The Embers of April 1992

"Los Angeles became a carnival of repression."

By Mike DavisApril 30, 2012

    The Embers of April 1992

    1992 Los Angeles Riots (cc) waltarrrr

    TWENTY YEARS AFTER THE SO-CALLED RODNEY KING RIOT, we can do little more than commemorate the deliberate reign of ignorance that has deflected every attempt to understand the deep causes of the complex events that unfolded in the last week of April 1992.  Everyone, of course, will agree that the acquittal of King's assailants was the proximate cause or signal for the volcanic social eruption that followed.  But beyond that fact who can say with confidence what happened or why?

    We don't know, for example, even to the nearest thousand, how many people were actually arrested.  The Sheriff's Department never managed to reconcile wild discrepancies in the number of those reported booked in the week following April 29.   At one point the official figure was around 18,000, but the Sheriff Sherman Block's jailers could only produce records for about 12,000. 

    The ACLU, the only organization to undertake any serious investigation of the riot week, was able to analyze about half of the arrest reports.   Statistics confounded stereotypes: only 38 percent of the arrestees, for example, were African Americans.  Moreover about 70 percent of the arrests took place outside of historical South Central Los Angeles.    

    Instead of a unitary uprising (as had been the case in August 1965) there were simultaneous tumults with often very different narratives.  In Compton, for example, Black and Latino youth burned down properties redeveloped by a largely absentee Black bourgeoisie. 

    In Huntington Park, Cuban-owned businesses on Pacific Boulevard were attacked, while along the Pico Corridor Latino gangs torched Korean businesses.  White looters were arrested in Hollywood, where, amongst other items, Madonna's underwear was stolen from the display window of Frederick's.

    At the same time, the accumulation of injustice — thanks to Chief Gates' Operation Hammer and biased courts — was so great that Rodney King was often an afterthought in angry minds.  Although I can only speak anecdotally, the 1991 murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper, who subsequently was let off with 500 hours of community service, seemed a far deeper grievance than the beating of Rodney King amongst young Black people I knew or interviewed.

    Such nuances, of course, were rarely part of the news coverage. The media, largely helicopter-borne during the turmoil, defended their high altitude reportage by distinguishing between the criminal instigators and arsonists (Black gangs) and the mere opportunists (Latino looters).   The piece de resistance was the footage of hapless Reginald Denny pulled from his truck at the corner of Florence and Normandie and assaulted by Damian Williams and other OGs from Eight-Trey.  

    This became the defining image of the "riot" and Williams, who fractured Denny's skull with a brick, its definitive villain.  The narcotic-like repetition of the footage of the Denny beating on television, moreover, erased most of the white guilt over the King beating.

    But the apparent symmetry between the two attacks was an artifact of the systematic decapitation of cause from effect in most coverage, both television and newsprint.

    Seen only in the film clip, Damian Williams was simply the incarnation of savage rage.  But as I discovered in talking with his mother and neighbors (mostly Latino), the attacks on Denny and other motorists had been preceded by a confrontation between protesting neighborhood youth and the LAPD.   The squad of cops in battle gear arrested one of Williams's relatives, enraged the crowd, and then, realizing they were outnumbered, swiftly retreated from the neighborhood. This story was eventually reported by the US News and World Report, but never (as far as I can recall) by the L.A.-based media. Knowing about the LAPD provocation, of course, doesn't exculpate Williams and the other attackers, but it does explain the emotional chemistry behind the brutality. 

    (Black-on-white incidents, by the way, seem to have been uncommon.  For example, I spent all of Wednesday night in South Central neighborhoods and attracted nary a glance. For his part, Damian Williams, now occupying a cell in hell at Pelican Bay for his alleged role in a 2003 murder, was a semi-pro football player with many white friends; battering Denny was not an ideological statement.) 

    Another, even more important example of unreported motivations behind lurid images was the looting. Distinguishing between "need" and "opportunism" in poor communities is a rather fruitless semantic exercise; people looted both because they could and because they needed things: food, shoes, Pampers, cockroach spray, beer, motor oil, and video players (aka electronic baby sitters).

    How desperate was their need?  In the aftermath, I wrote that the most profound image of the riot was a photograph taken by Jim Mendenhall of the Los Angeles Times six months earlier, just before Christmas 1991.  It showed part of a throng of 20,000 women and children, predominantly Latino immigrants, waiting outside Skid Row's Fred Jordan Mission for the handout of a chicken, a dozen corn tortillas, three small toys, and a blanket.

    This was an image of economic desperation unseen in Southern California since the 1930s.  For two years the Los Angeles Times had been reporting the erosion of aerospace jobs and the failure of local savings and loans; almost one-third of the national job loss in the "Bush recession" was concentrated in Southern California.  Our golden age was ending.

    But the impact of economic crisis upon L.A.'s flatland neighborhoods was unreported and invisible in the media despite the obvious mathematics of the impact of high-wage jobs loss upon low-wage jobs in the service and construction industries.  Multiply every displaced Douglas engineer or bank loan officer by three or four busboys, gardeners, and nannies — the consequences for immigrant neighborhoods were devastating.

    This huge social reality, however, was universally ignored or discounted by L.A.'s political elites.  Put bluntly, most Black leaders, especially the Bradley machine's old guard of ministers and public officials, did not want to share a penny of "Rebuild L.A." with Latino neighborhoods. Ambitious Chicano politicians, in turn, did not want to acknowledge the participation of Mexican immigrants in the looting (they preferred to blame Central Americans), while the booster class as a whole wanted to suppress any debate that highlighted structural causes that might reproduce more disorder in the future. 

