City of Angels: 20 Years After the 1992 Riots

If you ask me if the city has changed since the 1992 riots, I have to tell you in all honesty, not very much

By Gil Contreras
Published on LatinoLA: May 1, 2012

City of Angels: 20 Years After the 1992 Riots

I watched, with interest, most of the specials on the 20 year anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. I watched as former rioters, local experts and even Rodney King himself gave their recollections of the events that "changed" Los Angeles.

I watched Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney, author, and recipient of over 50 major community and professional awards, and Dana Banks, L.A. Times columnist, talk about the tumultuous relationship between the LAPD and "the black community" back then, but never once heard them mention black street gangs, the rampant street sales of crack cocaine in South Los Angeles, nor the almost daily drive-by shootings which were commonplace in 1992.

In order to understand the relationship between police and South L.A. residents, one must put the times in context. All Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies, at the time, were facing an epidemic of drive-by shootings and street sales of crack cocaine, many of which resulted in innocent victims being killed, that necessitated taking an aggressive, proactive approach.

Police departments conducted gang sweeps, served search/arrest warrants at crack cocaine sales locations, and LAPD ran Operation Hammer which put one thousand police officers on the streets of South L.A. on a given weekend. The LAPD's infamous "batter-ram" tore through the walls of crack houses and gang commerce from street sales of narcotics was impacted.

Having been a soldier in that war, at least in the city of Los Angeles, I can tell you that those involved in criminal activity, and those who profited from that criminal activity, certainly did have a contentious relationship with all of law enforcement, not just the LAPD.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Los Angeles Housing Authority Police Department, L.A. City Port Police, LAX Police, L.A. County Park Police, all had to create gang units to address the issue of gang violence in their jurisdictions caused by the sales, manufacturing and transporting of narcotics. And yes, the better the job the cops did, the more contentious the relationship.

In Los Angeles, we were doing such a good job of impacting narcotics sales by gangs, that our gang problem began to push-out to other jurisdictions; suddenly sleepy little towns like Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Rubidoux found gang crimes their number one problem.

There were no white people or people who lived outside of South L.A. coming into the inner-city area, making or selling dope (they did buy it though!). It was the sons and daughters of the community itself, it was kids who couldn't be controlled by their parents, it was their neighbor's kids, and sometimes, it was their adult neighbor.

Most normal people, that is, people who do not involve themselves in criminal activity, were glad to see law enforcement in the neighborhood, and when they could, would give officers information that led to search warrants or arrests of dope dealers and gang members. It was these people that I tried to serve, those who were tired of the gang influence on their children, their neighborhood, and their working class community at-large.

It would be simple to say the Rodney King verdict and racism by law enforcement were the main reasons for the L.A. Riots of 1992, but that assessment would be too simplistic. It was American author, H.L. Menckin who said, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

To say that the lack of economic development and lack of employment opportunities in 1992, and, of course, racism, were the reasons that police/community relations were strained, would also be too simplistic.

The relationship between cops and criminals and their families in the community was contentious then, and still is today. No one wants to go to jail and no family wants their sons or daughters to go to jail. Some, however, want to do as they please, victimize whom they please, and law enforcement cannot and should not allow that to happen.

When questioned about whether L.A. was changed by the events of 1992, it really depends on who you ask. Most people will concede that gang crime, while still a problem in lower socio-economic areas, has gone down, and that the LAPD is a different police department today than it was in 1992. However, many in the "black," and now, Latino & Occupy community, are still dissatisfied.

We, as a society, should hold law enforcement officers to a higher standard than the regular citizenry; officers should make legal arrests based on solid probable cause, and not make things up, not file a false report, nor get on the witness stand and "test-a-lie" in a case before the court. However, we should also hold ourselves and our children to that same high standard, and ensure they/we, are not involved in gang or criminal activity, that they/we, not dress like gangsters, make them do their homework, and make them obey the law. This is what a civil society does.

Unfortunately, there were no easy answers in 1965 or 1992, nor are there easy answers in 2012. Hucksters of the racism-industrial complex, like Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Louis Farrakhan, really do the "black community" a disservice by trying to make every major media incident seem like a 1950's Selma, Alabama racial incident.

High profile cases such as, the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Florida, the Kendrec Mc Dade shooting in Pasadena, California, and the Abdul Arian shooting on the 101 freeway by LAPD, must be viewed separately and within the context of their own individual circumstances, which had more to do with criminal-like behavior than race, which resulted in their deaths.

I loved working the streets of what was then called South Central Los Angeles; I met some wonderful people, took dope & guns off the street, put gangsters in jail and became a gang expert. But, if you ask me if the city has changed since the 1992 riots, or the 1965 riots for that matter, I have to tell you in all honesty, not very much.

Numbers may be down but community attitudes and the politics of poverty remain the same.

About Gil Contreras:
Gil Contreras is a former police officer, Golden Mike winner & Homeland Security Instructor in Los Angeles.

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