For What It’s Worth

The news this week has been heartbreaking: the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal over the weekend, leaving more than 4,300 people dead.

Baltimore: April 27, 2015 (AP)
Baltimore: April 27, 2015 (AP)

Then, Baltimore yesterday. I’m not sure if heartbreaking is the right word for what I felt, or gut-wrenching either – but it was painful to watch the footage on CNN. What I experienced was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. It was almost like a repeat of the same footage I watched 23 years ago, practically to the day. The L.A. riots that followed the acquittal of police officers on trial for the savage beating of a black man named Rodney King began April 29, 1992.

The big difference between the L.A. riots and last night’s Baltimore riots after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a black man who died of a severe spinal cord injury after police arrested him, is that the violence, burning, and looting in 1992 was taking place right outside my door, or rather just miles from my door.

I’ll never forget going up on the roof of my apartment building, which has a spectacular view, on the following morning and gazing at all the fires still burning across the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black smoke, as if hell’s darkest storm was moving in.

It’s senseless. The police blame it on “outside agitators” but they’ve been saying that as long as I can remember. I think clearly there were folks involved who were interested in civil disobedience for the hell of it. I don’t like to see cops injure suspects. I don’t like to see cops get injured themselves. It’s like Stephen Stills wrote in For What It’s Worth, about the 1966 Sunset Strip riots: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

I shared this original poem once before on the blog, also at the end of April, and the end of National Poetry Month. Unfortunately, it seems an apropos time to share it again.

in the city of angels

Los Angeles: April 29, 1992
Los Angeles: April 29, 1992

el pueblo grande
boils and bubbles
like a brea pit
fear and anger
rise from the pitch
like hungry spirits

incendiary questions:
why’d the cops beat him?
how come they got off?

sacrificial fires are lit
on asphalt altars
the hungry spirits are fed

the night cries
no justice no peace

and when the smoke clears
in the char of morning days later
what is revealed?

only mammoth humanity
stuck in the tar

© 1992-2011 dmriley


2 thoughts on “For What It’s Worth

  1. David,

    First of all, your poem is stunning…poignant and once again apropos, unfortunately.

    What do we do about this? What do we as individuals do? As a mother, I teach my children, we talk about these issues…the most important thing I can do is to make sure my little pieces of the next generation are on the right track. But beyond that….?

    I am filled with compassion for all involved. My late father was a cop. He was at the Newark riots as a National Guardsman. I knew racist cops. I grew up with them. They would have risked their lives in a heartbeat for anyone, regardless of prejudice. But they would also have suspected someone of being a potential criminal based solely on their race. How do we stop this?

    I bemoan all the waste. The needless waste of precious lives, the waste of ignorant cops that might have been taught better. It makes me heartsick. I don’t want to watch. Sometimes I don’t watch. And yet…by not watching am I allowing?

    I’m glad you posted this. I’m glad you wrote that poem. You have shown me one thing I can do (I’m a poet). Your poem is a gift, thank you for showing us.


    1. Karen, thanks for your kind praise of my poetic efforts, and for sharing your thoughts with this comment.

      I know there are good policemen out there, who like your father, would serve and protect anyone regardless of their race. It’s the others that are causing the problems, and the bunker mentality police organizations always seem to adopt following these things does not help. Like Pres. Obama said this morning, “this is not new.” I am frustrated. On one hand, it is up to our elected officials to deal with these systemic problems. But they never seem to get around to it . . .

      What do we as individuals do? you ask. I think you’ve already become part of the solution by discussing these issues with your kids and as you say make sure they are on the right track. I’m not sure there is a beyond that, for the raised consciousness of future generations seems to me to be our best hope. Be confident about what your are doing as a mother.

      “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
      The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
      Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
      For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

      – Kahlil Gibran

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