Can't We All Just Get Along - 2007

This 1991 amateur video captured the beating of Rodney King

Today marks the fifteen year anniversary of one of the darkest chapters in Los Angeles history: the 1992 LA Riots.

On April 29, 1992, four police officers charged in the controversial 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King were acquitted, sending shockwaves through a community already in unrest. Anger had been rising over perceived racism by LAPD, poor economic conditions, and friction between minority groups in South Central. Nevertheless, no one could have anticipated the resulting response to the trial.

For five days, all of the stored up bitterness, resentment, and frustrations were unleashed in a cathartic rage on the city as the rest of the world watched. Anarchy reigned as whole blocks of businesses were set on fire, people were carjacked and randomly beaten, and rampant shooting broke out against rescue workers and between shopkeepers and looters. And of course, the enduring image of the riots was the brutal beating of truck driver Reginald Denny at the intersection of Florence and Normandie.

By the time the National Guard finally regained control, 53 people were dead, over 1,100 building were destroyed, 10,000 people were arrested, and nearly $1 billion in damage had been caused. The worst riots in recent US history. A mighty city left with deep physical scars, but even deeper emotional wounds.

Time posted a special retrospective report on the Riots, profiling and interviewing some of the key figures involved in the events, which is worth a read if only just to remember how things were fifteen years ago.

Do you remember where you were? I was a teenager at the time and remember being glued to the TV with a mixture of horror and fascination at the events as they unfolded. While I was nowhere close to any of the burn zones, I feared for the safety of extended family members that lived on the borders of South Central, particularly being Asian-American. I was too young and unaware to see the riots from any perspective beyond the overplayed race angle, whether Black and White or Black and Asian. But I was struck by the amount of perceived marginalization and mistreatment that could cause somebody to act with such anger.

Now, in 2007, I wonder how far our city and our society have truly come in mending the fences during these last fifteen years. Not just between races. Between classes. Between religious groups. Between genders. Between straight and gay.

I would like to think that we've come a long way, that every day our society grows more culturally aware, more tolerant, and more respective but respectful of the differences between our fellow man. I see our city with a Latino mayor, two of our leading presidential candidates being an African-American man and a White woman, and greater percentages of minorities rising to positions of power and prominence in the business sector and in Hollywood, and think that maybe we're seeing people for who they are, not just what they are.

But then I am also reminded of things like the bigoted comments of public figures like Don Imus, Ann Coulter, and Michael Richards, the protests of citizens feeling overwhelmed by immigrant influences in their neighborhoods, and a rising income gap between classes. I notice that out of the thirty or so people that comprise senior management at my unnamed employer, only three are women and only three are non-white (with no non-white women). And despite being arguably the most multicultural city in the US, I see the widespread segregation that is so clearly pronounced that you could take a Crayola and color code a Thomas Bros by neighborhood (here's a USC study based on the 2000 census), letting me know that there is still much work to be done.

Then I look at my own life and see that the majority of my friends are like me, Asian-Americans from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds, or from a similar Christian faith. Like anyone else, I naturally gravitate towards those with whom I can relate and have a shared experience and interest. I spend my time in those places which are safe and comfortable. But safe and comfortable means familiar, and familiar means status quo. And by holding on to the status quo, progress can't ever happen.

The world has changed a lot since April 29, 1992 and LA has repaired itself and moved forward from that horrible episode in its past. Doesn't mean those issues have just magically disappeared in 2007. Hopefully the lessons of the Riots will remind us that we don't have to wait for the city to burn to ash before getting out there and being an advocate for change. There's still room for progress. Starting with me.