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The L.A. Riots Were 30 Years Ago. are we better at community policing?

The L.A. Riots Were 30 Years Ago. are we better at community policing?

  • April 28, 2022

In the spring of 1991, I was in the Los Angeles Times newsroom when word came that a local Black motorist named Rodney King had been nearly beaten to death by the police. Despite the fact that our staff had been writing about sensational cases of police brutality for years, the crisis set off by the videotape of King’s being assaulted seemed to catch us by surprise.

I was a 28-year-old L.A. native who grew up in East Hollywood; my father, a Guatemalan immigrant, delivered the paper when I was a boy. I came of age amid the kaleidoscopic, unstable diversity that characterizes life in Los Angeles, one that defied easy representation. Filipino, Black and Jewish kids lived alongside the children of Mexican, Easten European and Middle Eastern immigrants. Many of us grew up in modest households, raised by single parents. I spent my first couple of years at the paper covering the city I knew well, writing articles about poverty, homelessness, the incarceration of the mentally ill and the transformation of South Central Los Angeles.

Now I sat at a computer terminal glued to a phone, assembling a story reported by me and a half-dozen other journalists, writing my newspaper’s first front-page account of the incident, one that counted the number of baton blows that fell upon King’s body (more than 40) and described the nationwide condemnation of the officers and the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as the calls for reform. But my editor, who was white, removed all references to King’s race from the story’s opening paragraphs.

Race made my editors nervous. It stirred up the passions of our readers, and in a city with a history of cyclical race-related violence, racial passion was no small matter. I found my editors’ timidity both amusing and offensive, but being both obedient and ambitious, I never spoke out. It felt to me as if the media couldn’t consider race as anything other than the looming potential for disorder and violence, a source of division.

A year later, after the four officers who assaulted King were acquitted by a mostly white jury and the city exploded in anger, the events seemed to many to confirm a monstrous racial hatred that residents of Southern California carried within them. But I knew it was more complicated than that. When the looting and killing began, a bloom of violence that lasted five days, I thought I could explain to our readers why Black and Latino people participated in what some residents had called an “uprising.” I wanted them to see what I had seen as a reporter: that Los Angeles was a city of cruel inequalities whose relative wealth and comfort were built upon the labor and the lives of uprooted peoples — families with roots in the Jim Crow South, refugees from the bloody conflicts of the Cold War in Central America and East Asia. And that the city was run by a political class in denial about how truly dysfunctional the city had become.

But I also wanted them to see the Los Angeles that I knew and lived in, a city where people lived in tense coexistence, but coexistence nonetheless. Instead, in the days after the riots, my editors assigned me a humbler task: Go find some Latino looters to interview and hand over my notes to a more seasoned writer. It felt to many reporters of color at the time that we had been sent out to report in an urban war zone, while a mostly white staff of editors shaped what actually appeared in the newspaper. These complaints had a bitter historical context: When the 1965 Watts riots struck, The Times had no Black reporters at all and relied on the dispatches sent by a Black member of the advertising staff.

For me, the 1992 riots were a war I saw unfolding firsthand in South Los Angeles, Koreatown and other neighborhoods, as crowds raced across intersections and mini-malls were consumed in flames. For a few moments, I admit, it was exhilarating: I thought I was seeing a revolution. “Finally!” I thought. But I soon realized just how useless and terrifying it all was. During the days that the riots lasted, I witnessed the shooting of a Latino man in front of a shoe store, and the looting of a grocery by a group of residents; they grabbed milk cartons and diapers, running through aisles that had turned slushy with spilled foodstuffs. A pair of police officers stood nearby, watching. When I saw two men pummeling a bystander a block away, I called out to these officers to do something; only then did they rush to help him. For months afterward, I had a recurring dream in which I saw traffic stopped on the freeway as rioters began pulling drivers from their cars.

For days, the pages of The Los Angeles Times were almost entirely devoted to coverage of the riots and their aftermath. In that time, before the internet and social media and smartphones, we, as the city’s paper of record, were the tribune that channeled its voices of anger, recrimination and mourning. We covered a conflagration that cut across a wide swath of the metropolis, from the San Fernando Valley in the north to the port communities of San Pedro and Wilmington in the south. A week after the King verdict, The Times was still summing up the days of rioting; like accountants, we tallied burned buildings and arrests, dutifully recounting the destruction in one neighborhood after another.

