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Burning Too Few Illusions

Mike Davis
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

The 1992 Los Angeles riot never happened. Forgive me—I am not trying to be clever. This is not a philosophical provocation in the mode of Jean Baudrillard’s notorious claim that the 1989 Gulf War was ‘impossible.’ Rather, it is a straightforward argument from the factual record: the 1992 riot, as visualized by most of the world, never happened.

Certainly during that spring week a decade ago an extraordinary conflagration did engulf many of Los Angeles County’s communities of color. But it was not the same ‘violent tragedy’ that was recently commemorated—usually with sanctimonious self-praise about LA’s ‘healing’ and ‘recovery’—in the region’s mainstream media. Nor was it the utterly righteous festival of the oppressed cheered from the sidelines by some on the left.

Legend and reality

The complexity of what really occurred defies all mono-causal, black-and-white, soundbite-style analyses. It was a ‘conjuncture’ in the classical Leninist sense: an explosive, over-determined convergence (but not necessarily synthesis) of separate grievances and community histories. To disentangle this complex causality, as well as to better understand its enduring legacy, we need first of all to examine the systematic discrepancy between the media legend of the ‘riot’ and actual events.

To sample the imagery that has been stamped into popular memory, I recently asked a class of suburban Southern California undergraduates to talk about the 1992 Los Angeles explosion. Several thought it had something to do with the OJ Simpson case, although most believed that it had erupted in response to the beating of a black motorist named Rodney King (only a few accurately recalled the Simi Valley trial of the policemen involved).

They conceived the events as a single, very violent riot in South Central Los Angeles organized by Black gangs and directed against the police and commercial property. Significantly more could recall watching footage of Reginald Denny (the white truck driver) being beaten than Rodney King. A few recollected that Korean-owned businesses were favorite targets of arsonists. None were aware of the unprecedented large-scale and federally organized repression that followed the first three days of ‘rioting.’

In the event, they were surprised, even slightly incredulous, when I showed them a summary of the April/May 1992 arrest records: only a third of the ‘rioters’ incarcerated were Black; a majority of total arrests occurred outside the Los Angeles city limits; and, of those arrested within the city, a majority came from largely Latino neighborhoods outside of what is usually conceived to be ‘South Central LA’ (the region south of the Santa Monica freeway to Imperial Highway, bounded on the West by La Brea and on the East by Alameda).

Nor were they aware of such major ‘riot hotspots’ as Hollywood (where gay demonstrators mingled with Armenian homeboys), Huntington Park (where Cuban-owned businesses were torched by other Latinos), Compton (where Black and Latino youth attacked symbols of the local Black power-structure), Long Beach and Pomona (where urban renewal had sown violent animosities along several ethnic axes), or Las Vegas, where three weekends of violent police-versus-youth confrontations followed the Rodney King decision.

There was not, in other words, a unitary Black riot (a la Watts in 1965), but rather an archipelago of multi-ethnic uprisings (as well as ‘non-uprisings’ in equally poor and police-violated neighborhoods) whose detonation may have been synchronized by the Simi Valley verdict, but whose causation reflected diverse local histories and grievances.

Moreover, three days of mass action—across a spectrum that includes debate, peaceful protest, and self-defense as well as looting, arson and street warfare—were accompanied and followed by massive repression coordinated, for the first time, by the federal government and involving the INS, ATF, and FBI, as well as the Army and the Marines. It is impossible to understand or characterize the uprisings without including this official violence as well.

In emphasizing the neighborhood specificity of the uprising, of course, I am not denying the role of large-scale processes and unifying grievances. The first of these was ‘Operation Hammer,’ the LAPD’s indiscriminate dragnet of Black youth which, in the name of combating ‘gang terror,’ subjected thousands of teenagers to humiliating searches and mass arrests—overwhelmingly for misdemeanor traffic violations and drug offensives.

By treating all Black teenagers as likely gang members and criminalizing their most innocent recreations (e.g., cruising Crenshaw boulevard, barbequing at the beach, congregating in parks, and so on), the LAPD—as it had in the early 1960s—ensured the self-fulfilling prophecy of rebellion. The Rodney King decision, which affirmed majority-White racism, was only the spark that ignited neighborhoods already soaked in the gasoline of police abuse.

Another common element in most of the riot-area neighborhoods in 1992 was the deteriorating relationship between the community and local merchants, especially the immigrant Korean proprietors of the shabby corner markets cum liquor stores that serve South Central LA, Compton and other inner-city areas in lieu of supermarkets.

Black small businesses that had grown up in the wake of the 1965 rebellion were decimated by bank ‘redlining’ and disinvestment in the 1970s, and there was widespread resentment over the ubiquity of liquor stores near schools and churches. Inter-ethnic tension became explosive after a white judge released a Korean storeowner to community service after she had murdered 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. (In the same period, a Black mail carrier was given jail time for killing a threatening dog on his route, sending the message that an innocent Black child’s life was worth less than a dog’s.)

The invisible crisis

These two factors—indiscriminate police repression and growing inter-ethnic tension—were acknowledged post facto in most autopsies of the events, but it was a third factor—the concurrent recession—that gave the uprising its truly complex and multi-dimensional character. The 1990-92 national recession, which lingered in Los Angeles neighborhoods until 1995, was lopsidedly concentrated in Southern California, which accounted for almost a fifth of total national job loss. This first ‘organic crisis’ of the new Pacific Rim economy, its local impact was magnified by the downsizing of military aerospace and the retreat of Japanese investment in the wake of the meltdown of the ‘super-Yen.’

