How the L.A. Riots Changed Nothing

Celebrating 20 years of "doing it to the people"

On the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, there are several pieces of good news. 

First up: Jessica Evers, who while still in the womb was hit by a bullet that penetrated her seven-months-pregnant mother’s belly in 1992, is now a healthy and apparently happy young woman, coming up on her twentieth birthday as the celebrated "youngest victim" of the mayhem that followed the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King. 

Better yet, the conditions that contributed to the riots have in large part disappeared from South L.A. (which at the time was referred to as "South Central L.A." but was actually renamed in 2003 by a City Council that is never too busy to do the people’s work). There is less time separating us from 1992 than there was separating 1992 from the Watts Riots, yet the change in the area is dramatic. While a large part of this change is demographic (the area is more Latin and less black than it was in 1992), there has been an actual improvement in civil harmony. Crime rates are down to mid-1960s levels; gang activity is declining; relations between local residents and the Los Angeles Police Department are noticeably better. 

Best of all, the efforts of South L.A.’s vast network of buttinskis have almost all failed. Few regions in California, possibly few regions in the whole country, have received more "help" from apparatchiks, community organizers, holy rollers, union goons, neighborhood activists, public-trough developers, political appointees, and city planners than has South L.A. Virtually none of this attention has done the area any good, because the tensions of 1992 were never about economics. They were about crime and police behavior, two areas in which the City of Angels really has gotten better. 

It’s worth remembering how universal was the belief that the root cause of the 1992 riots was economic, and that central planning would elevate the area by zoning out gun shops, convenience stores, fast food franchises, and "food deserts." A slew of new or recently formed activist groups with names like "Community Coalition" and "Concerned Citizens of South Central L.A." and "Ward Economic Development Corporation" made hay while the cinders were still hot. Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley and Republican Governor Pete Wilson joined in trying to uplift the area through the "Rebuild LA" project. Not to be outdone, the state legislature issued a lengthy report entitled "To Rebuild is Not Enough: Final Report and Recommendations of the Assembly Special Committee on the Los Angeles Crisis."

Even President George H.W. Bush, intuiting that the apocalyptic vision of America’s second largest city in flames would help doom his presidency, got into the act. Bush’s "Weed and Seed" initiative was aimed at revitalizing the nation’s blighted urban centers, and it was wrong in at least three ways: It failed to save the cities or his presidency; it was a response to baseless fears of civilizational decline (the boom that took hold through the rest of the 1990s lifted nearly all boats); and it turned out that America’s cities didn’t need rescuing. They just needed mayors who were not actively making things worse. 

That all these groups failed in their immediate goal of raising the economic standard of the area is evident in the rush of recent stories showing that while crime is down, the economic condition of South L.A. remains pretty dire. "Afterall, " Community Coalition President and CEO Marqueece Harris-Dawson wrote last week, "it is difficult to see how anything ever really changes when the median household income for Blacks and Latinos in South L.A. from 1990 to 2009 has DECREASED; when the unemployment rate for Blacks in the same period is mostly unchanged; and when more than half of our kids still do not graduate from high school... To the unfamiliar eye, our community may not look that physically different either. Community Coalition, which opened its doors in 1990 near the epicenter of the riots, is still fighting the overconcentration of liquor stores in our neighborhoods—work we started more than two decades ago."

Maybe the next two decades will be the charm, but I’m fairly certain the economic justice fallacy, like the poor, we will have with us always. Ward Economic Development Corp. president Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker has long held a certain fascination for me for coining the phrase "economic referendum" to describe the 1992 events. (Apparently "civil unrest" isn’t politically correct enough for everybody.) The first time I heard her use this phrase, I figured Dupont-Walker (who over three decades has helped put up low-income housing for seniors) was at least partly jesting. Apparently not. This description of her comments at a 2007 event marking the riots’ 15th anniversary paints a striking picture of a community busybody unwilling to assess whether her efforts are effective for or even wanted by the people she thinks she’s helping:

Jackie DuPont of Ward Economic Development Corp. talked about the disconnect that can occur between community and community leaders: "Sometimes you can do so much so long for the people that they think you are doing it to the people." The community, she said, must be part of the process… The riots were referred to as an economic referendum. To solve some of the issues, DuPont suggested going toward power, and power lies with corporate America—not government.

