A decade on LA South Central still smoulders

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The Independent US

At the intersection of Normandie and Florence avenues, "ground zero" of the 1992 riots that devastated South Central Los Angeles, there was only one theme and that was harmony.

At the intersection of Normandie and Florence avenues, "ground zero" of the 1992 riots that devastated South Central Los Angeles, there was only one theme and that was harmony.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the worst unrest to hit an American city in the past 50 years, pastors, civil rights workers, musicians and politicians accentuated how far the city had come in healing the wounds of racial division, economic despair and deep suspicion of the city's trigger-happy police department.

Community leaders observed a minute's silence on the north-west corner of the intersection, before leading a performance of Pachelbel's Canon. Later, President George Bush was due to make a stop to underscore the same message before heading off to the more familiar surroundings of a fund-raising dinner on Los Angeles' affluent west side.

One of the President's hosts, the Rev Cecil Murray of the First AME Church, said 29 April "sparked pain and anger, and the fires that devastated LA also devastated hopes and dreams. But out of the ashes came a renaissance".

Such optimism was understandable, but told only one part of a complex and not necessarily heartening story.

Certainly, the economy has improved considerably. The LA police are no longer headed by a right-wing bruiser who made distinctions in public between blacks and "normal people", and both Daryl Gates's successors have been black.

There has been considerable diversification in the local population. Many more black Angelenos have entered the middle class, and some of them even vote Republican. The Latino population of South Central, meanwhile, has doubled to just under 50 per cent.

The Koreans, whose corner stores were the primary object of the rioters' ire in 1992, have largely moved out, but they have prospered in a more buoyant Koreatown on the other side of the Santa Monica freeway.

Some of the underlying causes of the riots, however, have not gone away. LA remains the US city with the broadest gulf between rich and poor. An estimated 30 per cent of the city lives beneath the poverty line. And while some parts of South Central have improved, attracting shopping centres, cinemas and even a branch of Starbucks, wide areas of it are as desperate as ever.

Central Avenue, once South Central's main street and the heart of a thriving jazz scene, is devoid of even the most basic shops and services.There is a fear-ridden loneliness to the district, the silence punctuated only by the regular sight of black men being pulled over and searched by police patrols.

It was three short blocks west of the Florence-Normandie intersection where, on the afternoon of 29 April 1992, five young black men walked into a Korean-owned liquor store, took 24 bottles of Olde English 800 malt liquor and hit the owner's son, David Lee, over the head with the words: "This is for Rodney King."

Earlier in the day, an all-white jury had returned not guilty verdicts on four white police officers who had been caught on videotape beating Mr King the previous year. The assault on Mr Lee began four days of burning, looting and shooting that left 55 people dead, hundreds wounded and city blocks ruined.

The King affair not only reinforced the sense of despair felt by black Angelenos at the bottom of the pile; it also galvanised the political leadership and offered a cause for much of the city, not just the rioters. Community leaders condemned the violence but it seems doubtful that those who smashed windows and fired at motorists could have mounted such an uprising without the incendiary political backdrop.

It is the politics, not the street-level reality, that have undergone the biggest change. LA's black leadership overwhelmingly speaks for the burgeoning middle class, which is genuinely interested in building community relations.

South Central's new Latino majority might be dirt-poor, but it is a poverty tinged with some optimism. The new immigrants believe they are better off than, say, in rural Mexico, and have faith in their children's future, in their ever more successful political leaders, and in the city's resurgent union movement.

In this way, South Central has been split in two. There are still many thousands of marginalised black families, but they no longer have a voice. Because of the escalating war on drugs and the massive increase in incarceration for petty offenders, one in three black men from South Central is now behind bars. Because the black political leadership has switched priorities from criticising the LA police to championing its favoured candidates for the position of chief, the outrage at continuing police misconduct has abated.

Just one riot anniversary event has gone beyond the feel-good emotions and addressed the poverty and police brutality. Only 50 people showed up to air their grievances and they were surrounded by six police cars. That tells you something about the political mood of LA, 10 years on.