Though sparked by the Rodney King verdict, there were many other causes of the riots that erupted on the streets of Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. The Los Angeles riots in 1992 were devastating. The obvious issue portrayed through the media was black versus white. If you did not live in Los Angeles or California chances are you did not hear full coverage of the story, you heard a simple cut and dry portrayal of the events in South Central. If you heard one thing about the riots, it was that there was a man named Rodney King and he was a black male beaten with excessive force by four white Los Angeles police officers on Los Angeles concrete.
The media portrayed the riots as black rage on the streets due to the not guilty verdict of the four Los Angeles policemen that were facing excessive force charges. The not guilty verdict may have been the initial cause, but the riots were not about Rodney King, they were about greater issues. Some of these issues were black versus white, blacks and Hispanics versus the police, blacks versus Koreans, and poor versus rich. The riots were do to all the underlying festering rage that had been building up in the residents of Los Angeles and the disbelief that police even when caught on tape, could get away with such brutality.
Los Angeles was just waiting for an event like the Rodney King verdict to explode. All that was needed was that one spark to ignite the anger in the citizens of South Central and cause the area to explode. South Central had been dealing with significant underlying racial and economic problems in the years since similar riots in Watts in ’65. In 1965, steps taken to remedy the racial tension in the city were begun. In an effort to prevent future civil unrest in the city, then Gov. Pat Brown commissioned a committee led by John McCone to investigate the “underlying causes” of the ’65 riots.
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The McCone Commission found that “poverty, racial division and other social conditions helped trigger the violence” (Pope).
However, after the commissions report, interest in the Watts riots faded and adequate action was not taken to address these issues in the affected areas. At the conclusion of its investigation, the McCone Commission cited that “so serious and so explosive is the situation that, unless it is unchecked, the August riots may seem by comparison to be only a curtain-raiser for what could blow up one day in the future” (Pope).
Although the city has changed in those years since the Watts riots, unfortunately, much has remained the same. This confession by the McCone Commission proved to be prophetical. The Watts riots left 34 dead and 600 buildings damaged or destroyed.
The ’92 riots caused 52 fatalities, and more than 1, 200 buildings were damaged or destroyed. An anonymous man from Hollywood made a similar statement in ’92 after the riots. He stated, “the verdict was just the spark-this (the riots) had been set for years before” (Smith).
The city of Los Angeles is not a unified city. Los Angeles consists of too many large sub cities or communities to speak with one voice.
There are many sub cities in LA such as the Westside, Hollywood, the Valley, Downtown, and of course, South Central. To make things more difficult, many of these sub cities themselves are not unified. Due to their size, all of these communities are subject to their own problems, and it goes without saying that the problems of South Central are not the same as the ones in Hollywood. This is due to drastic demographic differences of each of the communities. South Central is made up of high percentages of minority citizens. While South Central LA has a high population of blacks, Hispanics and Asians, it has a low percentage of whites.
South Central is a shining example of a community divided. In Maxine Waters words, (inner city) LA is full of too much hopelessness and despair. LA writer and critic Mike Davis supported Waters’s statement by saying the divisions stem from inner city kids “being so susceptible to despair.” The city is at war with its kids. “LA needs to put out the resources to at least reestablish a connection with the kids” (Smith).
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Too many children grow up to become gang members rather than professionals. Another problem that causes division in LA is that the city’s minorities are engaged in racial warfare.
Blacks and whites, and blacks and Koreans have drawn the largest battle lines. Divisions with whites rise out of the fact that Blacks in LA do not like the image that they are given through the media. Paula Weinstein sympathized with this emotion when she described a recent “media fest” in which they made white people scared of the African American community. Reginald Denny described problems between races in terms of the overall attitude of people in LA as “give me what I need and shove off.” His hope is that “people just wake up” and “stop seeing color, and see people as people.” Tensions between Koreans and blacks had been building for years before the King verdict until they finally exploded. There were countless acts of violence committed between Koreans and blacks that ranged not only from looting and burning of Korean stores but to gun battles and shootings. Walter Park, a well known Korean shop owner was shot “almost execution style” by a black man who came up to his car at a red light, broke his window, and shot him in the head just for being Korean (Smith).
In response to the idea that blacks burned down their own neighborhoods, Paul Parker, chairperson for the Free the LA Four Plus defense committee stated, “No we didn’t, we burned down these Koreans in this neighborhood” (Smith).
