On April 29, 1992, and for four days after, angry chants of “No justice, no peace” echoed across Los Angeles as the acquittal of four LAPD officers, tried for the beating of Rodney King, ignited a fire of rage and resentment that had been smoldering unnoticed for decades.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots, UCLA faculty, artists, authors and community leaders from across Los Angeles will reflect on this flash point and the aftermath of what has come to be known as the L.A. uprising in a series of talks and programs Friday, April 28, through Thursday, May 4.
After five days the smoke dissipated and the city learned of the horrific toll of this episode of violence: 54 deaths, more than 2,000 injured, 3,600 fires, 1,100 buildings destroyed, 4,500 businesses looted, more than 12,000 arrests and around $1 billion in total damage to the city.
“For the first time, there was visual evidence of all the things people in African-American communities were saying that no one believed,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a Los Angeles city councilmember at the time. He is now director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and the UCLA history department.
“No one had their finger on the pulse of the community in a way that would have predicted or prepared for what happened,” he recalled. “The preparation was minimal, if not dismal in terms of engaging the community leading up to the verdict, which no one believed would be acquittal for all four officers.”
To put what happened in perspective, the Luskin school is hosting a series of events April 28-30 titled “Flash Point 2017: Twenty-Five Years After the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising.” In addition to panel discussions and speakers, an art installation with film screenings will be held at Little Tokyo Community Place. At UCLA’s Hammer Museum May 2–4, “The L.A. Uprising: 25 Years Later” will include a screening of Spike Lee’s film “Rodney King.” Bessie Award-winning performer Roger Guenveur Smith, who collaborated on the film, will appear with UC Santa Barbara Professor Stephanie BatisteLee for a Q&A.
The roots of the riots
Troubling signs of discontent actually began surfacing a year earlier, UCLA history professor Brenda Stevenson noted in her book “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots.” In March 1991, Soon Ja Du, a Korean woman and convenience store clerk convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, received what many felt was an extremely light sentence, and anger in the African-American community surged.
Stevenson’s acclaimed book, which tells the story of Du, Harlins and the female judge whose decisions enraged a community, evolved out of the historian’s desire to raise awareness of women’s roles in the 1992 uprising. In fact, the riots inspired a new scholarly track for Stevenson, whose academic focus is predominantly slavery and the American colonial and antebellum eras.
“Once I started paying attention to the ways in which females had a significant role in the uprising of 1992, I had to write that story so that I, and others, could understand the place of gender in these events and in contemporary urban America,” she said. “I often talk about the riots with my students because unrest continues to occur across our country for the same reasons it occurred then — structural inequities and a very flawed criminal justice system that both define the racial hierarchy in our nation.”
Having never lived in a large city or in the West before, Stevenson had only recently moved to Los Angeles to teach at UCLA before she found herself witnessing history in action.
“It seemed both frightening and exhilarating to me as a young black woman and scholar of race,” she said. “I understood what was occurring and why, but the destruction and loss of life were horrifying consequences that I saw up close.”
Impact and progress since 1992
The days of rioting left their mark on a large swath of Los Angeles, but especially on minority communities. More than 2,300 Korean-owned shops were looted or destroyed. Korean-Americans came to refer to the devastating events simply as Sai-I-Gu — April 29 in Korean.
The impact of the riots will be one of the topics discussed at “Sa-I-Gu: The Los Angeles Uprisings 25 Years Later – Witnessing the Past, Envisioning our Future,” hosted by UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in partnership with several campus and community groups on April 28 at the Renee and Meyer Luskin Conference Center. It will be the first Cross Check Live event to include the Council of Korean Americans and the Anti-Defamation League, among other community partners.
“We wanted to bring people together from multiple communities and perspectives — including scholars, students, activists, artists and elected officials — to critically examine what happened then and what, if anything, has changed now,” said Jerry Kang, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA. “Engaging this tragedy, now a quarter-century old, advances UCLA’s core mission to catalyze robust exchanges of ideas; promote equity, diversity, and inclusion; and engage communities outside of the university with relevant knowledge. I’m gratified to see the extraordinary campuswide interest because this conference embodies my office's commitment to grapple honestly with all that divides us in order to help build equity for all.”
There have been some positive changes since the rights, Yaroslavsky said. Subsequent reforms in the police department — specifically L.A. Police Chief Bill Bratton’s efforts to personally engage with communities in South Los Angeles — had a positive impact.
“People in the most affected areas would say there isn’t enough progress, and they are right,” he said. “But we have seen more improvements made between 1992 and now than we ever did between 1965 and 1992.”
Yaroslavsky recently conducted his second annual Quality of Life Index, which surveyed 1,600 L.A. residents on a broad range of topics, including cost of living, heath care, housing and race relations. Most encouraging to him was that overall satisfaction with race relations among different ethnic and racial groups rose from 76 percent last year to 79 percent.
But some conditions that fanned the riots of 1992 have worsened, he pointed out. The widening income gap, lack of access to affordable housing and little improvement in the dropout rate in K-12 education — all of these things breed frustration in lower-income communities where they feel the deck is stacked against them, Yaroslavsky said.
An instructive, historical moment
Gay Theresa Johnson, UCLA professor of Chicana and Chicano studies and African-American studies, vividly remembers the events of April 1992. She will participate in a panel discussion on media and social change on Saturday, April 29, at the Japanese American National Museum’s National Center for the Preservation of Democracy.
“It was for many a personally politicizing moment in which intersections between race, class and space took on new meaning and urgency,” said Johnson, who, as a UC San Diego student, participated in protests there. “As black and brown students, we connected the conditions of police brutality, housing discrimination and poverty in South L.A. to the institutional racism that many of us witnessed and experienced firsthand.”
She regularly references the uprisings in her classes as an instructive historical moment and example of racial tension, but also for another reason. “The L.A. uprising is not merely a reflection of people’s anger; it's a revelation of the freedom-seeking strategies of poor people and people of color,” Johnson said. “That’s not the story that is regularly told, but it should be.”
Abel Valenzuela, UCLA professor in the department of Chicano/a studies and director of UCLA’s Institute for Labor and Employment, recalls flying home from New York the day after rioting began and seeing smoke and fire from the air. He will host a panel discussion on April 29 at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, following a screening of “Wet Sands: Voices from L.A.” by filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. The film explores the aftermath of the uprising from a Korean-American perspective.
“I was very saddened and upset that the city of my birth was in turmoil, was aflame, and that many, including those in the media, had an inaccurate and very thoughtless interpretation of what was going on in L.A., and the many structural barriers that exacerbated inequality in housing, employment, poverty, city services and other matters that led to a huge gulf and was the subtext of why the uprising occurred,” he said.
It is the job of social scientists to continue to look back and push forward to promulgate policies and laws that will decrease inequality, he said.
“We need to revisit this issue because many people were affected through loss of life, loss of goods/property and other scars,” he said. “This was much more than a learning episode, but an event that emerged from differences that still exist and, in some instances, have grown.”