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L.A. Riots: 20 Years Later, No Rearview Mirror For Joe Hicks

Paige Brettingen |
April 26, 2012 | 11:32 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

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.

Joe Hicks, Vice President of Community Advocates (Photo by Paige Brettingen)
Joe Hicks, Vice President of Community Advocates (Photo by Paige Brettingen)
Ask Joe Hicks if people are "getting along better" these days, and you may see his calm demeanor interrupted momentarily by his fist slamming the desk.

"There's an assumption people are stupid out there and are just insipid bigots disliking each other and that just isn't the people I know living in the city or anywhere else for that matter," he said.

That's how Hicks sees L.A. now—a city that, in general, is getting along better and where people inherently want to get along with their neighbors, even if they speak different languages or are from different backgrounds. He has a study by Loyola Marymount University to back up his claim, showing that more than 50 percent of Angelenos surveyed believe race relationships are improving and that their neighborhoods are headed in the right direction. And he also has some first-hand knowledge as the former head of L.A. City's Human Relations Commission for good measure. 

But 20 years ago, South L.A. was a different place.

Growing up in Compton and Watts, becoming politically "charged" during the '65 Watts riots, and then leading Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference as its executive director in the dawn of the '92 riots, Hicks has seen his fair share of change. And it all “brought him down to Earth" as a conservative after decades spent in the left wing.

The ‘90s culture clash in South L.A.—which grew more and more unnerving each year— was no news to him. As more Korean convenience stores made their way into the area and more robberies began to occur, Hicks made efforts to ease the tension by creating a Black-Korean Alliance between African American community leaders like himself and Korean leaders to sort out the cultural misunderstandings.

"Community residents couldn't understand why these [Korean] merchants acted like they did. They were mostly immigrants who hadn't been in the country for very long and were doing some of the same practices they had been comfortable with," said Hicks. "In Korea, for instance, when you give somebody change, you don't put it in their hand, you put it on the counter, but that was considered offensive like, 'Well, they don't even want to touch us.'"

Everything that followed kept stoking the fire higher. 

A Korean shop owner was given five years probation instead of 16 years in prison for the fatal shooting of Latasha Harlins—an African American teen who was accused of stealing orange juice. 

A few weeks later, Rodney King was beaten by white and Latino police officers. When the officers were let go and freed of the charges, what happened next was, in Hicks' words, "hairy."

Even before he saw the streams of smoke rise a mile away and heard the train of police cars whiz past his office on April 29, 1992, he knew the problem was bigger than what his organization—or others—could handle.

"You've got people with their stores burned, you've got a high level of resentment with black community members, so there wasn't a mood to mediate. What do you mediate? You've got the National Guard on the ground so it made little sense to continue the Black-Korean Alliance,” Hicks said.

"I don't think I slept for three days. I was in the riot zone, driving around, wondering if there was anything that could be done organizationally, obviously there wasn't at that point.”

The frenzied rage found its way to the Korean convenience stores in the vicinity, soon spreading to other parts of L.A., with Koreatown being another prime target. If the stores were lucky enough to be spared the fires, they were looted.

The damage done: about $1 billion in property damage and 54 dead. It was the country’s deadliest civil disturbance of the 20th century.

A community changed

As the dust and smoke settled, as police began to hand the streets back over to the residents, the demographics of the community began to transition.

"Whenever neighborhoods begin to change, there's a struggle for 'Who's going to dominate?’—things just begin to happen and change by the weight of people figuring out how to make this new thing work," Hicks said. "There's no magic that any agency did to really [create a more civil community] to any large extent."

In South L.A., the riots’ epicenter, about 51 percent of residents were African American and 47 percent were Latino in 1990. Twenty years later, the Latino population in the area has risen to 67 percent with the African American population falling to 31 percent, according to the The New York Times.

Hicks acknowledged that over the past 20 years, the African American community became fed up with drug problems, with gang violence, and—like many of his family members—tried to escape and start over.

"There's been a dispersal of the black population that have moved to the Inland Empire, San Bernardino. And some moved south—back to Oklahoma, Georgia," he said. "They got tired of the crack cocaine epidemic and moved, but of course those problems move with you."

There was a dispersal of the Asian population in South L.A. as well. In 1990, 2.5 percent of the population was Asian. Twenty years later, it's about 1 percent based on Census data.

What more can be done?

 …is the question Joe Hicks wants people to ask more often. And in Hicks opinion, before it can be answered, the "victimology" he sees needs to be put to rest.

"Black Americans were once victims. There's no doubt about that," Hicks said. "There were special kinds of things you needed to do to deal with that reality. But it's not the case today."

The Trayvon Martin case particularly fascinates Hicks, especially when he hears comparisons drawn between the present-day case where a neighborhood watch volunteer shot Martin—an unarmed African American teen—and the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman.

"Fast-forward the tape and there's a different collective response. In 1955, no one would have cared and there wouldn't have been a frenetic effort," Hicks said. "It's a whole different response, a whole different world of race and race relations that exist now."

Hicks believes that the most productive things organizations can do—especially those advocating for civil rights—is to find relevant issues to tackle. 

"It requires more complexity to value the approach as opposed to just organizing a protest saying 'no justice, no peace.' It's passé almost. They become caricatures," he said. "When Martin Luther King was organizing marches, that made sense because the world was up for grabs."

Hicks still works toward improving human and race relations, but he and his present colleague, David Lehrer, began to realize their platform needed to be modified.

"We began to look around and look at our old colleagues—advocacy groups, NAACP—noticing they're all operating on an agenda that's 40 years old, in one form or another, worried that racism, bigotry is under any bed and we have to root it out and make people aware of it," Hicks said. "And we're thinking wait a minute, that's not the world we see existing around us. Or in the country."

With his new organization, Community Advocates, Hicks is working to "shape opinions," a process he knows will take time but one that keeps him looking forward. He shares his opinions at various forums hosted by KPCC public radio and most recently at panel discussions about the 20th Anniversary of the L.A. riots.

"It's about getting alternative messages out to the community," said Hicks. "What are things we need to be addressing rather than looking in the rearview mirror?"


Reach Staff Reporter Paige Brettingen here.



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