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Ecology of a Riot: The Deserts of Rodney King and Mike Davis

Los Angeles Riots

After nearly thirty years of struggle and continued efforts to be more inclusive and diverse, the country is once again in the throes of unrest, clamoring for real change. As the nation strives for answers and ways forward in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it is helpful to look back. How did we get here? How can we help make lasting changes? Read on to learn more.

Searching for a thread to begin this L.A. riot-remembrance, I find myself gravitating towards Rodney King and Mike Davis.  

One is a longtime radical scholar and activist, probably the most influential critic on Los Angeles since foundational historian Carey McWilliams, though caricatured in some quarters as an apocalyptic Marxist crank. The other is known for the name attached to the body receiving 56 blows from LAPD batons on George Holliday’s proto-viral videotape, and for a five-word plea for peace. When Rodney’s biography is read closely alongside Mike’s critique as context, the story of 1992 becomes a parable of economics and power deeply woven into a particular ecology. The human narrative and the land shape each other, mirror each other, become one.

I begin in my imagination (because I’m 7000 miles in Córdoba, Argentina) by looking down on Los Angeles like the news helicopters did, night and day, during the flames and rage of 25 years ago. Back then, I and many others critiqued that view as the “Bladerunner gaze” of a white middle class from its safe and secure “off world” position upon the marauding hordes of color below. Eddie Olmos walked out of Ridley Scott’s vision of Phillip K. Dick’s Los Angeles of 2019 and onto the actual streets of L.A. in 1992 to sweep up riot detritus so the middle class wouldn’t have to.

Looking over Los Angeles

I regard the landscape upon which the city is set. The first impression is feeling of immensity the Los Angeles Basin produces, but there is an equally powerful spatial sensation – that the expanse exists only because of the upthrusts of the several transverse, coastal and peninsular ranges that border it, including the Santa Monicas, San Gabriels, San Bernadinos, and Santa Anas. The San Gabriels are particularly dramatic in their sudden and steep appearance, making the basin look not so much like a bowl but a dense urban island about to be engulfed by a colossal tsunami of churning, fire-scarred, pine-green land. Especially when you regard the view from the foothills in Altadena, where Rodney King grew up, or from the Rose Bowl, close to where I used to visit Mike Davis when he lived in the area in the early 1990s, or from my childhood home in a neighborhood we used to call Silver Lake but that was eventually branded Franklin Hills. Every morning as I walked out the front door headed to school I was confronted by Mt. Wilson, crowned by the famous observatory, in all its Ansel Adams-esque grandeur. (Around the time of the riots I first read of the White City Hotel, perched on a ridge just below, a late 19th and early 20th century racially branded playground for elites.)

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The mountains dominate the life of the basin visually, and climatically. They function like a regulator valve between the Pacific Ocean and the Mojave and Colorado deserts, finding the sweet spot between the marine moisture and the dryness of the Santa Ana winds. Despite their name, the Santa Anas have nothing to do with Orange County but with high pressure ridges that coil over the deserts and send pulses of air strong enough to breach the mountain ranges, gathering heat through friction along the way. They tear across the basin, particularly strong in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino valleys (Mike was born and Rodney born and raised in the latter), leaving the skies startlingly clear. That is, until a wildfire breaks out and a pyrocumulus cloud towers over the mountains, eventually depositing a snow of ash on the basin. The winds can blow any time of year, though most often between spring and fall, and are a prime factor in natural (and, for the last century because of over-development, unnatural) fire cycles, from the San Gabriels to Malibu. I fondly recall Mike’s article, provocatively titled – and impeccably researched – “Let Malibu Burn,” written in the mid-1990s and thoroughly accurate in its forecast of an ever-more apocalyptic landscape. Fire suppression due to development is the real devastation in the local ecology, which needs fire to sustain itself. Let the rock god mansions of Malibu burn, in other words, to save the land from us.

I don’t have my old tattered copy of "City of Quartz" with me here in Córdoba, but I found a pirated PDF on the internet in seconds. The book begins in the Mojave, amid the ruins of L.A. activist attorney Job Harriman’s attempt at socialist utopia, invariably referred to in popular accounts as “failed” but we will call it “short-lived” in honor of the community that thrived on the land. The site, which bears no historical marker, abuts the Pearblossom Highway (SR 138) at the foot of the San Gabriels on the desert side and sustained a population of up to 1000 between 1914 and 1918. It probably would have remained much longer had authorities, likely with ideological antipathy, not denied permits for building a dam to insure a steady supply of water.

