Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 9. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 99-100.

Burning All Illusions

LA Insurrection 1965/1992


August 13th-16th 1965: the blacks of LA revolted. An incident between traffic police and pedestrians developed into two days of spontaneous riots. Despite increasing reinforcements, the forces of order were unable to regain control of the streets. By the third day the blacks had armed themselves by looting gun stores, enabling them to fire even on police helicopters. It took thousands of police and soldiers - including an entire infantry division supported by tanks - to confine the riot to the Watts area, and several more days of street fighting to finally bring it under control. Thousands of stores were plundered and burned. Official sources listed 32 dead (including 27 blacks), more than 800 wounded and 3,000 arrests...

Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It instantly undermines the commodity as such, and it also exposes what the commodity ultimately implies; the army, the police. What is a policeman? He is the active servant of the commodity whose job it is to ensure that a given product of human labour remains a commodity, with the magical property of having to be paid for, instead of becoming a mere refrigerator or rifle - a passive, inanimate object, subject to anyone who comes along to make use of it. In rejecting the humiliation of being subject to police, the blacks are at the same time rejecting the humiliation of being subject to commodities.

Bobbi Hollon, a young black of the neighbourhood had this to say in October: "Before, people were ashamed to say they came from Watts. They'd mumble it. Now they say it with pride. Boys who used to go around with their shirts open to the waist, and who'd have cut you to pieces in half a second, showed up here every morning at seven o'clock to organise the distribution of food. Of course, it's no use pretending that the food wasn't looted. All that Christian blah has been used too long against blacks. These people could loot for ten years and they wouldn't get back half the money those stores have stolen from them over all these years... Me, I'm only a little black girl." Bobbi, who has sworn never to wash off the blood that splashed on her sandals during the rioting, adds: "Now the whole world is watching Watts."

(Taken from 'Watts 1965 - The Decline and fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy' by the Situationist International, in the Situationist International Anthology, translated and edited by Ken Knabb, Bureau of Public Secrets, USA, 1981)

Given the choice of war abroad in Vietnam or war at home against the white elite, blacks rioted across America in the 1960s.


"There's a difference between frustration with the law and direct assaults upon our legal system." - George Bush, May 3rd, 1992.

The first rocks started to fly as the four cops who beat Rodney King and the jury who acquitted them were leaving the courtroom in suburban Simi Valley. Subsequent to the acquittal of the cops, on the afternoon of April 29th 1992, thousands of people began pouring into the streets of Los Angeles. In a few hours rioting spread across the LA metropolitan area. Conditions rapidly approached the level of civil war. The police withdrew from the main areas of fighting, ceding the streets to the insurgent poor. Systematic burnings of capitalist enterprises commenced. More than 5,500 buildings burned. People shot at cops on the street and at media and police helicopters. Seventeen government buildings were destroyed. The Los Angeles Times was attacked and looted. A vast canopy of smoke from the buildings covered the LA Basin. Flights out of LA airport were cancelled and incoming flights had to be diverted due to the smoke and sniper fire.

The rioting was the single most violent episode of social unrest in the US in the twentieth century, far outstripping the urban revolts of the 1960s both in sheer destructiveness and in the fact that the riots were a multiracial revolt of the poor. In the initial phase of the LA riots, the police were rapidly overwhelmed and retreated, and the military did not appear until the rioting had abated.

The New York Times noted: "Some areas took on the atmosphere of a street party as black, white, Hispanic and Asian residents mingled to share in a carnival of looting. As the greatly outnumbered police looked on, people of all ages (and genders), some carrying small children, wandered in and out of supermarkets with shopping bags and armloads of shoes, liquor, radios, groceries, wigs, auto parts, gumball machines and guns".

The 30,000 square foot military enlistment centre for all nine counties of Southern California was burned to the ground on the first night. The state portrayed the rioting as an episode of indiscriminate mayhem where rioters attacked each other like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Crimes against people, such as rape and drive-by shootings, virtually disappeared as previously atomised proletarians of different colours and ethnicities came together in mass collective violence, proletarian shopping and a potlatch of destruction. There were far fewer rapes and muggings during the period than there are in LA under the normal rule of law. On a conservative estimate, more than 100,000 rebel poor in the greater LA area have now collectively experienced, in arson, looting and violence against the police, the intelligent use of violence as a political weapon. The number of participants in the uprising is well into the six-figure range. We know this because there were around 11,000 arrests (5,000 black, 5,500 Latino, 600 white) and the vast majority of participants got away scot-free.

Following the lead of events in the nation's cultural capital, mass spontaneous rioting spread to several dozen cities across the US. In San Francisco more than a hundred stores were looted and rich areas were attacked. One of the large posh hotels had its windows smashed by a gang of youths chanting "The Rich Must Die". Protesters marched onto the Interstate Freeway, causing a massive tailback affecting several hundred thousand car commuters. In San Jose, students looted and attacked police cruisers. Police were shot at in Tampa, Florida, and in Las Vegas, armed rioters burned a state parole and probation office. Armed confrontations between the police and locals continued in Las Vegas for the next 18 days. In Seattle a burning police car was pushed into police ranks and there was loads of looting, smashing and burning in downtown Seattle. Similar events happened all over the US.

On May 2nd, 5,000 LAPD, 1,000 Sheriff's Deputies, 950 County Marshals and 2,300 Highway Patrol cops, accompanied by 9,975 National Guard troops, 3,500 Army troops and Marines with armoured vehicles and 1,000 Federal Marshals, FBI agents and Border Patrol SWAT teams moved in to restore order and guard the shopping malls. Hundreds were wounded. Most of the people killed in the uprising were killed in the repression of the revolt. After much fighting and the largest mass arrest in US history the LA 92 insurrection came to a close.

LA and the nation-wide rioting demonstrates clearly that the most realistic, practical, immediate way for poor people to overcome internalised racism and racial divisions among themselves is found in a common fight against our mutual enemies - the cops, the business classes, the rich and the market economy..

(Taken from 'We All Hate the Cops' in Anarchy - A Journal of Desire Armed, No.34, Fall 1992)

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