From ‘city on fire’ to the George Floyd era – San Bernardino Sun

Thirty years ago, on April 29, Jimmie Woods-Gray was a teacher at 24th Street Elementary School. It was no normal day in L.A. The radio was on in the background. Woods-Gray was working, but her ears were attuned to an announcement coming from a place 50 miles north in another county: a Simi Valley courtroom.

And then the report came — more like an afternoon punch to the gut. Four white police officers had been acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, a Black man. Months of anticipation, waiting — months of tension — had instantly siphoned into a mix of anger, resentment, disappointment and bewilderment in a justice system that once again failed — when the evidence of injustice was right in front of it.

“I said, ‘Oh my God. When they made that announcement, I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think I was ever so disturbed ever about one thing,” said Woods-Gray. “We’d seen the video. It’s like how could you say they were not guilty. We’d seen the video.”

PHOTOS: The LA Riots — 30 years later

It would not be long before Woods-Gray found herself inside nearby First AME Church, packed with leaders and residents, like her, trying to grapple with the announcement.

“What we didn’t know at that moment was that the city was on fire,” she said.

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 30: The sky is filled with the smoke of burning buildings in Los Angeles during the 1992 Los Angeles riots on April 30, 1992. (Photo by Myung Chun, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Thirty years later, the video that showed LAPD police officers brutally beating King, while others did nothing; the jury’s verdict a year later; and the riots that followed remain imprinted in the collective local and national psyche: A community releasing decades of rage at unseen acts of police brutality, depressed economic conditions, racism.

There was the intersection of 71st and Normandie Avenue, where a Black crowd first confronted police after the arrest of three Black men. Florence and Normandie, where truck driver Reginald Denny, on his normal shortcut to his destination got off the Santa Monica Freeway, unwittingly driving his 18-wheeler into the heart of the outrage, only to feel the full brunt of a mob seeking vengeance. Business owners atop rooftops, primed to defend their property with gunfire.

Fire. Anger. Destruction, pleas for peace, even as the smoke of burning buildings loomed over a stunned L.A.

By the time the damage was done, at least 55 were dead and nearly 2,400 were injured —  230 critically. Looting and fires damaged, destroyed or gutted businesses.

“All of that was anger,” Woods-Gray said. “It was the anger of people saying ‘we’ve had enough. We’ve been mistreated. We’ve not gotten our fair share of anything … and you’re still saying that it didn’t happen.’”

But years later, when cell phone video showed the world a helpless George Floyd dying at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, anger persists. Division fuels pessimism about whether we’ve healed, though amid a fragile peace, concern is laced with hope that something like the riots will not happen again. Moreover, the echoes of 1992 are felt differently this year as hopes for reform find their way to the ballot box.

Sweeping protests resulted after the murder of Floyd, shaping government decisions, from city halls across Southern California tackling police oversight, to police departments adding body cams and other accountability measures. In L.A. County, voters in November 2020 approved Measure J, which dedicates at least 10% of the county’s locally generated unrestricted funding to address the disproportionate impact of racial injustice through investments such as youth development, job training, small business support. In the Inland Empire, where leaders in Riverside and San Bernardino counties declared racism a public health crisis.

With the June 7 primary election looming, campaigns everywhere are touched by these efforts, and experiencing some backlash.

The principal issue: How to make reforms stick, while assuring public safety isn’t lessened.

George Floyd: Echoes from King

Jody David Armour, a professor who studies the intersection of race and law at USC, says a realization has set in — 30 years of “a very painful learning process” has culminated in not much change.

“We’ve been telling ourselves a story, a particular narrative, and that narrative has not panned out. … We’ve said, ‘OK. Let’s reform the police department in a way to prevent these kinds of things from happening again.”

But expectations of change have fallen far short, Armour said.

The Christopher Commission report in 1991 found “a significant number of officers in the LAPD who repeatedly use excessive force against the public and persistently ignore the written guidelines of the Department regarding force.”

New accountability measures were put in place, setting in motion decades of reform.

Yet, Armour notes, it didn’t prevent the corruption of the LAPD’s Rampart CRASH unit, uncovered only after years of misconduct, beatings, shootings, falsifying evidence, and other crimes committed by police.

Flash forward to the 2000s, when after years of implicit bias training and attempts at community policing, Armour still sees a region — and a nation — beset with the modern version of images that go beyond the kind of beating that King endured.

