Saturday, May 19, 2012

Two Sides of the Story

1466 E. 54th St. - 5.17.2012
[photo courtesy of jhvu]

This last Thursday, May 17, the Beast and a writer colleague Anthony Miller took a self-styled "tour" in a sort of ad hoc memoriam for the tragic shootout that occurred in Los Angeles 38 years before between the LAPD and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. The actual address of the gunfight is one of the most infamous "unofficial" tourist sites in the city -- alongside the intersection of Florence and Normandie, the La Bianca house in Los Feliz and the spot in the West Adams district where The Black Dahlia's body was found. Like those locations, there is no plaque to commemorate the five people burned alive in the 5 1/2 hour gun battle that was broadcast live across the nation.

1466 E. 54th St. - 5.17.1974

What we found, however, amounted to an almost accidental memorial. The block the house is located in is on the western edge of the city of Vernon and on the northern side of Compton; surprisingly, the sleepy block was shaded by many overhanging trees and not exposed to the sun. The house, of course, no longer exists, but the top photo shows what stands there now: A verdant copse of tropical plants and trees hiding a stucco duplex that could have been on the Westside. The lot was conspicuously lusher than the rest of the block. As we stood across the street, there was a broken wooden chair and a scraped and abraded desk placed out on the curb amongst a scattering of rags and broken glass. Rap music pounded faintly from an open window somewhere. An ancient Hispanic woman tottered by carrying a sack of groceries. A parking enforcement officer stopped and asked us if we've moved our cars for street-cleaning.

At our feet in the dirt was a weathered and stained poster of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in a busted picture frame. We removed it to look at it closer and my friend mentioned that newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, whom the SLA had kidnapped and brainwashed nearly four months before the shootout, had adopted the revolutionary name "Tania" in honor of Guevara's martyred female comrade Tamara Bider.

"Remember when I told you not to think of everything in life as a metaphor?" I told my friend. "Well, forget what I said." We had to snap a pic of it:

After standing on the curb looking at the piece of real estate for what felt like an appropriately solemn amount of time, we made it north to the Garvanza area of Highland Park for the recently opened SLA exhibit at the Los Angeles Police Museum. It was quite impressive, using three rooms and a panorama of different You-Are-There visual aids (timeline, video, audio, 3-D displays); it sort of reminded us of the floating, living imagery of the Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture. There was a lot of incidental oddness to it all: between text describing the heroic actions of the SWAT teams who razed the house to the ground were large totems of the SLA's heyday, including a faux-scrawled SLA slogan 'Death to the Fascist Insect That Prays on the Life of the People' under the bright orange SLA banner. There was a wall text describing Patty Hearst's 56-day captivity in a closet. . .on an actual closet that one could open and peer into.

The strangest addition were the beaded, tie-dyed hippie curtains that separated the rooms -- like it was a meticulously reconstructed Sunset Strip head shop from Elvis Meets Nixon. It might have been a cop's nightmare over what doors would be if the hippie pinko freaks won. (Missing: a giant cartoon hippie named "Groovy Gravy" whom one could beat with a real cop baton.) Although we were much impressed by the detail and professionalism of the exhibit, we couldn't help but see these things as the spoils of war, the victors' display of the booty acquired from the vanquished. Any doubt about this was further stoked by the adjoining exhibit on the 1997 North Hollywood Bank of America Shootout, which displayed full-sized mannequins dressed with the exact clothing and body armor that were worn by the gunmen that day. The sponsor for the exhibit? Bank of America.

[NOTE: For a riveting read on the whole SLA affair, my friend Anthony recommends tracking down a rare copy of The Voices of Guns by journalists Vin McLennan & Paul Avery. Mr. Miller would also like to point out that Robert Downey, Jr. played Paul Avery in the film Zodiac. Always a repository of good info!]

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