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25 Years Later, The Enduring Relevance Of The Los Angeles Riots


It has been 25 years since the LA riots, and we've been talking about that quite a bit here on the show. One of the people who's been helping us do that is Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team. She covered the riots in 1992 and has reported on LA for years.



MCEVERS: You are here to help me answer a big question, and that is why. Like, why is it important to remember and to talk about this time here in Los Angeles?

BATES: Kelly, one of the reasons we're talking about it is because so many people vividly remember that time...


BATES: ...April 29, 1992, whether they lived in LA or not. It was a watershed moment, you know, like remembering 9/11 or Martin Luther King's assassination. Now, a lot of that has to do with television coverage - you know, the trial of the four police officers in the beating of Rodney King, his beating was captured on videotape and seen by millions of people around the globe before the jury's verdict, and then the wall-to-wall reporting on the riots themselves. So if you had a TV 25 years ago, it was hard to miss it.

MCEVERS: Yeah, a lot of people remember that. And then the question too is, you know, now thinking about what it was like to not only live through the riots but to keep on living here in LA after that moment. How've people here told you they've seen their communities change?

BATES: Well, one of the flashpoints during the riots was the relationship between the black community and Korean shop owners. And a lot of those businesses were in black communities, but residents felt that many of the Koreans were hostile to them, didn't speak English and had businesses, like liquor stores, that were detrimental to the community. Carol Park, who wrote "Memoirs Of A Cashier," (ph) was a 12-year-old kid working the graveyard shift with her mom at her family's gas station in Compton when the violence broke out. When she talked to NPR, she told us Koreans still feel the aftermath.

CAROL PARK: There are a lot of Korean-Americans who have PTSD from that time. Who wouldn't? You've lost your entire life. You got shot at. You shot at people. There was no law enforcement. Things are better, but it's still a wound. Of course they will always carry that.

MCEVERS: So it was a big moment for media coverage. It was a big moment for race relations. And it's also such a big moment when we talk about policing, right? I mean, this was the LAPD basically on trial. And still to this day when I do any stories on policing, it always comes up that that was a moment when the country was able to say - hang on - how are we being policed?

BATES: Yeah. Because it was one of the first times the country as a whole saw what was going on in black and brown neighborhoods in LA and in cities around the country. And all of a sudden, it was like, oh, my God.

I spoke with lawyer Connie Rice who worked with the police on reform for several years, and she mentioned this about how the LAPD itself has changed. She said although the city had a significant Latino population 25 years ago...

CONNIE RICE: The only language that they taught in the police academy before these changes was in Spanish. And the only thing they taught them was hands up (laughter); halt, or I'll shoot.

BATES: So in 1992, the sworn force was about 21 percent Latino. Today it's almost 45 percent. Back in '92, the force was almost 60 percent white. Now it's like 30 percent white.

MCEVERS: And just one last question, Karen - could this happen again?

BATES: Interesting you should ask that. You know, a lot of people say no. But a Loyola Marymount poll published in The LA Times last week said a number of respondents across the city, especially young ones, say yes. So it just depends on where you sit - or live, like Jasmyne Cannick who's a police critic and a commentator. She grew up in South LA, and she still lives here. And she feels very strongly we need to remember these things. We met with her in a windy parking lot at a shopping mall in South LA.

JASMYNE CANNICK: When you don't talk about it, it dies. And a lot of people went through a lot in 1992, and I think their stories are important. I think we're doomed to repeat a lot of things that we don't share from generation to generation. I think everyone was affected by what happened in 1992. It didn't matter if you lived in the Valley or at the beach. You couldn't go to work. You couldn't go to school. You were scared to go into a certain neighborhoods. Maybe your neighborhood was on fire. Some people that I know - they actually became activists after 1992 and still are activists to this day.

BATES: Like Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who was elected to the LA City Council.

MCEVERS: Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team, thank you for bringing us these voices and your perspective. Thanks so much.

BATES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHACKS SONG, "NO SURPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates