Los Angeles then and now

Race Issues | As people take to the streets over the Ferguson decision, police and protesters recall the 1992 riots
by Sophia Lee
Posted 11/27/14, 09:05 am

LOS ANGELES—Angry chants of “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” clashed with police car horns Wednesday evening in downtown L.A., as hundreds of people gathered in front of the federal courthouse for the third day of protest against a grand jury’s decision not to indict a Ferguson, Mo., police officer for shooting dead an unarmed black teenager.

After about an hour of rallying, the crowd marched a mile down to the Los Angeles Police Department’s headquarters, where they circled in a neat single-file line, chanting and fist-pumping. They wore shirts that read “Black Lives Matter,” waved signs that quoted Malcolm X, and shook banners that said, “STOP KILLER COPS.” Then they continued north to the county jail, where organizers believe about 200 protestors have been detained from previous nights.

“Free the protestors, jail the killer cops,” they shouted. “Whose streets? Our streets! What do we want? Charges!”

Meanwhile, a long trail of police cars and motorcycles with blue-and-red-flashing lights looped slowly around the block, causing a young protestor to roll her eyes and let out an incredulous snort. “Seriously?” she exclaimed, looking around to lock eyes with agreeing comrades. “All this is totally unnecessary.”

The woman’s reaction is understandable. These hordes of protestors may be loud and bold-faced jaywalkers, but nobody was smashing windows, lighting beauty shops on fire, or physically attacking police officers. For a city infamous for igniting one of the most expensive and violent civil unrest events in American history, the protest against the Ferguson verdict has been surprisingly tame and calm. So far no property has been damaged, no bodies severely injured, and no persons killed—but the brutal history still weighs heavy on people’s minds.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck got emotional when he recalled L.A.’s 1992 riots, which erupted after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers from charges of excessive use of force against an unarmed black man. That week, irate groups ran out into the streets, looting local businesses such as furniture shops and markets until bare, damaging buildings such as the one housing the Los Angeles Times, and turning strip malls and palm trees into a smoky blaze—while the LAPD remained woefully unprepared and inadequate. In one gruesome event, a white truck driver was dragged out of his vehicle by a group of black men, who then battered his head with a claw hammer, a brick, and an oxygen tank. By the end of the six-day rampage, 53 people were killed, more than 2,000 were injured, about 11,000 were arrested, and property damage reached $1 billion.

Beck was a patrol sergeant when the riots happened. “I was extremely worried that people would lose their lives like they did in 1992 in Los Angeles,” he said on Tuesday. “Gunfire, all of the armed folks engaging in civil disobedience, those are very dangerous combinations, so I was very afraid for the people of Ferguson and the police department.” But, he added, “It also reminds me of how far we’ve come.”

Even before the Missouri grand jury decision was announced Monday night, the LAPD was pushing a more community-oriented approach by maintaining ongoing dialogue with various religious and civic leaders. While police officers and helicopters fueled up in anticipation of potential violence, churches nearby convened to pray and discuss peaceful collaboration. When the verdict was released and people rushed out into the streets to protest, officers at first stood by to keep watch instead of aggressively trying to contain the crowds.

But things did get a little rowdy Tuesday night, when some protestors hurled debris onto a freeway near downtown L.A., temporarily halting traffic. Another threw a frozen water bottle at a police officer’s head. Some protestors brought along homemade mace and clubs. By early morning Wednesday, 183 protestors had been arrested for disturbing the peace, one for felony assault, and several for curfew violations.

These arrests were fresh on protestors’ minds Wednesday evening. Organizers and local community leaders urged the crowd to “stay united” and “walk slow.” They also warned off potential rabble-rousers, emphasizing that the movement was a “long-distance run” that required “long hard work”—and not suited for “thrill-seekers.” As if to prove a point, some protestors brought along their toddlers and babies.

One of the protestors was 56-year-old Omowale Jabali, who was 6 years old when he witnessed his first race-fueled street violence, the 1965 Watts Riots. As a teenager and young adult, he got “jacked up” several times by police officers “just for walking down the streets.” Then, in 1992, Jabali was teaching his sixth-grade class in a Compton, Calif., elementary school when an even more severe riot broke out. As he drove up the streets, he watched his neighborhood turning into yet another bloodbath of gunfire, smoking buildings, and broken bodies. Today, he’s once again walking alongside people enraged by police brutality and racial injustice, carrying a sign bearing a different name but the same message.

“Look at where we are,” he said, gesturing to the yelling protestors in front of the new LAPD headquarters building. A group of helmet-wearing, baton-toting police officers marched by us, and he pointed at them in frustration. “See, this is what we’re up against. I don’t want to be negative, because I am here … but this protest is not effective. Can this lead to a real revolution?”

Still, Jabali acknowledged that today’s L.A. demonstration is not the same as the ravaging riots now found in history books. “In those days, you just had six days of hard-core rioting,” he said. “That was spontaneous violence. This is a little different. … But the question is, to what degree are they going to follow on with the revolution?”

Though more than two decades have passed since 1992, the neighborhoods hit worst by the destruction never truly recovered. Unemployment for the black and Latino communities have gotten worse, poor neighborhoods are poorer, and protestors are now saying it’s no longer just about race, but class inequalities. Today’s protestors of the Ferguson verdict are a diverse group of blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. More than half of them are in their 20s and 30s, many repeating the rhetoric of the Occupy movement but not remembering the 1992 events.

Another protestor, 42-year-old Travers Lucas, told me unless things change soon, “There’s going to be an explosion. A lot of people are angry to the point that they are itching to get physical—and I’m one of them.” He was a 20-year-old playing basketball when the 1992 riots happened. He “didn’t take it seriously then,” but now he does, and he warned that people can only restrain themselves to protest peacefully for so long: “It’s like shaking a bottle. One day, it will fizz up and explode.”

He might be right. By 10 p.m. Wednesday, some protestors started hitting vehicles on the street and running through intersections. Several protestors were found carrying weapons such as a switchblade and pepper spray, and one protestor started taunting officers with a Taser. The police pushed against the crowd with their batons out. People screamed and ran, and several fell down. By the end of the night, dozens more protestors were cuffed with zip ties and marched up to a waiting police bus.

But long before that happened, Omowale Jabali was already walking away once he saw the police piling in.

“That’s it, I’m done,” he said, and folded up his protest sign. “I’m not walking into this trap. … No, no, no, I don’t want a repeat of 1992, or the Occupy movement.”

Jabali had joined the protest hoping to see if things were different, and he left disappointed and frustrated.

“I believe in a sustainable movement, not just getting people riled up,” he told me as he trudged toward the metro station. “Everything needs a higher degree of sophistication … and this is not it.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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