Can L.A. Escape the Cage of Chinatown?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

A mother, seeking to protect her daughter and herself, fires a gunshot toward her abusive father, and then flees by car. Los Angeles police, on the scene but in no danger, open fire on the departing vehicle, killing the mother.

Her unnecessary death is more than a tragedy, or police misconduct. It’s an emblem of California’s most populous city.  

Because it’s the celebrated final scene of the 1974 film Chinatown

Every American city has struggled with policing abuses. But Los Angeles is unique in embracing, through culture and image, its own history of police corruption and official violence. 

While examples of this perverse embrace are legion, from L.A. Confidential to the ubiquity of the Rodney King video, few documents have maintained so long a hold on Angelenos as Chinatown. Last week, Ben Affleck was tapped to direct a film version of Sam Wasson’s new book, The Big Goodbye, about the film’s making. 

That final scene’s famous coda—“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”—warned private detective Jake Gittes, the victim’s lover, not to protest the police execution he’d just witnessed. Ever since, that same phrase has been aimed at Angelenos naïve enough to seek justice in a thoroughly unjust place./

But after months of protests for social justice and against police misconduct, that cinematic warning needs reconsideration. By constantly reproducing our official horrors as news and entertainment, have we Angelenos shed the light on police abuses, or merely embedded them more deeply in our region’s collective sense of identity? 

That’s why, for L.A., achieving true justice will require not just transforming systems but also forging a new identity, free of the powerlessness embodied in Chinatown.

And the best attempt at a new narrative comes from the best L.A. book of the 21st century, City of Inmates, by UCLA historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez: 

Her 2017 history reveals that L.A.’s creativity has long been expressed through its pioneering cruelty in incarcerating people.  In the 19th century, the city used public order charges to justify incarcerating native peoples. Between the 1880s and 1910, the city exploited vagrancy laws to incarcerate to poor white “hoboes” and force them to join chain gangs to cut roads, including Sunset Boulevard. L.A helped invent the concept of immigration detention (in the service of deporting L.A.’s Chinese laborers, innovated in incarcerating people of Mexican heritage, and exploited vice laws to punish and incarcerate Black people.  Lytle Hernandez argues that L.A.’s devotion to caging is a product of it being settled by people who wanted “to block, erase, or remove racialized outsiders from their claimed territory.” 

This may sound very Chinatown. Wasson, in his book on the film, writes that the concluding scene creates “a temporal Sisyphean circle” that implies “emotional incarceration.” He then recounts how the film’s Polish director Roman Polanski rejected screenwriter Robert Towne’s original ending, in which the mother would kill her abusive father, earning herself a prison sentence but protecting her daughter. 

“I felt this was too romantic,” Polanski recounts in Wasson’s book. “Too much of a happy ending.”

Polanski insisted that the ending be a “total tragedy.” The director was an expert on tragedy—his pregnant mother was slaughtered by the Nazis, and his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, murdered in Los Angeles in 1969. In real life, catastrophe and violence triumph, Polanski told Towne. The ending ultimately represented the director’s fatalism, and his distrust of Los Angeles. (In 1978, Polanski was indicted for raping a 13-year-old girl in L.A., and fled to Europe, where he remains to this day, a fugitive from the caging-mad city he helped define).

What makes Lytle Hernandez’s work groundbreaking is that she rejects the fatalism of Polanski and other L.A. chroniclers. Instead, she unearths  a “rebel archive” of Angelenos who resisted incarceration, some successfully. Among them: Pedro J. Gonzalez, a Spanish radio broadcaster and musician who advocates for migrants—and is incarcerated in retaliation. 

Her book suggests that L.A.’s elite reforms of criminal justice have never been enough to counter L.A.’s incarceration obsession. The LAPD was one of the nation’s most racially diverse police forces by the 1930s, she notes, but no less brutal. And L.A. County’s first African American deputy sheriff, Julius Loving, was also one of its most dedicated practitioners of unjust incarceration. 

Instead, Los Angeles needs a deeper change in its culture and mindset, a determination that it can change its identity, and in the process stop police violence and the caging of people.

“In Los Angeles today, many rebels are hard at work dismantling the nation’s penal core,” Lytle Hernandez wrote back in 2017. “They are talking about land. They are refusing removal. They are resisting deportation. They are rejecting erasure. They are fighting the beatings and killings.”

Perhaps now, finally, we can escape the cage of Chinatown.

 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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