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Smoke & Mirrors
Ten years later, what do we see when we remember the riots?
Photograph by Ted Soqui
THESE DAYS ART’S WORLD FAMOUS CHILI DOGS is a busy little place. The lunchtime line spills onto the sidewalk, fed by the stream of cars pulling up to the curb and the locals who wander in for their daily dog. A shapely woman in the snuggest black sweater orders a chile tamale. A mechanic named Skillet, at least that’s what his shirt says, wants a pair of jumbos. A twinkly-eyed grandfather peruses the menu for a good five minutes before announcing he’ll have “the usual.” “This is a great ol’ place,” he says. “I’ve been on this earth for 60 years. Art’s has been around four years longer.” Wedged among the regulars are two reporters, each of us having dropped by not for the food but to find out what happened here ten years ago.
“We’re getting a lot more of you guys,” says E’Vann, the counterman. “Even MTV came by last week.”
“MTV?” the grandfather exclaims.
“Yeah,” says E’Vann. “You know. On account of 1992.”
“My God,” someone says. “Has it been that long?”
America’s worst modern riot began two doors down at Florence and Normandie. This corner of South L.A. gained instant infamy, after TV helicopters brought America endless images of rampaging youths, cops in retreat, and the beating of trucker Reginald Denny. This was the Ground Zero of its day, a must-stop for official delegations, journalists, and hardy tourists. Attention was focused on Tom’s Liquor, a gang hangout whose contents fueled much of the mayhem before the store was trashed, as was almost everything around—except Art’s. “They didn’t touch us in ’65, and they didn’t touch us in ’92,” E’Vann says proudly. When it opened again, Tom’s symbolized the city’s desire to, as its signature campaign put it, “Rebuild L.A.,” with efficiency if not always enough forethought. A gas station and an auto-parts store followed, transforming a scarred intersection into one that more clearly trumpeted recovery, or so officials said. Today we question the wisdom of rebuilding places like liquor stores and better appreciate the way simple things, like a hot dog stand, help to hold a neighborhood together. So we come to Art’s.
This homey hole-in-the-wall was untouched by rioters but not by the riots. Folks want to be sure that point is made. You can’t be part of this community without feeling the pain of the poverty, the heat of the anger that put people on the streets. And, they insist, when they say “Gee, has it been that long?” it’s not because the riots weren’t important. They just can’t believe so much time has passed. Around here they live with the memories and the realities—every day.
“No one could forget,” E’Vann says, laughing at the thought.
Not even in other parts of town?
THE CONCRETE CHUNK
“When we turned the corner, we were scared.” Shortly after the verdicts were read, Sergeant Lisa Phillips and her partner, Dan Nee, answered a call near 71st and Normandie, where they saw a woman being beaten so badly they thought she was dead. The LAPD officers drove their car into the horde of attackers and managed to free her. As they carried her away, Nee was struck by a rock and fell. The crowd burst into laughter. “That is one thing I will never forget,” Phillips says. When they tried to wheel away, someone hurled a chunk of concrete through their back window. “I couldn’t do my job bitter,” says Phillips, who took time off, then transferred to another division. “I was sad. More than anger, more than fear. It was sadness.”
Denial and Defiance
“WHAT RIOTS?” THE WOMAN ON THE phone is puzzled. “We had riots here?” She thinks for a moment. “Oh, wait. That’s right! Now what was the reason for them again?” She thinks a little harder. “Oh, yes. That man was beaten up.”
I had called the school district to find out what we teach children about 1992, expecting to discuss how, not whether, to remember the past. But as I talked with people around the city, and especially as I spent time in my old Crenshaw neighborhood and other damaged areas, another question emerged: Why is it that so much hasn’t changed?
Why is it so easy to ask “What riots?” with a jaded smile at places like Art’s, where they think all the sound and fury has come to nothing—both the protests and the promises that life would get better? Why is the school receptionist’s befuddlement echoed in so many shrugs in the suburbs, along the coast, across the valleys? So much time has passed without there being, well, new trouble. After the Northridge quake, O.J., September 11, life went on. Besides, add the hopeful, aren’t things better by now?
