Zev Yaroslavsky’s Memories of the Los Angeles Riots
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (District 3) remembers the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict very well. As if they’d happened yesterday and not 20 years ago, in fact.
“I was in my office in City Hall when the verdict was read,” said Yaroslavsky, who at the time served on the City Council. “Then I went to the First AME Church for a rally with other city officials to try to keep the peace in the community. While I was there, I think at about 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., the riots broke out. The city was on fire.”
The First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, on West Adams, had long been one of the nation’s most prominent African American pulpits, according to the Los Angeles Times. But on that April 29th, there was nothing the church and city leaders gathered there could do to contain the African American rage and frustration that exploded less than five miles away, at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, and then spread across much of the city.
“It’s a night I will not soon forget,” said Yaroslavsky, who speaks tonight, June 6, at Can We All Just Get Along: Perspectives on L.A., 20 Years After Rodney King, the Autry’s retrospective look at this turning point in Los Angeles history.
By the end of about a week of violence, 53 people were dead, thousands were injured, and the city had sustained $1 billion in damage. All because a majority white jury in Simi Valley had largely absolved four L.A. police officers of charges of assault and excessive force in the savage beating of motorist Rodney King. The beating had been videotaped by a bystander, and that tape played a central role in the attention the case received.
Yaroslavsky joins historians Robin Kelley, Brenda Stevenson, and Eric Avila in the discussion that is part of UCLA’s Why History Matters series. And although he recognizes that much still remains to be done in the city, especially to heal ethnic and social differences, he marvels at the changes that have occurred in twenty years. First, he says, the Los Angeles Police Department has dramatically changed its culture and relationship to communities in the city. And second, the city itself has become much more diverse.
“There is some modicum of increased honesty in the conversation among different groups,” he said. “People talk more openly across ethnic, racial, and religious lines. There’s a lot left to be done in that regard, and there are still a lot of barriers, physical and psychological, that have to come down. But the city has diversified, and it’s much more difficult to bottle up racial and ethnic groups into a certain geography of the city.”
Yaroslavsky has considerable praise for the LA Police Department and the change it has undergone. At the time of the riots, its longtime chief, Daryl Gates, had become a lightning rod for community criticism over his paramilitary approach to the war on drugs. Yaroslavsky himself clashed with Gates over procedure and practices at the department. In the wake of the riots, Gates resigned in disgrace.
The department endured more scandal through the late 1990s, and in 2001 it was forced into a consent decree giving the federal government significant oversight of it. Two years later, William Bratton, a former New York police commissioner, became police chief and began implementing his philosophy of community policing. The consent decree was finally lifted in July 2009.
“That was a validation of the work of chief Bratton had done,” Yaroslavsky said. “He set out to reform the police department from the inside as well as the outside. The commission looked at the police department after the riots. What (Bratton’s team) were charged with doing was reform the dept from within, and to change the factors that were contributing to the insular, fortress-like mentality it had had in the previous decades. And they were supposed to establish a better rapport with the communities of the city, especially the south and central communities. The department made a lot of progress in achieving those objectives, and the lifting of the consent decree was proof of that.”
As for issues that still remain on the table, Yaroslavsky says Los Angeles faces problems similar to those of other major cities: the yawning income gap between rich and poor, lack of opportunities for young people, hunger and homelessness, access to health care in working-class communities.
“The disparity between those who have economic means and those who don’t has continued to grow,” he said. “Even though we are in the twenty-first century, that continues to be a problem. Until that issue is addressed, we’re just sowing the seeds of social upheaval. You can’t have a concentration of wealth while a large number of people are not able to make end meet …. Inequality in our society is an issue that is still intractable and a problem we have to keep working on.”
Tonight’s talk begins at 8:00 p.m.