“There was a riot on the streets, tell me where were you?”

“You are acting like animals, so they are going to treat you like one.”

“They already did.”

April 29 marks the 20th anniversary of some of the worst rioting Los Angeles had ever seen. Sparked by the acquittal of four police officers for beating Rodney King, the riots spread out over most of a week, and brought in the National Guard.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much about it. Rodney King and the ensuing violence has insinuated itself into our lexicon, and sure, there were the various jokes that hung around for years after it happened. But come on. I was eleven years old when it happened. When you’re that age, you might have some vague notion of the outside world, although for the most part, you’re still convinced it revolves around you.

Down in LA, the school district’s history lessons stop around the Civil Rights movement. It’s probably because like many school districts across the country, they can’t afford updated text books. So two teachers decided to take matters into their own hands and started conversations with their students about the riots and what they mean now.

The two quotes above are from two students debating at one of the schools, a high school located not far from the epicenter. It reminds me of something Che Guevara said once, about sometimes the only way to affect change is through violence. Sometimes…I think he might be right. Might might not make right, but it sure as hell gets everyone’s attention. And if what you need is to get everyone to focus on a problem, acting out is, unfortunately, one of the most effective ways of doing so.

Events of the Arab Spring proved you don’t necessarily need violence to affect change. But when it took a civil war-like skirmish to oust a tyrannical leader, people were reminded, yet again, that violence is sometimes the quickest (and dirtiest) way to get what you want.

These two teachers are trying to demonstrate to their students there are other ways. More effective ways. Ways that bring about lasting change. But when you’ve still got gang members out there shooting five-year-olds, it’s pretty easy to get discouraged.

As one student pointed out, the people in south central Los Angeles don’t seem to be all that much better off than they were 20 years ago. They talk about the conditions of their neighborhood and racism. They talk about poverty. Another student points out poverty is spreading all over the country, and if there was going to be riots again, that’s where it would start, and it would spread. It would spread outside those pockets and seep into the everyday fabric of our cities and towns.

“But if it goes that way, it wouldn’t be called a riot anymore, it would be called a revolution.”

The kid’s right. If there’s going to be a revolution in this country, an uprising of any sort, it’s going to start among the poorest of the poor. I have a feeling one of these days people are going to get sick of trying to talk to their elected leadership and reach for a Molotov cocktail instead to get the point across.

To read the NPR story that sparked this post, click here.

 

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