One such article briefly mentioned Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach, a suburban school that usually appeared in the paper because of the success of its sports teams. On the second day of the riots, The Times reported, Wilson High was the scene of a terrifying event, in which “about 200 students were involved in a racially motivated brawl” on campus. The local paper, The Long Beach Press-Telegram, called it a “lunchtime melee.” Six students were treated at the nurse’s office for injuries. The events at the high school entered the historical record as a violent footnote to the larger citywide explosion, a kind of mini-riot in the suburbs.

In 1926, the year Wilson High School opened its doors, 30,000 Ku Klux Klan members marched down the city’s Ocean Boulevard while attending a Klan convention. Long Beach was then an almost entirely white community. So many Midwestern migrants had settled there that the city was known as Iowa by the Sea.

Larry Burnight’s father came to Southern California from Sioux City, Iowa. When Burnight, who is white, attended Wilson High in the mid-1950s, Long Beach was 97 percent white. California was entering a golden era of public education, peaking with a 1960 “master plan” that promised state residents access to tuition-free colleges and universities, an era that would last until the taxpayer revolt of the 1970s. By the time Burnight became principal of Wilson High in 1989, Black students made up some 15 percent of the student body, and large numbers of Latino and Southeast Asian families were starting to move into the area.

The newcomers arrived to a place that was also being transformed by deindustrialization. The aerospace industry, a Long Beach economic mainstay, was shrinking, and the Long Beach Naval Shipyard would soon close. At the same time, the crack epidemic, the “war on drugs,” mass incarceration and gang warfare took a toll on the largely segregated communities. The tension between Cambodian and Mexican American youths in the poorer communities west of Wilson High often spilled over onto campus. A large underclass of undocumented immigrants was forming. In Compton, northwest of Long Beach, Black and Latino residents lived side by side; throughout South Los Angeles, a new, “Blaxican” culture was emerging.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Long Beach voters and officials in the school district made several decisions that helped guide the city through these changes. The district adopted voluntary school desegregation programs in 1972, five years before the state mandated such measures. Officials created magnet schools and drew more white kids to the district’s traditionally Black and Latino campuses with special academic programs. In 1986, Long Beach voters approved an initiative to elect school-board representatives by district, ensuring representation from Black and Latino neighborhoods for the first time. And the school district avoided the mandatory busing programs that deeply divided other Southern California communities, like Pasadena, where busing triggered a sharp decline in white enrollment.

Some white families left Wilson, but more stayed. Even as nearby neighborhoods were becoming more Latino, the old, sprawling campus had not lost its cachet with those white families. Wilson alumni included an astronaut and athletes who competed at the summer Olympic Games for every U.S. team going back to Helsinki in 1952. And for the students of color, who longed for something better than the prejudice and inequality that life had handed them, the sprawling Wilson campus and its old buildings were an island of order and possibility.

By 1992, Woodrow Wilson High presented a vision of what Southern California aspired to be. The yearbook was called a Kaleidoscope of Changes. In its pages, Black, white and Latino students run together on the cross-country team and line up for a portrait of the varsity football squad. The children of Southeast Asian immigrants swing rackets on the badminton team. The Black and white members of the choral club sang the Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder hit “Ebony and Ivory”: “We all know that people are the same wherever you go. … /Ebony and ivory/live together in perfect harmony.”

The now-middle-aged alumni describe a large campus where, on most days, there was a relatively calm relationship among racial groups, with few overt tensions. The Black students hung out at the media center and the white students at the rally stage, though it wasn’t unheard-of for a kid from one group to wander over and talk to a kid in another. Wilson High “wasn’t Orange County white bread with the crust cut off,” remembers Greg Darling, who is white and was a senior at the time of the supposed brawl. He mastered Spanish at Wilson, in its classrooms and with friends. When he went to the University of Southern California after graduating and met some of the wealthier white students there, he was surprised by how sheltered they were. At Wilson, he had seen just how interesting, and complicated, being an American could be.

Herman Rodriguez, the son of Mexican immigrants, took a city bus on a six-mile trip to Wilson, the landscape becoming greener and more affluent the farther he traveled, until he arrived at the pleasant middle-class neighborhood surrounding the school. He recalled living in a “very ghetto” triplex in Long Beach’s Westside, a neighborhood where it wasn’t uncommon to hear gunfire on the weekends. “Coming home, I got jumped by my own neighborhood gang a couple of times,” he says. “Short, little Hispanic kids. They get together and think they’re tough. Five against one. I had to run away.”

