On this day 27 years ago, the LA Riots broke out after four white policemen were acquitted in the Rodney King case. Thousands of people took to the streets for nearly a week.
Greater LA reflected on the uprising with Skipp Townsend, head of 2nd Call, a gang intervention organization in South Los Angeles.
He said he expected the release of the infamous Rodney King videotape would bring a “hands down slam dunk” victory to people of color who had been mistreated by law enforcement. “It didn't happen, and that's why the people responded and such violence,” he said.
On April 29, 1992, Townsend and his cousin were going to their local church, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, when he saw people in the streets throwing rocks and bottles. “They were guys that I knew who were in the liquor store, and they were yelling, ‘Man come on! Everything is free! Today is free day.’ So I could see the aggression. I could see everything that was going on, even though I was headed to church.”
At church, Townsend listened to the elders preaching peace. “They were all in there talking about peace, and they were talking from a political standpoint. And at my age at that time, I just wasn't ready for it. I don't even think I was 30… I just wasn't mature enough to think rational or think sensible. So my mindset was I need to get outside with my peer group,” he said.
His peers were setting things on fire, looting stores, crashing through storefronts. Townsend described it as an open display of rage, and a day of purging.
“Individuals who had all that rage and emotions bottled up eventually said, ‘Man it doesn't matter. I don't care. Whatever the consequences may be, may be. But let's go and show the world how angry we truly are, and how we hide it. You know, we hide it by self-medicating, and hurting each other, and hurting ourselves.’ But that day, April 29th, it was, ‘no let's show the world that we really hurt.’”
He eventually took his cousin home from church for safety reasons. Then he joined his peers in protest.
The protests stretched to May 1992, and the National Guard was brought in. Things started to wind down after dozens of people were killed.
Following the uprising, 1500 to 2000 African American gang members came together to talk about creating peace among the projects in Watts. But that didn’t last. “LAPD, out of fear or out of just pure military style, just decided that they were going to end it... It lasted maybe a couple of months, and it was over,” said Townsend.
Fast forward to today, LA rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle was recently gunned down outside his Marathon clothing store. Townsend said it wasn’t a gang war that led to Hussle’s death, so people easily got together.
“Before you know it, we now have probably the biggest peace agreement to cease fire and stop the murder of each other. We can't stop the fighting, the anger, the animosity. But can we stop the murder? And that's the movement that's going on now,” he said.
Townsend clarified that the peace agreement is all about safe passages, ensuring that children are safe when walking to school, for example. “It's not just for a certain cause or a certain group. It's definitely not to go against anyone. It's to make sure that the the positive message is infiltrated in the community instead of the negativity.”
Townsend pointed out that the community now has the cooperation of the LAPD, which they didn’t have in 1992. “We have to co-exist together,” he said of the relationship between the LAPD and the community. “If we look at each other as opposing forces, then it will never be any kind of commitment to peace… So I think it's a major impact that they are now supporting, saying, ‘Let us figure out a way to say yes,’ as opposed to ‘figuring out a way to say no.’”
--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Christian Bordal and Kathryn Barnes