29 December 2005

Officials in one U.S. city say the recent riots in France and racial unrest in Australia bring back painful memories of disturbances in their own city. Los Angeles was rocked by riots in 1992, and residents say their experience offers some lessons, and highlights changes that still need to be implemented.

Today, Gil Mathieu earns a comfortable living in his south Los Angeles drug store. But 13 years ago, after riots left 55 people dead in the city, more than 2,300 injured and 1,100 buildings destroyed, he was devastated. His drug store was one of the buildings that burned to the ground.

"Everything was destroyed, to the ground," he said. "It was totally destroyed."

The riots began after a mostly white jury in the suburb of Simi Valley acquitted four police officers of beating a black motorist named Rodney King. The explosion of rage exposed underlying tensions that divided the city’s residents – white, Hispanic, African American and Asian.

After the violence subsided, there were government programs to spur development, which has occurred in pockets of South Los Angeles.

Local and federal authorities helped, but could have done more, says John Bryant of Operation Hope. He formed the private organization in response to the riots.

"But the good news was that we formed a rainbow out of that storm, and we had people talking to each other that wouldn’t normally talk to each other," he said. "And we formed coalitions and partnerships that would not have normally been formed. And it forced people to have more of a spirit of self-reliance."

Mr. Bryant’s organization teaches financial literacy to inner city children and adults. It also operates cyber-caf├ęs, to offer computers and a work space for local residents who want to start a business.

A credit branch helps residents get loans to buy homes or commercial property.

After the riots, Gil Mathieu’s pharmacy was rebuilt, partly with a loan from Operation Hope.

Another private group, the Community Coalition, lobbies politicians to improve the neighborhood. Executive director Marqueece Harris-Dawson started a project with local youngsters to document repairs needed at their schools. They took photographs and publicized the pictures.

"One of the things they were most concerned about was the quality of the physical conditions at their schools, and so youth documented those conditions, proposed solutions, and were successful winning $153 million for their schools," he said.

Today, there are new businesses and banks in some neighborhoods of south Los Angeles. There is construction in other places.

But liquor stores dominate in other neighborhoods.

Rabbi Allen Freehling of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission says conditions have changed, but not as much as they should have. "There is still a sense of hopelessness in certain parts of the city. I think that we have to pay more attention not only to the economically deprived but also the educationally deprived," he said. "Much of the work that we do is really to address that."

Rabbi Freehling says schools are overcrowded in this part of the city, and changing demographics, with more and more Latinos in once-black neighborhoods, add to the tensions. His city agency intervenes with ethnic problems.

George Gascon, the assistant police chief for Los Angeles, is an immigrant from Cuba and understands the tensions in the inner city.

"If you’ve got people that do not have a stake in society, you’re always going to have problems. I think the challenge for communities and for government is to figure out a way to make everybody, or as many people as you can, a meaningful member of the process," he said. "The more people that you have that are outside the system, the greater the likelihood of having problems, up to and including revolution. I mean, that’s how revolutions are started."

Los Angeles officials say the potential for unrest is always present unless people feel empowered to take responsibility for their neighborhoods.

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