Wilson was his haven. “You could take your Walkman, you could dress how you want.” There were no school uniforms, and the gang members on campus didn’t harass him. His parents moved to Long Beach to escape the more serious gang problems in Boyle Heights, in L.A.’s Eastside. “At that time my parents thought about white people as respectful, clean. Nonracist. Hardworking.” They sent him to Wilson, expecting “less drama.”

When Phan Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, first arrived, Wilson teachers assigned Vietnamese-speaking students to guide him through his school day, helping him learn the rules of the American classroom. In his eyes, the campus was a “fantasy world” of football, marching bands and cheerleaders wearing matching sweaters. He was a smart kid who grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, attending schools where Communist severity and traditional Vietnamese mores shaped everyday behavior. At Wilson, “I saw a couple of kids kissing on the campus,” says Nguyen, now a doctor in Orange County. “In Vietnam, that was unheard-of.”

Dolores Villalvazo’s family immigrated to Long Beach at the start of her ninth-grade year. She arrived in Southern California after a dayslong drive from Guadalajara, Mexico, and her English was nonexistent. With no campus clique to join, Villalvazo spent her school breaks alone in an upper-story hallway between school buildings. From this perch, she could study the student body below her with anthropological curiosity. She saw how the white, Black and Latino kids moved in distinct groups, and how the better-off Black students seemed to be in a separate circle from the students who were as poor as she was. Sterling Perry also noticed the cliques. “It was what it was,” he says. “Nobody tripped off of it.”

Despite the persistent and informal racial separation, Wilson High was a place where Perry and other Black students felt protected from many of the forces at work in the city around them. At home, Perry’s father was dealing with a drug-abuse problem. “The police and the gangbanging was going on outside,” Perry says. “High school was my getaway.”

I attended a similar public school in Southern California; I remember the sixth-grade ritual of memorizing the Gettysburg Address, with its stirring proclamation of “a new birth of freedom.” The Black students at Wilson heard similar messages and saw evidence of new freedoms all around them. Terry Moseby, who grew up in a rural town in Arkansas where Jim Crow was still a fresh memory, openly dated a white girl and met her family. For Timica Godbolt (then Jefferson) — who had a “rough childhood” and was being raised by her grandmother while she attended high school — Wilson was a place to “catch up on what was taken from me.” When she was a junior, her classmates elected her to the homecoming court.

For many, the school year of the riots is also remembered best for something that happened on the football field: Wilson defeated Polytechnic, its longtime rival, for the first time in 15 years. That night, Wilson’s students, Black, white and otherwise, gathered for a postgame party at the Bruin Den, a recreation center next to the campus.

“As teammates, we had each other’s backs,” Perry says. But for most Black and white students “having a personal relationship outside sports was a no-go.” “You always had the little side jokes. The racial jokes that were supposed to be funny but weren’t. Back then, there weren’t repercussions.” Some of those who found themselves on the wrong end of these divisions felt the resentment gathering up inside them, awaiting release.
The not-guilty verdict in the case against the officers charged with assaulting Rodney King came on April 29, a Wednesday, at 3:15 p.m.
That was the night when the nation witnessed the brutal beating of a white truck driver named Reginald Denny by four Black men, an incident broadcast live by the crew of a television-news helicopter. In Long Beach, about 20 miles from the center of the chaos, the local newspaper would report “a few fires Wednesday night and some sporadic looting Thursday morning.” By that afternoon, it seemed to most of us in the newsroom that the citywide riot might be over.

But at Wilson, as elsewhere across the metropolis, there was a sense that things weren’t settled yet. A strange fever of anger and panic drifted over the campus. More than a few Black students were itching for a fight, several people who were students at the time told me. Sterling Perry, then a junior, heard people mutter things like: “If someone says something to me. … If one of them comes up to me. …”

“You could feel the tension at school,” Herman Rodriguez says. “You started to think, Man, these [expletive] rich-ass, spoiled white kids.”

