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Manuel Pastor Headshot

What's Going on?

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If you were anywhere on or near the streets of Los Angeles twenty years ago this week, the unsettling sights, sounds and acrid smells of civil unrest are fastened to your memory like few other events.

We both remember where we were at the exact moment we learned that four LAPD officers, seen on videotape beating Rodney King, were found not guilty of all charges. It is even easier to recall the fear that came when violence erupted, the shock that set in as the city went up in flames.

More than 50 people lost their lives, thousands were injured and estimates of property damage and other losses reached $1 billion. Hundreds of businesses were destroyed, never to return.

Yet even as we look back on the two decades since those verdicts resulted in what are commonly known as the L.A. Riots, misconceptions linger about the nature of the uprising. Getting that history right is essential to understanding why, and how, Los Angeles is moving toward a brighter future.

The most misleading and harmful myth, hardened into apocryphal legend by the sensational images broadcast around the world, is that those six days in 1992 were best defined as a racialized conflict between African-Americans and Koreans.

As a community activist and local professor, we are first-person witnesses to the undeniable reality that poverty and economic distress -- not race -- were the primary factors in the upheaval. Indeed, we are determined to see that history records the unrest for the "rainbow uprising" it was: a multiracial affair that involved Whites, African Americans, Latinos and Koreans in the violence, but more importantly, also in the subsequent drive to responsibly rebuild our communities.

Whatever role race relations did play in the uprising, twenty years of hard work have put them on a steady march away from the city's troubled history. According to a poll by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, the percentage of Angelinos who consider race relations good has swelled from 34 percent in 1997 to 68 percent today.

This new era is attributed in no small part to the fact that several multiracial organizations committed to social justice -- Community Coalition, Strategic Concepts in Organizing Policy Education (SCOPE), Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), Labor Strategy Community Center and L.A. Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), Community Build among them -- began or grew in their capacity and professionalism directly after the 1992 unrest. Their increased access to resources resulted in successful campaigns that impacted land use policy, living wages, community benefit agreements, jobs and economic development in South Los Angeles.

While this change didn't come quickly, demographic shifts and relationship-building efforts are what actually delivered truth to power, and allowed people to make grassroots-level changes that transformed communities.

There is still an incredible amount of work to be done. The last twenty years of progress have been defined not by division, but by coalition-building at the grassroots level to demand a bigger voice in public policy. The L.A. story we know is about how people, regardless of race, reunited with a vision to rebuild the city we love.

Karen Bass represents the 33rd Congressional District, which includes Los Angeles, Hollywood and Culver City and was the 67th Speaker of the California Assembly.

Manuel Pastor is professor of American Studies & Ethnicity and director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California. His most recent book, co-authored with Chris Benner, is Just Growth: Inclusion and Prosperity in America's Metropolitan Regions.