by Riley Perez
“The pitifulest thing out is a mob..; they don’t fight with courage that’s born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass…” – Huck Finn, Mark Twain
I was driving east on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles with my dog Spanky resting on the passenger seat. It was a late-Spring day, and I was approaching Fairfax Avenue where trendy boutiques sit next to skate shops and Orthodox Jewish markets. That’s when it happened, one of those what-the-fuck-is-this moment: a wall of protesters had taken over all four lanes of traffic. They held signs that mirrored their chanting, “FUCK THE POLICE…BLACK LIVES MATTER…NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!” Some cars ahead of me were able to move to the side of the road to let the mob through, but most, like me, were stuck, captive to whatever their next move was.
I inched ahead, trying not to hit anyone, but soon I was forced to a dead stop as the mob grew larger, and more vocal. Some had shifted their venom from generalities to insults directed at me. A lady began to shout into my window, “Don’t you see us walking…move your fucking car…black lives matter!” “What do you want me to do,” I answered back, “pick my car up likes it’s a wallet and run away?” Before I could finish stating my case, I heard BOOM! BANG! BOOM! BANG! from the rear of my car.
I looked up at the mirror and saw a red-headed Caucasian male slamming on my trunk. I had no need to question his intentions, because I already knew what they were: he, like many protesters that afternoon, wanted to instill fear in anyone not marching in their direction.
“Not today Opie Taylor,” I uttered to myself, and moved into action.
I should note here that I’m Afro-Cuban, one of those whose lives presumably mattered to them. Who they believe is being hunted by the cops. I grew up in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, full of people with distinct cultures: Koreans, Philippines, Armenians, Russians, African-Americans, Caribbean and a range of immigrants from countries south of the border. I ate their food, ran the streets with them, exchanged knuckles, then went back to one or another of their houses and played Atari or The Dozens. There was no diversity mandate. You clicked with a guy or you didn’t. Life goes on.
By the time I was 12, I was already a juvenile delinquent, doing delinquent shit, so when my Guatemalan buddy Eduardo got me a gig with him as a look-out for Turbo, a leader of the first generation, El Salvadoran gang, Mara Sava Thrucha, I hopped at the chance to get in on the action. Looking back, the pay was shitty and the weed they were selling was Mexican dirt at best. Today higher strains of it can be purchased in a dispensary without much hassle. Times have changed.
The cops we ran from were dealing with the drug and gang wars that were terrorizing the city. The areas and cultures that I daily crisscrossed also demarcated the Hispanic and black gangs that laid claim to the streets. I knew to tread lightly.
Several times a week I took the RTD bus to the boxing gym in Watts. In that bus ride I passed through at least 20 different gangs and never once was I afraid that I would be made to join them. I was into sports, and in my experience, the gangs didn’t recruit. Some guys I knew in those neighborhoods pledged their allegiance to the gangs, and others did their own thing. The nightly news made gangs out to be blood thirsty heathens who preyed on the young to fill the ranks of their army, but that didn’t square with what I saw.
During the 1992 riots, I was a sentinel for the Korean grocer whose store I worked at in the summers, stocking shelves. Just as the looting began, I helped him lock up, not knowing that the city was going to be in flames moments later, and his store ransacked and emptied of batteries, laundry detergent, beer, and confectionery delights.
The next day, with my older cousin, I ventured to South Park on the East Side of LA where the gangs met up. They were solidifying a temporary peace treaty, joining forces to reckon with the Los Angeles Police Department, their perennial enemy. Not being in a gang, I wasn’t privy to their plotting, but, as it turned out, they had already stockpiled weapons from the Western Surplus and pawn shops the night before. They were ready for war. I was mainly at the park to play football. I found teams that contained both the Bloods and Crip gangs, longtime enemies. I’ve never needed a pass to go to any part of LA—it’s my city. I can handle what comes at me from wherever, but I’m beyond the age where I would tempt fate by going into a neighborhood that I know is in a more or less permanent state of war. I also know that danger can visit my doorstep anywhere, and it is with that understanding that I stay vigilante, even when in the hipster-cool kid areas of Silver Lake or Abbot Kinney in Venice.
I was an Afro-Cuban who had survived the hyper violent 80’s and 90’s without joining a gang or being one of their victims. But just because I wasn’t on Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles—I was on chic Beverly Boulevard—didn’t mean I was free from harm once the mob mentality took over.
The Opie-look alike meant to get the crowd going, so I knew that it was best to eliminate the threat. I reversed my car and felt the rear bumper make contact with him. Consulting my mirror, I saw the Opie go airborne. I placed the car in park and hopped out with my knife in hand and headed toward Opie, who was crawling backward on his hands. Then a voice broke the spell: “Bro, just get back in the car, I’ll clear a way for you to get out.” I looked around and saw a husky framed black guy, no older than 20, outfitted with a backpack that had a fire extinguisher and water bottles hanging from it. He held a bullhorn in one hand and began to bark into it now: “Clear the way. Clear the way so the cars can get out!” I looked around, only to find a stunned crowd had gathered, with several people holding their cameras trained on me, the shirtless guy wearing flip-flops, knife in hand.