“There were all these rumors, people saying what they were going to do,” says Timica Godbolt, then a senior. Supposedly, a fight was going to take place between a group of Black and white students. All around her, she says, people were hyping it up. At about lunchtime, Godbolt decided to head home, a few blocks away. But even from her house, she says, she could hear a commotion growing on the campus.

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The accounts of what happened next that afternoon vary widely.

Burnight, then the principal, describes the incident as essentially horseplay. “A bunch of guys chased after some little white kids,” he says. “To scare them. And they were successful. They didn’t hit them, and they didn’t kick them.” It was near the end of lunch period and created a short-lived sense of havoc, he says. “The kids ran into the hallways and into the classrooms. And within a half an hour it was all over.”

But many Wilson alumni told me stories that were a little more menacing. Many Black Southern Californians felt they had been collectively humiliated by the verdict. “A white kid would look at a Black kid wrong, and it was on,” Moseby says.

Greg Darling remembers standing on the campus quad and seeing “a tornado of people expressing their anger. They were ripping stuff down, throwing trash cans.” Darling says he didn’t necessarily feel threatened, but he was glad to go home, too.

Dawn Howdershell, a white student who was an artist and hung around with the school’s goth clique, was in the school office with her boyfriend. The rumors of trouble had become so alarming that they were waiting for rides home. As she left the office, she says, she saw a panicked white girl emerge from the bushes near a classroom window and heard her yell, “They’re going crazy!” Phan Nguyen also saw students fleeing the school. “People started yelling, screaming. It was a little scary.” He recalls seeing them climbing fences to escape.

Herman Rodriguez found himself right in the middle of the tumult when his baseball friends got into an argument with a group of Black students. He says he stepped forward, got between them and spoke in defense of his white teammates: “Hey, these guys are my friends.” The white baseball players walked away, and no punches were thrown. Elsewhere, however, he saw a number of assaults targeting “white people who couldn’t take care of themselves. It was the nerdy white guys who got jumped. I thought that was chicken [expletive]. That you would jump innocent white folks who couldn’t defend themselves.”

Sterling Perry says he witnessed one of these assaults unfold. He was walking with a fellow football player, who was also Black, when they spotted a white student on crutches. “I’m going to knock this dude out,” the football player announced. Perry watched as the football player struck the student and knocked him down.

School was canceled for the rest of the week. “There had been, earlier in the day, a couple of fights,” Burnight admits. “There were some consequences. Those kids were dealt with.”

As they went home, many Wilson students witnessed a true riot unfolding in the city around them. Rodriguez looked out the window of a city bus as it climbed Signal Hill. “You could literally see things burning across L.A. and Long Beach. We got home and turned on the news and saw the whole city was [expletive] burning down.” There would be 340 structural fires in Long Beach alone during the five days of riots.

Credit…Peggy Peattie

Nguyen lived in an impoverished section of Long Beach alongside many Latino and Black families. That afternoon, a nearby convenience store and music store were looted — by his neighbors. Sometime later, he says, these neighbors offered him stolen speakers and stereos for sale. Sterling Perry and Terry Moseby spent the afternoon and evening receiving pages and phone calls from friends urging them to join in the looting, to scoop up all the “free stuff” available in the city. But their mothers forbade their teenage sons to leave home. Dolores Villalvazo remembers her father working at a Long Beach grocery store called Los Panchitos — despite its Spanish name, it was owned by a Korean family. The owners summoned her father to the store to defend it against looters. “They gave him a gun,” she says. “They all had guns.”

On Friday, two days after the verdict, several hundred Marines and National Guard troops arrived in Long Beach to help restore order. The students of Wilson High lived two versions of the Los Angeles riots and their aftermath: the one in their neighborhoods that reflected a fragmented city attempting to cope with rage at injustice, and the one at school that upended the delicate balance of the relative racial harmony that they’d come to know.

The tension was still palpable at Wilson when the students returned to campus the following week. Timica Godbolt remembers attending a school meeting at which staff and students discussed both the hurt caused by the Rodney King verdict and the anxiety of students frightened by the boilover on campus and in the city beyond. One of her English teachers, who was white, invited his students to talk about the violence and the conflict, in class or in private.

