Twenty-five years ago this past weekend, the city of Los Angeles descended into a nightmare of chaos and bloodshed following the announcement of the Rodney King verdict. Infuriated Black Americans took to the streets with violent intent; they had grown weary of the appalling treatment the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had inflicted on them for years, and the jury’s fateful decision was the proverbial last straw.
Looters were looting. Rioters destroyed vehicles. People set businesses ablaze. One could almost see the fires that consumed these buildings as a manifestation of the rage that had been smoldering within the Black community for decades.
Reginald Denny – a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time — was ripped from his truck and brutally beaten for the crime of being white. Over a period of five days, Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian-Americans became victims of this civil unrest. When all was said and done, sixty-three Americans lost their lives. It was an unforgettable time.
I was eleven years old in 1992, and it was one of the most enlightening – and terrifying — episodes of my young life.
We were living in Lawndale, a city in the greater Los Angeles area, which was not at the epicenter of the violence, but it was close enough to be frightening, I remember being kept home that day because the rioting and violence closed my school. I distinctly remember my mother coming home early from work when the rampage began. When she opened the door, she hugged me close and sobbed. I was very much afraid too — but managed to put on my very best show of courage — as an eleven-year-old boy is wont to do.
As a family, we watched the local news coverage for hours, if not days. News reports described the unspeakable carnage done by rioters. As I listened to the adults around me discuss these events, I began to put the events in a framework that I could comprehend. It would be tempting to assume that most of the conversation was focused on the Rodney King incident and subsequent verdict. However, the main topic of discussion concerned the Black Americans who chose to use violence to express their outrage. While Blacks living in Los Angeles were justifiably angry at the police misconduct in Los Angeles, the adults around me felt – and I came to understand – the rioters were responding in a way that would only make the situation worse for those of us who lived in the black community.
While the L.A. riots made an enormous impression on me, it was the aftermath that eventually taught me a more potent message.
After the violence had subsided, life went on. The city, of course, did not recover right away. A year later I started at a new school. Its location was in a part of L.A. that was affected by the riots. Every day I walked through the streets observing the burned-out buildings the rioters had torched in their fury. The skeletal husks of these structures were a grim reminder of the mayhem that ensued. My young mind incessantly questioned what had happened to my community – and to what end.
But the mood in my neighborhood was palpably different than the year before; it had transformed from white-hot anger to a dull gray depression. You could feel the sense of hopelessness just by walking through the streets.
As a young black man, the L.A. riots showed me how much destruction can occur when racial tensions erupt into rampant, meaningless violence. The utter futility of these types of demonstrations taught me in 3-D and living color that they do nothing to change the circumstances in which Black Americans live.
While the state acquitted the police officers who beat Rodney King, a federal court ultimately convicted them. The LAPD did implement reforms designed to decrease the number of incidents involving police brutality. Whether these changes were effective is debatable.
It certainly wasn’t worth losing sixty-three lives.
So here we are a quarter of a century later. Racial tensions in America have risen once again. Hostility between Americans of different races seems to be edging once again toward that white-hot anger. As well relations between inner city minorities and law enforcement have become dangerously strained. Groups like Black Lives Matter have only thrown more fuel on the fire – instigating riots and violent protests regarding police shootings in situations where law enforcement intervention was, more often than not, necessary. As well, the so-called social justice warriors routinely malign police officers for supposed racism. Instead of working with the police to lessen the number of shootings, these people foment animosity.
I am overcome with the belief that should these race-baiters successfully push their agenda; we will only see more violence. Right-thinking Americans must not allow them to control the narrative. They must be stopped – otherwise, the situation could erupt in violence, damage to communities and needless loss of life – the very same mistakes that were made twenty-five years ago.