The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

20 Years Ago:
Los Angeles in Revolt

Jun 4, 2012

Twenty years ago, at the end of April 1992, riots broke out in Los Angeles, when four cops involved in the beating of Rodney King were acquitted by a jury from which black people had been excluded.

As in so many other revolts, the acquittal was only the spark that touched off tinder: the racism, inequality, lack of opportunity and poverty that marked the lives of black Los Angeles.

As the first flames of revolt broke out, rioters took aim at stores in richer neighborhoods. But they were pushed eventually back into South Central, the heart of the black community, by the National Guard, Army and Marines, as well as the California Highway Patrol – all of which were thrown into service to protect wealthy neighborhoods.

In South Central, the markets and small stores, run for the most part by Koreans or other Asians, were looted and torched.

Immigrants from Mexico and Central American countries, victimized themselves, were pulled along in the wake of this angry black outpouring, as were some young whites.

It took six days for authorities to establish some kind of control. Before the riots were over, more than 50 people had been killed, more than four thousand injured and 12,000 arrested. More than a thousand buildings were destroyed by fire.

The riot in Los Angeles, second biggest city in the country, recalled the urban uprisings of the 1960s – but with one very big difference: the urban uprisings of the ’60s took place against the background of a powerful movement that had developed against segregation and all its manifestations, North and South. Political organizations existed giving voice to the aspirations of the black population. And the war in Viet Nam, in which black soldiers took the brunt of the casualties, politicized a whole generation about the role of the U.S. government around the world.

In the 1960s, this political background was expressed in the riots. By 1992, that political background was gone.

Nonetheless, these riots, for a moment, made the authorities at least pretend to ameliorate the situation. Changes – most, but not all of them, cosmetic – were made in the police department. And repercussions from the Los Angeles riots were felt far away. In Detroit, cops accused of killing a young black man under similar circumstances were quickly arrested, put on trial and convicted. City authorities felt the tremors spreading through Detroit after the L.A. riots.

One thing however did not happen: In the 1960s, from Los Angeles to Chicago to Detroit to New York, big corporations for the first time widely opened their hiring gates to a whole generation of young black men and women. By 1992, the developing crisis meant that the black population was losing jobs, not gaining them.

Today, there is a sizeable black middle class – something that did not exist in the 1960s. And parts of that middle class have become the political servants of the bourgeoisie – running police departments, cities and the military, even occupying the White House.

But for the vast majority of the black population, there is no hope for a good job, no hope for much education. Young people continue to be targeted by the police. In many ways, with the growth of the economic crisis, the situation is worse today than in the 1960s.

The 1992 riots in Los Angeles showed how quickly a frustrated and angry population can break out, how young blacks in struggle can pull after themselves other parts of the poor population, Hispanic and white.