The Rodney King effect: 30 years after riots, how far has LA come?

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
Smoke rises from a shopping center burned by rioters, April 20, 1992, in Los Angeles. South LA exploded in violence after four police officers were acquitted of the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King.
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At the start of the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, Marsha Mitchell was a young reporter at the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city’s oldest Black newspaper. When the inciting verdict was read – four white police officers acquitted of beating a Black man named Rodney King – she went to the front of the newsroom in South LA and looked out the picture window. The violence had started. 

Ms. Mitchell headed to First AME Church, where then-Mayor Tom Bradley was addressing the verdict. When a nearby gas station was set on fire, the mayor sent everyone home. “Everything was on fire. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life,” she recalls.

Why We Wrote This

This week marks 30 years since the race riots in South Central Los Angeles, ignited by the acquittal of four white police officers for beating Rodney King, a Black man. In today’s South LA, we found setbacks mixed with progress, and stories of hope that reveal a path toward justice.

Three decades later, the justice narrative of the LA uprising is still being written, in the City of Angels and nationally. Its pages cover significant reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department – a process that’s ongoing. Its arc will be shaped by this year’s election for mayor, and elections across the country. 

Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, describes changes since the riots as “kind of a mixed bag.” The LAPD is “a far cry” from 1992, but “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Citizens can now police law enforcement with cellphone videos, and the Black Lives Matter movement has kept up pressure against race-based police brutality. But you still have the murder of George Floyd, he says, and this month, the fatal shooting of Patrick Lyoya in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We are 30 years later dealing with the same policing issues.”   

John Thomas grew up in South Los Angeles – then called South Central. The son of a single mother, one of six kids, he says he never had a positive encounter with a police officer until he became one. Just like other African American youths, he was stopped often without provocation and with no explanation. 

On April 29, 1992, he was working undercover in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) narcotics division when they saw on TV that a jury had acquitted four white LA police officers for severely beating a Black motorist, Rodney King, a year earlier. 

His supervisor sent him home, not expecting any trouble, but the young officer knew he would be called back. This was a unique case. In a time before cellphone cameras, a citizen had caught the sustained beating on a hand-held video camera, on March 3, 1991. The grainy footage was aired on TV stations around the world and used as evidence at the trial. This was not a Black man’s word against that of white officers. Anything other than “guilty” was going to be explosive.

Why We Wrote This

This week marks 30 years since the race riots in South Central Los Angeles, ignited by the acquittal of four white police officers for beating Rodney King, a Black man. In today’s South LA, we found setbacks mixed with progress, and stories of hope that reveal a path toward justice.

And so it proved. The news ignited days of looting, fires, and deaths – a generational precursor to the civil unrest and outrage over the police killing of George Floyd.

The violence started in South Central and quickly spread north to Koreatown, where shop owners fired guns to defend their businesses. Resentment had been festering among Black locals over numerous Korean-owned liquor stores in South Central, which profited from the Black community with no reinvestment. Just after Mr. King was beaten, a Korean American liquor store owner shot and killed a 15-year-old African American girl, Latasha Harlins, from behind as she was leaving the store after an altercation over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. The owner was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but ended up getting probation – an injustice still fresh in the minds of rioters.  

So many fires were set that thick smoke forced Los Angeles International Airport to reroute flights and operate on only one runway. By the time it was all over, the National Guard and federal troops had arrived, more than 60 people had died, and more than $1 billion in damage had been done.

“The most troubling thing for me, was these were places I grew up. … These were often shop owners I knew, and I knew they were struggling. Korean, white, and Black, these were good people who lost their livelihoods,” says Chief Thomas, who served 21 years in the LAPD and recently retired as chief of public safety at the University of Southern California. The other “very troubling” thing was to hear some of his “less than sensitive” partners say “let ’em burn it down, they’re the ones that gotta live here.”

Three decades later, the narrative around justice and the LA uprising is still being written, here in the City of Angels and nationally. Its pages cover significant policy and staffing reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department – a process that’s ongoing. Its arc will be shaped by this year’s election for LA mayor, and elections across the country. The story of the riots and their aftermath is also told in the individual lives of people of color in South LA, residents like Nate Carter, a midcareer Black professional and a proud and hopeful homeowner, and Bruce Patton, a Black tutor who has experienced three uprisings sparked by police brutality and who finds persistent discrimination against Black people. 

For many people in this vast, marginalized community, economic and social conditions have not improved – and in some key respects are worse than 30 years ago. Residents here face significantly lower earnings and higher housing costs than in 1990. And they still feel marginalized by long-standing prejudices and broken promises of public and private investment. 