I shifted my sights back to Opie and allowed myself a devilish grin as he limped away with the support of a few girls. I got in the car and inched through the path that the black guy had cleared for me; the insults kept coming from the rowdy crowd.
Once out of the mess, the black guy leaned into my passenger side window and in a hectic voice, as if he was gassed from running a marathon, said: “I’m glad you made it out safely.” Looking at my knife that was still in hand, I told him, “I was going to make it out, I wasn’t worried about that.” I extended my free hand and we shook. “Some people forgot what this is all about,” were his parting words.
In the days that followed, I watched as friends and colleagues from various walks of life expressed their solidarity with the slogan, Black Lives Matter. On social media, many posted photos of themselves at the marches and some fell into the monkey-see-monkey-do trap of posting black squares on the prescribed day. The hashtags and posts never let up. One person I know said, “It’s not on black people to change, it’s on us white folks.” When I said, “you don’t owe me shit,” he was taken aback. “But, since you think it is on you to do something, now what? With what is in your control in the field you work in, what are you going to do?”
He didn’t have an answer because he, like many, are not going to do anything that would alter their lives in a significant way. This friend is an executive and has the ability to actually #raisethepercentage as the latest hashtag goes. Whether he will or not is yet to be seen.
In the weeks that followed, the unrelenting memes and post from white women I know had become nausea inducing. They believe that they are fighting the good fight by parroting the claims that blacks are being killed by the police at alarming rates and that America and its institutions are systemically racist, a claim that I believe isn’t supported by the evidence.
I decided to test the resolve of one lady that I’d been acquainted with online (let’s call her Patty) who had two solid weeks of posts where she blamed everything from black poverty, incarceration, and even fatherless homes on white supremacy.
My inquiries started with simple challenges to Patty’s Instagram stories, “Not true…prove it…maybe for those with victim mindsets…” and eventually we had an exchange that lasted for days. Patty’s airing of grievances slowed as LA’s protesting winded down and then I saw Patty post that she was enjoying an excursion to the WASP haven of Martha’s Vineyard. I couldn’t resist a jab and asked Patty if she had taken any of the downtrodden black kids with her, you know a little get-out-of-the-hood experience for those that she has been fighting for with her post. That enraged Patty.
For the next two days our exchange centered on me trying to get Patty to understand that the black community’s’ problems are not for anyone else to solve, as the root of it starts with fatherless homes. In defense of my position, I quoted no less than Barack Obama, who in 2008 said, “Kids raised without fathers are 5 times more likely to be poor…9 times more likely to drop out…20 times more likely to end up in jail.” Patty fell back on her go-to: “Blacks get profiled and get harsher sentences than whites;. Blacks don’t have good teachers in school…the cops go at them…the system is founded on white supremacy…” She ignored my rebuttals and refused to provide any source for her claims beyond anecdotal cases that made her news feed. I then told Patty, “Seven thousand black men were killed by other black men last year. Does racism account for those deaths too?” Her only answer was white supremacy perpetrated by white men.
I concluded that Patty wasn’t really for black people, but that she had instead taken up the popular rhetoric of blaming white men, or “the patriarchy ” even for things that were the sole responsibility of the individual. I again invoked Obama’s statistics and my own assessment: “Because of the breakdown of the patriarchy, we have the problems in the black community…Getting rid of the patriarch, the father, will lead to more kids dropping out of school, being poor and ending up in the system.” Patty didn’t want to hear my opinion and ended the exchange as she headed out for drinks with friends while posting the next Black Lives Matter meme of the day.
I stopped short of telling Patty about my conversations with guys I know, ex- and current gang members who are veterans of the LA Riots of 92′ street wars and countless prison riots. In so many words, all of them made it clear to me that, “This is a white chick riot using black grievances. They’re lucky we didn’t get involved.”
Patty wouldn’t have believed me, but the white, liberal, mostly millennial mob that surrounded my car that day, and that have been protesting nightly in Portland for going on 50 days, those who want to “defund” or “abolish” the police—every one of them would be demanding a police response had actual street guys gotten involved.
I suppose Black lives and Black voices only matter if one is killed by a white cop and I get to blame white supremacy for where I am in life.
Today, I could probably use my own blackness to secure a writing position somewhere, but if I did it that way, I’d always feel like a token, a fraud, someone who couldn’t hack it on his own. I’m sure some executive will think he’s leveling the playing field, but I’d always feel it was an extortion. I’ll instead advocate for equality of access; After all, I still have to answer to my conscience at the end of the day. I wonder if Opie is still mending his wounds, or if he’s flaunting them as battle scars in the service of Racial Justice.
Riley Perez is the author of What Is Real? The Life and Crimes of Darnell Riley (Rare Bird Books, 2018) that details his incarceration for the kidnapping of Joe Francis, the founder of the Girls Gone Wild video series. Riley’s experience in the California Department of Corrections has lead him to speak about crime and punishment at many Los Angeles high schools, USC Gould School of Law, the Los Angeles Public Library. During the 2018 mid-term elections he moderated a roundtable panel on public safety with Congressman for Los Angeles 33rd District. Riley has appeared on a variety of radio and podcast interviews regarding prison reform and the writing process. Riley has produced film and television projects and is currently adapting his book to television.
Rileygto@gmail.com @rileyp77 (Instagram)@rileyperez77(Twitter)