Leimert Plaza Park: Where the Community Speaks

This past July, crowds of Angelenos took to the streets and freeways to protest the not-guilty verdict awarded to George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. In South L.A., the demonstrations caused shop owners to display "Black Owned" signs from their storefronts, a move that evoked the dark days of 1992 when the city erupted in violence after five police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. In response, community leaders and Mayor Garcetti pleaded with protesters to keep things under control.

In Leimert Park a peaceful protest was underway in the Plaza, a crowd of several hundred united in mourning the death of Martin and expressing their discontent at the judicial system. After the arrival of the LAPD, and dozens of arrests later, the gathering was dispersed. In the days following the announcement of the verdict, Leimert Plaza instantly became a safe space for protesters who felt justice had served the wrong man.

For residents of the area, a congregation at the Plaza was nothing new. Since the 1980s Leimert Plaza has been a go-to community space for the African American community.

On Oct. 15, 1989 the Los Angeles Free South Africa Movement marched from Jackie Robinson stadium to Leimert Park,  calling for a boycott on companies doing business with South Africa. Image: Dean Musgrove, courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Kwanzaa parade on Dec. 31 1988. Image: Steve Grayson, courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

In 1997 former Black Panther Party member Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt was released from prison after serving nearly 27 years for crimes he did not commit. On the day of his release the Revolutionary Worker had this to report:

It was Geronimo Pratt Day in Los Angeles. Celebrators gathered at Leimert Park in the Crenshaw district for an hour-long rally. A Black woman stood on the corner of Crenshaw and Vernon Avenue, waving a large red, green and black flag, shouting over and over "Free all political prisoners! All power to the people!" A man next to her held a small sign, "Honk 4 Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt," and the steady honking from cars and city buses sounded at times like one long blast, punctuated by the cry, 'Freedom!'

In 1995 Leimert Plaza was host to a rally calling for a re-trial of journalist and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, whom many believe was wrongfully accused of murder in 1981. The reverend Jesse Jackson and representative Maxine Waters made speeches before the crowd that day. An L.A. Times writernoted this observation: "At Leimert Plaza on Saturday, the dreadlocks, African prints and UCLA T-shirts worn by some protesters contrasted with the bow ties, conservative suits and cropped hair of Black Muslims."

When gay marriage was temporarily banned in 2009, activists and clergy members convened at Leimert Plaza to send a message of solidarity "in the heart of the black community."

More recently a job rally was held at Leimert Plaza Park, in which county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas reminded attendees that new hiring mandates with Metro would ensure that 40% of the workforce behind the Expo Line extension would come from economically depressed areas.

The Plaza has also been the backdrop for many spontaneous gatherings as well. One recent example was a reading session for children, meant to reclaim the park after heavy police presence endured in the wake of the Trayvon Martin vigil. These days Leimert Plaza is home to one of the longest running drum circles in the city -- percussionists and dancers can be found there every Sunday. The Leimert Park Art Walk has also been drawing crowds every last Sunday of the month, with rotating vendors and musical performances.

It's clear that the Olmsted Brothers-designed space, meant to serve as the public hub of the master planned community, is doing just what it should in the black cultural hub of Los Angeles.

The drum circle in Leimert Plaza | Photo: leimertparkfestival.blogspot.com
Children's reading session meant to reclaim the park after heavy police presence in the days after the Trayvon Martin verdict. Photo by Shine, leimertparkbeat.com

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