L.A. Not as Volatile of a Place Decade After Riots Rocked City


On the 25th anniversary of the 1965-Watts riots in 1990, then Mayor Tom Bradley was asked whether L.A. could be racked by another riot. Bradley was confident that it couldn't happen again.

A scant two years later L.A. was torn by nightmarish urban violence following the acquittal in the Simi Valley trial of the four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. When the smoke cleared the death toll and property damage far exceeded the damage and destruction of the 1965 riots.

Ten years later many ask the same question. While Bradley found that it's risky making crystal ball predictions on volatile racial and social problems, L.A. today is not the same L.A. of a decade ago.

The biggest change is the ethnic demographic shift in South-Central Los Angeles. In 1992, the area was predominantly black; it is now predominantly Latino, with growing numbers of Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Filipino residents.

Since 1992, blacks have fled the area in droves and moved to the San Fernando, and Antelope Valleys, Riverside County, and to the Southern states. The fast-changing demographics have at times imploded in inter-ethnic battles between blacks and-Latinos over jobs, housing, schools and deadly clashes within the L.A. county jails.

Black flight has also diminished black political strength in L.A. and statewide. The number of blacks in the state legislature has plunged to half the number of 1992, and there is the real possibility that blacks could lose one, possibly two, of their three city council seats in the next few years.

There's also been a radical sea change in the economy. In 1992, many manufacturing companies closed their doors, or fled to other states. New housing construction was moribund and unemployment among young black males had reached near epidemic proportions.

Today, unemployment among young black males in L.A. County is still far higher than white males. But black income and employment has also reached near record levels. Los Angeles ranks among the top cities in the number of black-owned businesses.

While corporate leaders and government officials reneged on their post-riot promises, there has been a belated rash of new development in South-Central Los Angeles. This includes mini-malls, grocery stores and light manufacturing factories.

In 1992, the political and racial disconnect in L.A. was colossal. Bradley was in his waning days in office, and many blacks regarded city hall as distant, hostile, and uncaring. The political strains haven't disappeared. The fury of black leaders at Mayor James Hahn for refusing to back a second term for LAPD Chief Bernard Parks proves that.

Yet, the spread of neighborhood councils, particularly in parts of South-Central Los Angeles hit hardest by the riots, has given residents the feeling that they have some say over how city money and services are allocated in their communities.

Then there's the LAPD. Even before the Rodney King beating, the mass sweeps, beatings, shootings, and the outbursts of Daryl Gates tagged the LAPD as an occupying army in black neighborhoods. The Christopher Commission reforms, a Justice Department consent decree mandating reforms, and the appointments of two successive black chiefs did much to douse those tensions.

The titanic battle over Parks was testament to the turnaround in how many blacks now perceive the LAPD. In 1992, black leaders stormed the barricades to dump Gates. A decade later they credited Parks with shaving the racial and militaristic edge off the department.

There are still lots of poor people that live in blighted, largely segregated neighborhoods in South-Central. Their children are trapped in failing public schools, and many complain that they are brutalized by the LAPD. And, there's always the danger of a sharp economic tumble or a fresh police atrocity.

But for the moment the volcanic mix of economic, social, and racial ills that ignited the 1992 riots has vanished. Still, it's wise not to say that it can't happen again.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. He can be heard on KPFK Radio, 90.7FM, Tuesdays, 7-8 p.m.

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