L.A. Riots: Former City Council Members Reflect
This story is part of a special Neon Tommy series revisiting the upheaval 20 years ago surrounding the Rodney King trial. See more of our anniversary coverage here.
“I was the first member of the council who called for Chief Gates to resign,” said Woo. “Which at the time was a big step because Chief Gates was considered a very powerful official. Some people thought he was more powerful than the Mayor or City Council.”
In the aftermath of the riots, many people wondered how such an outbreak of utter chaos and violence could engulf a city the way it did in L.A. Both Woo and his former colleague Rita Walters were serving on the city council in 1992. They offered memories from their former positions as members.
Walters had just begun her first year as a councilwoman when the riots broke out. She was the first African American woman to serve on the council and vividly remembers the way that people in her district felt about the police department.
“As I walked from door to door, trying to interest people in my campaign, I was just amazed at the level of anger," said Walters. “People came to the door and you start talking about city government and what you want to do and it was really amazing to me to see this level of anger in older people. People were afraid for their children, their grandchildren, what would happen to them at the hands of the police.”
Her district of South L.A. was the most affected by the riots. Walters placed a large part of the responsibility on the inaction of the police department and Gates’ refusal to face the severity of the situation.
“Personally, I think Daryl Gates was angry with city officials,” said Walters. “He wanted to rule the roost so to speak; he didn’t want anybody questioning what he felt was needed, what action he felt was need. He felt people were unduly critical of him and his department and he just wasn’t going to have the interference. [That’s] my opinion.”
In the first 24 hours of unrest after the Rodney King verdict, Gates attended a fundraiser in Brentwood for a ballot measure he supported. He was criticized for ignoring and underestimating the gravity of the riots that were boiling up in the city. Over the course of the next few days, Korean storeowners would see police retreat when the violence in the city became too overwhelming, something Walters said would never happen today.
“We went down to a temporary headquarters that the police had set up,” said Walters, “a rendezvous point where they had just police cars and motorcycles and police officers as far as the eye could see, but they were doing nothing. The chief wouldn’t lift a hand.”
Woo had a similar viewpoint of the police department at the time, which he dates back to the 1965 Watts riots.
“For years there had been controversy about the role of the police relative to ethnic minority communities, especially African Americans and Latinos, going back to the 1965 riots,” Woo said. “At that time, the police department was characterized by what could be called a paramilitary style of organization…This also goes back to the history of the department when there used to be a lot of corruption.”
However, current City Councilman Bernard Parks, who was the assistant chief of police in 1992, felt that there were also missteps made by the city council.
“I use two points to reflect what the mood of the city was a month or so before the verdict,” said Parks. “[Then] Chief of Police Daryl Gates actually asked for some money to be moved in the department budget to account for overtime in case there a was an issue around the verdicts and he was roundly criticized by members of the city council for attempting to insight a problem when there had been no basis for it.”
To look back and try to pinpoint what could or could not have happened, or who was or wasn’t to blame, would be counterproductive in Parks’ opinion. However, it can’t be denied that the burdens of the 1992 riots left on the current police department are heavy, even 20 years later.
“The police and the community speak in two different languages,” said Parks. “The community collectivity looks at things, they remember them, they don’t get real interested in what [the] police department [is] involved [in]. If they see a video in Minnesota and it’s the police they say that’s the police in general. They believe that circumstances that have been occurring for years and not been attended to but the police in turn look at things as isolated incidents and they say this is not what we teach, it’s not what we train.”
The poor relationship between the leadership of the police department and the leadership of the city council hindered the latter's ability to act as they might have wished to, but the structure and dynamics of the council then and now are quite different.
Woo had a critical eye on Gates, but he also felt that in 1992, the city of Los Angeles’ government simply wasn’t built to handle the unrest that unraveled on our streets.
“The political system, especially at that time in the early 1990s, is designed to deal with largely routine, non-emergency problems,” said Woo. “Other cities are structured differently with a stronger mayor system, in other words a stronger executive branch. The people did not create that system in Los Angeles, so that makes it very difficult for the people who are elected to leadership positions like the mayor and the council to act in ways that the system doesn’t encourage.”
Again, to look back and try to pinpoint one thing that council could have done better is oversimplifying the issue according to Woo, but he did feel that the aftermath of the riots was something that the council struggled with.
“I think that many of the areas of Los Angeles that were not directly affected by the violence went back to normal pretty quickly, which then had an affect on the willingness of the elected officials from other parts of the city to do something about it.”
The division and lack of unity between the two major departments of L.A. can be seen as a huge contributor to how the riots played out 20 years ago. However, Parks said presently, that sort of hostility has turned into an over eagerness to get along now.
“I think today you find that people are bending over backwards to reflect what they consider being supporters of the police department,” said Parks. “There’s nothing that the police department asks for that somebody’s not trying to give them even though it might negatively impact the overall financial health of the city.”
Walters said that mentality was completely the opposite in 1992, when city council members were afraid to speak out against the police department in fear that police officers would withhold services to their community.
Regardless of the politics that happened all those years ago, it’s clear that violence that engulfed the city has left a permanent imprint on the minds of the former council members. Walters remembers current city Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky’s car being torched near the First AME Church and Woo will never forget the dark irony that united the city of Los Angeles.
“One other image that is very vivid to me is smoke,” said Woo. “The smoke over the city. In a city which frequently seems divided between neighborhoods, where people tend to narrow their identity… discovering that as this blanket of smoke covered the city, it was a reminder that no matter how much money you had…that different neighborhoods of the city had something in common after all.”