LA riots 20 years later: How they changed the way we talk about race

OPINION - The LA riots helped change the way Americans talk about race, kicking off a two decade-long dialogue that has taken the nation into the Obama presidency and the era of Trayvon Martin...

April 29 marks 20 years since the infamous L.A. riots. The riots — which erupted following the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King — left 53 people dead, nearly 3,000 injured and over $1 billion in property damage due to looting and arson.

And the riots helped change the way Americans talk about race, kicking off a two decade-long dialogue that has taken the nation into the Obama presidency and the era of Trayvon Martin.

Not unlike the 1965 Watts riots, the 1967 riots in Detroit and Newark and other urban rebellions that broke out in U.S. cities, the 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles were precipitated by acts of police brutality against citizens of color. In both decades, the civil disturbances placed the spotlight on police abuse in the black community, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and a sense of disenfranchisement among African-Americans

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What made the L.A. riots different was media coverage. The 24-hour news cycle was relatively brand new in 1992. CNN had come into existence in the prior decade, Court TV was an upstart, and MSNBC was still four years away from its founding. Cable TV coverage of the riots exposed a national audience to issues of race and the criminal justice system. Taken in isolation, riots may be dismissed solely as senseless and random acts of lawlessness, violence and mayhem. Sometimes, perhaps they are.

But there was a context to what happened in South Central L.A. — the brutal beating of a black motorist by white police officers, caught in its entirety on videotape for the public to see. The cops got off, validating a sentiment in black America that justice for them is elusive — lest you believe your lying eyes — and the police are allowed to run roughshod over black communities.

That in no way rationalizes the violence visited upon Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was severely beaten by a group of black men at the intersection of Florence and Normandie on the day the riots began.

Nevertheless, America was provided with the context of frustration in poor, forgotten black neighborhoods. All of that came to a boiling point on April 29, 1992.

Further, the L.A. riots demonstrated the complexities of race in America. No longer could the nation view race through the lens of black and white. Back then Los Angeles, like the country today, was diverse, multitracial and multiethnic.

For example, 51 percent of the riot arrests were of Latinos. And Korean grocery store owners were a target of community animosity, due to the shooting death of Latasha Harlins, a15-year-old African-American girl by Soon Ja Du, a Korean immigrant and store owner in March 1991. Du believed the girl was stealing a bottle of orange juice. A jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but the judge sentenced her to probation.

Similarly, in June of that year, a black patron named Lee Arthur Mitchell was killed by Tae Sam Park, a Korean liquor store owner. Park’s store became the target of a firebomb attack and demonstrations.

For today’s society — with its racial scapegoats, white conservative push back against Latino immigrants, war against ethnic studies and the surfacing of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab intolerance — the L.A. riots gave America a preview of the racial tensions to come in this increasingly diverse nation. Meanwhile, the O.J. Simpson trial further exposed America’s racial divide. The verdict led to a “quiet riot” by white Americans, as portrayed in the media. Whites felt personally slighted when black crowds publicly rejoiced after a predominantly black jury acquitted Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman.

That the victims were white, including a white woman, and the defendant was black, added fuel to the fire. As a result, the offices of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and black newspapers received threatening and obscene phone calls from irate whites.

Blacks and whites saw two hanging and dimpled chads by election officials became entertainment with the Bush v Gore decision. Perhaps the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott v. Sanford, which led to the Civil War, Bush v. Gore halted the manual recount of votes in Florida in the close 2000 presidential election.

African-Americans were disenfranchised in that election, as blacks made up 16 percent of Florida voters, yet their ballots were 54 percent of those rejected by automatic machine counts. And Rev. Jackson filed a lawsuit with black Florida legislators claiming that 27,000 votes in Duval County were not counted including 16,000 in black areas — leading to Gore’s loss. The NAACP had compiled 300 pages of testimony concerning voter intimidation and suppression throughout the state on Election Day.

“The Supreme Court stepped into the case even though the Florida Supreme Court had been interpreting Florida law,” said Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker. He added that “the majority found a violation of the rights of George W. Bush, a white man, to equal protection when these same Justices were becoming ever more stingy in finding violations of the rights of African-Americans; and the Court stopped the recount even before it was completed, and before the Florida courts had a chance to iron out any problems — a classic example of judicial activism, not judicial restraint, by the majority.”

Bush, the man who became president via Supreme Court decision, was widely criticized for government inaction and indifference in helping mostly black victims of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina, like the riots in Los Angeles, reminded us of the forgotten and isolated — in this case the disproportionately poor and black residents of New Orleans — who sought refuge in the New Orleans Superdome, a stadium described as a concentration camp. The signs of race were all around, even when the media failed to acknowledge it — from the incompetence at the federal level and media portrayals of victims as “hoodlums,” “animals,” and “thugs,” to the white vigilantes and police gunning down black civilians, the formaldehyde-laden FEMA trailers, and the mismanagement of disaster payments to people who lost their homes.

Meanwhile, the election of Barack Obama reflected the promise of race relations and the projection of black leadership on the world stage, even as his ascendancy precipitated backlash among white right-wing reactionaries and fueled the rise of the militia movement.

And with a black president, race card politics is transformed. The Tea Party and birther movements appear to have grown out, at least in part, from resentment over the president’s race, and a failure to acknowledge a black man with a Kenyan father and a white American mother as the legitimate leader of the nation, with U.S. citizenship.

Labeling President Obama as a Muslim or an Arab terrorist with a foreign birth certificate is a proxy for race. The sentiment that Obama is the “other” has been reflected in GOP recalcitrance in dealing with the president, and personal snubs by conservative lawmakers such as Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) and Gov. Jan Brewer (R-Arizona).

As the equivalent of Jackie Robinson in the White House, the first black president has had to both circumnavigate race and deal with it head on, with varying results. His nomination of Sonia Sotomayor as the first Latina Supreme Court justice is an example of a success. Yet, immersing himself with white guys from Harvard and Wall Street in his inner circle of advisors, and holding the “beer summit” following the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates are regarded as missed opportunities.

Another flashpoint in the ongoing national discussion on race was the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was condemned to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah, Georgia police officer Mark MacPhail, despite strong evidence of his innocence. The Troy Davis case was a turning point in the nation’s use of capital punishment, as it revealed before a national audience the cracks in the justice system. Over 1 million people around the world signed a petition to halt his execution.

People who assumed that the convicted are always guilty and the system always works learned of an arbitrary system where blacks, Latinos and poor whites are disproportionately put to death. And the murder victims in those cases are overwhelmingly white, reflecting a cherry picking by D.A.s of which cases will be tried as capital murder cases. Sometimes, witnesses and suspects are coerced and beaten by police, key evidence is hidden, and black jurors are excluded by unscrupulous prosecutors bent on winning at all costs.

The criminalization of African-Americans has remained a recurrent theme since 1992, when some observers maintained that Rodney King deserved his beating at the hands of police. Two decades later, the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida reignited the issue of criminalization of black youth, and the discounting of black victims’ lives by law enforcement. Geraldo Rivera attributed Martin’s death to wearing a hoodie at the time of his encounter with the gunman George Zimmerman. That Zimmerman is Hispanic with a white father and Peruvian mother provoked discussions on racial identity, whiteness, what it means to be a person of color, and the internalization of racism by minority groups.

Meanwhile, looking back to South Central in the midst of the rioting 20 years ago, Rodney King pleaded for calm: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” Today, the efforts to get along continue, but the process of navigating race in America is ongoing.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove