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20 Years After the L.A. Riots and Nothing Has Changed

Posted on Apr 17, 2012
AP/Nick Ut

A Korean shopping mall burns in 1992 on the second day of rioting in Los Angeles.

By Bill Boyarsky

LOS ANGELES—The killing of Trayvon Martin is a reminder of the racial divide poisoning American life, which has resisted all attempts to bridge it, even after the country elected its first African-American president.

I write this on the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, a multiracial affair. It’s been 17 years since the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which further showed the antipathy between whites and blacks.

I covered those events for the Los Angeles Times. The riots, in particular, stick in my mind. I remember being at the First AME Church, a center of Los Angeles’ black community, and walking toward a nearby boulevard where young black men were battling Los Angeles Police Department officers. Church members, who knew me, grabbed my arms and led me back to AME, one of them saying, “This is no time for journalistic heroics.” I sneaked back and watched the battle. I also saw men from the church and Latino residents of nearby apartments fight the rioters’ fires, with no help from the city fire department, black and brown hands together around garden hoses. I drove through a city aflame to the paper downtown and then home, returning to the fires and rubble early the next morning.

Nor will I forget the challenge of reporting on the O.J. trial and a criminal justice system that was stacked against defendants, except for one as rich as Simpson. Each day, I watched from the courthouse as lawyers, witnesses, reporters and the famous defendant took part in a drama that plumbed the depths of how Americans feel about race.

My memories have been revived by Martin’s death and the hate crimes in Tulsa, Okla., where three African-Americans were killed and two others wounded by a white man and an American Indian who has described himself as white. Simpson was African-American, his victims white, while Martin was African-American and his killer has a white father and a mother of Peruvian descent. African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and whites all were involved in the Los Angeles riots.


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There are differences between these crimes. What the events have in common, in addition to violence, is the way people view them. Whites downplay the racial angle while people of color don’t.

The racial divide in the Martin case was revealed in an April 2-4 USA Today/Gallup poll. Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief, wrote “Blacks are paying much closer attention to the news of the incident; overwhelmingly believe that George Zimmerman, the individual who shot Martin, is guilty of a crime; believe that racial bias was a major factor in the events leading up to the shooting; and believe that Zimmerman would already have been arrested had the victim been white, not black.”

A total of 73 percent of blacks surveyed by Gallup (before Zimmerman was charged) said he would have been arrested if Martin had been white. Only 35 percent of nonblacks believed that way (Latinos are included in the nonblack category, Gallup told the website Salon). A similar proportion of blacks—72 percent—said racial bias played a major role in the events that led up to the shooting, compared with 31 percent of nonblacks.

Public opinion, Newport said, “reflects the same kind of racial divide found in 1995 surveys asking about the murder trial of O.J. Simpson.” Acknowledging the differences because of the races of Simpson and the victim, Newport said, “both situations, even though 17 years apart, apparently tap into the same deeply felt views of the average black American that the criminal justice system is biased against blacks.”

In the Simpson case, one Gallup poll found that 78 percent of blacks supported the jury that found him not guilty, while only 42 percent of whites agreed.

The ethnic aspects of the Los Angeles riots were more complex because of the city’s multiethnic population.

Most of Los Angeles, especially white Los Angeles, did not expect the uprising, even though tensions had been growing in South Central L.A., an African-American and Latino area.

The riots occurred after the acquittal of police officers accused of beating Rodney King, an African-American motorist. Their trial had been moved to a white suburb, and when the verdict was delivered, violence began, first in South Los Angeles and then extending to other parts of the city. The police department was caught unprepared. The then-chief, Daryl Gates, had long sent his officers into the area where the riots were centered as if they were an occupying army, a major source of racial tension. But when violence broke out, Gates—either by intent or neglect—had no riot plan and, in the first hours, the streets were without police protection.

Although the first violence was by African-Americans—most famously in the televised beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny—it spread. A Rand report said, “this wasn’t a black riot so much as it was a minority riot. ... [M]embers of all racial groups were involved in the spreading physical assaults and looting.”

A total of 54 people died, more than 2,300 were injured and property damage amounted to more than $1 billion. More than half those arrested were Latinos. More than half of stores destroyed were owned by Korean-Americans and perhaps a third by Latinos.

Twenty years later, the divide remains. Substantially more Asians, blacks and Latinos than whites believe that ethnic groups are getting along badly, according to a recent poll by Loyola Marymount University’s Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles. More blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans than whites believe their neighborhoods are less safe than in the past. They also have a more negative view of race relations than do whites.

The riots and the O.J. Simpson trial occurred before instant social media and just as 24-hour cable news was beginning to exert its power. At the time, we thought communications were fast, but compared with today, news traveled slowly and rabble-rousing nuts didn’t have the Internet to spew their venom. And although handguns were plentiful, the idea of a “Stand Your Ground” law, giving people great latitude to shoot in self-defense, was just a gun lobby dream instead of the reality in 25 states, as it is now.

