Back in August 1995, three years after the Los Angeles Riots, I interviewed then-county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke on the 30th anniversary of the Watts Riots. That tumultuous event resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, more than $40 million in property damage and the arrest of 3,952 men and women.
Burke was particularly knowledgeable about that riot, or rebellion, as it was called by some. As a young lawyer, she not only started a legal defense team for those arrested but was appointed by former Gov. Edmond G. “Pat” Brown to serve as a member of the McCone Commission. So named for its chairman John McCone, former head of the CIA, this commission was unlike the Christopher Commission, which was formed to investigate the LAPD less than a month following the merciless beating of Altadena’s Rodney King by LAPD officers on March 3, 1991. There was also the Kolts Commission, named for retired Judge James G. Kolts, also of Altadena. It, too, only investigated corruption and violence within the ranks of the Sheriff’s Department after the King beating was made public.
These two boards respectively concluded that both the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department knowingly harbored problem officers and deputies who routinely used excessive force on minority suspects and inmates and were rarely ever disciplined. Both commissions also found both agencies suffered from a lack of accountability and leadership at the top with LAPD Chief Daryl Gates and Sheriff Sherman Block. The Christopher Commission, named for Warren Christopher, secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, released its findings in July 1991. The Kolts Commission released its findings only after violence had already swept across LA beginning in the afternoon of April 29, 1992, when the four LAPD officers who beat King were acquitted of using excessive force following their trial in lily-white, pro-police and politically conservative Simi Valley.
By the end of this urban catastrophe, 55 people had died, more than 2,000 suffered injuries, and some 11,000 people were arrested, with over $1 billion in property damage reported.
The McCone Commission was different in as much as it looked at some of the root causes that led up to the collective explosion of anger that occurred following a traffic stop of an African-American driver on Aug. 11, 1965 — a situation that erupted almost spontaneously, much as a single match might ignite a puddle of gasoline. Anger was fueled not only by police brutality, but a society in which the deck was always stacked against black people looking in vain for good jobs, affordable homes and simple justice.
As the McCone Commission pointed out, and Burke explained in 1995, families living in communities of color were essentially second-class citizens, deprived of life’s basics: a good education, a good job and a safe place to live. But more than that, Burke said, people also did not have adequate mass transit, quality health care and other social amenities enjoyed by people in well-to-do communities. These same frustrating problems seemed to have played a critical role in the latest round of rioting following the acquittal of those four officers.
For instance, back in the early ’90s, mass transit was being reimagined, with the MTA now taking away millions of dollars from decrepit, smoke-spewing buses that worked poor neighborhoods and pumping that money into sleek new trains in hopes of increasing ridership from more affluent neighborhoods. This came to be known as “transit racism.” Furthermore, health care was not available to many living in South and South Central LA neighborhoods, forcing some to use emergency rooms as primary care centers; and police pushing people around with impunity was as prevalent then as it ever was. All of this real and perceived social injustice was set against a backdrop of increasing urban diversity, with people of different ethnicities pitted against each other for a piece of a shrinking economic pie amid still-existing segregation and abject poverty. This wasn’t as much a race riot as a “class riot,” as one researcher observed months after the fact. Under these conditions it’s easy to understand how the shooting death of teenager LaTasha Harlins at the hands of Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du two weeks after King’s beating in March 1991, and the tensions that ensued between the city’s African American and Korean American communities, came to be recognized as one of the top riot flashpoints cited by social scientists.
Fast forward to today, 25 years after the last riot, and 52 years since the first one. Mostly through the lens of social media we have seen numerous people of color shot down or in some way killed or beaten by those in authority. Since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, such incidents have been a regular occurrence, with riots erupting over the past few years in places where such instances had occurred, like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.
Then again, there have been hopeful events, such as the two elections of Barack Obama, America’s first black president. And we’ve seen reform efforts take hold in both the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department. In the case of the latter, not a judge and a commission but a commission full of federal judges most recently blasted Sheriff Lee Baca for failing in the leadership department, much as Kolts excoriated Block for the violence and corruption that existed while he was in charge. Only in this case, criticisms led to indictments of the sheriff and many of his deputies, with most convicted and sentenced to prison. We’ve also seen more people than ever getting medical care thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and today Metro’s fleet of clean buses and network of light rail trains is the envy of the nation.
Nothing’s perfect, but things seem to improve when people work together for the benefit of all. One question is, will the many programs and reforms that have been put in place to help heal society’s wounds, encourage academic and economic success, ensure good health and promote civil rights be enough to forestall another uprising in the near future? Or, more on the minds of people since the last election, will cuts to education, housing, health care and civil rights enforcement, if enacted, create a state of despair over the next few short years that is greater than the one that existed in 1965?
Time will tell.