Sa-I-Gu: the Los Angeles Riots 20 Years Later

Some Koreans, especially those who are culturally engaged and fluent in the language know the day as “Sa-I-Gu” or “4-2-9” – April 29th, 1992, the start of the infamous Los Angeles Riots. That was 20 years ago. Back then, I was a stressed out 2nd year student at Mr. Jefferson’s University, especially since it was near the end of the semester and finals were looming and assignments needed turning in. On the other side of the country, four Los Angeles police officers, (three of whom were white and one Hispanic) who beat motorist Rodney King (an African American), a year earlier were acquitted. King, who had been on parole, was excessively speeding and subsequently caught by police.

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In the days before cell phone video cameras one ordinary citizen took his VHS video recorder and taped 10 minutes of the incident and it went viral – this was before there was a commercial internet. The media ran with this story a good long time but it was the acquittal of those law enforcement officers in 1992 that most attribute to the rampant social disorder that spanned a large quarter of south central Los Angeles. All told, over 50 people were killed, up to $1 billion in property and business losses. The massive social unrest included eyewitness accounts of law enforcement fleeing, bystanders pulled out of vehicles, and the need to establish a curfew and bring in the National Guard to re-establish order. Keep in mind, most residents in this area stayed home and didn’t venture the streets, so while this is a big event, the majority of people in the area took no part in the chaos. [Read more…]

Green is Go(o)d

Let’s start with an admission: I’m a fan of new urbanism. And old urbanism, for that matter. It sort of makes sense as a sociologist and someone who is invested in long-term strategies for growing families and cities while retaining permeable cover for farmland, etc. I’m always impressed with old stories about big families in small houses. Ergo, I live in an overpriced townhouse in a high-density neighborhood not far from the middle of Austin. And I generally like it, if mostly for lazy reasons: no yard to mow; low maintenance; feeding off my neighbors’ energy usage—via shared walls—to reduce the cost of my own. (Some) decent kids nearby for the young’uns to play with. Good stuff.

But the green movement which thrives in this new urbanist community is, from my angle, not just another interest group. It bears characteristics of what sociologists of religion would call a “new religious movement,” a subject of longstanding interest to scholars I used to hang out with. To be sure, the green movement is not a religion in the way we typically understand the term, and doesn’t have worship services per se. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t worship going on.

Borrowing from Christian Smith and others whom I cannot immediately recall, think about the ways in which the environmental movement fits this definition of religion: it’s a group phenomenon; concerned with the sacred; has a body of beliefs; has a set of practices; and it includes moral prescriptions. We do things for the things we worship, which technically is a term that means to “affirm the worth of.” We pay them a lot of attention. We offer up time and talents to them.

So when my neighbors hold an annual “hug the lake” event, outdo each other to (ironically drive long distances in order to) buy up the available Chevy Volts, serve as ground zero for Earth Day in Austin, and exhibit sustained one-upmanship about their personal environmental efforts, I start to feel like I’m a bad environmentalist and that I need to confess my sins–a full trash can, no bicycle, two cars, no solar panels–and return to affirming the beliefs and practicing the rituals, no matter the cost. (But I draw the line well short of a compost toilet.) Can’t I just be a new urbanist? Not really, because that is settled simply by living there (that is, by being in the same “congregation” of sorts). To be truly devout, I would need to set myself apart from my fellow congregants by exhibiting greater sacrifices. I need to be part of the 20 percent of the congregation that does 80 percent of the work. Free riding, after all, is a classic problem in religious organizations.

It all sounds like religion to me. Which is not surprising, given the claim I just made about what religion is and does. It need not be about the supernatural. It’s about the super-empirical: humans treat many things in life as sacred that are immanent, that have nothing to do with unseen beings.

We all worship something. It’s in the design.

Research on Religion Podcast turns 100

The Research on Religion Podcast turns 100 (episodes) this week. If you haven’t checked it out, do yourself a favor and do it now. In fact, the current interview is with out very own Margarita Mooney on the Pope and Cuba.

Tony Gill, at U. Washington, provides a great service with this podcast.  Thank you Tony!

Communism and Christianity through the Eyes of a Cuban Catholic

Part 4 in a series. Click here for my podcast interview on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, hosted by Research on Religion.

After watching Pope Benedict XVI’s March 2012 visit to Cuba, I have written a series of posts on Catholicism in Cuba, past and present. In this post, I explore what it means when the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in their 2006 Pastoral Plan that one major challenge they face is reversing the anthropological damage done by Communism.

One person I got to know very well in Cuba, Rodrigo, explained this concept to me through his personal experience as a pro-democracy political activist and a practicing Catholic and missionary. For Rodrigo, his political and religious conscience have long been intertwined. His parents were both Catholics and involved in politics. In fact, his mother fought in the guerilla forces against Fulgencio Bastista, but she defected from the movement when it became communist.