Not all that much has changed in the inner cities—L.A. is so big and diverse that it has more than one. To truly fix them would have taken several lifetimes, not the five years Tom Bradley pledged. There were too many families from a tangle of cultures, crammed together in the most dangerous and inhospitable neighborhoods, served by a weak civic infrastructure and a notorious police force and represented by squabbling politicians. Nonetheless, post-riot expectations were blue-sky high, spurred on by the scared, the angry, and the greedy—those not wanting to squander the rare moment when everybody insisted that attention must be paid to the poor. All sides pushed officials to work too fast and aim too far and wide. “It’s evident to me now we had a lot of short-term fixes for long-term problems,” says Denise Fairchild, who runs LA Prosper, the successor to the city’s official recovery effort. “In other words, Band-Aids.”
These Band-Aids masked the intractability of the problems and the inadequacy of the answers. They allowed people to think things were being taken care of. At a certain point they allowed people not to think about things at all—which is how most Angelenos like it. This is, after all, a city that prides itself on looking forward, not back. Our view of history is vague and fleeting, sketched along a time line that hops from Olvera Street to Chinatown (the movie), with most other landmarks and legends similarly inspired by Hollywood, the industry of illusion. We may be short on memory, but we are flush with imagination—masters of invention, better yet, reinvention. Our senses of denial and defiance inspire us to make up what we don’t know and to move on from what we don’t like, to create a sunny paradise in a smoggy desert using someone else’s water.
L.A. was the perfect place for a riot to sneak up on us. And it’s the perfect place to forget the violence and ignore its causes. Ten years ago a fat economy had swooned. The have/have-not gap had widened so much that one-third of South L.A. languished in poverty. The area had the fewest stores per capita, the nastiest gangs, and some of the worst schools in the city. Residents feared an LAPD known for choke holds and the battering ram. African Americans felt squeezed by the Central Americans they thought were taking their jobs and homes, and they butted heads with the Koreans, whom they saw as interlopers.
Today we again are reeling from a boom gone bust. Living conditions in South L.A. still rank near the bottom of most scales. Violent crime is rising. The LAPD has improved community relations—somewhat. (We get harassed, one Watts resident says, but now we can lodge a complaint, and the cops that harass us can be black or brown, not just white.) Like Daryl Gates, Chief Bernard Parks is—for different reasons—a lightning rod for racial and political tensions. African Americans feel they also must battle Hispanics for electoral clout.
“All the way up to the fifth anniversary, I kept asking myself, How long are we going to keep commemorating the riots?” says Fairchild. “For me, it was something that needed to be buried. Now I’ve changed my mind. It’s feeling very eerie, because if you look at the conditions that led us to ’92, we are revisiting them.”
Up on the swap meet roof, the young man was tired and cold. Yet this was where he knew he should be. Newly arrived in L.A., he had answered a Radio Korea announcement seeking volunteers to help defend stores from rioters. He had gone to the Wilshire Tower Hotel, from which armed teams were being sent around the city. Unprepared, the man spent three chilly nights on guard duty in his short-sleeved shirt. “I felt in my heart that the verdict was wrong,” he says. “But I also felt that making more victims through looting and burning stores was wrong.” He says he wasn’t protecting Koreans. “I was protecting peace and justice. That kind of mentality of protecting one race from another is part of the problem. I was just protecting those that were being harmed.”
THE BLOW POP
Trovone Edwards liked going to Bob’s store because Bob and his wife gave kids candy and watched their bikes. One afternoon Bob’s wife offered the 11-year-old a Blow Pop. “I didn’t have a taste for it then,” he says, so he put it away. Two days later the streets exploded. “I knew they were burning Korean stores,” says Edwards. “I was hoping they wouldn’t get to Bob’s. When they did, I was just sad. We had no place else to go to.” He still had the lollipop, and for a moment he was tempted to eat it. “Then I thought, I am going to keep this because I might never, ever see them again.” He hasn’t. “I guess the riots were our way of speaking out, but all we really did was burn down our communities,” says Edwards, now a Cal State Northridge student. “We really didn’t get anything accomplished.”
