MAILANDER’S LA - The protests and outbursts of LA civil unrest and crime sprees subsequent to the Zimmerman trial verdict have demonstrated to LA's chattering class a few things that we did not know about ourselves before this media-induced stress test.
Most of these things are not fun to learn, and many of them we can lay at the worn doormat of media itself: first for polluting the well, and then for pretending, right along with all our local politicians, that it's not polluted at all.
On Sunday and Monday, for instance, we learned not only that the media office of new Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, was willing to juke local media within a few days of swearing his oath to a teenager, but also that local media are all too vulnerable to fall for the slightest head fake from the City's new boss.
The fact is this: Garcetti was out of town when the unrest attendant to the verdict began to unfold. But who knew that? And if media knew, why didn't they report it Sunday?
He had traveled to Pittsburgh for the weekend, the first leg of a week-long trip that mixed family down-time and city business.
But even as Garcetti stretched his legs in The Steel City, over a hundred protesters stretched their legs as well, taking a little passeggiata on the Santa Monica Freeway.
TV, maybe cowing to the newbie Mayor, decided to sit on the sidelines regarding unlawful marches and unrest until the appropriate news time hours.
In Crenshaw district, lines were formed, police were taunted, crowds advanced, police swung sticks; little of this was on television, though it was all over Instagram, Twitter, and other Internet-based media.
None of the protesters who stopped traffic on the freeway were arrested. It seems worthwhile to remind ourselves that three years ago the local sucky band Imperial Stars got three years probation and a community service sentence for obstructing freeway traffic. Media still largely took a powder on the whole affair, especially regarding the politics of the moment.
Sunday night, the demonstrators marched from Leimert Park up to West Hollywood. Then they went to Hollywood and Highland--the second-top traffic snarled intersection in the city (behind Wilshire/Santa Monica, and most weekends beating it).
Then they went to the CNN tower--where all the divas in town end up sooner or later anyway. I understand how they would want all the publicity they can get. But by this time, traffic in the city had become hopelessly snarled in Hollywood and also, owing to a spectacular Saturday accident involving an overturned gas truck at the Golden State and Glendale Freeway interchange, in Echo Park, Downtown, and elsewhere.
Amidst this Carmageddon of unintended consequences, Garcetti tweeted--tweeted!--something from wherever he was on the road, calling for peace in our troubled time. The LA Times reported it as though he were actually in town blaring the message from a bullhorn. On Sunday, similarly, no television stations reported that he was out of town.
The next day, Monday, one local blogosphere editor, Kevin Roderick, took a look at Garcetti's most recent media release and wondered out loud where the Mayor might actually be. "Mayor Garcetti is out of the city, but where?" Roderick's LA Observed asked. He noted that "Disappearing without prepping the public with abundant detail his third week in office probably wasn't the smartest thing for Garcetti to do."
But all of LA media--all--had played along on Sunday, not wanting to admit that Garcetti was in fact MIA on his third Sunday in the Mayor's office, and tweeting from an undisclosed location.
Even throughout Monday, there were few inquiries into where Garcetti actually was, and certainly none before Roderick's inquiry. Garcetti's media officers and various social media operatives were now saying, "But yesterday he cut his trip short!" Which media bought wholesale, even though the press people didn't announce any change in Garcetti's plans on Sunday.
No, the Garcetti team waited until Monday to make the claim that he had decided the preceding day to come back to LA. Media gave Garcetti a mulligan on this too.
On Monday night, protests turned into disturbance in the City's Crenshaw District. Things were worse than one saw on television--YouTube easily confirmed as much, and in real time--but still nothing like '92 bad. In earnest, if you could measure it, you would probably come up with something like far less that 1/100th the activity of '92, and with no buildings burned.
The fact that the disturbance zone had been confined to Crenshaw District was telling enough. Crenshaw is in good part a middle-class community in which young African Americans are as curious about the hip hop lifestyle as Anglo suburban kids are. It has been much rebuilt since the '92 riots.
The sheer fact that there isn't much to burn now along commercial districts, and that the community owns far more of the businesses on its commercial strips, have been profound deterrents to wider unrest. Youths started a fire in a trashcan in Crenshaw on Monday night. It burned like an isolated barbecue in a wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalk with nothing but stucco storefronts; it seemed campfire-like sight in the night when contrasted to the memories of the terrible fires of twenty-one years ago.
But things were not altogether safe, as even media learned--the hard way. Veteran KCBS political reporter Dave Bryan and his cameraman were taken out tackling-dummy style by a rambunctious youth, who blindsided the cameraman, who crashed into Bryan, toppling both suddenly. The youth then took off for the hills, and police are still trying to identify them.
The Internet and its interactive nature seemed to play a hand too on Monday night. Far more people tuned into television in '92, when there was no Internet for the masses. Following along the hashtag #Crenshaw or #LeimertPark and finding something vicious or nasty is part of the activity too; an activity with lots of bark but little material effect.
But on Tuesday night, marauding mobs of youths took the Red Line up to Hollywood and Highland, and tore up a few blocks of Tinseltown's tourist-trap acreage. KCBS reported 20-40 youths on a "crime spree"; other media outlets reported fewer; the Times would say that they were all social media hooligans, and all but one arrested were under 18. But to most on the scene, it seemed like there were a lot more and they were using phones and text rather than social media to disappear and reappear. Tourist shops were ransacked; youths kicked and ran over people.
The next day, Wednesday, new Hollywood Councilman Mitch O'Farrell assured a shaken community and an obliging media that "Hollywood has never been safer."
The Times nodded along, blaming Twitter for the "flash mobs" of "thieves." He later hit Hollywood's Loteria Grill with Mayor Garcetti, Chief Charlie Beck, and Councilman Tom LaBonge to drive the point home--via social media, which according to the Times is also the hooligans' media of choice.
"Despite the behavior of a few lawless knuckleheads, crime has fallen in LA precipitously over the last ten years - and we all intend on keeping it moving in that direction," former Oklahoma U cheerleader O'Farrell continued to bark into his community megaphone.
I did my best to ignore the Zimmerman trial as it unfolded, because it is the kind of news story I can't stand: the kind where increasing amounts of media point a camera or a microphone in the trending direction of other people with cameras and microphones, and feed the public a soap opera in unsatisfying and painfully incremental measures, spilling poison for all far beyond the natural radius of the tragedy.
Injustice is chilling; so are cause célèbres in general, regardless of their outcomes.
My dislike for these kinds of CNN stories derives from my life experience: any news attendant to a cause célèbre verdict always end up being about something other than the verdict itself. It so often ends up as yet another story that spills yet more poison to an even wider circle, with cameras and microphones duly chasing more trend as news shifts from verdict to reaction to verdict to the reaction to the reaction to the inevitable political posturings, and then extinguishes itself, having accomplished very, very little along the way.
Indeed, injustice is terrifying. But it is also far from unique to Florida. All of us have so many injustices in our own backyards to pay attention to.
(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)
Vol 11 Issue 58
Pub: July 19, 2013