The local media devoted much sympathetic attention to the plight of displaced Lockheed engineers and out-of-work realtors. But the recession bit deepest where it was least visible to the Anglo middle class: in the poor immigrant neighborhoods—many of them in transition from Black to brown—that surround downtown Los Angeles and spill southward toward the Harbor.

Living in this period in a Latino neighborhood on the flank of downtown, I watched through the winter of 1991-92 as immigrant homelessness soared in direct proportion to layoffs in the tourist, landscape and light manufacturing sectors. A few blocks away, in the urban desert known as Crown Hill, the homeless population grew from a handful of elderly Black men to more than a hundred young Latinos (jobless busboys, waiters, and day laborers) in a few months.

In absence of any social voice or safety net, new immigrants were quickly driven into an economic desperation that seized upon the initial outbreak on April 31 to transform it into a postmodern bread riot, not completely different in character from the earlier ‘IMF riots’ in Caracas or the simultaneous unrest in South Korea. Although the media did report Latino looting, it failed to recognize that urgent need not ‘opportunism’ was its driving force.

More often than not, cause and effect were inverted, as in the Los Angeles Times’ story about emergency food kitchens being overwhelmed by largely Latino women and children throughout South Central LA. The Times attributed this to ‘disruption of food supplies’ as an effect of the riot. In fact, they were reporting one of the riot’s secret causes: the immiseration in the wake of the worst local economic downturn since 1938.

Despite the thousands of arrests and mass INS deportations, the political response to the riot did nothing to illuminate the life-conditions of Latino immigrants. For their part, most African American politicians resisted any exploration of immigrant poverty that might detract attention from their constituents’ long neglected demands.

Chicano officials, on the other hand, were reluctant to concede any stake in the uprising; indeed, several drew a bigoted and entirely false distinction between their Eastside constituents and supposedly disorganized Central American ‘refugees.’ (In reality, the Latino arrestees, like the populations of their neighborhoods, were rather evenly split between recent Mexican immigrants and central americanos.) In the event, there was no ‘riot report,’ no Kerner Commission, no comprehensive investigation that might have unveiled the roles of economic immiseration and political disfranchisement in sustaining the uprising.

Another white riot

The major exceptions to this conspiracy of silence were Los Angeles’ progressive unions, especially HERE Local 11 and SEIU’s Justice For Janitors. Local 11, in particular, scandalized LA’s boosters by making a short film, City on the Edge, which explicitly linked the 1992 uprising to poverty-level wages in the tourist industry. Moreover, the downtown unions have fought and won a series of historical strikes that have set new wage and benefit standards for the working poor.

Yet, despite these justly celebrated victories—and in spite of the acclaimed late 1990s ‘new economy’ which was supposedly raising everyone’s boat—there was significantly greater poverty in Los Angeles in 1999—at the height of the boom—than in 1992. Since then unemployment in flatland immigrant neighborhoods has soared while local government, especially the overwhelmed county health system (40% of the population has no medical coverage), faces the worst fiscal crunch in a generation.

In addition to the persistence of the same socioeconomic conditions that fed the 1992 uprising, police misconduct in Los Angeles has only marginally abated. If the notorious Operation Hammer ended with the career of Chief Gates, it was followed by the extraordinary revelation of a virtual police death squad operating out of the inner-city Ramparts Station and using the ‘war on gangs’ as a pretext for setup killings and beatings. Many of the Christopher Commission reforms of the LAPD remain a dead letter and the police union recently showed its rebellious power by electing its former executive to the city council.

Even more importantly, the gang truce movement that preceded the uprising and brought about the social miracle of unity between the Crips and Bloods is dying, just as its organizers long ago predicted, from official hostility and the lack of employment resources. Although the core of the original truce in Watts remains intact, gang warfare is soaring in other neighborhoods of South Central and, especially on the Eastside, where the peacemaking between Chicano gangs was always far more fragile. Community activists throughout the county fear that the carnage may soon reach the extreme tolls of the late 1980s and early 1990s when there were as many as 800 ‘gang-related homicides’ per year.

All of this—persistent extreme poverty, a rogue police department, and a resurgence of gang warfare—is an urgent agenda for local politics. But it is an agenda that Los Angeles’ political elite have preferred not to recognize. During the eight years of Mayor Richard Riordan’s reign—a period of ‘L.A. renaissance’ according to his supporters—municipal politics was downsized to the two issues of paramount concern to the Anglo middle class in the beaches and hills: enlarging the police force and restoring business confidence.

More recently, the foreground of local politics has been hijacked by the secessionists in the San Fernando Valley: a motley alliance of exclusionary homeowner associations, Republican businessmen and some opportunist Latino Democrats. The Valley confederates are led by the rightwing Sherman Oaks homeowners association: the same group that over the years has spearheaded the Jarvis tax rebellion (the original ‘white riot’), organized opposition to school busing, and, most recently, championed anti-immigrant Proposition 187.

Valley secession is a direct aftershock of the 1992 uprising—a racist attempt to redraw the color line against the new majority. Although Anglos even in the Valley are now only 40% of the population, they remain more than three-quarters of its electorate. Splitting up Los Angeles would allow white homeowners and business interests in the Valley to sustain their political domination for another decade, postponing the inevitable arrival of a majority Latino vote. Secession is white power on artificial life support. It’s also a symptom of how little has been conceded to social justice in the last decade. And, inequality, as we all know, is Southern California’s most famous fire ecology.