It has become a ritual with me. On the 10th, 20th, and now 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, I do a press tour of several of the same burned out empty lots in South Los Angeles.
I preface the tour by pointing at the empty lots and ask, no challenge, with the question: “Why years after the riots are these empty lots where thriving businesses once stood still empty today.”
I quickly point out that 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, hi-tech centers and light industry and manufacturing enterprises.
The building bonanza has resulted in thousands of new construction and entry level and professional jobs. In the process, it has enriched the tax coffers of the city and surrounding cities. The lame excuse that there is no economic incentive to build in South L.A. doesn’t fly.
Residents spend millions on consumer goods and services, tens of thousands are well-to-do business and professional and trades persons, and they repeatedly clamor for quality retail, restaurant and service business in South L.A. But the lots remain empty.
While speaking with the press at the burned-out lots, my mind continually goes back to those two fateful days at the end of April and the first day of May in 1992, I ducked around police cordons and barricades and cringed in fear and anxiety at the cackle of police gunfire and the non-stop roar of police fire engines and sirens all around my house in South L.A.
I choked and gagged on and was blinded by the thick, acrid smoke that at times blotted out the sun and gave an eerie surreal “Dante’s Inferno” 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, with their guns ready.
I watched buildings, stores and malls that I shopped at and frequented instantly disappear from the landscape in a wall of flames. Several friends that lived outside L.A. and were concerned about my safety implored me to leave my home in the middle of the riot area and stay with them until things blew over.
I thanked them but I decided to stay put. As a journalist, I felt bound to observe and report firsthand the mass orgy of death and destruction that engulfed my South Los Angeles neighborhood during the two fateful days of the most destructive riot in U.S. history.
The warning signs that L.A. was a powder keg were there long before the Simi Valley jury with no blacks acquitted the four LAPD cops who beat Rodney King. There was the crushingly high 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 black teenage 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 LAPD widely branded as the nation’s perennial poster police agency for brutality and racism.
This year, on the 25th 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 Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile, nationally and in L.A. County.
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 far and away more likely to be victims of racial hate crimes than any other group in L.A. County.
The most cursory drive through the old riot areas still shows that for many residents little has changed.
The L.A. riots are no longer the national and world symbol of American urban racial destruction, neglect and despair. But it’s is still a cautionary tale; a warning that in the Trump era, the poverty, violence and neglect that made the L.A. riots symbolic may not have totally evaporated 25 years after the flames.
That will remain the case as long as the lots, and what they symbolize, remain empty.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming ebook “How the Democrats Can Win in The Trump Era” (Amazon Kindle). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.