The Hammer Drops
ON APRIL 29, 1992, FOUR LAPD officers who had been videotaped pummeling black motorist Rodney King were cleared of all major charges. The announcement triggered America’s first multiethnic riot, one that spread farther and faster than any riot had before it. Hooligans and the hungry, opportunists and operatives joined those actually angered by the verdicts. The destruction radiated from Florence and Normandie to Hollywood and West L.A. and leapfrogged to Pasadena and Long Beach. The breadth of the damage and the wall-to-wall TV coverage made it seem as if anything could happen to anyone. In that sense the terror that tore Southern California apart also brought it together. Suddenly we all knew what it was like to live where it didn’t feel safe to go out for a carton of milk. In three fiery days more than 50 people died and thousands were injured. L.A. suffered a billion dollars in damage.
Once the smoke cleared, everyone agreed that the King verdicts were the catalyst, not the cause, and that nothing about this was, so to speak, black and white. Race, class, and rage exploded because those in power had failed to notice the way a rotten life had gotten more rotten for the poor. In South Los Angeles the long-rising tensions erupted in March 1991 when a black teenager named Latasha Harlins was killed by a Korean-born grocer over a bottle of orange juice.
That same month, KTLA first broadcast the King video, which had been shot by a Lake View Terrace man who was testing his camera. “Police were beating people every day,” said one woman at a recent South L.A. meeting about the legacy of 1992. “It just so happened this young man had a new camcorder in his window. They couldn’t deny it.” But they did. At least that’s how it felt when a Simi Valley jury acquitted the officers. “The community already was a powder keg,” the woman said. “This was the sledgehammer that hit the match.”
MOST ANGELENOS DIDN’T SEE THAT sledgehammer coming. They had been lulled into a sense of security, accepting the myth of the mellow melting pot. Besides, a city with a five-term black mayor and an old guard of minority power brokers couldn’t possibly have race problems. However, Tom Bradley, the great rights hope of ’73, was a gray shell of himself by ’92, having lost much of his clout and the support of many in his historic alliance of blacks and Westside whites.
L.A.’s African American and Hispanic leaderships, each beset by internal spats and resistant to working with the other, discovered they also were estranged from their own young and poor. When the mayor and other officials pleaded for calm, they were hooted at, then ignored. Only the Lakers and celebrities like Edward James Olmos and Arsenio Hall were able to get the looters to go home.
The riots exposed other insidious fault lines that separated the city, not just into races and classes but into classes within races and generations within classes. Brenda Shockley runs Community Build, a prominent Leimert Park-based development organization. “I was a college student in 1965,” she says, “so I was there [for Watts]. I felt very much in touch with what was going on.” In 1992 she was practicing law and consulting on housing policy. “While I was outraged at the verdicts, I absolutely had no inkling there could be that kind of groundswell grassroots reaction.” She now realizes that in a place like L.A. you can live within the African American community and still “not come in contact with the flash point. You can be in Ladera Heights or Baldwin Hills or Olympic and Highland. That’s why it was a class issue, too.”
Chicanos had been aware of newly arrived Central Americans but hadn’t seen much reason to reach out to them. Many Eastsiders first took notice of the people of Pico-Union when they saw them looting diapers and milk on television. Even then they didn’t think they had much in common. Things changed: Mainly, the specter of Proposition 187 arose. UCLA demographer David Hayes-Bautista believes that at a time when California’s Hispanic population was leveling off, public anxieties—and thus Governor Pete Wilson’s reelection hopes—were whetted by what some proposition backers portrayed as “an immigrant uprising.” The anti-187 fight ended up galvanizing the fractured factions within the Hispanic community and helped to accelerate the rise of Latino power blocs at city hall and in Sacramento. (In another political boomerang, a year after the violence Angelenos elected a wealthy white Republican to succeed Bradley, not the minority mayor many had predicted. Richard Riordan vowed he was “tough enough to turn L.A. around.” He also was smart enough to campaign on an agenda promising law, order, and business savvy—offering a haven not just for conservatives but for riot-rattled moderates and liberals.)