But others see signs of hope – not necessarily regarding policing – but progress taking root in the community. 

Maxim Elramsisy/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Óscar Alvarez, a community organizer for Community Coalition in Los Angeles, April 5, 2022. The lot behind the chain-link fence has been vacant since buildings there burned down in the 1992 LA uprising. "You really do begin to shape someone’s upbringing by the environment you create for them.”

SEEDs of hope

Óscar Alvarez is too young to have experienced the Los Angeles riots. He was born three years later. But this energized community organizer has taken the time to learn about them. It’s important to dive into that history, he explains, because it has profoundly affected his life and the lives of others who live in the Black and Latino swath that is South LA, the epicenter of the uprising. It needs to be understood, he adds, in order to “control the narrative” and “create the solutions that work better for us.” 

The narrative for Mr. Alvarez centers on the intersection of Vermont and Manchester avenues, a commercial wasteland that’s beginning a new chapter of redevelopment. He walks up to the stop where he used to catch a city bus to high school. It’s right next to an enormous vacant lot cordoned off by a chain-link fence. The buildings that once stood there burned to the ground in the ’92 riots. Except for a lonely Payless Shoe Store that came and went, the lot – about four acres – has remained undeveloped for his entire life.

As a youth waiting for the bus, he’d ponder why things were the way they were – “super dark” for him, his two siblings, and his low-income, immigrant, single mom. “You really begin to question your own sense of worth.” But going to the University of California, Berkeley gave him a new perspective, and he began to find answers. “Fortunately, I was able to make sense of it, and understand it’s not a reflection of me. But it’s very hard to do that, right? When everything else tells you otherwise.”

After years of unfulfilled promises of a retail center from the lot’s owner, a real estate developer in Beverly Hills, the property was taken by eminent domain by the County of Los Angeles. The county’s plans include affordable housing to be built by a nonprofit developer, a grocery store, and a school. The SEED school – a public, college-prep boarding school to help local disadvantaged students – is already under construction. Groundbreaking on the mixed-use development, named Evermont by the community, began last week. 

Across the street, at the site of a fashion wig store that has been vacant “forever,” Mr. Alvarez has led an effort by the local nonprofit Community Coalition, where he works, to create a “People’s Plaza.” It’s the result of months of talking with community stakeholders about what they want, and winning a city grant to build a walkable green space that will serve as a community gathering space and help improve walkability, economic activity, and pedestrian safety. 

“The solutions that we’ve been looking for have always been within the residents,” he says. “We can create what we want for ourselves.”

Policing “on the right path”

The LAPD has made “a lot of progress” from the days of warrior-style policing, says Chief Thomas. High-profile commission reports and recommendations, more than a decade of federal oversight, lawsuits, and public pressure have propelled reforms. They include a police chief prioritizing trust and accountability, an inspector general, a far more diverse police force, the spread of community policing, body and vehicle cameras, and in the wake of George Floyd, the banning of “chokeholds,” a practice forbidden now in more than a dozen states. In March, the LAPD said it would limit “pretextual stops” for minor violations, such as a broken taillight, that lead to searches. Philadelphia, Seattle, and other cities have taken similar steps.

Key statistics on use of force reflect these changes. In 1992 the LAPD had 108 instances of police officer shootings, typical for that time. In 2021, it was 37 – a spike from the previous couple of years, which were 30-year lows. In 1992, more than 60% of the force was white; in 2021 force diversity corresponded closely to LA’s ethnic makeup: 52% Hispanic, 28% white, 11% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 9% Black.

“In LA, I think policing is on the right path in its evolution. It’s becoming more inclusive. It’s listening more,” says Mr. Thomas. “But I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done,” he says, including training, institutional and cultural change at the department, the need to address cynicism among officers in high-crime areas, attending to the wellness of front-line officers, and replenishing the ranks of retiring Black officers. 

Bottom line, institutions and American culture “still look at the face of violence in America as a Black face.”

Steps forward – and back 

Darnell Hunt, dean of Social Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, describes the changes since the early ’90s as “kind of a mixed bag.” The LAPD is “a far cry” from then, but “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Citizens can now police law enforcement with cellphone videos, and the Black Lives Matter movement – founded in Los Angeles – has kept up pressure against police brutality of Black people and other people of color. But you still have the murder of George Floyd, he says, and this month, the fatal shooting of Patrick Lyoya in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We are 30 years later dealing with the same policing issues.” Indeed, nearly everyone interviewed in South LA said that they did not trust the police.

Other factors are also shaping the narrative. Policing across America is in a workforce “crisis,” having trouble recruiting and retaining officers, according to a 2019 Police Executive Forum Research study. Since then, the pandemic has caused stresses in police work, and law enforcement faced mass demonstrations and hostility in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s murder in 2020.

