L.A. Riots: They Way We Were, and Still Are

Then and now at Florance and Normandie in Los Angeles. | Photo: waltarrrrr/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's hard to believe that it's been 21 years since the civil unrest that earned the distinction of being the costliest and most destructive urban unrest of the twentieth century. The destruction is what we tend to remember, and condemn -- the collective horror of fires, looting, and shooting captured in live news feeds that framed the whole thing as famously laid-back L.A. coming apart for all the world to see. The ultimate noir novel.

But the unrest was also the opposite of coming apart: it was the culmination of decades of frustration of black, mostly poor and working-class residents who had always been kept at arm's length from the Southern California dream. But that doesn't make for dramatic TV images, so it rarely gets discussed. Last year when everybody was busily commemorating the 20th anniversary of the riots (as they're popularly known), black anger over not just the Rodney King verdicts but a whole political and economic system tilted toward racial inequality wasn't high on the agenda. Panel discussions around town focused mostly on the state of race relations (as opposed to racial inequality) and police reform, which is about as serious as things got. Meanwhile, the root causes of the outburst were more or less buried under the finely honed rhetoric of multicultural cooperation and the idea of post-racialism that seems to be gaining traction, especially among millenials. It's an idea that's mighty attractive to older people, too, even progressives sympathetic to the core issues of the unrest who know better. If we really are all getting along, isn't that enough?

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I was on an anniversary panel at USC this past Monday that attracted lots of those millenials -- college students -- many of whom weren't even born in 1992. For them this event was somewhere between a commemoration and a history lecture. They were also aware that USC itself was in the middle of the unrest, situated as it is at the north end of South Central (I've heard that USC is now describing its location as "downtown," which would be akin to describing hardscrabble Lennox as beach-adjacent).

One of the panelists was Korean-American filmmaker Dae Hoon Kim, himself a Generation X-er whose childhood memories of the '92 unrest are dim to nonexistent. But Kim grew up knowing its legacy; one of the things he said during the panel is that Koreans in L.A. have adopted a "never forget" philosophy about the fateful date, 4/29/92, that they call saigu. Kim also played segments of his documentary in the works about the riots and what it meant not just to Koreans, but to blacks, too. Perhaps the most memorable footage was of a veteran Korean liquor store owner near Florence and Normandie who responded to the unrest not by leaving, but by adopting the energetic attitude and lingo of the neighborhood -- Mr. Lee's exchanges with his appreciative black customers were peppered with phrases like "Alright alright!" and "Bring it on!" It was a ploy that was nonetheless poignant because the effusiveness on both sides seemed genuine. And then you realized that Mr. Lee conducted nearly all of his business behind bulletpoof glass.

And the end of the afternoon, one of the students asked the panelists what the "takeaway" was for those of us who had lived through the riots and have been analyzing them since. It was a very millennial question -- though very sincerely asked -- that was about as relevant to the complex events of 1992 as cutting Social Security is to creating jobs that might sustain a radically different American economy. Not exactly a question to scale. The best answer is that there is no takeaway from the unrest because in some ways, it didn't end, and I am not away but still here. We all are.

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