How LA's recent protests are alike — and different — from the 1992 uprising

George Floyd was killed last week in Minneapolis when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 10 minutes. The death sparked protests and demonstrations across the country, including in Santa Monica, Long Beach, and the Fairfax area of Los Angeles. They began peacefully, but then violence and looting broke out. 

Mayor Eric Garcetti tried to calm the nerves of Angelenos on Sunday, drawing a distinction between people peacefully demonstrating and violent opportunists exploiting a movement to cause mayhem.

He said, “We’ve seen heroes stand in front of stores and refuse to let them be looted. We’ve seen communities come together to clean sidewalks in front of damaged buildings. Businesses that were to reopen this weekend and provide jobs for people who haven’t had a paycheck. Folks who have cleared graffiti off of synagogues who want to reclaim their neighborhoods. We’ve seen people peacefully protest and refuse to let a pure message of non-violence be co-opted by those who think violence is the answer. It is never the answer.”

KCRW looks at what happened over the weekend and what it says about race and justice in America. 

Weighing in: Jody Armour, USC law professor and author of “Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism; and Connie Rice , long-time civil rights attorney in LA and a former member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. She worked with the LAPD to reform it after the1992 Rodney King unrest.

American policing and the spiral of despair

Connie Rice: “What you're seeing is similar to what we saw in ‘65, ‘68, and ‘92. And also a little bit different. … In the McCone Commission after the 1960s, the autopsy on the ‘65 riots, it was [sic] two things that they said we had to do. Number one, you had to fix your cops. And number two, you had to end the spiral of despair. We've been working on the first one, haven't made enough progress, haven’t been taken to scale, but there has been progress inside cop world. 

But in the reality of poor black America, in poor communities across this country, that progress means nothing. Because they don't feel it, they don't see it. And what they see is the continued systemic brutality that comes from suppression containment policing, which is what we do in our poor communities. 

In my community, your community, we get safety. In their communities, they get mass incarceration, and they get the pipeline to prison. They just get suppression containment.

… There's a war within American policing for which way does it go? Does it continue to go with the policing that descended from slavery, which is containment suppression? Or do they turn in a U? And go toward community healing, wraparound safety, public health policing — which doesn't even promote cops for making arrests. In fact, if you make an arrest except for violence, it's considered a failure. And you work with teams of residents and other institutions to go after the criminogenic conditions and the poverty and the spiral of despair. So we've made progress in policing, but no one can see it or feel it. 

On the spiral of despair, we've gone stone stupid. We have taken the rungs of upward mobility out of the upward mobility ladder. We have crushed people at the bottom. And now we're telling them they have to go back into factories and die from COVID. 

And by the way, the Trump administration is going to give their corporations immunity so their families can't even sue after they're dead. That's pathological capitalism. 

So we've gone 100 years in the wrong direction on the spiral of despair. You can fix your police all you want, but as long as you have the desperation and the deprivation, and now you've got a COVID pandemic on top of the misery that came from the 19th and 20th centuries from slavery before, and you've had a white supremacy resurgence, the fourth in our American history.”

Connie Rice says poor black communities in America don't see progress, and instead they face suppression containment policing. Photo courtesy of Connie Rice. 

Bias problems that keep repeating

Jody Armour: “This racial injustice Groundhog Day that we keep waking up to, this telling us that a lot of the solutions we're trying aren't working, whenever incidents like this happen, there's a script that you can predict ahead of time. We're gonna queue up a commission, bring in some experts, hold some hearings, let people express themselves, get stuff off their chest, and then … we’ll have changes. We're going to have police carrying body cameras. They're going to undergo implicit bias training. We're going to embrace community policing strategy. All of that was done up in Minnesota. And here we are again. 

That wasn't about implicit bias problems with what was happening up there with George Floyd. We keep looking for technology or training that will end police misconduct. This isn't a technology problem. This isn't something that we can solve with policy tinkering. … It's a reflection of profound deep-going racism that our nation has somehow proved incapable of exorcising. 

… That problem that makes it possible for us to walk through Skid Row in our own downtown LA and look to the left and right and see that 75% of those people are black, that is the probably the fiercest expression of structural violence in America. Right there in Skid Row, 75% black, the black community bearing the brunt of COVID-19 death. We have to address those concerns or we're going to keep on coming back to these same problems.”

