L.A. Riots: 20 Years Later, Still Trying To Heal
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 saw the flames, I saw people vandalizing the community… and I remember breaking down crying," she said.
An African American mother with three small children, Jones was terrified for her family's safety, knowing that people targeted each other blindly at that point, regardless of race. She saw the breakdown happening well before the Rodney King beating verdicts were announced.
"Why would they tear their own community down? It's because there's no outlet to be able to say 'When do I count? When do I ever count? I don't never count, so what does it matter?'" she said.
In Leimert Park, Jones' organization Healthy African American Families as well as the "We Can" Foundation led by the Rev. Clarence Eziokwu Washington, try to help their community realize that they matter and that they have a say in the issues they face.
Jones' organization connects research institutions with the community, not to merely talk about the issues but to find viable solutions, while Washington's foundation brings groups together through cultural events.
"Community members never ever feel like their voices are heard. Having an agency like Healthy African American Families allows both worlds-- the community, the academic world—to feel like equals. The work we do is to redirect the power," she said.
In examining how to best solve the community’s problems, Jones said they first look at how realistic their goals are when juxtaposed with the community’s living environment.
"You may be studying about diabetes but if violence is the community's problem, what good is it going in there with an intervention if they can't get outside and walk?" she said.
After the 1992 Riots, the first thing that people needed was an environment that had some sense of peace. Felica Jones and her organization were determined to find it.
Healing through music
To ease the distress and the devastation that the community had experienced, Jones and her sister Loretta, the CEO of Healthy African American Families, knew the community needed something that could have a calming effect. After meeting with Dr. Chan Ho Yun—a violin teacher at 42nd Elementary School, they found music was their answer and "Sweet Strings" began—a program that offered free violin lessons and violins to children in the community.
"Most people have a love and respect for children. I don't care what race you are, you see an adorable baby, and you smile. It's an open door. People tend to lay down their guard when it comes to children. It was a great way to interface, and music is always healing," said Jones.
Performing across Los Angeles at Korean churches, Baptist churches and even downtown at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the string orchestra of African American and Asian children not only learned valuable musical skills, they also forced their parents to interact with members of the community, who just years before they had been at odds with.
"It brought a lot of unity between the two groups. The Koreans and African Americans learned about the stigmas each one faces and the barriers we face in general as minorities in society," said Jones. "The students got to learn [music] and the parents were educated at the same time."
The program was successful, even though funding was tight and more kids wanted to participate than could be accommodated. But Jones noticed that with the exception of “Sweet Strings,” there hasn’t been as much progress in the last 20 years as she had hoped.
“I think there was a lot of work and it had gotten better for a long time, but once the fire has gone down and the storm has gone over, I think a lot of times people forget to keep staying engaged,” she said. “In the last five years, it's deteriorated a lot. The whole movement unfortunately is not where it needs to be.”
Jones has especially noticed how as the demographics have changed, the tension between African Americans and Latinos has started to grow just as it had 20 years ago between African Americans and Koreans.
“You hear someone at the drive-thru who doesn't speak English well and people will say, ‘Well that's why we can't get any jobs. They're catering to that community and this is our community and we can't even understand them,’” she said. “It perpetuates the distance rather than really looking at the similarities the groups have.”
Not just an “anniversary” issue
The Rev. Clarence Eziokwu Washington, whose “We Can” Foundation is down the street from Jones’ office in Leimert Park, is passionate about bringing people together from different cultures for events and discussions, to “connect the dots,” as he describes it.
“When there is this group and that group, it becomes segmented, spotted, there are dots all over the place. But the question becomes how do you connect all the dots, and what is the outcome? That's the key to having these discussions around racism,” he said.
During the riots, Washington was one of the volunteers trying to prevent fires and assist the fire department. He was also in attendance at Rev. Cecil Murray’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church—an attempt to discuss what should be done to subdue the community’s outrage after the Rodney King verdict was announced.
“Even the gang representation was there. People don’t realize how many community members were there [to prevent the riots],” he said.
In the days and years that followed, he participated in discussions to find ways to mend the rift and rebuild the community. But he stopped attending the discussions that were organized as part of a riots’ anniversary event.
“I just saw it as an effort of futile platitudes in embracing itself in endorsement, not really working to deal with issues in the community,” he said. “The issues that arose seemed to be on the plate from last year and my concern was, you bring politicians out, groups out… but where's your publication from the stuff from last year? Where's your assessment to see how it's been measured? And your effectiveness?” he said.
Felica Jones has similar concerns.
“I'm glad that there are people who are interested in this landmark time, but I hope the work keeps going forward and people try to bridge this gap. It takes each individual, each organization, to really look at how we interact,” she said. “I think it's important that we continue working on this, and if we don't, we'll just have another outburst.”
Jones said the pain from those wounds easily gets stirred by the Trayvon Martin shooting and when young black men are pulled over by police “just to see their IDs.” She will often stop to question the officers, and she said she has been stopping more than before.
“I know the effects of racism, and I still feel it, but no one wants to talk about it. But I think people need to talk about it- get the elephant out of the room. Racism, classism, sexism, all of those exist. Stop acting like they don't,” she said.
“There are African Americans who say, ‘Oh they need to stop talking about it and just get over it.’ But how do you get over something if you won't ever address it? You have to address it. You have to look at it… Then you can heal from it.”
No simple solution heals the racism she and others have experienced, Jones says that the first steps involve small, everyday gestures.
“Don't just clutch your bag when an African American boy walks by. Say hello sometimes. It starts in small groups—reach out beyond your comfort zone, embrace someone who doesn't look exactly like you and make sure that human touch is there,” she said. "Everyone deserves to have love and compassion in their lives. And that's exactly where it starts.”
Reach Staff Reporter Paige Brettingen here.