“April 29th brought power to the people.” – Ice Cube
Reflecting back on the 20 years since the Los Angeles uprising that followed the not-guilty verdict for the four white police officers who beat Rodney King, so much in Los Angeles has changed. But so much has also remained the same. Los Angeles is definitely a different city, politically. We have a second-term Latino Mayor and a City Council that would never again hire a police chief like Daryl Gates, nor tolerate the antics of a Los Angeles Police Department which, as we used to say, should change its motto from “To Serve and Protect” to “Treat You Like a King.”
Changes to the LAPD did not come easy, nor did they entirely stem from lessons learned from the 1992 people’s revolt. If that were the case, you would think those lessons would have been learned after the 1965 Watts rebellion, also sparked by police abuse. No, changes to the LAPD came after two massive corruption and criminal conspiracy scandals.
America’s larger popular law enforcement narrative tends to absolve the police of criminal conspiracy. But in LA’s crack epidemic during the 1980s and 90s, the evidence of corruption is there. Just a few years before the L.A. Rebellion, during Congressional hearings on the Iran Contra scandal, we learned that CIA operatives turned a blind eye to the massive drug smuggling in Los Angeles by U.S.-backed Contras. The Reagan administration had sought to circumvent Congress’s elimination of funding for the brutal Contras. The President wanted to fund his murderous anti-Marxist zealots, but how? Perhaps they could get into the import-export business. Perhaps they could use cargo planes landing near Los Angeles to pick up illegally bought weapons. And so it went.
The “Drug War” became the national policy in response to not only the dramatic increase of drug use in post-industrial America. These law-and-order responses targeted inner city youth who engaged in drug use, sales and trafficking. Police megapower now had a cover and ample funding. Abuse was only a matter of time. The Rampart police scandal broke just a few years after the 1992 Rebellion. Los Angeles authorities had to work hard to show that the drug dealing, murder, robbery, and racketeering was confined to just that one Pico Union police division.
This was the the LAPD in 1992. If white America did not know it, residents south of the 10 Freeway and north of the 91 Freeway knew it too well. The police had all the power and were above the law. But it is one thing to know something and quite another to have it come to a full realization. Caught so vividly on tape, the Rodney King beating and the not guilty verdict for the four police who beat him was the epiphany that slapped L.A. in the face.
On April 29, 1992, Los Angeles lit up in flames. It was not the arid shrub that burns periodically, but rather the rage within segments of the community furious over that not-guilty verdict. Caught on video, images of the March 1991 beating quickly ran on television around the world — “going viral,” in today’s parlance — accompanied by an almost universal presumption of guilt for the police officers involved. Almost universal.
But many South L.A. Blacks and Latinos were angry about injustices that went well beyond the police abuse they already knew so well. They were also upset about the loss of economic opportunity in their communities. American manufacturing had turned its back on inner city Los Angeles, as in other big cities, with the closing of Firestone Tire and General Motors plants and the massive loss of large aerospace manufacturing jobs. Poverty was at an all-time high. Inner-city business was reduced to check cashing, fast food, small struggling restaurants, auto repair shops, the occasional government office and grocery stores. In many cases, especially with regards to Korean-owned and -run grocery stores, the owners of these business hired few people locally and did not themselves live in the community.
Between grocers prejudiced about inner city Blacks and weary of petty theft, the tension between neighborhood Black and Brown youth and Korean shop owners was thick. Then, just 13 days after the Rodney King beating, Latasha Harlins — a 15-year-old black girl – was killed, shot in the back of the head, by Soon Ja Du, owner of South L.A.’s Korean Empire Liquor Store. Latasha was falsely accused of stealing a carton of orange juice. Also caught on video, the shooting shows Latasha turning her back to the grocer and attempting to walk away as she is shot at close range and killed. Police arrived to find young Harlins dead with the $2 for the juice clutched in what Charlton Heston would call her “cold, dead hands.”
Du claimed the gun went off by accident and was convicted of second degree manslaughter, with the jury recommending a 16-year sentence. Remarkably, Judge Joyce Karlin reduced the sentence to a ridiculous five-year probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. Tension had already been high between Black and Latino residents and Korean grocers, and this perceived insult did not help matters.
Growing up, many of us felt these store owners treated us like animals. We were not allowed to enter the stores with book bags after school and could only enter two at a time. The owners often randomly searched our pockets and rushed us out of our store after we bought their overpriced goods.
Enough was enough. The rebellion was not just about Rodney King, just like it was not just about Latasha Harlins, nor just about poverty and despair. But the rebellious and retaliatory feeling after the cops beat the rap said this was one slap too many:
-Post-industrial economic devastation -Rampant police abuse and impunity -Extreme poverty -Dilapidated inner-city schools post integration -Dependency on public assistance -The side effects of drug and alcohol abuse -Increased inner city violence that led to police raids and arrests but no peace -Disrespect from merchants
It had all been too much.
Looking back, the question that comes to mind most is not “where were you,” or “how did you feel when you heard the ‘not guilty’ finding.” The real question became, if Los Angeles is all the things I have mentioned and is, at the same time, Hollywood, Westwood, Beverly Hills and Downtown, then what is Los Angeles? Why are there so many poor and hungry people who feel so targeted and so left out in a county that is consistently America’s number one home for millionaires? (Last count, we are home to 231,000 millionaires).
Perhaps outside of the wealthy fortresses in certain gilded L.A. neighborhoods, we are a series of favelas of extreme poverty cordoned off by cops, walls, and freeways. But perhaps another barrier exists — one that permeates our minds and tells us where those of us who live in those favelas can and can’t go and what we can and can’t do. Perhaps this was the barrier that was broken on April 29, 1992. The response to the not guilty verdict was not “let’s file an appeal.” The response was, “Fuck this!”
The accompanying mix of music is not designed to offend or target anyone. It is not pro-looting or anti-police. It is a mix by DJ Sloe Poke and our best attempt to describe the feelings at the time of the verdict and the days after, as well as the reaction to the destruction of the inner city jobs, the crack cocaine explosion and the war on drugs, which targeted youth of color.
This article originally appeared on laprogressive.com. Javier Gonzalez is the Managing Director for The Sound Strike Artists Boycott of Arizona. The Sound Strike is a coalition of artists that have come together to do more to engage musicians and fans around the need to repeal Arizona's SB 1070 and to work to stop bigoted and hatful legislation targeting migrants. For more information visit www.thesoundstrike.info.