City under siege
Local leaders assess how far we’ve come since the 1992 LA riots
By André Coleman 04/26/2012
When Marcus Parker looks out over the city from the second-floor balcony of his home in South Central Los Angeles, he no longer sees the place where he grew up.
“I always said I would never leave the neighborhood,” the now 51-year-old Parker told the Weekly. “I didn’t leave it. They took it from me.”
Parker is talking about the six days of rioting that began April 29 two decades ago this week, which tore through his and hundreds of other neighborhoods following the acquittals of four LAPD officers caught on videotape beating motorist Rodney King of Altadena.
“They came in here and burned it down. All you could do was leave or lock your door and hope they didn’t light the place on fire,” the still embittered Parker recalled of places where he had shopped and hung out that no longer exist.
After it was all over, 53 people were dead, 11,000 people were arrested and 1,100 buildings were burned, with more than $1 billion in total damage, according to The Associated Press.
Today — with the recent shootings of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin of Florida by neighborhood watch guard George Zimmerman and unarmed 19-year-old Kendrec McDade by Pasadena police — some are seeing uncomfortable parallels between the days of the riots and now. Many people wonder if such a thing could happen again. Still others say it will happen again if race relations in this country do not improve.
“What happened in 1992 should never happen again,” NAACP Pasadena Branch President Joe Brown said Monday. “Sadly, in this political atmosphere, when the first African-American president doesn’t receive the respect that he deserves, and more and more of the services for struggling families are cut and our young men are victims, people are getting angry all over again.”
Attorney Joe Hopkins, one of the first people the King family called following the beating administered by former LAPD Sgt. Stacey Koon and officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseño, doesn’t foresee anything like the rioting of 20 years ago.
“Things have changed,” the veteran civil rights lawyer said. “There are a new set of circumstances for black folks to deal with, but equality is still elusive.”
“Obviously, it was very painful period for everyone,” said Pasadena Councilman Chris Holden, a Democratic candidate for the state Assembly. Holden said he also wasn’t sure whether such a thing could happen again.
“Some people felt like the criminal justice system did not work. There was an outpouring of emotion that was reflective of much more than what went on in the courtroom — class struggles, rich and poor, opportunities for some and none for others. If you were at the top, you were doing fine. If you were at the middle or the bottom, you were on your own,” observed Holden, who is African American.
“It was a convergence of a lot of social dynamics that, in some ways, are still out there in our society,” the longtime lawmaker said. “I don’t think it is at the same level, but you never know.”
Although the King case had many direct local ties, and racial tensions had been running high prior to the trial of the four officers following the Tournament of Roses’ controversial selection of a descendant of Christopher Columbus to lead the 1992 Rose Parade, the verdicts rendered in favor of the officers that day in Simi Valley didn’t elicit reactions here in Pasadena similar to those in LA’s neighborhoods of color.
Although store windows in Old Pasadena were either boarded up or fenced off a few days prior to the verdicts, there were no reports of violence, except in a neighborhood on Los Robles Avenue, just north of Washington Boulevard. On May 2, partygoers there attracted the attention of police, which eventually cordoned off a portion of the street as the sun went down.
Soon, shots were ringing out, and officers returned fire at muzzle flashes emanating from the dark. A policeman’s ricocheting bullet entered a second-story apartment wall, killing Howard Martin, 22, of Pasadena.
“We didn’t have a lot of issues here, but like other police departments, we had to step back and look at how we interacted and carried out our responsibilities and, even more importantly, how the community felt about how it was being policed,” said Pasadena Police Lt. Phlunte Riddle. “I think police departments have come a long way. That doesn’t mean everything is the way we would like it to be, but there is more sensitivity on how you treat those in your community, no matter their race, religion or economic status.”
Shortly after the controversial verdicts were announced, white truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his vehicle at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues in Los Angeles and beaten nearly to death on live television. Three days later, King appeared on television and delivered his much ridiculed plea for peace, “Can we just all get along,” at the height of the carnage.
“I lived in LA on Crenshaw [Boulevard] at the time,” said Pasadena community activist Tarik Ross. “I had to drive to the Marina to go get groceries. I had to drive 10, 15 miles to get gas. Everything in my area was looted and burned down. It wasn’t just the King beating. It was also the Latasha Harlins shooting.”
Three weeks after the airing of bystander George Holliday’s videotape of the King beating, 15-year-old Harlins was shot and killed by Soon Ja Du, a Korean store owner who believed the teen was stealing a carton of orange juice. Du saw the girl placing the carton in her backpack but did not see the money in her hand. After a physical confrontation, Harlins placed the orange juice on the counter and tried to leave the store. Du shot her in the back of the head and later claimed self-defense. Du, who was defended by famed civil rights lawyer Johnnie Cochran, later received five years probation but no prison time.
“Young people need to be educated about the LA riots,” said Blair International Baccalaureate School senior Jahi Vaughns. “We are unsettled, and the pot is being stirred again. George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin and he is out on bail already.”
Prosecutors were slow to charge Zimmerman after the neighborhood watch captain followed, shot and killed the unarmed Martin in a housing complex where Martin was staying with his father. Zimmerman has been charged with second degree murder, but he was released last week on $150,000 bail. Much like the Harlins’ case, Zimmerman is claiming self-defense, as did Du, and the right to “stand his ground,” according to Florida law.
Holden wondered if the same social conditions that existed then still exist today.
“Are we investing in job creation, where people can feel hopeful instead of hopeless? When people are struggling and it takes four years to get out of community college, where is the hope, and where is the future? If needs are still not being met,” Holden said, “then people are still angry out there.”