You’ve seen the video. Everybody has. Four LA police officers beating a black man within an inch of his life. Every pixel of every frame screams guilty as sin. You hope the bastards get life.
You are white.
It is April 29, 1992, and you are at a liquor store near the corner of Normandie and Florence in the centre of the city. The ‘Not Guilty’ verdict has been broadcast over the radio and television stations throughout LA. An altercation develops between a black man standing in the line in front of you and the white proprietor. The police are called and, minutes later, four squad cars arrive, tyres screeching as if in pain. By this time four more black people have joined the argument, as well as a white woman. You stand by a wall in the corner of the store that has just been painted a cream colour and try to blend in. You can feel the tension in the air like before an earthquake or an electrical storm. You are scared.
You should be.
The incident teems outside the store and into the street. Passers-by and more police become involved, like contagion. Soon over a hundred people, mostly black, are pelting the police with rocks from a nearby nursery. Unexplainably, the police retreat, and the crowd feels its power grow. White bystanders become targets of its aggression.
You think of Japanese horror movies, where the monster eats the cities, but the monster is your community, the city your home.
Instantaneous news coverage fuels the riots and for the next four days LA, like Rome before it, burns itself almost to the ground. Fifty-two people die. Two thousand are injured. There are 9,000 arrests and over $730 million in damages. It takes 13,500 troops to quell the inferno. The image of a black man being beaten by white police is replaced with the reverse, its photographic negative, white truck driver Reginald Denny, beaten by blacks.
You spend most of those four days in South Central LA. You manage to avoid being beaten or robbed, even though you half feel you deserve it. You help some injured bystanders, and try talking an extremely angry black man out of looting a Korean man’s store. It doesn’t work. As the man walks out of the broken store front, carrying a video player like it is something long owed to him, your eyes meet for the briefest of times. All you can do is lower them.
‘Forty acres and a mule,’ he says to you in a tone of voice somewhat suggestive of a lecture.
You don’t know what it means, but you can’t get it out of your head. After the worst is over, and you’re back in your comfortable apartment on Ventura, you look it up.
January 12, 1865. Towards the end of the Civil War, Union general William T Sherman and secretary of war Edwin Stanton meet with black community leaders in Savannah, Georgia. Based on input from newly freed slaves, Sherman issues Special Field Order #15. The order sets aside the Sea Islands and a thirty-mile parcel of land along Charleston’s coast for the settlement of Georgia’s blacks as a means of reparation for the cruelty and indignity they have suffered as slaves. Each family of freed slaves will receive forty acres and an ex-army mule to work the land.
But Special Field Order #15 is never enacted. President Johnson returns the land to ex-confederates as soon as he can, and ‘40 acres and a mule,’ despite being a genuine attempt at repatriation, becomes synonymous with white betrayal of African-Americans.
‘Forty acres and a mule,’ you say out loud, in your apartment on Ventura, wondering if it would have made a difference.
‘Forty acres and a mule.’
* * *
July 20 1979. Managua’s Central Plaza has been re-named Plaza de la Revolucion. The 200,000 strong crowd cheer as one the triumphant arrival of the Sandinista columns, and the square becomes a sea of red and black flags. The same colours as your football team back home, you tell someone in your broken Spanish, and somehow that means something to you. The flags are mostly home made; old blankets tied together, old clothes ripped up and resewn to show support. When you notice the care that has gone into them, you almost weep. These people suffer crushing poverty at the best of times, much more so during the years of the war, and these are probably the only offerings they have to make, but they make them gladly.
Nicaragua is a country torn apart by civil war; 40,000 are dead, 1.5 per cent of the population. Infrastructure is destroyed, crops have been neglected or not planted in the first place, and millions are homeless. But the brutal dictator Somoza has fled to Miami, and his death squads have been defeated.
People are chanting rhythmically, ‘no pasaran, no pasaran.’ It means ‘they shall not pass,’ but it can also be interpreted as ‘no return to the past.’ Intoxicated, you link arms with the person next to you as the mantra washes over everything.
The Sandinistas vow to rebuild the country, piece by devastated piece. Like the old blankets sown together into flags, it may not be pretty, the country’s new leaders are guerrillas after all, not politicians, but it will be done with the same selflessness. For perhaps the first time in your life, you truly believe something a public figure says.
The airport reopens two weeks later. Your friends and family back home implore you to return. You’re not so sure you want to.
For the first time in your life you feel that something you do may actually make a difference. You have volunteered and been accepted as an instructor at a rural literacy centre, just outside Matagalpa. Your Spanish isn’t the best but you feel you can teach people the basics.
In your hand you hold a ticket that has been sent for you by your concerned family. Managua to Miami, Miami to LA, LA to Melbourne. You think of peasants in tiny villages, their whole lives spent toiling the earth for Somoza, paid barely enough to subsist. Thanks to the Sandinistas agrarian reform, these people are now the owners of that land, and they need to learn how to read and write.
