Rodney Glen King’s plea for peace echoes from his resting place at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.
It’s written on his grave marker: “Can we all get along.”
Police officers form a line as demonstrators make their point about the verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial. The all-white jury’s decision to acquit four Los Angeles police officers sparked days of violence 25 years ago in Los Angeles and surrounding areas.
A Los Angeles store owner works to save his market during the second day of rioting on April 30, 1992.
Looters charge into a store during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
A California Highway Patrol officer stands guard in riot gear in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles during the riots of 1992.
The afternoon sunlight hits the gravesite of Rodney King at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills) in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ed Crisostomo, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Rodney King calls for an end to the violence on May 1, 1992: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”
A file photo of Rodney King taken three days after his videotaped police beating in Los Angeles on March 6, 1991, shows injuries he suffered. The photo was one of three introduced into evidence by the prosecution in the 1992 trial of four Los Angeles Police Department officers, who were acquitted by an all-white jury. The verdicts sparked rioting 25 years ago that spread across the city and into neighboring suburbs.
Looters lie prone on the ground behind stores near the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. as officers stand over them. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Members of the news media, right, photograph rioters hours after the verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial were announced on April 29, 1992. The unrest lasted six days and left at least 55 people dead and more than 2,000 injured.
Back in 1992, Rev. Mark Whitlock was a member of the board at First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. Los Angeles. ÒWe have an opportunity to set a new trend. We have an opportunity to show the world what Rodney King tried to say to us. He said canÕt we all get along, said Whitlock (Photo by John McCoy/Los Angeles Daily News (SCNG)
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck is credited for expanding community policing efforts that observers say have led to better relations between LAPD and minority communities. But critics say deadly use of force against African Americans and Latinos continues to be a major problem.
These burned-out businesses were part of more than $1 billion in property damage in Los Angeles and its suburbs that resulted from the civil unrest in April and May of 1992.
At Parker Center, the downtown headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department, rioters destroyed a guard shack and set it on fire the night the verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial were read. April 29, 1992.
Looters leave a store during the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
There is no question mark, as there seemed to be in King’s anguished voice 25 years ago.
But perhaps there should be. Uncertainty remains over whether or not we can all get along well enough to avoid the kind of violence that prompted King to stammer those words.
Whether called a riot, a rebellion or the neutral “civil unrest,” the troublesome thought remains: Could it happen here again?
Central to whatever the answer might be is the issue of race and policing – the same as when Watts exploded in 1965 and then in 1992, with south Los Angeles again the epicenter of violence that spread to other parts of Southern California.
Social conditions that served as kindling two-and-a-half decades ago – economic inequality, high unemployment, injustice – continue to fester in poor black and Latino communities.
Nationally, our mood is tense following an election that either divided us or revealed our division, and the introduction of federal policies that figure to widen disagreements along ethnic and class lines. Locally, pessimism is taking hold.
A poll released Wednesday by Loyola Marymount University found that Los Angeles residents are less hopeful than they’ve been in 20 years when asked about the prospects of another violent convulsion. Researchers found that about 60 percent of a cross-section of Angelenos believe a civil disturbance could happen again sometime in the next five years. LMU’s Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles, or StudyLA, began taking the survey at five-year intervals after 1992.
Young adults 18 to 29 were even more convinced another riot is looming, with seven out of 10 expecting one in the near future.
The survey also found a lingering chasm in how residents perceive the Los Angeles Police Department, with white and Asian American respondents more likely to view the police in positive terms than African-Americans and Latinos.
That’s not much different from how things were leading up to April 29, 1992.
For decades before Rodney King became a household name, African-Americans and Latinos viewed the department’s officers as an occupying military force in their neighborhoods, rather than public servants there to protect and to serve.
Race was a flashpoint issue for much of the 1980s and early ‘90s, fueled by drug and gang epidemics, high crime rates and unchecked police discrimination and brutality.
Then came the beating of King in March 1991, following a police car chase. King, forever labeled “a black motorist” in news accounts of the chase, later acknowledged that he had been drinking. He was on parole and feared a return to state prison.
Millions of people who saw his videotaped beating were outraged. African-Americans had long complained of police brutality. With the video, everyone witnessed it.
The black community in Los Angeles was further injured that same month by the death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, shot in the back of the head by a Korean merchant who later that year was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but served no prison time.
When an all-white jury in Simi Valley acquitted the four police officers on trial in the King beating, outrage turned to violence.
King spoke his unforgettable words at a televised news conference May 1, 1992, hoping to stop the deadly unrest. By the time peace was restored, after six days of upheaval, at least 55 people had been killed, the injured exceeded 2,000, and upwards of 11,000 people were arrested.
Property damage was estimated at $1 billion, with Korean merchants suffering heavy losses. Many never returned to their Los Angeles-area businesses.
Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, is reluctant to predict the future. But he believes both the LAPD and race relations in Southern California have improved since 1992.
“It doesn’t go from horrible to perfect, but we’ve evolved with some really promising things,” said Sonenshein, a political science professor. “It’s taken quite a while to get to this point.”
