When LA's wounds left a nation scarred

By LIU YINMENG in Los Angeles | China Daily | Updated: 2022-05-25 09:15
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Protesters raise their voices in condemnation of racism as they approach police lines during a march in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on April 16. They took to the streets for days of action after the release of a video showing Congolese immigrant Patrick Lyoya, 26, being shot dead by a police officer while resisting arrest during a traffic stop in the city on April 4. DANIEL SHULAR/THE GRAND RAPIDS PRESS/AP

30 years on from Rodney King, calls for racial justice in US remain as urgent as ever

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series on race issues in the US. From the Tulsa massacre in 1902 to the death of Vincent Chin in 1982, to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020, and the recent mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, racial minorities have long been victims of hate crimes.

The tension in the air was almost palpable as Jackie Ryan drove home from work on April 29, 1992. Earlier that day, a jury had acquitted four white police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King. As she rounded a corner, the now-retired shop owner spotted people on trucks carrying flags.

"And I'm going, this is something really real here. People are angry," Ryan, 85, a longtime resident of South Los Angeles, where the LA riots sprang up, told China Daily.

Since the Rodney King incident, the United States has gone on to witness yet more police violence against black people. High-profile cases included the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, and more recently, the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020. The second anniversary of Floyd's murder is Wednesday.

For more than a year, people watched an amateur videotape on television showing a group of police officers repeatedly striking King after a high-speed chase. The officers reportedly struck King 56 times with their batons while he lay face down. The verdict shocked and devastated the community, Ryan said.

Increasing the tension was the fatal shooting of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean-American grocer who accused her of stealing orange juice. The grocer, convicted of voluntary manslaughter, got probation, which a state appeals court upheld just a week before the King verdict. The court's decision was considered a light punishment by many in the black community, she said.

Ryan watched flames engulf shops in the neighborhood as news of the verdict on King's case spread. The blaze scorched a grocery store and was edging closer to a business across the street from her African cultural store, so she raced to help her friend move things from his building.

That night, Ryan and fellow store owners slept on the sidewalk to guard shops against arson by the rioters. Meanwhile, several blocks away at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city's oldest black church, pastor Najuma Smith-Pollard was in disbelief over the verdict.

"It was devastating; it was very hurtful," she told China Daily. So many pastors, civic leaders, officials, media and community members had congregated at the church that day for service and mediation under the guidance of the church's senior pastor, Cecil L. Murray, that it was "beyond standing room only", Smith-Pollard said.

When the then 20-year-old went home that night, a trip that took Smith-Pollard across South LA, she experienced firsthand the "complete mayhem" left by the racially fueled explosion.

"It wasn't that I was afraid of the people, I was just afraid of like, how does our city recover, where do we go from here," said Smith-Pollard, who serves as the assistant director of community and public engagement at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Following the initial uproar on April 29, the city plunged into five days of looting, assault, arson and murder in one of the worst episodes of civil unrest in US history.

Most of the violence was concentrated in South LA, a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood, as well as Koreatown, where resentment had grown between Korean and African Americans. In all, more than 60 people died, most were black and brown, thousands were injured and nearly $1 billion in property was damaged, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Critics blamed the city's lack of a detailed plan for the crisis and the police department's slow response to stopping the violence that spread throughout the city. Some witnesses also accused the police of leaving the poor communities of color to fend for themselves while directing armed personnel to affluent areas like Beverly Hills.

The unrest spotlighted for the world the racial and economic inequality that existed in one of the most diverse cities in the US. This year, Los Angeles marks the 30th anniversary of the riots with a series of commemorations, celebrations and peace gatherings. Those who lived through the violent days, however, said the struggle with racial injustice continues despite some progress.

King, who died in 2012 aged 47, wasn't the first black man, or the last, to be beaten by police, Smith-Pollard said. But it was the first time it was caught on camera and shown to the world.

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