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What Happened (PhotoCreditBRIANCARTER)
Was it a rebellion, an uprising or a revolt? What it's called is not as important as what happened and why. Inevitably, positive changes have taken place in Los Angeles twenty years after the civil unrest began at Florence and Normandie. For example, "Generally there has been a diminishing sense of disrespect toward Black residents," says Professor David Horne, director of the Pan African Public Policy Institute at Cal State Northridge. "Arguably, one of the most significant changes is a marked cohesiveness in the efforts to improve the quality of life for all who reside here."
Community leaders, elected officials, law enforcement agents and activists alike are rallying to panels, forums and town halls, continuously analyzing the environment and attitudes that led to the uprising. They are hopeful that lessons learned since then will serve as an effective preventative measure. However, some current statistics reveal that while reaching the goal of a more peaceful, economically just Los Angeles won't be impossible, it may be daunting.
Currently, young Black males comprise 33 percent of youth in L.A. county probation system despite representing about 10 percent of the county's population. Black unemployment is about 20 percent here according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, according to the Department of Education, the county's Black students have an over 30 percent dropout rate.
"Just look at the Trayvon Martin case and you can see that while much has been done there is much work remaining to keep our justice system on track," said Judge David S. Cunningham III on the rebellion...
There were a variety of names for it: uprising, civil unrest, rebellion, urban insurrection, protest, revolt... The unchanging element was the fact that what triggered the L.A. riots was the April 29, 1992 acquittal of four White police officers accused of brutally beating Rodney King, a Black motorist, now infamously, and practically synonymous with the riots.
"When I heard the words, 'N****r run, we're gonna kill you, n****r run'... You know, here in a street fight that's to the death," King recalled during a recent interview with KTLA's Eric Spillman.
"I knew life was just a matter of seconds of me dying, so I've gotta try and cover up what I can... Keep my hands above my brain and just scream as loud as I could and as long as I could."
While the beating may have been the breaking point, many believe the real cause was decades of mistreatment and total lack of respect toward Los Angeles' black community.
"Back then we had a massive and increasing amount of general disrespect for the African American community," explained Horne.
"You had a number of immigrants coming over, sometimes Korean, sometimes Vietnamese. They would get liquor store licenses [whereas] Blacks could not.
"They were in charge of all the swap meets. They would be in charge of a lot of gasoline stations in the community. And, with regularity, when people would stop to get gas or when people would try on something before they paid for it, the mantra was, 'no, no, you're dirty. You cannot put on, buy or leave... That kind of conduct became typical."
Also typical, was the violent but otherwise non-existent relationship between Blacks and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). By the time the world saw the four officers beat King via television and their subsequent acquittal on television, Blacks in Los Angeles had long realized that the system designed to protect, serve and render equal justice under the law had failed them. It was not the first time, nor was it the only time.
Just days after the televised beating, Korean liquor store-owner Soon Ja Du, shot and killed 15 year old Latasha Harlins, a Black student, accusing her of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. Despite the fact that Harlins was shot in the back of the head as she attempted to leave the store without the juice, Ja Du was sentenced to five years probation and a $500.00 fine. The incident and weak-sentencing only served to exacerbate an already festering wound.
"We were getting [disrespect] from the immigrants coming over; we were getting it from the police and we were saying, 'no, we cannot stand it' and that's the major reason the dam broke."
About three hours after the not-guilty verdict was read for the officers charged in the beating, a crowd at the now infamous corner of Florence and Normandie began to heat up. Non-Black motorists unfortunate enough to be caught driving by were pulled from their vehicles, beaten and robbed. Reginald Denny, who like King, became an unintentional symbol of the 1992 civil unrest, received the most severe beating.
When it was all over, there were about 53 deaths, thousands injured and arrested and approximately $1 billion in property damage.
"I sat down at 54th and Normandie at the RTD bus depot forever, before they actually let us out to do crime suppression and start making arrests in South Central Los Angeles," said Commander Robert Green.
