Scars Remain Five Years After Los Angeles Riots
By Lou Cannon
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 28, 1997; Page A04
A majority of the strip malls that were reduced to smoldering rubble have been rebuilt, many operated by Latino and Asian immigrants. Latinos, long described as the "sleeping giant" of Los Angeles, have emerged as a major political force. Tourism has rebounded, and trade is thriving with nations of the Pacific Rim.
But the long, slow struggle for economic recovery has been plagued by racial and ethnic conflicts among blacks, Latinos and Korean Americans. Many middle-class blacks have moved out of Los Angeles.
"We have a lot going for us in terms of economic development, but we need to come to terms with the cultural clash and different cultural identities," said Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D), an African American who has long represented a diverse Los Angeles district.
"People fear the environment of South Central as an investment site," said Fernando Oaxaca, a former Los Angeles businessman who owns a radio station in suburban Ontario. "It's a vague kind of reluctance that leads people to seek out communities that don't show black marks from the fires."
The Los Angeles Police Department, which was often called an occupying army in minority neighborhoods, has taken significant if incomplete strides toward community policing.
"Two things have changed in Los Angeles since the civil disorder," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a sociologist and writer on African American affairs. "On the one hand there is a new attitude that what happened in 1992 should never happen again, that the orgy of destruction didn't get us anything and that we should work in a different way. But the other change is negative. . . . Individuals have stopped talking to one another and retreated from collective action."
Veteran community activist Joe Hicks of the nonprofit Multi-Cultural Collaborative said that standards of living are stagnant in poor neighborhoods and that "the daily struggle for survival" will become grimmer as legal immigrants lose food stamps and welfare benefits because of federal legislation.
The nation's deadliest riot of this century erupted in South Central Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, after a suburban jury acquitted four white Los Angeles police officers of using excessive force in the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King. Fifty-four people died, more than 2,000 were injured, and 862 buildings burned to the ground.
Crime, as in most major cities, has declined since then.
"We have tried to listen to the community, but that does not address the socioeconomic conditions prevailing there -- the poverty and the lack of jobs and rebuilding," said Bayan Lewis, one of three assistant LAPD chiefs. "What I see are lots of promises made after the riots, an initial burst of effort, and some inflow of money and improvement of skills. Now, five years later, it's gone."
The riots occurred at the midpoint of an economic downturn triggered by the end of the Cold War and a decline in aerospace spending. In five years through 1994, Los Angeles County lost 550,000 jobs, more than one in eight, causing widespread dislocation. Since 1994, the county has added 250,000 jobs, many of them low-paying.
After the riots, then-Mayor Tom Bradley (D) brought in entrepreneur Peter Ueberroth to head a ballyhooed effort called Rebuild Los Angeles. Ueberroth sought $500 million in corporate investment as the down payment on a $6 billion program to make South Central an inner-city showcase and create 75,000 jobs.
While some corporations heeded the call, the performance never came close to matching the promises. Ueberroth left in 1994, and Rebuild Los Angeles, renamed RLA, became a research group that early this year shut its doors.
Government action also fell short. The state did nothing. Congress created federal "empowerment zones," but the Clinton administration rejected Los Angeles's application for such a zone.
After pleas from Mayor Richard Riordan (R), Los Angeles was awarded a consolation prize of $430 million in federal loan commitments to underwrite a community development bank. Riordan persuaded 22 banks to kick in another $310 million.
However, most of the money remains in the bank. While Robert Kemp, the bank's chief operating officer, predicts it will play a leading role in Los Angeles's recovery, so far it has lent only $6.2 million and created or saved 600 jobs.
Small entrepreneurs, meanwhile, are sparking a South Central resurgence. "The grandiose RLA effort was foolishness," said Jack Kyser, economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. "But Los Angeles isn't a wasteland. It is big, diverse, and productive, with flourishing businesses."
Indeed, an influx of immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Asia has boosted purchasing power in South Central. Cheap labor ignited small manufacturing in garment, toy, furniture and food-processing industries. A final report from RLA found that 700 of the county's 1,100 food-processing companies are located in poor neighborhoods, where they employ 30,000 people.
This economic explosion has come at a price. Blacks in South Central often resent the immigrants for depressing wages.
"At the low end, blacks complain they can't get entry-level service jobs because immigrants work for less," observed Jarrette Fellows Jr., managing editor of the LA Watts Times, California's largest black weekly. "Middle-class blacks complain about loss of power; they have a feeling of helplessness and think their votes don't count."
Latinos and Asians, for their part, remain anxious. "The [Central American] newcomers in particular are afraid of blacks, who they never saw in their countries," said Sergio Bendixen, a political analyst for the Spanish-language network Telemundo.
Bendixen said he believes many Latino newcomers were radicalized by the 1994 passage of Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that denied health and education benefits to illegal immigrants. These attitudes have been hardened by federal efforts to clamp down on immigration and deny welfare benefits to legal immigrants, he said.
Latino turnout nearly doubled in April's mayoral election, to 15 percent of the vote, and many analysts expect Latinos to become the dominant constituency in Los Angeles. Although the Asian vote also doubled, it was still only 4 percent. Asian Americans, who were principal victims of the riots, are 11 percent of the population.
Korean Americans, many of whom operated convenience markets in poor neighborhoods, suffered nearly as much economic damage in the riots as everyone else combined, an estimated $350 million to $400 million of a total $800 million in losses. By one assessment, 1,867 of 3,100 businesses destroyed or looted were Korean-owned.
"There is a tremendous amount of bitterness, but it's held in silence," said Korean activist Angela Oh. "Koreans tend to be that way." Oh said that few Koreans have been compensated for their losses and that some have committed suicide.
Since the riots, a Community Coalition led by blacks has opposed rebuilding burned-out liquor stores in South Central, most of them Asian-owned. The city has permitted only 35 of more than 200 liquor stores destroyed in the riots to be rebuilt.
"People are writing about the blight of vacant lots, but we think that stopping these stores is an accomplishment," said Sylvia Castillo of the coalition.
But the struggle over the liquor stores, like other post-riot conflicts, has emphasized the city's ethnic tensions.
"The answer to the Rodney King question -- can we all get along? -- can't be answered in the abstract," said community activist Hicks. "You have to build alliances. The economic realities of South Los Angeles have erected barriers among racial and ethnic groups. The future of this city is bound up on its ability to find common ground."
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