Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity by Gaye Theresa Johnson- A Review #AMST525


Mainstream American racial discourse loves conflict between marginalized groups.  Turning every instance into a spectacle, these narratives erase the tensions and material conflicts, often times pathologizing communities for an inability to get along with one another.  From the media to Hollywood, from the halls of Washington to the ivory towers, discourses around interracial conflict deny/erase/ignore the context of racism, letting power, governing ideologies, and dominant institutions off the hook.  We have seen this with media discourses around Blacks and Latinos, Blacks and Jews, and Blacks and Asians.  Of course, the centering of blackness is instructive given the centrality of narratives of pathology and efforts to imagine blackness as a destructive and undesirable pollutant. Not surprisingly there is little room to discuss resistance, to document coalitions and shared struggles against white supremacy, and the articulation of “freedom dreams” (Kelley 2003).

Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson, with Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (UC Press), steps into this narrative vacuum.  Challenging the erasure of resistance efforts that sought to claim foreclosed space, Dr. Johnson offers an important discussion of a history that remains “illegible” (Neal 2013) given the hegemony of narratives of conflict, hostility, and pathology.  Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity “examines interracial anti-racist alliances, divisions among aggrieved minority communities, and the cultural expressions and spatial politics that emerge from the mutual struggles of Blacks and Chicanos in Los Angeles from the 1940s to the present.”  Challenging “institutional and social repression” that has resulted in “both moments and movements” “Blacks and Chicanos have unmasked power imbalances, sought recognition, and forged solidarities by embracing the strategies, cultures, and politics of each others’ experiences.”

This work is less invested in the formation of organizations or specifics mobilizations but instead the everyday resistance, the “hidden transcripts” (Scott) and “informal infrapolitics” (Kelley).  The focus here leads readers to see the genealogy of resistance, to see the many ways that spatial foreclosure and the denied rights of citizenship were consistently inspired opposition that moved across racialized lines.

Building on a myriad of works that have documented the history of race within Los Angeles, and race relations in the city of Angels, Dr. Johnson brings an important focus on space, the sonic, and micro-politics.  From Zoot Suits to community newspapers, from car culture to graffiti, from punk music to hip-hop, Black and Latino youth have carved out spaces of resistance, challenging not only dominant representations and everyday violence but the refusal to recognize their “collective entitlement to national membership” and citizenship.

Dr. Johnson chronicles a history of Blacks and Latinos in postwar Los Angeles as one defined by immobility – segregation, job dislocation, economic stagnation, mass incarceration, and confinement.  It is equally a history of space, evidence by the destruction of public transportation, the construction of freeways at the expense of communities of color, the privileging of the needs of capitalism ahead of the needs of people (Chavez Ravine), the movement of manufacturing plants from urban to suburban (& into transnational spaces) and the role of the police/criminal justice as the principal arbiter of ownership and access to space.  The discussion of mobility, place and space are so powerful within this book, as Dr. Johnson highlights the interconnections between space, mobility, power, and citizenship.

Yet, Dr. Johnson is less invested in chronicling sixty years of white supremacist violence in Los Angeles, instead offering readers insight into how Blacks and Latino challenged these spatial arrangements through the creation of “spatial strategies and vernaculars” used “to resist the demarcations of race and class that emerged in the postwar era.”

In this context, Dr. Johnson highlights the importance in the development of spaces of congregation.  Faced with growing state and police power, which sought to disrupt interracial mixing (crackdown on Central Ave; freeways dividing communities), Blacks and Latinos created spaces in opposition.  In 1948, John Dolphin responded to racism within the Los Angeles music industry.  Realized that “most music stores in Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles refused to carry records by Black artists” he established a record store in South L.A (p. 49). 

Naming it “Dolphin’s of Hollywood,” this store would not only emerge as a place of gathering, of cultural exchange, and the production of “shared soundscapes” (p. xiii) but it would articulate a shared grievance regarding segregation and racial exclusion.  Far from Hollywood, the decision to name the store “Dolphin’s of Hollywood” offered a powerful source of resistance.  “He reasoned that although blacks were unwelcome in Hollywood, he could ‘bring Hollywood to the Negroes’…. The glamour previously attached to Hollywood as a physical place could not travel across town as a component of discursive space” (p. 49).

