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20 Years After the L.A. Riots -- More Hope in South L.A. Despite Economic Realities

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As we mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest on April 29, many are asking the question, "What has changed in South Los Angeles?"

In communities like South L.A., sometimes referred to as the "donut hole" by urban planners because of the lack of jobs and commercial development and investment, it is easy to fall into the prevailing narrative of hopelessness.

Afterall, it is difficult to see how anything ever really changes when the median household income for Blacks and Latinos in South L.A. from 1990 to 2009 has DECREASED; when the unemployment rate for Blacks in the same period is mostly unchanged; and when more than half of our kids still do not graduate from high school.

To the unfamiliar eye, our community may not look that physically different either. Community Coalition, which opened its doors in 1990 near the epicenter of the riots, is still fighting the overconcentration of liquor stores in our neighborhoods -- work we started more than two decades ago.

Yet, I still see more hope than hopelessness. As someone who grew up here most of my life and returned after college as a community organizer, I know that South L.A. is a very different place than it was 20-25 years ago.

Those fiery nights in late April prompted the city, the country and the community to take a long look in the mirror at what needed to be changed. To the top of the agenda arose three items -- reform the police department, rebuild communities ties fractured by the crack epidemic and violence of the 1980s, and increase economic investments and opportunities in South L.A.

The biggest change has been the Los Angeles Police Department's approach to policing in our neighborhoods. The relationship between police and the community is far from perfect. Racial profiling, police brutality and general harassment of young men of color is still a significant problem in South L.A. as it is in South Florida, New York City, Pasadena, etc.

But many longtime residents who lived in terror under the oppressive reign of Police Chief Daryl Gates will tell you that today's police force looks and acts differently. The near-all white police force that routinely used paramilitary tanks and battering rams and struck so much fear in residents is gone. It has been replaced by a more racially diverse force that puts greater effort into community policing and engagement.

Back then, police conducted massive sweeps on the weekends -- locking up so many "suspected" gang members or affiliated individuals that they used the USC football stadium as a booking station. Now city leaders, policy makers and the police embrace smarter and more effective intervention and prevention strategies such as the city's Summer Night Lights program designed to keep youth engaged and out of trouble during the summer.

And the liquor store problem that became such a high-profile and visible target during the riots? While South L.A. still has too many liquor stores there has been a more than 20 percent reduction in alcohol outlets since 1992, thanks mostly to community activism.

These reforms and others in education and crime reduction are definite reasons to be hopeful about the direction we are headed. But how these changes came about is equally important.

There were many individuals and institutions that understood what Martin Luther King meant when he said that riots are the expression of the voiceless. Community Coalition mobilized thousands of residents in the aftermath of the civil unrest to successfully prevent the city from rebuilding more than 150 of 200 liquor stores that burned down. Medical students from the local Muslim community started UMMA Clinic in 1992 to address health care injustice in South L.A. These are just two small examples of those that heeded the call for urgent action.

Today there are so many more community organizations, churches, advocacy groups and citizen bodies than ever, working across racial lines and creating vehicles for everyday residents to direct their frustrations not at each other but at the systems that produce them.

Looking back it is easy to see how the community held its side of the bargain. It is also clear the LAPD has made a tremendous effort to reform itself. Unfortunately the broader business community has not stepped up in ways promised after the civil unrest. Vacant lots still dot our landscape. We still lack enough grocery stores, banks and basic services, leaving South L.A. residents to wonder why the other part of town gets retail businesses and they get chain-linked fences.

Unfortunately, these persistent economic inequalities overshadow the progress made on other fronts. While CEOs from Wall Street to the oil companies are making over $12 million a year, the main streets of South L.A. are dotted with foreclosed homes and long lines of people waiting outside churches, work source centers and food banks.

Until we change the basic dynamic that allows a small handful of people to hoard the wealth in our country while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet, it is very easy for hopelessness to prevail. It is very easy to feel that the more things change the more they stay the same.