Moving some police funds elsewhere

Jody Armour: “I will give credit where credit is due: Our police departments have been improving from what they used to be. … It couldn't get much worse than it was before the 2000 consent decree. You take ‘Training Day,’ ‘LA Confidential’ and ‘Serpico,’ you put them all together, and you still don't have the Rampart scandal. How bad things were then, we've come up considerably from there. 

But we shouldn't rest on our laurels. And that's one of the things that a lot of community groups have pointed out. They're arguing that maybe the police aren't the solution. You know, maybe we need to reallocate some of the funds that are going toward police. Fifty-four percent of the city's unrestricted revenue right now of $5.4 billion goes to LAPD. Maybe some of that money should be going to housing, public transportation, social workers, health care. And maybe we need to restart, you know, not having police crack down on low-level nonviolent drug offenses. 

That's what happened with the George Floyd case — passing a $20 bill and they're cracking down on him. We need police to solve rapes and murders. Focus their energies there. And maybe we need a smaller department and reallocating some of the resources.”

Connie Rice: “I think the whole budgets for the city and the county have got to be rethought. Because they're doing Marie Kondo-level thinking. And we need FDR, massive transformation, paradigm-changing thinking.”

Changing the mission of policing 

Connie Rice: "We are looking at a convergence of — somebody said this morning — 1918 the flu, 1929 the Great Depression, 1968 uprising, plus COVID. 

… I work with good police every day. I work with the chiefs who will take a knee, who do not want mass incarceration machinery to continue. They get that there is something toxic and corrupt and craven about the soul of American policing. They get it. And you see the worst of it expressed in these videos. 

But even the good cops [are] trying as hard as they could. They get up every day, and they try to save my clients. They are actually trying to provide safety, not suppression and mass incarceration and destitution. They are actually trying to help heal the community. And they are good people. 

But they are given a mission that is depraved and malevolent. Containment suppression is our political decision — that these communities that are poor and violent and sick are going to stay that way. … My clients have suppression and mass incarceration and total destruction of their family structures over minor non-violent stuff that doesn't even get noticed in my community. 

… This is structural. And we're talking systemic — that's hard for people to see and to understand because they can't touch it. 

… So if you change the mission of policing — it's not about tactics training, it's about the mission. If the mission is containment suppression, you can't get good results from it. You're going to get these riots however often. 

And on top of that, the other half of the equation, which we leave out, and that's about the budget. It's about the county and the city budget together. County is where the money is. The county is where the major institutions that deal with the very poorest people are. And those leaders are not talking because they're fighting over a consent decree and the homelessness cases. 

We can't afford the bickering and the lack of coordination, competent, cohesive strategic approach to a massive set of threats. We have got to have leadership that understands the magnitude of the threat, and that it's not about their next election or their next office that they're running for, or photo ops or press conferences. 

They need to roll up their sleeves and bring in the experts who can tell them, ‘This is how you reconfigure the county budget and the city budget together to have a COVID safety net.’

Right now we're asking poor people to die disproportionately, and poor African Americans and Latinos who are fleeing ICE, we're asking them to bear the brunt of a pandemic. 

And there's no thinking to match the level of the threat — budgetarily or strategically in terms of mission for the police.”

Symbolism of the knee

Jody Armour: “When you look at what was that police officer's knee on the neck of George Floyd, it's a grim symbol of America's knee on the neck of black America. 

… You have America's knee on the neck of black America in jail cells, in prison cells that are brimming with black bodies. You have America's knee on the neck of black America in Skid Row with the nation's largest condensed homeless population, right? You have America's knee on the neck of black America in our crumbling inner city schools.”

Effects of looting and violence

Jody Armour: “I know that we look at these looters, and there's something in us that viscerally reacts against that. We call them looters. We don't call them people who loot. We reduce them to that act. And and it looks bad. And we point pious fingers at them. And we shame them for not caring about society. When really, they are revolting and rebelling against society not caring about them. 

Then finally, when we try the non-violent route, when [Colin] Kaepernick tried peaceful protesting, went down on one knee, he was reviled and called an SOB by the president. 

