Racial tension raises concerns
Saturday, June 18, 2005 - Forty years after the Watts riots and 13 years after the Los Angeles riots, many civic leaders fear Los Angeles may again be ripe for growing racial violence.
Recent fights and race-related threats at nearly two dozen high schools -- coupled with the city's continuing economic woes and rapidly changing demographics -- have raised the specter that long-simmering tensions may be reaching a boiling point.
"You have gangs and turf battles and you have the potential of them spreading beyond campuses," said Rabbi Alan Freehling, who heads the city's Human Relations Commission and sees the city at a critical juncture, with the schools serving as a potential lightning rod.
"You have kids with nothing to do when they're out of school and no real prospects of good jobs. You have a community that is changing dramatically and that causes problems."
While officials are quick to point out that some of the issues that plagued Los Angeles in 1965 and sparked the deadly Watts riots no longer exist, the city still has an equal amount of problems.
"We have a much more complex city," said Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles. "This is a much more dynamic city because of its diversity, but that creates other tensions.
"It is no longer a black-white issue. If you look at this city, it's amazing we don't have more problems. Every day I wake up and wonder what will happen. It only takes a little spark to turn all the good upside down."
Four decades ago, the spark that ignited six days of rioting was fueled by a variety of factors.
With a majority white population -- about 60 percent of the 2.9 million residents -- a sense of powerlessness pervaded a generally poor minority community. There was high unemployment. Overcrowded schools. Lack of adequate health care.
Similar conditions existed 27 years later when the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King triggered three days of riots that left 55 people dead, more than 2,300 injured and 1,100 buildings destroyed.
Many of those same issues that existed in 1965 and 1992 are being seen today in a much larger Los Angeles with a more diverse population and potentially more tensions.
Today, Latinos are in the majority -- making up 47 percent of the 3.7 million residents. Whites make up 30 percent, African-Americans make up 11 percent and Asian-Americans 10 percent.
Gone are most of the industrial jobs that served as entry-level work for many families, replaced by lower-paying service industry and tourism jobs.
The city's Martin Luther King Jr.-Drew Medical Center, which was built in the aftermath of the Watts riots, is in disarray with county officials having shut its trauma unit while officials determine how to save the rest of the institution.
The county Economic Development Corp. said inner-city unemployment averages 9.5 percent -- about double the rate in the rest of the city. Joblessness for teens is even higher.
And even as the Los Angeles Unified School District is on a fast track to build new schools for its more than 730,000 students, it still is bursting at the seams.
Jefferson High School, for example, was built to accommodate about 1,500 students. It currently has 3,600 who attend year-round, with about 2,400 students on campus at any given time.
Officials fear that, with the advent of cell phones, any school fights could quickly escalate into off-campus unrest as students call family and friends.
Meanwhile, there is always a ticking time bomb of community-police relations.
Sheriff Lee Baca recently was out front in disciplining 13 deputies in connection with a May shooting in neighboring Compton, where officers fired into a moving SUV, wounding a driver.
Police Chief William Bratton has dealt directly with community leaders on a series of recent incidents, from the beating of Stanley Miller by officers to the shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown, who was driving a stolen car.
In an effort to head off violence, Bratton, Mayor James Hahn and other officials held high-profile community meetings and events to quell rumors and allow residents to vent their frustrations.
Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa has been active in dealing with students at Jefferson and Taft high schools -- sites of the most recent fights -- to try to calm students and stem any spread of unrest into the broader community.
"Any time you have violence in the schools or anywhere in this city, you have to react quickly to it," Villaraigosa said. "You cannot allow it to fester and develop into bigger problems, whether it is on a high school or anywhere else in the city.
"What we have to realize is the cause of the violence is for a variety of reasons. We have deplorable conditions with overcrowding, dropouts and a lack of literacy. That's why we have to work with the school district to address these problems."
Villaraigosa said he will do more than try to contain the violence. He has talked about increasing job opportunities and opening the city process to include more small businesses and requiring out-of-state firms to partner with local firms.
He has promised to create an administration that is reflective of the city, by bringing in more minorities who might feel threatened by the election of a Latino mayor.
And he said he will meet with various groups to emphasize their stake in the city's future.
"If we contain it, we have failed," Villaraigosa said. "We have to end the violence."
Pastor Mark Whitlock, who was a minister at First AME in 1992 and who now heads a multicultural church at the University of California, Irvine, said he is concerned about the rising tensions.
"I am hopeful our new mayor with his sense of having a dialogue between Latino and African-American youth will provide a release of that tension," Whitlock said. "The problem can escalate if parents see their kids coming home with bruises and want an explanation on why they aren't safe."
At the same time, Whitlock said he is hopeful that it would take more than one incident to trigger problems -- such as in 1992. "I think we have gone beyond that level and that people will dialogue before they turn to violence," Whitlock said.
Rod McGrew, senior adviser in Operation Hope, an organization founded after the 1992 riots, said he does not believe the violence at high schools will spread into a wider conflict.
"Of course, everyone is concerned when there is any conflict and it's a call to the community at large to get more involved," McGrew said. "From our point of view, we believe that education is the key to develop a common point of view. We need to look at how we can develop the skills of these young people so they can function in the community.
"What is a shame is that it is taking something like these problems to generate a response when we should have been doing more all along."
McGrew said he sees the tensions as part of the change in the city -- where African-Americans see their communities changing with the increasing number of Latinos moving in.
"To that extent, some tension is expected," McGrew said. "That's why it is so important to have education to mitigate the differences among people."
The Rev. Charles Blake of West Angeles Church of God, which has an active youth progr am, said he sees some hopeful signs.
"I hope the symbolism of a Latino mayor being elected with significant black support will speak eloquently that we should stand together and work together for the good of our city," he said.
"And, if you look at the city compared with 40 years ago, we have made strides. We have made progress, but I would say we have miles and miles to go before we achieve harmony and peace in our city."
Currently, the city is developing a series of programs to commemorate the Watts riots, including a photographic retrospective and panel discussions comparing Watts with now, on changes that have been accomplished and on whether such violence could recur.
Ridley-Thomas said his office is working with Villaraigosa and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo to launch a series of Days of Dialogue meetings across the city to commemorate the Watts riots.
"We can never forget what happened. And we have to look to make sure that it does not repeat."
Rick Orlov, (213) 978-0390 firstname.lastname@example.org