Today, multiracial cities and towns are becoming more common, presenting other parts of the country with the complex ethnic tensions long familiar to Los Angeles. This is a big change in American life.

Many Americans thought we had overcome racial hatred because we elected a black president and we’re more accepting of interracial marriage and children of mixed race. But with racist gunslingers inspired by their Facebook and Twitter “friends,” emboldened by permissive gun laws and hating the increasing racial diversity of America, nothing has changed.

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americanme's avatar

By americanme, April 30, 2012 at 11:15 am Link to this comment

zonth:  What the hell—is it Nuthouse Week or something?

You are yet fruitcake smearing word salad.

Divisiveness, my ass—you couldn’t divide 4 by 2 and get it right.

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By Mary Lewis, April 27, 2012 at 2:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

20 years later, I still feel a bit of anxiety at the thought that this could possibly happen again. With cases in the news like Trayvon Martin or Kelly Thomas, it would be easy to see a repeat of the L.A. Riots. I can only hope that people have learned a lesson from the actions of 20 years ago. There are much more effective ways to pursue justice for the things you feel are unjust.

On the rare occasion I drive through my old neighborhood, it would appear as if it were untouched by that horrendous week of destruction. But because I remember, because I was there, I am FOREVER touched by that week in our history.

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By JAKE, April 22, 2012 at 10:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wrong L. A. riot bubba. It should read that nothing has changed in 47 years since Watts and Compton and other major cities across the nation. If anyone wants to really learn about lack of change they should take there heads and noses out of sanctioned book and sanitized news articles and talk to anyone who is 63 or older,Black, Mexican or Asian, in California in the year of 1964 and preferably lived in Watts or Compton. You will probally get the truth about Black life from the Black view instead of the accepted white washed version. I was there, I am BLACK and I a member of the racist LAPD organization.

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By Marshall, April 21, 2012 at 1:03 am Link to this comment

Boyarsky doesn’t mention LA crime rates, which have fallen by double-digit
numbers since the riots.  Those here who claim that racial tension is worse will
need to explain this as it’s fair to say that high crime rates are an indication of
underlying tension and dissatisfaction melded with a culture of lawlessness.  We’re
nowhere near that now as we were even 10 years ago despite much higher
unemployment rates.

We also have a drastically different LAPD, again unmentioned in the article.

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zonth_zonth's avatar

By zonth_zonth, April 21, 2012 at 12:47 am Link to this comment

so much anger and insecurity…

“thank you for your support”

Fragmentation and atomization is divisive.  False pride is divisive.

“Wholeness and the implicate order”.. David Bohm

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, April 20, 2012 at 11:55 am Link to this comment

As a language teacher, it’s hard for me to see this pathetic pap posted here.

Thanks for your support, though.

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Project Mayhem's avatar

By Project Mayhem, April 20, 2012 at 3:08 am Link to this comment


There are posters here who appreciate your efforts, even if they’ve largely given up posting here. You know this already, but there’s no need to waste your time on Trollmax. Anyone worth anything at all on this site (gerard, Anarcissie, Cyr, et al) have long since abandoned any pretense at discourse with this pathetic shill.

That said, I did appreciate your schooling it in Spanish grammar. Yet another example of its pretentious ignorance - of course, your correcting it will only encourage it to spout further bollocks. That is the nature of wretches such as this.

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, April 19, 2012 at 2:17 pm Link to this comment

And another illiterate word salad post from the nitwit who claims to speak Spanish.

Certain for example atar, soltar and cambiar do not take the direct object like they do in English, so using an online dictionary doesn’t cut it.

You stank up the site even when hettie had no time to post under your name.

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IMax's avatar

By IMax, April 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm Link to this comment


Te prometo que te sentirás mejor si aprendes a soltar el odio.

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By Ciarrai, April 19, 2012 at 5:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I don’t think that an riot the scale of L.A.‘s will be allowed to go on at this stage of the game. Two interests have diverse, but similar perspectives. Al Sharpton, and his ilk, have the responsibility to keep things peaceful now that he has stirred the pot and donned the mantle of the latter day MLK. A tough assignment for him because he has people all revved up (no pun intended) and now he must quell any violent outbursts. The second group that will not allow another huge riot will be the police depts. all over America. The LAPD got humiliated in the riot and I don’t think they, or any other dept., will allow it again. Lots of rioters and looters will lose their lives if it goes that way again. If any violence should break out, blame Al Sharpton. He owns it.

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By DHFabian, April 19, 2012 at 4:38 am Link to this comment

A lot has changed.  Focusing on race has kept public attention way from the core issue of class. An entire generation has embraced right-wing socio-economics. Reality is that not everyone can work, and there aren’t enough jobs for all who desperately need one. We respond with, “Tough.” If you don’t have a job, you are no longer entitled to fundamental human rights—just like it was in Nazi Germany.  Convincing the general public to turn its back on the poor was key to enabling govt to pull all public dollars out of meeting the needs of the nation, giving it to the Deserving Few. Adding frosting to the cake, the poor and middle classes were so deeply split apart that there is no chance of a unified push-back against the greatest bank robbery in modern history—the robbery of the United States.

