Barbecue Riots of 1992

“The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

Thousands of people throughout the metropolitan area of Los Angeles rioted for over six days in 1992, burning businesses and looting stores in a state of general lawlessness. It wasn’t until the US Military and National Guard were called in did the rioting in Los Angeles stop. What resulted was close to a billion dollars in damages, 63 deaths, and thousands of more injured. The riots themselves were triggered by the Rodney King verdict when three of the four officers who were caught on camera indiscriminately beating Rodney King on the ground were acquitted of all charges in 1992. African Americans, especially in Los Angeles, were already holding onto deep resentments from being subjected to a long history of systemic abuse of power by the LAPD, who was known for their acts of harassment and excessive use force against communities of color. Martin Luther King Jr. may have advocated non-violence generally but he knew very well that riots were “the language of the unheard” as King would write. King himself witnessed the acute limits of the riot as language and its emotional catharsis, but he also knew first hand that any group of people who may find themselves facing such desperation will also provide themselves with any justification for those means that they deemed necessary to get free of that despair. The riots of 1992 was just such a moment where the hopelessness from the crushing historical oppression of African Americans, finally spilled up and over the walls of their own communities which exposed many of the dormant racial tensions in Los Angeles, tensions that often get formed when all marginalized groups are forced to compete in a grossly inequitable system. In fact, the 1992 riots were labeled “America’s First Multiethnic Riots.”

If the moments of racial and ethnic frictions have presented Los Angeles with its hardest periods of conflict, it is also our intermixing that has given us a city that is one of the most compelling and creative places to live. For the Barbeque Riots of 1992, Los Angeles Eats Itself wants to lean into these tensions with that same creative spirit, and use the historical moment of the 92 riots to propose a seemingly impossible question: Can we imagine a form of catharsis that could replace a riot?

The word catharsis originally meant ‘cleansing’ or ‘purification’ and Aristotle himself defined catharsis as “purging of the spirit of morbid and base ideas or emotions by witnessing the playing out of such emotions or ideas on stage.” Psychoanalysts like Breuer and Freud in the 20th century updated this definition and described catharsis as more involuntary, like an “instinctive body process” such as crying from a vicarious emotional experience. Today the American Psychological Association defines catharsis as “the process of reducing or eliminating a complex by recalling it to conscious awareness and allowing it to be expressed” and “the discharge of affects connected to traumatic events that had previously been repressed by bringing these events back into consciousness and re-experiencing them.”

What these definitions emphasize are two essential components for catharsis to take place: the emotional expression and processing of an internalized trauma and the cognitive aspect that leads to a new realization from the unconscious coming into consciousness, resulting in positive change. In other words, the best catharsis happens when we can finally give a name to something that has eluded us and provide parameters to our experience in such a way that we no longer feel like we are in the abyss of hopelessness.

Los Angeles Eats itself will attempt to create an edible catharsis that targets the tensions of our ethnically diverse city. We will be asking things like, can the ritualistic processes of cooking through ‘burning’ provide the emotional release needed for the persons involved? Can how we eat be ceremonially conceived to elicit an instinctive release similar to a good cry? Or is it who we eat with that can become an expression of and discharge of trauma? Or lastly, will catharsis entail a specific arrangement of where we eat, when we eat and what we eat to process dormant feelings and raise it to a ‘conscious awareness’ in a meaningful way? What kind of table will we need to build to represent all the different people living on opposing sides of our concrete tracks? Join us as we venture into the world of creating a better catharsis when we host the Barbeque Riots of 1992.