Mon, May

The Long Shadow of LA’s 1992 Civil Disturbance


PLANNING WATCH -  LA’s 1992 Civil Disturbance, also called the LA Rebellion, the LA Uprising, and the LA Riots, still casts a long shadow, even though it took place 32 years ago. 

Nearly all of the destroyed buildings, like the one shown above, have been cleared and replaced.  Nevertheless, the social and economic forces revealed during those three days of upheaval are still with us.  In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported that LA Mayor Karen Bass, “. . .has begun raising money from businesses, philanthropic groups and wealthy individuals to help finance the purchase or lease of residential buildings to house low-income and homeless residents.” 

A quick review of what happened in 1992 helps us understand why LA’s intractable social problems, such as homelessness, continue to get worse. 

What happened 32 years go, and why it still resonates: 

  • The Civil Disturbance was completely multi-racial.  51% of those arrested were Latino, and 36% were Black.  The remaining 13% were Asian, Native American, and White. 
  • The event was extremely political, with the No justice, not peace graffitied throughout the metropolitan area.  In DTLA demonstrators heavily damaged public buildings and the offices of the LA Times.
  • On the Saturday after the Thursday not-guilty verdict in the trial of the four LAPD officers who beat up Rodney King, downtown Los Angeles was filled with protesters. 
  • LA’s civil disturbance quickly spread to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Tampa, Seattle, Toronto, and Washington, DC.
  • The 8000 torched buildings and 58 murders stretched from Simi Valley in the north, Long Beach in the south, Venice in the west, and Pomona in the east.  The only larger civil disturbance in American history was New York City’s anti-draft insurrection in 1863.

Although the Christopher Commission, appointed by then LA Mayor Tom Bradley, issued a stern report that focused on LAPD’s racism and called for fundamental police reforms, historian Max Felker-Kantor wrote that the Christopher Commission downplayed socio-economic conditions: 

“The uprising also occurred within the context of an economic recession that hit African Americans particularly hard.  Southern California lost 70,000 manufacturing jobs between 1978 and 1982, and another 500,000 jobs during the recession of the late 1980’s and early 1990s.  Unemployment rates for blacks in 1992 hovered between 40 to 50 percent, and their poverty rate was over 30 percent.” 

Few of those positions returned, and the Covid 19 recession layered on 1.3 million more job losses.  According to RAND economist Jason Ward, the resulting unemployment particularly hurt Latinos and Blacks in Los Angeles

This brings us to the present when LA’s 2023 homeless count documented shocking increases. 

LA’s Mayor, Karen Bass, responded with a jeremiad that LA’s wealthiest residents should build housing for the homeless through LA4LA, a new public-private partnership.  While philanthropy could ameliorate some of LA’s housing crisis, the jury is still out whether LA’s wealthiest people will respond to Mayor Bass by opening their wallets.  According to LA Times reporter Dakota Smith, the Mayor’s critics argue the price of ending homelessness in LA will cost billions, far more than can be raised locally.  After all, the rich did not get rich by giving away their fortunes.  They also have not refused the benefits of the housing crisis even though they increase economic inequality: the elimination of public housing, court-ordered evictions, and up-zoning ordinances for new residential projects and updated Community Plans. 

But what about restoring Federal and Community Redevelopment Agency housing programs, proposals I have frequently made in this column?  Money is there.  On April 23 Congress allocated $95 billion in supplemental military aid to Ukraine ($61 billion), Israel ($26 billion), and Taiwan ($8 billion).  Unfortunately, my efforts to find spending proposals to restore public housing came up dry.  In fact, this is probably why -- out of desperation -- Mayor Bass called on local philanthropies and LA’s wealthiest residents to pay for low-income housing. 

(Dick Platkin is a retired Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA.  He is a board member of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA).  Previous columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives.  Please send questions to [email protected].)