Grand Theft Auto and the airbrushing of history

By rewriting key elements of the LA riots, GTA San Andreas distorts history

At the climax of Rockstar’s 2004 game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, there is a riot in the fictional city of Los Santos.

These riots are heavily based on the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which followed the acquittal of four LAPD police officers for the beating of taxi driver Rodney King, and yet in their version of historical events the writers at Rockstar preclude actual history. One of the most politically and socially significant moments in 20th-century America, the culmination of centuries of black oppression at the hands of the white establishment, is made apolitical and asocial.

Tracing the roots of a riot

To understand the extent to which the studio’s writers airbrush complexity from their depiction of contemporary LA, you have to go back to the early 20th century.

By the outbreak of World War II, thousands of migrants had arrived in Los Angeles, looking for work in the city’s many munitions and aircraft factories. In response, LA building contractors purchased swathes of undeveloped land in areas such as Compton and Huntington Park, with the aim of providing affordable housing for the new workers. Fearing an influx of migrants, especially after 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled it was not legal to discriminate against property buyers based on skin colour, much of Compton’s white population fled to the northern reaches of Los Angeles, selling even more land to developers in the process. By the early 1960s, the population of Compton had been transformed, with more than 40% of the city’s residents now either black or Hispanic.

Neighbouring city Watts had also seen the arrival of thousands of African-Americans during the second migration, and in response had constructed several housing projects, including Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs, areas that, by the 1960s, were almost 100% black.

Racial tensions had intensified in Los Angeles since the passing of Proposition 14 in 1964, a legislation that effectively overturned the Supreme Court ruling made almost 20 years prior, once again making it legal to discriminate against prospective property buyers based on race. The passing of Prop 14, along with the arrest of Marquette Frye, sparked rioting in Watts in 1965 during which 34 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. Afterwards, the McCone Commission determined the riots had roots in the low living standards of LA’s black communities, including poor-quality housing and limited access to schools. However, despite Los Angeles boasting, by the late 1960s, the largest black population of any city in the US, little legislative action was taken to improve its black neighbourhoods and the city’s racial divide became wider.

(Above: Burning buildings during the Watts riots)

So when the jury on the Rodney King trial returned its verdict, the residents of South Central LA, who gathered in protest on the steps of Simi Valley courthouse, were reacting not to a single injustice, or some apolitical controversy, but to decades of social and legislative prejudice. From the separation of building plots in Compton and the ghettoisation of Watts throughout the 20th century, to the continued segregation of school and housing districts, the 1992 Los Angeles riots were the result of several dark decades in American history. And to understand them fully, or represent them responsibly, the weight of that history must be accepted.

Letting the system off the hook

In the game, the riots begin when corrupt police officer Frank Tenpenny is acquitted of murder and drug trafficking. But Tenpenny is black. And in making him so, Rockstar excludes from its version of the LA riots any examination of historical racial tension.

Rather than investigate or engage with the true circumstances of the LA riots, the game’s writers can simply fabricate their own, cleaner narrative; rather than implicate the white establishment, Grand Theft Auto’s creators can isolate the riots as a black issue involving and perpetrated by black characters. In an act of rewriting of history so blunt and tactless only game critics could miss it, Rockstar doesn’t attempt to justify the white system – it tries to extricate it from implication entirely.

More surreptitiously, the nature of Tenpenny’s crime is altered. His position as a police officer still gives him enough standing to be acquitted, and it’s this standing that he has abused in order to deal drugs and have people killed. To that extent, he is an indictment of the system. But the crime that sparked the real-life LA riots was committed not by a criminal against another criminal, but by police officers, acting in an official capacity, against a citizen who hadn’t even been formally arrested.

Of the 344 people killed in Baltimore in 2015, 93% were black. By the end of the year, only 30% of the city’s homicides were solved. At the same time, sentencing for drug crimes remains heavily biased against African-Americans. Possession of one gram of crack, the smokable form of cocaine more popular among African-Americans, carries the same sentence as possession of 18 grams of the powder form of cocaine more often used by white people. Given this context it’s important to note that, rather than simply a police officer and a representative of the system who has abused his position and assailed a citizen, Tenpenny is a drug dealer and a murderer. Instead of committing abuses of power that highlight flaws in the political, public-facing system, Tenpenny commits crimes that, as far as America’s legislative response goes, are native to a fringe subsection of society: black society.

However, the abuse suffered by Rodney King came from white police officers. And by reversing history once again, Rockstar removes from blame the white establishment and recontextualises the LA riots as a black problem for black people. Like the ghettoised LA districts of Watts and Compton, the riots in San Andreas are isolated from broader politics and society.

Avoiding difficult questions

At the end of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, after Tenpenny is killed (by the game’s black protagonist, CJ), the riots simply cease. Rather than being resolved by legislation, social reform or any action whatsoever from the political system, the LA riots in San Andreas are a product of and a problem for two black criminals. No broader racial or political context exists before the riots. No political change is needed to end or prevent them reoccurring. What in reality represented a convergence of myriad social and political ills is isolated as a squabble over drug money and gang murders between two black crooks.

Laying the blame squarely at Rockstar’s door might seem unfair. Games generally refuse to involve themselves with history and politics – the disclaimer at the beginning of each Assassin’s Creed, explaining that the games are “inspired” by history and developed by a team of multiple religious faiths is a sugar-coated way to defend the series’ stubborn, apolitical writing. It’s ridiculous, also, that the World War II aesthetic is considered stale when games generally refuse to address the complex social problems behind the conflict. For the sake of selling to as many people, assumedly teenagers, as possible, games sidestep confronting complicated subject matter. San Andreas is not singularly guilty, but considering Rockstar’s continued boasts about plausible open worlds and sharp satire, its exorcising of history is more plainly visible.

Primarily, the heightened rags-to-riches story of San Andreas demonstrates Rockstar’s total misunderstanding – or perhaps straight ignorance – of the people, place and time it is supposedly representing. Secondarily, they vindicate the social systems that in reality lead to social paralysis. Within just 50 in-game days, CJ amasses a business empire comprising a casino, a record label and a car dealership – in less than two months, he goes from living in federal housing in one of Los Santos’ ghettos to being a multimillionaire. Similarly, the game is filled with things to do: across San Andreas, players encounter a litany of missions, side-missions, challenges, secrets and activities. This is a world laden with opportunity. Contrary to the real lives of black people in South Central Los Angeles, whose ability to progress out of poverty is either tacitly or explicitly denied by the white system, CJ experiences hyper-mobility, exploring a world where he can not only become ultra-rich, ultra-fast, but where nothing is ever denied.

“Just say no!” insisted Nancy Reagan, as part of her infamous campaign against the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. And it’s that kind of parental condescension, spoken self-satisfyingly, and without proper consideration of the American ghetto, that San Andreas echoes. “Get after it!” the game tells its young black protagonist. “White people can do it, so why can’t you?” And when rioting breaks out: “It’s your fault, so you fix it.”

In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, both black marginalisation and the LA riots occur without any interposition from the white system, which remains blameless – despite volumes of history and research concluding the opposite, the game tacitly implies that the problems in black, urban America come from within.

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