How the L.A. Riots Changed Everything and Nothing

25 years later, the conditions that led to the outrage are easy to see. But are we paying enough attention to the issues unfolding now?

The ancient T-shirt bears a faded image of a black fist rising from a mass of orange flames. In giant letters it declares "NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE."

I bought it 25 years ago on a South Los Angeles corner, flanked by the smoldering ruins of burned-out shops and surrounded by rifle-toting National Guard troops.

I was a reporter covering what would become one of the deadliest riots in American history. I was shocked by the carnage. But I had to admit, at least to myself, that part of my heart was with the people throwing rocks.

That shirt spoke to generations of pain and anger, no longer pent up. Los Angeles' neglected black community had finally suffered enough.

Three days earlier, a suburban jury had acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of assaulting Rodney King, a black man who'd led police on an 8-mile freeway chase. King's brutal beating by officers had been videotaped by a witness and watched by millions around the world.

Within hours of those not guilty verdicts, a stunned Los Angeles began to unravel, then exploded.

Crowds pelted the city's police headquarters with rocks and tore through downtown breaking windows and setting fires. Angry mobs blocked intersections in South Los Angeles, yanking motorists from their cars and beating them bloody. Liquor stores were looted and gas stations set on fire.

The Los Angeles Police Department — astoundingly disorganized and inexplicably caught off guard — retreated and let the mobs rule and the city fall. Schools closed, buses stopped running, businesses shut down. Over the next five days, almost 60 people were killed, more than 2,000 injured, and 8,000 arrested. More than $1 billion in property destroyed.

The devastation was heartbreaking, but I understood the rage behind it. Los Angeles had been building to this moment, with years of protests, meetings, and marches that got little attention outside a black community deemed too wretched and too poor to care about.

Twenty-five years later, as we reflect on that awful week, its roots are clear.

I'd like to think the riot was an inflection point that changed our city and nation in fundamental ways. But I hear echoes of "NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE" in Black Lives Matter today.

Rodney King
Rodney King pleads to the rioters to make peace May 1, 1992 in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Douglas Burrows/Liaison.

"PEOPLE SUFFERED QUIETLY"

The verdict shocked the city, the nation, the world. How could 12 jurors — none of them black — watch a man kicked, stomped, and whacked with batons by a crowd of cops and decree that police had done nothing wrong?

The explosion that resulted cracked the facade of what had been considered a progressive multicultural city. It laid bare decades of racial injustice and rank inequality.

"The King verdict was not the cause of the riots," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, head of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. "It was the final straw for the hurt, suffering, and frustration that had been building in South L.A. for years."

Indeed, by the early 1990s, the black community seemed to be collapsing in on itself.

The unemployment rate in South Los Angeles hovered near 50 percent among black men. The crack cocaine epidemic was ripping families apart and fueling deadly gang feuds. Violent crime was at record highs; more than 1,000 people were killed in Los Angeles in 1992, compared to fewer than 300 in 2016.

Police attacked those issues like an occupying force, routinely harassing young black men and using military tanks to bust into residents' homes in search of drugs and guns.

"People suffered quietly," recalled filmmaker John Singleton, whose documentary on the riots, "L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later," premieres on A&E on April 18 (9 p.m. ET). "They felt they did not have a voice."

The creators of the documentary L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later discuss why we need to better understand the reasons behind the riots.

In that swath of the city, police brutality had become the norm. A study the summer before the riots confirmed that the LAPD was riddled with racism and bias, poisoned by an outlook skewed against residents and a siege mentality among officers.

The department's disdain for the community was so profound and ingrained that the shorthand code among officers for crimes involving blacks was NHI.

No Human Involved.

AN UNFORGETTABLE SHOOTING, AN UNFORGIVABLE VERDICT.

To understand the outrage that gripped the city, you have to understand what "justice" looked like to black Los Angeles in April 1992.

If the King verdict represented the death of hope, the Latasha Harlins case from the previous summer was the noose around its neck. There could be no clearer signal that black lives didn't matter. But that injustice was met with vigils, not a riot.

Latasha, 15, had been shot to death the year before in South Los Angeles by a Korean liquor store owner who accused the girl of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. A video of the encounter showed the teenager trying to pay for the drink just before the shopkeeper pulled a gun.

The merchant, Soon Ja Du, was convicted of manslaughter and could have been sentenced to 16 years in prison. Instead, a white judge let her off with probation and a $500 fine. "It should be a time of healing, not revenge," the judge told Latisha's anguished family as she handed the sentence down.

The light sentence heightened tensions with Korean immigrants, who had long been accused of treating black customers poorly in the liquor stores they owned.

Five months later when the riots erupted, revenge won. More than 2,000 Korean-owned businesses were damaged or destroyed and $400 million in commerce and property lost.

To the local Korean community the damage went beyond the physical and financial; it was the collapse of their American Dream.