For Rodrigo, the Christian faith helps break the fear that the communist government tries to instill in people. As he spoke to me about his daily life, his work, his political activism, Rodrigo described the Cuban system as a “masked vigilance” and “intimidation.” Rodrigo told me of the many experiences he has had being stopped on the street and searched for counter-revolutionary material and the recent threats the government has made to evict him from his mother-in-law’s house because he has failed to register with the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.

“They are telling me that I am illegal in my house because I won’t register with the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. But why do I have to register with them? What they want is to make you afraid, they want you to know that they are watching you, they want you to know that they are controlling you. They have taken away about eight backpacks from me because I always walk around with a backpack and they think I am distributing counter-revolutionary material. They have called me down to the police station for questioning so many times, they have even told me they are ready to give me an eight-year prison sentence if they find me doing something they call illegal.”

Given the amount of pressure the government puts on people like Rodrigo and other political activists I spoke with, it is no wonder that so few people actively engage politics. “It’s very difficult to get over the fear, in part because nobody trusts anyone else. There are even spies in the church. But the best defense I have found is to show them [the government officials] you aren’t afraid of them.”

“Show” is the right word. As I talked to Rodrigo, I had no doubt that he does feel a tremendous amount of fear. Although his actions require much courage, he admits he feels great fear of going to jail. Other persons I have spoken to who are involved in politics in Cuba echoed Rodrigo’s words: they never stop feeling afraid, but once their conscience has been formed, they feel compelled to keep struggling against the system.

Another frustration of people like Rodrigo is that few other Cubans join political movements.

“For most people, it isn’t hard to awaken their conscience. They know this system is trash. Everything here is a farse, a lie. Everything here is hidden behind something else [enmasquerado]. People know that, but they don’t know how to respond.”

Rodrigo also spoke of awakening people’s conscience through religious instruction. Rodrigo’s parents brought him to church to be baptized as a child and they continued to attend church, although in secret, and his mother prayed at home. As his parents were both Catholics and political activists, he formed both his religious and political conscience early on in life. Although he has noted that greater evangelization efforts of the church and some openings to religious liberty have brought more people into the church, providing a deep and enduring Christian formation is not easy because catechists have to undo so much of what society has taught people.

“Education is Cuba is a political preparation,” Rodrigo explained. “The system here has robbed parents of their responsibility to educate their children. The education system tries to undermine Christian beliefs. This was more open earlier and now it is more hidden. But most people who come to church have been deformed by society. They don’t have a sense of the value of the human being, of individual liberty.”

Although it may be hard for an outside observer to understand, one of the common critiques of communism by those who have lived is that the people are taught that only the system, or in the case of Cuba the revolution, matters. Individual rights and freedoms are not protected, only the collective. Rodrigo admitted that most people who begin to go to church, even those that get baptized and receive other sacraments such as penance and communion, do not continue attending church. But for those who do continue past the basic instruction in the Bible and the sacraments, a church institute offers classes on human and civic formation.

“Although some people start attending church and still participate in communist organizations like the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, to be a real believer in Cuba is hard. According to the government, the believer in Cuba is not a trustworthy person. In part this is because the believer knows that freedom is; the freedom of God doesn’t fit with the type of freedom they say we have in Cuba. When we talk to people in the civic formation classes, we ask people if they feel free. They often respond no because they can’t travel outside the country, they can’t express their opinions, they can’t choose how to participate in society.”

When Pope Benedict XVI mentioned the importance of marriage and family in every homily he gave in Cuba, I immediately thought of Rodrigo’s words. Rodrigo and many other Cubans asked me: How can one live the trust, intimacy and love required of marriage if society promotes selfishness, materialism, and untruthfulness? How can one be faithful to one’s spouse when the way to get ahead is society is through lying, spying and snitching? Rodrigo is happily married and struggling to raise his three children, barred from working for the government because he speaks his mind. But in raising his family, teaching the Catholic faith, and giving people civic and political formation, he is undoing the anthropological damage caused by Communism in Cuba.

My conversations with Rodrigo and Laura since Pope Benedict XVI’s visit have given me great hope for Cuba’s future. Keep in mind that when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, many people expected Cuba to quickly open up, just like most of the rest of the Communist world. But, more than 20 years later, Cubans only have taken baby steps towards greater freedoms. For the first time since I visited Cuba initially in 1994, I can sense that big changes are coming. As the Cuban people’s consciences are better formed, as the Cuban people have greater access to outside information and ideas, the tide of change can’t be stopped. Slowly but surely, truth and freedom will win out over intimidation and fear in the hearts of Cubans.

Map of US Religious Affiliation by County

This is one of my favorite maps of religion. It was produced by Glemary research, and it shows the predominant religious affiliation in counties nationwide. It demonstrates the many historical patterns that shaped American religion. For example, you can see the westward path of the Methodist circuit riders (in green) plus the immigration of Northern Europeans to the Northern Midwest.