How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Recollections of the riots, 20 years later

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What do you call what happened in L.A. 20 years ago in April-early May, and how did you come to learn about what happened back then?

This was the question to the audience that kicked off a community town hall event on the 1992 Los Angeles riots at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum last week. It was the preamble to a long and nuanced conversation about where the city has gone since, with a panel presentation from the moderators of several KPCC focus groups addressing the riots (the results of which be shared next week on Multi-American) and the results of a survey from Loyola Marymount University, which took the temperature of race relations in L.A. twenty years later.

But it was that initial question asked of the audience by senior news editor and moderator Cheryl Devall - what we remember of those confusing days that began April 29, 1992, and how their legacy has stuck - that defined the evening.

The riots began when a jury acquitted four L.A. police officers accused of beating Rodney King, a black motorist who was pulled over after a pursuit. Over the next few days, parts of Los Angeles burned in arson fires as Angelenos rioted and businesses were looted. Fifty-three people died in the violence, thousands were injured, and property damage mounted close to $1 billion. On a deeper level, the riots bared the divisions that did and still do exist between Angelenos of all stripes, not only along black-white or socioeconomic lines, but encompassing immigrants as well.

During the forum last week, audience members were asked to turn to the person next to them and share their recollections. A black man seated next to me talked about the confusion he felt as he held his baby the night of April 29, as smoke began to fill the air. A Latina seated in the row ahead of me, in her early twenties at the time of the riots, remembered the intense fear she felt.

As the evening continued and audience members got up to speak, an older black woman who remembered the Watts riots of 1965 remembered being at the gym when she heard the verdict and going home right away, sensing something bad was about to happen. A Korean American woman talked about how she felt that twenty years after the riots, there's still a lack of sympathy for the Korean immigrant business owners who lost livelihoods in the fires and looting.

The conversation was unique in that it brought together Angenelos who would most likely not otherwise have bumped into one another, let alone talk about an event that to this day partly defines the city's identity, for better or worse.

Among the highlights, along with the LMU study, were rich anecdotes from the facilitators of the the KPCC focus groups over the past month, which brought in a diverse cross-section of the city. Here's what some of the facilitators had to say about what they learned from people who recalled those few days in 1992, alternately referred to as the Los Angeles riots, the Rodney King riots, the civil unrest, the uprising and Sa-i-gu, a Korean term for "4/29."

From KPCC's Corey Moore, whose focus group consisted of black Angelenos, and who recalled a one man's statement that caught him off guard:

He was a teenager at the time of the riots, and he basically said that this conversation should not end or begin with just the riots. "There was a whole lot of mess going on," was what he said...what that meant, what he expressed was that there was so much going on. People were losing their jobs at the time. You have to remember that there was a crack cocaine epidemic during the nineties and the eighties. A lot of blue collar jobs were lost. There was a fractious relationship between the LAPD and African Americans and other communities of color, and people should bring that into the conversation.

From KPCC's Elaine Cha, who facilitated the Korean American focus group:
In the Korean group that I was with, there was a remarkable majority in that many of them are now involved with media in some way, they have pursued journalism or are doing work in documentary filmmaking. One of the things that came out a lot, if you've followed anything that has come out of Korean American publications and that sort of thing...at the time the riots occurred, many Koreans and Korean Americans did not feel they had a voice....It was amazing to see that in this small group, they took it upon themselves to put themselves in a place where they could be voices for themselves.

From Wendy Carillo of Power 106, who facilitated a diverse group of Latinos. Among the stories she shared was that of one focus group member who had recently fled El Salvador's civil war to encounter the violence that took over Los Angeles during the riots, finally feeling oddly safe when National Guard troops arrived on the streets. Carillo also shared this:
In the Latino focus group, there were a lot of really great revelations about the issue of social injustice that was happening in South L.A. And really how the freeway community...is one that just overpasses the entire community of South L.A. One thing in particular that stood out was the beating of a gentleman called Fidel Lopez, who was the third victim of the L.A. riots, if you want to way the word victim. And the idea that because he was not Mexican or Mexican American (Lopez was Guatemalan), within the Latino community there was strife as to who was going to care for this person, how he was going to be represented in the media. And did it really matter because he wasn't Mexican in the larger context of the Latino identity.

The idea that within the Latino community there are different ethnic backgrounds and we are not all the same, that was pretty prevalent, especially as you look at the communities of Pico-Union and East L.A., and the uprising that took place in Huntington Park.


Do the same conditions exist now that did then? Yes and no. Local law enforcement has become increasingly diverse as community policing has taken root, as several audience members pointed out. But economic disparity has been given a boost by the national economic downturn, and race relations are so-so, especially as formerly black neighborhoods have become increasingly Latino.

Dr. Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles, shared the results of the center's newly released LA Riots 20 Year Anniversary Resident Survey. Among the questions the survey asked of its 1,600 respondents was  "Overall, do you feel things in the city of Los Angeles are going in the right direction or the wrong direction?” While respondents had more favorable things to say about the directions of their neighborhoods, only 32 percent said "right direction" for the city.

The survey also asked: “Do you think it’s likely or unlikely that other riots and disturbances like those in 1992 will occur in the city of Los Angeles in the next five years?”

In 1997 two-thirds of those surveyed said yes, a whopping 61 percent. That number is now down to 41 percent. "It's going in the right direction," Guerra said. "Nonetheless, forty-one percent of Angelenos still believe that there could be a riot, the the environment exists for there to be another riot." The entire LMU survey can be viewed here; the audio for the forum event is here.

Now it's your turn. If you remember the 1992 riots, what do you remember? What is the legacy they've left upon Los Angeles, and what has - or hasn't - changed?

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