Now that the dust has settled in the wake of numerous documentaries, television news specials, formal studies by educational centers, think tanks and other entities in this, the 25th anniversary of the 1992 revolt/riot/uprising of Los Angeles, we may ask the burning questions: What did it mean, and where do we go from here? In light of the billions of dollars spent in well-publicized efforts to rebuild and/or revitalize the city, a few well-placed voices from differing vantage points consented to give their “take” on the passage of time, and the changes that have or have not taken place.
How we got here
The history of race in Los Angeles is by turn, both similar and different from other cities across the United States. Originally coined to describe the enclaves Jewish people were relegated to in 14th century Venice, Italy, the term “ghetto” arrived at its current definition in post World War II America. The economic boom of this period (spawned by defense contracts, which in turn were instigated by the Cold War and the fear of nuclear annihilation) spurred the exodus of Whites from he central metropolitan areas to the suburbs.
Well before this, Blacks were motivated to move to Los Angeles in the years leading up to the Depression by the collapse of agriculture in the South, along with farm mechanization brought on by the New Deal (which further decreased the employment pool). Among them was the family of Lee and Crenner Bradley of central Texas, along with their son, Thomas. This movement continued on through the Black participation in the era’s great migration (circa 1940 to 1950), as related by the Schomburg Center’s “In Motion” website (http://www.inmotionaame.org).
In post-war Los Angeles, Blacks differed from their eastern counterparts in that home ownership was comparatively easier, albeit stymied by the real estate covenants and other methodologies contrived to restrict Black settlement to certain areas (i.e., the region along Central Avenue, according to California State University Northridge professors James P. Allen and Eugene Turner).
These new environs, away from the threat of Jim Crow and the hangman’s noose, were not totally hospitable to these Southern transplants, as law enforcement endeavored to maintain the peace (and the status quo) by social control and de facto segregation. None-the-less, the prospect of well paying blue-collar jobs and the American Dream of home ownership made for a more tolerable life in the Golden State compared to the one they left behind in Dixie.
The oppositional forces of economic necessity/opportunity and inhuman treatment by the powers that be were manifested by civil disturbances in 1965, and it’s direct descendent in 1992. For those who moan about these recycled events, some small satisfaction may be derived from discernable patterns that emerge over the passage of time (which may in turn provide a barometer of sorts to predict and prepare for the future). Thusly, we saw a “yo-yoing” effect between the left and right leaning factions of the political realm. Police brutality spawned civil unrest, and the emergence of the Black Panther Party and radicalized elements.
Urban violence in turn confirmed the reelection of conservative-leaning mayor Sam Yorty in 1965. Nearly three decades later, post-riot backlash resulting in the election of Republican Mayor Richard Reardon in 1993. Following this train of thought, fear of racial encroachment (and perhaps backlash from the tenure of a non-White chief executive) has arguably spawned the rise of White supremacy and the recent presidential election of Donald Trump, says Bay area professor Robert Smith. Dramatic events on one end of the political spectrum encourage an oppositional response, perhaps in a subconscious effort to “balance things out.”
The eye of the storm
“We were the finest. We were the best in the world. We were a department that people came from all over the world to study, to look at, to see how we accomplished so much with so little; and we did.”
—Daryl F. Gates, Feb. 27, 2001.
Many factors come into play in the process of conceiving social issues, which ultimately (and unfairly) are left for the police to deal with. Over the years, the performance of a police force that prides itself on its professionalism and the criteria by which it is judged have, in due course, dramatically changed.
“We have moved into an era where we expect police to keep law and order, but also act as social workers, mental health experts, marriage counselors and drug treatment experts,” says journalist and Los Angeles Police Department critic Jasmyne Cannick.
The LAPD specifically comes under scrutiny through its mandate of serving as the media capital of the nation (and possibly the world). It is noteworthy that the first and only African American mayor of Los Angeles started his professional career as member of the LAPD. Thomas J. Bradley used his academic and athletic talents to gain admission to UCLA, then channeled his ambition to move up the ranks of a notoriously racist paramilitary organization.
By all accounts, his was a successful career. He reached the rank of lieutenant before he “…died on the captain’s list,” a fate that befell many talented Black officers after him, who crashed against this racial barrier. Legends and mythology within the department holds that this animosity against his limitations stayed with him, when he was elected the city’s mayor, simultaneously becoming archenemy to police chief Daryl Gates.
Another noted critic who broke ranks with the department is career cop and founder of the African American Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, Ronnie Cato. He expressed his reaction to the events surrounding the 25-year anniversary:
“It’s a shame that we’re doing all this celebrating and so little has changed.”
He comes to this conclusion after bearing witness to the various tactics of broken windows, community policing, consent decrees, police commission over sight, town hall meetings, and so on. More tangible improvement might be achieved at the basic level of police work via the mass implementation of body cameras.
As a street cop, he had personal experience on the impact cameras have on police behavior in the field.
The mere statement “I’m hot,” meaning the camera was rolling, was enough to stem erratic police behavior.
Holding the rank and file to a higher standard is likely a key to effecting real change, in a situation that remains disappointing for involved parties.
“The issues facing community policing today 25 years after the events of 1992 are some of the same issues we dealt with back then,” notes Cannick. “The level of trust between the community and police has not improved significantly.”
A significant hurdle towards building community alliances maybe the paramilitary mindset embedded within the department and its individual members, a condition apparent through casual viewing of local news coverage.
“…racial bias in policing in Los Angeles still exist, and comes from the culture of the police department,” Cannick maintains. “Some work has been done to change that but with the current police chief (Charlie Beck), I feel like we’ve gone backwards.”
Best known as the founder (with NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown) of the Amer-I-Can Foundation for Social Change, activist and community organizer Aqeela Sherrills is most proud of his success in forging the 1992 peace treaty between the Bloods and Crips in Watts. These days, he primarily works at the social justice groups Californians for Safety and Justice and The Reverence Project.
Acknowledging the problem of effective policing, he suggests tangible results may best be achieved by diverting energies to other avenues, because law enforcement is largely reactive. Citing the time-worn scenario, Sherrills notes that the police (who by and large do not live in problematic areas) “… are called and then they’re ‘parachuted in,’” to deal with criminal incidents.
Missing are effective therapeutic interventions, which leave victims and perpetrators to “self medicate” via the vicious cycle of narcotic abuse and incarceration (wherein they largely perfect the deviant behavior that inducts them into the system).
Another problem is media involvement which “… consistently changes the narrative about who is responsible…” for the violence. He continues with the summation “… he who controls the narrative controls the game.”
Efforts that have worked lay within the legislative realm, such as 2014’s Proposition 47 (changing low-level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors), which saved the state $68 million and enabled hundreds of thousands to have their records expunged.
Traditionally, the racial discourse has enjoyed the simplicity of being a binary affair, (i.e. issues have been limited to African American and Caucasian interactions). In these unavoidably globalized times, the diversity of growing population will only complicate matters. On top of this is the problem of the dwindling Black population within the city and county, and the problems of recruiting qualified African American recruits for the police academy.
“I think that one of the biggest issues facing the policing in Los Angeles is the inability of police departments to recruit African Americans,” states Cannick.
The reasons behind this are numerous, among them poor credit ratings, given the rationale that people with financial instability are more open to bribery and corruption.
“…what this means is that we have a police department today that is mostly White and Latino,” Cannick observes.
“Community policing relies as much on a diverse police department as it does a community willing to work with the police.”
During Cato’s time on the department, Blacks and Latinos were pretty much in the same boat, with little ethnic friction between them because, in his words, they were too busy ‘…fighting for ‘kibbles and bits,’” as minorities left out of the department power structure. Due to the shifting population ratios, this may change in the future.