"The most vivid memory I have is that when we first came out and started rolling into the neighborhoods that I had policed for some time, people were coming out onto their porches and cheering. The good people in the neighborhood were terrorized and locked in their homes, afraid to come out.
"I'll never forget that. [I was] thinking the system had completely failed these people. Not only had law enforcement's relationship deteriorated so significantly for a variety of reasons, but we had victimized the best people in the community... people who had supported us, people who really needed law enforcement more than anybody..."
Like Horne, Green believed the explosion in 1992 didn't happen overnight, though his account of that time is now slightly different.
"If you go back into the mid 1980s and early 1990s, we really had 10 years of extraordinary violence in Los Angeles. We had over a thousand murders a year.
"The violence near 77th street alone for 10 years, we averaged 130 murders a year. The highest year we had 163 and when you look at those numbers and you look at the staffing levels of the police department, you had people who were constantly responding to significant problems. Crack cocaine was out of control. PCP was out of control.
"It wasn't just the homicide victims, it was the people's lives that were destroyed. So, cops were tremendously overworked, responding to one violent incident after another, one emotional victim after another ... victims of crime. They weren't dealing with the community. There was no community policing at the time.
"The feeling was that you had to move from one incident to the next as quickly as you could, to free resources up so that you could respond to the calls for service. If you sat back and looked from a removed position at what was going on in the city, I think you could have respected being caught up in it everyday.
"You clear from roll call and you get in that black-and-white, it was on. You went until you got relieved and things slowed down for the night. Until then, it was just one traumatic incident after another..."
Like the Watts Rebellion in 1965 and instances of urban civil unrest in 1967, the 1992 civil unrest spawned a commission. The Christopher Commission emulated its predecessors the McCone and Kerner commissions, blaming the government for failed housing, education and social service policies. One of its outcomes was an appointment of a federal monitor to oversee recommended changes in the LAPD.
Those included new leadership in the department and procedures to enforce more accountability among officers. For his part, Green says "hard lessons" helped him see how important reaching out to the community is.
"We continued to have a poor feedback loop from the community," he recalled.
"We thought we knew how to do it best. And it wasn't until 15 years later, when I started establishing those critical relationships [in the community] the light really went on for me. There's so much to learn from taking your feet out of police shoes and putting them in community shoes, the shoes of the victims, and the shoes of the victims' families to get their perspective on how we can do it better."
Some things have indeed gotten better, said Cunningham.
"Since the 1992 civil unrest, many of us, the beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Era, have fought hard to make sure we never lived through such deadly times again in Los Angeles," he said.
"While I still can see Connie Rice greeting me with the words 'The City is on fire!' after the Rodney King verdict was announced, I also recall 10 years later in 2002 the way the LAPD top brass and city officials responded swiftly and fairly to the Stanley Miller incident (the video recorded flashlight beating that so many compared to the Rodney King incident). Officers were fired, reforms were implemented and the City of LA remained calm.
"We have so many people to thank like Bill Bratton, Earl Paysinger, Jan Perry, Martin Ludlow, Mark Ridley Thomas, John Mack and Karen Bass, to name just a few that worked every day for police reform. Still we must continue to make sure that the lives of our children are saved both in the streets and in the criminal justice system."
VOICES FROM THE COMMUNITY:
ANDRE BIROTTE, JR. U.S. Attorney - Central District of California
"I think the silver lining in that very dark cloud was a recognition that the old way of policing operations was not working. There needed to be a police/community partnership. And out of the wake of that dark cloud, came the Christopher Commission and a recognition that there needed to be police reform in Los Angeles. Ultimately, the city has benefited immensely from those recommendations: the federal consent decree and the role of the police commission, increasing that transparency, accountability and confidence in law enforcement, specifically in the city of Los Angeles."
