LA Riots: Could They Happen Again?

Racial tensions and police conduct are better in Los Angeles, say locals. But what about elsewhere?

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An L.A. shopping mall, shown in 1992 and 2012 (Hyungwon Kang/Reuters/Newscom)

The 1992 Los Angeles riots were one of the biggest stories of my career and among the most personal. I wasn't just a reporter covering the worst civil unrest in modern U.S. history. I was also an African-American man and father of an adolescent son ever mindful of close encounters of the worst kind with the police.

Reporting on the six days of deadly violence and vandalism following the acquittals of four white L.A. police officers tried for the brutal, videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King resonated with me even more than the trial itself. In nearly 10 years as a Los Angeles correspondent for Time magazine, I was never stopped by the LAPD. As a young teenager, my son, Jason, was ticketed once for jaywalking. We paid a $50 fine and that was the end of it. But we both were always wary.

Twenty years later, relations between the Los Angeles police and the city's black citizens are light-years beyond the tinderbox atmosphere that once prevailed, thanks to extensive police reforms, including a much-touted commitment to community policing, increased external oversight and more enlightened department leadership. Many black Angelenos now believe there has been so much progress that what happened in 1992 could not happen again. At least not in the same way.

One reason is that despite some ongoing racial tension, the people of Los Angeles generally get along much better than they did at the time of King's famously plaintive plea: "Can we all just get along?"

"We get along better now," says 46-year-old Chris Chambers, a black South L.A. native who remembers the bad blood between blacks and Korean business owners who were prime targets of black anger and violence during the riots. "[Korean business owners] respect your presence more. They don't pull out a gun when you walk into a store anymore. They realize that all blacks are not shoplifters, and they will actually have a conversation with you now."

"I do not feel it could happen again because [the police] are now accountable to us and want to be," says Lawrence Tolliver, also black, who owns a popular barbershop just blocks from the infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues where white truck driver Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and almost beaten to death by young black men right after the King trial verdicts. "If something like [the King beating] did happen today, it would be a lot different than in 1992. They would investigate it, and the current police chief would not let it get to that point. We have a lot more impact on the department now."

Such professed fear has been an often-cited factor in practically every questionable case of excessive police force against young black men since the Watts riots of 1965. In fact, many believe that it wasn't the King trial verdicts alone that fueled much of the violence in L.A. in 1992. Less than two weeks before the surprising acquittals, the Los Angeles black community felt it had been disrespected by the courts when a 51-year-old Korean store owner named Soon Ja Du received probation, a fine and community service instead of jail time for the shooting death of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African-American high school student. Du claimed that Harlins was stealing from her store and shot her in the back.

Almost exactly nine years later, in April 2001, I wrote another riot story -- this time in Cincinnati -- sparked by the trial of a white police officer found not guilty for fatally shooting Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old black man. Like Trayvon Martin, Thomas was unarmed, and he was shot while running away from the officer who was trying to arrest him.

I sincerely hope I will not have to write another one following the trial of George Zimmerman, the white Hispanic neighborhood-watch volunteer who has been charged with manslaughter in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. But that case bears many of the same signs of community frustration and anger over being ignored regarding concerns about police treatment of black males.

As the nation waits for a resolution in the Trayvon case, Los Angeles City Councilman and former police Chief Bernard Parks told me recently that while he agrees there has been much progress in L.A. and other cities, we still cannot rule out the possibility of a repeat of 1992.