How the L.A. Riots Changed Nothing

Celebrating 20 years of "doing it to the people"


Vermont Ave. and Manchester Blvd. burning in 1992.

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

No country for old men? Tyrese, Peter Ueberroth, Quincy Jones, Antonio Villaraigosa and Andrew Young listen to a school principal.

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. 

Only Villaraigosa made reference to the proximate cause of the riots, taking credit for the "changed structure of the LAPD." Characteristically, he chalked this up to racial bean-counting, referencing the smaller percentage of officers who "trace their roots to Europe."

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. The former problem has mellowed somewhat and the latter has been largely solved, thanks in large measure to William Bratton's work as chief of police. (I suspect that when historians write up the urban renaissance of the last decades, Bratton will loom larger than Rudy Giuliani, Richard Riordan, Willy Brown, and the many other big-city mayors who got so much attention at the time.) 

Bratton's predecessor Bernard Parks, whose tenure as chief was destroyed by the Rampart scandal, makes his own case for having been the LAPD's crucial disciplinarian. It's possible that Parks didn't get the credit he deserved—though he was named one of People's 50 Most Beautiful People of 1998. In any event, the reform of the police department is the variable that, more than any other factor, separates 2012 from 1992. 

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. If the riots have a lesson, it's that people respond poorly to civil disorder and well to the rule of law. This is a simple lesson that got buried under 20 years of socialist hoodoo and activist baloney. But it's never too late for a fresh start. 

Tim Cavanaugh is managing editor of Reason.com.