Los Angeles

How Los Angeles Has Changed 25 Years After Violence Tore the City Apart

Protests today have not eclipsed the violence of the 1992 riots. The chair of UCLA's department of sociology noted: "The difference today is we see it all the time"

Rioters took over the streets of Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, lighting fires, looting stores and causing mayhem after a jury acquitted four white Los Angeles Police Department officers of the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King.

More than 60 people died and thousands were injured. The riots caused more than $1 billion in damage.

Many watched in horror on their TVs as rioters severely beat truck driver Reginald Denny. Members of the Korean community picked up arms in the absence of police and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed across much of the region.

Thousands of California National Guard troops, Marines, and members of federal law enforcement agencies were deployed to help local police and order crowds to disperse.

What has changed -- demographically, socially, economically and politically -- in the region since the riots tore the city apart 25 years ago?

Politically, the biggest shift is the higher number of Latino elected officials holding office, said Fernando Guerra, a political science and Chicano professor at Loyola Marymount University and director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles. Blacks maintain the same number and Korean Americans occupy the fewest number of elective offices, he said.

The number of Latinos and Asians continues to increase, he said, while blacks and whites maintain their numbers. The city's economic disparity is worse today, with a shrinking middle class, than it was then. A decrease in industrial jobs and an increase in tech and service jobs have created an increasing number of rich people, but also an increasing number of poor people, Guerra said.

"Next year, LA County will be richer than any other county, but it will also create more poor people than any other county in the country," Guerra said.

Socially, Guerra said, he's seeing more people than ever before claiming an Angeleno identity, suggesting "a sense of belonging, a sense of place."

"The greater the sense of belonging, the more you're going to protect that place and 'try to get along,'" Guerra said.

He talked about results from a survey done every five years since the riots that asks residents how they feel about their city, race relations and the direction the city is going.

Over the years, LMU researchers found that the farther away from the events of 1992, the more comfortable people are in the direction of the city, race relations, and the belief that there won't be a repeat of the riots in the next five years.

Results set to be released Wednesday from this year's survey show the numbers are higher than they were in 2012, but still lower than in previous years.

"Now, we're stagnating in terms of community-police relations and race relations," said Guerra.

Darnell Hunt, a professor and chair of UCLA department of sociology, said that while police and community relations have improved since 1992, tensions remain.

He said that groups such as Black Lives Matter, fueled by high-profile police confrontations across the country, remain active. But the protests have not eclipsed the violence of the 1992 riots.

"It was more shocking to see the acquittals after having seen the video, which was really one of the first times that this widespread practice had been exposed and documented," Hunt said. "The difference today is we see it all the time. We're almost desensitized to it because of these changes in technology, the widespread availabitliy of smartphones."

Political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson said vows by city leaders to pour money into South LA businesses remain unfulfilled.

"These are the conditions that still exist 25 years later, unchanged," he said.

Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside, said 2,280 Korean American owned businesses were destroyed in the riots. One Korean American, Edward Lee, was killed near a Korean restaurant in Koreatown. Many Korean Americans lost their livelihoods. Some suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. Others felt unfairly portrayed by the media as a community of vigilantes.

Chang said Korean Americans have made great strides in gaining a voice. The city of LA swore in its first Korean American city councilman, David Ryu, in 2015. Activists from the so-called 1.5 generation of immigrants who came to the U.S. when they were young, are returning to their communities and pointing to the riots as the reason they're coming back, Chang said.

But there is more work to be done, Chang said.

Young Korean Americans need to put themselves in line for political careers and need to institutionalize the political process, he said.

"They have to have an organizational structure, support particular candidates and particular issues," said Chang, also the founding director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies. "I call April 29, 1992 a wake up call and watershed event that turned around Korean American consciousness."

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