Reflecting on the anniversary of the riots that followed the Rodney King verdicts of 1992, Congresswoman Maxine Waters still feels the flaming fury incited in her district, but hopes for a brighter future.
“I was deeply involved in everything that was going on,” she said in a phone interview. “I had flown in from Washington and I spent a lot of time on the streets: in public housing, Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts—getting diapers and food.”
Waters said that although some other politicians and community leaders were asked to quiet the population, she understood the anger that led to the uprising, the looting and the flames. She took a tour of South L.A. with then-Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton on May 4, 1992.
“I made a conscious decision to use this opportunity to describe the people who were on the streets,” she said. “They were angry and felt they were dropped off of America’s agenda.”
Waters said she also used the radio and television airways to explain to other politicians and the general public that the residents in her district suffered from poverty, unemployment and police brutality. They were not just acting wild. The system had let them down.
“These were people who were angry, they felt they had nowhere to turn,” she said, noting the other messages being broadcast. “‘Cool it baby, cool it,’ —That’s what they told the ministers to say.”
Waters tried a new narrative.
“There was something to be said and I dared to say it,” she remembered.
Waters noted that just as the Rodney King videotape exposed brutality 30 years ago, the current pandemic and police brutality videos have helped to again reveal the racial inequities in the nation’s governmental and healthcare systems.
“But the police problem is an ongoing problem in this country,” she said, noting the George Floyd video. “All of a sudden White people discovered we weren’t lying.”
In the near future, Waters is looking forward to celebrating the work of the youth who lived in those public housing projects years ago. She worked with them to have their tattoos removed and get jobs in the gymnasiums there.
“There’s going to be a celebration for those youngsters who were considered gangsters,” she said. “With support, dealing with their issues, and a little love, they can make it. When I mention these guys—retiring after working for 30 years — that’s indicative they can make it.”