Los Angeles was due to mark the 20th anniversary of the city’s riots yesterday, climaxing weeks of public hand-wringing about the deadly 1992 unrest sparked by the on-camera police beating of a black motorist.
A series of events was scheduled, including speeches by civil rights activist the Reverend Al Sharpton and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and a community “speakout” at the epicenter of the six-day riots in gritty South Los Angeles.
Local radio and other media have hosted wall-to-wall debates about the lessons learned from the unrest, triggered by the acquittal of four police officers over the beating of African American Rodney King.
Fifty-three people died and property damage exceeded US$1 billion before the frenzy of burning, looting, assault and murder, much of it caught live on camera, was brought under control.
King — who has released an autobiography timed with the anniversary — was 26 years old when a group of white police officers brutally beat him while a bystander videotaped them from his apartment window on March 3, 1991.
A year later, on April 29, 1992, an all-white jury acquitted four police officers over his assault.
Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets in anger, igniting a wave of deadly violence and arson that swept through large areas of Los Angeles.
The police seemed powerless to stop it. Order was restored on the fourth day of the rioting, when army troops arrived. By that time, thousands of people had been injured and many had died.
The run-up to the anniversary has seen a surge of reflection on what has changed in the decades since the riots, which were centered on South Los Angeles, primarily composed of African American and Hispanic communities.
“After the riots, we learned it is not our city,” Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Lieutenant Andrew Neiman said. “We work for the people and it’s their city.”
The LAPD also became more representative, and is approved of by 70 percent of city residents.
“Back in 1992, we had 1,800 Hispanic officers,” Neiman said. “Today we have 4,223 ... we became more diverse to match our community.”
Of the West Coast city’s 4 million residents, 48 percent are now Latino, 28 percent white, 13 percent Asian and 8 percent black, according to Los Angeles magazine.
However, the social problems which fueled the pent-up frustration remain: Unemployment in South Los Angeles is as high as almost 24 percent — several points higher than in 1992, according to the report in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday.
Yesterday, the anniversary was due to be marked in day-long events, including sermons by Sharpton, while Villaraigosa was to attend a “South LA Rises: Community Fair and Rally.”
The Korean Churches for Community Development planned to hold a commemorative event, while a public speakout meeting was to be held at the epicenter of the riot — the junction of Florence and Normandie avenues, at 3pm.
In Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, where the riots also raged, an interfaith service was to be held by the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition.
King, who has battled drugs and had a number of brushes with the law since 1992, said racism still has to be challenged.
“There’s always going to be some type of racism, but it’s up to us as individuals in this country to look back and see all the accomplishments that we have gotten to this far,” he said.