Five years on, LA remembers how war erupted on its streets

Tim Cornwell on how Angelenos have come to terms with the 1992 riots
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Five years on, Charles Rachel is struggling with his memories of the Los Angeles riots. A member of Crips, one of LA's oldest neighbourhood gangs, who lost one brother to a shooting and another to jail, he works as a gang councillor on Vermont Avenue, but still flashes the gang tattoos on his arms, and talks about running with the "home boys". "I was out there, I was right in it," he said. There were shop-owners opening their doors to the looters, and setting fire to their own businesses to claim insurance. "But people really waked [sic] up to the fact of destroying their own neighbourhood. A lot of us in this generation had never been through a riot. I don't think they would do it again."

Five years ago, Vermont Avenue was a war zone. A few blocks west, at Florence and Normandie, in the late afternoon of 29 April, police retreated in the face of an enraged crowd, after the acquittals of four police officers charged with the beating of motorist Rodney King. Three days later, after the National Guard finally restored order, LA seemed to have burned itself out. Fifty-five people were dead, more than 2,300 injured. More than 1,000 buildings had been damaged or destroyed by fire, with property damage estimated at $1bn. (pounds 625m).

LA has chosen 1997 as the year to mark the anniversary of an event that remains seared in the memories of Angelenos, far more terrifyingly than either the LA earthquake or the OJ Simpson trial that followed. People remember being trapped in a violent and burning city, desperate to get home and find family members. The riots sent a wave of people out of the city and out of the state, fuelling white emigration to the north and west. But like Mr Rachel, the city seems uncertain how to commemorate the riots. The African American Unity Centre, where he works, is sponsoring a "Unity Day of Celebration", bringing together white, black, Latino, and Korean community groups to remember the "LA Civil Unrest", the politically correct usage. The Korean community was the hardest hit in the riots, with some 2,500 businesses looted or destroyed. But even Yohngsohk Choe, head of a Koreatown business association formed to liaise with the LAPD, described the riots as an opportunity to "learn a lesson" and promote positive "empowerment". He said: "At one time, we thought the riots shattered our American dream, but we are here to stay."

But a recent special screening of Riot, a television film, at the First African Methodist Church, provoked what the Los Angeles Times called an "eruption of anger and emotion" from the racially-mixed audience. The film, based on four fictional stories from different communities, tried to be unsentimental about the shootings and burnings. "Instead of riot, this movie should be called Stereotype," one viewer shouted. Rebuild Los Angeles, the private consortium set up to redevelop the worst-hit areas of the city, dissolved in January. Critics said it had come nowhere near keeping the promises that were made. In one particular bone of contention, major supermarket chains built only a fraction of the 30 new stores that were pledged.

If racial divides in the city are as sharp as ever, politically LA has the feeling of a city asleep. Like other major US cities, it has seen a sharp downturn in its crime rates, while eco- nomically California's recovery continues. Republican Mayor Richard Riordan recently won re-election in a contest that went virtually ignored. He easily defeated Democrat Assemblyman Tom Hayden. Even the firing this spring of Willie Williams, the city's first black police chief installed in the wake of the riots, failed to galvanise much interest. Quietly, however, the political map of Los Angeles is being redrawn. The city's Latino minority, now estimated at up to 40 per cent of its population, has been going to the polling booths in record numbers. LA is becoming an increasingly Hispanic city with black political power at risk of being marginalised.