The Riots & After: Unsettled Territory

Civil unrest in the new L.A.


On the first night of the Los Angeles riots, many buildings burned to the ground because firefighters had no one to protect them from mobs or snipers. An assistant fire chief later recounted how one fire crew was attacked by a gang while fighting a blaze. Rocks and bricks flew and bullets whizzed through the area, pinning the firefighters down. Then, from out of nowhere, came a couple dozen short, dark, Spanish-speaking men carrying machetes.

They formed a skirmish line between the firefighters and their attackers. Slowly and methodically, they walked toward the attackers, swinging their machetes from side to side. The rioters fled. The short, dark men stayed until the crew had put out the fire.

Across Los Angeles in late April and early May, the impulse to destroy was at war with the impulse to preserve. And on both sides of that struggle were representatives of L.A.'s burgeoning Hispanic population. Their story is testimony to the changing face of ethnic America, to the importance of community roots, and to the hazards of making generalizations about groups as diverse as Hispanics.

This year's chapter in the continuing American saga of race riots marked a turning point: These were America's first multiethnic riots. This time it was not whites against blacks, as in every American race riot before 1942, or blacks against whites as in Watts (1965), Newark (1967), and Detroit (1943 and 1968). This time it was blacks against whites; blacks against Hispanics; blacks against Asians (particularly Koreans); and Hispanics against blacks, whites, Asians, and other Hispanics. Two weeks after the riots, the official body count was 25 blacks, 19 Hispanics, and 10 Anglos.

The Los Angeles of 1992 is a very different city from the Los Angeles of 1965. So, too, were these riots different from the 1965 Watts riots, to which they are often compared. The Watts riots were almost exclusively a black phenomenon, sparked by false rumors that a pregnant black woman had been manhandled and beaten by California Highway Patrol officers and Los Angeles police. Almost all of the three dozen people killed were black.

Looting and arson were mainly contained within the nearly all-black South-Central area of Los Angeles and, specifically, within the neighborhood that gave the riots their name. In essence, black rioters destroyed their own homes and apartments, the stores where they bought their food, and the businesses and factories that provided jobs for the neighborhood. The Watts riots were an exercise in self-flagellation.

The 1992 riots, on the other hand, present a very different picture. In many of the neighborhoods struck by violence, looting, and arson, blacks are a minority or barely a majority. In South-Central L.A., for example, 45 percent of the residents are now classified as Hispanic, 55 percent as black. The breakdown in Watts is similar. In some neighborhoods, the change has been even more dramatic: Eighty-six percent of residents in the Florence area of South-Central L.A. are Hispanic; only 14 percent are black. In Koreatown, where so much destruction occurred, 5 percent of residents are black, 27 percent are Asian, and 68 percent are Hispanic.

Most of Los Angeles's Hispanic residents are of Mexican origin, and many trace their ties to the city as far back as the big wave of immigration between 1910 and 1920. But hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees have come to L.A. during the last 10 years, swelling the Spanish-speaking population. In addition, hundreds of thousands of illegal Mexican entrants have made their way north since the Immigration Control Act of 1986, which legalized almost 3 million formerly illegal aliens from Mexico. Most of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans came into the United States illegally and settled in L.A. because they could blend in with the native Mexican-American population. These immigrants gravitated toward low-rent areas, flooding previously all-black neighborhoods.

South-Central L.A. became, in less than a decade, a lively, crowded community split almost 50-50 between blacks and Hispanics (mostly immigrant and illegal). The immigrants lived from day to day, working for employers who came to street corners on Pico Boulevard to pick out men willing to work for $30 to $40 a day. Across the street would be black day laborers asking $60 to $80 a day for the same work. Undercut by the immigrants, they usually would not be hired. Resentment grew against the Spanish-speaking foreigners.

The spark that led to the explosion on April 30 was, of course, the not-guilty verdict for the white police officers charged with beating Rodney King. But among the first victims of the violence were a Hispanic family dragged from their car and beaten almost to death by a black mob. Rescued by police, they survived. And Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant returning home from work, was beaten and robbed by another group of black assailants. He was saved by Bennie Newton, a black minister, who threw himself between Lopez and the mob and stood over the victim, Bible in hand, until they retreated.

On a videotape shot at the riot's epicenter, the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, someone can be heard shouting, "Leave the Mexicans alone." The rioters apparently obeyed this instruction and turned their attention to Korean-owned stores. Many such stores were torched in the South-Central area before anyone thought of going to the heavily Hispanic Koreatown to loot and burn.

During the early hours of the riots, about 6 p.m. until midnight on April 30, the L.A. police did little. Although some officers disobeyed orders from superiors and confronted rioters, few arrests were made. This fact is critical in understanding the ethnic conflagration that had not yet started. By midnight, the violence against people had died down as the mob turned most of its attention to looting and burning. It was at this point that some Hispanics, mostly illegal immigrants, joined the theft and destruction.

These rioters had been frustrated by decades of death and destruction in El Salvador and Guatemala, by a lifetime of economic and political degradation at the hands of Mexico's oligarchs. Their anger had been compounded by disappointment when they discovered that getting by in the United States was a struggle, contrary to the tales of instant affluence they had heard. They joined disaffected blacks in burning stores and apartments owned by outsiders—wealthy Anglos, long-gone black landlords, and established Mexican-Americans.

Rioters burned and looted as many as 1,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in South-Central and other areas, such as the heavily Central American Pico-Union neighborhood. They did so even when the businesses were painted with the words "Latin Owned" or guarded by Hispanic owners. The mob swept their own businesspeople aside to grab and steal what they could. Later their friends and apologists in myriad refugee centers would blame it all on poverty.

The numbers, however, tell a different story. In Los Angeles, 1.3 million people are classified as poor. But 1.3 million people didn't riot, loot, and burn. Of the 3.3 million Hispanics in Los Angeles County, only 2,764 managed to get themselves arrested for riot-related crimes. Of these, 1,500 were suspected of being in the country illegally. Two weeks after the riots, 700 of these illegals had been deported.

Although the riots were more widespread in 1992 than in 1965, nothing much happened in East L.A., in the San Fernando Valley, or in the San Gabriel Valley. These areas contain the bulk of L.A.'s Hispanic population, and they were quiet. This does not mean that the residents of these neighborhoods have no serious problems: In East L. A., good jobs are in short supply, the poverty rate hovers around 25 percent, high-school dropouts are common, and kids get involved with drugs and gangs.

But the Hispanics in these areas have a strong attachment to Los Angeles. Many blacks and whites who live in L.A. look to cities elsewhere in the country, in the South and East, for their roots. Mexican-Americans are less ambivalent about calling L.A. their home. They have no memories of civil war and government/rebel massacres in faraway countries, but they recognize that many of the world's people are far poorer than they are. And they see no sense in destroying their own home and their own people.

Only one incident of looting occurred in East L.A., at a Sears department store. Shortly after it was looted the culprits returned the stolen merchandise. They did not act out of shame. East L.A. Mexican gangs, which have stronger roots in their community than the Crips or the Bloods have in South-Central L.A., had passed the word: "Not in our neighborhood."

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a syndicated columnist living in San Diego.