Remembering the Riots: How L.A.’s Diverse Communities Are Working Together for Economic Security and Regional Growth

4.13.12 | This month marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles. Thousands rioted in the streets following the acquittal of police officers accused of beating Rodney King, a black motorist. After arson and looting, property damage in the city was in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The unrest sparked a national dialogue, mostly about racial tensions in the city.

But today, USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) says that back in the 90’s, in focusing on the tensions between ethnic communities, many missed the larger story. The discussion in the media, they say, overlooked economic insecurity facing communities throughout the city. The researchers there are working to change the discussion that happens around the anniversary, by focusing on the mulit-racial coalitions that have formed in Los Angeles since the riots and the important work they are doing to build political power and change the economic landscape for all residents. They write:

The multi-racial social movement has brought people together across race and place and established a living wage policy, a better transportation system, schools that offer college prep to all students, a more welcome stance toward immigrants, and a variety of other community benefits – as well as a vision for a stronger, more equitable America.

Community groups in the city will be gathering for a celebration on April 26 to highlight progress made and to share strategies for multi-racial organizing going forward.

The event, From the Ashes:
 The 1992 Civil Unrest and the Rise of Social Movement Organizing, is organized by PERE in collaboration with community groups. If you’re in the L.A. area you can register to attend here, but they’ve also promised to stream at least portions of the event live online. In addition to a great speaker list, I see that a local favorite band, Ozomatli, will be playing and discussing music and social resistance.

PERE, which is led by BRR Network member Manuel Pastor, has also just published a series of policy papers in collaboration with PolicyLink and the Center for American Progress’ Progress 2050 project. This work examines demographic and economic trends in California, with a focus on the links between stronger regional growth and economic inclusion.

California, and Los Angeles in particular, is important not only for residents here, but because it has already experienced important demographic shifts that much of the rest of the country will face in the coming decades.

For example from 1990-2010, the Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander populations of the L.A. each increased by 32%, according to one report, while the African American population decreased by 24% and the white population decreased by 16%. Los Angeles is also experiencing trends we’ve written about before on this blog, like the suburbanization of diversity and poverty.

This comes from “Toward 2050 in California, a Roundtable Report on Multi-Racial Collaboration in Los Angeles” (pdf). The report is part of a series of roundtable discussions that aim to learn from local leaders about how to deal with these shifts and trends and what policymakers should be doing to get ready for an even more diverse future and where investments should be made.

The discussion is rich and varied. The report quotes Linda Wong from USC’s Center for Urban Education, for example, voicing concern that “the needs of outer-ring communities are often overlooked in conversations focused on infrastructure investments and social services. The diversification of the suburbs has been accompanied by higher poverty in these areas, yet misconceptions prevail about structural investments such as access to public transportation as only being needed in inner-city locales.” The report says poverty rates approach 20% in many Los Angeles suburban communities, but these areas often have a weak social service infrastructure that is ill prepared to help. [See the BRR Network’s research in this area].

It’s always impressive to see a report that is actually solution-focused and this one is. It documents the important role that multi-racial coalitions are playing in L.A. to ease anxieties and tensions between communities and to build political power and collaboration.

In detailing the rich history of coalition work in the city leading up to Antonio Villaraigosa’s election in 2005, they include examples like the collaboration around labor and human rights in the city, African-American-immigrant coalitions working together, and the youth organizing efforts aiming to engage the younger generation.

Building trust is important. But they argue that economic security can be a way of building that trust between communities and growing broad support for equity and, in turn regional growth. As authors say, this work “counteracts the city’s reputation as a hotbed of interethnic strife.” They’ve certainly come a long way from Rodney King.  Let’s hope this time the media is paying better attention.

Related: For more from Pastor and his colleagues read “Neighborhood Change and Everyday Social Justice” and “To Equitable Growth in 2012” on this blog.

Photo by Thomas Hawk.

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