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Twenty years after the flames: the Rodney King beating verdict and the LA riots

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 4/25/2012, 8:07 a.m.

Twenty years after the flames: the Rodney King beating verdict and the LA riots

For two fateful days at the end of April and the first day of May 1992, I ducked around police cordons and barricades, and cringed in fear at the cackle of police gunfire. I choked and was blinded by the thick, acrid smoke that at times blotted out the sun and gave an eerie, surreal feel to Los Angeles.

I watched many Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers stand by virtually helpless and disoriented as looters gleefully made mad dashes into countless stores. Their arms bulged with everything from clothes to furniture items. I watched an armada of police from every district throughout California and the nation, National Guard units and federal troops drove past my house with stony, even scared looks on their faces, their guns ready.

I watched buildings, stores and malls that I frequented instantly disappear from the landscape in a wall of flames. Several friends who lived outside of L.A. were concerned about my safety. They implored me to leave my home in the middle of the riot area and stay with them until things blew over. I thanked them but I decided to stay put.

As a journalist, I felt bound to observe and report firsthand the mass orgy of death and destruction that engulfed my south L.A. neighborhood during the two fateful days of the most destructive riot in United States history.

The warning signs that L.A. was a powder keg were there long before the Simi Valley jury with no blacks acquitted the four LAPD cops that beat Rodney King. There was the crushingly high poverty rate in South L.A., a spiraling crime and drug epidemic, neighborhoods that were among the most racially balkanized in the nation, anger over the hand slap sentence for a Korean grocer that murdered a black teenage girl in an altercation, and black-Korean tensions that had reached a boiling point.

Above all, there was the bitter feeling toward an LAPD widely branded as the nation’s perennial police agency for brutality and racism.

This year, on the 20th anniversary of the King verdict and the L.A. riots, many still ask the incessant question: Can it happen again? There are two hints that give both a “yes” and “no” answer to the question.

The “yes” is the repeated questionable killings of young unarmed African Americans by police and quasi-authority figures, such as Trayvon Martin and Kendrec McDade, nationally and in L.A. County. The other cause for wariness is conditions in South L.A. and other urban communities.

In the two decades after the riots, South L.A. and the many other South L.A.’s of America have been written off as vast wastelands of violence and despair. Many banks and corporations, as well as government officials, reneged on their promises to fund and build top-notch stores, make more home and business loans, and provide massive funding for job and social service programs in the poorest of the poor, black, inner city areas.