JUDGE DAVID S. CUNNINGHAM III, L.A. Superior Court
No Justice No Peace - "Today we have over 40 African American judicial officers and the US Attorney in place in Los Angeles County to make sure structural changes to the administration of justice are also addressed. Andre Birotte, the current US Attorney and former Police Commission Inspector General, plays a crucial role in the federal court system serving as another check and balance in seeking justice. Our judges are working hard on the trial level watching for the procedural nuances that can deny justice. We are moving through the system of judicial administration serving as supervising judges and appellate justices seeking to deliver access, equity and fairness to our community. While these may not be the jobs that get televised attention, they require attention to detail every day. We need the public trust to make justice work and we should hear from the public when it fails. Most importantly, there are many of us who have never forgotten the message of April 1992."
KAREN BASS, U.S. Congresswoman -33rd District of California
"I think that there has been a lot of improvements ... a lot of developments that have been done. The tough thing is we find ourselves, 20 years later, coming out of some tough, tough economic times ... and that's not coming out of the civil unrest. It may not seem that things have gotten better but we think that they have, but that does not mean that there still is a whole heck of a lot still needs to be done." (Concerning the out come of the Trayvon Martin matter stirring a similar unrest, the Congresswoman said) "I don't believe that ... anything could start a civil unrest but we do not have the level of tension with the police department that we had 20 years ago."
PROFESSOR DARNELL HUNT - Director, Ralph Bunche Center, UCLA
"We have made some progress I think - the LAPD - the role that John Mack and Connie Rice and others have played that changed the culture of the LAPD through the police commission and this whole idea of having the police more responsive to the community as opposed to being occupiers in enemy territory ... we have made some progress on that front. But I also think that we have improved upon the police chief over the years. I think that Darryl Gates was a disaster when he was police chief, but we are in a better place there now than we were twenty years ago. But in terms of the other areas that we don't tend to think of as much, like the economy, support for inner city communities, support for youth, education and so on, I think that we are just as bad as we were in 1002, if not worse. The difference with Rodney King was that somebody got it on video tape. So the disdain that the people have in Florida is similar to the feeling that the people had in 1992."
DR. MARK PERRAULT - Psychiatrist, Mental Health Expert
"The spark that ignited the dirty underpinnings which existed at the time (1992) still continues to exist, in the city of Los Angeles and in the United States in general with regard to disadvantage people - particularly Black people. And correcting those ills will go a long way to avoid any type of civil unrest."
PROFESSOR CECIL MURRAY - USC School of Religion
"We have had advancement in the last 20 years. We have had the rebuild the L.A. program which encouraged some $1 billion investment in the underserved communities. We have had the Christopher Commission which has made radical changes in the police mentality. We have had the police commission active, at this very moment, monitoring police conduct. We have had, through the Board of Supervisors, the Office of the Independent Review (OIR). We have had scores of recommendations brought by ACLU working with the Board of Supervisors so that the mentality of Charlie Parker and Darryl Gates has been changed radically. and we thank our police officers and leadership for coming into the 21st century, so we don't have to ask the question: who will protect us from our protectors. We still have a long way to go.
JACKIE DUPONT WALKER - Ward Economic Development Corp.
(Relative to re-building the city) "I would say that many areas of the city, the private sector would not invest. So for us, it was 'building' more than 're-building.' I think the economic situation has changed; there were some improvements but not to the extent that we would have wanted it to (change). Those of us who have been organizing and trying to build, it has been extremely difficult to get the investment that we needed in our community. And now with the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) gone, I'm very concerned about some of the work that's in progress and how it's going to be completed."
ROBERT FARRELL - former L.A. City Councilman 8th District
"Looking back in time and in retrospect, some things have changed for the better. As we learn from the Rodney King (Civil Unrest) experience, the whole issue of inaction of law enforcement, as a member of our community, where a person is almost seeking change, it is easy to make the connection with what's happening today and the legal situation with the death of that young man in Florida. And once again, it was someone who, under the cloak of authority, caused his death, though Rodney King was not killed, but based on the beating that the world saw, he could have been killed. Now 20 years later, this situation is taking place in Florida and one wonders, depending on the outcome of this case, how shall we in America stand; what will happen in our communities?"