About ninety-eight percent of the stores burned down were Korean. He also added, “You know, we got rid of all these little Korean liquor stores over here. We put them in check.” This tension between blacks and Koreans comes from a couple of reasons, the first of which was summed up by Katie Miller. She states that Korean proprietors in South Central do not get to know the people who come into their stores. They do not respect the people coming into their store giving them their money.
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Instead the owners treat people like, “give me your money and get out of my face” (Miller).
Another one of the other chief complaints by many blacks of Koreans in South Central is that “Korean-Americans do not patronize black businesses” (Choi).
Economic differences among citizens of Los Angeles were perhaps the largest contributing factor to the riots. South Central LA as a higher overall poverty rate than does its surrounding communities. This was evidenced by the 1990 census which found that “30% of the people in South Central live below the poverty line” (Mydans).
A commission similar to the one headed by John A.
McCone was formed to study the causes of the ’92 riots. It was called the Webster Commission. The Webster Commission named “the widening gap between Los Angeles’ rich and poor, between minority and white residents” as a precursor to the violence. The “disproportionately high levels of unemployment, poverty and homelessness in African-American neighborhoods was by most accounts giving rise to a growing level of tension, frustration and anger that contributed to the tense atmosphere preceding the unrest,” according to the report (Pope).
In a pole taken by the Los Angeles Times in October after the riots, Anglos, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians listed economic troubles among the city’s “gravest concerns.” However, there were differences in responses of each ethnic group. For example, 24% of Anglos saw unemployment as a top issue compared to 42% of blacks, 36% of Latinos, and 26% of Asians. When asked to describe the state of personal finances, 57% of whites said that they were fairly secure compared to 44% for blacks, 46% for Latinos, and 47% for Asians. Then in a follow up question, 42% of whites thought LA’s economy to be very shaky compared to 64% of blacks, 51% of Latinos, and 36% of Asians. The Times also stated that residents are far more likely to identify economic gains as the best antidote to further rioting than they were last spring. Economic problems seem to be drawn along racial lines in Los Angeles and many minorities feel neglected by the government.
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The riots arose out of the frustration of minorities being overlooked and not properly represented. The riots were “the voice of the unheard” in America crying out due to the lack of services and government responsiveness to the people (Waters).
Economic amends by the government have to be made in order to repair the problems in LA. Congresswoman Maxine Waters feels that the “young men (and women in South Central) have been dropped off America’s agenda and need to be dealt with.” Peter Sellars made a very valid point about south central and the rest of LA in terms of the need of repairing its problems. He commented that, “We all live in the same house start a fire in the basement and nobody’s gonna be left on the top floor shutting your door in your room (to escape the problem) doesn’t help, in fact you have a stronger chance of getting incinerated.” America has to acknowledge the problems in South Central or we will all be brought down in the end.
He went on to make the analogy that America is too cheap to replace burnt out light bulbs (in areas such as South Central) and replace them with brighter ones. Another huge cause of the riots was the rift that has become common knowledge for years between minorities and Los Angeles police. Both the McCone and Webster Commissions also attributed the riots in part “on the poor relationship between police and citizens, particularly minorities.” Twenty-seven years ago the McCone Commission reported, “The bitter criticism we have heard evidences a deep and long-standing schism between a substantial portion of the Negro community and the police department.” The Webster report stated that, “There is much deep-seated hostility, mistrust and suspicion in this relationship that calls for change.” This is a theme that came up constantly throughout Anna Deavere Smith’s book. One of the problems is that the police do not make an adequate effort in community policing. They do not try to understand what is going on and get along with the minorities in the neighborhoods they are policing. They stand back and let things happen and then they deal with it.
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This unwillingness to intervene in the violence occurring in LA streets is evidenced by the instance in which Los Angeles Police Commission President Stanley Shein baum went into a gang meeting at Nickerson Gardens to talk with the young men involved in these violent gangs. He was making an effort to stop the violence and learn what was really going on. After he did this, his fellow officers were angry and they chastised him for wanting to talk to the gang members. When in reality, what he did was good.
The Los Angeles Police Department must change its ideals that they should wait for violence to occur between minorities rather than making efforts to stop it. It must also get back to the idea that minorities are part of the community and they must be “Protected and served as well.” Many of those interviewed in Twilight by Anna Deavere Smith complained of problems with the police. However, it was only minorities who complained of injustice and brutality on the part of the police. Rudy Salas complained of being taken into a room with four police officers and being kicked in the head and his eardrum being fractured because he is Mexican back in the forties. Then his son, who goes to Stanford, came home recently for the weekend and had a gun put to his head by a police officer. The same problems with the police have been going on for decades and people do not see any improvement or change.
