LA Riots Revisited: Now Can We Get Along?

Twenty years after the acquittals in the Rodney King beating, black leaders reflect on then and now.

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1992: I lived and worked in South L.A. in 1992, and my neighborhood was in the midst of the cataclysmic turmoil. The King-beating verdict was only the spark that ignited the long trail of anger, frustration and grievances of blacks against an LAPD that was widely perceived as brutal, abusive and racist. That [was] layered on [top of] the poverty, neglect and indifference of city officials toward the black poor. Los Angeles stood as a microcosm and a wake-up call that class, poverty and racial divisions -- and the perception that urban areas were abandoned by business and public officials -- were bordering dangerously on becoming a permanent feature of American society.

2012: Twenty years later you can still drive through some of the old riot-area neighborhoods and see many empty lots that are weed-, trash- and debris-strewn. These are the lots where businesses once stood that were burned out -- and, most importantly, where, two decades later, the owners have not come back.

The empty lots are a tragic metaphor and stark testament to the still-crushing neglect [of] and indifference [toward] poor, underserved communities by many businesses and government officials. The black poor in South L.A. are more numerous, live in more racially balkanized neighborhoods and attend [more] rigidly segregated inner-city schools than two decades ago. The message: Sadly, when it comes to race, class and poverty, the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same -- or worsen.

William Jelani Cobb, Ph.D., associate professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University; author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress

1992: I was a student at Howard University and I was a student activist, and when we heard about what happened, we began planning a response to protest. We coordinated a protest with the ones that were happening around the country. A group of us from Howard University, George Washington University and American University went down to the 14th Street Bridge, sat down and stopped the traffic to make our point.

[D.C. Mayor] Sharon Pratt Kelly came out because, at that point, we were just a nuisance. She said that the Rodney King beating did not happen in Washington, D.C., which was probably the most clueless thing anyone could have said at the time, with the history of police brutality in Washington, D.C. Clearly, this was a national issue.

2012: It's tempting to say there have been some changes, but the same thing could happen today. When we look at how reactionary reporters have rushed to construct a plausible defense [for] George Zimmerman, you see the same kind of mentality at work: the idea that a black person has no presumption of innocence.

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Look at the stop-and-frisk laws and policies of the NYPD. In New York City, where I live now, it's still entirely possible to predict someone's likelihood of going to prison based on the ZIP code they're born into. What Rodney King did was give us a high-profile example of something that is an ongoing problem. 

Guy-Uriel Charles, professor of law at Duke University; founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics