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This L.A. Riots Exhibit Traces the Roots of Discontent Going Back to the 1900s

Newton’s Third Law of Physics suggests that for every action there is a reaction. In “No Justice, No Peace: L.A. 1992,” an exhibition on view at the California African American Museum through August 27, curator Tyree Boyd-Pates re-contextualizes the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, showing how the violent days following the acquittal of four police officers in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King  has its roots in generations of racism, vice and civil unrest going back to the early 1900s -- content that you will not learn in history books.

LA Riots exhibition at California African American Museum | Brian Forrest
Brian Forrest

As patrons enter the exhibition, they are greeted by soothing colored walls and large format images to offset the serious material. Rodney King, who is central to this exhibition, looms larger than life. His image is affixed on a yellow wall and integrated with his well-known appeal, “Can We All Get Along?”  Sharing the same wall is an image of L.A. engulfed in large plumes of smoke titled, “LA Uprisings (1992)." Nearby is a grand black & white image of a teenager wearing shorts a white t-shirt, socks and sneakers, standing in front of the remains of a burned out storefront steadied with metal bars, bearing the title of the exhibition. These images send a signal to viewers to prepare themselves: this cogent exhibition is not conceived to make you feel warm and cozy.

In panel after panel of oversized photographs, text and ephemera, the exhibition chronicles the oppression of marginalized communities that have been impacted by housing discrimination, racial profiling and bestial police violence that transformed the lives of many in the public sphere.

Every element holds its own weight. The “Housing Discrimination in Los Angeles (1910s-1960s)” installation contains a striking image of a black woman standing abjectly with her five children perched on the steps of their home. The caption reads, “No part of any lot shall ever at any time be used or occupied or permitted to be used or occupied by any person not of the white or Caucasian race—Los Angeles City Housing Declaration of 1942”. In the early 20th century, during the second wave of the Great Migration, blacks abandoned the South and moved west. Jim Crow laws were still in effect in California, which precluded black migrants from receiving fair housing and spatial mobility. “In West Coast cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles…restrictive housing covenants included Asians, Latino American as well as, Jews and African Americans.” [1] 

Search for weapons, Watts Riots, 1965 | Courtesy the Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library
Search for weapons during the Watts Riots, 1965 | Courtesy the Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

L.A. cultural history is reflected in the gallery exhibiting an original zoot suit, which activated the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943. Black and Latino teenagers wore high waisted balloon trousers and custom made, oversized, broad-shoulder jackets that were considered un-American for being flamboyantly stylish in a post-World War II era of government-enforced frugality. Historically, aggressive policing, brutality and homicide have exacerbated lingering distrust of law enforcement among communities of color. During the 1950s, former L.A. Police Chief William Parker was notorious for his war-on-crime dogma and cover-ups for dirty cops. The exhibition features the first notable case of police violence under Parker, “Bloody Christmas (1951),” in which the savage beatings of six Latinos by 50 policemen lasted 95 minutes. Forty years later, four white LAPD officers under L.A. Police Chief Darryl Gates (Parker’s former chauffeur and protégé) were charged with beating Rodney King during a traffic stop. The “Rodney King Beating (1991)” installation is very graphic and connects to the “Uprising (1992)” panel.

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The exhibition also tackles other recorded rebellions, homicides, and moments that shifted the social consciousness of L.A. including the Watts Rebellion and the slaying of Eulia Love by LAPD officers over a $22.09 unpaid gas bill. The most unsettling installation is the “Killing of Latasha Harlins (1991).” The 15-year-old was slain by Korean storeowner Soon Ja Du for allegedly stealing a bottle of orange juice. Harlins’ installation includes commemorative Harlins T-shirts mounted with the message “Latasha Harlins is Gone but not Forgotten;” a funeral program of Harlins’ young mother, Crystal Harlins, whose life also ended from a gunshot wound; a poem written by Harlins entitled “Latasha Shield”, and a 9-year-old child’s account of Harlins’ murder, which is simply tragic. The most heartbreaking object uncovered is the letter from the Department of Justice claiming that insufficient evidence was found in her homicide. All things considered here -- the presence of the adjacent police car (yes, a real police car is in the gallery) parked behind gray cinder block wall -- the video of the King beating contrasted with the Harlins installation may give one pause. 

Protesters during 1992 L.A. riots | Courtesy the Gary Leonard Collection/Los Angeles Public Library
Protesters during 1992 L.A. riots | Courtesy the Gary Leonard Collection/Los Angeles Public Library
A large building housing a swap meet mall on fire at 7th Street and Union Ave in Pico/Union. LA Riots | Ted Soqui
A large building housing a swap meet mall on fire at 7th Street and Union Ave in Pico/Union during the 1992 L.A. riots | Ted Soqui

The ephemera collection in “No Justice, No Peace” is a history lesson onto itself. The tall gallery walls are replete with texts, commission reports as well as political art and posters. Magazines and news publications demonstrate the critical role the media has played in reporting on marginalized communities. For example, on August 14, 1965, the Denver Post published, “16 Dead, Hundreds Injured As Guard, Negroes Battle”; August 16, 1965, the San Francisco Call printed, “Where the Street Spew Bullets” and “Close Check on Looting” and on August 16, 1965, the Plain Dealer Cleveland reported, “Troops Seal Off L.A. Ghetto”. The most audacious headline from a British newspaper published, “LOOT CRAZY!”--An excellent case study in biased news reporting. Additional periodicals on view include Paris Match, Life and Jet Magazines that issued iconic photos of the 1965 L.A. Riots.

Not only do the exhibition panels speak volumes, so does its exhibition design. Whether intentional or not, the exhibition design features a clever use of metaphor with raw plywood counters that resemble the shape of dwellings in postwar housing tracts.

Overall, the exhibition is a reflective space for patrons to examine the underbelly of racial tension, law enforcement, homicide as well as LAPD corruption, pathology, and power under the guise of policing through the panoply photographs, vital documents, audiovisuals and ephemera. “No Justice, No Peace” is imbued with prosthetic memories of a city on heightened alert during the 90s.  It is supremely sagacious in this Trump-era when the critical fibers of social injustice smolder around us.

Footnote:

[1] Joe William Trotter, Jr. 2001. The African American Experience: The Rise of the New Negro, Pg. 408.  Boston-New York, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Top Image: A large building housing a swap meet mall on fire at 7th Street and Union Ave ​| Ted Soqui

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