Hands Up! Don't Shoot!
Melissa L. White
2023 by Melissa L. White
“Photo by Pablo Lara on Unsplash”
summertime in L.A and “June Gloom” is everywhere. This
“gloom” is a Southern California phenomenon where the sky
stays overcast and gray with little or no sunshine until the
afternoon hours, and it usually lasts the entire month of June. I
button up my jacket and try to remember when it was this cool during
the summertime. As I leave my office and head out across the UCLA
campus to grab some lunch, I notice the crowd gathering on the plaza
near the Ackerman Student Union. I don’t have much time to eat
and make it back to teach my 1:00 class, so this crowd annoys me,
until I get close enough to read the signs.
a student demonstration, protesting the shooting death of an unarmed
black man in Hollywood last week, at the hands of an LAPD officer. I
stop and listen to the speaker on the podium, as she extolls the
atrocities. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Robert Lawrence White,
Antwon Rose, Jr., Botham Jean, DeAndre Ballard, Jemel Roberson,
De’ettrick Griffin, Shaun King, Emantic “EJ”
Fitzgerald Bradford, Jr., Willie McCoy, Jimmy Atchison, Brandon
Webber, Ryan Twyman, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others
I cannot possibly list them all. I’m awestruck by her passion
and her conviction that this police brutality cannot continue. Her
call for change ignites the crowd. Fists are raised and angry shouts
of “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” ring out across the
plaza. It angers me that police officers in America, are still
killing unarmed black people. It is beyond senseless— defying
all reason and logic. And it cannot continue. For
most of my
adult life, I’ve lived in Los Angeles, and have seen my share
of racial inequality. Presidents and politicians come and go—and
I wonder if anything will ever change? Or will it just be more of the
same? I look at these young people, raising their fists in protest
and I think back to my youth, when I had recently completed my
undergrad studies at UCLA. I remember that day when the verdict was
announced, clearing the LAPD officers connected with the Rodney King
beating. I’ll never forget that unspeakable outrage in the face
of crimes so blatant and reprehensible, which erupted on that spring
day in 1992, when Los Angeles suddenly found itself under siege. The
Rodney King riots were a nationwide wakeup call. This is what I
darkness, you couldn’t see the uniforms or the badges. The only
thing you could see was the beating; the repeated, savage blows to
the face and head of a solitary large man, surrounded by a gang of
thugs. The big man staggered and fell to his knees slammed by Billy
clubs that cracked his skull, split his lips, and ripped his earlobe
apart. He tried to shield his face with his hands, but it was
useless. They converged all at once; too many of them to count,
attacking him relentlessly. When the beating finally stopped, the big
man groveled in the dirt, backlit by glaring headlights through a
cloud of dust, until two more men appeared, kicking him while the
others held him down.
what was different about this random act of violence, separating it
from so many other beatings just like it?
weeks, images from that grainy black and white video inundated the
news and made headlines in every major newspaper, not to mention the
covers of Time and Newsweek.
Back in the days before
“X” (Formerly Twitter) or Facebook or Instagram, there we
no ranting posts in all CAPS taking sides or pointing fingers. But
that didn’t stop the video from going viral. National TV and
radio talk shows fed the media frenzy until they literally slit the
wrists of this city, with wounds so deep the scars may never heal.
the subsequent police brutality trial?
was the final breaking point.
hours of the “not guilty” verdict, violence flared at the
corner of Florence and Normandy, spreading faster than a wildfire in
Malibu Canyon until thick smoke engulfed the entire horizon. Los
Angeles was now a war zone. Up close and personal. In your face with
its bigotry and black power, and its low-lying clouds of suspension
of disbelief. If you were in L.A. during the Rodney King riots, it’s
something you will never forget. Looking back now with the hindsight
of Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, and so many other cities where
senseless acts of police violence have ignited fevered protests, this
is what I remember…
morning it’s raining ash. From the balcony of my apartment, I
stare out across my South Central neighborhood until I notice a fine
layer of gray powder blanketing my guardrail. Normally my neighbor’s
potted palms and patio furniture bask in the sunshine on her balcony,
but today they are blackened with soot. I hear gunshots, a distant
siren, and a baby crying downstairs. “Mayhem” doesn’t
even come close to describing the past days’ events. It reminds
me of watching the Persian Gulf War unfold on CNN just a few months
earlier, with live footage of neon green tracers raining over
Baghdad. Except this time the war zone isn’t halfway around the
explosion echoes down my street and fire engines periodically scream
by my house outside. Yet I lay on my couch watching continuous “live
riot coverage” with surprising detachment. It’s difficult
to connect the images on TV with my own neighborhood. Even when I
recognize the burning buildings it seems more like war torn Bosnia
than my home.
