As Baltimore continues to seethe with protests over the yet-unexplained death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody, the shadow of the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest looms large. 23 years ago this Wednesday, a series of riots, protests, looting, and killings exploded in the neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles as community members voiced their outrage at the acquittal of four white police officers for their brutal beating of a black man, caught on videotape. When the unrest subsided six days later, the city had lost 53 people to the violence and faced property damage estimated at up to $1 billion.
The Los Angeles race riots, as they were often called, represented the biggest instance of civil unrest since the 1968 protests swept the country following the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They gripped the national psyche and forced comprehensive changes to the Los Angeles police department. Yet over two decades later, as a curfew goes into effect to keep the peace in Baltimore, it isn’t clear that we have learned all that much from the Los Angeles unrest.
In March 1991, a black taxi driver, Rodney King, was driving two passengers when police officers tried to stop him. King refused to stop, leading the cops on a high-speed chase through Los Angeles. When the cops finally apprehended the car, they arrested all three people, but not before savagely beating King. The four white officers might have gotten away with it too, had a man not managed to record the incident on his camcorder. The video, when it surfaced, shows King trying to crawl on the ground as the officers lay into him. It made national headlines and sparked righteous indignation from the local community.
But even with the video evidence, a jury found the four officers in question not guilty of assault and only convicted one for the use of excessive force in apprehending King. The verdict, which came down on April 29, sparked almost instantaneous protests in the local community, and hundreds of people marched on the courthouse. As the night progressed, the crowds grew and the moral outrage turned to violence. For the next six days, South Central Los Angeles and the surrounding neighborhoods became riddled with burning buildings, looted stores, and damaged bodies. So many fires were set that the police and fire departments couldn’t keep up.
President George H.W. Bush took to primetime television to decry the violence as anarchy and its perpetrators as criminals. The Los Angeles mayor declared a state of emergency and set a curfew to quell the streets. When the police couldn’t handle the unrest, the National Guard stepped in and put boots on the ground in Los Angeles for several weeks.
In Los Angeles, the riots’ size — tens of thousands were estimated to have taken part, and police authorities ended up arresting more than 11,000 people — along with the graphic intensity of their media coverage took the nation by surprise. How could this happen? How could people resort to such violence?
Today, these questions remain.
The similarities between the Los Angles unrest and the civil disturbances in Baltimore are unmistakable. Both were motivated by incidents in which white officers appeared to mistreat black men in their custody. Both began as peaceful protests of the criminal justice system. Both turned to violence and looting as the pent-up frustrations of these communities — which face systemic economic deprivation, social marginalization and political impotence — exploded.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic: “None of this can mean that rioting or violence is 'correct' or 'wise,' any more than a forest fire can be 'correct' or 'wise.' Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.”
Now this is not to diminish or overlook the substantial differences between the two cases. The Los Angeles riots destroyed more property; they took many lives. And they inflicted a substantial degree of physical and psychological harm on L.A.’s Korean community, fanning tensions between the various ethnic and racial groups. Furthermore, we still do not know what happened to practically sever Gray's spine, break three of his vertebrate, and crush his windpipe.
But the pattern of disrespect and deprivation remains the same.
In Gray’s part of town, more than half of the residents dealt with unemployment between 2008 and 2012. The median household income is far below the citywide average. Nearly a third of the buildings were vacant and boarded in 2012. Almost half of teenagers were chronically absent from high school, and a fourth of them faced arrest at least once between 2005 and 2009. The violent crime rate was 1.5 times the rate afflicting the rest of the city.
After the riots broke out in Baltimore on Monday after Gray’s funeral, many set out to explain and condemn the “gangs” and “thugs” who were rioting, looting and burning the city. (Strikingly, there was little talk of the estimated 10,000 residents who marched peacefully through the city streets to demonstrate their dissent and call for change in police practices.)
Many continue to characterize the unrest not as moral outrage and frustration, but as self-interested instances of deviance and crime. When pundits talk about criminals and thugs, they can characterize the situation in Baltimore as the result of some bad apples and divert our attention onto how bad apples become that way. We can feel safe and secure that the problem rests with them, the people who committed these acts of violence, rather than consider the ways in which a violent system of economic marginalization, political negligence and state-sanctioned control of these communities made such acts of violence possible.
If these riots are only your run-of-the-mill crimes, we can be content to stand on the sidelines and call loudly for order.
We have not learned from the 1992 Los Angeles race riots if we continue to view these civil disturbances as depoliticized, random events. We cannot continue to be surprised. And we cannot continue to absolve the state of its responsibility for placing these people in an unjust, unbearable situation in the first place.
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