Roots of L.A. riots lead to those with most to lose

July 06, 1992|By Ashley Dunn and Shawn Hubler | Ashley Dunn and Shawn Hubler,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- In years to come, when historians examine the roots of the Los Angeles riots of 1992, they will be led not to the city's most desperate housing projects, but to neighborhoods of manicured lawns, weekend barbecues and unbarred windows.

And when they sift through police records for the first documented act of violence, they will find not the armed hand of a gangster or gang member, but the raised fist of a 19-year-old store clerk who was so enraged at the Rodney King verdict that he uncharacteristically hurled a rock at a white motorist.

Police records, census data and community interviews indicate that the first outbursts of mayhem following the King beating verdict occurred in some of its most stable neighborhoods, not in the poorest parts of black Los Angeles.

The riots quickly spread to other sections of Los Angeles, spurred on by darkness, television coverage and the caravans of looters who sped through the city, but the initial burst of outrage that erupted spontaneously after the King verdict transcended mere economic despair.

From Hyde Park, where the first stone was cast, to the now infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie, the flash points stand apart from the largely bleak statistics of South Los Angeles.

The median household income in Hyde Park is about on par with that of Catalina Island's balmy Avalon, the unemployment rate is lower than beachfront Venice's, and the crime rate is far lower than that of the city as a whole.

In the neighborhood around the intersection of Florence and Normandie, the percentage of families that own their own homes is higher than in Pasadena, Calif., and more than a dozen households boast incomes above $150,000 a year.

But despite the trappings of material comfort, there is a painful sense among black residents that they are still second-class citizens who have been consigned to live on the margins of the American Dream.

"It seems like no matter what you try to do, it's just in vain," said Carolyn Horn, a 47-year-old aerospace worker who lives near Florence and Normandie. "Your color is your calling card. Out there, I'm just black."

Many residents condemn the violence of the riots but add that after a lifetime of bitterness and racial injustice, they at least understand the outrage that launched the city into three days of chaos.

From inside tidy living rooms, during scores of interviews in the weeks since the riots, they tell of police gang operations over the years that have affected grandmothers to infants. They talk about the suspicious stares that dog them in the tony shops of the city's Westside. They rail against a system that exonerated the police officers who beat Mr. King.

"We eat, we sleep, we have clothes. We don't want for anything except being treated fairly," said one resident near Florence and Normandie who did not want her name used.

The rioting began in areas that, on the face of it, had the most to lose from looting and violence. Police maps of 911 calls for April 29 show that the poorest areas of the city had few emergency calls until later in the evening. The maps show only a handful of hot spots in the first 1 1/2 hours after the verdict, followed by a mushrooming of violence as televised coverage of the Reginald Denny beating was aired and darkness set in.

Troy Duster, head of the University of California, Berkeley, Institute for Social Change, hypothesized that the Rodney King verdict struck hardest at black working people who had a stake in the system and who felt most keenly let down.

"If you're part of a group that is unemployed and out of work, you aren't holding out any hope -- you've always thought the system was unjust," Mr. Duster said. "But if you're a hard-working person who spends eight, 10, 12 hours a day, working and saving, working and saving, you can imagine their fury if something in the system were to reveal that it was all really corrupt."

Urban theoretician Mike Davis adds that long-standing conflicts between black Angelenos and police may also have fueled a black working-class rage that was ignited by the King verdict. "I think anger at the courts and police is almost transcendent of social class in the black community," he said.

Throughout the city, black residents have complained that the Police Department has been unable to distinguish friend from foe -- for instance, they say officers typically assume that any young black man is a gang member with criminal intent.

Vehicle stops and street-side questionings by the police have left a generation bitter, especially among middle-class blacks, who feel they are still treated with suspicion despite their material gains.

The informal rules of behavior that have evolved for children in South Los Angeles seem at times, they say, like living under martial law: Never drive with more than three in a car, never talk on the street in a group, never drive through a white neighborhood after dark.

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