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'No Justice, No Peace’ -- California African American Museum recalls Rodney King Riots

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A $2 or Less store, destroyed by fire during the LA Riots of 1992.
LA Public Library/Gary Leonard Collection
A $2 or Less store, destroyed by fire during the LA Riots of 1992.

The evening of the Rodney King verdict of April 29 seemed baleful, overcast with clouds of ambient anger. There was a powerful sense of something gone very wrong.

Off-Ramp cultural correspondent Marc Haefele reviews "No Justice, No Peace: LA 1992," at the California African American Museum through August 27. It's curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates.

The evening of the Rodney King verdict of April 29 seemed baleful, overcast with clouds of ambient anger. There was a powerful sense of something gone very wrong.  I left work around 5:30 when angry people were already gathering in front of Parker Center.

Yet, the official LAPD word was that all was well, everything under control. Chief Daryl Gates himself showed his lack of concern when he headed off to a Westside fundraiser against a police reform measure — opening himself for the rest of his life to the accusation that he had deserted his post in his city’s worst  hour of peril.

I got home safely to my peaceful, Eastside home for an early dinner and bedtime. I did not even bother to turn on the TV. And so I woke up unawares to a Los Angeles completely at war. It seemed like half the city was on fire and the rest was divided by combat zones. I got to work to find our downtown office desolated. Showing incredible leadership, my editor handed me a broom.

Now the California African American Museum has a powerful new exhibit, "No Justice, No Peace: LA 1992," that perfectly recalls that time for those who were there ... and introduces it those who were not.

Listen to Off-Ramp's 2012 special on the 20th anniversary of the riots

As Martin Luther King Jr. said of an earlier Los Angeles outburst: “Rioting is the outcry of the Unheard.”  What went unheard was the uproar of the minority community for over a year regarding two tragic events and their aftermaths — the 1991 Latasha Harlins killing and the near-acquittal of the storekeeper who shot her, plus  the video-taped group beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of all the police involved. It was the acquittal that took hours to trigger the 1992 rising.

With its long-serving African-American mayor and six minority members in the 15-member City Council, Los Angeles of 1992 thought it had a jump on the future. But now, just like in 1965, it was hearing from the unheard in the most violent terms. What had gone wrong? What had this proud city not learned in 27 years? The '65 Watts outbreaks saw 34 deaths and $40 million in damages. In 1992, the toll was 54 lives and a billion dollars worth of destruction.

“No Justice, No Peace” gives as deep-rooted an explanation of the event as you could hope to see.  With expanded photographs and well-chosen historic texts, it notes that there is far more to the 1992 clash’s history than the 1965  Watts Rebellion. It depicts the intentional establishment of the LAPD as a force whose principal method against minorities was violence—as in the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 and the Bloody Christmas of 1951.

In the mass immigrations of black people that began in the 1930s, the LAPD stood as a bastion of White Los Angeles against the inflow of people of color, along with racial zoning and restrictive housing covenants. Even the legislative Civil Rights victories of the 1960s were overshadowed for many by the ebb of good manufacturing jobs and the shortage of adequate housing that exists to this day in this city. In the face of increased drug use in the 1980s, LAPD’s South Central tactics, under Gates, grew increasingly confrontational and violent. In 1992 came that spark that set off the explosion that has scarred the city to this day.

The California African American Museum’s exhibit (along with an accompanying audio display of pertinent black pop music of that time and since) offers a mirror to the present in which we can see modern LA and wonder—what has changed since 1992. The LAPD, certainly, has visibly altered its culture; the last time I looked, it was no longer a majority white-male institution. What else? Poverty is still endemic in parts of LA where the violence originated. Many of the thousands of ravaged ghetto stores and businesses—particularly those of Korean-Americans—have never reopened.  Downtown’s latest skyscrapers have produced a limited economic trickledown to the rest of us. The homeless still crowd our streets. Manufacturing has continued to ebb. Decent-paying jobs remain scarce for many.

So maybe it is too hasty to celebrate the anniversary of April 1992 in 2017. Maybe we should wait until 2019 — the 27th anniversary of the event that happened to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Watts rebellion—fairly to crow how far we have come.

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