I was away at college in the spring of 1992, when Los Angeles – my hometown – erupted in violence, generations of anger and frustration boiling over at the acquittal of four white police officers who had beaten a Black man named Rodney King.
I grew up in the Valley, 20 miles and a world away from the heart of the riots in South Central, but my parents and grandparents were also native Angelenos, and to see the city tearing itself apart tore at us too. My memory holds clear snapshots of the violence I saw on TV that week – but even clearer is the sound of my mom choking up when she called to tell me, “Our city is burning.”
That was my awakening to the persistent, crushing weight of institutional racism. There was an undeniable dissonance between the dark, grainy video that showed Mr. King under relentless attack, and the void of accountability.
The Monitor’s Francine Kiefer went to South Central – now called South Los Angeles – to see what we’ve learned in the 30 years since. Amid the rubble of still-vacant lots, justice is emerging. It’s too slow, and it’s too little – but it’s there, and it has momentum.
Justice takes a lot of forms in South LA: a public swimming pool, commercial investment, a safe and well-resourced school. But the progress is complex, and some obstacles, obstinate. The police brutality behind the South Central uprising 30 years ago, and the Watts uprising nearly 30 years before that, echoed unmistakably when police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd two years ago.
It’s hard not to be cynical when you see a cycle. But Francine takes us beyond cynicism, on a tour of South LA that shows hope and agency at work – seeds of justice that will need a hand from respect, partnership, and opportunity in order to thrive.
Thirty years later, Rodney King’s simple plea “Can’t we all get along?” is more poignant than ever.