The Nineties

by Sandeep Parmar

This is our fear of ‘the other’
– Indians, blacks, Mexicans, Communists, Muslims, whatever –
America has to have its monsters,
so we can zone them, segregate them,
if possible, shoot them.
    – Robin Robertson, from The Long Take

i. April 29, 1992

This is not your city. What burns and whose likeness with the earth burns with it. When did you arrive only to leave again? Walking through wet cement. What does your longing mean. The sky asks who made a season as wretched as this. A man stands on his shop roof with a rifle pointed at the crowd. Another “stood his ground and did his duty”. He “got caught up in the frenzy”. You watched it on TV, the suburbs greened and rolling. Over and over, a man, many men, they are all men, this much you think. “Can we all just get along.” Wash and repeat, your mother says. Latasha Harlins, three years older than you, shot dead by somebody’s Asian grandmother. A grandmother not unlike yours. She gets community service. Money in her hand. Empire Liquor, 91st and Figueroa, one of the first to go. The city is far away, the city is in your living room. A two-bedroom apartment in El Rio, California, once ‘New Jerusalem’. America must have its monsters. It would take a long decade to change you from an American to an immigrant to a monster. Your likeness burns with it. The event is not itself but who is watching themselves being watched with relief. “U just had a big time use of force”, the cop types into his car dispatch, driving a victory lap round the precinct. Officer officer overseer (KRS-One). Chances are you have been looked upon with thoughts of violence. Not guilty. Devils. Filthy (Ice Cube). Today, the jury told the world that what we all saw with our own eyes was not a crime. (Tom Bradley) At the end of the small hours (Aime Césaire) Everyone cried for himself / As the great noise descended / The beat of a thousand wings (D.S. Marriott). For all that is yours. For all you have taken. Take this. This is not your city.

ii. April 17, 1993

You climb, arms over you, arms over your head. 188 feet into the air to drop and ply yourself from land again in loops of steel painted red. In the two and a half minutes this takes, two kinds of screams split the air from the ground. This is personal. Below, a “mob” of black teenagers is angry about an oversold TLC concert. Magic Mountain spokeswoman Eileen Harrell said park officials did nothing wrong. She blamed the violence on a crowd attracted by “that type of music”. Dropping 171 feet at an angle of 55 degrees, you go round again. Yesterday, a Federal court imprisoned Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell. This is not personal. You will have due process. You will have equal protection under the law. It was never personal. Running under a man’s overcoat to the school bus, you lie down on the green vinyl seats and wait to be counted. Some of you are missing, others are crying. One is focused on a tennis ball-sized jaw breaker seized in his fist. A refugee from El Salvador whose first memory is a low flying plane you wrongly guessed was a crop duster. Luis believes he is a mutant, a saviour, a polymath, a Professor Xavier. He is waiting for his father who was disappeared. The park is emptying but he concentrates on it the white ball melting between his palms. Is personal. Helicopter searchlights flood the windows and rotate over your low breathing. Serpents of light and glass upend themselves in the dark, riding empty cars into the night.

iii. January 17, 1994

The old fault shakes our mountains, and rolls the San Fernando Valley’s avenues into its song of buckled stucco and drywall. The smell of Vermont, Fairfax and Sepulveda burning. Folds of stone slither along a fissure that opens on your doorstep. A tremor, a riot, a verdict. Your step widens across the pavement. On the bank between sleep and death, you find your life at once to be so orderly. Unpatriated as you are by the parting of granite. Earth falls from an axe handed to your enemies in turns. Its dark soil burning. No reason then, to watch your well-built house, duly peopled, whiten to ash except that you might otherwise have refused to leave. Successive tremors fly. Dishes thick as cataracts wheel over the linoleum starboard hard and smash in the pitch. Something disturbing itself in the night has cracked the mock Tudor mould of your exile. An overpass crumbles out of view. That year, the neighbours wouldn’t rebuild and left. What clings to you, you carry into another century. The cheapness of all you are obliged to call home. This is not personal. You recall without disgrace the borders you crossed, invisible but alive. Wrong question, you say, pointing your body to the west.

iv. October 3, 1995

This moving quarry on which you have landed carries on burning. Seneca, the only black student in the twelfth grade, bursts from the classroom, shouting – my n**** is free, my n**** is free – circling the school annexes where you sit in a row figuring the terminal velocity of a car travelling at speed against a wall without casualties. Your heroes are not good, your teachers proud; they pull the doors shut and let Seneca run himself tired. You gather your books and wait for it to be over. The physicist doubles as the girls’ tennis coach. Holds court. He is a sentimental Europhile in a household of women. Every morning, he joins the prayer circle around the flag pole. They quote Pat Robertson into the onshore breeze. This is personal. The door is still shut. Outside, transplanted eucalyptus trees stand guard, dropping their tan sun-hardened skins. Parallax of shade and milk, axes x and y, the perfect state of standard temperature and pressure to whom all laws equally apply. Who is under siege. Who rattles the wall with their footsteps, fractures the cement. Who longs for the door to open, a leading out. Tracks that appear in the blood. Intersecting nowhere. A victory. A quarterback. Who stays on like this, until they die.