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NLNS Packet 2.11 - July/August, 1992
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Sarajevo and L.A.: A Tale of Two Cities
Tha Madison Edge
(NLNS)--The cities of Sarajevo and Los Angeles are about 8,000 miles
apart, but they share a lot in common.
They were both sites for the 1984 Olympic Games -- pageants
of "peace and brotherhood" in cities of striking ethnic diversity. But
eight years later, parts of both cities were simultaneously aflame,
Army troops patrolled their streets, and ethnic groups battles with
What happened? That question can't be answered with a look
only at those eight years, without a look at the setting of the crises in
both cities, and the ethnic groups that carry centuries of history with
Sarajevo--the capital of Bosnia-Hercegovina--is a mosaic of
Muslim Slavs, Catholic Croats, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, and Jews.
Their differences would seem to be insurmountable, given their deep
historic roots in the Great Christian Schism, the Ottoman Turkish
occupation, and the two world wars. Yet until recently, Sarajevo was
known as an oasis of diversity, where inter-ethnic marriages were
not uncommon, and different ethnic groups worked side by side.
However, Sarajevo was in Yugoslavia, whose identity was
centered on the Serbs since the country was founded after World
War I. Resentment against this control fuelled the Croat Ustasha
Nazis who committed genocidal acts against Serbs in World War II.
In the 1950s, Communist leader Josip Broz Tito made
Yugoslav unity his top priority and--in an undemocratic way--spread
political and economic power more equally among the republics.
But Serbs continued to dominate the Army, and Serbian nationalist
sentiment remained strong in the countryside. We may be poor, the
idea went, but we're Serbs.
Los Angeles is similarly a mosaic of European Americans,
Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans. Their
conflicts date from the days of slavery, from the U.S. annexation of
Mexican and Native lands, and from the different waves of
immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the rest of the United
States, each given their own place in the pecking order.
While there has been less inter-ethnic contact than in
Sarajevo, in recent years L.A. has been seen as a sort of multicultural
Mecca, where Americans could glimpse their future.
However, Los Angeles is in the United States, a country where
one racial group has predominated since the late 17th century. After
English and Irish indentured servants joined with African slaves in
uprisings against planatation owners, the owners freed the servants,
and gave them relative privileges to win their loyalty against the
Africans. Europeans of all classes were then grouped as "whites" for
the first time. We may be poor, the idea went, but at least we're
This system of white racial solidarity survived civil war and
reconstruction, and was most strongly challenged by the civil rights
movement founded in the 1950s by African Americans, but followed
by other groups. Despite some meaningful victories, most centers of
power--such as some police departments--remained under white
The backlash in Yugoslavia
In both Sarajevo and L.A., some progress had been made by
the 1980s, but it was threatened by economic troubles and the
emergence of new national leaders. Ethnic tensions in the former
Yugoslav (and Soviet) republics are often presumed to have always
been boiling under the surface, with state repression keeping the lid
on until the collapse of Communism. But a more complete picture
shows the new republican leaders stoking prejudice into a full-blown
hatred--playing the ethnic card in order to cling onto power during
hard times. The leaders want war, even if the people don't.
Tito died in 1980, and the resulting power vacuum was
largely filled by republican governments. While he had kept power
through national unity, they claimed power through national
disunity. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian
President Franjo Tudjman skillfully played the game of divide-and-
conquer during the economic downturn of the early '90s. Their TV
stations broadcast hate propaganda against the rival republic, and
the "hooligans" in rival ethnic movements.
Turning public anger away from a domestic elite and toward
a foreign enemy is a skill used by leaders from World War I to the
Falklands, but this time it was used against ethnic groups next door.
Serbians and Croatians who had never been nationalistic backed
their armies against secessionists, and the armies were sent into
newly independent Bosnia. TV war coverage highlighted the
atrocities committed by the other side.
The backlash in the U.S.
The 1980 election of a Republican administration in the
United States similarly brought racial tensions into full view.
The verbal assault by presidents Reagan and Bush against so-
called welfare queens, racial quotas, and Willie Hortons represented
a turning back of the civil rights movement. TV and Hollywood
showed even stronger images of African Americans and Latinos as
gang members, and focused almost exclusively on the white victims
of black "criminals."
The logical result was the police beating of Rodney King, the
acquittal of the police, and the violence that followed. Though the
violence had the marks of both a spontaneous riot and a political
uprising, TV images emphasized looting and the beating by blacks of
a white truck driver.
Who was really at war in Sarajevo?
However, the violence in Srajevo and L.A. cannot be easily
dismissed as a conflict between ethnic populations. The New York
Times reports that Bosnian civilians still have a "striking lack of
animosity" toward civilians in other ethnic groups, even as they are
being shelled by a rival ethnic army. Serb civilians are victims of
Serbian shelling, and some serve in the Bosnian army. Serbs, Croats,
and Muslims alike express dismay at the war, given the relative
tolerance that preceded it, and most oppose an ethnic territorial
partition of Bosnia.
In the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, tens of thousands of
Serbians have demonstrated for peace, and groups of soldiers'
mothers have urged the government to bring their sons home. A few
brave Serbians are even backing ethnic Albanian autonomy in Serbia.
A good number of Serbs oppose Serbian expansion, knowing full
well that dominating other peoples does not ultimately bring
Who was really at war in L.A.?
Similarly, the events in Los Angeles can't been seen simply as
a race riot.
From the first minutes of the rebellion, it was clear that many
Latinos, and some whites and Asians, were participating. They didn't
simply take part in the looting, but expressed their outrage at the
jury verdict and the pervasiveness of urban poverty. A multiracial
crowd besieged police headquarters on April 29, overturning squad
cars and fighting police. (It shows the weakness of our political
culture that the crowd didn't stay at Parker center to force changes,
in the style of Tiananmen Square in 1989 or Moscow's Parliament
building in 1991.)
Photos of handcuffed arrestees and curfew violators show that
not only African Americans were involved in L.A.
In San Francisco, whites were the largest group in a series of
militant demonstrations (one of which was banned under a state on
emergency--a ban that did not happen even in wartime Belgrade). A
good number of whites in California began to look up the social
scale, rather than down, to find the source of their problems. A study
could probably prove that what happened in California was the most
multiracial civil unrest in this country since the late 17th century.
Ending artificial hatreds
The lessons of Sarajevo and L.A. are only now emerging. Such
conflicts don't come out of disagreements over skin color, cultural
norms, or religious doctrine, but out of the uneven spread of
economic development and political power. There are some
Yugoslav Serbs and U.S. whites who can play a key role in breaking
these vicious historical circles.
Prejudice is always simmering somewhere, but violent
conflicts rarely originate from people simply not liking each other.
We are not floating around the universe, accidentally bumping into
one another. The violence at its core is an exercise of power by a
dominant group--through a Yugoslav Army or LAPD--which is met
with resistance by other groups. Racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds
are not innate human traits. They have to be taught, sustained, and
kept in reserve to be used at the most opportune and divisive times.
The Madison Edge can be reached at PO Box 845, Madison, WI
53701-0845; (608) 255-4460.
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