About one week after the rebellion and looting that took place in South-Central Los Angeles as a result of the Rodney King verdict, I was watching the news when a young man was handcuffed and placed in a police car. The announcer said, “The son of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton has been arrested on charges of looting in last week’s riots.” For a quick moment my mind rocked. The son of Fred Hampton living and looting in SouthCentral L.A. How could this be? How is it that of all the people rebelling, the police were instantly able to pick out the son of Fred Hampton? I relived the past anger that seems constantly to be at the forefront of black people’s lives. Will society ever wake up? Will racism and inequality ever be abandoned? In the brief moment the son of Fred Hampton appeared on my television screen, I saw him as a nice-looking, angry black man and I wondered was he like his charismatic father? Did he stand for revolution? Did he hope to help the people? What has he been doing all these years? Questions I might never have answers to, yet, I will always wonder …
On December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton and his associate Mark Clark were slain execution-style in Chicago in a police raid dispatched by Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan. I was a sophomore in a high school near there at the time. I recall entering their West Side apartment where the door, walls, windows, and mattresses were riddled with bullets and soaked with blood. I can remember my outrage and the outrage of my peers. In this case, as in the Rodney King trial, the policemen were tried by a jury with no black members and to this day no one has been held responsible for the deaths of two African-American men.
Twenty months before the Fred Hampton and Mark Clark raid, on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot to death. At that time, because of all the same pressures and frustrations, reasons and excuses, involved in the rebellion in South-Central L.A., we too reacted. I recall a long line of my high school peers running, screaming, looting, damaging buildings down Eighty-seventh Street on Chicago’s South Side. Many of those buildings stayed boarded up for years. I was among them and I too looted and destroyed and wanted badly to hurt anyone who dared to be white and in our path at that moment. Most of us from the 1968-69 era are now adults and parents. What legacy have we left for our children to follow? And what contribution could I make to end this perpetual cycle of negativity and destruction?
As I watched the rioting and looting from my safe home in Chicago, Illinois, during the week of April 29, I felt numb, almost unconnected to the events. I understood why it was happening, but I felt too helpless and ineffective to do anything about it. In the weeks since, I have continued to read about those who were there and were hurt financially or physically, those who watched and ran to help clean up, offer food, friendship, whatever. I wanted to try to understand and learn because something was missing. Had I grown to be a working, struggling, credit-card-carrying adult whose passion and compassion were left behind in the sixties and seventies? I too needed to know “What can I do?” Yes, even from my home far removed from the immediate moment. But what can I offer that will have a lasting impact? What gesture will make a difference to the future so that this cycle is not repeated and 1 don’t have to turn on my television when I’m fifty or sixty and see my children looting, damaging property, being beaten? What small gesture?
The answer came as I talked with my two sons, ages thirteen and ten. We discussed the Rodney King verdict, the jurors, the rebellion in L.A. I was very proud of my sons’ responses, their ability to articulate what they saw and heard and how it made them feel and think. My thirteen-year-old at first thought the people accused of beating the white taxi driver should be acquitted just as the four policemen in the Rodney King beating were acquitted. But as we discussed right and wrong, fair and unfair, cause and effect, he began to realize that was not necessarily the answer either. I shared with them the experience of my own rebellion after the death of Martin Luther King and tried to help them see the cycle, the connection that must be broken. We discussed the responsibility of each human being to make the correct choices for his life. I told my sons that as human beings we are all responsible for what happens in our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our world until the day we die. And I asked them to think about ways they could have handled their anger and frustration at a society that always seems to look in the other direction when it comes to us—African-Americans. I recognized that I may not be able to fly to L.A. to help the cleanup crews, and I am unable to send cash. But I can educate my sons and my three-year-old daughter so they understand the necessity of making correct choices. So they are never left feeling hopeless or helpless. So they are capable people who contribute to our society and help others do the same through their example. Perhaps, in this way, I can correct my own past error and shape a more positive future.