Civil unrest has not been a major factor in Los Angeles recently, although it is possibly not far beneath the consciousness of the average Angeleno. That may be particularly true at this time of year–the anniversary of the 1992 Riots.
The recently inaugurated Visions and Voices Initiative at USC, which was meant to add an interdisciplinary approach to the arts and humanities educational system, re-examined the upheaval Monday.
And even the title of the event can be a politically loaded phase, which speaks volumes about one’s political stance–L.A. Riots. Some people would say it should more accurately be called an insurrection. Whatever the terminology, this 1992 event still gets a load of mileage from media and scholars alike in this the second decade of the millennium because many of the stated underlying causes still remain firmly in place.
USC is as fitting a place as any for a scholarly discussion because of its location. The story of how this institution, a White oasis in the heart of the inner city, survived this unrest virtually unscathed is a story waiting to be told.
Noticeably absent from the panel was the First African Methodist Episcopal Church’s pastor emeritus the Rev. Dr. Cecil Murray, pre-empted by the sudden death of his wife. The other attendees, journalists Larry Aubrey and Erin Aubrey Kaplan, documentary filmmaker Dae Hoon Kim, and moderator and UCLA professor of sociology Darnell M. Hunt, took up the slack with their personal recollections of the event.
The panelists quickly identified a vast disconnect between the elected officials and the constituency they serve, highlighted by riot-era Fox News footage in which community members voiced their dissatisfaction with the elected leadership.
Hunt sketched out a six-point model to explain the progression of events during that fateful week. These included something he called “structural conduciveness” that was already in place and provided a fertile environment for the events that transpired. He also discussed the factors that encouraged the insurrection, including an unpopular verdict that failed to address perceived issues of abuse of authority. Several minutes were spent debating whether or not law enforcement’s failure to deploy added to or slowed the resulting devastation.
For Kaplan, her memory of this period is marked by the duality of her career boost when she was pressed into service by media outlets desperate for Black newspeople to provide coverage as the events unfolded. This was tempered by her gradual disappointment in the efforts of politicians and other officials charged with overhauling the city afterwards. This disappointment was highlighted by the hoopla over the establishment of a Krispy Kreme doughnut franchise to replace a burnt out gas station at the corner of Crenshaw and Martin Luther King boulevards, a shining example of the collective low expectations.
As a seasoned newsman and decades-long inhabitant, Larry Aubrey drew on his tenure at a slew of local periodicals, along with experiences from a stint as a probation officer to offer insights. From this, he noted the oft-mentioned similarity between the events of 1965 and 1992.
A reshuffling of sorts did occur, as Korean merchants supplanted their earlier Jewish and White counterparts as shopkeepers in South L.A. African Americans reprised their role of disgruntled victim, subject to the machinations of outside forces while collectively voicing the decree “we don’t have a stake in this!”
While the friction between Korean and Black communities has been well documented, the viewpoint of Korean Americans living through this incident is largely unexplored in the general media. Memories of “Sa-I-Gu” (Korean for “4/29”) still resound in that community.
Just as noteworthy as the oft-told stories spawned by the riots are the ones that were underreported. In doing research for his documentary, filmmaker Kim uncovered scores of shopkeepers who’d been killed before and after the Latasha Harlins shooting, which is indicative of yet another, relatively unexplored perspective. The footage he screened included Korean merchants showing off trophies awarded for their active resistance in warding off potential looters to their businesses.
That this event has, for better or worse, shaped the city as much as any other single event is a given. Among the negative aftereffects were a mass exodus of the city’s Black population, primarily to the Inland Empire and the American southeast. Another victim of the calamity was the reputation of Mayor Tom Bradley, for whom the disturbance was a disappointing coda for an otherwise successful 20 years in office as one of the nation’s first African American mayors.
In keeping with Los Angeles’ legacy as trendsetter for the nation, the riot’s impact carried over to the following presidential election in November of ’92, and the subsequent neo-liberal movement led by the victorious Bill Clinton throughout the remainder of the century.
Notably omitted from this latest gathering reviewing the events of April 29 were representatives from other major actors in this historical drama: the LAPD and the National Guard. Additionally, there was also an absence of comments from commercial business concerns and real estate developers that had pledged to assist in the economic healing, a process that remains incomplete, evident to anyone who travels the streets of South L.A., which are rife with abandoned buildings and vacant lots.
In spite of a high profile as paragons of exclusion from the American Dream, Black issues have, in recent years, been largely superseded by advocates for other progressive movements, including gay and immigration activists. Re-examining this recent history confirms a repetition in cause and effect, and a contemporary parallel to the stage set for 1965 and 1992.