By Larry Stiner Jr.
Happy 50th Birthday: But How Far Have We Really Come?
On October 25th of this year, I joined Club 50 as my born day arrived and a large group of family members and friends launched into a soulful rendition of the happy birthday song. It would be the 50th time in my life that this song would be sung in my honor. My father would miss 46 of those times not by choice but rather due to circumstances. You see, prison and exile had kept him away from those he loved as he paid a heavy price for confronting a racist, discriminatory and unjust part of society. So even as I sipped champagne, posed for photos and danced the night away in celebration of my special day, I thought of my father while questioning how far we had really come in terms of racial equality over the five decades of my life.
Born shortly after the Watts revolt in 1965, I came into the world just as the smoke from the burning Los Angeles area buildings cleared and a new type of fire was sparked in the spirit of young men and women who were ready to fight for change. The Black Power movement swept my father up and eventually led to my mother raising my younger brother and I alone as Dad focused almost exclusively on the necessary task of fighting to make things right for our people. That revolutionary struggle landed him in San Quentin State Prison in 1969 with a life sentence and left me growing up wondering if I’d ever see him again. In the years that followed, he would escape from prison, flee the country and start a new family while living for 20 years in exile. In 1994, he would voluntarily surrender and return to prison in an attempt to save that new family from a life of extreme hardship as times grew drastic in the third world country he had made his home. He would serve another 21 years of incarceration in the same prison he had escaped from. That brings me to the milestone year of 2015. During this year, I celebrated my 20th wedding anniversary, my 30th year of employment with the City of Los Angeles and my 50th year on this Earth. And just after turning 50 years old, I found myself being most thankful for my father being released from prison nine months before I blew out the candles on my birthday cake. Yes, it had been a wonderful year full of incredible high points. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like more progress should have been made over the 600 months of my life. How far have we really come in the last 50 years?
The Watts rebellion had been sparked by police officers’ mistreatment of a Black motorist and others at the scene of a traffic stop on August 11, 1965. More than 26 years later, on the night of March 3, 1991, the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King by several White police officers was caught on tape. With every television news station airing the recording, I watched in utter disbelief and anger as the police batons repeatedly slammed against all parts of this man’s defenseless body. As Rodney rolled about in slow motion on the street taking this harsh beating, I noticed there were also many cops standing by and simply watching this battering take place. As if it were just a normal occurrence on the job, no attempt was made to by any of these badge-wearing onlookers to stop this atrocious act. Despite this all being captured by the camera lens of a filming citizen, a jury acquitted the officers who faced charges of assault with a deadly weapon. This verdict set off the L. A. Rebellion on April 29, 1992. Eventually, the National Guard was called in to deal with the uprising just as it had been called in to do the same during the Watts rebellion. And today, more than 20 years after Los Angeles was set ablaze for a second time in protest; we are still seeing police brutality and the use of excessive force time and time again in Black communities. Once more, I ask, how far have we really come in the last 50 years?
As disappointed as I am with the slow process of change, I must still salute those who have sacrificed so much and sought to make a difference. So as others sing happy 50th birthday to me, I deem it necessary to say happy belated 50th birthday to the Watts revolt and to the revolutionary spirit that was born out of that uprising. Fifty years from now, whether I’m blessed enough to blow the candles out on another cake or not, I pray that things will be vastly different for the generations to come.