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  • Performance and Activism: Grassroots Discourse After the Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992
  • Hillary Miller
Performance and Activism: Grassroots Discourse After the Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992. By Kamran Afary. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009; pp. 262.

When all of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers charged in the brutal beating of Rodney King were exonerated with a "not guilty" verdict in April 1992, protests enveloped the city, leaving behind a toll of fifty dead, 2,000 injured, and damages nearing $1 billion (4). In Performance and Activism, Kamran Afary explores the performative aspects of these protests, emphasizing the voices of activists who struggled to transform unrest into social change. As a reporter for a local radio station in Los Angeles during the 1990s, Afary saw firsthand how their calls for justice and revolutionary, democratic social change dissipated behind the mainstream media's coverage of interethnic violence. Making extensive use of interviews and other archival materials, Afary recovers the "rhetorical arsenals" of these activists to illustrate the methods by which they developed new counter-public spaces and counter-narratives (161).

In his introduction, Afary provides the rationale for his distinctly interdisciplinary methodology, which employs critical race theory, cultural studies, media studies, urban studies, and performance studies. This variety of theoretical lenses adds depth and texture to the frozen, still-life tableaux of the riots that have dominated the narratives of this period in Los Angeles's history. He reviews literature related to the uprising, as well as theories of postmodernism and the global city, acknowledging prominent sociologists who have taken this sprawling city as their subject (for example, Theodor Adorno, Mike Davis, and Saskia Sassen). Using the lens of performance to examine multiple public spheres, Afary argues that grassroots organizations, such as gang truce collectives and court-watch groups, developed new forms of cultural expression that created what political theorist Nancy Fraser refers to as "subaltern counterpublics," in contrast to the notion of a single public sphere. In these spaces, Afary explains, people from subaltern groups can "enact their identities and speak in their own voices relatively (but never totally) freely from forces of domination" (28).

His second chapter, "Toward a Historical Political Economy of Los Angeles," tethers theories of cultural production to political economy, reading the rebellion in terms of both its ideological function in public discourse and its relation to the larger criminal-justice system. It also lends specificity to his profile of the city—particularly its shifting demographics, mass immigration, and economic growth—and lays the foundation for his later shift to the "local" (specifically, the Watts and Compton areas).

After providing his theoretical grounding and sociological framework, Afary focuses on the gang truce movement in chapters 3 and 4. Although it was often misinterpreted by members of the LAPD as threatening, the gang truce movement offered what Afary, following anthropologist Victor Turner, refers to as "healing rituals." One example was the organization of "gang truce parties," a new form of urban festivity "comprised of a series of rich improvisatory rituals and ceremonies that symbolized a community's willingness to deal with rapidly changing political situations" (73). Gang truce negotiations "grew into a multifaceted movement throughout the 1990s, where performances and creative presentations of the self became even more pronounced" (89). These "creative presentations of the self" included the public telling of stories by former gang members, the emergence of new graffiti celebrating the truce, the wearing of clothing that symbolized friendship among gangs, and the playing of music once identified with rival gangs.

In chapter 5, Afary focuses on organizations like the LA4+ Committee and Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (or Mothers ROC), composed of mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and their supporters. These women monitored the judicial system in order to "build a movement that would offer their sons a chance for exoneration or a more equitable sentence" (122). Members educated themselves about the legal process, attended court sessions, and mentored friends and relatives of the men on trial. Afary claims that, in their seemingly simple acts of watching trials and collaborating with lawyers, they established a counter-public space, creating "one of the most successful grassroots responses to the injustices of the court system...


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pp. 666-667
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