Worth 1,000 Words - Features - Los Angeles magazine
 
 

Worth 1,000 Words

Two images define the 1992 riots, but the circumstances behind the chaos were far more complex

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

The present is by nature reductive. The here and the now don’t have time and space for the nuances of history. The past is often rendered to us not in thesis but as a series of one-sheets. The image tells us all. Context is not required.

It’s that way, largely, with the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Forget the 53 killed, the nearly $1 billion in property damage over the span of six days—if anyone actually recalls those stats at all. The L.A. riots have come to be defined by two of the most evocative pieces of video vérité of the early 1990s: the beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny. King, a black man nightsticked by a swarm of LAPD officers. Fifty-six baton blows in 80 seconds. Denny, a white truck driver pulled from his vehicle and mercilessly pummeled the day hell arrived at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. The coup de grâce? A cinder block to the head. Each event, essentially bookending the “riot era,” confirmed all we knew to be true at the time: White LAPD cops were thugs with badges. Inner-city blacks were just plain thugs.

End of story. Video don’t lie.

But images do oversimplify and obfuscate. Though the videos themselves were stark, they were far from complete. The tape of the King beating doesn’t show the two passengers of his speeding car, also black men, being peaceably arrested before King began his drugged-out taunting of the LAPD officers. Neither did the live feed of the Denny beating pay sufficient tribute to the black citizens—strangers to Denny as well as one another—who risked their own lives to save the man from his attackers and rush him to a hospital.

Yet King and Denny have been held up as poster boys for the cause and effect of L.A.’s racial tensions. In truth the metrics of the riots were hardly that binary. That black and white. The issues of race, economics, and geography that made the city fertile for civil unrest were as expansive as Los Angeles itself.

By 1990, L.A. was at the height of an economic downturn, what the Employment Development Department called “one of the most severe recessions of the postwar era.” In the areas that would be hardest hit by the riots, 29.7 percent of the population was in poverty, 21 percent was on public assistance, and 13 percent of workers were unemployed.

Many blacks felt they were being driven from their historically black neighborhoods by an influx of Latino people—many of them illegal immigrants—who were keeping already stagnant wages artificially low. Mix in the racial animosity toward Korean store owners who served the inner-city communities. Blacks felt the Koreans treated them disrespectfully while gouging them with unreasonable prices. From the Koreans’ perspective, they daily risked—and were often victims of—robbery and violence as they provided goods to a section of the city white business owners had abandoned.

The belief that race and class were mitigating factors for preferential treatment was only reinforced when 27-year-old Asian American Karen Toshima, a passerby, was killed during a 1988 gang shooting in Westwood. The LAPD put 30 detectives on the case and beefed up patrols in the area. Upwards of $25,000 was offered for information leading to Toshima’s killer.

Contrast that with the nearly concurrent murder of 67-year-old Alma Lee Washington. The wheelchair-bound grandmother took an errant bullet to her head during a gang drive-by as she sat at the door of her South-Central home. The response from the LAPD to the killing of an elderly black woman? All of two officers were assigned to the case.

This us-versus-them mentality got jacked up another notch just one day after four cops were indicted for beating Rodney King. On March 16, 1991, Latasha Harlins—a 15-year-old black girl—was shot by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du following an argument over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Du was given only five years’ probation for the killing.

Racial tensions, economic hardship. A judiciary system that seemingly lacked justice. The city was tipping toward chaos. When L.A. most needed leadership, it got pettiness instead. In the months before the riot, the city’s dispassionate black mayor, Tom Bradley, wouldn’t even speak with his myopic white chief of police, Daryl Gates. Messages were exchanged by surrogates like two Cold War nations.

By the time a Simi Valley jury that included no blacks acquitted the officers, the weed of discord was deeply rooted. Rodney King was an excuse for an uprising, not a reason. In a bit of high irony, the only recorded instance of looters invoking Rodney King during the rioting was a white-Latino duo who tried to rob a Valley minimart, toting a gun and yelling, “Fuck Rodney King!” The black shop owner shot the white guy on the spot.

From Chief Gates dining at a black-tie function while the city burned to the California National Guard, which could not deploy for lack of live ammunition: Were it not for the lives lost, the property damaged, the riots would be farcical. But people did die. Property was destroyed. One would hope that the event would be regarded as more than a comedy of errors, that there were actual lessons to be drawn from the tragedy.

The Watts riots were supposed to have been some monumental “teachable moment,” too. The McCone Commission, assembled in its wake, was supposed to have provided a road map to better days. In 1990, 25 years after the Watts riots, the McCone Commission members lamented in the Los Angeles Times about the lack of action on their recommendations and worried for the future of the city’s most challenged areas. Two years later the city was again burning.

In the decades since, the recommendations of the post-King riots Special Committee of the California Legislature have been dumped in an unmarked grave similar to McCone’s. The causes of the riots have been left to self-correct far more than they were actively corrected. Today 30 percent of black high school students in L.A. drop out, while the unemployment rate among blacks is 16 percent—the highest in the city (and higher than in 1992). As a rule, time heals, but it often simply erodes until even the most severe events are reduced to just something that happened long ago. It’s when lessons are forgotten that history repeats.            

