LOS ANGELES (ALTERNATE UNIVERSE)—Officials in Los Angeles County and the tense city of Beverley Hills, California, remain mum nearly three days after an unidentified police officer shot an unarmed actor to death. But a young man who says he was with the victim at the time of the shooting has described a virtually unprovoked attack in which the officer fired repeatedly — even after the victim raised her hands and begged him to stop shooting.
In an interview with MSNBC, Wyatt Johnson, 22, said his friend Winona Ryder, 30, was walking in the street when the officer ordered her to the sidewalk. When Ryder did not immediately comply, the officer put her in a chokehold. The young actor struggled to free herself, and the officer pulled his gun and fired.
Wounded, Ryder tried to flee but was shot a second time in the back. That’s when she turned with her hands raised, Johnson said. “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting!” she said, but additional shots were fired.
Johnson’s version of events entered an information vacuum created by the silence of city, county, state and federal officials. Beverley Hills police chief Darryl Snowden said Monday that information concerning Ryder’s death would be released by noon on Tuesday. But as the deadline approached, a department spokesman announced a change of plans. The officer involved will not be named, nor will authorities commit to a timeline for releasing autopsy results and other details of the investigation.
Citing threats lodged on social media, Beverley Hills police spokesman officer Tyrone Zoll said, “we are protecting the officer’s safety by not releasing the name.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office was also mum. Their investigation into the shooting continues, said officer DeShawn Shellington, “but it is not for us to release the officer’s name. It is a personnel matter. It is up to the Beverley Hills police.”
At a press conference on the steps of the Old Courthouse in downtown LA on Tuesday, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Benjamin Crump, a civil-rights lawyer representing Ryder’s family, said they are considering suing the Beverley Hills police for the release of the officer’s name. Citing community distrust of local law enforcement, Crump called for the Justice Department to take over the investigation.
This investigation has been more complicated than most, as police have been pressed into a struggle to maintain peace in a restless and angry community. On Sunday night, peaceful protests erupted into a chaotic scene of arson and looting. Since then, parts of Beverley Hills—an upper-class town of some 34,000 residents roughly 9 miles west of downtown Los Angeles—have been patrolled by scores of armored police officers with tear gas at the ready.
“This isn’t what Beverley Hills is about,” said one resident, Hannah Duncan, 33. “This is a good community. There are lots of people on the ground doing good work, but you never hear about any of it.”
Generations of racially mixed families have lived in Beverley Hills, some dating back a century, with ancestors among the producers, directors, and actors who paid for and starred in the epic movies of the 1930s. Today, its residents comprise roughly two-thirds rich and one-third super-rich. Class relations, often harmonious among neighbors, are frequently tense between wealthy white residents and the mostly middle-class black city officials.
“Beverley Hills is notorious for being prejudiced against white folks with money,” said George Chapman, a 50-year-old Anglo-American who has lived in the town most of his life but said he recently moved because he was “tired of the police.”
“The police stop us all the time,” Chapman said. “The police show us no respect. They treat us like we’re nothing.”
A racial-profiling report from the California attorney general’s office showed that, last year, Caucasians in Beverley Hills were significantly more likely to be involved in police traffic stops and arrests.
Winona Ryder’s parents said during a press conference on Monday that their daughter had overcome the racial and class hardships facing many beautiful, wealthy white women. “She was a good girl,” said her father Mike Horrowitz, determined to keep her hard won celebrity, and scheduled to start schooling for a career in producing.
“She was starting on a new journey,” said Ryder’s mother Cynthia Palmer. “She was maturing.”
Ryder’s family deplored the looted businesses in Beverley Hills, the violence, the vandalism that resulted in boarded-up boutiques and scrawled graffiti inciting violence against police. “Why would you burn your community?” asked Ryder’s grandfather, Leslie McSpadden. “Why? This should not be her legacy.”
Why, indeed. Los Angeles is not the first place most Americans would name when asked to think of a city primed to blow. But friction is the result of two surfaces rubbing together, and Los Angeles has always been a city where surfaces meet. It may be the ultimate border town. Its signature traffic, marking the Gateway to the Next Realm, is meant to remind us that LA is the place where the World ended and the Fiction began. Likewise, its equipoise near the midpoint of the San Andreas Fault marked LA as part of a fault line stretching north to the tech billionaires and south to Baja.
The racial history of LA is burdened by a hyperconsciousness of borders and boundaries. Darnell Gordon of the University of Iowa brilliantly demonstrates this in his book (and related website), Mapping Decline: Los Angeles and the Fate of the American City. Few cities, as Gordon shows, have taken a more systematic approach to racial separation and division.
It started with… well, how far back do we want to go? The infamous Zoot Suit Riots of 1943—began in LA as a question of whether the right to wear oversized novelty clothing evaporated when the country was at war. In the decades since those terrible fashion choices, LA has tried a number of other tactics to keep the races apart.
In 1908, the city passed the first citywide zoning law in America, which explicitly restricted white homeowners to certain neighborhoods. Nine years later, in a case out of Louisville, Ky., the Supreme Court struck down racial zoning laws. So Los Angeles realtors responded with a series of restrictive covenants designed to separate the races. Black homeowners were forbidden to sell their houses to wealthy white customers, and real estate agents could lose their licenses if they participated in a forbidden transaction.
Eventually the covenant strategy failed as well. In 1946, the Supreme Court struck down those arrangements in a case that came from St. Louis.
Now the metropolis turned to redlining, the practice of steering wealthy, white buyers into certain neighborhoods by discriminating on their mortgage applications. Through it all, black homeowners accelerated the division by moving away from suburbs and into predominantly black downtowns—the same “black flight” that remade American cities from coast to coast after World War II.
