Twenty-five years ago on April 29, the world got a first-hand demonstration of how dangerous unchecked racism and prejudice can be.
It began with an attempted police stop of a motorist that spiraled out of control and ended with four members of the Los Angeles Police Department charged with assault and excessive use of force.
A video of the incident in Lake View Terrace, taken by amateur videographer George Holliday, was widely screened.
In the trial that followed, the defense attorney successfully sought a change of venue, arguing that the four officers would not receive a fair trial in central Los Angeles. Consequently, the trial of officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Stacey Koon was moved to Simi Valley, a community located between the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County.
This was part of a growing collection of happenings that would meet and combust in a few weeks. Simi Valley was another part of the puzzle—a majority White community heavily populated by law enforcement which produced a jury that contained 10 White people, one Hispanic person, and one Asian person. The officers were acquitted but were convicted of federal civil rights charges.
Two weeks after the March 31, 1991 beating of Rodney King, Korean-born shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, in South Los Angeles shot a 15-year-old Black girl named Latasha Harlins, in the back of the head in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice.
A jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, with a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. But instead, the judge gave her probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.
This created even more stress between the Korean and African American communities. This was compounded by a campaign by the Community Coalition to rid South Los Angeles of the liquor stores that community residents felt were problematic. The majority of the stores were owned by Korean immigrants.
During the same time period, according to UCLA sociologist Keyoung Park, there were tensions between Mexican American and Central American workers and their Korean bosses.
Then came the Rodney King verdict, and that seemed to be too much. Black anger exploded, and spilled over into their Hispanic neighbors, said Park.
It spread northward from the intersection of Normandie and Florence avenues to businesses as far north as Wilshire Boulevard and as far west as Pico Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue with businesses being looted, burned and destroyed. More than 54 people died and more than 2,000 others were injured.
The city of Los Angeles estimates that there was nearly $1 billion in property damage. Park wrote that 2,280 Korean-owned businesses suffered a partial or total loss of property at a cost of more than $400 million, which was more than 50 percent of the total among of damage done.
Then-Mayor Tom Bradley surveyed the ruined metropolis and announced a new organization that would repair the shattered city, Rebuild L.A. (RLA). Its mission was to spend five years harnessing the power of the private sector to replace and improve on what was lost. While Rebuild L.A. created a lot of hope, it also created even more disappointment. Critics cite lack of resources and an overly ambitious timetable as the reason.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas went so far to say RLA had nothing much to do with the revitalization of many areas, like the intersection of Manchester and Western avenues in South L.A. He said it was mostly market forces with some help from the public sector.
“The public sector had an obligation to help the market accomplish what it needed to do, which was to help these businesses (get) back on their feet,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Rebuild L.A. was the target of complaints almost from its beginning. Initially, discontent was aimed at the organization’s chairman, Peter Ueberroth, the organizer of 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Some of L.A.’s diverse communities thought that a White businessman from Orange County was an unlikely choice to head the rebuilding effort. So co-chairs were added, including a Black man and a Latina.
Then another fact surfaced—some of the private sector support for Rebuild L.A. was exaggerated. The organization announced that 68 companies were backing the effort, but the Los Angeles Times found that a quarter of those companies had no such plans. Some had never even been contacted.
According to Bernard Kinsey, the RLA co-chair who served along side Ueberroth, the organization was able to repair 63 percent of the 3,000 damaged structures within two years of the organization’s start; it was also able to capture $380 million of the $500 million promised from corporations.
“There were success stories, however,” says John Mack, who headed the Urban League of Los Angeles until 2005. For example, with support from Toyota, L.A. Urban League created a job training program in car repair.
“It was successful for 12 years, and we placed 3,000 or more previously unemployed or underemployed members of the community,” Mack said.
In contrast to Rebuild L.A., Park pointed out that the civil unrest, which in the Korean immigrant community was eventually called “sa-i-gu-satae” meaning: “April 29th Serious Event” Koreans in the U.S., Korea, Japan and Taiwan collected $11 million in donations, including $4.5 million from the South Korean government; $200,000 from Koreans in Japan; $50,000 from Far East [Korea] Broadcasting and $200,000 from Korean churches.
Park said that the Korean immigrants also realized that they had basically been abandoned by their adopted country. Consequently, they made a special effort to collect all the donations promised and even had to threaten a lawsuit.
Park added that Korean immigrant businesses were not able to rely on help from their adopted homeland.
The distressing part of the 1992 civil unrest is that a quarter century after the event, a poll recently released by Loyola Marymont University Center for the Study of Los Angeles found that nearly six out of 10 Angelenos think another riot is likely to occur in the next five years, increasing for the first time since the study began after two decades of steady decline. That’s higher than in any year except for 1997, the first year the survey was conducted, and more than a 10-point jump compared with the 2012 survey.
Loyola Marymount University (LMU) has been surveying Los Angeles residents every five years since the 1992 disturbances.
Young adults ages 18 to 29 years, who didn’t experience the riots, were more likely than older residents to believe another riot was a possibility, with nearly seven out of 10 saying one was likely, compared with about half of those 45 years or older. Those who were unemployed or worked part-time were also more pessimistic, as were Black and Latino residents, compared with Whites and Asians, the poll found.
Researchers theorized that the turnaround may be linked to several factors, including the more polarized national dialogue on race sparked by police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, as well as by the tenor of last year’s presidential election.
Moreover, many parts of L.A. still suffer from some of the economic problems and lack of opportunities that fueled anger before the riots.
“Economic disparity continues to increase, and at the end of the day, that is what causes disruption,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at LMU who has worked on the survey since its inception. “People are trying to get along and want to get along, but they understand economic tension boils over to political and social tension.”