I live in a Spanish-style villa in Los Angeles, at the corner of Franklin and Grace, two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard and only one block from Yucca and Wilcox, known as ‘crack alley’. One morning my girlfriend walked down into the garage beneath the building and found human excrement on the windscreen of our car. The excrement had not been thrown or carelessly daubed, but somehow painted in a perfect rectangle, thick, four feet by two. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble; from a distance the excrement looked like a nasty modern painting; it also smelled powerfully and took over an hour to wash and scrape off. ‘Why didn’t they just steal the fucking car?’ she said. I did my best to be urbane about another unpleasant reminder of the nature of our neighbourhood. The homeless, I told her, couldn’t afford the gas, and the homeboys wouldn’t be seen dead in a Volvo; they preferred old Cadillacs and new BMWs, white, loaded with extras.

Several times during the past year I’d watched from my study window as officers of the Los Angeles Police Department staged elaborate busts on the streets. The officers, always white, wore sunglasses and had Zapata moustaches and carried shotguns or had handguns strapped to their thighs. A car was surrounded and stopped. The suspects, always black, usually young, often well-dressed, were dragged out and made to lie on the ground. They were cuffed with plastic thongs that, from a distance, looked like the tags with which I closed up bags of rubbish. Then they were searched and made to kneel, one on this side of the street, one on the other, while the officers talked among themselves or, swaggering to and fro, conducted an ad hoc interrogation: ‘Shut the fuck up and don’t move,’ I heard on one occasion. ‘Feel clever now, black boy?’ ‘Be careful now, I’m in the mood to hit me a homer.’ Every now and then a helicopter would appear, a roaring accompaniment to the scene’s edgy surrealism. Sometimes my neighbours came out: an old lady who used to sit in her car, although she never drove it (that was what she did most mornings: she sat there, in her car, not driving it); a long-haired heavy metal musician; a blonde from Texas, pretty, but probably not pretty enough to make it in the movies; a black one-time boxer whose presence was always a comfort. They watched without any sign of animation – it was all fairly routine – and after fifteen minutes or so the suspects were driven away in the back of a black and white police car, known to the officers as ‘a black and normal’ ever since police chief Daryl Gates said that the reason why so many blacks died from the carotid chokehold – the controversial technique once used to detain suspects – was that ‘their veins and arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.’

I was surprised, not by the fact that this was happening in my neighbourhood, but by the fact that the people of my neighbourhood accepted it all with such indifference. There was, it was apparent, nothing remarkable about the behaviour of the LAPD, which was seen less as a police force than an army at war, a perception encouraged by the department’s chief. Gates referred to black drug dealers as ‘Viet Cong’. He told a Senate Committee that even casual drug users ‘ought to be taken out and shot.’ And part of his strategy, Gates said on another occasion, ‘is to put a lot of police officers on the street and harass people and make arrests for inconsequential kinds of things.’ Gates was known to model his police department on the US Marines; its stated aims were to be fast, mobile and extremely aggressive.

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