first moved here from Mississippi, Los Angeles seemed like another
planet. But it grows on you, little by little. Especially with the
love I found with my teammates through my basketball scholarship at
UCLA. But even now, after living in L.A. for six years, I still find
this hard to believe.
of people are arrested each hour. The police resort to using duct
tape since they’ve run out of handcuffs. It doesn’t seem
possible, such blatant anarchy and rampant looting, most of it
committed by ordinary people. On every network, Eyewitness News teams
race to get there first, broadcasting arson, robbery, random
shootings, and even two women fist-fighting in the street over some
dresses they’ve just stolen from the Sears store in Hollywood.
mayor imposes mandatory curfews and martial law. The governor
mobilizes the National Guard and asks Congress to declare the City of
Angels a disaster area. All the while, just like a carnival barker
at a media freak show, Police Chief Gates stages sidewalk press
conferences outside the Hill Street station, begging people to stay
at home. Lying on my couch, I feel like a Palestinian refugee under
house arrest on the Gaza strip. I can’t sleep at night with all
the endless gunfire, police helicopters, and sirens.
language school where I teach has been closed for two days. Payday
was the day before yesterday, and I still haven’t gotten my
paycheck. I have four dollars and sixty-two cents in my purse and my
bank account is overdrawn. There’s no food in the house, but
I’m afraid to go out. Damn. I should’ve bought groceries
last week, instead of getting that weave. At least my hair looks
great. Besides, it’s not the first time I’ve skipped a
meal for great looking hair. I look in the bathroom mirror and
lightly run my fingers over my plaits as my empty stomach growls. How
was I to know that this could happen? That normalcy could so
second day of rioting, I’m so hungry I can’t see
straight. To hell with the mayor’s “stay home”
mandate. I grab my money and head to the corner grocery store.
step outside I’m awe struck. This is utterly shocking.
much worse than I’d imagined. Gutted, burned out buildings
smolder all along the street where I live. The air stinks like a
trash incinerator, making my eyes water. The stench of burning rubber
is so thick I can taste it.
on the corner, rubbing my eyes, I notice people streaming in and out
of Circuit City Appliance Store, pilfering TVs, microwaves, and DVD
players. Anything they want, they walk in and take. A tattered old
man stumbles through the intersection, pushing a large entertainment
center on wheels. It’s loaded with stereo components, eight
surround sound speakers, and a 42-inch TV. He struggles to push it up
the concrete embankment underneath a billboard. It starts to roll
back on him, so I run to help. My six-foot-one-inch frame towers
above him. When we reach level ground at the top, he grins.
he says, eyeing me up and down. “Damn. You play ball?”
real?” He shoves his grimy hands in his pockets. “Where?”
got it.” Not anxious to tell him my life story, I glance around
at his “home” beneath the billboard. “So how you
gonna use this stuff without any wall outlets?”
he spits through the gap in his teeth. “Lemme axe you this, you
think I care about wall outlets? I ain’t even got
laughs, loud and harsh, and then starts to cough. I hurry back down
the embankment to the street below and can still hear his hacking
cough behind me.
the corner, I see two Cadillacs and a BMW screech into the Sac-n-Save
parking lot. Immediately the car doors fly open, and several people
jump out and run inside. I notice that all along the storefront
busted out windows gape open like a mouthful of cavities. Shattered
glass litters the sidewalk. It crunches underfoot as people come
running out of the store with cases of beer, toilet paper, diapers,
dog food. Anything they would normally buy, they’re stealing.
Why? Because they saw other folks getting away with it on TV, and
there’s no one around to stop them.
further down Pico Boulevard toward Korea town. Oddly enough, the
grocery store at Pico and Vermont hasn’t been burned or looted.
As I near the store entrance, a deafening blast rips across the sky
above me. I dive for cover between two black jeeps, the only vehicles
in the parking lot. When the shooting stops, I spot three Asian men
on the roof of the store with automatic assault rifles.
up in the Deep South, I’ve seen plenty of racial violence, but
never like this. And I’ve taught enough ESL classes
know that Asian people are frequently intimidated by my size and my
black skin. But right now, I’m so far beyond hungry I don’t
care about that crap; all I want is a damn can of soup and some
my four dollars over my head and crawl toward the entrance.
no more shots, I gather myself off the pavement, my hands still
raised. Something moves behind me. I turn to find an old woman
squatting by the pay phones, urinating on the sidewalk. It’s so
pathetic. She stares at me then smiles, exposing her bare gums. When
she finishes, she steps across her golden pond of piss; coming so
close I can smell cheap wine, urine, and excrement. She reaches out
to me and without hesitation I give her my last four dollars. She
takes it, laughing, and grabs my hand. Her skin feels like sandpaper.
