20 Years After Rodney King: Which Way, Black L.A.?

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  • Two decades have passed since outraged blacks flared in anger after an all-white jury presumed that four Caucasian policemen–video taped while brutally beating Rodney King, a young black motorist–were not guilty.

    The nationally televised uprising, usually described as a “riot” by mainstream pundits, journalists and academics, began deep in the black community, on April 29, 1992, at Florence and Normandie Avenues. Within hours, it leap-frogged to the edges of Hollywood and Culver City, the home of Sony Pictures.

    Five days later, when the raging fires were extinguished, some 53 residents had lost their lives and a sizzling $1 billion in property damage had been sustained by residents and business owners.

    As the debris was carted away from scores of burned out lots across the African-African community, elected officials, including Mayor Tom Bradley, civic leaders and major religious figures, huddled to proclaim quick, action-oriented responses.

    Some of them were inter-racial dialogues and other such meetings between high level political and corporate officials. Over time, however, most of the exchanges seem to have lost their zeal, stamina and drawing power.

    A few initiatives, supported by corporate funds, sprang up in the rebellion’s aftermath. The most well-known, Rebuild LA, funded with $1 billion from major corporations, was a media favorite for many months.

    Soon afterward, Community Build, an African-African locomotive, was placed on track by seven organizations and Congresswoman Maxine Waters: Black Women’s Forum, Broadway Federal, Family Savings and Founders’ Banks, Brotherhood Crusade, 100 Black Men and the Watts Health Foundation.

    The First African Methodist Church, led by Rev. Dr. Cecil Murray, became a high profile model of successful economic initiatives, most notably, its flagship program, FAME Renaissance. A multi-million dollar engine for economic growth, for many years the nationally recognized model has powered small business incubators for hundreds of minority entrepreneurs.

    And, within months after the five-day rebellion, the South Central Federal Peoples Credit Union (SCPFCU), became one of only 13 such community development vehicles in place throughout the nation. For several years before the rebellion, the SCPFCU’s bid for a charter had been rebuffed by the Republican dominated National Credit Union Association (NCUA).

    BlackAmericaWeb.com, in an effort to assess meaningful progress or lack of it, among African-Americans since the rebellion, especially the struggling classes, called on a broad range of respected leaders for comment.

    Among the leaders interviewed were professor Cecil Murray, at the University of Southern California, Anthony Samad, an author and former president of the Los Angeles NAACP. Samad, also a past president of 100 Black Men of Los Angeles, was joined Gwen Green, the west coast fund raiser for Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Community Build’s Brenda Shockley.

    The leaders were asked to assess progress made thus far and what African-Americans must do to achieve future progress, albeit in an economic environment lacking the resources available in 1992.

    Green, long an advocate for organized labor and a strong leader in the city’s civil rights battles, noted that “some progress has been made since 1992, but not enough.”

    Speaking candidly, Green said, “coalitions with Latinos would be a welcomed addition for African-Americans and them as well.” But, she said, “there are not many indications that coalitions with African-Americans are a priority for many of their leaders and organizations.”

    To hold the gains created by civil rights struggles, Green said, “black people, especially younger African-Americans, are going to have to get up off their butts and work hard, as hard as we did in the 1960s and 70s.”

    Low income African-Americans, Green said, “are justifiably angry over the conditions which for them have not changed very much since 1992, but they have to do the work, the hard work of organizing that will improve their living conditions.”

    Expressing its dismay with the pace of progress since 1992, the South Los Angeles Executive Directors Forum (SLAEDF), comprised of leaders of 30 major nonprofit organizations, said, “while progress has occurred on some fronts over the past 20 years, it has not taken place at a scale and scope to do more than “hold the line.”

    As such, the directors said, “widespread systemic failure related to health care, housing, education and lack of economic opportunity continues to persist for the majority of residents, who seek basic services at SLAEDF agencies and most of the environmental conditions that fueled frustration and discontent in 1992 are still evident today.”

    Some 45 percent of the homes in Southeast Los Angeles are in foreclosure, the organization said. Meanwhile, unemployment, which ranged from 13.7 percent to 17.4 percent in 1992, has grown to 18.3 and 22.8 percent in Los Angeles County, compared to 11.6 for everyone else.

    Shockley told BlackAmericaWeb.com, “the rebellion was a wake up call for us. Even though the economic conditions throughout the nation are far worse now than during the boom years of the Clinton administrations, African-Americans were confronted with the same issues then as now.”

    Thus, said Shockley, “we’re back to creating the necessary resources for our community, one step at a time, particularly for young men.”

    Dr. Murray, the legendary visionary who created FAME Renaissance, pointed to a critical improvement for black Angelenos: “In the African-American community, our relationship with the police department has changed radically for the better,” he said. Not only “in the mentality of our police chief, but even at the street level, where you now hear a story that is radically different from and much more positive than, the street level talk of 20 years ago,” he explained.

    But, sounding a note of caution for future progress, he warned, “poverty (among all groups), is the new enemy. Concentration upon that crisis will be the tide lifting all boats of concern.”

    That concentration, Dr. Murray emphasized, requires “a collective, ten-year agenda to include jobs, training and employment, business incubation, business loans, prioritizing quality education in our schools and corporate development in our endangered neighborhoods.”

    Professor Samad, while expressing optimism over improved police-community relations and a measure of increased goodwill between Angelenos of all stripes, lamented “the lack of capital investment in South Los Angeles and the absence of employment for African-Americans on the new light rail line.”

    Investment dollars, he said, “never came to South Los Angeles; instead, Los Angeles was rebuilt everywhere else, so not much has changed.”

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