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A New Kind of Riot

On Thursday afternoon, April 30, my wife and I stood on our front lawn and watched while the worst urban riot in modern American history made its way toward us. We live in Los Angeles’ Mid-Wilshire district, which is, by the standards of the city, an older neighborhood. Most of its houses and apartments are set along the tree-lined streets that flank Wilshire Boulevard at about the halfway mark in its progress west from downtown to Santa Monica and the sea. April is high spring here, and the air usually carries a slight scent of jasmine and mock orange.

But all that day, the air was heavy with the smell of burning. Twenty-four hours before, some thirty-five miles away in Ventura County’s Simi Valley, the jurors in the Rodney King case had voted to acquit the four white Los Angeles police officers accused of beating him. The case had been moved out of Los Angeles County because, according to an appellate court, the political atmosphere produced by the incident there had precluded a fair trial. Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg, the trial judge, had chosen nearby Ventura County as the alternate venue, partly because it was the site most convenient to his house in Los Angeles’ well-to-do Brentwood section. The prosecutors failed to object to the choice of new venue despite the fact that fewer than 2 percent of Ventura County residents are African Americans, and Simi Valley is where large numbers of Los Angeles police officers and fire fighters live. The LA district attorney, Ira Reiner, decided not to object to Weisberg’s decision because he wanted to avoid setting a precedent that might be used by defense lawyers with black and other minority clients to challenge the racial composition of jury panels.

Reiner, whose tenure in office has been marked by a series of failures in highly publicized cases, himself had selected Terry L. White, a black prosecutor with an undistinguished record, to try the King case. The Los Angeles County district attorney is an elected official, and Reiner faces stiff competition in the June primary from two of his deputies. When he chose Terry White he seems to have had his eye on potential black voters; in any case, he had chosen him before the change of venue was granted, not anticipating that a black prosecutor would face a jury without any blacks. Of course it was also assumed that the videotape played in court would make the King case, as criminal lawyers say, a “slam dunk.” That may have been the main reason Reiner himself decided that King, who has a criminal record, would not be called to testify.

Within hours after the acquittals were announced at 3:15, young African Americans began to throw stones at police cars at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues in South Central Los Angeles. Some were members of a street gang who had been in an abandoned house nearby. Yet in the first of what became a series of inexplicable moves, the police were ordered to withdraw. Looting began, arson followed, and the riot was under way. A white truck driver and other motorists were dragged from their cars and beaten. So far, no one has satisfactorily explained why the department’s “day watch,” the officers who would have provided reinforcements, were allowed to go home thirty minutes before the verdict was announced. (Like everyone else who watched television or listened to the radio, the police had known since 1 PM that a verdict was coming in.) Or why a dozen patrol captains were attending a training seminar in another county at the time of the verdict, or why Gates himself was on his way to a political fund raiser.

By mid-morning Thursday, several things became clear. Unlike the Watts uprising of 1965, the disorder was not confined to the black community south of the Santa Monica Freeway: anarchy had become general; the police were hardly visible not only in the rioting neighborhoods but throughout the city; and the fire department was unable to deal with most of the fires that had broken out.

Several times that day I left home to drive east to watch the spread of looting and arson north along Vermont and Western avenues a few miles away. I noticed other differences between these events and those in Watts: Most of the people I saw in those districts were not African Americans, but Mexican and Central American immigrants. Most of the shops they were looting belonged not to whites but to Korean Americans. There was little visible hostility, no shouting of political slogans or racial epithets. The atmosphere was that of a shopping spree. I came and went—a middle-aged white man—unmolested, unnoticed, and apparently irrelevant.

By late afternoon, standing in the garden and looking east toward down-town, I saw a heavy curtain of smoke had been drawn across the entire city. My wife, Leslie, phoned from her office on the ninth floor of a building a block away. “From up here, it looks like another building is being torched every few minutes. It seems to be moving west fast.” After she came home we watched from the lawn as, minute by minute, new columns of black smoke rose, eerie markers of destruction’s advance up La Brea toward our neighborhood. The smoke, Leslie observed, was completely black—there was no white smoke at all. “That means no one is putting water on those fires. There’s no fire department around.”