But others saw it as the sort of collateral damage that warfare exacts. To the soldiers in the streets, setting fires, looting stores, and busting heads was justifiable payback for generations of indignities.

"It was our day," declared Henry "KeeKee" Watson, one of the men convicted in the beating of a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, at Florence and Normandie, an intersection considered the flashpoint of the riots. "We shut that city up!"

In Watson's view, things haven't changed much in 25 years. "I was pissed then and I'm still pissed," he said. "And if you're black and you don't feel that, you've got an identity problem yourself."

Woman outside of a destroyed business after the L.A. riots
A woman stands outside of a destroyed business after the riots in L.A. Photo by Joseph Sohm.

TODAY: OLD PROBLEMS, BUT NEW DISCUSSIONS

The physical recovery from the riots has been slow in South Los Angeles. A quarter-century later, there are still too few resources and too many vacant lots. After a burst of civic attention, promises of investment evaporated and enthusiasm waned.

But for a nation watching, the uprising was a valuable wake-up call: A signal that the problems of inner cities could not be solved with firepower and battering rams. A reminder that "justice for all" was still a long way off.

"There was a whole set of lessons we learned, but the overarching theme was everybody counts," said Los Angeles Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who grew up in and now represents the area hardest hit by the riots.

The rebuilding process engaged the entire community — from gang members who initiated a truce that helped quell street violence to senior citizens demanding secure and comfortable housing.

"It changed our civic institutions, our public discussion," Harris-Dawson said. "What happens now when there is a social or political insult to our community, there are places to go where people can talk."

The riots also spotlighted the ineffectiveness of long-standing institutions.

"The traditional civil rights organizations had become part of the establishment," Harris-Dawson observed. "The set of people and the priorities they worked on made it hard for anyone else to have an agenda."

South Los Angeles residents had long complained that the area had too many liquor stores, the source of loitering and drunken assaults. That was not on the radar of civil rights groups. But when the riots wiped out 200 liquor outlets, a new group of activists from the Community Coalition made sure most of them stayed shut.

And complaints about the LAPD were finally taken seriously. A commission appointed to evaluate its performance condemned officers' widespread use of excessive force and the failure of upper management to appropriately intervene.

Still, it took several years — and a high-profile scandal, with dozens of officers involved in corruption, drug dealing, planting evidence, and beating suspects — for reforms to take hold.

Ultimately, the riots led to the end of the LAPD's lifetime-tenure for police chiefs, the creation of a civilian oversight board, and changes in recruitment and training that paved the way for "community policing" and called upon officers to act as guardians, not warriors.

That's led to a vastly improved police force, Harris-Dawson said. "But that did not come without a good amount of community struggle and a federal consent decree."

Protesters in San Diego, CA in November 2016 against police brutality
Demonstrators fill the street in San Diego, CA on November 29, 2016 protesting police brutality and other causes. Photo credit: BILL WECHTER/AFP/Getty Images.

TENSIONS TODAY THAT NEED ATTENTION

In some ways the riots heralded today's new era of civil unrest — with a videotape as catalyst, a militarized police response, and the emergence of young activists with their own agenda and tactics.

But the riots also prompted an exodus of working-class black families to outlying counties. A community that was once majority African-American is now two-thirds Latino. And the sort of wholesale changes needed to help South Los Angeles achieve stability never materialized.

It is still one of the poorest communities in the region, with stubbornly high unemployment, a poverty rate double that of Los Angeles County, and a shortage of basic amenities like banks, parks, grocery stores, and health centers.

And a recent rise in crime and police shootings shows there is still much work to do.

Crime in Los Angeles is still far below 1992 levels, but violent crime increased last year for the third year in a row. South Los Angeles outpaced other areas, with such a dramatic jump — a 34 percent hike in the past two years — that the LAPD sent extra platoons of elite Metropolitan Division officers to the area last fall to suppress gang shootings and homicides.

Some residents were comforted by the show of firepower, but others worry that it spells an end to community policing and a return to heavy-handed tactics.

In fact, police shootings have been rising across Los Angeles. In 2015, the LAPD had 48 officer-involved-shootings — more than New York City, Houston, or Philadelphia, and 18 more than the year before. Twenty-one of those hit by police gunfire died.

"Right now, the police are out of control," said retired LAPD Lt. Michael Moulin. "Instead of hurting people, we're now killing them."

Moulin was commanding forces in South L.A. when the riot began, and was publicly blamed for the department's retreat by discredited LAPD Chief Daryl Gates. But he's convinced the death toll would have been much higher if his officers — unprepared and underequipped — had tried to contain the angry mobs.

"We are just a click away from some very terrible unrest in this country," Moulin said. "I don't think we've learned anything in 25 years."

That sentiment unsettles me. I'd like to think he's wrong.

But when I think about my "NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE" T-shirt, now tucked away in the attic, the smell of smoke and sound of sirens come rushing back.

And when I look around my country — at Ferguson, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Charlotte — it feels a lot like 1992 again.