Mike notes the harbingers of more unnatural disaster to come, threatening to completely erase the ghosts of utopia and the unique land they lived upon:

“With generations of experience in uprooting the citrus gardens of Orange County and the San Fernando Valley, the developers — ten or twelve major firms, headquartered in places like Newport Beach and Beverly Hills —regard the desert as simply another abstraction of dirt and dollar signs. The region’s major natural wonder, a Joshua tree forest containing individual specimens often thirty feet high and older than the Domesday Book, is being bulldozed into oblivion. Developers regard the magnificent Joshuas, unique to this desert, as large noxious weeds unsuited to the illusion of verdant homesteads.” [1]

Here, in the desert, Mike says, we are “excavating the future,” in the form of the commune as antidote to the apocalypse which is real estate and the spatial regimes it spawns through, in chronological order, racial covenants, redlining, and gentrification. Beginning in the 1990s and accelerating through the boom of the 2000s, the regional economy produced islands of wealth in the erstwhile “inner city” and relegated the working classes to 3-hour plus commutes from bedroom communities bordering, or in, the desert. In this scheme, the LAPD historically played goon squad enforcer of it all – keeping the “white spot”[2] areas clean so, as John Fante memorably describes it in Ask the Dust, the Anglo migrants from the Midwest could come to “die in the sun,” only to find upon arrival “that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others.”

Like his literary and political forebear Carey McWilliams, Mike attacks boosterism and its racist, classist underpinnings, unveiling the Oz of real estate behind the enduring representation of Southern California as sun-kissed paradise. A kind of eco-Marxist, he also points to our beautiful, fragile, and dangerous biome as the ultimate equalizer, where social disaster takes its place alongside wildfires, earthquakes, and floods, where the environment is always political and all politics emerges from the environment. 

Rodney King

Rodney King’s story uncannily embodies the “sunshine and noir” (as Mike puts it in "City of Quartz") of living and dying in Los Angeles. For Rodney, the contradiction meant a life always on the edge of existential annihilation, always vulnerable to the LAPD and its racist sponsors (during his “Can’t we get along” speech he wore a bulletproof vest because of assassination threats) or the internalized demons that drove him to harm himself and his intimates.  

As Roger Guenveur Smith’s portrays him in his aching, immersive history-as-performance solo show, Rodney indulged all the “topographical options” of our region.[3] His father, nicknamed “Kingfish,” would take him angling in the Hansen Dam area at the base of the San Gabriels. Breaking age-old racial typologies, he also taught himself to ski on Mt. Baldy and was an avid surfer.

In this 1992 episode of "Life & Times," hosts Patt Morrison and Rubén Martínez, along with actor Edward James Olmos and other guests from the community, discuss the incidents surrounding the Los Angeles riots, also known as the Los Angeles Uprising. This Wednesday marks the 13th anniversary of the first day of the riots.

The King family’s arrival in Altadena coincides with the aftermath of freeway construction and school desegregation – prime motivating factors in the white flight of the 1960s. This placed young Rodney below the fire-scarred pine-green tsunami, and we imagine this is why he came to fish and ski. (How a young black man growing up 30 miles from the ocean becomes a surfer is more of a mystery.) Living just below the steep flanks of the San Gabriels means that he had the perfect perch from which to breathe in the desert on Santa Ana nights.

I have not read any record of Rodney driving his white Hyundai or any other car to the desert, to experience the winds at their source, sliced by yucca spikes. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that he never visited the desert – it is practically a native calling, although a highly segregated one – so we’ll imagine him there, long before March 3, 1991. Is he getting high? [4] No. Not tonight. Maybe he’s got one of his three daughters with him, just needed to get out of the house after a fight with the girlfriend and drive the wee hours east on the 10, back before the wind farm was built near Palm Springs. The winds roar through the San Gorgonio Pass, coming from the west, an on-shore flow, the opposite of the Santa Anas. He can feel the tailwind buffeting the car, scooting him deeper into the desert. He sees a stand of tamarisk trees dancing wildly alongside the road. He looks in the rearview – hardly any cars. When he looks down at the speedometer he’s surprised he’s doing well over 90. 

But we can’t take the desert romance too far, can’t completely free Rodney on the land because there’s Desert Hot Springs up ahead, tweaker noir. And the California Institution for Men at Chino is just off the 60 in the transition zone between basin and desert. There is no coincidence in the rise of the New Jim Crow and the real estate boom of the 2000s. The price differentials resulting from the devastation of what Trump anachronistically calls the “inner city” are precisely what spurred the speculation of gentrification and the reversal of white flight.