This being a multiethnic crisis, even Asian Americans experienced epiphanies. Cultural biases and relatively small numbers had relegated them to living offstage or playing supporting roles in other people’s dramas. Suddenly, the model minority’s members were invisible no more. They were starring on America’s television sets, cast as victims, villains, and vigilantes. They finally had to think of themselves as part of the real world, really being hated, really looking mean or macho. The good news was everyone else had to think of them, too. Asian Americans—as well as Central Americans and others on the margins—leaped into the public consciousness. Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, says one thing that changed after ’92 is that coalitions became essential, and Asians became essential to coalitions. You used to think black and white, Kwoh says. Then it was Latino, black, and white. Now you had to include everybody. No one could be an island.
Yeong Soon Shin believes she is lucky, even though she lost her clothing store. She was at her swap meet stall on Slauson when people started yelling at her to flee. She managed to drive away, weaving through streets swarming with angry young men. When Shin returned, she looked around and at first saw nothing, “not even a loose earring.” Then she discovered her Bible, which was readable but swollen from the fire sprinklers. To her the book was a symbol of providence. Just after she found it she learned of eight people who had been forced to hide in the swap meet all night. When she saw their faces, she says, “they looked like they had just come out of the grave.” Shin and her husband received relief aid and were able to start a print shop in Artesia.
SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE. BUT WHAT?
As the fires burned, that question was duly discussed at City Hall, pondered at the White House, and bounced around the packed sanctuary of First A.M.E. A congregation of the concerned had gathered at the West Adams power church to hear the King verdicts and to pray for unity or peace, depending on the outcome. Now people plotted ways first to restore calm, then to heal the city. “We were there for three days,” says the Reverend Leonard Jackson, one of F.A.M.E.’s pastors. “Then Edward James Olmos said he was tired of staying in the building. `I’m going out and I’m gonna pick up trash.’ We were out with shovels the next morning.” Before long, people were calling, asking what to do. Others showed up with food, money, and brooms. Men at other churches had been on alert, ready to march into the night should trouble occur. “The plan we had in mind worked in another way,” Jackson says. These traveling brigades led the cleanup: Messiah Baptist. West Angeles. Second Baptist. Metropolitan C.M.E.
Mayor Bradley should have heeded their example: grassroots groups targeting specific goals, rallying private and public resources—with a little help from God. Instead, the day after the riots ended he announced that the city’s recovery would begin, spearheaded by Rebuild L.A., a private coalition of corporate and civic interests inspired by his great triumph—the 1984 Olympics—and run by Games impresario Peter Ueberroth. As a signal of confidence, and in a sign of naivete, Bradley announced that recovery—and Rebuild L.A.—would come to an end in five years.
The coalition’s greatest contributions may be its mistakes or, rather, the lessons and responses they provoked. Ill-equipped, ill-advised, facing impossible missions, it did bring in about half a billion dollars in corporate commitments. Two-thirds of the city’s burned buildings were rebuilt. National retailers appeared where they hadn’t been. Using the traditional recovery scorecard, the showing was deemed decent, if disappointing.
Rebuild L.A., however, was top-heavy, trickle-down, and too white male. It focused on attracting outside businesses and restoring the old city instead of creating a new and better one. “They were Rebuild L.A., and they meant it,” says Shockley, whose Community Build was started by Congresswoman Maxine Waters and others dissatisfied with the post-riot work. “They tried to get back to the status quo. The problem was the status quo. They were never interested in the why things were the way they were.”
Impatient community groups launched their own small-scale economic and social programs, figuring that a patchwork quilt might cover more ground than the unwieldy one big tent favored by the corporate nabobs. Instead of the edifices attractive to officialdom, they invested in the unsexy intangibles—job training, family counseling, education, safety, race relations—essential to enhancing quality of life and without which conventional rebuilding felt dangerously lopsided. “What makes me sad living in L.A. right now is that we had a Watts riot and a 4-29 riot, and the government still is not putting enough effort into racial harmony,” says Ellis Cha, president of the local Korean grocers association. “We talk about economic development and small business development and all that jazz. You can lose them all with one more riot.” Churches great and small took on an extraordinary share of the recovery work. They carried credibility in the community and in the boardroom. They also understood the need to heal souls as well as to house and feed them and were willing to bridge the culture gaps that often plagued grassroots groups.
