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Column: Angelenos are taking to the streets. Again. Will it produce real change this time?

A skateboarder falls over a fire set in the street by protesters in Los Angeles on Saturday.
A skateboarder falls over a fire set in the street by protesters in Los Angeles on Saturday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

I understand why so many people in Los Angeles are restless, and angry, and taking to the streets as they did in 1965 and 1992.

Things haven’t changed much since then.

Now, as then, the notion of equal opportunity is distant dream and not a reality, and the darker your skin, the bleaker the outlook.

Schools are not equal. Healthcare is not equal. Criminal justice is not equal. And black Americans just keep dying at the hands of police.

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These are not opinions. These are the irrefutable truths.

In 20 years of covering Los Angeles, I’ve seen all these things play out here. There is so much to cheer about in our mixed-up, polyglot city. But there is also so much to cry about. And so many frustrations that have to boil over.

The main concern of black people right now isn’t whether they’re standing three or six feet apart, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops.

On Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles, glass shattered Friday night, looters roamed and smoke rose.

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At 3rd and Fairfax on Saturday afternoon, police vehicles were torched and riot squad officers fired nonlethal shots at advancing protesters.

Just as we were beginning to open up after months of coronavirus lockdown, we were shutting down again with curfews. It’s a shame because it seemed clear that most of the protesters, who had every right and reason to demonstrate, wanted to make a statement rather than draw blood.

I’m not going to excuse the destruction of property. It’s chilling and irrational, especially in a city where so many shop owners, the heart and soul of L.A., are barely scraping by themselves.

But the scene of a murderous white Minneapolis cop with a knee on the neck of a black man was chilling and irrational too. And at the same time so utterly familiar that it set off little explosions across the U.S. Is it any wonder that people are far too tired of waiting for change that never comes?

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The inequality is everywhere. For decades, the skid row population has been mostly black. Countywide, due in part to decades of housing discrimination and institutional racism, African Americans account for about a third of the total homeless population despite representing just 11% of the total population.

In Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school district in the nation, 90% of the students are nonwhite, and 80% meet poverty standards that qualify them for free or reduced-price meals.

The numbers are shocking, and every time I write about them, I hear from readers who think I must have gotten something wrong. That they’re shocked is revealing in itself.

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We live in a city where people with vastly different realities live in close proximity. A house lists for more than $200 million; the homeless count approaches 60,000. California has the world’s fifth-largest economy; it has the nation’s highest rate of poverty.

And in recent weeks, a marauding coronavirus has made the playing field even more unlevel. In Los Angeles, black people are dying at twice the rate of white people, largely because of underlying health conditions related to trauma, poverty and lack of access to regular healthcare.

In the Los Angeles I know, the seeds of revolution have been in the ground for years. It was never a matter of if the smoke would rise again, but when.

It’s understandable but a shame, really, that the clash we’re witnessing in L.A. is between protesters and police, most of whom do a hard job as well as they can. Police don’t run the schools or the economy or write public policy that determines who we invest in and who we leave behind.

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It’s true that in L.A. County, cops accused of brutality are seldom prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and it’s true as well that the Los Angeles Police Department is not perfect, by a mile. It’s a different force than it was in 1965 and 1992; more diverse, more progressive, but we still have a long way to go.

I hope righteous but nonviolent protests, a great and vital expression of American liberty, continue and bring about real change.

When the civil rights movement surpasses its half-century anniversary and people still feel constantly judged and feared and treated like suspects because of the color of their skin, it’s time.

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When an unarmed man is killed by police in broad daylight while begging to breathe, it’s time.

When the politics of division and scapegoating and race-baiting carry a man to the White House, it’s time.

When schools are not equal, healthcare is not equal and criminal justice is not equal, it’s time.

When promises are made in 1965 and again in 1992, but real change is still elusive, it’s time.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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