Opinion

In the five days of “no justice, no peace” mayhem that started on April 29, 1992, an estimated $1 billion of damage was done to the city and more than 60 people lost their lives. As the fires died down and the looting stopped, a stunned L.A. began to examine itself – its police, its civic structures, its divisions, its heart and soul. Southlanders caught up in the riots and their aftermath offer assessments of what happened next.

The riots are an L.A. story, but one that tells the future for the rest of the country

Officers stand guard as fire units battle a blaze near 19th Street and Adams Boulevard on April 30, 1992. (Los Angeles Times)
Officers stand guard as fire units battle a blaze near 19th Street and Adams Boulevard on April 30, 1992. (Los Angeles Times)

In late April when the jacarandas bloom, I recall the 1992 riots. Back then, I saw the purple flowering trees as if for the first time, their blooms bright against L.A.’s ashy streets.

I spent the evening that April 29 downtown, across from Parker Center with first hundreds, then thousands who gathered, outraged at the acquittal of four LAPD officers charged in the beating of Rodney King.

Two weeks later, I interviewed for a teaching position at a little community college in the orange groves of Irvine. Driving down the 405, I couldn’t help but consider the white flight that had followed that route after the 1965 Watts riots.

I am neither especially white nor especially flighty. But there that history was, like worrying smoke in the rearview mirror. I got the job. I made the move.

In the quarter-century since, I have taught a generation of students freshman composition. Even such basic classes must be about something. Mine have been about California, and how we live in this place together, for better and worse. In those first years, I taught the riots; I taught Rodney King. Many students had seen the smoke with their own eyes, as had their counterparts in ’65, as a distant urban wildfire, visible from their suburban backyards.

When you’ve seen jacarandas in bloom against a fire line, you don’t forget it.

For a few years, the students recognized the name Rodney King, remembered the televised turmoil. Today, not so much. Now the college is bigger, the orange groves thinner. It’s not unusual for me to teach children of former students. As always, some have never visited Los Angeles. Imagine that.

But they recognize new names, new flashpoints. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Florida, Ferguson, NYC. Closer to home, in a new textbook, they read about the 2011 beating death of Kelly Thomas — homeless, mentally ill — at the hands of Fullerton police officers who, as in the King beating, were acquitted. They are shocked, moved, curious. Prompted, they discover more names, more outrages: Caesar Cruz, Monique Deckard, Manuel Diaz, all dead in Orange County.

When you’ve seen jacarandas in bloom against a fire line, you don’t forget it. Just like you don’t forget, once seen, the images of King’s beating or the last moments of Garner’s life or Thomas begging for his. Riots are, to be sure, an L.A. story. But Los Angeles, like California, it is said, tells the future for the rest of the country. My students are living in that future today, the past reliably, vividly, embarrassingly blossoming.

Lisa Alvarez was a graduate student in 1992 and working at Beyond Baroque in Venice. She is an English professor at Irvine Valley College.

Screw 1992. Focus on 2022

Roy Choi at work in his Watts restaurant Locol. (Los Angeles Times)
Roy Choi at work in his Watts restaurant Locol. (Los Angeles Times)

I was in the middle of Koreatown with a Louisville Slugger, and in the middle of South Central with a pen. I was protecting my neighborhood and writing about Korean grocers in South Central. Nobody really knew what to make of the violence. We were all just pissed off at each other. It was a civil war. Every person for themselves.

One thing that changed is that we realized that every action affected the situation. Whether you looted, protected, shot firearms, burned buildings, protested, fought police, locked your doors, ran away, whatever, you made the moment. And that moment tore the city apart but also brought it new life, like a forest fire.

We are a better city for the pain but we are also a city where much hasn’t changed. The same inequities and brutalities still exist. So what does 25 years mean? Why y’all so focused on the past? We’ve got a lot of work to do. Screw 1992. Focus on 2022.

In 1992, Roy Choi was a self-described “directionless twentysomething.” In 2008, he co-founded Kogi and made food-truck history. Among the restaurants he and his partners currently run: Locol, with a branch in Watts.

The riots made the city less Us and Them, more just Us

Father Gregory Boyle, founder and director of Homeboy Industries, facing camera, meets with Johnny Chavez in his office at the company's headquarters in Los Angeles on July 10, 2015. (Los Angeles Times)
Father Gregory Boyle, founder and director of Homeboy Industries, facing camera, meets with Johnny Chavez in his office at the company's headquarters in Los Angeles on July 10, 2015. (Los Angeles Times)

Bear was an imposing figure, a nearly 6-foot-5 gang member who lived in the projects in Boyle Heights. It was May 1, 1992, and the two of us were in the middle of the Pico Gardens playground, and Bear’s voice was trembling.

“Is this the end of the world, G?”

The smoke that choked most of the city had reached all the way to the Eastside.

“No, mijo, it’s not the end of the world,” I told him, but I wasn’t entirely certain.

It was the end of some things. Though remnants remain, it was the end, for example, of wholesale demonizing of folks like Bear. The riots marked the passing of a draconian, Neanderthal-style of policing in Los Angeles. Gang-related homicides reached 1,000 that year, then commenced to be cut in half, and nearly in half again some 20 years later.

The smoke that choked most of the city had reached all the way to the Eastside.

The city, for the first time, imagined exit ramps off its crazy, violent gang freeway. The birth of Homeboy Industries and other outreach programs coincided with the new mantra of law enforcement: “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.” Angelenos wanted to be “smart on crime” rather than merely tough. Though we continue to stumble in getting the diagnoses right, we’ve moved closer to a healthy treatment plan.

I’m not always optimistic, but I am hopeful. Those fiery days of 1992 obliterated — perhaps once and for all — the illusion that we are separate. No kinship, no peace. No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no equality.

We have learned to hold out for transformation instead of settling for simple success. Instead of scapegoating and division, we hold out for an exquisite mutuality. Less Us and Them, more just Us. What James Baldwin called “us achieving ourselves.”

Sweet-hearted Bear would not survive to see it. He was gunned down months after our playground conversation. I am not sure he would recognize our city now. Though the revolution of tenderness needs footholds here and there, 1992 was not the end of the world. Just the end of some things.

Father Gregory J. Boyle was the pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights in 1992. After the riots, his Jobs for the Future project morphed into Homeboy Bakery and then Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the U.S .

No community can tolerate such loss, not in 1992 and not now

Family members of Latasha Harlins, with South Los Angeles civil rights leaders and clergy, gather to hold a prayer vigil for those who lost their lives in the 1992 riots. (Los Angeles Times)
Family members of Latasha Harlins, with South Los Angeles civil rights leaders and clergy, gather to hold a prayer vigil for those who lost their lives in the 1992 riots. (Los Angeles Times)

What has not changed in the last 25 years is that people demand equality and are willing to fight for it. African Americans have been part of this battle from the beginning — as heroic patriots during the American Revolution, abolitionists in the quest to end slavery or marchers in the civil rights movement. They have been undeniably crucial to the evolution of our society toward its founding ideals.

And race, perhaps more than any other variable, continues to divide us all. If that were not true, how could we tolerate the manifest differences in resources, well-being and protections that place black people in such an unenviable and vulnerable position in our society?

Today, as 25 years ago, black unemployment in Los Angeles is more than triple that of the national average. More than one-third of households in South Central Los Angeles are below the poverty line — two times the percentages in California and the nation. South Central, the focus of the unrest a quarter of a century ago, still has the county’s largest concentration of liquor stores, the smallest percentage of green space, the lowest proportion of medical facilities and healthcare professionals, and the largest share of deficient K-12 public schools. These structural deficits were foundational to the civil unrest in 1992, and they will be just as foundational the next time.

Blatant evidence of inequality before the law also looms large as fodder for discontent that ignites the fires of destruction.

Blatant evidence of inequality before the law also looms large as fodder for discontent that ignites the fires of destruction. In 1992, the catalysts for the unrest were the beating of Rodney King and the killing of Latasha Harlins. But it is not just unanswered violence that indicts our systems of policing and justice.