I can’t say this kind of blight-hustling mentality is on the wane, but there are reasons to believe it has seen its prime. The failure of community activism is on vivid display throughout South L.A., where neighborhoods thrive in almost exactly inverse proportion to the attention they get from activists. Thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown’s wise decision to abolish California’s redevelopment agencies, South L.A. has lost what was probably its biggest destroyer of value: the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles, whose history of crushing productive businesses, creating urban prairie, and dragging out decades-long development processes only to have them end in failure I have been documenting for many years. When the CRA/LA went down, its death was cheered by locals. Even the unimpressive Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declined to rescue the corrupt agency

Villaraigosa showed up last week at a 20th anniversary commemoration and South L.A. tour organized by Operation HOPE, the $12 million economic education and financial non-profit run by John Hope Bryant. The event included plenty of genuinely accomplished figures: former UN Ambassador Andrew Young; 1984 Olympics organizer Peter Ueberroth; legendary music producer Quincy Jones; several mayoral hopefuls; actor/singer/all-purpose handsome devil Tyrese Gibson, and others. Bryant, a successful real estate lender who founded his nonprofit days after the riots, eschews L.A.’s standard anti-capitalist and grievance politics. Operation HOPE by its own description "does not promote either a ‘Great Society’ or conservative bootstrap approach." Listening to all the talk about seeking private sector solutions and avoiding public bailouts, you might have thought Bill Clinton and the New Democrats were back in charge. 

But even here there was no escape from the belief that the mobs of 1992 were really exercised about the lack of brand-name retail stores or sit-down restaurants in the area:

City councilman and mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti warned that South L.A.’s struggle was "no longer a raging fire but a slow burn" caused by the slow pace of new job creation. 

Amid much talk of how the various "communities" in the region deal with each other, Korean Churches for Community Development president Hyepin Im lamented that "Koreans have the second-highest language barrier of all immigrant groups" and "Korean Americans are one of four communities whose income is below the national average." 

Forescee Hogan-Rowles, CEO of the Community Financial Resource Center, gave some truly harrowing personal anecdotes from the riots, then went on to decry the area’s "food desert" and "business desert"—both of which she blamed on assorted businesses who failed to "stay the course." One of the businesses Hogan-Rowles named was the Ralph’s supermarket chain, though on the subsequent bus tour of various 1992 "flash points," we passed at least two fully-loaded Ralph’s stores. 

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  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Better yet, the conditions that contributed to the riots have in large part disappeared from South L.A.

    So, Today Was a Good Day?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    If the riots have a lesson, it's that people respond poorly to civil disorder and well to the rule of law.

    I think you have that the wrong way. The "rule of law" as administered by an arbitrary and prejudiced LAPD is what people responded poorly too. During "civil disorder" people tend to cooperate until someone, predictably, uses "force" to establish order or allocate resources.

  • Brutus||

    I think it's the "arbitrary and prejudiced" part that is at odds with the Rule of Law.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    So civilian crime is down and po-po crime is down? I wonder if L.A. criminal stats were ever accurately reported.

  • ||

    In a nutshell, when you have a rampant crime problem, it is because you have a police problem.

  • sloopyinca||

    Perhaps. I would say when you have a rampant crime problem, it is because you have a bad criminalization problem. Or: when you criminalize everyday behavior or lifestyle choices that have no direct effect on another's rights, you will always, always, have a rampant crime problem.

    And I think this is by design.

  • ||

    I should have defined what I meant by 'crime'.
    I mean specifically theft, property destruction, and violence.

    Your assertions are correct.

  • Stephdumas||

    Interesting article, in addition, I saw 2 articles on City-Journal about the LA Riots about what we should have learned and what hasn't changed.

  • Registration At Last!||

    Heheh. There are still people laboring under the delusion that the police are actually in the business of confronting serious and credible threats of violence.

  • A Serious Man||

    I am already predicting that if George Zimmerman gets acquitted and blacks don't riot, the mainstream media will trumpet it as a sign of growth, change, and harmony like it's some kind of miracle.

  • sloopyinca||

    the mainstream media will trumpet it as a sign of growth, change, and harmony like it's some kind of miracle.

    And they'll be right.*

    *And that's not a knock on the blacks, but rather an observation based on years of witnessing black leaders foment racial discord and lead people to riot based on perceived racial injustice.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Hey, don't knock it.

