I knew something serious was afoot in May when my friend Eric Priestley called from West Hollywood and left a phone message: “E, you would not believe this!”
He was almost shouting over the swelling street noise in the background. Eric tends to the dramatic on any given day, but he sounded different — urgent, astonished and not a little anguished.
In the message, and several more that he left, he told me what he was seeing: swarms of Black Lives Matter protesters, George Floyd’s name scrawled everywhere, glass shattering. A veteran of civil unrest in inner city Los Angeles the last 50 years, it seemed that Eric was experiencing something like PTSD.
Eric was born in South Central and grew up around family in Watts. I met him shortly after the 1992 unrest following the not-guilty verdicts in the criminal trial of the four police officers who had beaten Rodney King, a Black man, nearly to death. I had just started my first reporting gig for The L.A. Times after it realized in hindsight — literally, after the smoke cleared — that it didn’t have a staff diverse enough to anticipate, much less cover, what was happening in Black neighborhoods. I came on to report on the aftermath of the unrest and to fill in the narrative blanks, the details of day-to-day living, in the process.
I assumed the story I would tell overall would be one of recovery, a digging out from under the ashes and debris and also a digging out from under the racism that had fueled the unrest in the first place. This racism would now be a character in our national narrative, I thought. It had been exposed by the crisis, and it would stay exposed.
Eric knew better. He’d been on the scene in 1965 for the Watts protest and conflagration, touched off by an encounter between the L.A.P.D. and a 21-year-old Black man named Marquette Frye. Eric, also 21, unwittingly walked into the growing maelstrom along Central Avenue; he says it was like entering an alternate universe that he’d never seen or felt before. The seething, spiraling anger of the mob was thick, almost palpable. The sound of broken glass was relentless, enveloping, a voice of protest all its own.
The urgency and ugliness of that moment, the way it affirmed Black anger but also confirmed systemic Black oppression, shocked Eric awake. He joined the Watts Writers Workshop, founded by legendary screenwriter Budd Schulberg, started with poetry and expanded to memoir and fiction. Twenty-seven years later, 1992 struck; Eric was still in Watts, and still writing. The kinetic Black anger accompanied by fires and looting was like déjà vu, though this time it spread well beyond Watts into South-Central, Crenshaw, Inglewood, downtown.
Eric found some work in Hollywood, joined the Writers Guild and began focusing on screenplays and fulfilling the ultimate L.A. dream; his day job became camping out at the Writers Guild library at 3rd Street and Fairfax, across the street from the Farmers Market. There he read, researched, fleshed out stories about Black life that were rooted in his upbringing and his family history in rural Louisiana. He never stopped tracking the damning reality for Black people on the ground.
And then in May, the George Floyd protests erupted — on the heels of the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — not in L.A. this time, but in Minneapolis. But by 2020 the place didn’t matter. The unvarnished racism, the unarmed Black suspect, the unjustified shooting or killing by a police officer or a white vigilante caught on video — all of it has become the same incident, the same players, the same place.
The good news is that those opposing the killing are not the same people. The powerful but insulated Black rage that Eric saw up close twice before has expanded its geography, and leapt the usual bounds of demography. Thousands of white and other nonblack people got into in the streets, from Hollywood to other unlikely white places like Santa Monica and Glendale, embracing Black rage as valid: Instead of trying to minimize it or argue it down, they have claimed it as theirs. They have finally accepted the rage as both Black and American. This is a tremendous development in our story.
After that disorienting day in West Hollywood (“I wasn’t ready for what I saw,” Eric confessed to me later. “Scared the hell out of me.”) he told me he has emerged with a new kind of hope about the younger Black generation, something he hasn’t felt in a long time. He admires this generation’s conviction, its determination to keep up pressure. Yet he continues to worry about the bigger political picture in which all this is happening. In his view, “Things are going to get worse before they get better.” He reminded me that it’s still unclear whether and how Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed Mr. Floyd, will be punished. “That policeman hasn’t been charged correctly,” Eric said. “What I saw was first-degree murder.”
What he means is that white participation in the protests has been encouraging and historic, but then there are white conservatives, the kind that enabled Mr. Trump and continue to support him on principle, the people whose movements Eric continues to chart with outrage and alarm. In short, there are still great forces arrayed against social equality, which Eric believes is the only thing that can make America whole. He has believed it since 1970, when he had a kind of post-60s epiphany about the meaning of racism, what it was really meant to quash — not just fair voting practices or fair treatment by police, but a relationship between Black and white that is equal in the most mundane yet most profound ways. Social equality, Eric says, is our holy grail.
It’s possible, I told him, that 55 years after that first wake-up moment in Watts, enough of us in L.A. and far beyond are having the same epiphany. It just took time.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing opinion writer.