With the relatively modest settlement he received from the city ($3.8 million, before attorney’s fees) he invested in – what else? – real estate. After buying his mother a house, he bought himself one on East Jackson Street in Rialto, a neighborhood that the real estate boom appears to have avoided. “Comparables” in the area were under $200,000 at the time of King’s death in 2012, placing the property near the bottom of the Southern California market.[5] But it had a dramatic view of the mountains just south of the Cajón Pass that separates the San Gabriels and the San Bernardinos, the first Joshua trees just a couple of dozen miles up the 15. He might well have ended up in the desert, following the demographic wave of African Americans fleeing the basin for the Antelope Valley twin cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, joining working class whites and Latinos in an anxious mix that spawned a dramatic rise in hate crimes in the post-riot 1990s. But he remained in what appears to have been his comfort zone at the base of the mountains on the coastal side. His childhood home, his final home, and the site where he decided to stop his car the night of the beating were all within a few miles of the foothills. Which is to say he spent his whole life touched by that liminal climate’s flora and fauna. Coyotes and deer and bears wandering into backyards. (A staple of local evening news.) Red-tailed hawks circling and screeching overhead. White sage growing wild through cracks in the asphalt. How conscious was Rodney of this? He was, by all accounts, in his intense physical activity, intimately tied to the land. On work release from prison, he joined a hot-shot crew in the Stanislaus National Forest, where the sierras cast their rain shadow over the Great Basin Desert in middle Nevada. Imagine him, shovel to shoulder, hiking the granite-and-pine slopes.  

Rodney King - Swimming Pool

Rialto neighbors Fontana, where Mike Davis was born and where "City of Quartz" ends.

They didn’t coincide temporally in the San Bernardino Valley, but Rodney and Mike are existential neighbors, both subjects and critics of succeeding Western regimes of boom and bust and busted heads, of magical and haunted encounters with the land. The magnificent wildflower blooms after wet winters; the dizzying contrails inscribed on a California sunset by missiles launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Fontana, writes Mike, is “about the fate of those suburbanized California working classes who cling to their tarnished dreams at the far edge of the L.A. galaxy.”

In his house in Rialto, Rodney was, as he had been all his life, dozens of miles from the ocean, but he bought access to it, too, in the form of a kidney-shaped swimming pool that he custom-inscribed, in black tile, with two dates: March 3, 1991 and April 29, 1992. His and the city’s dates of violent, fiery death and birth.  He considered a third number, the tally of deaths from the riots (55), but decided against it.

Rodney knew houses, intimately, from the inside out, having worked construction “intermittently” according to press accounts, before and even long after the riots (when the settlement money ran out). On the night of March 3, 1991, he was “celebrating” a new job he was set to start the next day. He’d worked on sites across the region, surely on many low-slung composition roof units like the one he bought. His life ended where it started, in a house at the edge of the mountains which are at the edge of the desert. According to the weather archives, it appears that on the night of his death, a mild Santa Ana – air from the Mojave, propelled by an early summer dome of high pressure, spilled over the mountains and breathed down upon him, as he got high and waded into his pool and found peace, if not justice.


[1] The book was originally published in 1990. Mike's activist scholarship established the socioeconomic and political context within which to make sense of what happened on April 29, 1992. By the latter part of the decade, the reaction set in – boosters colluding with clueless liberal journalists to undermine his authority, mostly by attacking his statistical research. Undaunted, Mike went on to produce numerous books and articles, particularly in the vein of environmental justice (including memorable articles about NOLA before, during, and after Katrina). On a personal note, Mike, bless his socialist soul, hooked me up to publish my first book, as well as doing the same for my friend and former L.A. Weekly and Los Angeles Times writer Lynell George. He is recovering from surgery for cancer. He's got a lot of people pulling for him to pull through. Solidarity forever, Mike.

[2] Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce campaign, 1920-21.

[3] I first saw Roger perform the show live at the Bootleg Theater in 2013 and just watched Spike Lee’s powerful capture of it on Netflix. Much of the biographical detail on Rodney in this essay comes from the play.

[4] I certainly did when I lived in the desert. Drunk and high on just about everything. Which was sadly ironic, because I’d gone there to clean up. The beauty of the desert is crushing when you come down.

[5] http://www.scpr.org/blogs/economy/2012/06/18/6667/what-kind-shape-were-rodney-kings-finances/

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