L.A. Rebellion 1992 Looking Back after 15 years

Poet Maya Angelou dubbed it the "Los Angeles Rebellion." It not only ignited a four-day uprising in L.A., but also inspired hundreds of smaller demonstrations across the globe. Most media merely lip-synced the white suburban cliches of it being a "black riot" caused by "racial tension." Or, when the Rodney King verdict was taken into consideration, they described it as legitimate demonstrations hijacked by hard-core criminals and transformed into a maddened assault on their own community. Such superficial analysis ignores the facts and could not be further from the truth.


First, this monumental event must not be reduced to the experience of any one ethnic group in the United States; instead, it needs to be seen in the context of the entirety of American history. The Watts Riot of 1965, opportunistically named by conservative mayor Sam Yorty after the district where it began  to mislead people to think it was an isolated event rather than a larger revolt, occurred just a few miles south-east of the epicenter of the 1992 L.A. Rebellion at the intersection of Florence and Normandy. The uprising in Watts was the worst civil unrest since the Anti-Draft riots of 1863 in New York City. The explosion in 1965 was portrayed as a conflict between the African-Americans of Watts and the predominately white and Jewish merchants who did business there, but lived elsewhere. The media screamed "race riot," but Martin Luther King, while in Paris in October 1965, set the story straight when he said "These were not race riots, they were class riots." This was repeated by a sociologist, almost verbatim, about L.A. in 1992: "This wasn't a race riot, it was a class riot" (Newsweek, May 11, 1992). They are both correct because there was very little violence directed again individuals (except by the police); the main action was the rage directed at businesses which represented over 300 years of material poverty, beginning with slavery, that left African-Americans no better off in 1965 than they had been 100 years earlier when they had supposedly been emancipated from slavery. In 1865 parasitic opportunists, nicknamed "carpetbaggers," came from the U.S. north to the south which lay in ruins from the Civil War. They bought up land, created corrupt local governments and stirred whites to brutal acts of racism. The government made no effort to enfranchise the former slaves with land grants or land reform. Instead they merely changed the name as slaves became share croppers and worked for their new landlords and masters. So, facing similar conditions in 1965, the African-Americans looted the social wealth they helped create, but which they had always been denied. And their rage found expression in destroying the businesses whose windows displayed the status-laden commodites that had always been out of their reach.


The Kerner Commission was created in 1968 to investigate the social causes of the series of urban uprisings in the U.S. all through the 1960s. They used a sociologist's methodology to find the underlying social causes driving people to rebel. They found that "Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education, and housing have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great number of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress." They went on to say, "The black ghettos are where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure." Their conclusion was to funnel more government funds into the ghetto for programs to create jobs and build housing and hospitals to try to give the appearance of making up for hundreds of years of neglect. Unfortunately, after the 1992 L.A. Rebellion the U.S. government created the Christopher Commission. This group was very much a creation of its historical time. It came after Reagan/Bush in the U.S. and Thatcher in the U.K. spearheaded the New World order that put the final nails in the coffin of Keynesian social welfare. They pushed for a harsher, more severe world with massive cuts in social spending -- most of it shifting to defense spending -- and a new regime of free trade regardless of the cost in human suffering. Hence, the Christopher Commission used a criminologist's methodology and made no attempt to look at the social causes of the uprising. Instead they merely examined all the criminal violations committed by the insurgents. Unlike a thorough medical-like examination that details the cause, then the resulting symptoms and finally proposes a cure, the Christopher Commission only took a superficial look at the symptoms and then arbitrarily rigged some inappropriate remedies. Their recommendations can be summarized as a call for more laws, harsher punishments (meaning building more prisons for more prisoners) and more cops. Simply stated: a recipe to future explosions. Even U.S. Vice-President Dan Quayle, coming off his spelling misadventure (remember P-O-T-A-T-O-E ?) ventured into social theory and pronounced the cause of the rebellion to be the TV show Murphy Brown. This show was about a single white professional (a.k.a. a yuppie) raising a child by herself. He seemed to imply that the insurgents were influenced by the shows demonstration of the breakdown of family values. (Not quite as convenient a target as the L.A. Times which conservatives conflated as the "liberal media" and blamed for fanning anti-Korean sentiment and causing the revolt, but definitely more absurd.) Quayle should limit his intellectual activities to golf.


The 1992 L.A. Rebellion was much more complex than Watts in 1965. Much had changed in South Central L.A. in those intervening 17 years. By the late 1970s most heavy industry had fled the area seeking lower wages on the other side of the Pacific Rim, in places like the industrial estates of South Korea. So, many African-Americans who had only begun to work at the relatively good paying industrial jobs in the late 1960s were finding themselves unemployed within a decade. South Central L.A. also had an influx of more than a million Latinos who came to fill the ever-increasing jobs for illegal aliens. They work long hours, at well below the minimum wage, in unsafe sweatshops reminiscent of mid-19th century Dickensian England. Most Latinos came to escape from (U.S.-backed) military dictatorships and the poverty and corruption of their own countries. They find themselves to be easily disposable laborers because bosses often avoid paying wages by simply having the immigration service deport them due to their illegal status. So, ironically, they leave as African slaves came in -- in shackles. In stark contrast to this, foreign investment flooded back from the other side of the Pacific Rim as Japanese investors built glittering high-rise palaces to lord over the wretched lives of most of the people in South Central, who live in the shadow of the downtown skyline. Koreans also began migrating to the nearby area along Olympic Blvd., called Koreatown, as well as venturing southward and buying up "mom and pop" liquor stores deep into the heart of South Central. There never have been many supermarkets there and these types of stores have always been resented by the community. They sell mostly hard liquor, fortified wines and beer -- at inflated prices -- that fuel the alcohol abuse that has long been a problem of the ghetto. So Koreans, who are often unaware of the area's equally long history of neglect, found their enterprises opposed by community and church groups who had been lobbying the city government to reduce the number of liquor outlets for years. Additionally, the black community has never been able to own property or businesses in large numbers because of the racist practice of economic "redlining" where banks, insurance companies and real estate interests collude to keep blacks permanently dispossessed. So, when faced with a situation like the carpetbaggers during Reconstruction after the Civil War, African-Americans resent anyone coming into their communities with a dominant class position over them and this has been the primary source of tension between African-Americans and Koreans.