Rebuild L.A. learned enough from its own shortcomings to replace itself. After two years it gave way to the leaner RLA, whose chief, Deputy Mayor Linda Griego, had lived near Crenshaw for years, so she knew what it was like “to shop at a run-down supermarket where you paid more for less and were supposed to feel grateful to have that chance.” RLA and its heir, Fairchild’s LA Prosper, nurtured local talent. They sleuthed out hundreds of manufacturers and stores, most operating beneath the radar. From the ashes of hundreds of local businesses came the first comprehensive picture of the city’s potent small economy. The recovery groups decided to find out who lives and works in the riot zones. They also encouraged outside retailers to question conventional wisdom (everybody has studied drugs and joblessness, says Griego) and the broad strokes with which areas are painted “black,” “Hispanic,” or the all-encompassing “ghetto.” Krispy Kreme is one business that did this, opening its first store south of the Valley at Crenshaw and King in 2000. Richard Reinis, a company executive, says he knew the location would be controversial because most people expected them to pick “a more westerly place.” Krispy Kreme, however, liked this area’s demographics: There were lots of Southerners, “and we are from the South, so we liked the instant name recognition.”
Indeed, one thing L.A.’s poorest areas don’t lack is complexity. At a community meeting, carless housing project residents demand a warehouse supermarket while their middle-income neighbors want upscale shops—or else they’ll keep going to the Beverly Center. Young Salvadorans ask for parks. Black old-timers favor sit-down restaurants and national chains—which are anathema to mom-and-pop owners. Everyone knows the dangers of a dream deferred. In L.A.’s inner cities, the layers of classes and cultures make fulfilling dreams just as risky and perplexing.
The injured firefighter kept collecting new equipment, as the department issued it, so he wouldn’t waste any time once he could return to work. He had been steering his hook-and-ladder in the early hours of rioting. “We were running red lights and sirens,” he says, when someone tried to pass from behind. “The car backed off, turned off his headlights, and came up again. Then the passenger fired.” A bullet lodged in the firefighter’s neck. He woke up in the hospital, partially paralyzed. Through two years of rehabilitation he regained mobility in most of his left side—except for his hand, which refused to heal. Finally, he realized he would never be able to use the gear he had stockpiled. He returned everything except one pair of gloves.
MY FIRST HOME WAS ON 11TH AVENUE, four blocks from Crenshaw Boulevard and six miles from Florence and Normandie—or Art’s Chili Dogs, depending on your point of view. To outsiders this area is part of mysterious, slightly malevolent “South-Central,” where the Rodney King fires first burned. Like many things in the city, its problems are easy to ignore; just drive on by. People who live here don’t have that luxury. They’d love to clean out the gangs and the drugs and get some decent stores and schools. In the meantime they raise their kids and try to make ends meet.
When I was a child in the ’60s, I never wondered what kind of neighborhood I came from. It was, after all, the only one I knew. Riding down Crenshaw Boulevard reminded me of sailing one of the great rivers I’d read about in school. I loved to stare out at the swirl of commerce and cultures: old ladies gossiping in three languages at the bus stop, curbside parties fueled by half a dozen overpumped car radios, the queues of families lured by the sweet smoke of the corner barbecue. You never knew what would pop up around the bend. Only when I was older did the scene grow seedier and, perhaps, did I grow wiser about what the colorful gang graffiti and the loitering women and laughing men really meant.
The boulevard was my family’s main link to the world. We’d go north to the freeway or south a few miles to visit my grandparents, who lived in a plain little house with a prolific little garden. We also took Crenshaw to get to the big stores—the May Company where my mother bought me my first Christmas angel, and the FEDCO on La Cienega. Even after we moved away we often came back to visit. On such trips it was easier to see that this was, as they say, an area in transition. Cops always seemed to have someone against a wall. Businesses would change hands so often we’d play a guessing game: the chicken stand is now a Chinese restaurant, now it’s shuttered, now it’s what?