Salas stated that one cause of the rift between the police and minorities is that “whites are physically afraid of minorities and people of color such as blacks and Mexicans.” Mike Zinzun, leader of the Coalition Against Police Abuse told Smith his own story of police brutality in which he was repeatedly maced, trampled and beaten by a group of officers after being single out of a crowd of people trying to help another man being beaten by police. As a consequence his optic nerve exploded and he lost sight in one eye and had to get forty stitches on his head. Zinzun sued the city and received 1. 2 million dollars and got two police men fired. Theresa Allison, founder of Mothers Reclaiming our Children told her horror stories of having one of her sons shot to death by the police and the other arrested unjustly. She also told stories of police picking up youths from her neighborhood and dropping them off in other projects to get shot.
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Josie Morales who is a clerk typist told Smith her story of ten or twelve officers surrounding one man, George Holliday, and beating him outside of her apartment one night. Harland Braun, counsel for Officer Theodore Bris eno told a story about a run in with the police that his son (who goes to Princeton) had while a black friend of his in was driving his Mercedes in Westwood. His son confronted the cop by saying they had been pulled over because his friend Bobby was black and driving a Mercedes. The cop quickly told his to shut up or he’d “put a screw through his chest.” He wondered what might have happened if they had been pulled over in a public area rather than a dark neighborhood or both of their safety might have been in serious danger.
It is this fact that a large percent of LA citizens (mostly minorities), has their own stories of police brutality and injustice in the system that caused such uproar after the Rodney King verdict. People identified with Rodney King’s struggle as a minority against the LA police force. It was this problem over the years that had been festering in minorities and lower income areas that stood behind the “No Justice, No Peace” outcry of LA people and rioters. President of the Brotherhood Crusade, Danny Bakewell says, “the African American community has a paranoia when it comes to justice” (Lacey).
Smokey, a former gang member reinforced that statement by saying that “You can’t trust the justice system a bit.
There ain’t a brother in the neighborhood that thinks he’s gonna get a fair trial” (Lacey).
This is an ideal that must be changed if we are to move on and steer clear of a similar problem in the future. Maxine Waters, congresswoman in South Central proposed her idea to combat police brutality on citizens to the President. She suggested that the Justice Department should do something about excessive force used by police departments in cities such as LA and should step in when “police departments are out of control.” Otis Chandler, a LA citizen echoed Water’s remark by saying, “We need to get a handle on this situation. It may take five years or ten years, but this is going to be a safe, pleasant city for everybody regardless of where they live or what they do or what the color of their skin is.
Somehow we have to make that dream come true.” The Los Angeles riots in’92 were not just about Rodney King, they were about more significant underlying issues of economics and race that had been existing and growing ever since the Watts riots in ’65. Perhaps if these issues had been addressed adequately and repaired then, the destruction and violence that occurred on the streets of South Central Los Angeles in 1992 would not have to have been endured. We cannot make the same mistake by overlooking the racial and economic problems facing Los Angeles citizens. Now in the 90’s, we must make sure that we take care of the racial divisions, inequality of police treatment, and poverty in South Central so that future generations of Los Angeles citizens do not have to suffer the same fate. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -George Santayana Lacey, Marc Blacks not surprised by leak in King case; Judiciary: Community leaders have been suspicious of the system’s treatment of African-Americans.
Still, they are incensed that a strategy memo on the trial ended up in a defense attorney’s hands. The Times Mirror Company, Los Angeles Times November 22, 1992 Sunday, Home Edition Metro; Part B Page 1; Column 5 Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe web 12/8/99 Mydans, Seth The Riot’s Ashes/A special report. ; Separateness Grows in a Scarred Los Angeles The New York Times Company The York Times November 15, 1992, Sunday, Late Edition-Final, Section 1; Page 1; Column 2; National Desk 1990 US Census Data, web Pope, Lisa Riot report finds Watts similarities The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company The Houston Chronicle October 23, 1992, Friday, 2 STAR Edition Section A pg. 20 Smith, Anna Deavere Twilight Anchor Books Doubleday; New York, New York Understanding the riots-Six months later; Money and Power/ making it in the inner city; The Times Poll: The Economy and our lives The Times Mirror Company, Los Angeles Times November 18, 1992, Wednesday, Home Edition, Special Section; Part JJ; Page 7; Column 3.