The Cockroach Problem

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This week, Kyle and I (don’t worry his post is coming!) have switched gears entirely and really got into the nitty gritty of things. Having searched through the archive, we pulled posters from the artists that lay in Professor Tensuan’s field of interest and began to analyze. I focused mainly on Lalo Alcaraz, a Mexican-American cartoonist, who is known largely for his nationally syndicated, highly political daily comic strip La Cucaracha (aka the cockroach).

Here are some of his posters:

My favorite, thus far, though is this one:

Background: In late 1991, four officers of the LAPD (Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Brisenio) were accused of using unnecessary force in a March 3, 1991 beating of“Rodney” Glen King, an African-American motorist. The case known as the Rodney King Trial was based on footage recorded on home video by a bystander (George Holliday). The now famous video was broadcast nationally and caused tremendous response because the beating was believed to be racially motivated. Daryl Gates was the head of the L.A.P.D. at the time and faced strong criticism as well as calls for resignation from the Mayor.

On April 29, 1992 the jury acquitted three of the four officers (Koon, Wind, and Brisenio) and did not reach a verdict on one (Powell). The acquittal led to the infamous 1992 Los Angeles Riots and mass protest around the country.The riots, beginning in the evening after the verdicts, peaked in intensity over the next two days, but ultimately continued for several days. A curfew and deployment of the National Guard began to control the situation; eventually U.S. Army soldiers and marines were ordered to the city to quell disorder as well. Fifty-three people died during the riots with as many as 2,000 people injured. Estimates of the material losses vary between about $800 million and $1 billion. Approximately 3,600 fires were set, destroying 1,100 buildings, with fire calls coming once every minute at some points. Widespread looting also occurred. (Wikipedia)

This poster shows Daryl Gates and George H. W. Bush (who was president at the time of the riots) on an inner city basketball court, against a chain link fence. The poster blatantly and deliberately copies and appropriates the famous poster for the 1992 basketball comedy “White Men Can’t Jump” (released in March) starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. Gates stands in place of Snipes, with the word “Daryl” positioned over hishead, just as “Wesley” was positioned over Snipes’. Whereas Snipes looks calm, collected, and even intimidating, Gates looks nervous; Snipes’ orange baseball cap is gone to reveal Gates’ baldness and a comically large drop of sweat across his forehead. Whereas Snipes’ athletic jersey was blank, Gates’ says “Property of L.A.P.D.”

Similarly, George Bush, Sr. takes the place of Harrelson (with “George” written over his head, instead of “Woody”). The backwards baseball cap is still there, but the plain white t-shirt now reads “White Men Can’t Run The System” instead of “White Men Can’t Jump.”  Like Gates, Bush, Sr. also looks worried; he is frowning. Furthermore, the basketball hoop that could be seen through the chain link fence in the movie poster is has become the Los AngelesCity Hall on fire. In place of the movie credits at the bottom of the poster is the phrase “From the Courts of Simi Valley, To the Streets of L.A” – a parodic echo of a generic tagline for a movie.

In the context of the movie, Snipes and Harrelson alternate between rivalry and friendship, ultimately ending up friends. In the context of the riots and the Rodney King verdict, Gates was sharply criticized charged with responsibility for the King incident, Bush Sr. notably expressed bewilderment over the acquittal of the L.A.P.D. officers. Whereas Gates can be clearly identified as an antagonist, Bush, Sr.’s case is more ambiguous: while he disapproves of the verdict, he similarly responsible as he is in charge of the country. More significant, however, is the fact that ultimately just as Snipes’ and Harrelson’s characters were engaged in the same sort of shady business and played the same game (and in the end, on the same team), so do Gates and Bush, Sr. Though the two may seem to be at opposite ends, they are really not so different from one another. The phrase “White Men Can’t Run The System” is saying two things at once: firstly, that white men are incapable of running the system and secondly, that they should not be allowed to do so.

For me one of the essential questions about this work is: why choose a comedyabout basketball as a background for social commentary regarding the King case and the L.A. riots? The simple answer is that a) it was culturally relevant at the time, as the movie was released a mere month before the riots and b) it took place in L.A., at VeniceBeach.However, in my mind, there seems to be something particularly unsettling,and therefore significant, about the fact that not only is the artist using a feel-good sports comedy as his source material, but that he is turning to light popular culture – specifically, the visual medium of cinema (produced primarily in Hollywood/Los Angeles no less)–in the process. Considering the amount of media coverage the two events received and how it was a video recording (made by a bystander) that exposed the L.A.P.D. officers’ brutality in the first place, one cannot underestimate the importance of the element of cinematic sensationalism. The Alcaraz’ viewer is forced to reconcile the pleasure of watching an action comedy set in L.A. that is evoked by the White Men Can’t Jump reference with the possibility of schadenfreudian pleasure of watching mass violence in L.A.on the evening news. The ethics of viewership and spectacle are being decidedly called into question.

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