The two constants were the West Angeles Church of God in Christ and the Kokusai Japanese movie theater. The Kokusai, like the Holiday Bowl a few miles down, was a vestige of a Japanese American community whose residents, including my grandparents, settled there after the war. Many of them had died or moved away. Most whites had gone, too. African Americans started arriving, drawn by the chance to own or rent in an area that kept promising to get better. Crenshaw became the gateway to Leimert Park and the more affluent Baldwin Hills. Hispanic vendors and residents followed. The Kokusai finally closed. Men in bow ties sold bean pies under a marquee that proclaimed IGLESIA. A few years ago the building became the performing arts center for West Angeles, whose burgeoning economic and social ministries sprawled for blocks. Progress has its trade-offs. While I was growing up I enjoyed watching people stream toward West Angeles. On Easter Sunday the women would wear big hats and the girls would skip along in their first fancy dresses. As the church and the surrounding businesses grew, and especially when it opened its cathedral last year, the pedestrian parade was replaced by traffic jams.
Before 1965 all I really knew about race was that my family looked different from many of our neighbors and that most all of us looked different—and were treated differently—when we went to other parts of town. Then Watts burned, and I learned my first big lesson about how people really got along. Among the casualties was my uncle’s jewelry store, which stood near Broadway and 50th. Even as a first grader I understood how terrible a loss that was. What I remember most is that many of my uncle’s customers paid what they owed him even though their broken watches and bracelets had been lost in the fire. They were African American and he was Japanese American, yet they knew he was trying to make it, just like they were.
Their empathy seemed more striking three decades later. When the ’92 riots broke out, I was an editor at the Los Angeles Times. On the newsroom television I watched mobs tearing up the city. I thought of my uncle when I saw storefronts painted red with vows like REMEMBER LATASHA! The cameras turned to Crenshaw. I followed the arsonists as they moved down the boulevard, wincing as they stormed places I knew. Then I saw one of my grandmother’s neighborhood markets go up in flames. She often shopped there, even though she complained about the produce being old. Alarmed, I called my mother. She said relatives had been urging my grandmother to leave until it was safe. She refused. “This is my home,” she said. “The neighbors will take care of me.” My aunt and uncle finally got her, for our peace of mind if not hers. An 81-year-old widow shouldn’t be alone, everyone decided. My grandmother returned to her house a few days later.
Shortly after the riots I returned to Crenshaw, too. Although I had made this trip a thousand times, nothing looked right or familiar. As I rounded each bend, the guessing game was a sober one: What would be gone? What had been there before? Not many people were walking around. Not much was open. The only bits of color were the fluttering rainbows of flyers tacked to the chain-link fences that guarded newly vacant lots. The flyers, at least, showed that little bits of life were still going on, for they advertised homestyle braiding (if your beauty shop is closed), jobs wanted, prayer vigils.
A few months ago my grandmother and I drove down the boulevard and for the first time I asked her about the riots and whether they had changed Crenshaw, where she has lived for half a century. I admit that when my grandfather died 12 years ago I wondered if she would finally move—although I am glad she didn’t. While the area is a little rough, her house will always be my family’s home, its bushes forever holding Easter eggs and its kitchen thick with the smell of frying fish and apple cake. My grandmother is content. She says she lives on a “happy, peaceful block.” Her neighbor mows her grass; she sweeps his sidewalk. Like many Crenshaw residents, she is not blind to the problems around her. She sees through them, pragmatic about how to measure a good life. She raised her children and grandchildren here. Loved her husband here. As for what’s changed since ’92, she immediately knows the answer. There is now a Ralphs in her neighborhood. The new store is cleaner. And, she adds, “the vegetables are very good.”
THE FUNERARY CARD
“Where There Is Hatred Let Me Sow Love.”
The prayer on his father’s funerary card haunted John Chavez. He felt his dad wanted him to go from Simi Valley into the riot zone to tell people his hometown was not racist. On the first Sunday after the riots, the fifth anniversary of his father’s death, Chavez quietly walked into a Catholic church on Western Avenue. “I knew they wondered who I was,” he says, because while he is half Hispanic and half Arabic, he looks “all Anglo.” When the priest invited remarks from the congregation, Chavez took the pulpit. “I told everybody I was from Simi Valley. There was a big gasp. Then they applauded. I just wanted them to know our thoughts were with them and to remind them there are stereotypes on all sides.”
