The more things change ...
The LA Riots forced real social reform, but not nearly enough
By Randy Jurado Ertll 04/26/2012
Altadena’s Rodney King certainly wasn’t the first person of color beaten by police. And the truth is, now, on the 20th anniversary of the rioting sparked by the acquittal of the four LAPD officers accused of the crime, that same kind of brutality would probably be even more commonplace than it currently is in LA’s poor areas, had King's vicious beating not been captured on video.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, countless individuals were beaten by rogue LAPD officers, who were influenced by then Chief Daryl Gates. Chief Gates liked to portray himself as a tough-as-nails cop. He was willing to use any means necessary against the “bad guys,” who were usually black or Latino. There was even a popular rap song back then titled “The Battering Ram,” referring to the military vehicle that was used by LAPD to conduct drug busts.
During that time, the LAPD’s “good over evil” image became murky and blurry. Some LAPD officers who were fighting against the thugs themselves became thugs, behaving in illegal and unethical ways through the protection provided by their badges. Many felt unrestrained power with the badge, a baton and a gun — all provided by taxpayers. The “us vs. them” mentality that developed as a result created much distrust and suspicion between police and minority communities.
Many officers were seen as an occupying force, one whose members did not live in the areas they patrolled. Some officers felt superior and saw poor African Americans and Latinos as undesirable. Racism was not subliminal, but totally obvious.
The war on drugs gave a green light for many officers to randomly arrest and beat anyone who appeared to fit the profile of a gang member or drug dealer. No effective accountability entity existed to put all that corruption in check.
Then, April 29, 1992 occurred. The four LAPD officers who savagely beat Rodney King were acquitted, and people living in South and South Central LA — all too familiar with such injustices — were outraged. That anger exploded into all out rage, creating the most destructive urban riot in US history.
Among the positive outcomes of the LA riots was that the LAPD was forced to reform. A police commission with oversight powers was created, Chief Gates resigned and the Christopher Commission came up with many proposals for reform, including one to revise the city charter to impose term limits on the chief of police.
It is also important to point out that the media chose to make the LA riots a white, black and Korean issue. The Latino community was mostly ignored in the coverage, with the main Latino spokesperson to emerge being actor Edward James Olmos, who on live television took a broom and asked others to join him in cleaning up Los Angeles after the looting and arsons.
Despite the invisibility of Latinos to the media, the riots served as a wake-up call to the broader Latino community, igniting concern largely from immigrants who, for years, had quietly endured the abuse of an out of control LAPD; street vendors, day laborers and youth were now gathering at community meetings and telling their stories of harassment and abuse.
Fear of the LAPD was particularly pronounced among school-aged teens, who were frequently profiled as gang members, even if they were just walking home from school with their friends.
Twenty years later, Los Angeles now has a Latino mayor, a chief of police who believes in community policing and a City Council that actually acknowledges certain social justice issues. However, we still have a long way to go, and the injustices of the past still linger.
Areas such as South LA, Koreatown, Pico-Union/Westlake and other high poverty communities continue to be neglected. Liquor stores and cheap motels are still commonplace in South LA and other poor areas. The business leaders of Los Angeles have not done enough to bridge the gap between rich and poor. It is still a city divided mainly by economic class.
Regardless of race, the real question now should be how future elected officials will help create jobs and job opportunities in poor and neglected areas that have not improved much since 1992. We need to hold the current mayoral candidates responsible for what they propose to do in order to help revitalize South Los Angeles.
Some community-based organizations and churches have remained and grown in South LA, but many businesses have closed.
The poor people who were the victims of the LA riots now have children. We just hope that these young people will be able to get good educations and good jobs. Otherwise, the same vicious cycle of poverty that contributed to creating conditions that led to the riots will continue in South LA., Central Los Angeles, Koreatown, Pico-Union/Westlake, and other poor areas will remain neglected, dangerous and without real hope.
Let's just hope and pray that real change will one day arrive. Let us not wait another 20 years for that to occur.
Randy Jurado Ertll, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, is the author of the book “Hope in Times of Darkness: A Salvadoran American Experience.” Visit his Web site at randyjuradoertll.com.