John Ridley is a writer. His most recent screenplay is Red Tails.

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  1. Maritza posted on 04/11/2012 03:52 PM
    MR. RIDLEY,
    I GREW UP IN SOUTH CENTRAL, AND WHAT I GET FROM YOUR ARTICLE IS THAT CITIZENS OF SOUTH CENTRAL, MORESO AFRICAN AMERICANS, ARE VICTIMS OF A LOCAL GOVERNMENT THAT HAS ABANDONED THE PEOPLE OF SOUTH CENTRAL TO DEAL WITH THE AFTER MATH AND THE REBUILDING OF ITS COMMUNITY. THIS IS WHAT I GET FROM YOUR ARTICLE, AND THAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH ARTICLES, AND DISCUSSIONS SUCH AS THIS ONE. THE "VICTIM" MENTALITY HAS TO BE ELIMINATED ONCE AND FOR ALL. DID YOU GROW UP IN SOUTH CENTRAL? I DID, AND AS A LATINA FEMALE, YOU ,NOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT LIVED IN SOUTH CENTRAL, HAVE NO IDEA, NO CONCEPT, NO CLUE OF HOW IT FEELS TO WALK HOME IN FEAR OF GETTING YOUR A** KICKED JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE, AS THEY USE TO CALL ME, A "WET BACK", A "F** MEXICAN BEANER" (I'M NOT EVEN MEXICAN). YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW IT IS TO PHYSICALLY FIGHT SOME ANGRY BITCH, JUST BECAUSE SHE'S ANGRY (ABOUT WHAT?) AND YOU HAPPEN NOT TO BE THE SAME RACE AS HER. MR RIDLEY, MY MOTHER CAME HERE WITH THE CLOTHES ON HER BACK, CLEANED HOMES, AND GRADUATED WITH AN A.A. IN ACCOUNTING FROM A COMMUNITY COLLEGE. SHE SLEPT UNDER A TABLE, AND SOMETIMES HAD NO FOOD TO EAT. SHE PUT MY SIBLINGS AND I THROUGH COLLEGE AND TOUGHT US THAT THERE WAS NO EXCUSE TO FAIL. SHE CONSTANTLY REMINDED US, NOT OF HER STRUGGLES, BUT OF THE OPPORTUNITY THAT WE HAD IN THIS COUNTRY. IF SOUTH CENTRAL HAS NOT RECOVERED, IT IS BECAUSE PEOPLE CONTINUE TO HAVE THAT "VICTIM" MENTALITY. THAT, "I CAN'T SUCCEED BECAUSE I GET RACIALLY PROFILED" MENTALITY. GIVE ME A BREAK. THERE IS NO EXCUSE. NONE.
    1. Javi posted on 04/13/2012 09:41 AM
      @Maritza The belief that all problems have been solved is a myth. It cannot be assumed that a legislature can 'fix' social prejudices, rather social equality must be obtained through the voluntary consent of individuals. The reality is that racism is alive and well and in fact exists in both conscious and subconscious forms. The issue is that harms inflicted upon blacks, and other people of color, have a cumulative effect and are passed on from generation to generation in much the same way that wealth and racial privilege is perpetuated within families.
      For the most part, variations of three basic arguments are waged by conservative minorities against liberal minorities thought primarily in exchange for acceptance and sponsorship of their white colleagues.
      First, the contention is made that most minorities have the "victim mentality" and blame their personal failures on white racism.According to these conservatives the problem is that advancement is dependent solely on merit, personal responsibility and race does not matter. However, conservative minorities voice these feelings in the form of attacks on affirmative action programs despite the fact that most of them obtained their status by way of the same programs. They are quick to chime that they simply desire to be judged by merit not race but they ignore the fact that affirmative action directly resulted from the refusal of whites to view minorities in this manner. Pure "merit" is a fiction, especially in hiring. That is, it's common knowledge that hiring decisions consider merit, but also consider personal attributes. Therefore, affirmative action type programs simply balance the scales and influence whether personal attributes such as race will be used against minorities or in their favor. In the final analysis, race still matters!
      You should be very proud of your mother, but not every story is the same.
      -A fellow minority who grew up in East L.A.
    2. ing posted on 04/22/2012 12:00 AM
      @Maritza it is not victim mentality it is the continuous abandonment of resources and people pitted against each other. Sure there is some element of giving up however by and large this area is not offered what other places have. It gives me great hope to know that you have made it and kudos to your mom for instilling a great sense of responsibility. But all of us in one way or another have had someone help us along in some way.We all stand in the shoulders of others who have guided us. It is not just about being racially profiled but that of being pre-judged. and being stereotyped from what you look like to your surname...it's a work in progress...
  2. rahrah posted on 04/12/2012 07:28 PM
    The biggest damage of the LA Riots was the burning and looting of Korean owned stores. Thousands of families livelihoods were destroyed. LA Times only reported Black Korean tensions at the time. Korean American reporters quit their journalist jobs at LA Times as a result, as all other ethnicity fights and beatings were withheld and Korean Black tensions were flamed. Koreans were the sacrificial lamb. Yet, this is not what the "real story" is about right? Keepin it real sucka. East coast style.
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