By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
It’s a ritual with me. On the 10th, 20th, 25th and now the 30th anniversary of the L.A. riots, I visit several of the same burned-out empty lots in South Los Angeles and ask: “Why, years after the riots, these empty lots where thriving businesses once stood are still empty today.”
I quickly point out that in those years — now decades — many parts of Los Angeles from the westside to downtown have been virtually remade. Billions of dollars have been poured into the construction of glitzy, pricey, showy and functional office buildings, retail stores, boutiques, restaurants and hi-tech centers, and light industry and manufacturing enterprises.
The building bonanza has resulted in thousands of new construction, entry level and professional jobs. In the process, it’s enriched the tax coffers of the city and surrounding cities.
The lame excuse that there’s no economic incentive to build in South Los Angeles won’t fly; residents spend millions on consumer goods and services, tens of thousands are well-to-do business professionals and trades people, and they repeatedly clamor for quality retail, restaurant and service business in South L.A. Still the lots remain empty.
Worse, many neighborhoods in South L.A. have been gentrified, young Blacks and Hispanics have been priced out of the housing market and homelessness in South L.A. and other parts of the city has reached epic proportions.
My mind, though, continually goes back to those two fateful days at the end of April and the first day of May 1992. I ducked around police cordons and barricades. I cringed in fear and anxiety at the cackle of police gunfire and the non-stop roar of fire engines and sirens all around my house.
I choked, gagged on, and was blinded by the thick, acrid smoke that at times blotted out the sun and gave an eerie surreal Dante’s Hell feel to Los Angeles. I watched many Los Angeles Police Department officers stand by virtually helpless and disoriented as looters gleefully made mad dashes into countless stores. Their arms bulged with everything from clothes to furniture items.
I watched an armada of police from every district throughout California and the nation, National Guard units and federal troops drive past my house with stony — even scared — looks on their faces, but their guns at the ready. I watched buildings, stores and malls that I frequented instantly disappear from the landscape in a wall of flames.
The warning signs that L.A. was a powder keg were there long before the Simi Valley jury (with no Blacks) acquitted four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King. There was the crushingly epidemic poverty rate in South L.A.; a spiraling crime and drug epidemic; neighborhoods that were among the most racially balkanized in the nation; anger over the hand-slap sentence for a Korean grocer who murdered a teenage Black girl, LaTasha Harlins, in an altercation; and Black-Korean tensions that had reached a boiling point.
And above all, there was the bitter feeling toward an Los Angeles Police Department widely branded as the nation’s perennial poster police agency for brutality and racism.
This year, on the 30th anniversary of the King verdict and the L.A. riots, many still ask the incessant question: Can it happen again?
The prophets, astrologers and psychics couldn’t answer a question like that with absolute certainty. But there are two hints that give both a “yes” and “no” answer to the question. The yes is the repeated questionable killings of young, unarmed African Americans by police, such as George Floyd and the most recent, Patrick Loyoya. This continues to toss the ugly glare on the always fragile, tenuous,and at times openly hostile relations between African Americans and the police.
The other cause for wariness is conditions in South L.A. and other urban communities.
In 2005, on the 40th anniversary of the Watts Riots, the L.A. chapter of the National Urban League and the United Way issued an unprecedented report on the State of Black L.A. The report called the conditions in South L.A. dismal, stating that Blacks still had higher school dropout rates, greater homelessness, died younger and in greater numbers, were more likely to be jailed and serve longer sentences, and were by far more likely to be victims of racial hate crimes than any other group in L.A. County.
The report has not been updated, but even the most cursory drive through the old riot areas still shows that for many residents little has changed. The one exception is the epic homelessness crisis plainly evident in many South L.A. areas.
The L.A. riots are no longer the national and world symbol of American urban racial destruction, neglect, and despair. But they are still a cautionary tale; a warning that in the current era, the poverty, violence and neglect that made the L.A. riots symbolic may not have totally evaporated 30 years after the flames. The empty lots remain ugly testament to that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “The Midterms: Why They Are So Important and So Ignored” (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly the Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show at 9 a.m. Saturday on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.