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By jimmmmmy, April 18, 2012 at 9:59 am Link to this comment

Entertaining artcle ,a trip down memory lane . I don’t agree with your premise that nothing has changed . Since these events technology has allowed the police state mentallity to take over almost complete control of any discourse, and the fact that most articles by the so called left are mostly historical, underscores my contention. As a white person I thought it justice when OJ walked , he was no danger to society. I’m sure the cops that beat Rodney have committerd more crimes than OJ since their aquittal

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, April 18, 2012 at 9:53 am Link to this comment


Since when are Indian Americans and Japanese Americans considered to be white?

You are all mixed up, there.  Back to Remedial Racism for you.

And you can’t call everybody in the US Americans without calling everybody else in this hemisphere Americans.

Ah, the egocentric gringo.  Thinks the world revolves around him, and only him.

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By jimmmmmy, April 18, 2012 at 9:17 am Link to this comment

Croaky I was in the Army in 66 when they first started promoting the term African- american . Its code for American with slave roots. In those years [Vietnam era] It caused educated [politically] black guys to wince and Southern white guys to smirk surreptitiously, and for that reason I don’t use the term.

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prisnersdilema's avatar

By prisnersdilema, April 18, 2012 at 8:53 am Link to this comment

Nothing has changed? Nothing has changed?

Maybe nothing has changed in your, ghetto tourism. But things are much much worse.
Take a quick look, and you think you know what life is like there?

Its war. And when you look at what’s happened to the life there, it bares all the scars,
that people and children, bare in places of endemic, civil and national conflict and War.

And as the balkanization of America continues, these places are likely to be the first, to
face the extremes of war. Bombed out buildings, door to door fire fights, and military
patrols to restore order.  The riots were just a foretaste of things to come.

America’s streets are out of control, and there are no resources their that the one
percenters in this country feel the necessity of stealing, they have left them for the drug
lords from elsewhere to take. The streets are owned by paramilitary organizations called
gangs.  This has to be understood.

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By balkas, April 18, 2012 at 8:17 am Link to this comment

ruled by small minority of people for 400 yrs and
not 40.

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By balkas, April 18, 2012 at 8:14 am Link to this comment

no, a black is not an american—a black may be called american7; a latino american6;
an ashkenaz/anglosaxon1.
and even an ethnic group like ashkenazim may be called ethnos1 and black group
ethnos7 or even 27 or 127.
such an evaluation tells the real story of a multiethnic region ruled by far more by
ethnoses, 1,3, 3 than by ethnic groups 8, 18, 128 with zero or near zero military-
econo-politico-educational power.
so, division exist everywhere and to such a degree that even twelve very united
people cld easily rule such a region.
and have now for 40 yrs.

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By balkas, April 18, 2012 at 7:59 am Link to this comment

bears repeating! the FIRST CAUSE for racial and ethnic divide is
DISCRIMINATION; followed by its two offsprings or SECOND ORDER CAUSES:
meritocracy and racism.
belittling people by deed and word probably arose first in ME ca 10k y ago,
then spread northward to and westward but never reaching n. america until
just barely 200 yrs.
as far as i know, ALL COLUMNISTS, eschew to write about the first cause,
including boyarsky, at least in this piece.
and since DISCRIMINATION is foundation on which u.s runs, racial and ethnic
divide can only deepen.

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By jubilee shine, April 17, 2012 at 8:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

2pm sunday, april 29th at florence & normandie, we will be commemorating the 20th anniversary of the los angeles uprising.  join us!  poets, musicians, artists wanted.

los angeles coalition for community control over the police

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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By BrilliantBill, April 17, 2012 at 7:01 pm Link to this comment

Change is a constant, and there have been changes, albeit not for the better. Here are some ways it’s different today.

1. As the percentage of white population declines, fear and paranoia increase. As the “minorities” seem to be gaining power—characterized by the unthinkable reality of a Black man in the White House, the white population becomes dangerous as it feels threatened. Like a wounded animal, the white population feels empowered to strike out—probably “strike back” is what’s in the subconscious.

2. Far more minorities have been locked away in the prison industrial gulag. Their lives are forever subject to a politicized “criminal justice system.”

To say that nothing has changed suggests you are not paying attention.

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By croaky, April 17, 2012 at 6:54 pm Link to this comment

I DO wish folks would stop using the term ‘African American’ when they simply
mean that they are black. After all, do we describe whites as ‘European American’
or ‘Indian American’ or ‘Japanese American’? ENOUGH of that expression when you
only mean that they’re black! They’re Americans, dammit!!!!

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, April 17, 2012 at 6:41 pm Link to this comment

Racism will never go away so long as the colonial settler system of ongoing genocide against non-whites is maintained in Gringolandia.

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