The proposition that racism, bad cops, and disrespectful Korean liquor-store owners caused the Los Angeles riots 20 years ago is fundamentally false—but it persists. Perhaps some outmoded police tactics and tough talk from then–police chief Daryl Gates contributed to the rioters’ nihilistic response to the not guilty verdicts in the trial of four police officers who had beaten Rodney King after a high-speed pursuit. Maybe a few Korean merchants were rude to their customers. And inflammatory rhetoric from black leaders probably heightened community tensions. But at the bottom of it all, the festering welfare culture of South Los Angeles created the conditions necessary for an urban conflagration that lasted five days, tallied more than $1 billion in property damage, and left 53 people dead. The culture of anger and dependence, homicidal street gangs, a debased education system, disintegrated families, and race hatred had been a powder keg for years. All it needed was a spark.
I remember the riots well. At the time, I was executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded by Martin Luther King, Jr. My office was located a few miles from where the riots began at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. When a Simi Valley jury handed down its verdict on the afternoon of April 29, it wasn’t long before hoodlums and thugs poured into the streets, assembling at that corner and looking to exact revenge on anyone with the wrong skin color. Millions eventually saw the footage of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, as he was brutally beaten and left with permanent brain damage when one of his assailants smashed his skull with a concrete block. By late that night, much of the area south of Interstate 10 was in flames.
South Los Angeles is safer today, reflecting greatly improved policing citywide. Two decades ago, violence had become commonplace in many of the areas where looting and burning were the worst. In 1992, there were 143 homicides in the 12 square miles spanning from Watts to Inglewood, and the Crips owned the neighborhoods surrounding the riot’s flashpoint at Florence and Normandie. Overall, the homicide rate in L.A. that year was 21 people murdered for every 100,000. By 2009, the homicide rate had fallen to 6.7 per 100,000.
The face of South Los Angeles looks different today as well. According to the 1990 Census, Latinos were 45.5 percent of South L.A.’s population. By 2010, that figure stood at 66.3 percent, thanks to a flood of illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America. Over the same period, the percentage of blacks living in South Los Angeles declined from 47 percent to just 31.8, with many residents departing for suburban destinations such as the Antelope Valley and the Inland Empire or leaving the state altogether. And race relations have changed for the better. When Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles polled residents earlier this year about race relations as the riots’ 20th anniversary approached, seven out of ten said that the city’s racial and ethnic groups were getting along just fine.
But 20 years on, one thing hasn’t changed much: racial demagogues’ penchant for irresponsible and incendiary rhetoric. It’s easy to see the resentments that festered within South L.A.’s welfare culture bubbling up in places like Detroit, Toledo, Mobile—and Sanford, Florida. With every race hustler of local and national repute demanding “justice for Trayvon” and the New Black Panther Party putting a bounty on the head of accused killer George Zimmerman, it was surely no surprise that Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey indicted Zimmerman for second-degree murder. Whether the evidence actually supports such a charge is highly doubtful; public opinion seems to be driving the prosecution here. That was also true 20 years ago, with the indictments of those four LAPD cops in the King case. Remember, all that most people ever saw of the King beating was a snippet of George Holliday’s famous video showing white officers beating and clubbing a struggling black man. Those shocking images and the ensuing outrage clearly influenced the decision to prosecute; somebody had to pay. But the Simi Valley jury saw a more complete picture, provided by 56 witnesses and reams of evidence that went well beyond what TV viewers saw in that grainy video.
Yet the old refrain of “No justice, no peace” is in the air again—in a nation governed by a black president and a black attorney general. Despite all our progress, the L.A. riots still haunt us.