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10 Questions: Darnell Hunt on L.A’s 1992 civil uprisings

Professor of Sociology Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, was a UCLA graduate student 20 years ago when the verdicts that exonerated four Los Angeles police officers in the Rodney King beating case sparked outrage, fires and mayhem in Los Angeles. Having just begun his dissertation research on race and media, Hunt turned his focus on the uprisings and explored such questions as who was involved and how did the news media portray the beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny and Korean merchants arming themselves against looters, among other moments captured by media. Hunt’s research became the basis for his 1996 book, “Screening the Los Angeles 'Riots': Race, Seeing, and Resistance (Cambridge Cultural Social Studies). He has since become a sought-after analyst on race, media and the L.A. uprisings. Hunt, together with David Yoo, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, recently co-edited a special issue of the Amerasia Journal on the 20th anniversary of these events. This Thursday, April 26, Hunt will join Jordan Camp, a lecturer in Afro-American studies, in a public discussion of media coverage of the uprisings in “1992 Los Angeles ‘Riots’ — Making Sense of the Fires” at 6 p.m. at Haines Hall 135.
For another retrospective, see this video by UCLA Design | Media Arts graduate student David Leonard, along with fellow student Gabriel Noguez. Leonard, who was 14 at the time of the riots, drove around the city with his photographer father, Gary Leonard, to capture these scenes. The Leonards' photographs and documentory short will be on view Sunday at the Take My Picture gallery in downtown L.A.

The interview below was edited from a videotaped conversation between Hunt and Matt Boatright-Simon, director of UCLA’s Broadcast Studio, in collaboration with UCLA Today’s Judy Lin.

We’re coming up on 20th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings. What’s your take on why these events occurred?

There’s a pretty large collection of sociological literature on civil unrest that attempts to explain events like these. The theories that I find most persuasive try to get at multiple factors — structural strains like poverty, unemployment and educational inequality that place a particular burden on certain groups, making them feel like they’re not a part of the American contract, that the system itself is no longer legitimate or deserving of their respect. In L.A. in 1992, all of these things were there in the background simmering, like embers that only needed to be stoked for the fire to flame.

People had been complaining about police brutality and the role of the LAPD in minority communities for generations. The straw that broke the camel’s back was that we suddenly had a videotape of Rodney King being beaten — 48 baton blows, the officers evidently issuing racial slurs in the midst of the beating. The videotape gets sent to KTLA and is broadcast around the globe. Now everyone sees what black people have been complaining about, and finally we’re going to get some justice. But guess what? It doesn’t happen that way. The jury finds the LAPD officers essentially not guilty of most of the charges, which serves to confirm for many that the criminal justice system really is stacked against minorities and doesn’t value a black life the same way that it values a white life.
Your research on the media concluded that their coverage fueled the fires. What were your main criticisms?

They focused on what I consider to be the symptoms as opposed to the underlying causes. In the breaking-news format — reacting to things as they unfold — there’s a tendency to follow the action, which, in this case, was the looting, the fires and everything else that’s associated with urban uprisings. This “crime frame” focuses on symptoms as opposed to the causes of urban unrest, which are quite complex.

The media also portrayed the 1992 uprisings as a “black thing,” returning again and again to that iconic image of Reginald Denny being dragged out of his truck and beaten at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. The uprisings were not a black thing but were multicultural and multiracial. Participants included everyone from longstanding activists who saw this as a political rebellion to recent Latino immigrants who were barely subsisting and saw the breakdown as an opportunity to get a fair share in an unfair system.

In retrospect, how should the media have portrayed these events?

Ideally, I would want the media to be able to get beyond the crime frame, the tally of bodies and fires, and the so-called criminal behavior and ask why it happened. What was happening in society that would motivate otherwise law-abiding citizens to go into the streets and publicly disobey and destroy property? The media tend to portray this as a character flaw in the participants rather than a flaw in our society.

But it’s a challenge to present this with the 30-second sound bytes mainstream media work with. You need much more time to step back and reflect to connect the dots. One can hope that, with the proliferation of cable channels and websites and other news forums, there can be more responsible coverage. We would be much more understanding of where we are right now and possibly develop the will to do something about it.

Has L.A. progressed since 1992? How far have we come in the last 20 years?

Clearly, a lot has changed over the years. Politically, a lot has happened. In 1992, President [George H.W.] Bush came to L.A. to survey the damage and was famously quoted as viewing the events as “the brutality of the mob, pure and simple.” He saw it as moral degradation, as people being involved in criminal, illicit activity. Alternatively, Bill Clinton, his Democratic challenger, saw it more as an indictment of America’s negligence towards inner-city communities and minority groups. That Clinton won the election, some political scientists and others have argued, was in part because his view was much more in sync with the American public as to what was needed, particularly after a decade and a half of Reagan/Bush influence on inner-city policy — a decline in funding for things like inner-city education and after-school programs. Of course, then we had another Bush in the White House who instituted very similar policies in the inner city. And now we have an African American president. So it’s gone back and forth. Progress has been incremental.

