25 Years Ago, LA Went Up in Flames. Can It Happen Again?

Chamba SanchezBy Chamba SanchezApril 21, 2017
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The 1992’s riots devastated Los Angeles. After the three-day ordeal, 55 people got killed, nearly 2,000 were injured, and more than 12,000 people were arrested. Moreover, there was approximately a $1 billion loss in the destruction of properties. The National Guard, military troops, and riot-trained federal officers came to L.A. to restore order. The city’s institutions collapsed. It was a war zone.

In balance, 1992 was a great year. Voters in California sent two women to the U.S. Senate, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxe, and Bill Clinton became president. Unfortunately, here in L.A., riots broke out after the acquittal of four white police officers accused of beating black driver Rodney King after a high-speed pursuit.

I have been reading articles and watching documentaries about the LA riots 25 years ago. Los Angeles is still mired with abject poverty in many communities, a profound lack of affordable housing, homelessness, crime, and underperforming schools. Angelenos have utterly lost hope in their civic leaders and institutions. Our civic leaders still use optimism to lift our spirits and to communicate a message of hope. Although I have to say optimism can’t be disconnected from the facts on the ground.

The riots in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, had a tremendous impact on me. I was young and was trying to find direction in my life. I was an immigrant, and I had come to L.A. back in the 1980s when I was sixteen years old. The riots forced me to engage in some soul-searching. I felt helpless and hopeless. I didn’t know much. I could not understand the monumental struggles facing the different communities in this great city. I couldn’t connect the dots of what had happened in this city that day. I quickly realized that I couldn’t just be a bystander anymore. I immediately endeavored to educate myself on the struggles of this community. I was majoring in business in college for my undergraduate degree. But I began reading books on public policy, history, power, philosophy, religion, and political economy. I wanted to learn as much as possible to understand things better.

Witnessing all the irrational violence and destruction was hard. It was difficult for me to fathom that people would destroy their communities out of anger. It saddened me to see many communities going up in flames, people looting businesses, and some people beating up others for no reason. It was utter anarchy that day in Los Angeles.

Furthermore, I had difficulty comprehending how such destruction of one’s community could be condoned by many out of sympathy. Then, I read Dr. King’s writing and speeches. Dr. King advocated for militant, powerful, massive, non-violence direct action. He thought it was the only way radical change could be brought into an unjust and racist society. Nonetheless, as he delved into his moral reasoning, he conceded that he couldn’t condemn the riots that had been taking place in many cities during his struggles for social and economic justice. Dr. King saw the destruction of communities due to the “intolerable conditions that existed in society. He viewed the riots as the language of the unheard. Dr. King appears to have made an exception here and argued that said destruction was necessary and morally justified.

The violence on that sunny day in April of 1992 led me to conclude that we, indeed, are one people of many communities with different backgrounds. And regardless of our differences, everyone must be treated with dignity and respect. Moreover, for communities to be peaceful, we must understand that everyone living in our communities has a voice. And that we must do whatever we can to ensure that all voices are heard. No voice can’t be expunged from the narratives of power because this silent voice will somehow find its way to being heard. Dr. King was right, “the riots can be the language of the unheard” when they are being oppressed.

After the riots were over in Los Angeles in 1992 and order was restored, the voices of reason emerged. This city engaged in a vigorous conversation. They looked into what led to such violence and how leaders in this city could become more responsive in creating a more fair community. Promises were made, and many still argue that our civic leaders have not created the conditions for a more equitable and just community.

Experts examining the Watts and the L.A. riots of 1965 and 1992 identified common themes that led these two cities to flames. Today’s challenges are no different from those in those years of desperation. Yes, we currently have a challenge in distributing wealth in this community. There is no secret that Los Angeles is home to both abject poverty and unprecedented excess. We have a “new Gilded Age” of obscene wealth perpetuated by the new economic order of a “gig” economy. Few individuals are becoming billionaires, and everyone else makes starvation wages. There is also a profound lack of civic engagement. People in communities of color are not civic-minded and don’t care about who governs them. They do not vote. It seems like the steam is pressing against the engine cap again. L.A.’s leaders take note.

Thank you for reading.


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