I realized that I had not seen a police car or fire truck or heard a siren for hours. I went inside, took down the shotgun I had used to shoot game birds as a boy, loaded it with shells from a twenty-five-year-old box of ammunition, and stood it in a corner of the bedroom.

A neighbor crossed the street to tell us a liquor store two blocks away was being looted. The columns of smoke continued silently past us, north toward the hills. During the next hour, additional fires sprang up along Hollywood and Santa Monica boulevards. And as the sun set, we stood as if on a quiet green island, surrounded by smoke and flame.

By midday Friday, the worst of the disorder was over. By the next week, it was possible to compile what came to be called simply: “The toll.”

Deaths: 58

Injuries: 2,383

Fires: 5,383

Arrests: 16,291 (including curfew violators)

Damage: $785 million

What those figures added up to, however, was something new, what might be called the nation’s first multiethnic urban riot, one that involved not simply the traditional antagonism of one race toward another, but the mutual hostility, indifference, and willingness to loot of several different racial and ethnic groups. What emerged in the days that followed is a sense of a rigidly segregated, bewilderingly diverse city, where the only shared preoccupation is consumerism and where urban democracy has collapsed.

The Los Angeles riot was set off by black rage against a particular injustice committed by whites. But no group suffered the material consequences of that rage more acutely than the city’s fast-growing Korean immigrant community. It is true that only one of the fifty-eight people killed was a Korean American.* But the Koreans, many of them first and second generation, suffered a devastating blow to their feeling of having gained a place in the city, as well as to their relative economic success, which has been not only hard-won but much more heavily mortgaged than is usually understood. According to Benjamin Hong, president of the largest Korean-owned bank in the city, the average Korean business owner in Los Angeles is somewhere between $200,000 and $500,000 in debt. Like most minority business owners, they also tend to have no insurance or to be underinsured. In these circumstances more than two thousand Korean-owned businesses were destroyed or damaged, with reported losses approaching $400 million. Much evidence suggests, moreover, that the Korean merchants who own and run a large number of the liquor stores, corner groceries, and gas stations in South LA were selected as special targets of violence.

Relations between the two communities have been poisonous for some time. In the three months following the beating of Rodney King on March 3 last year, for example, five people were killed in incidents involving Korean merchants and African Americans. Among them was Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year-old black girl who was shot by a Korean woman storekeeper who accused her of stealing. The shopkeeper was convicted of manslaughter and granted probation by a white judge. More recently two Korean liquor-store employees were shot to death by a black robber. Harlins’s death was documented on a grisly video tape. That her killer’s sentence was so light angered blacks well before the King verdict came down. In March 1991, local black groups began to organize a series of boycotts of Korean stores.

Last July I spoke to Reverend Edgar E. Boyd, the leader of the boycott against Chung’s Market on south Western Avenue, who told me that the protest was “a response to absentee shopkeeping. It is a response to insensitivity and intolerance demonstrated by absentee shopkeepers…. By absentees, I mean they do business here and live elsewhere. They take the dollar from this community and they spend it elsewhere so that the dollar spent in this community never returns to do any social or economic good.

We are not looking at this as a racial issue,” he continued. “It is all about economics. Anyone who does business in the community ought to be responsive to the community as well as responsible to the community…. We do have tremendous concern about [the neighborhood’s Korean merchants]. We are concerned that there are many of them who are doing well, and it does concern us that the same business could be turned over to an indigenous resident of the community. And that really is the overall longrange goal—to have businesses owned and operated by indigenous residents of the community. We feel they can better appreciate the day-to-day concerns of the people and would be willing to invest something back into the community.”

