Lessons Learned from
LA’s 1992 Civil Unrest

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said.
On April 29, 1992, the unheard were unleashed, leading to one of the most disturbing chapters in the history of Los Angeles.
When the civil unrest over the verdict in the Rodney King case ended five days later, the toll included 54 people dead, 2,000 injured and 12,000 arrested. More than 1,000 buildings were set ablaze and 4,500 looted, resulting in over $1 billion in property damage. As a newly elected member of the City Council, I saw our recently renovated district office – a mini-City Hall – become a smoldering ruin.
Even now, 25 years later, not all of the social and economic injustices that became kindling for “the unheard” have been snuffed out. And yet, I believe quite a lot has been done – just not enough. I call it strategic dissatisfaction.
In 1992, 30 to 40 percent of the population in parts of South Central and Southeast LA lived below the poverty line. While the mean household income in the Westside approached $100,000, South Central and Southeast LA residents earned only about $25,000 and $22,000, respectively. That’s if they could find a job at all, with the unemployment rate at 13.7 percent and 17.4 percent in those neighborhoods, respectively, compared to 8.4 percent citywide.
Watts was among the communities that struggled the most, with an unemployment rate of 26 percent and a household income of just $12,000, leaving almost half of its households reliant on some form of public assistance.
Aside from crushing poverty and high unemployment, too many communities were also plagued by gang crime and a crack cocaine epidemic, along with indisputable racial and ethnic tensions. Back then, such areas were perceived as ominous. That is changing, and it’s a good thing.
In recent years, South LA and the rest of LA County’s Second District have drawn tremendous public and private investment. This urban landscape, which once seemed to have a liquor store at every corner, now includes the $2-billion Crenshaw/LAX Line set for completion in 2019 and the new $1-billion Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Campus in Willowbrook, poised for further expansion.
Still to come are the $2.6-billion National Football League stadium for the Rams and Chargers in Inglewood, as well as the $1-billion Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and $350-million Major League Soccer stadium for the LA Football Club, both in Exposition Park. Meanwhile, the LA Memorial Coliseum, the Forum and Metro’s Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station each set aside $270 million, $100 million and $66 million, respectively, for renovations.
These and other projects in and around commercial centers targeted for destruction in 1992 have created thousands of jobs in recent years and will continue to do so. Residents are reaping the benefits of local worker hire policies, wage theft crackdowns, and increases in the minimum wage and living wage.
All told, communities within LA County’s Second District have seen 5.5 percent employment growth over the last eight years, coinciding with a 20.13 percent increase in annual wages. If this trend continues, we should be able to chip away at the poverty rate, which, in South LA, has stubbornly refused to budge from about 33 percent since the time of the civil unrest.
Homelessness remains at crisis levels but, for the first time ever, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just this March, voters made history by agreeing to tax themselves over a decade to provide unprecedented resources – $3.5 billion – for ending and preventing homelessness countywide. Measure H is the only revenue proposal ever attempted, much less approved, during an off-cycle election. It will go hand-in-hand with Proposition HHH, a $1.2-billion bond measure to build affordable housing in the city of LA.
Even before voters approved either ballot measure, LA’s Second District saw 2,200 affordable housing units built over the last eight years, and 800 more are in the works. Increased government investment has also led to the construction or renovation of several parks, libraries and school-based health centers, though many more amenities are still needed.
Law enforcement and policing remain problematic, though a number of reforms have been carried out over the decades. The LA Police Department has strived to increase diversity within its ranks to more closely resemble the city’s demographics, and has placed greater emphasis on community policing rather than being a militarized occupying force. The LA County Sheriff’s Department made similar changes and, for the first time, has both an Inspector General and a Civilian Oversight Commission looking over its shoulder.
Despite these changes, complaints of racial profiling, excessive use of force, and other abuses have never gone away.
These days, instead of Rodney King, we hear the names Ezell Ford and, elsewhere in the country, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, among others. The police shooting of Michael Brown triggered violent protests in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., as recently as three years ago.
On April 29, 1992, the rage and anguish of a community that had long suffered injustice and neglect were finally laid bare. Against a fiery backdrop on primetime news, broadcast worldwide, they demanded social justice and economic progress. For a while, it seemed to have an effect – reforms were vowed, investments pledged, an uneasy truce declared.
But, 25 years later, poverty still holds a firm grip on many in South LA, which has among the highest rates of homelessness in LA County. The streets are dotted with vacant lots where planned grocery stores, retail shops and restaurants never materialized. Meanwhile, after years of steady decline, violent crime is on the rise again in South LA, straining an already tenuous relationship between police officers and the community.
We cannot afford to wait yet another quarter of a century before heeding the call of “the unheard.” On April 29, 2017, we are closer than ever to delivering on promises of jobs and community revitalization, and to ensuring that law enforcement is professional and accountable. We must seize this momentum and pick up the pace, if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past as we chart a path for the future.

