Merely the sound of his name summons up images of a rock star or a movie hero and, given the current trajectory of London Lang’s life, both destinations seem imminently plausible.
The now iconic beard makes him appear much older than his 21 years (“It has been growing in since I started high school”), and the 2017 graduate of South Pasadena High School has steadily become the face of recent local demonstrations supporting the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd while he was in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Lang was just 5 when the family moved to town. At SPHS, he participated in swimming, wood shop and drama, in which Lang said he enjoyed the freedom to dream up his own skits. That, and “I just like to act,” he said.
That creative tendency paid off on Tuesday, June 2, when — all by himself — Lang walked to the northeast corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and Mission Street and, brandishing a sign declaring “We Are Not Toys,” began his singular and peaceful protest against racism and police brutality. And he has rarely left, either physically or in spirit.
“People just came out of nowhere,” the soft-spoken Lang said. “On the first day I was by myself, completely, and people would walk by and say, ‘Can I stand with you?’ Others would come by on their 30-minute lunch break and do the same.”
Fueled by the optics of the demonstrations as well as Lang’s popular social media accounts, the crowds consistently grew — and so has Lang’s role. He arrives every day around noon, materials in hand, and doesn’t leave until about 6:30 p.m. He uses his own money as well as dollars that arrive via Venmo and spontaneous cash donations to make sure everyone has plenty of food, water and sign-making supplies.
From a high-water mark of several hundred, the crowds have been settling in at anywhere from 30-80 at any time during a given day. Their presence is augmented by the noise from the occasional boom box and the constant accompaniment of car horns blaring drivers’ support of the effort.
Peripherally, Lang soon became a founding member of a group known as South Pasadena Youth for Police Reform. “Soon” as in the very first day of the protests.
“Someone just started saying that they didn’t like the South Pasadena police budget and I said, ‘Well, I can help you do something about it,’” Lang recalled. Since the group’s inception, it has created a 22-point manifesto encouraging, among other points, that incoming police recruits be familiar with South Pasadena’s unique history and that one officer on every shift be trained in or have a background in mental health. It also calls for the release of an accurate SPPD budget and a clarification of ordinances that are used to move homeless community members from public spaces.
Lang’s group held a separate demonstration on behalf of the fledgling group in front of City Hall on the evening of Wednesday, June 10, that was well organized, well attended and well received. Members of the South Pasadena City Council were in attendance and have since reached out to help with the group’s proposals.
“It was very successful,” said Lang. “The City Council has been very supportive.”
Lang’s own involvement in the cause didn’t start in a manner he now cares to celebrate. Shortly after Floyd’s death, Lang attended a rally in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District, where things got a little out of hand. Rubber bullets were fired, Lang injured his leg, became “enraged,” as he told The Review, and “did dumb things that everyone else was doing.” After what now might be seen as a symbolic three-day respite, about which he introspectively said, “I tried to heal the wounds that I had hurt,” Lang was ready to again make his feelings known.
“I wanted to go back to L.A. and do dumb things, but I knew that I would just hurt myself again,” Lang said. That is when he decided to walk to Fair Oaks and Mission.
Lang said that the community has been “98% supportive” but added with a chuckle that the occasional middle finger will still emanate from a passing car. He was told that he has been profiled online as a possible looter, but pointed out that in the photo labeling him thus he was wearing a full cast and walking with the assistance of crutches.
“Most of the South Pasadena residents know me, a lot of the parents know me and most of the community knows me, too,” said Lang, who has worked as a swimming instructor at the local YMCA and delivers pizzas for a local Italian eatery. “I am happy that the community has my back.”
Lang has met with the national organizers of Black Lives Matter, which he feels is “a very good movement.” He carefully crafted his “We Are Not Toys” slogan to remind police officers that black citizens are not to be seen as “test dummies.”
“A child will use and abuse their toys for enjoyment when they are bored,” Lang said. “I want to tell them that we are not something you take out when you are bored.”
Lang appeared to take pride in a moniker that he was recently given on social media: The Organizer.
“I’m proud of what I didn’t intentionally want to start but enjoy every moment of,” he responded.
When asked, he allowed himself another very brief moment with that word: Are you proud of what you have done?
“Yes,” Lang said, before becoming completely silent. “Inexplicable,” he added after a few seconds. “I would say that I have matured a lot. I was a little irresponsible and not always the brightest, but I feel like I have accomplished more and taught myself more and overcome some one of my childhood immaturities.”
He also said the experience has encouraged him to inspire others, and said that his most valuable asset has been his “willingness to be there all the time.”
“To say hello, to be with the community and to want to be an agent of change,” Lang said. “You don’t have to take your anger out on the police. You can be peaceful and do the right thing. We are going through a hard time, but we have to be peaceful to have our laws changed in the right way.”