On the Saturday following the riot, I drove to Koreatown—as it is officially designated on street signs—to attend a community rally in a park just off Olympic Boulevard, the community’s main street. Several thousand people, many of them carrying signs demanding “Justice for Rodney King,” had gathered to hear the speakers. A prominent Korean minister, from one of the Protestant churches that serve as community centers in the neighborhood, compared the events of the previous days to the Japanese occupation of Korea. “We are,” he said, “a people with a civilized history…. We must pray for the will of pioneers, for the diligence of farmers. We must pray for wisdom and bravery. We pray that never again will we endure such lawlessness. We pray that this meeting will not be pointless.”

And that, to many Koreans there, was the point. Lukas Lee, one of the rally’s organizers, told me, “This is the beginning of politics in this community. We’ve been good citizens. We’ve supported the police. We’ve given money to [Los Angeles Mayor Tom] Bradley. What did it get us? When these people came to steal from us and burn our stores, where were the police? Where were the firemen? Where was Gates?…. I understand that this violence by black people did not happen only because of Rodney King, but because of social and economic repression. But we did not do that [repression]. We know now we must mobilize in politics. If there was a Korean on the city council, this never would have happened to us.”

Lee and other Korean Americans I spoke to that day said they thought that, as a result of the riots, leadership would pass to younger Korean Americans who are articulate in English and willing to engage directly in electoral politics. Others were undertaking a different kind of mobilization. During the previous days, men with military training had responded to calls over the local Korean-language radio station to arm themselves. As I drove through Koreatown, the places where they had taken up defensive positions were obvious, since they were untouched. Toyota Land Cruisers filled with armed Korean men could be seen passing through the narrow streets.

A few blocks from the rally, on Mariposa Street, next to the now abandoned Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was murdered, a squad of national guardsmen was sealing off the street. I parked my car, showed my press pass, and walked down the block. A party of Los Angeles police officers armed with shotguns was conducting a house-to-house search of the street’s Spanish-revival apartment houses. The young lieutenant in command stood discreetly out of the potential line of fire on a side street, talking with his men over a two-way radio.

They had received a tip, he told me, that a cache of guns looted from the Big Five sporting goods store at the corner of Wilshire and Mariposa was hidden somewhere on the block. Most of the people along Mariposa are Central American immigrants, and many of them were on their fire escapes and at their windows, silently watching as the police went from building to building. No guns were found.

Other Latinos were not so fortunate. Between midnight April 30 and the following Monday, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested 5,438 people, most for looting but some for violating the curfew. A majority—2,764 of them—were Latinos; 2,022 were black, 568 were white, and 84, most of them Pacific Islanders, were classified as “other.” During that same period, the Los Angeles County sheriffs arrested 810 blacks, 728 Latinos, 72 whites, and 18 individuals classified as “other.” Twelve hundred of these people were found to be “without papers” and were turned over—in violation of city policy—to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation.

None of this provoked any particular outcry from Los Angeles’ politicians with Spanish surnames, all of whom are Chicanos, which is to say, Mexican Americans. Their families have lived in the United States for generations and, though they may speak Spanish, they feel little sense of kinship with a new immigrant from Guatemala, who, in any case, has no right to vote. As City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who represents the overwhelmingly Chicano 14th district in East Los Angeles put it, “I try my best to be an advocate for immigrants’ concerns. But I didn’t get elected to represent them. I have a responsibility to the people I happen to represent.”

Several days after the riot, on Mariposa Street, I met one of the people Alatorre does not represent. Esteban Marquez left El Salvador six years ago to escape the civil war. He is a devout Roman Catholic, and the previous Sunday he had heard read from the pulpit an appeal by Roger Mahony, the Spanish-speaking cardinal of the Los Angeles Diocese, urging his flock to collect what had been stolen and return it to their parish rectory, where no questions would be asked.

