Much of the Weekly’s staff clustered around the TV set in the conference room of the paper’s old Silver Lake office when the verdicts in the Rodney King beating case came down, and the shock and rage in the room were palpable. There was fear, too, though it was muted. Ancestral voices, or at least collective memory, were prophesying war on the streets. And the war came.
That evening, Weekly editor Kit Rachlis and I went down to First AME Church, where much of the city’s power structure and black elite had repaired to condemn the verdicts and to try to stop the rioting. The latter proved harder than the former. Tom Bradley, in the penultimate year of his two-decade run as mayor, called for the upheaval to cease, but even as he spoke, the chaos outside was increasingly audible inside the church. When it came time for him to leave, an angry crowd surrounded the church, and the mayor’s security detail had to sneak him out, Bradley walking low and fast with his collar pulled up around his face.
By the following afternoon, two stories were emerging that foreshadowed the future course of the city. The first was white flight: Picking up my daughter from her school on La Cienega and getting her to her mother’s house on the Westside proved all but impossible. The westbound lanes of every east-west boulevard were gridlocked with whites fleeing the city, as rumors swirled that the Beverly Center and other Westside cultural monuments were being trashed. (They weren’t.)
In two distinct ways, whites were seceding from Los Angeles. Demographically, in the early ’90s, white out-migration from the city was huge, though the leading cause was the virtual destruction of the aerospace industry by the post–Cold War recession. Politically, among those whites who remained, the allegiance to the black-white coalition that had put and sustained Tom Bradley in office began to falter. One year later, Richard Riordan was elected mayor on a platform of expanding the police force, carrying a number of otherwise devoutly liberal Westside council districts.
The second story that emerged on the riot’s second day was that of the shifting racial composition of the arrestees. The first day had largely been a spasm of African-American rage at the LAPD, the courts and the racism still abounding in the law-enforcement system. (And, in the ugliest of pogroms, at Korean shopkeepers both in and out of South L.A.) But starting on the second night of the riot, the LAPD began arresting more Latinos than African-Americans. In the breathtakingly poor Latino immigrant community, among both gang members and non–gang members, an orgy of looting broke out. “The first day of the riots was about race,” one Latino activist told me. “The second day was about shopping.”
In a sense, the riot betokened the huge demographic and political change about to transform Los Angeles, and the relegation of the African-American community to a numerically, and politically, secondary position relative to Latinos. It was, as it were, an interregnum riot, in which the role of African-Americans was, by its second day, diminished, just as the African-American role in the city’s governing coalition was diminishing, too.
By the following year, the interregnum was plainly upon us. Mayoral candidate Mike Woo sought to piece together the remnants of the Bradley coalition, but lost to Riordan as many moderate whites opted for the Republican businessman and as the heavily pro-Woo black vote was subverted by declining black turnout. Four years later, Riordan was re-elected by carrying every racial group in the city except blacks. By then, a new progressive alignment was beginning to emerge in L.A., linking labor, Latinos and liberals. That new coalition was to be the basis of Antonio Villaraigosa’s mayoral campaign in 2001, from which black L.A., however, stayed largely aloof, forming instead a one-day alliance with more conservative white Valley voters to make Jim Hahn mayor.
In recent years, the lot of the black poor has worsened dramatically as the economy lurched from Clinton prosperity to Bush recession. The political isolation of the black community from much of the rest of progressive L.A. remains a huge problem both for the community and the city at large, though the current union-organizing drive among the city’s largely black security guards and the election to the City Council of black labor progressive Martin Ludlow may mean that that isolation is eroding just a bit. That would be a consummation devoutly to be wished. Until the rifts of ’93 — largely occasioned by the riots of ’92 — are healed, Los Angeles will be unable to enter its progressive future.