be those who by their kindness entertain angels unaware,” she
says, stuffing my money in her shirt. She pulls a 40 oz. Budweiser
from her pants and offers it to me. I feel nauseous.
my head, I whisper a meek, “No thanks,” and finally
manage to pull my hand away from hers. Another round of gunfire
the pavement face down and cover my head as the sound of shattering
glass surrounds me. Dozens more rounds are fired, then nothing. After
an extended silence, a siren wails in the distance, and only now do I
realize that I’m crying. Tears soak my face, hands, and the
concrete beneath me.
my eyes, I notice the smooth amber-gold puddle of beer spreading
slowly across the pavement towards me. I lift my head and see the old
woman lying two feet away in a contorted, crumpled heap of rags. I
can’t believe this is actually happening. The police finally
arrive, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Several more shots are fired
then everything’s still and quiet again.
encouraged by the presence of these squad cars, I crawl up beside the
woman and realize she’s dead. My money dangles from the
neckline of her shirt with blood spattered on it. I watch the police
chase down several gang kids, none of them look a day over thirteen.
I grab my money from this corpse then, overwhelmed, I sink to the
ground on my hands and knees beside her, unable to hold back the
tears. The concrete beneath us shimmers a liquid gold and reeks of
sobbing now, crouched like a whipped dog. An eerie silence descends
on the parking lot, slow as buzzards circling overhead. Waves of
fear, anger, and hatred hang in the air like vultures, homing in on
us carrion below, waiting to devour what’s left of this city’s
sanity and pick its bones clean. I close my eyes, trying to make it
all go away; but the street is still here beneath me, glistening with
liquid gold, deep in the burned and broken heart of the City of
days later, I join dozens of volunteers at the corner of Florence and
Normandy. Off-duty police officers lead our group as we canvas the
neighborhood, shoveling debris and painting over gang graffiti. Three
elderly men salute us as we pass them on the street.
woman steps out of a diner with “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS”
spray-painted in big red letters across its boarded-up windows. She
offers us barbeque and lemonade and calls us “God’s army
laughs as she fills my cup, a big gold tooth parting her full ruby
lips. Returning her smile, I think to myself: Maybe she’s
right. Trying to imagine halos above our backwards baseball
I glance at this paint-splattered group around me. I see
possibilities sprinkled everywhere— peppered and seasoned with
our various skin colors. That nagging ball of fear I felt earlier
this morning in the back of my throat vanishes now like a perfect
fade-away jumper. One quick swoosh and it’s gone.
our barbeque, we sit on empty crates in the shade of the diner’s
sooty awning. The owner moves easily between us, refilling our
lemonade cups and handing out little angel stickers. She peels off
one for each of us and sticks them to our shirts.
little cherubs amuse us but the bottom line here is easy to see: This
woman is not a rarity. Even with all the recent violence there
remains a core of true goodness in most folks here.
my shades off my eyes and watch her, a true angel, spreading her
wings and reminding us how to fly. She stands there, sweat glistening
on her brow as she serves those who have come to clear away the
debris of hatred, anger, and fear, and she replaces it with love and
compassion. I feel a pang in my heart for her so intense and yet so
tender all at once, that I feel like I can fly too. My heart goes out
to her, and I whisper across the heat and dust, “Thank you.”
you for lifting us up with your simple acts of kindness.
how we overcome the aftermath of violence. This is how we refuse to
live in a world of rampant racism. This is how we carry ourselves 25,
50 or 100 years into the future to that golden world where people of
color are no longer terrorized by racially motivated police
shootings, unconstitutional travel bans, hate crimes, threats of mass
deportation, ripping immigrant children from their arms of their
parents and putting them in cages, or idiotic chants of “Build
that wall!” This is how we overcome and rise above.
to myself, remembering that smoldering L.A. street corner, and I
summon the strength to continue to believe in and to fight for that
bright future I dreamed of so long ago. I look out at the “BLACK
LIVES MATTER” banner above the podium, and gaze in awe and
respect at the faces of these students. They are the future. They are
the promise of a better world.
as I watch them with their fists raised, shouting in unison, “Hands
up! Don’t shoot!” Their energy is infectious. They shout
louder and louder, brazenly certain that nothing can stop them.
Nothing will keep them from tearing down the barriers that racism has
erected in this country over the past four centuries.
breeze stirs the trees overhead and rustles the leaves all around us.
I love the energy that these young people exude, and I cherish the
feeling that change is coming. We’ve reached the breaking
point as a society, where the younger generation will no longer
tolerate the status quo. Like it or not, change is here and now,
echoed in the angry cries of “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
I raise my fist, and join the chanting, swept up in this overwhelming
tidal wave of change.
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