Those who see progress look beyond the police department’s various scandals and setbacks under a succession of seven police chiefs since the June 1992 departure of former Chief Daryl F. Gates, who many blame for letting the violence spin out of control after the verdicts in the King beating trial.
“There’s no question the LAPD has moved far beyond the basically occupying army metaphor and has become, not without its problems, more of a normal police department,” Sonenshein said. “(It) has a closer relationship to the community.”
With reforms approved by voters in the summer of 1992, increased emphasis on community policing, better accountability to elected officials, stronger civilian police commission oversight and more diversity in its ranks, the LAPD is not the same under current Chief Charlie Beck as it was under Gates.
But LAPD continues to face fierce criticism over police encounters that led to the deaths of young black and Latino residents in recent years, most notably that of Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old mentally ill man, three years ago, and last year Carnell Snell, 18, Daniel Perez, 16, and Keith Bursey, 31.
“There’s a lot of conflict with activist groups,” Sonenshein said. “Black Lives Matter is in a lot of conflict with the chief and the police department. But, again, when you compare it to when Gates was chief, it was open political warfare.”
While their tactics appear to differ, efforts undertaken by public officials, civic and religious leaders, and grassroots organizations appear to be making a difference.
The LMU poll found that, overall, 76 percent of Angelenos said racial and ethnic groups are getting along; in the 1997 poll only 37 percent responded positively. Whether black, Latino, white, Asian Pacific Islander or other, respondents consistently viewed race relations today in a positive light.
If you ask Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and chair of the Pan-African Studies Department at Cal State L.A., some things have changed for the better, but use of deadly police force is not one of them. It remains a problem in Los Angeles and around the country, she said.
“Think about what’s happening now,” said Abdullah, citing the uptick around the country in fatal police encounters, many caught on video, and the outrage of communities responding to one killing or another of young African-American males. And in most cases, Abdullah added, police officers are not convicted or even prosecuted.
“They are killing with complete impunity. Nothing is happening there. They are not being punished for what they are doing.”
The death of Michael Brown during an altercation with a white police officer, who said Brown tried to take his gun, ignited protests that turned violent in Ferguson, Mo., and captured the attention of the nation.
Closer to home, the 2014 shooting death of Ford during a confrontation with Los Angeles police officers – whose actions were determined justified by the department because Ford allegedly grabbed for an officer’s gun – sparked candlelight vigils, rallies and protests that included demonstrators blocking freeway lanes.
But Los Angeles did not go up in flames over Ford’s death. That might be attributed in part to the existence of groups like Black Lives Matter, a social movement that started as a Twitter hashtag in 2013 with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
The organization has chapters around the world, building a following through social media and a democratic style of leadership. Their tactics are confrontational and disruptive, which Abdullah – who heads Black Lives Matter Los Angeles – feels is justified. She said pushback in the local black community is as strong as it was in 1992. But for now it’s taking a more targeted approach.
“We didn’t have freeway shutdowns and mall shutdowns and airport shutdowns in ’92. We do now. Black Lives Matter is very thoughtful and intentional in what it is we’re disrupting,” she said. “We’re disrupting the systems that oppress us.
“That’s why you see us shut down the 101 or Christmas at The Grove. You don’t see us shut down Christmas on Crenshaw.”
That disruption also has included loud protests at city council and police commission meetings, and even a town hall meeting with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti organized by black church leaders last October. Just days earlier, Abdullah and two other Black Lives Matter leaders in Los Angeles were arrested during a protest at police headquarters over the shooting death of the teenage Snell.
Where Abdullah views Black Lives Matter as a positive force, others see division and a political agenda that they say may not always be in the best interest of beleaguered communities.
Police see change
“I question Black Lives Matter,” said retired LAPD Commander Bob Taylor, who in April 1992 was headquartered in Hollywood, assistant commanding officer of operations in the city’s west bureau. He took a rock through his patrol car windshield.
“I don’t see (BLM) protesting or doing any outreach in the community when a black life is extinguished through homicide or hit-and-run traffic. I don’t see anyone from their group out there saying, ‘This is a terrible thing. We have to stop the violence.’”
Taylor, 74, left the police department in 1993 to work in the USC campus police department. He later served as an ombudsman and chief probation officer for L.A. County before retiring in 2010. He spends much of his free time as a volunteer at the Los Angeles Police Museum.
From Taylor’s perspective, LAPD had taken steps toward becoming more involved in the communities it patrolled under the concept of team policing in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. But then, as has historically been the case, he said, the department was undermanned when crime rates began to rise. Under Gates’ leadership, the department abandoned team policing.
“Police officers were just chasing their tails,” Taylor said. “We were so busy we didn’t have time to engage in community functions. Most officers, including me, wanted to make sure we were able to bring crime down.”
The violence that destroyed so many parts of Los Angeles in April and May of 1992 represents a sad time for the city and its police department, Taylor said. He believes that current relations between police and minority communities are, to some degree, better.
“In some areas,” he said, “but not all.”
Taylor attributes that in large part to the department’s community policing strategy and the relationship-building efforts of individual officers.
“You have to personally engage in the community in order to get the community to buy in that you are not some kind of occupational force; that you are there for their interest,” Taylor said.