“Policing is in collapse,” says Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York police officer and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Nobody wants the job.” It was already “a big ask” of young people “to take a life-and-death risk in a country that’s armed to the teeth. Ten years ago was hard. Post Floyd, it’s all but impossible.” The essential problem, he says, is that the call has gone out across the country for policing that doesn’t create conflict, where there’s no use of force – and that’s not policing. 

In a period of high-profile retail crimes, robberies, and murders, public safety is a top issue in LA’s mayoral race, with both Democratic leading candidates pledging to increase the police force.

Decades of disinvestment 

It’s easy for people to assume that the LA uprising was a singular incident, says LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, a third-generation Angeleno whose district includes the Vermont-Manchester intersection. But much like the Watts uprising nearly 30 years prior – and the George Floyd civil unrest nearly 30 years after – “it’s a culmination of a set of circumstances that that event ignited, but that singular event is not the root cause.”

The root causes, she and others say, are racism, class, and lack of access to resources. “I think sometimes we get caught up in the issue that ignites it, and we continue to fail to address the root causes, and I think we fail to do that because therein lies the hard work.”

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Marsha Mitchell stands before a mural promoting foster parenting at the nonprofit Community Coalition in South Los Angeles on March 31, 2022. "It really is about political will and partnership,” she says. "That is the only way things will change" in South LA. Ms. Mitchell is communications director for the Community Coalition. She was a reporter for the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city's oldest Black newspaper, on the day the 1992 uprising broke out.

At the start of the 1992 riots, Marsha Mitchell (no relation to Holly) was a young reporter at the Los Angeles Sentinel. Fresh from UCLA, she wanted to work at the city’s oldest Black newspaper covering a community she loved. When the verdict was read, she went to the front of the newsroom and looked out the picture window. A man was on a pay phone across the street. “He took out a pistol and shot a dog, he was so angry,” she recalls. 

She then called her mother, who had lived through the 1968 riots in Chicago after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Go home, her mother implored. Instead, she jumped into her little sports car and headed to First AME Church, where Mayor Tom Bradley – the first Black mayor of Los Angeles – was addressing the verdict. When a nearby gas station was set on fire, the mayor told everyone to go home immediately. “Everything was on fire. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life,” Ms. Mitchell says.

It was a violent time, she recalls, with the crack cocaine epidemic, gangs, and guns filling the void left by well-paying manufacturing jobs that began disappearing in the 1970s. But as a child, “we had a really good lifestyle,” she says. Her uncle and aunt bought a three-bedroom house – affordable from his job at Uniroyal Tire, which employed thousands before it was shuttered in 1978. 

A person ought to be able to find gainful employment in South LA today, says Ms. Mitchell, who is the communications director for Community Coalition. But “there’s been 40 years of disinvestment.” 

Historical shifts 

While the lot at Manchester and Vermont is finally being developed it’s one of about 3,000 empty lots in South LA, some going back to the Watts uprising. Although the number of liquor stores has decreased since the 1990s, they’re still found in abundance, along with smoke shops and marijuana dispensaries – “nuisance businesses” that foster crime and addiction, says Marsha Mitchell. 

In many ways, South Los Angeles resembles other U.S. urban areas, explains Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA. Racial segregation continues; African Americans are migrating to the exurbs in search of better schools, jobs, and more affordable housing; the Latino population is growing and working, but on the bottom rung of the economic ladder; white and Asian people are moving in, along with gentrification.

However, South LA is unique in other ways, he says. It’s huge – similar to San Francisco in geographic area and population. It also looks different from other distressed urban areas – instead of high-density high-rises, it’s single-family homes and garden apartments. It was considered a haven for Black families when the Watts uprising broke out in August 1965. Professor Ong says “people were really puzzled” then, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had pushed through the historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. “How is it possible after all we’ve accomplished?” the president asked.

But legislative gains did not match conditions on the ground. Palm trees and sunny skies aside, the residents of South Central were disenchanted over justice delayed, and persistent discrimination, racism, and unequal access to economic opportunity, according to a report by Professor Ong and his colleagues, “South Los Angeles Since the Sixties.” 

On four key indicators – earnings, housing, transportation, and education – residents of South LA fare worse than Los Angeles County over the period from 1960 to 2016. In three areas – earnings, home ownership, and extreme rent burden (where rent accounts for more than 50% of income) – it’s gotten markedly worse in South LA since 1960. Meanwhile, “the pandemic hit South LA hard,” says Professor Ong, disproportionately affecting jobs, health, and schooling.  

