There is no precise yardstick for tragedy. Horrible things happen and we try to measure their impact —lives lost, property destroyed, dreams denied. But 20 years after Los Angeles was swept up by the riots that began in late April 1992, despite much effort, we are no closer to a comprehensive understanding of their meaning than we were in the days and weeks afterward. 1 We can, however, observe significant changes in the institutional and cultural landscape of South Central Los Angeles.
In the wake of the riots, planners, politicians, investors and community leaders offered up good-hearted and ambitious proposals to alleviate the chronic problems of unemployment, poverty, poor health, social isolation and physical abuse at the hands of law enforcement agents. But very few of these proposals produced fundamental changes in South Central L.A., especially for its African-American residents; and ultimately the most enduring change in the area over the past two decades — the transformation from an infamous black ghetto to a predominantly Latino immigrant community — was never planned. In many respects the story of South Los Angeles since 1992 is a cautionary tale, one that reminds us of the profound limits of planning and policy-making in regions of extraordinary demographic dynamism.
In retrospect, the Los Angeles riots seem inevitable. By the early 1990s, few of the promises of the civil rights era of the 1960s or the Tom Bradley era of the ’70s and ’80s had been fulfilled. Unemployment remained alarmingly high — as much as 25 percent among young black men; rates of drug addiction and alcoholism soared; gang violence was exacting a staggering toll on South Los Angeles. 2 In 1991 and 1992 — the dreadful record years for homicide in Los Angeles — more than 3,200 people were murdered in the city, most of them young black men.
Then, in March 1991, television screens across the world broadcast the videotaped footage of LAPD officers raining down 56 baton blows on an African American named Rodney King. Two weeks later, viewers watched another act of sickening violence when a Korean grocer shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old black girl named Latasha Harlins after an altercation over a bottle of juice. In October, the grocer was convicted of manslaughter and served no jail time. Finally, on April 29, 1992, a jury in Simi Valley, one of the whitest exurbs of Los Angeles, acquitted three of the four officers involved in beating Rodney King. The response in South Los Angeles was loud and immediate: That night, thousands of residents, black and Latino, took to the streets, starting a four-day riot that destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, injured 2,500 people, killed 58, and resulted in $1 billion in damage and 16,000 arrests.
Before the riots had even ended, Mayor Tom Bradley and Governor Pete Wilson announced what would become the most high profile and ambitious response: Rebuild LA. An “extra-governmental task force” that would later become a nonprofit corporation, Rebuild LA sought to harness the power of the private sector where — presumably — the public sector had failed. Bradley assembled a team of 80 top business and political figures under the leadership of Peter Ueberroth, the former baseball commissioner who had brilliantly managed the first privately financed Olympic Games, held in Los Angeles in 1984. But in the case of this very different charge, Ueberroth’s exuberance may have been his downfall; Rebuild LA would repeatedly overpromise and underachieve.
Among the most significant of the promises was the creation of 57,000 new jobs within five years, mainly through the construction of badly needed grocery stores; here the centerpiece was a commitment by the Vons supermarket chain to build 12 new stores in the riot-torn district. But as it would happen, the supermarket industry — roiled by mergers, labor disputes and new demands for larger facilities — proved to be precisely the wrong industry to jumpstart South L.A.’s flagging economy. Vons soon reneged on their commitment; and a decade after the riots a survey by scholars at Occidental College concluded that there was no net gain in supermarkets in the area. As one group has fairly concluded, “Rebuild LA was less an agenda than a series of pronouncements.” 3 Thirteen months after his appointment, Ueberroth left Rebuild LA. The organization limped along for several more years, achieving a few modest victories before closing its doors permanently in 1997. 4
Liquor Store Abatement
Efforts to mitigate the proliferation of liquor stores in South Los Angeles have met with greater, if quieter, success than the Rebuild LA campaign. As has been typical in American cities since the 1950s, liquor stores were greatly overrepresented among retail establishments in South Central L.A. Historically, this created two grievances among African Americans: first, that residents must pay higher prices for foodstuffs in liquor stores than they would in larger grocery stores, and second, that the surfeit of alcohol encourages addiction and damages community health. Even before the riots, in fact, African Americans in South Los Angeles had organized the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment to tackle the “the liquor store menace.” Led by Karen Bass, a community activist and future member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Community Coalition scored an important victory by compelling the city to intensify its issuance of conditional use permits, which allowed residents greater control over the hours, location and even the lighting of proposed liquor stores.
Because liquor stores were flashpoints for so much violence — about 200 of South Los Angeles’s 728 liquor stores were destroyed during the four days of the riots — they became prime targets for policy reform in the months and years afterward. Most significantly, the Community Coalition secured the support of prominent council members to reject fast-track approval for their reconstruction; and they defeated an assembly bill designed to limit community involvement in the rebuilding efforts and ultimately prevented most of the stores destroyed in the riots from reopening. 5 Today, South Los Angeles is still burdened with proportionally far more liquor stores than are affluent neighborhoods. 6 But the riots triggered significant policy changes in the realm of “social hazard” zoning that have enhanced, however modestly, the quality of life.
The concept of empowerment zones, in which employers receive government incentives to operate in impoverished areas, predates the ’92 riots. But like liquor store abatement, this concept too gained currency as a result of the violence; Bill Clinton made enactment of the Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities Act, of 1993, a hallmark of his young administration’s urban policy. Using this federal program, as well as California’s own Enterprise Zone program and the Los Angeles Revitalization Zone (also created in response to the riots), employers could receive federal tax credits, wage credits, capital gains deductions, city business tax waivers and Department of Water and Power subsidies. Given this menu of incentives, one might have anticipated an employment revival in South Los Angeles. But research on the impact of the enterprise zones, both nationally and in Los Angeles, suggests that they were not effective at luring employers to impoverished areas.