Young people who had been brought together by Long Beach’s demographic changes, and by the attempts of school officials to create integrated schools, now confronted the harrowing injustices around them. Sterling Perry says he was embarrassed by the violent acts he saw his fellow students commit, but he understood their roots: He himself had faced the barrel of a police officer’s gun more than once. Terry Moseby felt that the Rodney King verdict transported him back to the intolerant South of his youth. Herman Rodriguez, whose dream was to be a police officer, and who would later join the L.A.P.D., understood the anger of the Black young people around him; he, too, had been stopped by the police, while driving his 1979 Oldsmobile with his immigrant father. But the resentments that fueled the tension at school were, as far as most of the students I spoke with expressed, fleeting.

Campus life returned to normal that spring. The senior-night cruise for the class of 1992 took place as scheduled, on a “party boat” that set off into the waters off Long Beach harbor. Graduating seniors went to the prom and took pictures with their caps and gowns at graduation. “The whole football stadium was packed, standing room only,” Rodriguez says. “No tension. It was long and gone. People moved on.”

In this, I felt a sense of recognition from my time in working in a newsroom. That ultimately whether we’re talking about a national outcry or a scuffle on a high school campus, there would always be those who lived through the trauma or the chaos and those who got to shape how it lived on in our historical memory.

In the years that followed, Wilson would continue to be a place where students experienced both progress and violence. In 1993, a 16-year-old boy who arrived at Wilson to enroll there was shot near the school entrance — just two hours before Dan Lungren, the attorney general of California, was scheduled to appear at a campus forum on the dangers of guns at schools. A 16-year-old Wilson student was shot and killed after she attended the school’s homecoming football game in 2009. These news stories often hinted at the paradox of shootings happening at a place otherwise deemed “the safest school in Long Beach.”

How many schools are there in America, I wonder, with both champion golf teams (Wilson’s team has racked up 176 consecutive league wins dating back to 2004) and students shot on campus in their recent history?

The 1992 riots were in many ways a product of segregation. The sense of disorder they caused only accelerated white flight. Wilson, however, has retained a substantial number of white students: Today it is 58 percent Latino, 18 percent white, 12 percent Black and 7 percent Asian.

“That’s where the Mexican gang members used to hang out, by those trees,” Beatriz Nieves said as we stood on the old quad, underneath the clock tower; she attended Wilson in the late 1980s and early 1990s and now works at the school as a mentor and activities coordinator. She tells students today how, back in her day, a day in the years right before the riots, white, Black and Latino kids kept separate groups on the quad. “They can’t even fathom that this invisible line was here.”

Several other Wilson alumni also returned to the school — as parents. Timica Godbolt has a 17-year-old son at the school, and Terry Moseby has two daughters and a son who have studied there. “I love that school so much,” Moseby says. Nguyen visited Wilson recently with a teenage nephew who is now a sophomore. Nguyen says that his years at Wilson were “the happiest time of my life.” Greg Darling returned this year with his son, listening as the drum corps played a stirring cadence for the school’s freshman orientation. Darling says he doesn’t understand why so many of his Long Beach neighbors send their kids to private schools, when the local public schools are so good.

It can be argued that the 1992 Los Angeles riots helped create a new racial fault line in the United States. The images of large numbers of Latino people looting the city helped feed the anti-immigrant movement in California, leading the Clinton administration to begin building new fences at the Mexican border in 1994. Today, across the United States, a chauvinistic multitude equates Latino identity with backwardness and a variety of social ills; for many people, attending a “Latino” school would carry a stigma.

On Wilson High’s campus, I found a glimmer of the Los Angeles that I remember from my childhood in East Hollywood. This is the version of race relations in Los Angeles County that The Times’s coverage of the riots — Wilson High in particular — obscured. I always felt, as a reader and as a reporter, an underlying insistence that conversations about race were about conflict rather than the peculiar ways in which Angelenos construct multiethnic lives together. In those lives there is a complexity and richness that journalistic narratives of race sometimes find hard to embrace. Woodrow Wilson High School was not, and is not, a utopia. April 30, 1992, was a microcosm of Southern California and the forces and frustrations that caused Los Angeles to explode that spring. In the days that followed the riots, as plumes of smoke still lingering over the city, Timica Godbolt says she noticed that more people than ever were attending the meetings of the campus Christian club. Those meetings closed with a prayer. She joined her classmates to ask “for protection for our school, and for our teachers, and for us and our friends.” As she recited the words, they conjured those fraught times, and those students, both fearful and hopeful. Solemnly, she closed with an “Amen.”

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