Lead Story West Edition

Community Coalition panel looks back on what led to the ’92 Riots

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — In 1991, Karen Bass and Sylvia Castillo, co-founders of the Community Coalition, started a campaign to clean up or close down the liquor stores in South L.A., saying they had become “one-stop shops” for drugs and crime.

They just didn’t have enough time.

That was the sentiment the two women expressed at a coalition panel, “L.A. Uprising: Then & Now,” on April 13, which examined the conditions leading up to the six days of rioting and destruction in 1992 following the not guilty verdict for four white Los Angeles police officers in the Rodney King beating trial.

The event is part of the Community Coalition series “Re-Imagine Justice,” commemorating the 25th anniversary of the riots.

Although the acquittal of the four police officers prompted the riots, Castillo described the atmosphere in South L.A. 25 years ago as “a rage fueled by people drinking malt liquor on the corner.”

When moderator Alberto Retana, the coalition’s current president and CEO, asked Castillo to describe a day in the life of a South L.A. resident in 1992, Castillo responded that, “life was really about people trying to hang on to their kids. Drugs were being sold in the liquor stores, shootings were happening every day; there was a real sense of despair.”

Another panel took place between Skip Townsend, a former gang member who now mentors ex-convicts through his nonprofit, 2nd Call; and Kameron Garrett, a Dorsey High student in the coalition’s youth advocacy program, South Central Youth Empowered Thru Action.

Townsend said community intervention is necessary to reduce violence and the disproportionate number of black men in jail.

“Intervention isn’t calling the police,” he said. “Every kid has got someone they’re afraid of, a mom, a dad, an auntie. Or, I’ll say, ‘if I see you in that park I’ll grab you by the collar and take you to school myself.’ That way, young people will know someone is invested in their future.”

In a similar vein, Garrett said he would like to see more South L.A. police officers from the area, rather than an outside community, so they understand the issues residents face.

“People need to not be terrified of a police officer,” he said.

Community Coalition President Alberto Retana, center, moderates a discussion with Skip Townsend, left, of 2nd Call, and Kameron Garrett, a member of the coalition’s youth advocacy program, South Central Youth Empowered Thru Action. (Photo by Anne Artley)

In the end, panelists expressed mixed opinions on whether race relations and conditions in South L.A. have improved in the 25 years since the riot.

“I feel like times have changed,” Garrett said. “As a black male, you feel like you’ve got a target on your back, but you can still have fun.”

But, on a less hopeful note, he also said, “America thinks of me as a thug and not a man. I just have to watch what I do and be careful.”

After the riots, the crusade of the coalition gained momentum, said Katynja McCory, who said the events inspired her to start working with the nonprofit at age 15.

McCory said the coalition prevented 13 liquor stores from re-opening in 1992, although the organization is “still fighting to get rid of them.”

Bass, who now represents South Los Angeles in the U.S. House of Representatives, reflected positively on the progress in the last 25 years.

“We’re in a much better place now than when the coalition formed,” she said. “Even though we have a crazy man in the White House, we’re ready. We’re more equipped to fight this fight than in 1992.”

The Community Coalition is hosting two more panel series on the L.A. Uprising: “Women in Movement” at 6 p.m. April 20 and “Beauty of South L.A.” at 6 p.m. April 27, at the coalition headquarters, 8101 S. Vermont Ave.

An art exhibit is also open from 2 to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 2 to 7 p.m. Friday-Sunday, until April 29.