We're Next: Why American Riots May Not Be Far Behind London's
Almost 20 years after the Rodney King riots, America has yet to address the serious issues that led to them.
After the burning comes the thinking. In the wake of London's recent riots, which ultimately left five people dead and cost the British economy an estimated $650 million, politicians, sociologists, and average citizens are poring over charts and graphs and data sets in an effort to understand what went wrong. What could they have done to head off the carnage before it began? Even those of us living outside the U.K.—in America, perhaps—are wondering not how the Tottenham riots could have been prevented, but how to make sure similar outbreaks don't happen in our hometowns.
The most recent analog America has is the Rodney King riots, which shook Los Angeles for six days in 1992. Like London, the arson and looting in L.A. was set off by an incident involving white police and a black victim. Like London, police response throughout L.A. was weak. Unlike London, 53 people were killed in the L.A. riots. In the days following the devastation, Angelenos looked for different ways to pick up the pieces, just as Londoners are doing now. One of those ways was by convening committees; if impartial parties could sit and work through the broken glass and rubble, the theory went, then L.A. could learn from its past mistakes and move forward into a brighter, more lawful future.
The most prominent of these committees was built of a bipartisan coalition of state assemblypersons. Four months after the riots, after eight in-depth community hearings and a comprehensive look into L.A.'s quantitative data, the 18-member group released the report "To Rebuild Is Not Enough." In it, they laid out a multi-pronged plan of attack against the ills that led to the King riots. "Like other urban conflagrations—from Watts to Miami—the 1992 Los Angeles Crisis was sparked by a single incident, yet rooted in grievances and tensions which had accumulated for years," the report's introduction said. And later: "As they pleaded for immediate assistance and demanded long-term change, the frustration, anger, and pain of the people of Los Angeles was unmistakable."
Though the assemblypeople covered everything from the need for urban businesses to be insured to public transit equity, the main point was direct: If L.A. was to avoid another major riot, it needed to address in a very significant way the financial and educational disparities that divided the city across racial lines. In 1992, 90 of L.A.'s 149 census tracts had the highest concentrations of blacks, Latinos, or Asians, while only four were nearly all white. "The Committee finds that the causes of the 1992 unrest were ... aggravated by a highly visible increasing concentration of wealth at the top of the income scale and a decreasing Federal and State commitment to urban programs serving those at the bottom of the income scale," the report said.
A separately convened expert panel, this one sponsored by the University of California Humanities Research Institute and staged at U.C. Irvine, came to many of the same conclusions. L.A. Police Commissioner Michael Yamaki said that though some of the King rioting appeared to be race-based, specifically blacks versus Koreans, race was actually less of a motivator than class. Yamaki called it "haves versus have-nots."
So what happened after the committees had their say? Did L.A. get serious about closing the wealth gap that had divided its citizens until they were senselessly killing each other in the streets? Not exactly. Though some real change took root—strengthened unions pushed through a new living-wage law in 1997 and some racial tensions have eased—by and large the city has not been able to mend the divides described in "To Rebuild Is Not Enough." In a 2003 report for National Civic Review, "America's Urban Crisis a Decade After the Los Angeles Riots," (PDF) Occidental professor of politics Peter Dreier wrote, "[T]he widening economic and social divide is the area’s biggest challenge ... Los Angeles is home to more millionaires than any other urban area. But one-fifth of county residents—1.7 million people—and one-fourth of all children live below the poverty line." Worse still, some of the city's progressive changes were not what could be called significant: That 1997 living-wage law affected only about 10,000 of L.A.'s 1.6 million workers.
And things have only gotten bleaker. "According to figures compiled by the local chapter of the United Way, 1.47 million, or 15%, of [L.A.] county's approximately 10.4 million residents are living in poverty," reported the The Los Angeles Times in 2010, "which means an annual income of $22,000 for a family of four. Close to 100,000 of those families are getting by on less than $10,000 a year." About one third of L.A.'s full-time workforce makes less than $25,000 per year. By contrast, the number of millionaires in L.A. in 2011 increased by almost 9 percent last year.
We know for a fact that a lackadaisical response to inequality can and will lead to more riots. In 1965, following L.A.'s Watts Riots, which left dozens dead and thousands injured or arrested, two commissions, the Kerner Commission and the McCone Commission, were convened. The two separate bodies were in agreement about how to prevent large-scale riots from ruining cities: Improve employment and educational opportunities in poorer neighborhoods, and ensure harmonious police-community relations. The Kerner Commission's conclusion was direct: "Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American." Alas, the report went largely ignored. Racism, segregation, and wealth inequality persisted, and in 1992 an even more devastating riot than Watts ripped apart Los Angeles.
Now 20 years later, will we remember the mistakes of the former L.A. as we go forward? While we watch the smoke rise from London, will we consider that, unless we drastically reconfigure society, an American city may not be far behind? "It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens," warned the Kerner report. And, if we don't, well, we know what happens.