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Mapping LA's Long Tradition of State-Sanctioned Racial Violence, 1771-Present

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This weekend, Heyday Books will launch LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas, with 19 "maps" of Los Angeles (some literal, some impressionistic) accompanied by 19 essays on topics ranging from street grids to fish to missiles to radio DJs. We're exploring one map from the book every day this week.

Riots broke out in Baltimore this week after the funeral of Freddie Gray, who died mysteriously while in police custody, and as the usual suspects wring their hands over property destruction, Ta-Nehisi Coates points out the absurdity at The Atlantic: "When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con." You could focus on this particular outburst of anger and frustration in Baltimore (or on the LA Riots, which began 23 years ago today), but it's pretty meaningless outside the context of centuries of state-sanctioned racial violence perpetrated against the non-white citizens of that city or of Ferguson, Missouri, or of New York City or Los Angeles or anywhere in the US.

In her LAtitudes essay "Landscapes of Racial Violence," Laura Pulido surveys some of the bloodiest sites of state-sanctioned racial violence in Los Angeles, some long since turned into tourist attractions and some still in operation, doing what they do. (The map accompanying the piece, below, locates the toxic sites that have proliferated in non-white neighborhoods.)

Pulido writes:

Los Angeles's soil is soaked with blood. Peoples' lands were forcibly taken from them—the Tongva's by the Spanish, the Californios' by the Americans … It was through the state (whether Spain, Mexico, or the US), that land was acquired and that people of color were killed, kidnapped, coerced into working, mutilated, and incarcerated—not, as we'd like to believe, through "bad" people operating in a supposedly aracial world.

And that oppression persists, both in echoes of the old violence and in entirely new ways. She suggests digging deeper to unearth the real mechanics that created a handful of famous places. The list:

Mission San Gabriel

If there is a ground zero for racial violence in Los Angeles, it is the San Gabriel Mission, established in 1771 …. [The mission] was the primary vehicle through which Spain captured and converted Indians and coerced them into working. The mission system was a joint undertaking by state and church, involving soldiers as well as priests. Soldiers accompanied the priests to assist in the colonization process, but consistently undermined the church's efforts by engaging in sexual violence against the native women. Junípero Serra, overseer of the mission system, wrote, "this mission [San Gabriel] gives me the greatest cause for anxiety; the secular arm down there was guilty of the most heinous crimes, killing the men to take their wives …. Laws were passed, policies adopted, but the sexual violence continued.

La Zanja Madre

Indians built Los Angeles's early infrastructure, including the missions, ranchos, and public spaces … Why were the Indians willing to do such work? Some were eventually driven by hunger when their traditional hunting-gathering lifestyle was rendered impossible by the usurpation of their land by Spain and Mexico. Others were coerced into working—through physical force and even by law. Indeed, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians (1850) codified the numerous ways in which Spanish, Mexicans, and Euro-Americans sought to produce an unwilling workforce in California, what is often called, 'unfree labor.' ….

The Zanja Madre in Olvera Street illustrates the practice of convict leasing. Zanjas, or water ditches, were a key part of Los Angeles's early infrastructure. The Zanja Madre, the main ditch, distributed water to smaller ditches, which then delivered it to individuals for irrigation and domestic use. Such water systems were a hallmark of Hispanic settlements throughout the southwestern US, and, requiring continuous labor, were communally maintained.

Over time, wealthy residents began sending Indians and poor workers to fulfill their maintenance obligations. In 1836, the ayuntamiento (city council) had the city constable 'arrest all drunken Indians and compel them to work on [the] zanja.' This practice illustrates how racialized violence works. The state actively produces criminals by rendering illegal certain behaviors, such as loitering, vagrancy, or drunkenness—of course, these behaviors are in part responses to the destruction of the Tongva way of life and homeland. Once these laws are established, local policies are adopted to produce an unpaid, powerless workforce.

Grand Park

Los Angeles's racial hierarchy changed dramatically after the Mexican-American War (1846–48). There was a great deal of chaos in its aftermath, as one set of legal, economic, and cultural systems unevenly replaced another. As part of conquest, Euro-Americans racialized Mexicans as inferior, depicting them as dirty, lazy, racial mongrels. Indeed, the term 'greaser' was introduced at this time …. This particular site was the city's first jail, established in 1853. In November 1858, Pancho Daniel was lynched on a beam in the jailyard. Daniel had been a leader, along with Juan Flores, of a group of bandits who killed a sheriff in San Juan Capistrano in 1857. The murder triggered a massive hunt for Flores and Daniel. Fifty-two Latino men were arrested, and numerous Mexicans, some with no connection to the crime, were lynched. Daniel eluded the authorities for some time but was eventually caught and imprisoned. A change of venue to Santa Barbara was granted, but a group of residents opposed due process. They demanded the keys from the jailer, took the prisoner out, and hanged him. The inquest concluded that the 'deceased came to his death from strangulation, by a crowd of persons to the jury unknown.'

Men's Central Jail

Welcome to the largest jail on earth …. Thousands of mostly poor Black and Brown men are placed in cages here, with devastating consequences for their communities. The jail is known for its severe overcrowding, violence, and illnesses. It was constructed in 1963 and initially designed to house 3,323 inmates. Because of the massive criminalization of the late twentieth century, the facility was expanded and now houses close to 5,000 souls ….

Criminalization is the process of making acts, ways of being, and relationships illegal that were not previously so (recall the drunken Indians). Examples include Proposition 184 (1994), the "three-strikes" law; Proposition 21 (2000), that treats youthful offenders as adults; enhanced sentences for certain offenses; and an entirely new body of law aimed at immigrants since 9/11.

This criminalization disproportionately targets people of color. African American men, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the state's population, comprise 44 percent of those convicted under 'three strikes.' Likewise, Latinas/os, through the criminalization of immigration, are now the single largest ethnic group in federal prisons, despite constituting only 15 percent of the national population.

And that's just a small sample:

The eugenics movement; the Japanese American internment; Repatriation; the Zoot-Suit Riots; the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial; Chief Parker; Watts 1965; Rodney King; MacArthur Park 2006; the Rampart scandal; mass deportations post 9/11— these are all examples of Los Angeles's history of state-sanctioned racial violence. The city is built on exceptional and everyday human rights violations.


· Finding Yaangna, the Ancestral Village of LA's Native People [Curbed LA]
· LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas [Heyday]