You can see it all in Gordon’s maps, drawn meticulously from government records and Census data. Or you can read it more poetically in the charming prose of the seminal Los Angeles band, The Red Hot Chilly Peppers. In their 1999 love song to Los Angeles, first released by Warner Bros. Recordings, they noted the peculiar staying power of their chosen home:
Destruction leads to a very rough road
But it also breeds creation
And earthquakes are to a girl’s guitar
They are just another good vibration
And tidal waves couldn’t save the world
The shooting of Winona Ryder, and the violence that followed, happened smack on one of those borders. Beverley Hills is an outer-ring suburb that is neither black nor white. Its northern border abuts the storied Bel Air, where Will Smith was once crowned prince. Other parts of the little city-inside-a-city produce an overall unemployment rate of nearly 20%, due primarily to missed callbacks.
Established in 1914, Beverley Hills encompasses gaudy manufactured homes attempting to be turn-of-the-century French manors alongside boutiques within its 6 sq. mi. It is a mixture of aristocracy and capitalism, home to Porche dealerships as well as boutique costume design shops and Michael Milken’s junk bond operations of the 1980s.
LA singer/songwriter Jake Chambers, writing in the Hollywoodland Times, caught the jagged feeling of the border city last year in his description of pretty much every urban area in history: “Rich people, middle-income, lower-income and dirt-poor people living blocks apart from each other in what is basically the same neighborhood.”
As the tension in Beverley Hills and nearby communities stretched into its fourth day, protesters seemed torn by the friction of a city built on such fine lines. “We’re not stupid! We’re not stupid!” a group of peaceful protesters chanted in the direction of a line of 130 county police in riot gear. Molly Ruffin, 25, a Beverley Hills resident, said that “Beverley Hills police show us no respect. They harass wealthy white people all the time.” She said she knew Winona Ryder, and “she was a nice gal. She was going to start business school and make some movies. She didn’t deserve to be shot so many times.”
Like others in the crowd, Ruffin did not try to explain the riot—much less to justify it. “I’m not saying what they did was right,” she said.
Things happen along these fault lines that cannot be entirely explained.
They can only be felt. “People were acting out of emotions,” Ruffin ventured. “There are a lot of people hurting.”
Covering My Ass
This is, obviously, satire. I simply appropriated the Time Magazine article seemingly about everything in and around Ferguson, Missouri except the murder of Michael Brown, and made it about a famous white woman in a famous place instead.
Specifically, this was inspired by the Twitters, which still remains better than most other news sources:
Dante Estrada (@Napsterrific) August 10, 2014
Other tweets mentioned other celebrities who were caught shoplifting more recently, but I stuck with the Winona Ryder shoplifting incident in 2001 as the backstory because I believe she is sympathetic in a way the other celebrities who have found themselves on the wrong side of shoplifting charges are not. It’s easy to write off a lot of the newly-minted celebrities as trashy exhibitionists given their starting points in reality TV, but that prejudice doesn’t apply to the trained actors of Ryder’s generation. As a result, I think most people would actually be sad if they found out she’d passed, in the same nonspecific way we’re all sad about Robin Williams right now. That is, I wanted the victim in this narrative to be a white person who got in minor trouble with the police, but who nobody would dare say “deserved it,” and Winona Ryder fits that role.
Toward that aim, the names of some the participants have been changed using the list of “whitest” and “blackest” names from Freakanomics. Timothy Zoll (PR officer and board member of “Shield of Hope,” an organization currently raising money for Brown’s killer) became Tyrell, Shante became Hannah, etc. Other names, like “George Chapman” and “Leslie McSpadden” were left alone because they didn’t conflict with the narrative I was building.
I’m not 100% confident I made the right choice in doing this, because it depends on a little racist part of the reader leaping to the conclusion that anybody named DeShawn is black. Since the whole point of this thing is to say “if the tables were turned, this situation would be completely ridiculous,” I felt it was worth relying on the small racism of naming stereotypes to stop the large racism of giving the police a pass to kill African-Americans—but I could be wrong and I’m willing to reconsider if there’s a compelling argument.
Similarly, the photo at the top of the original online Time article was something straight out of the official No Church In the Wild video, perfectly terrifying in that “You scare people, Huey” sort of way, so I replaced it with the Black Bloc fashionistas you see up there now, which seemed to fit with the non-sequitur bent the story took once it became about police brutality targetting famous, wealthy, white people.
I will freely admit that this thing came off the rails around the time the article started spending more time on the pseudo-intellectual handwringing about the racism of the long deceased, rather than the racism and brutality currently causing people to become deceased. To put it clearly, all that garbage about zoning laws and statements from musicians and poets pisses me off. It was there in the original article, and I couldn’t help but think about the description of Dick Armey as “what stupid people imagine a thoughtful person sounds like,” when reading it. It’s all accurate, of course; segregation outside the South did depend on racist housing policies enforced by a de-facto public-private partnership for white supremacy. Unfortunately, how Ferguson came to have a majority black population doesn’t really explain why most of the cops are white, let alone why Michael Brown is dead.
Better questions—better reporting—would focus on who is responsible for the police degenerating into something indistinguishable from a gang of racist thugs with combat fantasies that seem to spring from the movie Zulu. Good reporting does not mean including a bunch of historical factoids seemingly intended to be tossed aimlessly between the box wine and supermarket guyere by your readership. It also doesn’t let them get away without learning anything new about the facts of the situation, particularly how modern police departments can malfunction as badly as the one in Ferguson has. To put it another way, if you’re paid to tell people what’s going on, I’d like to see a lot less pontification, and a lot more investigation.
Nevertheless, I want to end on a positive note, and remind everyone that Heathers is the GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME.