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.
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.”