20 Years Later: Legacies of the Los Angeles Riots

Los Angeles Riots, 1992. [via LA Weekly Blogs]

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.

Video footage taken by George Holliday of the March 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police. [Image via the Blog of Rights]

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.

Rebuild LA

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.

Top: Los Angeles Riots, 1992. [Photo via Museum of the City] Middle: A soldier in the 1st Marine Division patroling Crenshaw Boulevard during the Los Angeles Riots, 1992. [Photo via Wikimedia] Bottom: The Los Angeles Times, front page, May 1, 1992. [Image via L.A. Times Blogs]

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.

Activists protesting the proliferation of liquor stores in South Los Angeles, ca. 1992. [Photo via Community Coalition South LA]

Empowerment Zones

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.

Police Reform

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.

Mural in South Los Angeles, ca. 2009. [Image via carnegie.org]

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.

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from the chapter “The Ambiguous Legacies of the 1992 Riots,” in the anthology Planning Los Angeles, edited by David Sloane and published this month by APA Planners Press. It appears here with the permission of the publisher.

  1. For scholarship on the 1992 Los Angeles riots, see Lou Cannon, Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed the LAPD (New York: Times Books 1997); Robert Gooding-Williams, Reading Rodney King / Reading Urban Uprising (New York: Routledge, 1993); Denise DiPasquale and Edward L. Glaeser, “The Los Angeles Riot and the Economics of Urban Unrest,” Journal of Urban Economics, 1998, 43(1): 52–78; and Edward T. Chang and Jeanette Diaz-Veizades, Ethnic Peace in the American City: Building Community in Los Angeles and Beyond (New York: New York University Press, 1999).
  2. See Denise DiPasquale and Edward L. Glaeser, op cit. Also James H. Johnson, Jr. and Walter C. Farrell Jr., “The Fire This Time: The Genesis of the Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992,” North Carolina Law Review, 1993, 71(1), 1403–20.
  3. See Amanda Shaffer, The Persistence of L.A.’s Grocery Gap (Los Angeles: Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, Occidental College, 2002); see also Robert Gottlieb, Mark Vallianatos, Regina M. Freer, and Peter Dreier,The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
  4. For a description of Rebuild LA’s accomplishments in the post-Ueberroth era, see “History of Rebuild LA,” Rebuild LA Collection (The Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles Research Collection, Loyola Marymount University).
  5. Kyeyoung Park, “Confronting the Liquor Industry in Los Angeles,” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 2004, 19 (7/8): 103–36.
  6. See Annie Park, Nancy Watson, and Lark Galloway-Gilliam, South Los Angeles Health Equity Scorecard (Los Angeles: Community Health Councils, 2008).
  7. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community Program: Improvement Occurred in Communities, but the Effect of the Program is Unclear (Washington: U.S. GAO, 2006). See also James H. Spencer and Paul Ong, “An Analysis of the Los Angeles Revitalization Zone: Are Place-Based Investment Strategies Effective Under Moderate Economic Conditions?,” Economic Development Quarterly (2004), 18 (4): 368–83; and David E. Dowall, “An Evaluation of California’s Enterprise Zone Programs,” Economic Development Quarterly (1996), 10 (4): 352–68.
  8. Lou Cannon, Official Negligence, 592.
  9. Jill Leovy, “A New Way of Policing the LAPD,” The Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2002, A1.
  10. The geographic boundaries of South LA refer to the census tracts bounded by Alameda Street on the east, Imperial Highway on the south, Crenshaw Boulevard on the west, and Martin Luther King Boulevard on the north.
  11. For a thoughtful discussion of arrest statistics in the LA riots, see Peter A. Morrison and Ira S. Lowry, A Riot of Color: The Demographic Setting of Civil Disturbance in Los Angeles (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1993), esp. 17.
  12. Lou Cannon, Official Negligence, 585. On the increase in labor force participation rates in South L.A. since 2000, see also Paul Ong, Theresa Firestine, Deirdre Pfeiffer, Oiyan Poon, and Linda Tran, The State of South LA(Los Angeles: UCLA School of Public Affairs, 2008); and Andrew Cuomo, New Markets: The Untapped Retail Buying Power in America’s Inner Cities (Washington: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1999).
  13. Michael Porter, “Realizing the Inner City Retail Opportunity: Progress and New Direction,” presentation at the Inner City Economic Forum, Atlanta, GA, September 19, 2006.
  14. Black family median income in Los Angeles increased from approximately 80 percent of the countywide median in 1999 to approximately 83 percent in 2009. See U.S. Census 2000, Summary File 4 (SF 4) – Sample Data, Table PCT119; 2005-2009 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Tables B19113, B19113B.
Josh Sides, “20 Years Later: Legacies of the Los Angeles Riots,” Places Journal, April 2012. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/120419