The black community is subject to inexcusably high incarceration rates (40% overall of those incarcerated, although we are only 13% of the national population). A black person will be sentenced more harshly than a white one. The incarceration rate of black children hovers at five times that of whites; more than 50% of juveniles tried and sentenced as adults are black. Even school suspension rates are lopsided (3.5 times as many blacks get kicked out of school as whites).

These daunting statistics disable families, stall individual and community progress, and spawn protest and unrest. There remains too much injustice, too much indifference to the loss of black life. No community can tolerate so much loss. We could not 25 years ago. We cannot today or tomorrow. America’s cities, including Los Angeles, will erupt again.

In 1992, Brenda Stevenson was a new assistant professor at UCLA. She currently is Nickoll Family Endowed Professor of History and African American Studies at UCLA and the author of “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the L.A. Riots.”

The chief’s promise: The LAPD will never fail the city again

Smoke rises from a shopping center burned by rioters in Los Angeles on April 30, 1992, after four police officers had been acquitted of the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King. (Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)
Smoke rises from a shopping center burned by rioters in Los Angeles on April 30, 1992, after four police officers had been acquitted of the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King. (Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)

Several years before his death, Daryl Gates and I were on a fishing trip in the Northern Sierra. He wanted to talk about the 1992 riots, and I was more than willing to listen. I had been troubled by the department’s actions before, during and after those horrific days, and I was looking for answers. Those answers never came, at least not through that conversation. Former Chief Gates attributed the riots of 1992 to the leadership failures of just two individuals in the department; he did not view it as an organizational issue.

I very respectfully disagree with my former chief on this issue: I think the Los Angeles Police Department as an organization had everything to do with those awful days in the spring of 1992. In the preceding decade, our style of policing was aggressive, confrontational and above all, ineffective. And I was a part of it.

In the 15 years before the riots, I had worked primarily in South Los Angeles. I had been a patrol officer, a gang officer, a field sergeant and gang sergeant. I was part of Operation Hammer — the war on gangs and the war on drugs. We truly believed that we were at war and that more arrests and tougher policing was the solution to the plague of violence sweeping through the city. And make no mistake about it, the city was incredibly more violent. Murder, rape and robbery all occurred at levels three to four times greater than today.

Unfortunately, when we declare war, several things happen. We cause collateral damage, which erodes whatever moral high ground led to the declaration. Our “opponents” — now unified — possess their own moral mandate for counterattacks. This is what we did when we declared war on our own communities during the 1980s and 1990s. That is what we risk doing today, when we declare war on our own immigrant communities.

But after years of trying to arrest our way out of the problem, it became obvious that our efforts only contributed to the violence. Worse yet, they alienated the policed to the point that, in retrospect, the riot was inevitable.

What fed the fury gets worse

Buildings engulfed in flames during the Los Angeles riots in April 1992. (Madison Richardson)
Buildings engulfed in flames during the Los Angeles riots in April 1992. (Madison Richardson)

On April 29, 1992, I had a big-time hankering for my favorite hot dog. Just as I was about to roll out to Art’s Famous Chili Dogs, at Florence and Normandie, my cousin Greg called. “I’m going to Art’s,” I told him. Greg yelled at me: “Do not go to Art’s! Turn on the TV.”

I did, and what I saw was Reginald Denny a brick’s throw from Art’s, getting stomped. As I watched, one of his attackers, Henry Keith “KeeKee” Watson, stood, almost casually, on Denny’s neck.

Twenty-five years later, I’m at a pizzeria with KeeKee, now 52, talking about the riots. He can be an imposing man; big, wide, capable of a frightening sneer. But on this day, he’s charming. The two female servers smile when he raves about his three-cheese pizza. His glowing review of butterscotch pudding could not be printed here. (The servers ask him to write it on a comment card.)

Watson remembers the mayhem of 1992 as cathartic — a furious release — and yet it had no lasting impact on his neighborhood, three blocks from the Florence and Normandie flashpoint. What fed the fury, he will tell you, only gets worse.

“Twenty-something years ago, they was beating guys like Rodney. Now they’re shootin’,” Watson said. In 2016, he witnessed a police shooting in an alley near 107th and Western Avenue. “Half the time they ain’t traffic stops. They are assassinations.”

Twenty-something years ago, they was beating guys like Rodney. Now they’re shootin’.

