching and begging him to stop, on top of all of what we’ve been experiencing in last few months: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, then that incident with what they call Karen [Amy Cooper calling the police on Christian Cooper in Central Park in late May]; the first thing I thought about that was Emmett Till, and all these stories of white women who have accused men of being sexually aggressive and been hung and been killed. The stories of blacks incorporate that story; and we all learn very early on, it’s talked about a lot in the black community. There is all of that frustration, and yes, we remember what happened to Eric Garner who died from a choke hold, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and on and on and on.

So you have young people who have decided that they’re just not gonna take it anymore, and it’s not just young blacks. It’s young whites deciding to defy their mothers and fathers and families to be out in these streets. That’s telling us something — that it’s not only black people fed up with the police Establishment.

RT: What do you make of white participation in protests this weekend?

MW: There were plenty of whites involved in the civil-rights movement. So it’s a kind of a renewal of understanding about this world and relationships between people. Don’t forget that in addition to whites who worked in the civil-rights movement, back in the day we had groups meeting — encounter groups — and we would sit around and talk about who we were; I remember going to Malibu from South Central! So all I’m saying is it’s a revitalization. And it’s coming in a different way: A lot of these young people, young whites and blacks, have gone to school together, interacted in ways that even back then was rare.

RT: You’ve been a ferocious critic of Donald Trump, and have been open about his stoking of racist fury. Yet so much of the anger we’re seeing voiced is at racist violence that has happened not only throughout America’s history — under conservative and liberal presidential administrations — but also racist police brutality that has been enabled and protected within Democratic city governments, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston. How do you balance the political directions of mass fury right now?

MW: Look, the criminal-justice system has never really worked for black people. It’s not designed to work for black people. For the most part, police officers have been majority white and juries have been majority white, and it’s just in the past ten years that we’re starting to see black people who are judges and attorneys general and higher up within a criminal-justice system. So we have always had to struggle in a criminal-justice system. Police officers have had a culture of protection not just of each other but also of juries and judges who tend to believe them, and see them as heroes and protectors of society, so you don’t stand a chance. It’s always justifiable homicide, we’re told, so we have always had this problem in criminal justice.

But now on top of all of that, you have a president who has not been a part of the work that others have been doing to overcome this or try to change things. His relationship with blacks were those he could use to come to his casinos in order to attract people: athletes, boxers. He never had any respect for blacks to begin with. His rhetoric has been unbelievably racist from time to time, so yes, I think because of him and his racism he has dog-whistled, and sometimes not so subtly, to a constituency that will follow him no matter what he does, because of this. He is talking about putting his foot on the necks of blacks and Mexicans.

He’s perhaps taken on the Mexicans more brazenly because he believed the visibility of them coming across the border made for good politics for him, because it played into the idea that he was going to stop those people from living in your neighborhood and taking your jobs. But then he’s attacking icons like John Lewis and Elijah Cummings, talking about their districts as ratholes, and calling black countries “shitholes.” This is racism in its purest form. He’s making [his base] believe that if they felt it was not as easy to be openly racist as it was in the olden days, now they can feel it’s all right. There are so many incidents that go unreported: My daughter told me about a [video of a] woman on the airplane that called the male steward a n—–. That’s happening over and over again. I saw one [video of an] arrest where a woman — a black officer — apprehended someone and the guy said on the sidewalk waiting for the paddy wagon, said the word n—– over and over again to get the emotion out of her. We see the word n—– being used a lot more, we see other kinds of racism. I think the president is a racist, he’s probably always been a racist; he comes from a racist family and I think he was influenced by his daddy who was a racist, refusing to rent to blacks. I said something about him the other day after he threatened protesters with vicious dogs: He’s the most vicious dog we know! I said it because he called Omarosa a dog, he called me “low IQ,” he called Nancy “crazy.” So, yes, I think he’s stoking this.

RT: I thought of him when you were talking about Daryl Gates line about “blacks” versus “normal people,” and his statement this weekend that his supporters “love the black people,” that made so explicit that he sees black Americans as wholly distinct from his base, and his vision of “making America great again.” It’s an acknowledgment that he doesn’t see African-Americans as part of the whole of the nation he leads.

MW: I think a lot of people picked up on that. It was so obvious what “they love black people” is all about. It’s his way of believing he can mislead folks at the same time he doesn’t know how ridiculous he sounds, talking like that.

RT: What do you think is missing from coverage of the current unrest, what do people need to understand about the insurrections happening nationwide?

MW: What I really want is white people not to be afraid, to know that protesting against this kind of action does not mean that black people are going to take over their neighborhoods. I think that’s what Trump wants them to believe: “I’m going to save you from these black people. I’m going to bring out the military.” There is some thought in the black community that he wishes to be able to have martial law with his dictatorship attitude, that he really wants to be like Putin and Kim Jong-un, with total control. When I think about how he fires all of these inspectors general and others — anybody who criticizes or who may know something — because he wants sycophants around him, loving him, protecting him, agreeing with him. I just believe that all of America should be alert. I think what they should know is the president is dangerous and he is a would-be dictator. He’s trying to destroy institutions, he’s isolating us, he’s firing people in ways we’ve never seen before. I think we should be concerned about the democracy and his dictatorship attitude, and we should be concerned that the polarization he creates and visions he fosters can lead to the kind of confrontation that would allow him to create martial law.

RT: Do you think that some of the confrontation we’re seeing, though, via social media, in addition to a more reactionary mainstream media, is painting that confrontation differently, in a way that makes clear that police are escalating the violence as much or more than the protesters?

MW: I’m not sure. Think about what Trump does with his rhetoric: He said when you apprehend them, rough ‘em up, not in this moment, but he’s said it before. And I think too many Americans still think they need the police to be tough to stop those bad people. But I think we can count on this younger generation not to believe that, black and white. I know people romanticize the possibility of young people understanding their political potential. I don’t really romanticize that. But I’ve been interacting with a lot of young people in the last three years or so, and I think they could be the change that happens. I don’t think it’s going to come from the older generation; the older generation is going to want the police to protect them from those people.

Don’t Call It Rioting