IN THE HEART OF VERMONT AVENUE, near 59th, John Muir Middle School rises up like a friendly fortress, surrounded by shabby storefronts, modest houses, and the long shadows of the neighborhood gangs. “Oh, yes,” says Ed Cabil matter-of-factly, as if he’s giving directions to the corner market. The Bloods run this street. The Crips the one behind us. From his tiny office bunker, awash in thigh-high stacks of papers, books, and the occasional basketball jersey, Cabil counsels hundreds of sixth and eighth graders and commands his own field campaign to save hundreds more. One day in the ’80s he told his students he was not going to another one of their funerals. Instead, he started a program called New ADAGE that uses sports to build self-esteem. Now teams play at dozens of schools, and his classes include music, law, and “charm.” (As I walked in, Cabil was sealing a deal with a John Robert Powers graduate to teach a modeling workshop, then take the girls to Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘N Waffles.)
“Give them some love and you can lead them,” says Cabil, a compact man with impish eyes and close-cropped hair. “A lot of these kids have no love in their lives.” The year of the riots, he says, the zip code that includes Muir had the highest number of social service placements in the county. That meant a lot of parents were dead, on drugs, on the streets, or in jail. The area recorded one-third of the city’s teen births and gang activity.
You might wonder what a riot means to a child who grows up in such a world. Back then, says Cabil, many at the school knew people involved in the violence, so he was amazed when NBC News came to campus and found that nearly everyone interviewed had chosen not to loot or vandalize because they thought it was wrong. “The majority of our young people want peace and tranquillity,” he says. “They still are young enough to dream about going to college and having better lives.”
I went to Muir because I wondered what life is like for kids growing up today in a neighborhood like Vermont, which remains an area of dubious distinctions: Last year its police division was the city leader in homicides. It still ranks among the worst in gang activity, violent crime, and general social ills. The students, born a year or so after nearby Florence and Normandie blew up, don’t know much about what happened then, and, Cabil says, the school doesn’t tell them.
Whoever walks by the counselor’s office gets a pop quiz.
“Did you hear about the riots?” Most kids shake their heads. One girl nods. “Yeah,” she says, “something to do with Rodney King. People went out and stole stuff.”
Others answer questions about what they do (study, goof around), what they worry about (not much), and what they want to be (most say actor, one girl says nurse, then corrects herself—”I mean doctor”). “I was real bad,” one cherubic seventh grader admits. “Now I’m good in school. But I’m still bad at home.” What does that mean? “Oh,” she says sheepishly, “I still go drinking with my friends.”
“This is the Generation X-X-X,” Cabil says later. “They don’t know anything about anything. They’re playing video games all the time.” They don’t know about the riots. They don’t know how tightly the Bloods and Crips controlled each block. In one sense such ignorance is a good sign. The main difference since ’92 is “freedom of mind, in terms of fear,” says Cabil, who has worked at Muir for 32 years. “Our young people were in fear of going to school, wearing the wrong colors and getting shot, that sort of thing.” Gangs still terrorize the neighborhood, he says. The good news is that they focus more on dealing drugs and less on recruiting 12-year-olds.
Good news, it seems, is a relative thing around here. Both Vermont and Crenshaw were hit hard by the riots. Crenshaw, a few miles to the west, has rebounded more quickly, in part because it has become the capital of black L.A., buoyed by community stalwarts including West Angeles Church and the Urban League.
Vermont, however, is a cultural hodge-podge. The street stretches south from the Santa Monica Freeway, a grim line of junky storefronts, swap meets, and community centers. Every so often an oasis appears: the blandly developed expanse around USC, pockets of shiny post-riot apartments, fast-food stands and offices, churches including the Crenshaw Christian Center—aka the Faith Dome—and a suite of new buildings near 80th that stands out like a gilded thumb. Several blocks beyond is the soon-to-be, never-quite-there redevelopment zone at Manchester.
Despite perceptions that Crenshaw is favored, Vermont in the end will receive more public money, says Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who’s been a prime player in recovery efforts. Overall, “hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent,” he says. “The curious part is, even with all that has been done, it’s insufficient.”