Similarly, the rearticulation of “freedom” and democracy by Charlotta Bass, editor of The California Eagle, LA’s largest black newspaper, and Luisa Moreno, a prominent activist, advanced a rhetorical space that spotlighted shared grievances, shared experiences, and shared struggle against racism in a postwar moment.  Deploying the language commonplace during the war, Bass and Moreno offered “rhetorical strategies of interethnic affiliation.” Through rhetorical framing and organizing, they “shaped the narrative of the Black-Brown political alliance and its cultural corollaries for years to come” (p. 5).  That is, their work, and their emphasis on shared experiences with white supremacist violence reflects Dr. Johnson’s idea of “spatial entitlement,” in that it allowed for the “imagining, envisioning, and enacting” of “discursive spaces that ‘make room for new affiliations and identifications” (p. 1).

Similarly, Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity reveals the powerful ways that culture operates as a space of not only interracial gathering but a process where the necessary frames, identities, and shared grieves were articulated.  For example, Dr. Johnson explores the ways that Black, Latino, and Jewish youth donned zoot suits in the face of exclusion, violence, and invisibility.  “Space, sound, and racial politics were powerfully intertwined with the music associated with the political moment and with zoot suit culture more specifically, which included Black, Brown, and Jewish working class populations,” writes Johnson, an associate professors at UCSB. “Linking human rights to soot suit culture,” these sartorial choices and the contested meaning “became a culmination of intersecting constellations of decades-long struggles over style, body, and public space” (p. 26).

Evident here, and elsewhere, power rests in how Blacks and Latinos responded to disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and limited access to space with the construction of spaces that allowed for displayed humanity, legible grievance, shared “freedom dreams.”  She describes these spaces of resistance as follows:

When the decimation of neighborhoods and the loss of leisure spaces could not be regained in physical space, people from disenfranchised groups claimed the kinds of spaces that were available to them, and in those spaces often created important democratic and egalitarian visions and practices.  This did not translate, usually into permanent spaces.  But spatial claims could manifest in temporary locations that announced the relevance and rights of Black and Brown people on the landscape of postwar Los Angeles . . .. Enacted entitlements of space took place on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, where Chicano cruisers congregated in a neighborhood that was once theirs; at an A & W drive-in among Black, Brown, and white car club members; and in El Monte and Pacoima, where music revues attracted interracial audiences outside city limits, where they were relatively free of police harassment (p. 65)

It is within these spaces that readers are pushed to look at various artists that cut across a multitude of genres – WAR, Ozomotali, Rage against the Machine, Señor Soul, & Thee Midnighters – that provided an “important register of shared grievances and interconnected struggle for social space and new liberatory identities” (p 95).  These artists created songs that made you think and groove; songs that compelled people to dance and demand a freedom; artists that inspired artistry and movements of change.

They, like Gaye Theresa Johnson, envision a “good day.”  That is, “in the midst of this political upheaval, cultural workers created new places and spaces through street demonstrations, mural self-defense groups, consumer collectives, and sites for performing music, theater and poetry” (p. 195).

This is evident in murals that are still visible throughout Los Angeles, or in the music that found a home at “Dolphin’s of Hollywood” or KDAY; it can be seen in the historic legacies of interracial organizations and the formation of ethnic studies at UCLA, USC, and countless California State University and community colleges in Los Angeles; it can be seen in the development of the Garden, or in the development of dance crews, or swapmeets, or in the shared histories on basketball courts and baseball fields.  The history of Los Angeles is not one of a Hollywood film, whether that of white wealth or Black-Latino-Asian conflict, but one of everyday resistance and the ceaseless agitation for visibility and space, mobility and inclusion, understanding and the realization of “freedom dreams.” Gaye Theresa Johnson Spaces of Conflict provides a necessary and important counter to these ubiquitous narratives, shining a spotlight on the many interventions and spaces of resistance that have demanded justice and full-citizenship.  Like the artists and individuals documented in this book, Johnson powerfully offers readers “freedom dreams” to be experienced inside and outside of academia.

