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1992 Remembered: Why Los Angeles Had to Burn

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April 29, 1992. For me, at the time an 11-year-old Black child living in a low-income section of Long Beach, that date represents more than a civil disturbance. While too young to clearly understand concepts like oppression, I was old enough to know the profound frustration associated with being poor within an economy that continued to deny the aspirations and dreams of many in my neighborhood.

Those were the years immediately following Reaganomics and the George Bush “read my lips” tax plan. The good ol’ colored people in communities like South Los Angeles, Compton, Watts and Long Beach were supposed to wait quietly and patiently for the day when the free market, through the trickling down of quality jobs, health care and good schools, delivered the gift of liberation we had all hoped for. Unfortunately, with each passing moment, those promises faded deeper and deeper into a dark empty background – with no hope of ever resurfacing. The system’s inequities had transformed once proud women, men and families into desperate paupers fighting over crumbs from the welfare and unemployment office in order to make it through the day. The constant fight for survival changed the essence of life from the simple pursuit of happiness to the daily flight from despair.

Under those conditions is it any wonder that Los Angeles had to burn? Is there any confusion about why Black people ran out into the streets on Florence and Normandie, their black fists pumping the air, screaming, “No justice, no peace”? Hell, for the last decade prior to the civil unrest, we had suffered through years of retaliation from conservatives, who were still upset about the civil rights movement. There was the systematic dismantling of affirmative action programs that only sought to affirm the country’s rhetoric around liberty by simply reversing anti-competitive racist practices in hiring and college admissions. There was the daily downsizing of the social safety net and welfare programs, which served a reasonable purpose since corporations were allowed to take working-class jobs (and the health insurance that came with them) from urban centers and place them in sweatshops in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

There were the regular beatings, shootings and framings by members of law enforcement, in the midst of a crack-cocaine-induced street war among organizations commonly known as street gangs. There was the debilitating anger after the murders of black people like Malice Green, Arthur McDuffie and 15-year-old Latasha Harlins went relatively unpunished. There was the utter shock within my neighborhood when the four officers responsible for beating Rodney King to a bloody mess were found not guilty of criminal charges. And yes, there was the grassroots display of resistance to police harassment on the part of those brothers on 71stand Western, near the intersection of Florence, on April 29, 1992 that sparked a reaction throughout the city.

While beating innocent pedestrians and setting ablaze property within one’s own community cannot be condoned, the events of April 1992 could at least be understood by anyone who took the time to recognize that communities like South Los Angeles, and particularly the Black people who lived in them, felt as if war had been declared upon us. In Long Beach, supposedly the more affluent and calmer version of Los Angeles, I and every one of my friends – regardless of age – walked around with a ticking time bomb attached to our souls, hoping one day that the damn thing would explode so that we could finally get some peace.

On April 29, 1992, we found some peace – if only for just a couple of seconds. Yes, there were stores and buildings burned down to the ground, leaving the types of empty lots that have become synonymous with contemporary urban decay. In the days that followed, the local police actually went door to door collecting any merchandise that lacked a sales receipt while arresting individuals seen as major participants in the looting. Elected officials, poverty pimps and genuine activists, meanwhile, clamored to assert their analysis of the events of that day.

But the true lesson of April 29, 1992 is that a people, no matter how oppressed or economically challenged, must never cease their struggle to regain their full human and civil rights. For the nation overall, that day in history served as an affirmation of the ancient African teaching that “unrighteousness may gain wealth, but can never bring its wares to safe port.” In other words, if our governmental leaders succumb to running the United States like a private corporation, unequal and uncaring, a group of people will eventually rise up to challenge that flawed business model by any means necessary.

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