Marquez, a stocky man of fifty-five, a janitor at a downtown high-rise apartment building, had stolen nothing. But one of his four sons was another matter. His friends, Marquez said, were cholos, the Spanish-speaking immigrants’ name for Chicanos. Central American and Mexican immigrants often blame the Chicanos for mistreating them on the job, and for corrupting their children. In fact, MTV probably is a stronger influence on the children than any Chicano friends they might make.

Hugo Marquez had taken part in the looting, and now his father was carrying his booty—three boxes of Pampers disposable diapers, four cartons of Kent cigarettes, and a Mr. Coffee coffeemaker—to the rectory at St. Basil’s church on Wilshire Boulevard.

I am ashamed,” he said. “My sons are good boys. But Hugo, he is un problema, you know? At school, he meets the cholos. He goes with them. They steal. This is a hard place to have children.”

It also is a hard place for democracy. According to the 1990 census, it requires 240,000 people to make up a single councilman’s district in the city of Los Angeles in the next election. In the districts most affected by the riots, the council members and the numbers of voters who elected them are Richard Alatorre (Chicano), 7,635 votes; Mike Hernandez (Chicano), 5,352 votes; Nate Holden (African American) 9,541 votes; Mark Ridley-Thomas (African American) 8,595 votes; Rita Walters (African American) 6,521 votes.

The result is that the representatives of six poor districts containing more than 1.4 million people are elected by a total of some 37,000 voters. Los Angeles’ most prominent Latino elected official is Gloria Molina, who is county supervisor and responsible for one fifth of Los Angeles County, containing 1.77 million people. She was elected by 45,805 voters—roughly the same proportion of voters as in the districts. These numbers suggest that the failure of civil authority in the Los Angeles riot was preceded by a classic failure of democratic institutions. Of the three groups most intensely caught up in these events, most of the Koreans and Central Americans have, at best, green cards and can’t vote; most African Americans don’t vote. As many as 30 percent of the Anglos in Los Angeles, who make up just 50 percent of the population, do vote; but, on the whole, they show little concern for the others.

The communities most affected by the riots have also been in a state of protracted economic crisis. In Los Angeles, as Richard Rothstein, a longtime trade unionist and writer, pointed out not long ago, for the 50 percent of people in South Los Angeles who are not unemployed, the “fastest growing occupation is now ‘salesperson,’ with an average entry wage of $4.75 an hour. Young black high-school graduates’ average yearly earnings declined 44 percent from 1973 to 1986; Latino earnings declined by 35 percent.” The 1990 poverty rate for South Los Angeles families was twice the city’s overall rate and 30.3 percent higher than at the time of the Watts riot.

In another, less dispersed city those facts alone might have led to unrest. They did not here; and the riots that did take place are unlikely to lead to any serious change in the city. It is not only that Los Angeles is a huge place, whose neighborhoods and citizens are even more divided from one another than in other cities, and that we have more foreigners here who cannot vote—40 percent of the population is foreign-born—and a lower proportion of minority citizens who do vote—fewer than in New York or Chicago, say. It is also that the local political system is an unworkable relic of the progressive era. Conceived in the 1930s, the system provides “managerial government,” a weak mayor and a city council that has both legislative and executive power. The political parties are excluded from local elections.

The progressives had a horror of partisan government, of political coalitions built on ethnic and group interests. That, in fact, is exactly the kind of politics Los Angeles needs today. In its place, we have a past generation’s notion of single “common good,” as expressed by the white Anglo minority of the city who take the trouble to vote. It has seemed all the more evident during the last two weeks that we need a system that will recognize a variety of “goods” and, if not reconcile them, at least find a way for them to coexist. A highly improbable prospect, it must be said. But as a native of Los Angeles I have learned that surprises can once in a while take place.

May 14, 1992

  1. *

    It is a melancholy fact that the fifty-eight violent deaths, suffered mainly in the much more heavily populated black and Latino districts, were only twice the number that would have taken place in those neighborhoods during an average week.

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