Reflections on the Civil Unrest

Media outlets throughout the nation reflect on 25 years since the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles. NBC News Conference’s Conan Nolan and Charter Local Edition’s Brad Pomerance sit down with Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas to discuss how far Los Angeles County has come and the work that remains.


A Tantalizing Preview of the Crenshaw/LAX Line

The $2-billion Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project is scheduled for completion in 2019 but, thanks to students at Los Angeles Trade Tech College, we can catch a glimpse right now of what’s to come.

Working with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, LATTC students created a video simulating a bird’s eye view of the 8.5-mile light rail line that will travel between South Los Angeles and Los Angeles International Airport.

Construction is more than halfway complete. The project will serve passengers in the Crenshaw District, Leimert Park, Inglewood, Westchester, El Segundo, and points in between. There will be eight stations, with the northernmost connecting to the Expo Line and the southernmost to the Green Line.

The project is expected to have a daily ridership of 13,000 to 16,000, and would be the first to serve the area since streetcars – dubbed “Yellow Cars” – stopped running in the 1950’s. It is funded through a loan from the federal government and Measure R, a half-cent transit sales tax approved by voters in 2008.

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Rolling Up Our Sleeves for American Apparel Workers

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Just days after American Apparel factories were shuttered, hundreds of its former workers attend a seminar aimed at helping them secure new jobs, training, and other resources.

Efforts are underway to help about 3,000 American Apparel workers now facing unemployment after the company was sold in a bankruptcy auction.

Rapid response teams from the County’s Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services (WDACS), as well as the City’s Economic and Workforce Development Department (EWDD), have been deployed to guide former sewers, cutters, knitting supervisors and others in their search for new jobs and training, as well as applying for unemployment insurance and other benefits.

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An old American Apparel poster

With 80 percent of American Apparel’s workforce based at its corporate headquarters and main factory in downtown LA, within the County’s Second District, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas fought to prevent the mass layoffs from occurring in the first place. He petitioned the chief judge of the bankruptcy court to stipulate that the buyer “retain as many of the thousands of American Apparel workers as possible.” He added, “We simply cannot allow 3,000 family-supporting jobs to be eliminated.”

American Apparel, however, went on the auction block after years of financial turmoil that included two bankruptcy filings. Gildan Activewear Inc., a Canadian company, purchased what was once North America’s largest clothing manufacturer for $88 million in cash.

As soon as the pinks slips were handed out, a host of government agencies and community-based organizations came together to help.

“Regrettably, we still have situations where our local businesses experience difficulties in this economy,” said the County’s WDACS Assistant Director, Josephine Marquez. “In the advent of American Apparel’s decision to close their operations, the WDACS; Department of Public Social Services (DPSS); State Employment Development Department (EDD); the City of Los Angeles; the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) and a variety of other social service programs have come together to assist American Apparel during its transition, and to assist its employees with resources that hopefully stabilize their situations and move them to reemployment as quickly as possible.”

