Rep. Karen Bass Remembers The 1992 Los Angeles Riot – And The Work It Took To Heal A Community

She’s in a tight race to become L.A.’s first Black woman mayor, but three decades ago the lawmaker was working to keep economic and racial tensions from reaching a boiling point.

Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass has a lengthy political career ranging from serving on several House committees and founding the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth.  Although she is one of the most well-known African American politicians in the country, her roots are in grass roots community work and that is forever intertwined with the events beginning April 29, 1992.

Her story began as a physician's assistant and clinical instructor before founding the LA-based Community Coalition in 1990 with community organizers made up of African American and Latino members.

But when a jury did not convict four LAPD officers in the 1991 beating of Rodney King, the city exploded in violence. Bass, who is now running for mayor of Los Angeles, sat down to tell what it was like watching the city reach a boiling point despite efforts to prevent it and the work done in helping the city find healing in the aftermath.

When I helped found the Community Coalition in 1990, South Los Angeles residents were facing numerous challenges including the crack epidemic, the war on drugs and over policing from the Los Angeles Police Department among others. Through the organization, we worked tirelessly to transform the social and economic conditions of the area through an institution that provided services alongside trying to change public policy.

I had, as well as a number of other people, had been working to improve the quality of life and increase opportunities, and we weren't able to accomplish that fast enough. So tensions boiled over and the city exploded following the not guilty verdict of four officers seen brutally assaulting Rodney King around the world a year prior. 

VIDEO: The 1992 Los Angeles Riot: A Visual Timeline of A Devastating Event

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The other thing that we had been working on for years, was to try to hold the police department accountable. We obviously had failed on that as well, because those police officers got off. It was a combination of work that had been going on for a couple of decades or more, and the inability to actually solve problems fast enough.

For example, when it came to policing, we were on the verge of getting rid of, or at least putting in place an amendment to the city charter that would allow the firing of the police chiefs. But the election hadn't happened. The unrest happened in April. The election was in June. We won the election. We were able to amend the city charter. We were able to eventually get rid of the police chief [Daryl Gates].  We were succeeding slowly but surely, but not fast enough.

In 1992, Rep. Karen Bass was a community activist working to uplift Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Before the verdict was announced, my day was a regular work day in the community, having meetings and meeting with staff.  However, that day was filled with anxiety, because we knew the verdicts were going to happen later that day. The Community Coalition building was about a mile away from where the chaos started on the corner of Florence and Normandie.

The minute the verdicts happened, I got in my car and started to head over to First AME Church because all the community leaders were going to go to the church to try to keep the city calm.  But unfortunately, by the time we got to the church, the violence had already started. As I arrived on the corner of Florence and Normandie on the way to the church, I could see people throwing bricks.

Once the violence started, I was simply trying to get to safety. I didn't want to get caught in the violence. So that's what was going through my head. How do I get out of here fast enough and get into a safe place? I went to the church [and] I got there in time, but while we were in the church, everything started all around where we were. There were fires, there was looting, there was everything happening while we were in the church. After I left the church, it was the perilous drive home, driving through the violence that was occurring all around me.

VIDEO: Boiling Point – Los Angeles

It was devastating to see people burn up the community that we were trying to improve. It was frightening. It was frightening, because you didn't know if bullets were going to fly. So it was not only frightening, but it was also tragically sad.

The fires and the violence took three days to stop.

Once the fire stopped, I had to go into immediate action in my role as executive director of the Community Coalition. One of the first things I did with the community was launch a campaign that prevented the rebuilding of liquor stores, pawn shops and gun shops. A year before in August of 1991, the Community Coalition had already launched a campaign to either clean up or close them down.

Be mindful, these businesses aren’t particular to Los Angeles, it was a phenomenon in inner city America.  Basically it’s because of zoning laws, land use laws which are not really enforced or carried out in poorer areas like they are in higher income areas. Meaning there was an abundance of businesses that are not very constructive or very helpful for the community.

When we were working to prevent the rebuilding of liquor stores, we were winning on a local level. So the alcohol industry went to the state level and tried to get laws passed to preempt what we were doing on a local level. Some of the strategies and tactics that we tried at Community Coalition became common practices that were replicated. For example, the way we worked with young people is now common. There's a lot of organizations today that were modeled after what we did.

Things have gotten better with law enforcement engagement but basically, the fundamental problem is that there is no one uniform way of policing. The police in inner city areas treat the community as though they’re suspects while police in more affluent areas treat the community like they’re there to serve.

This is why one of the initiatives I have planned if elected mayor of L.A. is an Office of Community Safety Partnership program that will work independently of the LAPD. It's a practice of community safety utilizing people who come from the community will place the community at the forefront. I wouldn’t say that the events of ‘92 had a lot to do with how I viewed politics but [they] created recognition that it’s important to work on a state and national level as well as local levels. Which is why I campaigned for and was elected California State Assembly all the way to becoming a member of the House of Representatives representing the 37th congressional district.

I think that the change in the city overall has been good in terms of just incredible diversity. The change that has not been good since ‘92 is that the city has become unaffordable. It’s extremely expensive to live here and that means poverty has increased. The economic divide is wider. We were dealing with the problem of unhoused Angelenos 30 years ago. That problem has just metastasized and exploded. These problems with homelessness are linked to increased crime which is where community engagement with law enforcement comes into play.

This is why to help make L.A. a better place to live, we need law enforcement alongside the ability to hold them accountable as well. Crimes are committed by individuals. An entire community shouldn’t be punished for other’s actions or treated like they’re suspects and that’s the balance that I hope to accomplish if elected.

As told to Ural Garrett

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