Thursday, April 30, 2009

Looking back at the L.A. Riots

“April 29, 1992. There was a riot on the streets, tell me where were you?” (Sublime)

It’s been 17 years since the Los Angeles Riots took the city captive and a nation by storm for nearly a week (April 29-May 4, although the worst of it was over by May 1 when the Nat'l Guard came in)

I remember being a 7-year-old watching the news and just in shock. You could see smoke from buildings in the sky, you could see buildings that you got comfortable in being looted. I remember a Thrifty’s that we always went to for ice cream being burned out.

On either April 30 or May 1, my second grade teacher asked us all to raise a hand if we knew a building that was burned or had a story to tell. Every one of us raised our hands (20+ kids) and we all had to write those stories as well as our feelings. The irony of being at school was that we weren’t too far from the epicenter of the riots: Florence and Normandie.

That time feels like ages ago. A time when Black communities in L.A. were ready to explode over rampant police abuse. They had just gotten over the effect of Freeway Ricky Ross’ cocaine empire turning the streets into the Wild Wild West. They had to deal with rising tensions with the Korean community and shop owners. And then came a series of incidents that forced all hell to break loose on April 29.

First, we all know about Rodney King getting beaten in that grainy home video. I remember Nick News doing a special on it as a kid but at the time I was naïve to a lot of the nonsense going on behind the scenes. As a result, it was the first time I ever heard of Simi Valley (where the trial of the officers was held) and I remember seeing the LA Times headline after the verdict: NOT GUILTY

But what most people don’t know is that 13 days in after King’s beating, there was another major powder keg. 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed after a Korean store owner mistakenly thought she was robbing the store. The owner was let off with five years’ probation and a fine despite the jury recommending a much longer sentence. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with Black folks.

Throw all that together plus years of frustration and BOOOM! There goes the neighborhood (I remember seeing the rise of “Black-Owned Business” signs to prevent them from being burned)

At the same time, you had L.A. rappers making the most powerful music of their career to fit the mood before and after the riots. No one did this better than Ice Cube. If his second album, Death Certificate, hinted at some issues with “Black Korea”, his next album, The Predator, was practically the riot’s theme music with references littered all over it. None more obvious than “We had to Tear This MF Up,” a tale describing someone’s instant reaction to the riots.

Everyone knows Dr. Dre’s The Chronic for its classic hits but right after “Dre Day,” he’s got a joint describing the mood of most looters “The Day The N***az Took Over” featuring RBX and Snoop Dogg. Arguably one of the best songs is the one I posted at the start: Sublime “April 29, 1992” which came out four years later.

But of course, the most famous song of the year (besides Smells Like Teen Spirit) would come courtesy of L.A.’s gangsta poet laureate Ice-T and his metal band Body Count. A little ditty called “Cop Killer.”

(One more music note, an indie punk band from Orange County made a song called "LAPD" talking about it in 92. They blew up two years later and then of course we all knew who they were. You might have heard of them - The Offspring)

Another thing about this was for the first time, rival gangs stopped killing each other and joined forces against a common enemy. Bloods and Crips realized that there was a bigger enemy than and famously called a cease-fire. That’s the big thing about this event: these people were united behind a common theme and it brought a sense of pride that many may not understand. How can people be united to commit crimes and property damages? As I’ve demonstrated, there were plenty of factors.

But enough looking back, what has happened since? 17 years later, the aftermath is pretty interesting. Compton is starting to revive itself under the new moniker “Birthing a New Compton” and there are some great businesses coming to the area. Inglewood has a great shopping center as well.

The problem is that a lot of businesses never recovered. It took years for these renovations to take effect and thriving communities lost plenty of income as a result. Since there's no such thing as riot insurance, buildings were never replaced (unless you called it a civil uprising). Citing safety concerns, businesses never invested and as a result, sectors of inner-city neighborhoods have barely improved.

However the biggest factor is how the Black community has spread out. Before 1992, most Black people were centered in Compton, Watts, Inglewood, Exposition Park, and Los Angeles Proper not too far east and west of the 10 Freeway. After the riots and its aftermath, most families had enough and if they could, they moved out to places like the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Covina, Riverside and Lancaster. My godmother lived near Exposition Park and after 1992, she moved out to Palmdale.

The Black community of L.A. became spread out and coupled with the rise of more Latino residents coming through, it has dramatically affected the demographics of hoods. It’s also true in sports as we see more Black kids on teams in these areas and the suburbs have developed great talent. 20 years ago, most of them would have been playing for inner-city schools like Crenshaw, Dorsey, Manual Arts, etc…

The police situation in L.A. have been mixed since then. We added two Black police chiefs (Willie Williams and the still popular Bernard Parks) The Rampart scandal shook the department in a major way but for the part, tensions have cooled and are pretty much like any relationship between police and the inner-city (terse but not tense).

It’s a seminal moment in the city’s history. Many could argue that the O.J. Simpson verdict was payback for the officers acquitted. Rodney King went from victim to an embarrassing mess-up to a rehabilitated man with no ill will on Celebrity Rehab. If anything, the riots were the last final act of a desperate sector of a city/era and its consequences are still evident today. It's an important lesson to never forget on this day

(I recommend Wikipedia’s article on the 1992 riots, especially how it played out in popular culture. Lots of other songs, TV shows, films drew inspiration from this)

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