Twenty Years After The Los Angeles Riots

I was living in Chicago watching the verdict on TV that acquitted the four Los Angeles police officers indicted in the beating of Rodney King. It was April 29, 1992. News crews immediately focused on the corner of Normandie and Florence in South Central L.A., where young African American males were attacking strangers, white and Latino, who ventured into the area. The Los Angeles Riots had erupted.

I made phone calls. I found out my brother, who was a phone installer in South Central, was stuck in an office building for two to three days, unable to communicate with his wife and kids. A former homegirl of mine also languished for days in a building where she worked as a security guard, the fires perilously threatening to consume the structure. Soon the disturbances moved from the African American communities to the Mexican and Central American communities, then whites, Asians, and other protestors gathered in the downtown area.

I knew these streets. I was two years old in 1956 when my family moved from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to South Central L.A., in and around the Watts neighborhood that later burned in the summer of 1965. I first entered school unable to speak English, and was often punished for speaking Spanish. At age eight, the family ended up in the San Gabriel Valley. I joined a street gang at age 11 and became heavily involved with drugs, including heroin, in and out of jails, until at 18 I decided to leave "The Crazy Life" when community members stood up on my behalf as I faced a six-year prison sentence for allegedly fighting with police officers. I was given a lesser conviction, and time served in the county jail. In a year's time, I was done with drugs. I married by age 20 and became a father less than a year later.

For seven years, I labored in L.A. industry--as a truck driver, a lead foundry smelter, in construction, as a carpenter, in a paper mill, and four years at the Bethlehem Steel Plant. My first wife and I lived in the Florence neighborhood of South L.A., the ghetto/barrio of Pasadena, and Watts. By my mid-twenties, after we broke up and she moved away with our two children, I embarked on a writing life, taking classes at East Los Angeles Community College, working for weekly newspapers, for radio, and freelancing for the L.A. Weekly, The Nation, and other publications. In time I worked as a daily reporter in San Bernardino, a writer/publicist for a public affairs union, a director/editor of a Latino writers association, and also became active in the performance poetry scene. In 1985, I moved to Chicago to work for newspapers, book publishers, and in news radio as a writer/reporter. I also enmeshed myself in the arts, becoming a well-known poet and publisher while facilitating writing workshops in prisons, juvenile lockups, homeless shelters, schools, and migrant camps, among other venues. I also began working with gang and non-gang youth, establishing mentors and helping make peace and community in the most neglected areas.

The Los Angeles riots were contained by May 6 after 10,000 National Guard troops and pleas from the community stopped most of the destruction, although sporadic fires and looting continued for weeks. By then 54 people had died and 3,000 businesses were destroyed with around $1 billion in damages. I jumped on a plane and made my way back to this City of Angels that I still loved.

In Los Angeles I took part in truce meetings between the Crips and Bloods, the South Central gangs that started in the early 1970s, including with truce leaders Tony Bogard of the Nickerson Gardens housing projects and Dwayne Holmes and Aqeela Sherrills of Jordan Downs. I met with Chicano gang members, some in cliques that went back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. And also with integrants of the Mara Salvatrucha, a mostly Salvadoran gang originating in the mid-1980s. In a month's time I wrote a Los Angeles Times editorial with Kershaun Scott, "Little Monster" of the Eight-Tray Gangster Crips, and Cle Sloan, "Bone" of the Athens Park Bloods, on the economic and social roots of the street gangs and the L.A. riots.

I witnessed how de-industrialization, which began in the United States in the mid-1970s with digital technology and the uprooting of plants to cheaper labor markets, shut down many factory towns, particularly in the "rust belt." People forget that Los Angeles was the largest U.S. manufacturing center. It had the greatest variety of industrial work and the largest commercial port at the Long Beach/Los Angeles Harbor. By 1992 the city lost more than half of its jobs in assembly, shipping, canneries, steel, auto, tires, aerospace, and more. I also saw how drugs--not just heroin, but "crack," "crank," and more--began to flood the poorest areas. And how a new generation of firepower engulfed these streets, more than at anytime in U.S. history, including weaponry from foreign wars such as AK-47s and Uzis.

No wonder street gangs reached their pinnacle of growth during the 1980s and 1990s, with Los Angeles and Chicago, the most industrial cities, leading the violence. Not far behind were Detroit, Gary, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Antonio, Salinas, and Phoenix, cities that in some cases had more violence per capita.

The L.A. disturbances weren't inevitable, but you could see why they happened. Looking deeper, it all makes sense.

Twenty years later, I'm back in Los Angeles, having brought my current wife and our two young boys in 2000 to the Northeast San Fernando Valley. We started a full fledge cultural space, called Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore, which now serves thousands of residents and sponsors an annual outdoor literacy & arts festival. My memoir of gang life, "Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.," has become a best seller--with close to half million sold--released a year after the riots. I had a friend who jokingly accused me of starting the riots so the book would sell.

Yes, the city has changed--liquor stores that dotted most of the South Central landscape have been cut more than half. New developments now include community input and jobs. Community gardens are blooming. And the L.A.P.D. became more community-minded, accepting of gang intervention and other community leadership, relationships that were nonexistent in 1992. We have a Chicano mayor and a Chicana school board president. New school buildings and configurations of teacher/parent led academies created schools with names honoring Cesar Chavez, Frida Kahlo, Ruben Salazar, and Sandra Cisneros.

None of this could have been imagined twenty years ago.

Still much more has to happen: In twenty years, Los Angeles enacted some forty gang injunctions that arrested whole neighborhoods, not just individuals, and sent more of our young people to juvenile facilities and prisons that had little or no rehabilitation. Three-strikes-and-you're-out, trying juveniles as adults, gang enhancements, and such laws helped create the largest prison system in the world--with a 70 percent failure rate. And jobs and adequate housing continue to leave the city.

Many things have changed, I can attest to that, but the rudimentary aspects of a decent life, of schooling, of providing for the wellbeing of all our families and communities, continue to elude us. Twenty years later, we've been hit by the devastating "riot" of sub-par mortgages, bank scams, jobs removal, and a growing gap between the wealthy and poor, which have now done more to drain and paralyze our economy than the unrest ever did.

I still love Los Angeles. I love its diversity, the cacophony of tongues and stories. But I hate what the corporate machine and law-and-order hacks have done to my city. Of course, now is not a time for rioting. It's a time for incorporating new ideas and movements, for organizing, planning, imagining, and creating. It's a time to regenerate even the most forgotten neighborhoods using the very gifts and energies that the people most affected by the financial crisis have to bring.

We need a new Los Angeles, driven by a new politics, a new economy, and connected to a new America that is truly free, just and open to everyone. A place many have bled and died to see.