Overall, respondents to the StudyLA survey deemed police more trustworthy than any other civic institution, including local government, the news media and religious institutions. But only 39 percent of the city’s black residents said the same.
The department’s own report last year on biased policing – requested by the Police Commission – found that complaints of racial profiling lobbied against LAPD went 0 for 97 when investigated by LAPD in the first half of 2016. A survey also showed that 32 percent of black people disapproved of how LAPD officers did their job – about twice the rate of disapproval expressed by white residents.
Abdullah, who also sits on the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, believes that safe communities are created by what happens outside the realm of policing – jobs, after-school programs, mental health services, arts and culture programs.
“I hope we begin to learn that lesson and it doesn’t take us another 25 years to come back and say, ‘Well, what’s changed?’”
To her, the greatest victory to celebrate is the empowerment of everyday people.
Abdullah points to the development of organizations like Community Coalition, founded in 1989 by now-Congresswoman Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, who was an emergency-room physicians assistant at the time. She also cites the late 1992 peace treaty negotiated by gang members in south Los Angeles.
“Communities,” Abdullah said, “are really coming up with ideas about what makes them safer and freer and more just.”
There is also the historic and ongoing role of churches.
The Rev. Mark Whitlock, pastor of the growing Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Irvine, said his life changed profoundly because of what happened on April 29, 1992. He thinks the same can happen for an entire community with the right commitment.
In 1992, Whitlock, now 62, was a member of the board of directors at First AME Church in south Los Angeles who worked as a vice president at Chicago Title Co. On the day of the King beating verdict, Whitlock was closing a multi-million dollar real estate deal. When verdicts were announced, he got a call to leave his business meeting and head to the AME church for a rally.
Whitlock never went back to corporate America.
He became an ordained minister and was assigned to Christ Our Redeemer in 1998, where he has built a diverse congregation of more than 3,000 parishioners. He is also busy forging alliances with other churches across racial and ethnic lines, noting that Sunday remains the most segregated day of the week.
“We must tear down racial barriers within the church world,” Whitlock said. “We as pastors must lead the charge to not only fully integrate the church but also help people to learn that we have more in common than in contrast.”
Whitlock points to a recent Sunday when he preached to the largely white and affluent congregation led by Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in Orange County. Previously, Whitlock and the pastor of Rock Harbor Church in Mission Viejo swapped pulpits.
“We may not be a stone’s throw away from an incident,” he said. “But we are not too far away in the future if the church does not do what we are called to do … To teach how to love one another.”
Los Angeles is not the only area in Southern California where civil unrest fueled by racial and economic disparities has left a community on edge. Anaheim, home to Disneyland and the Angels baseball team, experienced several weeks of turmoil in the summer of 2012 after a two-day span in which two young Latinos, Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo, were fatally shot by police.
The shootings, viewed as fatal examples of police brutality by family members and hundreds of supporters, took place in poor neighborhoods where gang activity is common. Rocks and bottles were thrown at police; store windows were smashed; trash bins were lit on fire.
But reforms later took hold. The conflict led to the creation of a civilian police-review board; an independent audit of Anaheim Police Department tactics and operations; and a switch from at-large to district voting for Anaheim city council members, a shift that better represents the city’s ethnically diverse neighborhoods – the result of a lawsuit the city settled with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Cal State Long Beach professor Jose Moreno, who heads up the rights group Los Amigos, one of the city’s oldest grassroots organizations, was elected to the Anaheim City Council in November 2016. He pushed for more diverse representation in a city that’s about 53 percent Latino.
Moreno said the shootings of 2012 and the aftermath “woke up a lot of people” about the friction between police and some parts of the community.
“Relationships were not as deep as they thought,” he said. “Social cohesion was not as strong as they thought.”
Latinos in the city’s poorer neighborhoods still feel marginalized, Moreno said. But ongoing relationship building may have helped keep protests relatively calm in February, after an off-duty Los Angeles police officer discharged his gun during a scuffle with a 13-year-old boy. Cellphone videos of the incident, which involved some Latino school children allegedly treading on the officer’s lawn, quickly went viral.
That was a test of a relationship that is much stronger now, Moreno said. “But if that gunshot had hit the boy, that would have been maybe a whole different story.”
Social media, which didn’t exist in 1992, also plays a critical role in how people react to an incident, with the ability to either incite violence or defuse it. “Social media folks can remind each other, ‘Hey, come out with a purpose, with passion, but come out with solidarity,’” Moreno said.
King’s “Can we all get along” – which helped calm the Los Angeles unrest in ’92 – predates viral dissemination. But work toward that goal continues to provide an answer.
Whitlock maintains his ties to First AME and remains close to the retired Murray, serving as executive director of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, where he helps train other pastors in community engagement, civic development and financial literacy. He spent the past week at events in Los Angeles that included a panel discussion at USC about what happened 25 years ago.
Whitlock worries that the region could see a repeat of 1992. Tension and fear are swirling around the issues of immigration, deportations and travel bans, and the clashes that have already happened over disagreement about those issues.
“My fear is that it could happen again,” Whitlock said.
“We have to be very careful about maligning any race. If you stereotype a group of people, then they will rebel and riot.”
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