A lot of gains have been made in American history sadly through violence. … The American Revolution, Boston Tea Party, there was looting there. The Civil War. And Martin Luther King actually courted violence. He knew that when the journalists came out and saw dogs being sic on black protesters, and imbibed white bystanders attacking black protesters, that that got results — that weren't there without those scenes of violence. So violence has been a mechanism for promoting social justice in America.”

Understanding the rage and looting

Connie Rice: “Situational awareness — now I'm going into police tactics. You don't need to have a skirmish line of 40 cops for peaceful protesters who are sitting on the ground or taking a knee when 100 yards away, Melrose is being looted. 

… The looters are just opportunists. They've taken the focus off the gross injustice in the criminal justice system and the atrocities that were done to George Floyd and dozens of others in other videos. And they're just out for selfish narcissistic gain. 

There are people who are strategically courting violence as a protest. But I do make a distinction. You don't need to hurt innocent bystanders, even though they're complicit in a system that is systemically oppressive. But I do draw a line there. 

But the larger point is that I understand the rage. I understand it, and I can respect it. But I can't condone the violence. Because not only is it not effective, the strategic violence that was courted by Martin Luther King Jr. was strategic, and it wasn't Martin Luther King Jr. doing it. 

… He and Reverend [James] Lawson, who lives in the city, and he's a founding father of the Civil Rights revolution … he went to India to learn from Gandhi. And he brought back the discipline and trained the … troops in the streets in Selma, and who took the bloody baton and the dogs and the machines and the water hoses, he trained that army with King. And it was very strategic and very disciplined. That is not what we're seeing right here. 

… If this were South Africa, we could do violence. This is a white supremacist America. And you've got to be more strategic and more disciplined than what we're seeing. But I understand it, and I know exactly where it comes from.”

Race in politics 

Connie Rice: “And as far as I'm concerned, the response has been anemic. It has been indifferent. It has been callous. And not enough has changed, and I don't think there was any intention for there to be systemic change. 

… This isn't about people's color. This isn't about African Americans. It's always about an inflection in American history where white people are deciding how much racism — and violent racism — they can accept. 

Right now, 40% of the country is happy with a white nationalist in the White House. And the American Revolution, we did three-fifths of a man. Civil rights, the Civil War, we officially ended legal slavery and reinstituted it post-Reconstruction and unleashed the reign of terror. And we've been fighting that war ever since. 

In the civil rights revolution, we did [the] Voting Rights Act and so forth. How many people had to die for that and the Civil Rights Act? And we've been undoing them ever since. 

So this is the fourth major retrenchment after the first black president. And the fourth major cataclysm that’s redeeming white supremacy in our history. 

And if white people don't stand up and say, ‘Way we get it, we see structural injustice, we see structural racism, black lives matter’ — you're starting to see that for the first time. I've never seen white intellectuals talk about structural racism. I've never seen young white people in the streets. Some of these crowds are almost all white. 

I've never seen police chiefs take a knee. This is small stuff in the bigger picture that Jody and I are painting. But it shows that there's actually a path. There's actually perhaps the capacity to get the political will.

We know how to fix this stuff. Our political will has been used to enrich the rich, and to get a pathological capitalism that is unsustainable. And if that's what we're going to go with, then we should tear this system down.”

Is voting in November the only way out of this?

Jody Armour: “That's what we're told. That's what a lot of the moralizers are doing when they're pointing the pious finger at protesters, and trying to shame them into caring about a society that doesn't care about them. 

… Minnesota, I think just about everybody in office, they’re Democratic. And it doesn't seem to turn this around. Obama, when he was in office, he sent Eric Holder out here to fight against marijuana legalization, even though black people were bearing the brunt of marijuana enforcement. Black Lives Matter came into being under Barack Obama's leadership, right? 

So just having the franchise isn't going to be enough. It's what Connie and I have been saying all this time on [sic] this conversation. We need some deeper fundamental change that's going to have people care about black lives. … Black Lives Matter was not that only black lives matter, or white lives don't matter, or Asian/Latino lives don't matter. The idea was black lives matter also. Black lives matter too. … So we gotta get to that point, and that's going to take a lot of work.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin and Brian Hardzinski