Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson remembers the 1992 L.A. Riots as a formative moment in his life. He was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta at the time.
He told KPCC’s Nick Roman that watching his community go up in flames from 2,000 miles away propelled him into public service.
"There was nothing I could do except come back and help clean up Los Angeles and get us on the right track," he said. "I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my life and my time than to join the people that were trying to turn [it] around."
Has South Los Angeles been turned around?
We’re turning it around. I don’t know that it’s turned around. I think there are still some very, very vexing problems. And I think some of the fundamental problems are still there. At the same time, some key progress has been made since 1992. Certainly, the gang truce was negotiated shortly after the civil unrest. We averaged 1,100 homicides a year then. Now, we haven’t hit 300 homicides in any recent year.
There was no citizen police commission. Now there is one that is very accessible to the community, meets on a regular basis and allows the folks to petition the city with regard to the police department in particular.
A lot of community organizations have sprung up and made it possible for people to have the venue to engage in the civic process and be part of the decision-making process. Those are ways in which you see concrete improvement. Of course, there’s a long way to go on a lot of other fronts.
Many L.A. neighborhoods have seen a renaissance. Do you see renaissance in South LA?
Not yet. I think one of the things about looking back 25 years is civil unrest. If you look at major complaints from that time: Community violence was one. Community violence and crime is way, way down – historic proportions. If you look at civic engagement and community involvement ... our voter engagement is through the roof. South L.A. now outvotes Orange County. Everyday people have changed their behavior.
The LAPD is very different. When I was growing up there was no such thing as a positive interaction between myself and the police department. Now, that isn’t the case. There are positive interactions all the time. Community policing has been embraced. And it's the rule at the LAPD rather than the exception.
The banking and finance and real estate investment community has not changed at all, with regard to South L.A. There’s active divestment, active redlining. Still very difficult to get basic investment. We have more vacant lots, more undervalued land. More underutilized land than any other part of Los Angeles. We think this is a holdover, one of the fundamental problems that led to 1992. We also experience unemployment rates at double, sometimes triple the city and county average.
Vacant lots and divestments where there before the riots.
Yes, one of the vexing things about our society is that the financial and investment sector is fairly opaque if you’re not a member of it. There’s little transparency or no accountability. There is no punishment for leaving a lot on one of the busiest corridors of Los Angeles unoccupied for 30 years. None. You own the lot. The government protects you and protects your investment and allows you to undermine the quality of life of the whole community and you see that throughout South Los Angeles ... with disinvestment and underinvestment or downright disrespect. A grocery chain may operate their stores in one way in one neighborhood and another way in another neighborhood, even though people in this neighborhood pay cash for their groceries in American dollars and eat food and are human beings just like anybody else. It’s one of the things that we continue to push on. I think what you see … the problems in South L.A. are spreading out to the rest of the city. I think our housing crisis is very much a product of a broken financial system that – again – doesn’t have accountability for what happens to everyday people.
How do you change it?
I think you change it by continuing to put pressure on it and continuing to demand better. The economic system is just like anything else, it doesn’t work unless we participate in it. I think everyday people have to demand more and not accept some of the things that we’ve seen.