South L.A. Revisited, 25 Years After the Rodney King Riots

May 1, 2017

Héctor Tobar  New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/opinion/south-la-revisited-25-years-after-the-rodney-king-riots.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

 

LOS ANGELES — In a corner of this city where stores burned, and rocks flew through windows, I found a garden growing.

“It’s the heat that makes them grow,” Rafael Martinez, 79, told me as he stood over a patch of chamomile bushes in a community garden underneath power transmission lines in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles. Days of constant California spring sunshine had produced thousands of tiny white flowers with yellow pistils.

Upheavals of looting and arson swept through South Los Angeles twice in the second half of the 20th century, in 1965 and 1992. Today, squash, alfalfa and a leafy Mexican vegetable called quelite grow just 500 feet from where the 1965 Watts riots started in reaction to police brutality against black and Latino residents.

Mr. Martinez, a retired factory worker with roots in Mexico, finds peace and a sense of purpose there. When he steps away from the garden, however, things don’t look so wonderful.

“It’s impossible to make ends meet here,” he said in Spanish. Thanks to Southern California’s crazy real estate market, a three-bedroom house in Watts can go for more than $300,000. “I used to spend $5 and get a bag of groceries to feed my family. Now $5 doesn’t buy you anything.”

Twenty-five years ago this month, after the second riot struck on April 29, I heard people in South Los Angeles express the economic frustrations of an earlier era. “It’s not a recession for minority communities,” one African-American resident told me that day. “It’s a depression.” Down the street from her home, columns of smoke rose from torched liquor stores.

The 1992 riot, or “uprising,” as it’s often called here, was set off by the acquittal of four officers charged in the videotaped police beating of Rodney King. As a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, I drove across the city, following the multiethnic frenzy of violence as it spread across my hometown from South Los Angeles to the Hollywood neighborhood where I was born and raised.

With those horrible days only a memory, South Los Angeles can look and feel like a poor man’s Eden. Over the decades, many different kinds of people have built lives there: families escaping the oppression of the Ottoman Empire, the racism of the Jim Crow South, and the poverty of Mexico and Central America. The avocado trees, rose bushes and nopal cactuses they’ve planted still rise, bloom and give fruit in the front yards.

But South Los Angeles is also a place of hurt, confusion and rage, where life is harsh. At the flash point of the 1965 riots, the only historical marker I found didn’t commemorate that event at all, but rather the 2001 killing of a school crossing guard in a drive-by shooting. Most of the big auto and tire plants that circled the community closed long ago, and parts of the neighborhood look like a sun-drenched Rust Belt with sea breezes, where sea gulls eat from overflowing trash bins.

“Riot is the voice of the unheard,” an African-American leader said in the days after the 1992 conflagration. I understand such sentiments, but up close, a mob is an ugly thing to see, its actions pointless. People take things that don’t belong to them. They beat up the weak and defenseless.

Today, Latino and black officers together make up a majority of a much-reformed Los Angeles Police Department. A quarter-century on, the people who live here are not about to riot. But many feel that their voices are as unheard as ever — and thousands of South Los Angeles immigrants face a cruel, arbitrary power of another kind: federal agents carrying out the Trump administration’s aggressive policies of deporting the undocumented.

“What do you say to the immigrant families?” a young Latina asked me when I visited students at Locke High School in Watts this month. “Does this country still want them?” she wanted to know. “Do they still have a future here?”

The answer I had to offer students like her was that they should have faith in their own abilities to transform Los Angeles and the United States into better places to live. And they had already started.

With the help of 826LA, a nonprofit group focusing on youth literacy, Locke students had just written a book about the legacy of the 1992 riots, an event that unfolded before they were born. They interviewed black, Latino and Korean-American residents about that experience, and offered their own descriptions of daily life in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.

“I don’t think people understand what it feels like to move from hell to a place in between,” writes one of the students, Jonathan Lopez, a Salvadoran immigrant, “because for me L.A. isn’t heaven, but it’s also not hell.”

For another student, Alejandra Vasquez, finding a home in South Los Angeles after journeying from El Salvador also meant being reunited with her father after nine years of separation.

“Nobody says the way is easy, that we would never have problems,” she writes. “But behind all this there is something good, a better life.” She takes solace, she said, in a saying her mother repeats often: “There is always calm after a storm.”

In South Los Angeles, there is calm, an uneasy one given the ever-present threat of gun violence and rumors of immigration roundups and raids.

The city will not be consumed in flames again soon, but like other troubled parts of the United States, it burns a little every day. It smolders with seething resentments. The people there know they deserve better, but their most common act of resistance is simply to work hard, plant gardens and watch them grow.

 Buildings burning in Koreatown, in Los Angeles, during the 1992 riots. Credit Gary Leonard/Corbis, via Getty Images

Buildings burning in Koreatown, in Los Angeles, during the 1992 riots. Credit Gary Leonard/Corbis, via Getty Images

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