Popular wisdom has it that hindsight is 20/20, but twenty years after the LA Riots we’re still looking back with questions. New stories about what happened are coming to light, as are new analyses about circumstances that gave rise to disorder. While many publications are using this anniversary as a chance for reflection, the underlying question always seems to be, “Could it happen again?”
Understanding the causes leading up to the LA Riots is crucial to answering that question. A People’s Guide to Los Angeles offers an excellent brief on the circumstances that led to the riots
(unfortunately, you’ll have to get your hands on a print copy). Authors
Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng cite “four powerful
and intertwined dynamics: residential segregation, police repression,
economic restructuring, and collective resistance.” The Guide illuminates
how structural inequalities bred community activism, which played a
crucial factor in the Watts Riots of 1965, the creation of the Black
Panther Party, and the uprising in 1992 (all responses to widespread
abuse of power by the police).
The Mental Floss History of the United States offers more causes and outlines the five days of disorder following the acquittal of the officers that beat Rodney King. Los Angeles Magazine supplies a timeline focused on race-related civil disorder in South LA, as well as photo documentation of the riots. The final toll according to Mental Floss: “[s]even thousand fires had destroyed 613 buildings and damaged another 960, while looters robbed and vandalized 2,700 businesses, many of which never reopened. The total cost of the damage was $1.5 billion, almost all in African American neighborhoods. As in previous riots, most of the victims were also minorities: the death toll included 25 African Americans, 16 Latinos, eight whites, two Asians, and two immigrants from the Middle East.”
Of those impacted by the riots, Korean Americans have emerged with a strong voice. Many Korean immigrants did not speak English fluently enough to speak with the press in 1992. Their children are now old enough to share powerful memories of 4-29, or Saigu. KoreAm has compiled an oral history detailing how Korean merchants and individuals were targeted during the riots, from looting and burning in Koreatown to media portrayal of Korean immigrants as angry and violent. The publication also shares reflections on how Saigu created solidarity within the Korean American community.
In Guernica, E. Tammy Kim, shares memories of the riot alongside her recent pilgrimage to South LA in search of “the lessons of 1992.” A Korean American in Seattle at the time of the riots, Kim finds that, while demographics have changed, many circumstances are the same. The population is now mostly Latino, though African Americans and Koreans still inhabit the neighborhood. “Outside Lee’s Market, I offered to help Rita Nunley with two plastic bags full of groceries. An African American woman, hair tucked into a kerchief and eyes ringed with dark circles, she was a distant relation of Latasha Harlins [an African American teen killed by a Korean shop owner in March, 1991]. In 1992, Nunley was working for the Post Office. She remembers her boss locking the staff inside the branch office until the coast was deemed clear. Rita had hoped the riots would change the city’s inequalities, but, 'Conditions are the same now,' she said. 'I don’t know why it’s not happening again.'” Similar thoughts were echoed by South LA teens, whose teachers struggle with how to teach the riots when the history is still being written.
A recent survey found that most Angelenos believe that racial tensions in the city have eased reports The Pacific Standard. However, the same study found that “public education, transportation, jobs, street quality, air quality, housing costs and health care quality have gotten worse since 1992.” The Pacific Standard makes no mention of police brutality, though Tim Cavanaugh of Reason claims that the problem of a “police force more focused on terrorizing the citizens than on solving crimes [...] has been largely solved, thanks in large measure to William Bratton’s work as chief of police.”
While some publications can’t resist the temptation to fan the flames of racial tension, others show that racism does not always trump compassion. Recent Los Angeles Magazine covers, featured in coverjunkie, put a face on the ever-shifting social constructs of race and ethnicity. And The Awl’s Maria Bustillos reminds us that “Reginald Denny, a white guy, was rescued by a black guy named Bobby Green, Jr., who saw [Denny’s] beating taking place on live television, realized that it was going on nearby and rushed out to help.”
Sources: A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, Mental Floss, Los Angeles Magazine, KoreAm, Guernica, Pacific Standard, Reason, coverjunkie, The Awl