Have racial relations improved since 1992?

My sense is that we learned a lot from 1992, that progress has been made. There have been lots of efforts among minority groups to figure out what led to the types of interactions you saw in 1992, particularly the black-Korean conflict — at least, how it was portrayed in the media. And there’s an ongoing discussion of “black-brown” tensions in L.A. due to huge demographic changes; several areas that were associated with African Americans in 1992 are now dominated by Latinos. Many have tried to figure out what we have in common. I think if you ask the average person living in some of those areas, you’ll see a lot more community than conflict.

L.A. has been a national bellwether concerning many of these issues because of our amazing diversity. I think that the country is still somewhat in denial about the continuing significance of racial inequality, particularly among those who want to talk about a “post-racial America.” Minority groups collectively are ahead of the curve in the sense that we are having important dialogues across racial and ethnic lines.

From the cover of the Amerasia Journal.
The Amerasia Journal’s special issue approaches 1992 largely from the perspective of Koreans and other Asian groups. Is this an important perspective to acknowledge?  

For Korean-Americans, the uprisings were a very traumatic event — 1992 will always mark their role here in America. Many didn’t anticipate what would happen and didn’t really know at the time what to make of, so it stands to reason that the Asian American Studies Center would put together a volume that focuses on their experiences. I commend the journal for bringing in other perspectives as well. I was invited to write the introduction, and other scholars and commentators from the African American and Latino communities have contributed to the issue. This is another example of the increasing dialogue across racial and ethnic lines we’ve had in L.A. because of 1992, and I think we’re better off for it.

The structural strains that you describe as the undergirding of the 1992 events — have they changed?

Overall, I think in terms of the structural variables, we’re in a very similar location to where we were in ’92. While there was a lot of optimism [immediately after the uprising] about Rebuild Los Angeles’ plans to rehabilitate opportunity in inner-city communities, not a lot of concrete change came out of that. Certainly the economy’s not better — it’s worse in many respects than it was in 1992 — and unemployment figures are, I believe, a little bit higher today than they were in ’92.

The structural strains are still there, but today there are major differences in these communities in perceptions about fairness in the criminal justice system. President Obama [is a representation of this]. Despite the problems that the country is facing and the criticism he’s gotten for not living up to his promises to deal with some of those problems, at least he is perceived as someone who “gets it” as it relates to the criminal justice question.

Has the LAPD made any progress? Is there a feeling in African-American and Latino communities that the culture of the LAPD has improved?
The legacy of the LAPD relative to communities of color in L.A is just abysmal. There has been progress, however small and incremental. We’ve gone through a number of police chiefs since then, from Darryl Gates — who was pretty infamous for his comments about minorities [Gates said: "Blacks might be more likely to die from (police) chokeholds because their arteries do not open as fast as they do on normal people.”] — to Charlie Beck, who is a little bit better.

The Police Commission has incorporated individuals who are quite outspoken about the need to reform policing in L.A., and they have had an impact. And there have been efforts to increase community policing to create a pact between police officers and the community so that communities don’t feel like they are being occupied by an invading force. A lot of minority communities had that feeling during 1992, as they did in 1965 with Watts [civil disturbances]. On those fronts, we’ve moved ahead a little bit.

A poll by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University found that people have a greater sense of safety now than they did in 1992. Do you think that’s true for the communities that were hit hardest by the unrest?

I don’t want to speak for individuals in the community, because they obviously live it day in and day out. South Central still experiences violent crime at twice the rate that the county as a whole does, but the numbers are better in terms of both violent crime and property crime. A lot of it has to do with a decline in gang warfare. We were at the peak of gang activity and drugs leading up to ’92. Immediately after, gangs called a truce to unite, particularly as they saw the LAPD as the instigator of the uprisings.

The Trayvon Martin situation in Florida has triggered demonstrations nationwide. Does this resonate with what happened in 1992? Could it happen again?

We’re at a very pivotal point in American history. Along with Trayvon Martin, we have a presidential election coming up in November. We have the continuing stress of the recession, with most Americans feeling unfairly treated as they consider the so-called 1 percent who have managed to prosper while others are losing their homes. No one would want to predict that something as destructive and unfortunate as what happened in 1992 would happen again, but it’s always possible. To assume that it can’t happen again is to bury your head in the sand.

I think the Trayvon Martin case is potentially explosive. With the trial coming up, it remains to be seen whether or not the verdict exonerates Zimmerman and whether or not that will create the same type of shock and outrage that the verdict did in 1992. It will all depend on how it’s handled and the perceptions that are created because of how it’s handled. If people feel that justice was served, then they are obviously much less likely to become enraged and participate in the type of activity that we associate with civil unrest. I think it’s a stay-tuned issue.

Find information about Hunt’s April 26 presentation at the Bunche Center website. Visit the Amerasia Journal’s website for details on its special issue.
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