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Past Discussions View
  • 04.19.2012 at 14:07

    Many thanks for this excellent article, great narrative of the evolution of South LA, connects the dots between the different actors (local, federal, political & social...). Particularly appreciate the reference material and sources.

    Fyi, most residents of South LA prefer to refer to events as the 1992 Civil Unrest or Protests, since "riot" implies a pre-mediated attack by anarchists/anti-social elements. Sorry for the semantics lesson, but words/perception do matter...

  • 04.20.2012 at 09:36

    RIOT: A violent disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled for a common purpose.

    Words DO matter. One should recognize the outrageous violence associated with this event. It was unquestionably a riot, and the author of the piece is to be applauded for not trotting out the soft sell.

    One also wonders if those who advocate terms such as "civil unrest or protests" in the light of such carnage also refer to, say, the equally despicable East St. Louis Riots of 1917 as a Civil Unrest? Perhaps the 40 - 200 victims of that rampage had fallen to a Civil Protest?

  • 04.21.2012 at 00:11

    Zizek has a helpful distinction regarding the concept of violence. Subjective violence involves the kind of specific acts that ordinarily shock or disturb us. Things like beatings, murders, riots, bombings etc.

    Objective violence on the other hand is the violence that exist within a social system itself, as a feature of its very founding and operation. Objective violence is the violence that produces our sense of what is normal, as this is conditioned by capitalism, unsustainability, the state etc.

    The argument extents into a question of liberal bias vis a vis violence. It is easy to perceive and be offended by subjective violence. However, like a frog in water slowly coming to the boil, we find it impossible to perceive objective violence directly because this violence is the condition of our everyday experience. As such the forces of objective violence (police, prisons, economic policy) will often be called in to address instances of subjective violence, instances that may very well derive from the ordinary function of objective violence (unemployment, ghettoisation, forced migration etc).

    In being referred to as a solution to the problems it creates, objective violence continues to refine its functioning. In this sense we get a more popularly tolerable form of 'democratic' policing rather than fascist beatings (the common denominator being social control), hardline crackdowns on criminals (feeding the prison industrial complex) and business or property investment opportunities (gentrification). In this way the subjective violence produced by the objective conditions is either redirected, hidden, shifted or translated into something more controllable (NB the function of design here in terms of visual and spatial politics) - the emphasis being on managing the movement of social antagonisms rather than resolving them. So while subjective violence needs to be managed so that objective violence can continue, objective violence can use subjective violence to refine its own functioning.

    From this we can recognise that the riot was a terrible event but we should not lose sight of the conditions that created the event and the response to it, which, in the end, followed the same logic of managing antagonisms rather than resolving them. We can note here that the problem is not just one of black oppression specifically (i.e. we don't get out of this by pointing to a growing black middle class), but rather it is in the way conditions produce and make use of class and racial oppression generally.

    Therefore, if there is a violence here to be outraged by, it is as much in the fetishisation of the riot, an effect that precludes the kind of systematic analysis that registers objective violence, than in the riot itself (granted of course that it was violent).

  • 04.24.2012 at 15:34

    Hi Mattew: Thank for frog in the boiling pot metaphor, most apt.

    Love these thoughts!

    May I add that this crest of objective violence tracks a straight line from the Watts Unrest of 1965... Basically, a very simple question was being asked: "is your life better now?" "what has really changed?"

    These questions are still being asked, as the essay above indicates, but I'm happily confident that civil unrest is less likely to erupt over a single incident.