A frank assessment of the federal empowerment zone in Los Angeles, conducted by the Government Accountability Office, found no appreciable growth or reduction in unemployment in the target area; and in the L.A. Revitalization Zone, investment seems to have been limited to permit applications to repair buildings lightly damaged by rioting, with little positive effect on larger-scale investment. 7 Explanations for the failure of the empowerment zone concept abound: too many homeless people were included in target areas; large businesses could not find sufficiently large parcels; businesses that took advantage of low-interest loans often defaulted. But there is also that great unreported variable: perception. Probably no combination of tax incentives and favorable loan terms would have spurred investment in an area perceived to be rife with crime and prone to riots.
The videotaped beating of Rodney King, and the subsequent hearings of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department (also know as the Christopher Commission) spurred some of the most sweeping reforms in LAPD history — fundamental changes which transformed the historically violent relationship between the police and the residents of South Los Angeles. When Tom Bradley assembled the Christopher Commission less than one month after the beating, he sent the clear message that the violent culture of the police department would have to change, and the commission’s report detailed just how entrenched that culture had become. Among other discoveries, the commission found that: “a significant number of officers in the LAPD repetitively used excessive force against the public and persistently ignored the written guidelines of the Department regarding force”; “the problem of excessive force is aggravated by racism and bias”; “the failure to control these officers is a management issue”; “the complaint system is skewed against complainants.” This last point was illustrated by this stunning statistic: of the 2,152 citizen complaints of excessive force between 1986 and 1990, “only 42 were sustained.” 8
As a result of the report, the LAPD — although sometimes haltingly — instituted dramatic reforms, most specifically aimed at the use of force. These changes were implemented through extensive training for new recruits, the introduction of non-lethal weapons like pepper spray and beanbag rounds, and the virtual abandonment of the side-handled metal baton. 9 Just as important, Chief Bernard Parks overhauled the citizen complaint process, requiring all complaints to be formally investigated by Internal Affairs or the police chain of command — precisely where they had formerly been swept under the departmental rug. By 2002, 15 percent of complaints against officers were sustained, compared to the two percent documented by the Christopher Commission. And in 2005, the police commission began posting abridged summaries of all use-of-force incidents on its website. This level of transparency and accountability would have been unimaginable before the beating of Rodney King became notorious as a result of a bystander with a video camera.
A New South Los Angeles
The diverse initiatives that sought to “fix” South Los Angeles following the riots were generally understood by Angelenos to be campaigns to help African Americans in South Los Angeles. 10 After all, South Central Los Angeles — its official name before the city council changed it to South Los Angeles in 2003 — had become virtually synonymous with black crime, poverty and gang violence. The music, film and fashion industries had freely capitalized on “South Central” ever since the rap group N.W.A. popularized the name in their wildly popular 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton. But in this context one oft-quoted statistic from the riots stuck out: 51 percent of those arrested were Latino, while only 38 percent were African American. 11 Close observers had already noticed that, according to the 1990 census, Latinos constituted 45.5 percent of the population of South Los Angeles. And subsequent censuses only confirmed what was easily visible on the ground. By 2000, Latinos represented 58.5 percent of the population of South LA; by 2010, 66.3 percent. In 2010, the “black district” of South Los Angeles was only 31.8 percent black.
As much as African Americans lamented the loss of a traditionally black community, the Latin Americanization of South Los Angeles was an economically advantageous development. “What salvaged Los Angeles in the mid-1990s,” the journalist Lou Cannon has argued, “was a burst of economic activity led by Latino immigrants.” 12 The infusion of Mexican and Latin American families, who appear to have a high rate of labor force participation, produced an increase in the purchasing power in those communities. Harvard economist Michael Porter, founder of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, who has been focusing on inner-city purchasing power for the last decade, assessed in 2006 that inner-city residents in the United States spent $122 billion on retail annually. 13 In the first decade of the 21st century, developers and retailers have responded to rising Latino purchasing power by building stores, malls and housing in areas once regarded as risky for cautious investors. In South Los Angeles today you will find about a dozen Starbucks, those ubiquitous bellwethers of discretionary income.
Simultaneously, the demographics of black L.A. have transformed in ways that improve the economic power of South Los Angeles even as they disrupt the old coherence of the region’s black community. Thousands of poorer African Americans, priced out of the bullish real estate market of the late 1990s and early 2000s, left the city for more affordable places in Riverside County, the Antelope Valley and Nevada. And a healthy proportion of middle-class blacks have been migrating, since the 1990s, to cities like Atlanta and Charlotte, where black entrepreneurialism is ascendant, southern culture has been redefined for the better, and housing prices are significantly lower than in Los Angeles. And at the same time, the African Americans who have remained are generally more solidly middle class than their departing counterparts (one quick indicator is the modest increase in black family median income, relative to the countywide median, over the last decade 14). Perhaps most significant is the black community’s commitment to affirming its ongoing political and cultural influence on the region through dozens of campaigns and events, including, for instance, the recent Fix Expo campaign, which has focused on bringing a light-rail stop to the thriving black arts community of Leimert Park.
If the demographic trends of the past two decades continue, we can reasonably expect South Los Angeles to be about 20 to 25 percent African American by the next census, in 2020; at which point there may no longer remain any visible legacies of the riots of 1992. One might find instead an extraordinarily diverse and highly integrated community of Californians for whom the anger, despair and violence of 1992 seem as antiquated as the days of Jim Crow.