Fires That Still Smolder in L.A.

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Fifteen years ago this week I was inside the First AME Church, a pillar of Los Angeles's African American establishment, watching Mayor Tom Bradley's aides figuring out how they could get him safely out of the building. A few hours earlier, my colleagues and I at the L.A. Weekly had watched jurors acquit the cops whose beating of Rodney King had been recorded for all to see. The city had just been thrown headlong over a cliff, and everybody sensed that the ensuing crash would be god-awful.

Bradley, who had been mayor for 19 years, was an iconic African American political leader whose success at building white-black coalitions was unrivaled in his day. But while Bradley and the other civic leaders assembled in the church were voicing outrage at the verdict and preaching nonviolence in response, shouts and shots and sirens were increasingly audible outside. With bottles flying and several nearby cars ablaze, Bradley's aides formed a flying wedge around him, and the mayor, crouching so as not to be conspicuous, did a quick-step Groucho Marx lope to his car. Surrounded by police, it roared off into the night.

The following day compressed decades of white flight into one chaotic afternoon. By midday, it was clear that the mayhem was spreading beyond South Central. What was not apparent, outside L.A.'s sizable Korean community, was that the violence was increasingly directed against Korean-owned small businesses. But the rumors that day suggested, entirely without factual basis, that such icons of the city's prosperity as the Beverly Center (which daily aggregated more anorexic fashionistas than any structure west of New York) had been attacked. Every east-west thoroughfare on the west side was jammed -- but only the westbound lanes, as whites fled the city center for the presumed safety of the upscale beach communities.

In fact, three distinct riots had exploded in Los Angeles. The first, like the Watts riots of 1965, had erupted in a spasm of rage at the Los Angeles police, whose racism and brutality seemed encoded in their DNA. By the second day, however, the unrest had begun to reflect the ethnic and economic complexities of the rapidly changing city. Increasingly, African American rioters targeted inner-city convenience and liquor stores owned or operated by Koreans, while some among the inner city's newer residents -- Mexican and Central American immigrants -- availed themselves of retail goods in stores whose display windows lay shattered in the streets.

The breakdown of Los Angeles, though, was hardly confined to the riots.

With the end of the Cold War, the region's largest employer, the aerospace industry, went into a tailspin. Hundreds of thousands of middle-class jobs were lost during the first half of the '90s; hundreds of thousands of middle-income Angelenos moved to other states. Their places were taken largely by immigrants from Latin America, who worked at lower-paying manufacturing and service-sector jobs, in some instances -- such as on construction crews, and in hotels and restaurants -- displacing native-born workers. The backlash came in 1994 with the passage of Proposition 187, which excluded undocumented immigrants and their children from a range of public services, including the right to attend school. (A court later struck down nearly all of 187's provisions.) The measure won a broad victory statewide; within Los Angeles, it scrambled all previous political alignments -- losing in the liberal, heavily Jewish west side and the Latino east side, carrying the more centrist, white San Fernando Valley, and narrowly winning predominantly black South Central.

In time, Los Angeles stabilized -- which is not to say it healed. Some flash points were eliminated: Koreans largely got out of the convenience and liquor store business in South Central. The last major Los Angeles Police Department scandal featured not white cops abusing blacks but black, white and Latino officers abusing Latino immigrants. More positively, Antonio Villaraigosa, a gifted pol justly claiming the mantle of Tom Bradley, assembled a white-black-Latino coalition that put him in the mayor's office -- where, like Bradley, he confronts problems beyond the powers of any mayor to solve.

Black-Latino tensions continue to plague L.A., in matters ranging from gang violence to political representation (the death last week of Juanita Millender-McDonald, a black House member from an increasingly Latino district, threatens to start a war between black and Latino political elites). The tensions are greatly exacerbated by the absence of decent-paying jobs for blue-collar work: The auto and aerospace factories are shuttered, and unionized construction jobs are few and far between.

None of that necessarily means another riot is in L.A.'s future, of course. But if a thriving middle class is the best guarantor of social stability, then Los Angeles, like all our increasingly two-tier cities, may yet be in for some rocky times.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company