NewBlackMan: Can We All…Get It Right?: Remembering the LA Uprising

Can We All…Get It Right?: Remembering the LA Uprising

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

There are few days in life where you can say without a doubt, “I know what I was doing 20 years ago today.” This is the case today, on the 20th anniversary of the start of the Los Angeles Uprising.

Having dropped out of the University of Oregon after 2 quarters, I was living in Los Angeles working and taking two classes at UCLA. Like many middle-class white youth I presume, I paused when the verdict was delivered and noted the injustice that spurred my outrage before getting back to my life. I was angry, like many others, because a jury of THEIR peers concluded that 4 police officers did nothing wrong in beating Rodney King 56 times, but the anger lasted only for that second. That was the reaction from many in West Los Angeles. “That’s outrageous, can I get a cold beverage”; “what an injustice, is the mall open yet?”

I remember thinking little about the case after hearing the verdict,. I headed to work and then to my class at UCLA. Driving to my class, through the wealth of West Los Angeles, all was calm. Entering class, an introduction to sociology course that focused on inequality systemic racism and privileges, it was clear that the verdict changed little. Class was planned as usual. Yet, before long, with news reports of violence breaking out in South Central, Los Angeles, our professor announced the end of class out of concern for OUR safety. In a city immensely segregated, defined by systemic divisions that thwart interaction all while enacting violence on its residents of color, it is immensely telling that the Rodney King Verdicts/LA Uprisings became meaningful, if not visible, when people thought the riots were going to cross La Brea or other markers dividing the two LAs.

For the rest of that night and next day, I was paralyzed, watching television almost endlessly. In retrospect, for myself, and maybe others, the LA Uprising put a crack in the walls of segregation. Although living less than 15 minutes from South Central, Los Angeles, it might as well have been 10,000 miles away. That is the specter of segregation in Los Angeles. Even the media reporting then, and the ways that the verdicts and LA Uprising were being talked about demonstrated this fact as people continued to talk about what was happening “over there” concerned that it might “migrate here.” I was uncomfortable with the detached feeling paralyzing me so I decided to leave the state-protected bubble of West Los Angeles and I drove down to South Central on day 2 to donate some food, clothes, and stuffed animals to the First AME Church.

I was most certainly driven by my desire “to help,” as I imagined what that meant twenty years ago, which most certainly reflected my white privileged understanding of privilege. Yet, I was also angered by the clear segregation of Los Angeles, not only in terms of geography, economics, and daily reality, but sentimentality and emotion.

The lack of sadness and anger within West Los Angeles was telling because the LA Uprising was not happening in our world; it was somewhere else, happening to someone who didn’t look like “us.” The power of race and class in eliciting not only empathy and connection, but also sentimentality and humanity, was on full-display in the days after the King Verdict. When I told people that I was heading down to South Central, they looked at me like I was crazy, as if I was driving into a foreign land amid a war. To them, it was a foreign land, one that they neither visited nor thought about except in moments of fear (“will the rioters come to the West Side) or heading to Lakers’ games. Despite voiced concerns about my driving just a few miles down the 10 Freeway, it was rather “uneventful” except in how this moment transformed me.

The drive forced me to reflect on my own assumptions and stereotypes, to think about why neighborhoods so close to my own were places I had never been (and thought of as so far away); it forced me to think about the violence and destruction that predated April 29th and bare witness to communities that West Los Angeles had abandoned; and finally, it forced me to reflect on the power of community, to see beyond the televisual representation of South Central Los Angeles rioting, to see families collecting food, kids playing, and people coming together. It forced me to look inward, to think about whiteness and privilege, to reflect on my stereotypes and assumptions. Even my ability to get my car and drive to South Central Los Angeles is evidence of privilege given the levels of state violence experienced by black and Latino youth entering LA’s white enclaves in West Los Angeles. What should have been a moment of introspection, of racial reconciliation and systemic change, instead became a moment, one that too many of us retreated as we are driving back to the “comfort” of a gated community.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Can We All…Get It Right?: Remembering the LA Uprising.