20 Years After the LA Riots: What Have We Learned?

urban issues breakfrast forum

Panelists Rodney King, Hyepin Im, and Connie Rice.

20 Years After the LA Riots: What Have We Learned?

In the two decades since what many remember as the Rodney King riots, much has improved in Los Angeles. Downtown, tony cafes, hip art galleries, and refurbished bookstores jostle for space on streets where then only the homeless stood, five deep.

A brand new Metro Rail line whisks you out to Culver City, and the skyline boasts swank hotels and shiny office buildings. Now there’s even talk of a fancy football stadium smack dab in the middle of the city, future home for the Vikings, Rams, or Bengals, cast off from whatever Rust Bucket city is ready to shed its team.

But what of South LA — then South Central — where the flames shot to the sky 20 years ago, sparked by the acquittal of police officers who had beaten a black motorist half to death, captured on video for all to see? How has that part of the city changed since 92?

That’s the question Anthony Samad wanted to address at the latest of his Urban Issues Breakfast Forums — a set of free public meetings where the community gets an opportunity for “face time” with Los Angeles luminaries.

anthony samad

Anthony Samad

Not Better, Surely

“LA is worse off today than it was 20 years ago,” Samad said, referring to South Los Angeles, as he kicked off the discussion for the several hundred attendees who had made it down to the California African American Museum first thing Friday morning.

“You don’t need to take a bus tour. Drive around South LA for yourself. One in three houses in Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights is in foreclosure,” Samad continued. “Drive up Crenshaw, you’ll see that one in five businesses is closed.”

Fleshing out the forum’s overfull panel were

  • Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, former pastor of the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles and current John R. Tansey Chair of Christian Ethics at USC;
  • Civil rights attorney and co-founder and co-director of the Advancement Project, Connie Rice;
  • Founder and President of Korean Churches for Community Development (KCCD) Hyepin Im;
  • Curator of the California African American Museum Charmaine Jefferson;
  • Community Activist and author Linda Jay;
  • Skid Row advocate General Jeff; and
  • Rodney King himself.

“The institutions we had in place 20 years ago are all gone,” continued Samad, reflecting on the lack of progress in the black community since the civil unrest. “The only reason we still have a hospital in South LA is that a prophet got himself elected and said, ‘we will have a hospital'” — referring to LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

92 los angeles riots“Underclass Black LA, underclass Latino LA, and poor white LA is worse off than it was 20 years ago,” agreed Connie Rice, the civil rights attorney most famous for repeatedly suing the Los Angeles Police Department. “If we can’t fix our community to be safe enough for our children to walk to school safely, if we don’t have safe streets, then we don’t have money for bullet trains or football stadiums or any of these other distractions.”

Rebuilding Relations

Rice, author of the newly released book Power Concedes Nothing, moved inside the belly of the beast after years of fighting the LAPD when she joined the LA Police Commission, concerned that without communication and cooperation between LA communities and its police force there would just be another riot.

“I had to deal with men who are afraid of the black community, afraid of the Latino community, who are especially afraid of Black civil rights lawyers like me,” Rice continued, allowing that it was more fun to sue the LAPD than to work on the inside. “Believe me, I had to learn all over how to count backwards from 10.”

Echoing Rice’s remarks, Rev. Murray — who pastored FAME for 27 years — agreed that economic recovery has missed South LA even if there has been a radical improvement in the police department’s philosophy since 1992.

“What hasn’t improved is the poverty rate. Nationally, the poverty rate is 8%. In the black community it is 19 or 20%,” said Murray.

“We need to find ways to turn over the dollar more times in our community,” Murray continued. “In the Black community, the dollar turns over just once. In other communities, it turns over 8 to 18 times.”

Rice pointed, as well, to the need for drastic economic change, citing analysis by Bernard Kinsey  indicating that South LA would need an investment of $6 billion to have the houses, supermarkets, hospitals, and community centers a thriving community would need.”