“I think what is becoming abundantly clear is that we’ve been going through this trial and error, trying all these various reforms, and seeing that those reforms don’t get us where we want to be,” he said.

Rodney King calls for an end to the violence on May 1, 1992: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

It’s frustration that goes beyond Los Angeles. Pasadena, for instance, is struggling in the aftermath of the 2020 shooting of Anthony McClain, after a traffic stop in the northwest part of the city, caught on camera. But even there, officials announced earlier this month that the Los Angeles County District Attorney declined to charge the Pasadena police officer who killed McClain, citing insufficient evidence.

The decision came after months of demands from residents for increased accountability of police and continual calls for officials to change a culture and pattern of traffic stops that escalate into such shootings.

And it’s clear, law enforcement — even as departments make good faith efforts to reform — has work to do to weed out issues that have plagued communities and the departments themselves.

A state auditor’s report released Tuesday, April 26, showed both the San Bernardino Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department haven’t adequately guarded against racially and ethnically biased conduct. Law enforcement officials don’t deny there’s room for better community engagement, but they say they need more funding to make it happen.

But critics say it goes beyond giving police more money to fight crime, pointing to the need to shift resources toward measures that move the burden off police to respond to every call. Mental health and homelessness issues don’t always have to be police calls, they say.

L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell suggested that if the lessons from the McCone Commission, in the aftermath of the Watts Riots  n 1965, had been “taken seriously,” the unrest and violence of 1992 might not have happened.

Back then, the commission warned that the 1965 “uprising” might very well be a “curtain-raiser” for violence in the future if the region’s racial dvisions and disparities weren’t dealth with.

“The consequences of inaction, indifference, and inadequacy, we can all be sure now, would be far costlier in the long run than the cost of correction,” the report cautioned.

At the heart of many political campaigns are key questions about shifting resources from police, and reimagining a carceral system long built on only punishment at the expense of rehabilitation.

“Many would not even have asked that question a few years ago,” Armour said, reflecting on the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. “To say, now here’s an opportunity to translate what we’re talking about in the streets, in these marches to ballot box results, and that’s what we saw after the 2020 marches in the streets here in L.A.”

It wasn’t long before L.A. County voters elected George Gascon, a progressive D.A. and Measure J would be approved on the same ballot.

That, of course, hasn’t come without pushback. Gascon became the focus of a recall, and critics within law enforcement decry what they say are “defund the police” policies. But the point is that 30 years later, issues are making their way to voters.

Some, however, say many law agencies are significantly different from 30 years ago and aren’t getting the credit they deserve for changes they’ve made.

“I joined the LAPD after the LA civil unrest because I wanted to take part in the reform of the department from an agency that was plagued with scandal to one that is more just, and representative of its residents. The LAPD went through a decades-long reform period, and is now a completely different department,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is also running to succeed Eric Garcetti as mayor.

“Today, the LAPD is diverse with women and people of color representing 70 percent of the department,” said Buscaino, who served 15 years with LAPD. “We have come a long way. We must learn and heal from our past, and ensure we work towards a more equitable and fair future.”

The social context

Still, underpinning much of the frustration since 1992 is that social conditions in areas much like South L.A. haven’t changed, according to many. The demographics have changed, as the Latino population continues to grow. And gentrification has taken over in pockets. But as the pandemic exposed, South L.A. still suffers from the legacy of disparities in healthcare, and lack of access to vital services, joblessness, poverty, homelessness.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, has made a “ritual” each anniversary assessing the state of South L.A.

“I visit some of the same burned-out empty lots in South L.A. I ask: ‘Why years after the riots these empty lots where thriving businesses once stood are still empty today,’” he noted in his 30th anniversary post on his website.

Observers like Hutchinson continue to see signs as a “cautionary tale” of how such disparities — layered with the specter of police shootings — can be a path to the kind of tension seen 30 years ago, when two weeks after the King beating, a Korean-American grocer shot and killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins over a mistaken orange juice theft.

Ultimately, Korean-American businesses shouldered much of the destruction, as the date known as “Sa-I-Gu” — April 29 — would lead to thousands of looted and burned businesses.

In an era of polarization, the prognosis is troubling, according to a Loyola Marymount University survey released on the eve of the anniversary.