DPSS sent staff to determine the former employees’ eligibility for CalWORKs, CalFresh and General Relief benefits. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Division of Adult and Career Education, as well as the Los Angeles Community College District, offered a wide range of career and technical education programs along with basic and secondary education courses. English as a Second Language classes were made available as well, since American Apparel’s diverse workforce spoke 17 different languages.

The US Department of Labor, WorkSource California, America’s Job Centers of California, and dozens of community-based organizations also provided support. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Director of Workforce and Education policy, Lisa Salazar, noted, “Although this is a very distressing situation where we have thousands of workers who are now unemployed, today is a great example of how our collective systems from the City, County, state EDD, LAUSD and LA Trade Tech can bring services forward to these individuals who need them most.”

LAUSD Division of Adult and Career Education program and policy development coordinator, Laura Chardiet, expressed confidence that training and other services would help the former American Apparel workers move on to new careers. “This is what we do,” she said. “We specialize in working with people who have high barriers, and we’re also very good at accelerating their learning so people can get the training they need to get a job as soon as possible.”

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American Apparel’s now-closed corporate headquarters and main factory in downtown Los Angeles

 

Lucas Museum Lands in Exposition Park

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Supervisor Mark RIdley-Thomas and Mayor Eric Garcetti announce the Lucas Museum will be build in Exposition Park. Photo by Henry Salazar/Board of Supervisors

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas thanked legendary filmmaker George Lucas for bringing his $1-billion Lucas Museum of Narrative Art to Exposition Park, where it is expected to create thousands of employment opportunities for people in South Los Angeles and beyond.

“It is a momentous day for the people of Los Angeles County as we celebrate the decision to build the Lucas Museum in Exposition Park,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “The Lucas Museum will bring thousands of jobs to the County, not only in the construction industry but in the art, education and hospitality industries as well.”

“Exposition Park is the ideal site for the Lucas Museum, as it is already a destination hub in the County, with ample and consistent public transportation and convenient access to multiple freeways,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas added. “Its proximity to USC, along with dozens of elementary, middle and high schools, will help boost the learning experience of thousands of children each year, and provide an understanding of the science and technological skills needed for a career in the film, animation and design industries.”

In a statement, the Museum’s Board of Directors said they picked Exposition Park because “South Los Angeles’ Promise Zone best positions the museum to have the greatest impact on the broader community, fulfilling our goal of inspiring, engaging and educating a broad and diverse visitorship.”

Acting on a motion by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted in November to issue a resolution declaring Exposition Park as the ideal location for the Lucas Museum. They also heard testimony from several leading proponents of the arts and the entertainment industry.

DreamWorks Animation cofounder and former CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg said in November, “This museum is a $1.5-billion philanthropic gift. For Los Angeles to become its home would be a game changer – its impact on our culture, on our children, on tourism, on commerce would be incredible.” Natural History Museum president and director Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga added, “The Lucas Museum would take Exposition Park to a new level as a local and national destination.”

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences CEO Dawn Hudson was also at the November hearing, and said Lucas has long been a passionate supporter of arts education for children. “I think this museum is an extension of that desire to communicate his love of art, his love of storytelling, to a much broader audience.” And California Science Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rudolph said a new museum by the creator of Star Wars would complement the permanent home of the space shuttle Endeavor.

Also during that November meeting, Faye Washington, representing both the YCWA of Greater Los Angeles and the Promise Zone of South Central Los Angeles, expresed hope that the museum would improve the community’s economic prospects. “It’s going to lower the unemployment rate – that 12 percent rate in South Central will go down,” she said. Meanwhile, LA Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gary Toebben pledged support from the business community.

The Lucas Museum will exhibit paintings by Edgar Degas, Winslow Homer and Pierre-Auguste Renoir; as well as illustrations, comic art and photography by such artists as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth.

It would also provide an insider’s perspective on the cinematic creative process, featuring concept art, storyboards, set design, props, costume and fashion, animation and visual effects. There would be public lectures and classes for all ages, hands-on workshops, after-school programs and camps, and a wide variety of additional educational opportunities.

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