LA Riots: Could They Happen Again?
Racial tensions and police conduct are better in Los Angeles, say locals. But what about elsewhere?
That may be true for L.A., but not for every city around the nation. As Los Angeles marks the 20th anniversary of its riotous past, national attention is now firmly fixed on yet another racially charged assault. In the Trayvon Martin case, the Sanford, Fla., police did not shoot the unarmed 17-year-old black teenager. But police handling or mishandling of the case and how it is resolved in court could make Trayvon this generation's Rodney King. For what has not changed in two decades is continued excessive force against black males (and females) by law enforcement officers and others who claim they were afraid for their lives.
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.
"Some things have changed, and it's still evolving," says Parks. "But I don't think we should ever believe we have succeeded. The minute you declare success, things unravel. Success only lasts until the next [police] shooting."
Sylvester Monroe is a frequent contributor to The Root. He covered both Rodney King trials and the 1992 Los Angeles riots for Time magazine.