Why the 1992 L.A. riots matter today

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Editor’s note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.

(CNN) — This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, which exploded following the acquittal of four LAPD officers charged with the brutal videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. The riot, which activists characterized as an urban rebellion, triggered echoes of the past with an updated twist: Similar allegations of police brutality had sparked massive unrest in Harlem, Watts, Newark, and Detroit during the 1960s. In Los Angeles, the instigating incident aired on national television in a manner that anticipated the technologically-connected era of Black Lives Matter and the upsurge of racial violence in 21st-century Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities.

While the video recording of Rodney King may have been a forerunner to what we have watched unfold live (on screens large and small) with the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s also clear that we need to take a harder look at what happened in L.A. 25 years ago. Because if Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and dozens of now-familiar names tell us anything, it’s that we still have lessons left unlearned from the Los Angeles uprising in 1992.

In an era before social media and smart phones, most Americans relied on newspaper, radio, and television reports to understand the scope of the unrest that gripped a panicked city for several days after the April 29 not guilty verdict of four white officers.

Arsenio Hall, the popular black late night television host, insisted on taping his show at First AME Church over the objections of studio executives skittish over outbreaks of violence that law enforcement seemed unable to contain. During the hour-long taping, Hall presided over one of the most powerful hours of television produced during the 1990s, opening the show with an excerpt of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at 1963’s March On Washington, interviewing Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and trying to parse the connections people were just beginning to make among racial violence, poverty, the drug war, and institutional racism.

The riot’s second night coincided with the finale of “The Cosby Show,” the long running sitcom about an upper middle class black family that became for several seasons the most watched show in the nation. The show, which premiered during Ronald Reagan’s first term, inaugurated the nation’s initial flirtation with the post-racial ideal that would be in full bloom with the election of Barack Obama. Los Angeles’ explosion of violence cast doubt on the idea of colorblindness a quarter of a century ago, just as Ferguson permanently exploded this myth in our time.

The decision by the “Arsenio Hall Show” to scrap regular programming to focus on the meaning and historical context of the riots made events in Los Angeles a national touchstone for long gestating debates about race, civil rights, and justice that now transcended conventional politics.

In 1992, America’s elected leaders failed to comprehend the magnitude of the nation’s racial crisis, with President George H.W. Bush expressing shock at the verdict, but ignoring the systemic issues of poverty, criminalization of black bodies, and racism that led to the violence, looting, and chaos in the city.

Arkansas governor and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton (who would appear on Arsenio Hall’s show in early June) offered powerful words while visiting Los Angeles several days after the riots began. “We are not honestly confronting problems of race and poverty and differences among the American people,” he candidly admitted to audiences at several Los Angeles-area African American churches.

Clinton’s comments suggested that a presidential candidate finally understood the pain carried by black Americans who resided in segregated neighborhoods wracked by crime, violence, and drug abuse on one hand, and a criminal justice system that further dehumanized whole communities through racial profiling, police brutality and violence on the other. Would the man that Toni Morrison labeled the nation’s “first black president” turn his uncanny ability to express personal empathy into transformative social justice policy on behalf of black people?

Not exactly.

As President Clinton supported a series of draconian policies that helped incarcerate more black men at the federal level than Ronald Reagan did, they became the blueprint for America’s egregious system of mass incarceration, and further punished the formerly convicted and their families by denying housing, employment opportunities, and food to predominantly black and brown Americans caught up in the drug war.

While serving as a high-profile surrogate for his wife’s 2016 presidential campaign, former President Clinton admitted to supporting policies that “overshot the mark” by incarcerating too many people of color.

Los Angeles in 1992 represented both a missed opportunity and a sign of the times. Two decades before the death of Trayvon Martin inspired the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that in turn ignited a national movement for racial justice, Los Angeles drew a more scattered response from civil rights activists, amplified racial fatigue among white Americans, and quickly became more comfortably understood as a cultural touchstone — one mined by creative artists for exploration in film, music, television and novels — rather than a political one. Anna Deveare Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” remains the singular production that has tried to make sense of the riots’ enormous impact on American culture. A range of black filmmakers, most notably Spike Lee and John Singleton, also utilized the rebellion as a motif in shaping their cinematic imagination.

The legacy of the LA rebellion continues to reverberate as evils have come to light in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland and smaller municipalities such as Ferguson. A quarter-century later, mass incarceration and institutionalized racism have grown more entrenched but fortunately so has the political consciousness of a new generation of activists. For these young people, staying “woke” means continuing to connect the dots between racism, poverty, and the criminal justice system in ways that earlier generations of politicians and political leaders often failed to do. Their tireless efforts to ensure that black lives do indeed matter stand as an elegantly poignant answer to Rodney King’s plaintive question as Los Angeles and America collectively tasted the ashes of racial injustice: “Can’t we all just get along?”