For two fateful days at the end of April and the first day of May 1992, I ducked around police cordons and barricades, and cringed in fear at the cackle of police gunfire. I choked, and gagged on and was blinded by the thick, acrid smoke that at times blotted out the sun and gave an eerie surreal Dante's Hell feel to Los Angeles. I watched many Los Angeles Police Department officers stand by virtually helpless and disoriented as looters gleefully made mad dashes into countless stores. Their arms bulged with everything from clothes to furniture items. I watched an armada of police from every district throughout California and the nation, National Guard units and federal troops drive past my house with stony, even scared looks on their faces, but their guns at ready.
I watched buildings, stores and malls that I shopped at and frequented instantly disappear from the landscape in a wall of flames. Several friends that lived outside L.A. and were concerned about my safety implored me to leave my home in the middle of the riot area and stay with them until things blew over. I thanked them but I decided to stay put. As an award-winning journalist, I felt bound to observe and report first-hand the mass orgy of death and destruction that engulfed my South Los Angeles neighborhood during the two fateful days of the most destructive riot in U.S. history.
The warning signs that L.A. was a powder keg were there long before the Simi Valley jury with no blacks acquitted the four LAPD cops that beat Rodney King. There was the crushingly high poverty rate in South L.A., a spiraling crime and drug epidemic, neighborhoods that were among the most racially balkanized in the nation, anger over the hand slap sentence for a Korean grocer that murdered a black teenage girl in an altercation, and black-Korean tensions that had reached a boiling point. And above all, there was the bitter feeling toward an LAPD widely branded as the nation's perennial poster police agency for brutality and racism.
This year, on the 20th anniversary of the King verdict and the L.A. riots, many still ask the incessant question: Can it happen again? The prophets, astrologers and psychics couldn't answer a question like that with absolute certainty. But there are two hints that give both a "yes" and no answer to the question. The yes is the repeated questionable killings of young unarmed African Americans by police and quasi-authority figures, such as Trayvon Martin and Kendrec McDade, nationally and in L.A. County. This continues to toss the ugly glare on the always fragile, tenuous, and at times openly hostile relations between African Americans and the police. The other cause for wariness is conditions in South L.A. and other urban communities.
In the two decades after the riots, South L.A. and the many other South L.A.s of America have been written off as vast wastelands of violence and despair. Many banks and corporations, as well as government officials, reneged on their promises to fund and build top-notch stores, make more home and business loans, and provide massive funding for job and social service programs in the poorest of the poor, Black, inner city areas. Many business leaders still have horrific visions of their banks and stores going up in smoke or being hopelessly plagued by criminal violence.
The National Urban League, in its annual State of Black America reports every year, grimly notes that Blacks have lost ground in income, education, healthcare and their treatment in the criminal justice system compared to whites. They are more likely than any other group in America to be victimized by crime and violence. African American flight has also drastically diminished Black political strength in Los Angeles and statewide.
In the past two decades, the number of African Americans in the California legislature has shrunk, and there is the real possibility that blacks could lose one, possibly two, of their three Los Angeles city council seats in the next few years.
On the fortieth anniversary in 2005 of the other L.A. riot that ripped the nation, namely the Watts riots in 1965, the L.A. chapter of the National Urban League and the United Way issued an unprecedented report on the State of Black L.A. The report called the conditions in South L.A. dismal, stating that Blacks still had higher school drop-out rates, greater homelessness, died younger and in greater numbers, were more likely to be jailed and serve longer sentences, and were far and away more likely to be victims of racial hate crimes than any other group in L.A. County. The report has not been updated, but even the most cursory drive through the old riot areas still shows that for many residents little has changed.
On the other hand, there's the hint of a "no" that it can't happen again. There is the election of President Obama, the unprecedented expansion and prosperity of black middle class, the major reforms imposed on the LAPD through consent decrees, commissions, and command changes implanted by the LAPD to improve police-community relations, outreach and diversity, and reduce the use of force. The LAPD is no longer seen by many as an occupying army in the ghetto. There's the sharp reduction in crime and gang violence, and the alleviation of black-Korean tensions in South L.A. These are cautious, but hopeful signs for the present and the future.
The L.A. riots are no longer the national and world symbol of American urban racial destruction, neglect and despair. But it's is still a cautionary tale; a warning that despite the political hope and positive changes in South L.A., the poverty, violence and neglect that made the L.A. riots symbolic may not have totally evaporated twenty years after the flames.
Part Two: Twenty Years After the Flames: The LAPD How Far Has it Come?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the "Al Sharpton Show " on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of "How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge." He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.