    With out the large scale riots that happened after the police brutality that led to the death of Crispus Attucks, there would be no U.S.A.

  • sloopyinca||

    White on Mestizo crime. A statistic that is largely forgotten.

  • A Serious Man||

    Well as Ken said below there were two types of rioters: the people that are geuninely angry at a real injustice, and the majority who want free shit.

  • sloopyinca||

    Yeah, but both groups are a bunch of cunts that use violence against others, usually the innocent, as a response to injustices.

  • Ken Shultz||

    It would be more accurate to say the trouble of 1992 came from a mixture of extremely volatile identity politics and a police force more focused on terrorizing the citizens than on solving crimes.


    I was working in South Central at the time.

    I worked on the edge of Inglewood. I lived a few miles down the street on Normandie.

    The police were overwhelmingly white, and they were predatory.

    Getting rid of Gates and changing the police department helped things along enormously.

    This is not to claim that the orgy of looting, arson, and murder 20 years ago contained anything that could be called a rational critique. There has always been something insulting about trying to find justifiable motives in a violent mob.

    There were two riots.

    The first one happened in reaction to the Rodney King verdict. That reaction should be judged separately from the second riot that happened after Darryl Gates and the LAPD made it clear that they weren't about to try to do anything to stop the riot.

    That's when all the opportunists came out. The second opportunist riot was about helping yourself to free stuff--and the participants were disproportionately NOT black.

    No good reason to conflate the two riots.

  • ||

    The weirdest thing about Gates is that in person he was a really likable guy.

  • sloopyinca||

    You know who else was supposedly a "likable guy" in person?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Idi Amin?

  • Anacreon||

    Dwight Eisenhower?

  • R C Dean||


  • Arf?||

    John Belushi?

  • Ken Shultz||

    The weirdest thing about Gates is that in person he was a really likable guy.

    It might be a Stanford Prison Experiment kind of thing, where you don't have to direct your police on the street to be violent and racist and predatory...

    All you have to do is fail to actively seek to prevent that sort of behavior.

    I saw stuff happen every week...

  • Ken Shultz||

    That's what I don't think a lot of people realize about the OJ verdict, too. If you listened to Mark Fuhrman brag about how brutal the police department was; how Torrance was the only middle-class, white neighborhood left in the area; if you watched him take the 5th rather than say he'd never faked a police report; and you were a black person from South Central on that jury?

    You wouldn't believe a damn thing in that police report either--and for damn good reason.

    I maintain that the OJ Simpson trial was an excellent example of jury nullification, even if the jurors had never heard of the word.

    People saw thousands of white and Latin people on TV during the second riot looting malls, etc., and that's what they remember about the riots.

    The black riots against Korean store owners was real.

    This is, by the way, why the reaction to the Zimmerman trial--no matter the verdict--will be nothing like the reaction to the Rodney King Trial. The Rodney King riots weren't a reaction to what had happened to Rodney King--they were a reaction to systematic abuse by the police that everyone in those neighborhoods had been subjected to for years.

  • Harvard||

    The best reaction to systematic abuse was the Korean shop keeper emptying two .45 ACP clips into the street, effectively ending the "riot" in his neighborhood.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The way those business owners in Koreatown banded together to defend themselves, when the LAPD essentially refused to, was one of the best libertarian arguments against gun control I've ever seen.

    Even in a supposedly civil society like ours, law and order does break down sometimes. We saw it happen in the wake of Katrina; I saw it happen on the streets of Los Angeles. And when the cops can't or refuse to protect you, you better have the means to protect yourself.

    At least everyone should have the option.

    From that Wikipedia link:

    "Approximately 3,600 fires were set, destroying 1,100 buildings, with fire calls coming once every minute at some points."

    So what are you supposed to do for protection in that situation?

    Call the police?!

  • Drake||

    I credit Tom Bradley for both riots. His failures as mayor set it all up. He had been Mayor since 1973 - it was his LAPD and his policies alone that made the city a mess.

    His idiotic angry comments after the verdict encouraged the first wave of rioters. He may have been angry, but that is no excuse for a mayor to spark a riot in his own city.

    His orders to Gates after the riots started turned the anger into an orgy of pillage.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The problem with blaming Tom Bradley for the riots is that Gates, as far I could tell, was in no way responsible to Tom Bradley.

    That was part of the frustration was that there was no way to remove Daryl Gates. When Tom Bradly asked Daryl Gates to resign, Daryl gates simply said no.

    The city council couldn't remove him from office either. Far be it from me to stand up for Tom Bradly or the LA City Council, but Daryl Gates wasn't required to answer to any of them!

    When a report came out showing that a disproportionate number of black people fared poorly under LAPD choke holds, Daryl Gates famously remarked that it was because black people's physiology was different.

    The day he left, things started getting better. Thank God there's a limit to what people in this country will take--can you imagine if there weren't?

    If no matter how much crap some well-intentioned cop heaped upon us, no matter how badly we were treated, no one ever stood up for themselves and said, "That's enough!".

    If it hadn't been for the riot, the people of South Central Los Angeles wouldn't have gotten rid of Daryl Gates--there's definitely something to that argument.

  • Drake||

    The day Reardon replaced Bradley, things got better too.

    I just went and read Gates' biography on Wikipedia. Pretty distasteful stuff, some of it done at Bradley's orders (like Operation Hammer). He was obviously Bradley's guy to some extent until the riots had everyone looking for political scapegoats.

    They both come across as political hacks right out of "the Wire".

  • TheZeitgeist||

    I don't know how big of a difference there is between now and then - other than black neighborhoods being more marginalized.

    In past twenty years Mexicans have taken over organized crime. You don't hear about black gangs and the like in L.A. anymore because the Mexicans took the operation over. If you want to hear edgy street-songs about slapping bitches and slinging dope and gunning down snitches you need to tune in a Spanish station anymore.

    Mexicans are now folks in the gas station, at Taco Bell, mowing the lawn, fixing rich white girl's BMW, etc. Only occupation I see black folk really well-represented in around here is government jobs. Not cops or firefighters or CalTrans or stuff like that. I'm talking the clerk at the DMV. Crosswalk guard at a lighted intersection(?). Shit like that.

    And Mexicans and black folks do not get along. In east L.A. where black neighborhood starts and Mexican one ends is literally crossing a street so self-segregated those groups are.

    You just need the appropriate match to the kindling to get another riot going again. Look at the Trayvon Martin case. If that happened in L.A. - Mexican dude killing a black dude - the verdict in the trial 'better be' guilty or Maxine Waters's district will burn itself down again I'm sure.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    But...but Chicanos and Blacks cooperated during the Zoot Suit Riots.

    Keep hope alive!

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Look at the Trayvon Martin case. If that happened in L.A. - Mexican dude killing a black dude - the verdict in the trial 'better be' guilty or Maxine Waters's district will burn itself down again I'm sure.

    Maybe in some alternative universe.

  • Alice Bowie||

    Can't we all Just get a BONG ?

  • commentard||

    I lived up in LA from 2004-2008, and I never once heard a single person refer to South Central as "South LA". Not once.

  • XM||

    If Rodney King was white, then there would have been no riot. None.

    To me, the riots were was almost ALL about identity politics. Simmering feud between blacks and the immigrants predated the Rodney King beating. Blacks complained that Korean store owners were standoffish to them, ignored them, or refused to take back merchandise. Then the Latasha Harlins incident happened not long after the King beating.

    The LA riots were a RACE RIOT. It wasn't a violent uprising over a specific incident of police brutality. Many of the victims were immigrants who came from racially monolithic nation that tend to distrust foreigners. They were likely to stick within their Korean community and not conform to America's regimented sense of "diversity".

    I look at the riots with contempt, not some sense of quiet introspection. It was one of the few days where I felt I could theoretically DIE because I wasn't a member of another group. Some Korean store owners hung "black owned" signs and armed their saves in fear of their lives. EPIC FAIL.

  • XM||

    "armed themselves"

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Tim, don't forget the despicable actions in the days and hours leading up to the jury verdict of Mark Ridley Thomas, who is still a disruptive force within the community.

  • joy||

    They were about crime and police behavior, two areas in which the City of Angels really has gotten better.

  • DanaLynn||

    Unfortunately, the black race loves opportunities like the King tragedy and the Martin incident. It gives them an excuse to continue to shrug off any responsibility for their own status in this country. The last thing they seem to want is to be held accountable. They are a massive liability to this country and I am sincerely sick to death of them.


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