“Rebuild LA gave South LA maybe $300 million,” Rice observed, arguing that it’s time for the bickering to end, in the community and among its politicians, and instead time to build a comprehensive economic recovery plan.

“If we don’t, we’ll have to build walls around communities the way they do in Bogata, Colombia, where the rich communities are separated from the poorer ones by walls,” continued Rice, who was the morning’s intellectual center to Rodney King’s emotional center.

Panelists Linda Jay, General Jeff, Charmaine Jefferson, and Rodney King

“We have to develop and implement real solutions because the next time we have a riot we won’t be able to simply address the conflict with a commission,” Rice said.

A Tear in the Eye

Hyepin Im, President of Korean Churches for Community Development and the only non Black on the panel, addressed the still-lingering tensions between the city’s Black and Korean communities.

“Korean Americans are among the four poorest communities in America — along with African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans,” she said, indicating that newly arrived Korean immigrants gravitated to neighborhoods like South LA to open businesses in part because that’s the only place they could afford to get started and partly because their lack of English language skills put many good salaried jobs out of reach.

“Because we are stuck together we need each other,” she said, observing that Korean congregations contribute at six times the rate of congregations of other races, with much of their generosity going overseas to Africa, Latin America, and Asia, in roughly equal measure.

samad im

Anthony Samad and Hyepin Im

For his part, King — whose book The Riot Within has just hit bookstands — observed, “We spend too much time trying to make peace in somebody else’s house when we don’t really have peace in our own house.”

Both General Jeff and Linda Jay honored Rodney King for his perseverance and for his graceful “Can’t we just all get along” at the height of the riots named in his honor.

“‘Rodney King’ has become an icon, a symbol, a verb — and I was ‘Rodney Kinged” before Rodney was himself,” said Jeff.

“When I look at that video of Rodney being beaten, I still get tears in my eyes,” said Jay, who has lost a son to gang violence.

“From Rodney King to Trayvon Martin, we’ve gone from ‘beat down’ to ‘hunt down, beat down, shoot down.'” said Jay, author of I Was There: My Life As An Activist. “The common denominator is ‘down’ – because they always want to keep us down.”

Several panelists noted that contrary to the perceptions shaped primarily by the media, the 1992 unrest was widespread and not just contained within South Central Los Angeles. Outbreaks of looting, beatings, and arson were reported across the County — including in Culver City, Hollywood, mid-Wilshire, West L.A. and Beverly Hills.

Charmaine Jefferson, a fourth-generation Angeleno, living in New York City in 1992, watched the news coverage on television. “I couldn’t believe they were characterizing this as isolated in South Central Los Angeles when the footage clearly showed that the outbursts were in places like mid Wilshire,” she said. “In a lot of footage, there wasn’t a Black face in the crowd, yet they kept framing this as  ‘South Central Los Angeles.'”

Perhaps because the audience was almost entirely Black, Connie Rice pulled the conversation back to accountability, by the city but also by the Black community itself.

“We are not building a culture of achievement for our children so they’ll be ready to compete,” she said. “They watch too much television, admire too many sports heroes, try too hard to look like Beyonce, when they should be getting their brain cells working.” As the discussion closed, Rice aptly echoed the theme of her book as she talked about the responsibility of the power structure. Said Rice, “a riot is a demand of the power structure and power concedes nothing without a demand.” — a powerful message, it appears, we still have yet to learn.

Dick & Sharon

Posted: Saturday 26 May 2012


  1. Dwight Albee says

    I don’t know if you have been back to Minneapolis lately, but from what I have seen, and from what I have been told, the neighborhoods that I knew as African-American and/or Native American, are now populated by Latinos and Somalis. I am not sure where the latter have gone to – maybe further south and west into the close-in suburbs.

    The Nor’d East that used to be home to the Poles and Ukrainians and the really old Swedish population has been gentrified where it abuts the University area. The area between the very gentrified downtown St. Paul and the eastern edge of the University looks to be terribly impoverished and seems to be a mixing area of people who have one thing in common – poverty and being people of color.

