Los Angeles and the 1992 Civil Unrest
The Black poet, Langston Hughes, asks the probing question, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, or does it explode?” History proves that a dream put on hold tends to explode. This happened twice in Los Angeles: 1965 with the Watts riot and in 1992 with the greatest destruction in the history of an American city—63 persons killed, 2,000 wounded, 8,000 arrested, and one billion dollars in property damage.
The same trigger from the same gun caused the ignition—police abuse. The beating of Rodney King by four police officers, the whole incident recorded by George Holiday, allowed the world to see what the jury ignored. The trial of these officers had been moved out of Los Angeles to Simi Valley, a nearby city that is home to many of the Los Angeles police force and conservative enough to give us all a sense of impending court unfairness. Thus, eight of us had been meeting with Mayor Tom Bradley for the weeks leading up to the verdict. We concluded that on the night of the decision we would meet at First AME Church to dispatch groups of men to areas in South Central with the charge to keep things orderly with street patrols.
The mayor had just finished his address to the crowd, which filled not only the church but the surrounding streets, verifying our placement of speakers on the church roof so all could witness our declaration. As the mayor took his seat, an usher called me outside to witness the infernos to the south, east, and west—all moving north. I hastened back inside and alerted the mayor and all concerning the inferno and gathered some 75 men to assemble on the streets nearby as the firemen hesitated to come put out the fires in our neighborhoods because young hoodlums hiding behind trees and buildings were throwing rocks at the firemen.
The men stood as a barrier until calm was restored, the firemen left, and the men remained to help take in burned out families from the neighborhood, staying at the church for several days until the Red Cross and Salvation Army took them to more permanent shelters. The church stayed open day and night for three weeks. During that time Pac Bell put in ten landlines to the church and we became a communications center, hearing voices with requests for housing and assistance and some volunteering for service from across the city, state, and nation. Our church had grown from 250 members to 18,000. In-house we had adequate outreach programs but we were greatly supplemented by assistance from our sister congregation, Jewish Temple Isaiah; AME churches, and fellow religions generally.
Our present mayor, Eric Garcetti, and two former mayors were a part of the celebratory crowd hosted at First AME Church on Saturday, April 29, the 25th-anniversary date of the 1992 explosion. The church is constantly vaunted for its role from the first day to the present moment. How do we thank The Christian Recorder for its monumental legacy of being the grapevine for our nation’s first and foremost precursor of the word made flesh?
How about recovery? Has there been change? Yes, starting with the police component. The last four chiefs of police have revamped the connections between communities and the police. With the city council and the board of supervisors, we have an Inspector General, citizens review board, police commission, the Christopher Commission, the Federal Consent Decree, and celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1992 civil unrest, we have a determination that Los Angeles—a nation of nations—will continue its determination to help make California the capital of the Pacific Rim.
Further, we in the faith-based community salute each other in tribute to FAME, our city’s oldest Black congregation. We stand together in the understanding that we are called upon to dream when you’re feeling blue; dream and they might come true; things never are as bad as thy seem, so dream, dream, dream. The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up!
The Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray served as the pastor of First AME Church, Los Angeles, from 1977-2004. He currently serves as a professor at the University of Southern California (USC), where he is Co-Founder of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.
“Can’t we all get along?”
By Rev. Mark Whitlock
Twenty-five years ago, the city of Los Angeles erupted in flames following the not-guilty verdicts for the four LAPD police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. The verdicts verified America’s failure to get along. There is a general implicit bias towards people of color and there is violent, racial, and oppressive explicit and implicit bias towards black men specifically. Dr. W.E.B. Dubois shares the American challenge, “One ever feels his twoness…an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” America witnessed the inhumane beating of a defenseless Rodney King. Did America not see what the world saw? Fifty percent of America felt the verdicts were fair and impartial. Another fifty percent of America felt the verdicts reflected a history of racism, social injustice, and a failure to see the divinity in Black men.
Conversely, some Black people are blind to social/economic challenges of “other” Americans. Non-Black people work daily to survive by sacrificing and suffering through economic downturns and preserve in tough times. The early 90s were tough economic times. The Los Angeles economy had high unemployment and crime rates and a lot of people in South Central were getting high on crack cocaine. The reaction to the verdicts did not justify violence, burning property and small businesses, and looting. Fifty-six people died, 2,000 people were arrested, 8,000 people were injured, one billion dollars in property damage occurred, and over 100,000 jobs were lost to never return to South Central Los Angeles.
Rodney King offered a wise response to the problems facing Los Angeles and America: “Can’t we all get along?” This simple solution has so much wisdom. The Rev. Cecil Murray was the Senior Minister of First AME Church in 1992. He defines getting along by helping people get up from a quagmire of social degradation. Together we created the FAME Renaissance, a community development initiative of First AME Church. The mission was to economically empower low to moderate communities by partnering with the public and private sectors to create jobs and economic growth. We believe one solution is social entrepreneurship.
Social entrepreneurship is about creating jobs, developing small businesses, spurring home ownership, and improving public transportation to create a positive financial future and using corporate profits to help people living at the bottom of the pyramid. The Walt Disney Company hired 3,000 youth to work at Disneyland and raised one million dollars to fund small businesses in South Los Angeles. The Metropolitan Transportation Department funded FAME to transport one million people annually to work, health clinics, and school. Wells Fargo Bank and other financial institutions invested $5 million dollars to start an Angel Fund for small businesses. A water conservation program saved Los Angeles one billion square acres of water. The Economic Development Administration created business incubators for small business development. There were blacks, Asians, Latinos, and whites getting along to create a measurable social impact.
Los Angeles was torn apart by the LA Riots. Los Angeles is still deeply divided by race, religion, and a real lack of financial resources for poor people. We have the largest homeless population in America. We have the largest prison population in America. Police relations are still strained with men of color. We are a long way from getting along.
The Rev. Mark Whitlock, BA, MSSE is the Senior Minister of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine, California. He serves as the Executive Director for the University of Southern California Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.