Not so curious, really. Vermont is a troubled place. A few people like Cabil have settled in to fight it out. Many others are struggling to get by—until they can get out. After Muir I visited a swap meet a few blocks away where the shopkeepers are happy just getting through a gray Wednesday with a few sales and no trouble from anyone. Most of the vendors are Korean, which is surprising given reports that many merchants never returned after 1992. These are a second wave of immigrants who are trying their luck here, hoping to earn enough to move north to Koreatown or out to Orange County. Chastened by past mistakes, Ellis Cha says the grocers association urges newcomers to get involved with their communities and to overcome cultural taboos against smiling or chatting.
Nonetheless, one man looks forbiddingly glum as he ponders his empty beauty supply store. When asked what he sells, he says, “Things for blacks and Mexicans. Nothing for white people.” Why is he here? “Why would you ask such a thing,” he snaps. Later he warms up. He says he lives nearby and has been in America for three years. He is scared of the Rite-Aid and other big chain stores that are slowly appearing. And yes, he will move one day. At a lingerie stall another Korean man is more chipper. He’s been in this swap meet for seven years, he says, smiling broadly. Business is “oh, yes, very good.” He nods at a black couple, who greet him by name as they admire some purple pajamas. He smiles again. Of course, he thinks about moving, too.
Across the way an angular Guatemalan woman named Mirna sits beside rows of little pink and white shoes and says she is visiting her friend, who runs this children’s store, because she was too traumatized to go to work. A few hours earlier she had opened her front door and seen a body. A man had been shot 16 times—she had counted the holes. Mirna, who drives an airport shuttle, came to the United States 25 years ago. She says the swap meet and many of the surrounding buildings were burned during the riots and that everything was crazy. She and her friend agree that, dead body aside, Vermont looks better now. As for her own future, Mirna shrugs as if to say, what do you expect? She is stuck here, at least until her daughter graduates from college. Did she mention her girl is at Amherst, she asks, barely hiding her pride.
Josefina Alcantar thinks about her kids, too. Because of them she wants to move away as soon as she can. Her party store, crammed with giant Winnie the Pooh pinatas and shelves of trinkets, is trying hard to be festive. However, her mood is dark as she points to the doorway where she twice has found piles of bullet casings. She came from Mexico in the 1980s and opened her tiny shop at 66th a year before the riots. She was spared because her black neighbors kept the looters away. Business, which usually is “just okay,” has sagged since September 11. Alcantar, a small woman with a passionate face, says her two youngest children, who are 11 and 12, are at a vulnerable age for trouble. She keeps hoping she’ll be able to sell her shop and her home, across the street, so she can live in Downey near her sister. This is the year, she assures me. This is the year I leave.
THE ONE GROUP MOST OFTEN NEGLECTED by recovery efforts is the largest: Those who were unaffected by the violence—or at least those who think they were. The physical destruction was the easiest to repair. Social and emotional damage received less attention, even though it may prove more potent. The intangible wounds—racial distrust, for instance—were so complex they were hard to address, or were so intimate they were hard to decipher. In 1997 three-quarters of respondents told the Los Angeles Times Poll they didn’t think about the riots anymore. Yet nearly a third said they had changed the way they lived. That meant being “more careful” about going out. It also meant acting differently around others, installing home security systems, buying guns, or even moving out of town.
“It all had to do with the extent to which you were touched or not touched,” says Anna Deavere Smith, who listened to the memories of nearly 300 people, from looters to suburbanites to the police chief, for her one-woman show Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Outlasting everything was the visceral, which bubbled up once her subjects realized they had a chance to talk openly. In the end, she says, “it’s about their flesh, their property, or those they love.”
Audiences also revealed hidden feelings. During the play, video of the Rodney King beating was greeted with silence. When the beating of Reginald Denny was shown, the theater was filled with gasps. What made such an unconscious reaction so uniform, no matter who was in the house?
UC Riverside professor Edward Chang has spent the past decade trying to answer such questions by studying the social causes and consequences of ’92. Most everything, he found, from our difficulty in looking back to our inability to move the inner cities ahead, grows out of the way Los Angeles chose to respond to the riots.
“We decided to forget,” he says. “We simply wanted to go forward without resolving.”