You screw the ticket into a small ball and toss it in the wastebasket. Your hotel room is stifling. You hate the heat, you always have. It’s winter at home: open fires and electric blankets. But you pack your bag and head to the train station. You buy a one-way ticket for Matagalpa. From there you’ll have to walk the thirty miles or so to the literacy centre, or bum a ride. Either way you’ll be there tonight, and do what you can.
Ten years later, you are back home, and you read in The International Herald Tribunethat the Sandinistas have been voted out of power by a people sick of The War. It is widely rumoured that the election has been heavily influenced by the anti-Sandanista US Government. Your heart sinks, it’s like reading an old friend’s death notice, or a lover leaving. You gave that country three of the best years of your life, and you can’t help feeling it was all for nothing. The Sandinistas made many mistakes, but many reforms, too. And they were hampered the whole way by a secret war conducted by the US, using ex-Somoza loyalists.
But you believed, you truly did. And the people you taught loved you for it.
An old man, his face as leathery as a reptile, once approached you after class. When every one else had left, he showed you the award he received from the Sandinistas, the Ortega medal, named in honour of the President’s fallen brother. Six of his seven children were killed in the war, and it was his proudest possession. Three of his sons and a daughter were tortured to death by the National Guard. If he could go back and change history, he told you, he wouldn’t do it. The revolution meant more to him than the lives of his children. The revolution meant that all children could live in peace and prosperity, and for that, he told you as you failed miserably in an attempt to fight back tears, no price was too high.
He thanked you from the bottom of his heart for coming to his poor country from your rich one, and placed the Ortega medal in your hand. You looked at it dumbfounded, unable to speak. Through your sobs, you told him you couldn’t, it was too valuable.
He gently closed your hand around the medal and told you that you must. It’s important that you remember what happened here, and why.
You still have it now. Not a day goes by that you don’t think about it. For more than a decade though, you haven’t been able to look at it.
* * *
It is 1976. You catch the train to London with your mother to go clothes shopping. The ride in from Bromley is excruciating. The whole way you are horrified, as only a sixteen-year-old can be, that someone will see you with her.
In Oxford St you pass the 100 Club. There is a hastily made sign outside that reads, ‘TONIGHT. FOUR PUNK BANDS – GENERATION X, THE STRANGLERS, THE DAMNED, SIOUXSEE AND THE BANSHEES.’
You are tall for your age. You and your friends have gotten into clubs before. Your only experience of live music has been cover bands. You’ve heard of punk. Everyone at school has been talking about it like a rumour. You decide you will sneak out with some friends and go.
It is unlike anything you have ever seen. Your teenage heart, filled with dreams of rebellion, fuelled by your reading of the situationists and Velvet Underground records, screams with overpowering joy. People are dressed in outlandish clothes; leather and fishnets, torn jeans and T-shirts, plastic. Their hair is wildly spiked and dyed insane colours. The lead singer of one of the bands wears a swastika armband; you don’t know anything about swastikas except that your parents hate them. Another singer spits at the audience and them at him.
From that moment on you’re hooked. You start to rip the clothes your mother buys for you, and cut your hair short. Your family thinks you are on drugs. After a while you start making your own clothes, in your own distinct style, because punk is not about following fashion. If anything it’s anti-fashion, about doing your own thing. You find a beautifully tailored Brooks Brother’s suit in a thrift shop, and wear it that night to a Clash gig with underpants sewn on the outside.
Inspired, you start a band. You know four chords. In the context of the times, this is one more than most punks. You play some gigs, get laid, score some drugs. Everything is happening at a whirlwind pace. Your parents kick you out of home, and you crash on a friend’s floor at a squat in Islington. There is talk of a record deal. Labels are furiously signing up punk bands in the hope of exploiting the next big thing. The Damned, The Clash and The Sex Pistols have all released records. You think they’re sell-outs. Already punk has become a commodity. Clothes shops in Chelsea are selling pre-ripped jeans and gold safety pins.
You call a band meeting. A new label, Rough Trade, wants to pay you a huge sum just to cut a demo. In the revolutionary spirit of the time, you vote unanimously to take the money, spend it on drugs, and show up for the recording session totally fucked. If you’re not all too wasted, you’ll trash the studio as well.
The idea that you are wasting an opportunity to become famous doesn’t even occur to you. A famous punk band seems totally at odds with what punk is all about.
So keen is Rough Trade to cultivate bands, they dutifully hand over the money up front.
‘You guys are really going places,’ says the exec, trying hard to be cool. He wears a brand spanking new leather jacket and has a haircut that would have cost more than what your dad makes in a month. A year ago he would have looked like Bowie.
‘We sure are,’ you answer, and head off to score.