According to the survey by LMU’s Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles, roughly 68% of respondents said they found it very or somewhat likely that riots or other disturbances like those that occurred in 1992 will occur in the next five years.

That’s the highest percentage in the history of the survey, which has been conducted regularly since 1997.

In 1997, just five years after the riots, the survey found that about 64% of residents felt more violence could erupt over racial strife in the area. That percentage steadily declined, until 2017, when the figure crept up to 58%.

Brianne Gilbert, managing director of the center and a senior lecturer in urban and environmental studies and political science, said researchers had hoped that the 2017 increase was an anomaly.

“But it wasn’t. Not even close,” Gilbert said in a statement. “Now a full 68% of residents in Los Angeles think something like what happened in 1992 could happen again.”

Nearly 39% of respondents said they believe race relations in Los Angeles have gotten worse over the past four years, while 42% said things have stayed the same and 19% said they have improved.

“After years of surveys showing positive trends, in 2022 we see a clear and dramatic drop in how race relations are perceived in Los Angeles,” Fernando Guerra, director of the LMU center and a professor of political science and Chicana/o and Latina/o studies, said in a statement. “Angelenos haven’t been this negative about racial tensions, or more likely to predict disturbances, since we began asking these questions in 1997.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley Law School, who was a professor at USC at the time, thoughts seemed to echo the community’s.

“I think the unrest following the verdict was a reflection of great anger toward how policing was done in Los Angeles. I think that events after the death of George Floyd, including in Los Angeles, shows that anger remains, especially in communities of color.

“I think the problem of police excessive force, and racist policing, remains,” said Chemerinsky. “And the anger remains, and I expect that there will be unrest in the future triggered by some event.”

Moreover, he lamented a Supreme Court that has not shown adequate awareness of police abuse. Doctrines over the last 30 years, such as the growth of qualified immunity, he added, have shielded the police from liability and made accountability difficult.

30 years later, finding a voice?

While longstanding systemic issues remain, many have found ways to bridge long-brewing tensions.

Networks of civic leaders, philanthropies and corporate stakeholders, and social justice groups have grown over 30 years — and there’s hope in the bonds formed since 1992.

Chang Y. Lee pushes back on notions that society hasn’t made any progress since the days when Rodney King himself made the plea: “Can we all get along?”

In 1992, Lee, now in his 60s, was an engineer-turned-fledgling business owner, with a gas station at San Vicente and Pico Boulevard and a mini-mall at Beverly Boulevard and Vermont, and a Subway Sandwich shop. On April 29, as he watched the burning of Korean-American businesses, he had to make a stark choice about which of his own businesses he would defend.

Photos show the destruction of Chang Y. Lee’s L.A. businesses. Lee’s Union 76 gasoline station was burned as he defended his mini-mall for days on its roof, with a handgun he barely knew how to use, TV, radio and family bringing him food. (Courtesy Chang Y. Lee)

As parts of L.A. burned, he would perch atop the minimal roof as mobs torched the area. Armed with a handgun, given to him by a tenant, that he didn’t even know how to use — to this day he still is a novice about how to use them — he listened to Radio Korea and a small TV. The next day, he watched a television report showing a gas station erupt into flames. It looked familiar. It turned out it was his own.

He’d spend four days on that roof, finally coming down to the destruction below. There was one silver lining. As angry, and as indignant as he’d become, he saw people from the neighborhood start to come out and help him clean up. In a diverse area, it was a diverse group — Black people, Latinos, White people, Asians — cleaning up. Consoling.

For Lee it was no time for Kumbaya. But the moment is etched in his mind.

“We started sweeping. They just started sweeping. The neighbors, one by one they started coming out. They started cleaning up the place with me. I said, there might be people who care. I had hope here.”

Over the next few years, he withdrew into a depression. How could a nation that promised so much for immigrants like his own family, fall into such hate and division? This was the land of the free, after all.  How could the LAPD have not adequately protected the area — a lackluster response that has long garnered criticism.

“I was devastated,” he said. “I had all these mixed feelings going through my mind. We all came here because this was the land of opportunity. It was a privilege to be able to qualify and immigrate here. Our family 17 hours and 18 hours a day and worked hard to build what we had.”

It was a “rude awakening” for Korean-Americans, he said, catalyzing a community that would find its political voice. Lee would, too.

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