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Could the LA Riots happen again?

Looters load up a car at the Viva shopping center near a billowing fire during the rioting that erupted in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, after a jury found four Los Angeles Police Department officers not guilty in the beating of Rodney King.
Looters load up a car at the Viva shopping center near a billowing fire during the rioting that erupted in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, after a jury found four Los Angeles Police Department officers not guilty in the beating of Rodney King.
Ron Eisenbeg/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Listener Johnny Moreno asked us this question via SoCal. So Curious.

It's a complicated one to answer because there were many factors that led up to the unrest, and it was more than just the verdict in the Rodney King case.

Racial tension had been building up in the area, for example. Unemployment was rampant on the streets, too.

Plus, there was a feeling that lawmakers just did not care about the people in South L.A.

On Take Two, we gathered a roundtable to tackle Johnny's question.

What were the signs that a riot was imminent in 1992, and are they around today in 2017?


Interview highlights

The economy in South L.A. was a major reason for the unrest. What was it like back in 1992?

Hunt: The economy was pretty bad 25 years ago. Unemployment was pretty high – it was about 7.5 percent.

And it was much higher in the areas that are associated with the uprising.

L.A. had gone through a long period of deindustrialization where a lot of jobs that were accessible to inner-city residents had moved elsewhere.

There was also declining support for inner cities in general.... There were a quite a bit of strains.

All of these things were factors that made life that much tougher in 1992, particularly for people living in inner-city communities like South L.A. during that period.

What was policing like back in 1992?

Stoltze: [There] was an effort by a too-small police force to project its power to let everybody know they were the toughest and meanest guys in town.

Obviously, there were elements of a racist institution, an institution that didn't treat people in poor communities and minority communities the same way they treated white communities.

But [current LAPD Chief Charlie Beck] himself describes a department that wasn't necessarily a fair department.

Nearly 6 out of 10 Angelenos believe another riot is imminent within the next five years. Do you agree?

Watkins: Yes, I do.

There are too many people that are living in abject poverty and deep, deep desperation, and it's only a matter of time before the acts of desperation that they're willing to commit turn into crimes of desperation.

You'll get your uprising because the pressure cooker is simmering.

The LAPD has learned to keep the lid a little loose on it, but give it enough heat and that top will blow off.

Does the economy today look anything like it did in 1992?

Hunt: Overall, the nation as a whole is doing better than it was in 1992.

I think the nationwide unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in '92, and today it's somewhere around 4.5 percent.

But again, it's a lot higher in areas of South L.A.

At the same time, you have gentrification going on in these communities which have crowded out long time residents and that's created some pressures.

But then you have things like the [Metro] Crenshaw line and Expo line, these improvements in terms of transit. ...

But there are so many factors when you talk about urban unrest. You can't just reduce it to the economy in the same way you can just reduce it to police brutality.

How has the LAPD changed its practices over the past 25 years?

Stoltze: Under [LAPD Chief Bill Bratton] and the federal consent decree, which enacted massive reform at the police department, the department underwent tremendous change in the seven, eight years under Bratton.

Tracking police officers and their use of force. Complaints against police officers: there's a computer system that just better tracks officers and flags them when there are a series of actions or behaviors or incidents early on that flags them as a potential problem.

The use of force investigations, much more thorough. They take use of force much more seriously now.

If riots were to happen again, where would they be and who would be out on the streets?

Watkins: I don't know what sparks it where, but I think Los Angeles is suppressed and contained enough – particularly communities of color that are experiencing the greatest depths of poverty.

I think there's enough pressure for there to be an explosion.

Hunt: It's hard to predict. It's just like we know what factors are associated with earthquakes, but nobody can predict when it's going to happen. We just know we're overdue for the big one.

So we're always at risk of this type of upheaval as long as we aren't dealing with the underlying causes.

And it's hard to predict exactly where something might occur because something like that will be a function of what the trigger is.

Stoltze: There's a lot of economic fear about the future, there's a lot of angst.

South Central remains a concentration of poverty – sure that could be a spot, but it could be anywhere where there's a lot of poverty.

Listen to the full conversation by clicking the blue audio player above.

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