Maxim Elramsisy/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Bruce Patton, lifelong resident of South LA and member of the Community Coalition in Los Angeles, April 5, 2022. Mr. Patton recalls racial inequity in school when he was a student. Now a math tutor, he sees that inequity still at work.

Bruce Patton, who tutors higher-level math at the Community Coalition, was in junior high school at the time of the Watts uprising, mowing his grandmother’s lawn when he saw plumes of smoke rising to the south. He sets the stage for the explosion by describing discrimination in schooling at that time: 

One Saturday his uncle, who was a custodian at a nearly all-white middle school on LA’s Westside, showed him the school’s wood shop. Students there were building life-size gliders and canoes. The school was surrounded by grass. His school on Vermont Avenue was surrounded mostly by asphalt. They were building a simple skateboard in wood shop, a project stretched to last an entire semester. “And we were supposed to be proud of it,” scoffs Mr. Patton. “Do you understand why there was a blow up when officers come to Watts … and it turns into something more?”

He still sees that prejudice in education. He recalls a young student whose white high school teacher recommended she come to him for help with algebra. They worked through some problems. She took her test and did so well the teacher accused her of cheating.

“We now are homeowners”

South LA is changing. Five years ago, the University of Southern California, an anchor on the northern edge of the area, expanded with its USC Village of student housing. Four years ago, it was the Banc of California soccer stadium. Last year, SoFi Stadium opened due west on Manchester Avenue. Americans got a good look at it in this year’s Super Bowl. As development comes along, it brings eateries, retail, and more investment, but also higher rents and home prices that displace people. 

Nate Carter was thrilled to discover the Vermont Knolls neighborhood when he was managing the transformation of a historic Black hotel, The Dunbar, into affordable housing for older adults. He bought his Spanish-style home just off Vermont Avenue in 2017. “Probably the best decision I ever made,” he beams from the veranda of his brightly painted home in this neighborhood of tidy houses with red tile roofs. 

Mr. Carter drives an electric car, rides an electric scooter to work, and loves cooking, yoga, and his 7-year-old daughter, who takes cooking classes. He’s engaged to be married and is enthusiastic about LA’s future – Super Bowl champions soon to host the World Cup, and then the 2028 Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, his best friend from childhood has bought the home across the street. “We now are homeowners at 40 years old,” he says with pride.

Just a few blocks from the construction site at Vermont and Manchester, the Algin Sutton Recreation Center stands tribute to political will and community partnership. Last year, the nearby playground was renamed for Latasha Harlins, and a joyful mural of her face brightens the rec center’s wall. She played here as a child, before she was killed in the liquor store, explains Mr. Alvarez, the community organizer. When he was a child, the surrounding grassy field was just dirt and rocks. “It was a very different park back then. You really do begin to shape someone’s upbringing by the environment you create for them.”

Rounding the corner, there’s a completely redone aquatic facility – a shimmering large pool, splash pad, and shade canopy. The year-round, state-of-the-art pool opened last year, as did another pool in the neighboring Crenshaw neighborhood – the result of a $17 million push from the city councilman and input from residents. The designers, Lehrer Architects LA, call investing in community centers like this “acts of social justice.” Black people have historically had less access to pools than white people, and 64% of Black children cannot swim.

Maxim Elramsisy/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Facility manager Glyn Owens prepares to open the pool at the Algin Sutton Aquatic Center in South Los Angeles, April 5, 2022. “My mission is just to really get people into the pool, swimming, and off the street,” he says.

This neighborhood holds fond memories for the manager of the aquatic facility, Glyn Owens, who used to come here from nearby Compton for Sunday lunch with his great-grandmother. It has its challenges, though. After shootings last summer, police patrolled on horseback – overkill in his view. He’s cautious about the LAPD and tells his staff – entirely Latino – to wear their uniforms on their way home so that law enforcement doesn’t stop them.

During the ’92 riots, Mr. Owens’ dad drove him around in their Volkswagen bus so that he could see it firsthand, explaining that this was his country, his neighborhood. He jumps ahead to the subject of his fiancée – an Asian woman from Orange County who knew nothing of his world and who happily went with him to a Black Lives Matter protest. “I’m like, that’s just what our country is about, what our community is about, what we teach each other.”

That sense of community is why he regularly walks the park, going up to kids smoking weed or drinking and encouraging them to come for swim lessons. One of his swimmers might even qualify for the 2028 Olympics in LA, he says. “My mission is just to really get people into the pool, swimming, and off the street,” says Mr. Owens, in his red lifeguard shorts. “I started swimming at a young age. Now I run the place.”

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