Later that week, at the studio, you spend the entire time absolutely shit faced. Between you and the other three band members, you consume an ounce of speed, a half-pound of Jamaican heads, twelve-year-old scotch by the mug-full and more pilsener than you can count. Then a friend comes in with some acid from Amsterdam and you all drop a handful of tabs. This is when things start to get really weird. Up until now, your producer has been relatively understanding given the circumstances. He wants you to record a song that he heard you play live at the Scala last week, but once the acid kicks in, you refuse to play anything but Hendrix covers.
Then the drummer, eyes like beasts, starts masturbating during a guitar solo. This seems like the funniest and cleverest thing anyone has ever done, and the rest of the band joins in.
Rock and roll has a long tradition of instrument breaking. This day, however, may be the first and only instance of studio breaking. There is a 24-track mixer here that must be worth roughly the equivalent of the national debt. When you pour some type of alcohol on it and set it alight, the session comes to an abrupt, smoky end.
Now, many years later, you still live in London. You work as a dispatch rider, tearing around the city streets and alleyways, delivering documents. Some days it is the best job in the world, you are your own boss, the money’s good and London is one of the most complex and interesting cities in the world. It never fails to amaze you. Just when you thought you knew it fully, you’ll find yourself in a mews or a cobblestoned street that you never knew existed, and you’ll think of Dickens, or Jack the Ripper.
There’s also the added bonus of breaking the law several dozen times a day, rarely getting caught. It appeals to you in some way you don’t fully understand, but you know it has something to do with your time in the band. You don’t often think about whether or not you did the right thing, but, when it happens, you think you probably did. Sometimes, not often but every now and again, someone will come up to you in a club and tell you that they saw you back in ’76 or ’77 and ask you what happened. The story’s usually good for a free drink or two.
On Punk’s 25th anniversary, a writer makes contact with you and asks if you’d like to make a contribution to a book. You think about it for a few days, then politely decline, and wish him luck. When you see the book for sale you want to buy it. You look at the price tag and change your mind. You decide you need a new rear tyre for your bike more.
The winters are getting harder on the bike. You think about doing something else but dispatch riding is all you know. And you’re happy. You decide you’ll save for a new jacket instead.
You do part-time voluntary work at the anarchist bookshop in Shoreditch, sometimes playing guitar at the piss-ups. You love seeing kids twenty years your junior embracing alternative lifestyles. Now and again they ask you questions with what you think may be something close to reverence, or respect maybe. You try and answer as best you can. A pregnant girl fifteen years younger than you with dreadlocks and no shoes develops a crush. At first you try and ignore her, but she persists with an enthusiasm that you admire. Eventually, you take her back to your tiny flat, and you talk all night. Amongst other things, you tell her about your time with the band. This is the first time you’ve spoken to anyone about it in years.
When the morning sun insinuates itself through your cheap blinds, and you realise that you have to be at work soon, you feel like this has been time well spent. Precious time even. Despite the fact that you’ll be a zombie all day, you wouldn’t have had it any other way.
When you return that evening she is still there, napping on your couch. The butterflies that had been in your stomach all the way home dissolve now. You try not to look at her sleeping while you prepare a meal, but don’t have much success.
When her baby is born, you ask her to move in, and she does. Just like that.
You haven’t felt like this since ’76. Something is changing, and it feels right. You touch her dreadlocks while she naps with her tiny baby. You wouldn’t be dead for quids.
* * *
It is 12 September 2001. You take a walk down The Bowery today instead of your usual cab to work. You love the smell of the city, dirty yet spiritous, and don’t imagine you could live anywhere else. The whining of the bums and the hum of traffic are music to you now. You’ve been here for more than a decade, and it’s like the city has merged with your DNA. You get nervous when you visit your parents in Cleveland.
Your office is on the 92nd floor of One World Trade and affords a spectacular view of downtown. You are doing little more than admiring that view when June rings you for lunch and you take the long elevator ride down to street level. You can’t concentrate on work today, for some reason. You’ve been foggy all morning.
At a little deli on Broadway you order your soup and tell June about your dream last night.
‘People are lined up at hospitals all over New York waiting to give blood, but doctors and nurses kept coming out to them and telling them there are no bodies. What the hell does that mean? No bodies?’ June just shrugs like she’s not interested.
‘You don’t want to hear what I’ve got to say.’
She’s right, you don’t. June claims that working at the World Trade Centre is not good for you in some kind of spiritual, karmic way. That to cram that many people into such a small space is a kind of madness that goes largely unrecognised except by the enlightened few, like herself. New Age hooey, you think.
After you eat and say goodbye, you ascend almost a mile skyward back towards your office. Maybe you’re working too hard. Perhaps that’s got something to do with the weird dreams. You decide there and then that you’ll finish early tonight and catch the new Spike Lee film at the Walter Reade.
When you settle down in the cinema with your popcorn and Coke, you notice for the first time, during the credits, that Lee’s production company is called Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks. You remember something about that from a class you took at Columbia University when you first moved here. It was something about a white turnaround on black repatriation for slaves. You think it’s a really clever name.
You hope you won’t dream later that night, and settle down to enjoy the show.