    I think the value of understanding the boiling pot/objective violence has not be lost on leaders in Paris and London; they've been taking notes! Sound like good news, doesn't it?


  • 04.26.2012 at 07:18

    "I think the value of understanding the boiling pot/objective violence has not be lost on leaders in Paris and London; they've been taking notes! Sound like good news, doesn't it?"

    No not really. If establishment leaders survive 'unrest' what they generally learn is new ways to prevent, control, suppress and/or manage dissent, i.e. keeping the frog oblivious. To carry on with the distinction between subjective and objective violence, what leaders fail to do is address the objective (systemic) violence of a situation. In this sense the issue is not solved simply because one group of people in a region is pacified. The general violence of the system still exists, but the subjective manifestations may shift to a place outside of our (media controlled) perception.

    This is why Walter Benjamin argued for value of 'divine' violence, an organised act of resistance such as a general strike that had the power to overthrow the system that perpetuated 'mythic' (~objective) violence.

    Therefore I would argue that there is probably more value in having the general population learn how to use (divine) violence against the establishment rather than having leaders learn new ways of maintaining their control.

  • 05.01.2012 at 14:49

    So Matthew,
    are you advocating the use of Divine Violence as a means of usurping (admittedly inefficient) institutions of authority, i.e., revolution? I think we have enough historical precedence to indicate that revamping the gameboard and replacing new actors simply creates a veneer over a system. This is because (political) institutions are inspired by culture/values, and evolve over time.

    IMHO, The problem is not the Institution and its Values, it's the change in stakeholders or the inefficient application of values.

    How about the notion of Pervasive Pacifism, the kind of civil "violence" that has its roots in civil disobedience in that it does not reject the system, but it rejects the inefficiencies, hypocrisy and contradictions. Typically, the reaction to Civil Disobedience is that the "establishment" attempts to integrate agents of Civil Disobedience into itself to keep the frog oblivious. Unfortunately, these "double agents" draw on their own values/perspective to function like an antidote and readapt the system over time....

    I believe it's asking a lot of the general population to suspend inculcated beliefs and habits in support of Divine Violence against specific events. The jury is still out on the Occupy movement, but the criticism doesn't seem to be about its attempts at Divine Violence as much as the perceived inability to promote structural/sustainable change inspired by culture & values.

  • 05.10.2012 at 22:52

    My argument has been about resisting the popular liberal view of violence that generally fails to both observe or understand systematic violence and chastises any form of violence that is not state violence (e.g. ordinary military or police work). I don't advocate violence per se, but I do think it is much more complicated concept than is usually acknowledged.

    I would argue that in countries like Australia, the US and England, you have a situation where violence is so ingrained in the way societies are structured that many forms of it are naturalised and misrecognised (boss/employee, gentrification, prisons, patriarchy, colonisation). Within these societies you have a large and generally compliant middle-class who avoid the experience of force, while marginalised groups of people such as the long term unemployed, mentally ill, homeless etc experience a much higher level of explicit state control, surveillance, harassment and coercion. E.g. In 2008 Aboriginal people represent only 2.3% of the total population, yet over 14% of Australia's prison population are Aboriginal people.

    Because there are different experiences of violence, and because I would argue that all violence is political, I would not automatically judge an act of non-state violence as morally or tactically wrong. In some cases it definitely is, but in others, such as the struggle for autonomy by the Zapatistas or in Exarcheia in Greece, I think the violence is arguably justified (if still horrific and tragic).

    Benjamin's characterised divine violence as a violent event that ends mythic or systematic violence. I agree that replacing the actors in a position of power is insufficient to ending this kind of violence (eg Egypt), but that's not what something like a general strike, Benjamin's example of divine violence, would necessarily aim to do. Rather, a general strike as I understand it is about workers taking control of their work as workers, that is, not as a means to replace bosses, police, politicians etc. It is not the kind of movement that aims to replace individuals within chain of command but to forcefully flatten, thereby changing, the institution of work itself.

    The value I see in thinking through something like a general strike is to recognise that our power to take action against violence is not limited to voting, or lobbying etc within a controlled system of representative democracy. We can be much more powerful, and much more democratic, when we organise ourselves to take collective action.