    When the hotel workers released a short film a few months later that vividly made the connection between poverty and the uprising, there was a memorable freak-out in the Convention Bureau and City Hall.  Instead of a comprehensive investigation that documented events, took public testimony and probed underlying causes, the Christopher Commission was coaxed to finish its superficial report on reforming the LAPD. No one wanted to hear the voices from our own intifada

    This conspiracy of silence also encompassed the massive violation of civil liberties during and after the riot week.  In addition to the usual out-of-town cops and the National Guard, the Bush administration added the Marine Corps (which occupied Compton) and a taskforce including the whole alphabet soup of federal law enforcement.  Los Angeles became a carnival of repression.

    A peaceful protest against the mass arrests was itself arrested — mostly, it appeared, to give a bored contingent of cops from Kern County something to do.  Meanwhile, a special "We Tip" hotline invited people to inform on neighbors or acquaintances suspected of looting.  LAPD's Metro Squad, supported by the National Guard, swept through the tenements in search of stolen goods while Border Patrolmen from as far away as Texas conducted a dragnet that deported hundreds of undocumented residents. Thousands of looters, many of them pathetic scavengers arrested in the charred ruins, languished in County Jail for weeks unable to meet absurdly high bails.  The City Attorney, meanwhile, demanded thirty-day jail sentences for curfew violators, even for homeless street people and Spanish-speakers who were unaware of the curfew.   

    This carpet-bombing of rights was punctually followed by "Weed and Seed," President Bush's sinister attempt to tie federal aid to rates of imprisonment.  In the event, the flatland neighborhoods of Los Angeles County continued to be vigorously weeded, but the seed money never arrived.  

    Indeed, after Bush and his Democratic rivals had all made their obligatory pilgrimages to the rubble of a local mini-mall and mouthed heroic promises about resolving urban misery, the word "city" abruptly and permanently disappeared from campaign debate.

    Los Angeles was thus left to be defrauded by "Rebuild L.A." and the mirage of a South Central economic rebirth. After a few supermarkets, Peter Ueberroth and the Hollywood billionaires vanished and the inane senility of the Riordon years arrived.  Chief Gates was put to pasture and his Operation Hammer — the indiscriminate dragnet of inner-city youth that so enraged a generation — was wound back to an artisanal operation.  But the kinder, gentler, more diverse LAPD continued to shoot unarmed suspects and beat up peaceful demonstrators, proving that the Christopher Commission had left its institutional culture intact.

    On the other side of the ledger, the social miracle of the Watts Gang Truce opened a door of hope that survived a campaign of sabotage by CRASH (the LAPD's corrupt anti-gang unit) only to be boycotted by celebrity Rebuilders, their corporate sponsors, and most liberal Democrats (Maxine Waters and Tom Hayden being honorable exceptions). 

    The Truce organizers eloquently emphasized that the real price for peace in the streets was a serious public commitment to jobs and good schools. But as Father Greg Boyle (Mission Dolores) had been pointing out for years, the only thing more difficult than finding jobs for gang youth is winning official acknowledgement of the link between economic injustice and subsistence crime. 

    Although reinvigorated Los Angeles unions like SEIU's Justice for Janitors and HERE Local 11 moved mountains in the 1990s and early 2000s to establish a "Living Wage" as the programmatic foundation for a new liberal-Latino alliance, there was little fervor to deal with the issue of youth unemployment per se, much less tackle the catastrophe of superincarceration.  (This contrasts with the aftermath of the 1965 rebellion when the UAW, under the leadership of its Western Director, Paul Schrade — later badly wounded at the side of Bobby Kennedy — made a serious commitment to open jobs for Black youth in the auto and aerospace industry as well as to provide some of the necessary training.  But then again that was the era of the War on Poverty, not the War on Drugs.)

    Indeed, L.A. labor, instead of leading the march toward prison reform and the ending of the war on drugs, now lifts its glass along with the rest to celebrate the legacy of Chief Bratton and the current liberal love affair with the LAPD.  At the same time, a new East Side civic elite (with much political but little economic power) sups from the silver chalices of the latest cohort of super-rich mega-looters (Ed Roski, Ric Caruso, Allen Casden, the Anshutz Entertainment Group, and so on).  That bankruptcy asset known as the Los Angeles Times continues its long tradition of bravely exposing graft on a miniature scale (the City of Bell scandal, for example) while giving a pass to the felonies of billionaires (almost everything having to do with downtown real estate or rail transportation).

    I betray my age by noting that the current culture of comfortable corruption and jaded accommodation in City Hall — theoretical liberals doing the heavy lifting for wealthy Republicans — is smugly reminiscent of Tom Bradley's last term.  If the analogy holds, then a skybox in the new Los Angeles Stadium will afford a wonderful view of the city burning for a third time.

    Mike Davis won the James Aronson Award for his coverage of these events in The Nation.

    LARB Contributor

    Mike Davis was one of the leading intellectuals of his era and a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. His works include City of Quartz (1990), a seminal study of Los Angeles’s economic and racial fault lines, Planet of Slums (2005), In Praise of Barbarians (2007), and Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (2020), co-written with Jon Wiener.


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