By the late 1980s the aerospace and defense industries, which were L.A.'s biggest cash cows and which encircle South Central, were in ruins. L.A.'s economy was collapsing. And the already weak African-American--Korean-American relations began to deteriorate as well with the Latasha Harlins killing. A Korean shopkeeper in South Central, Soon Ja Bu, shot Harlins, an African-American girl who actually had the money for the juice she was accused of stealing in the back of the head, but was let off with a $500 fine and no jail time. American prisons are full of young African-American men serving long sentences for crimes much less violent than murder. The Rodney King beating and subsequent acquittal of the white cops by an all-white jury served as the catalyst to set off the biggest multi-cultural uprising in U.S. history. But, the King beating was not an aberration; it is the everyday experience of poor, mostly minority, working class people, not only in L.A., but everywhere in the United States. The documentation by a helicopter TV news crew of cops brutally beating Latino illegal aliens on the side of a L.A. freeway who were not even resisting only validates what people in the 'hood know happens all the time. Ironically, the carload of people were trying to smuggle themselves into L.A. and were encountering conditions almost as ruthless as the death squads in the countries they just left.


The conditions of African-Americans are worse than in 1965, as wages have declined dramatically, unemployment has skyrocketed, and a demographic shift has occurred where Latinos are becoming the new hyper-exploited underclass and will soon become the majority in South Central. The Latino illegals are not only brutalized by the police, but also must live in a climate of fear from the INS as well. So, everywhere there is the contagion of resentment as humans being feel that they are dehumanized to the point of merely being expendable economic "variables." The King verdict released a discontent that runs much deeper than an immediate response to racism. It was a revolt against exploitation; for African-Americans it has a history of 300 years beginning with slavery and for Latinos it is the contemporary experience of escaping one brutal regime to become the underclass in another. People revolted against the system, not because it exploits unfairly, but simply because it exploits.


The rebellion contained much less of the rage and hatred that had characterized Watts in 1965. Even Newsweek (May 11, 1992) observed: "Looters of all races owned the streets, storefronts and malls. Blond kids loaded their Volkswagen with stereo gear, Filipinos in a banged up old clunker stocked up on baseball mitts and sneakers. Hispanic mothers with children browsed the gaping chain drug marts and clothing stores. A few Asians were spotted as well. Where the looting at Watts had been desperate, angry, mean, the mood this time was closer to a maniac fiesta." In Watts African-American businesses had often appealed to racial loyalty to avoid destruction by putting signs over their storefronts saying "Black owned." In 1992 that was no longer effective as stores owned by African-Americans, Koreans, whites and Latinos (among many other ethnicities) burned to the ground. Koreatown and Korean-American owned businesses in South Central had the misfortune of being in the path of the fury as the uprising spread outward from its epicenter at the intersection of Florence and Normandy and swept a wide swath across central L.A., burning 4,500 stores, 2,300 of which were Korean-owned. The heart of Koreatown is six miles due north and the looting spread well north of there, overtaking Hollywood Blvd another ten miles further, and someone broke out the plate glass at Frederick of Hollywood's lingerie store and stole pop star Modonna's bra. Looters reached the edges of extremely affluent Beverly Hills.Overall, there was about $1 billion damage, Koreans being the largest number of merchants and hence suffered $400 million in losses. Yet insurgents rose up spontaneously all over Southern California, often well away from South Central.


The participants were of all ethnicities; police arrest records defy the media hype of it being a "black riot" and show that of the 12,127 arrested, Latinos were arrested in the largest numbers (43%), followed by African-Americans (34%), whites (14%) and Asians (no numbers available). The Nation magazine (June 1, 1992) exposed that the age range was wide as well when it reported a middle-aged woman participant saying "Stealing is a sin, but this more like a television game show where everyone in the audience gets to win." Despite the ugliness of the media spectacle of the Reginald Denny beating, the 58 (mostly African-Americans) who died, and the sensational images of the material destruction, the L.A. Rebellion had more of the characteristics of a slave rebellion or an 18th century bread riot. In a world of increasingly sophisticated and varied goods, the "have nots" joyfully danced in the streets and unleashed their anger by seizing the wealth that had long been dangled before their eyes, but which had always been denied to them -- and they broke down and destroyed the "plate glass curtain" where these goods taunted them. ABC News (April 22, 1996) released a survey in which 60% of African-Americans said that their socio-economic condition is getting worse and there is no sign of it improving.


Since then the United States has become a land of even more rapidly declining expectations. More humans live on the streets each day, real wages are declining as prices go up, unemployment increases as more companies slash jobs and export them overseas, racists become more vicious and the rich get richer as the poor get poorer. The bottom is falling out of American society and those at the bottom know it and sense it as it happens. The bottom has become not just African-Americans, but more and more it is the workers and poor of all ethnicities that are being forced into the dispossessed class. Watts in 1965 was portentous of the civil unrest that ravaged the major urban areas of the United States throughout the latter half of the 1960s; the L.A. Rebellion of 1992 is portentous of the future of a society in which there is a growing class of people who can see no hope. This was as true in 1992 as it is today.


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