    That area could probably compete with the slums of India and Brazil though I have only seen photos of the last two places I named.

    I would respond to the question in the title of your piece that NO we have not learned anything. I don’t believe this country HAS to fail, but I am not convinced that anyone cares to stop it from failing.

    My sister teaches early grade school in Fairbault where the population is no longer as homogeneous as it was when we were both growing up in Minnesota, and she told me of the terrible barriers that some of her students face. One little African-American boy who, for some reason really likes my sister, is living with his grandmother along with a cousin and another sibling. His mother is in prison and his father was murdered in gang violence.

    The kids come to school hungry and tired from a lack of sleep and yet the administrators pile on more and more “testing” while ignoring the realities of these children’s lives. How is it possible for these kids to succeed and how is it possible for teachers like my sister to help them succeed with all that they are up against? Things do not have to be this way.

    I have heard many people say that all life is precious, but many of those people also are racist, sexist, classicist, and even if they aren’t part of the 1%, their foolish and unrealistic belief that they can be, or must be, makes them complicit with the arrogant and indifferent greed that makes the inhumane disparity in the distribution of wealth, and life-chances to go on existing in this country and the world.

    I really believed Kennedy when I was younger and I thought I was going out into a bright, shinning world where I could make difference. I found a world that was mostly indifferent and though I wouldn’t have believed it possible, I think indifference has expanded exponentially since I was that idealistic boy.

    But back to where I was going – I heard an interview with the Dalai Lama and when he said “All life is precious,” I believed him. I think that it is. 

    • Dick Price says

      What a powerful comment. I keep trying to get you to cobble together articles. I’m glad you at least let us post this response.

      We spend a fair amount of time in South LA — used to be the infamous “South Central” — and also in the equally infamous (at least out here) Compton, where we own a home that we rent to Sharon’s aunt and uncle.

      Those areas don’t seem as dangerous as they did 20 or 25 years ago, at the height of the crack epidemic out here, but they are depressing indeed. You can see how you’d really have all the luck in the world to emerge with any sort of hope for the future. And you can see how easy it would be to just give up.

      LA’s school district has 25,000 students who are homeless! Can you imagine going to school as a little kid out of a homeless shelter — that’s if you’re lucky enough to be in a shelter?

  2. Ryder says

    The important thing that I take from all of this is that for things to simply be getting worse… one has to boldly admit some startling facts.

    California, and LA especially, are not redneck regions.  California and the LA basin are BEACONS of progressive, liberal thinking, and home of the most powerful engines of progressive ideas, namely, Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole.

    As such, the area is essentially fully informed by progressive thought and action.

    For things to be worse… after all of the violence… after all of the study… after all of the talk and reflection and outreach and spending and on and on and on and on… it’s time for people to actually step out of fantasy.

    Science dictates that when your theories tested by experiment fail to produce a predicted result, your theory ***must*** be discarded as wrong and disproved.

    The progressive left prides itself on taking science seriously, embracing “the science of global warming” and decrying the “deniers”.

    In terms of race and race theory as endlessly practiced in California, the people that cling to disproved ideas is just another kind of “denier”.

    The more that progressive work has been done/practiced in this area, the worse things have become.  Those that reach our shores and do NOT embrace progressive attitudes and values consistently do best in America, and are most readily accepted in America… (otherwise known as “the Asian problem” to progressive thinkers).

    Excuse making aside, and elaborate explanations notwithstanding, the simple truth is that the progressive ideas of claiming victim status, and pointing outward to explain one’s personal ills has been a prescription for pain and suffering… while clearly benefiting those that seek political power as supposed leaders of the “oppressed”.  Power for the few, suffering for the masses that have been strung along.

    Meanwhile, California has tried to spend its way into racial bliss and out of poverty, and has instead emerged as “worse” in every measure, in astounding levels of debt with nothing to show for it.

    Those with sufficient character are simply able to admit “we were wrong”.

    That is the first step to recovery.

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