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Opinion: L.A. burned 25 years ago. How have the ’92 riots changed us?

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

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, The Times’ letters editor, and it is Saturday, April 29, 2017. Here’s a look back at the week in Opinion.

Twenty-five years ago today, the uprising in response to the acquittal of four police officers who were filmed savagely beating Rodney King began in Los Angeles. Over the next week, dozens of people would be killed and thousands injured — and the racial tensions that had long been plaguing Los Angeles would break dramatically into public view.

Since 1992, crime rates in Los Angeles have dropped dramatically, and by many other measures the region has largely recovered from an event that altered the world’s view of this city. But how did the violence 25 years ago permanently change the city, and what might it mean for our future? Several community members who were in Los Angeles in 1992 offer their views; below are excerpts.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck: The LAPD will never fail the city again

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“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.”

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

“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.

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“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.”

Roy Choi: Screw 1992. Focus on 2022.

“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.”

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Father Gregory J. Boyle: The riots made the city less Us and Them, more just Us

“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.”

>> Click here to read more

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The Times Editorial Board no longer endorses Joe Bray-Ali. As recently as last week, the editorial board reiterated its support for the grass-roots activist challenging incumbent Gil Cedillo in the Los Angeles City Council’s 1st District. But since then, another side of Bray-Ali has emerged, causing the board to take the unprecedented step of rescinding an endorsement. Read why here.

UC Berkeley gets more bad reviews this week. First, the editorial board takes the UC Berkeley administration to task for cancelling conservative provocateur Ann Coulter’s speech and then rescheduling her appearance for a day when fewer students will be on campus. Next, op-ed contributing editor Conor Friedersdorf says the left should focus on institutions instead of right-wing trolls like Coulter. Finally, most of The Times’ letter writers are similarly critical of the students and officials at UC Berkeley.

Internet deregulation, straight from the chairman’s mouth: Federal Communications Commission chief Ajit Pai compares the decision two years ago to regulate the Internet as if it were a public utility because of bad things that might happen, to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s disastrous decision to trade away Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook in 2012 because the team might hit the NBA salary cap. L.A. Times

African Americans don’t sleep as well as whites, an inequality stretching back to slavery. Benjamin Reiss points out the African American “sleep gap,” the phenomenon in which fewer blacks get the recommend six to nine hours of sleep per night than any other ethnic group. “As we attempt to address the inequities of wealth, education, health and incarceration that persist across the color line, we would do well to remember that these problems were formed by night as well as by day,” Reiss writes. “If we want to close that gap, we’ll have to confront [Langston] Hughes’ stubborn rock, which for too many serves in place of a pillow.” L.A. Times

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Steve Bannon, ex-Angeleno: The Rasputin-like White House advisor is said to have been a major player in Hollywood in the 1990s, so what was he like as a local? “People in Hollywood were bewildered by Bannon’s story of himself as a major dealmaker,” reports Connie Bruck in a New Yorker profile that examines Bannon’s time in Los Angeles as a screenwriter and producer. New Yorker

Reach me: paul.thornton@latimes.com


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