Twenty years ago Sunday, on a warm spring afternoon, Los Angeles fell apart. It started with the announcement of not-guilty verdicts on all but one count against the police officers who had beaten Rodney King into submission. It flared in confrontations in neighborhood after neighborhood, was fanned by television images of a truck driver being dragged from his vehicle at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, and was inflamed by a raucous mob that rampaged through downtown that night, starting at police headquarters and spreading out from there. It took days to put out the fires and quell the violence. It took years for Los Angeles to shake the sense that something fundamental had been exposed in those terrible events.
In the reflections on the riots over the last few weeks, much has been said about the different city we live in today. That is undeniably and happily true. The racial tension that divided not just whites and blacks but blacks and Koreans, along with rivulets of strain over the emergence of Latinos in the city’s political culture, has not exactly disappeared, but those subjects today are more often matters for debate than for violence. The history of antagonism between the Los Angeles Police Department and certain minority communities has been replaced by more than a decade of increasingly solid police professionalism and profound community appreciation. Murders — of which there were more than 1,000 a year in this city in the early 1990s — continue to haunt some communities, but they are far fewer. Gang crime, rampant in some parts of the city in 1992, similarly has receded.
But progress is not the same as victory, and Los Angeles today confronts an array of new difficulties. Those of 20 years ago were often psychological — racial tension, political division, criminal pathology. Today, the struggles are more economic. Unemployment in Los Angeles exceeds even that of the nation and state, themselves battling back from the sharp downturn of late 2008. Job creation in the city is frustratingly difficult, thwarted by bureaucratic obstacles, a culture of uncertainty and taxes, all of which discourage business development. Big projects can get done — Disney Hall and Staples both defied naysayers who questioned whether post-riot Los Angeles could ever raise the money or overcome the obstacles to such complex undertakings — but City Hall remains an impediment to thoughtful development, and the lack of jobs hurts nonwhite communities especially hard.
Politically, the landscape has shifted as well. The buildup to the riots pitted an African American mayor against an old-guard white police chief in mutually destructive combat. Now, an enlightened chief works closely with the modern city’s first Latino mayor; their difficulties are rooted not in temperament or different visions but rather in recognition of the limits of the Police Department’s reach and the city budget’s capacity to fund it. Labor, a growing force in the early 1990s, is the dominant one today, exerting strong influence on city spending as the government adjusts to the diminished revenue of recent years. And it is Los Angeles’ strange paradox to have been led through a period of civic angst by a former venture capitalist who was not terribly articulate in matters of race, Richard Riordan, and through a period of wrenching economic change by a man whose tough upbringing might have given him credibility to address the racial strife of the 1990s but who is not particularly skilled in economics, Antonio Villaraigosa.
One depressing constant across this generation of travail and accomplishment has been the disappointing performance of Los Angeles’ schools. Reform has come and gone and come again: Riordan championed candidates for the school board during his term and briefly secured indirect influence over the district; Villaraigosa attempted to get state legislative authority to run the schools, but fell short and settled for a partnership over some schools and helping elect board members who share his reform agenda. Twenty years of attention to schools has produced some progress but not nearly enough. Barely half of Los Angeles students graduate, and only 15% finish high school in four years with the qualifications to attend a state public college. Meanwhile, a generation of young people has suffered for the inability of its elders to solve the most vexing problems of this area’s educational system.
Still, those are reminders of the work undone, not reasons to abandon hope. In the aftermath of the riots, some outside Los Angeles — and even some here — questioned whether the city would ever recover. Time magazine, a year later, famously asked on its cover: “Is the City of Angels Going to Hell?” It did not, and the sewing up of its wounds should stand as a reminder that this city not only is one of promise and innovation but also of resilience. There is more to be done, but there is the will and the energy to achieve it.