April 1992: buildings burned, stores were looted, people were killed. An all-white jury in a suburb of LA had just acquitted four white police officers who had been captured on a camcorder brutally beating Rodney King, a black motorist, the year before. When the verdict was announced, no one could believe it. What ensued, depending on whom you talked to, was “a riot,” a “social explosion,” “a revolution.” Some politicians and academics, waiting to see how the dust settled, chose to call it “the events in LA.” People stood on rooftops watching the fire and smoke, terrified for their property or lives, estimating how long it would take for the violence to get to them. But the destruction stayed pretty much in South Central and areas immediately surrounding it—Koreatown and the lower Wilshire area. It never got to the shops in Beverly Hills. The cry and anthem in the street was “No Justice—No Peace!”
After the news crews packed up their gear, I slipped into LA and moved around the city and its surrounding areas, gathering stories: Simi Valley, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Koreatown, and the epicenter of the riot, South Central. In South Central I talked with many people, including a former member of the Black Panther Party, who was among those who fleshed out the background to what had happened. He had the demeanor of a wise man with his graying dreadlocks, and he spoke about the war between black and brown men and the Los Angeles Police Department, which he knew well from when he was in the BPP during the 1970s. He saw the impact that the war was having on the young brothers he worked with in the 1990s—members of gangs and ex-members of gangs.
It occurred to me in the middle of my conversation with the ex-Panther that “No Justice—No Peace” was to the Los Angeles riots and the incidents that had led up to them what “All Power to the People” had been to the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. I asked, “Hey, has ‘No Justice—No Peace’ taken the place of ‘All Power to the People’?” After pondering for several seconds, he burst out, “Oh no! Ain’t nothin’ ever gonna be as powerful as ‘All Power to the People’!” If memory serves, I believe we finished the moment off with a rejuvenating high five and our black power fists shooting up in the air.
At the end of the 1960s and 1970s, some (but hardly enough) power got shared. Yes, blacks could sit at lunch counters and shop in department stores, but whom did that benefit? The business owners and the bankers. The color of the owners…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.