Keith “KeeKee” Watson

Watson acknowledges his pivotal involvement in the ’92 riots, but he puts the overall onus on the police.

“The LAPD is 99% to blame. When I first saw the Rodney King beating, we were kind of excited because it was like, finally, this was caught on tape.

“Just about any black man in Watts, Green Meadows, any South Central neighborhood — getting your ass kicked by the police was not news. It was a matter of fact. We thought finally, finally, finally they caught them on video.”

Then the verdict came in.

“I was shocked. I was in disbelief. I was pissed off,” Watson said. “On 69th Street everyone was upset. It was like validation that it was OK for the LAPD to beat black men. The turmoil was kicking up. Minute by minute it was getting turned up.”

In court a year later, Watson would escape felony conviction; he was found guilty of misdemeanor assault and released for time already served. In his defense, his lawyer said, he got caught up in “crowd contagion.”

This is the way KeeKee explains it now: “It’s like if you told me you had an extra Garth Brooks ticket, I’d say, ‘Brother Mike, I’m gonna have to pass on that.’ But if you were able to convince me to go, hell, 30, 40 minutes into the concert, I’d be do-si-doing. That’s what happened at Florence and Normandie.”

Michael Krikorian, author of the crime novel “Southside,” was a freelance writer in 1992. Henry Keith Watson apologized to Reginald Denny in court and on television in 1993. He has been a limousine driver since 1996.

A violent outcry, aimed squarely at the LAPD

A man runs by buildings engulfed in flame after rioting erupted in L.A. following the 1992 not-guilty verdict for officers charged in Rodney King s beating. (Los Angeles Times)
A man runs by buildings engulfed in flame after rioting erupted in L.A. following the 1992 not-guilty verdict for officers charged in Rodney King s beating. (Los Angeles Times)

I watched a young Korean American woman with a faded smile holding a garden hose, water dribbling out, aimed at her family’s flaming mini-mart. I saw a big-bellied Latino dressed in shorts, wheeling a shopping cart out of a battered Sav-On. It was filled with boxes of Ramses condoms and AA batteries. And, on the first night, I witnessed a young guy smash a concrete slab into the window of a passing DWP pickup downtown. A line of Metro cops, standing by, buckled toward him in response but their sergeant barked, “Hold the line.” And they held the line.

The 1992 riots were among the bloodiest of the 20th century, a violent outcry aimed squarely at the Los Angeles Police Department. Twenty-five years later, things have changed.

The riot’s antecedents were the deadly shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer and the vicious beating of Rodney King by four white LAPD officers. Harlins’ killer got probation. King’s tormenters were acquitted by a predominantly white, out-of-town jury.

Crime was high in L.A. in the early 1990s, and the Los Angeles Police Department was a violent, inept army of occupation in the city’s black and brown communities. Daryl Gates was the last of a line of imperious, unaccountable LAPD chiefs, reflexively defending their troops. Well before the riots, Gates made it clear he intended to remain chief in perpetuity.

Rudderless and utterly unprepared, the LAPD watched with the rest of us as the city burned.

But then he deserted his command post just after the Rodney King acquittals were announced, heading to a Brentwood fundraiser aimed at defeating a charter amendment intended to limit the tenure of LAPD chiefs.

Rudderless and utterly unprepared, the LAPD watched with the rest of us as the city burned. Gates, shorn of all credibility, was forced to resign. Voters passed the charter amendment he’d tried to defeat. A newly strengthened Police Commission would fire the next two chiefs when they couldn’t get the reform job done. That paved the way for two chiefs who could: William J. Bratton and Charlie Beck.

Now the LAPD is almost as good as it always claimed to be. But it took 25 years.

The riots marked the beginning of the end of the city’s distinct divisions by race, class and ethnicity. The upheaval removed the LAPD as the contentious center of our civic life.

King’s beating and the riots vilified the LAPD throughout the world. N.W.A’s profane excoriation of “tha police” had nailed it years earlier; but after 1992, everybody everywhere knew exactly which police they were talking about.

Joe Domanick covered the riots for the LA Weekly. He is now associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. His latest book is “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.”

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