LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Twenty-five years after the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King and the deadly riots that followed the verdict, an undercurrent of distrust pulses through a city that says it worked hard at police reform.
Long before the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, the name Rodney King became synonymous with the use of excessive force in policing minority groups. King, then 25, was battered by a squad of white officers after a traffic stop in March 1991, an incident caught in graphic detail on a bystander’s video.
South Los Angeles, where the violence started and where almost half the residents are African-American, is still plagued by many of the economic problems that contributed to the unrest. The riots killed more than 50 people and caused some $1 billion in damage over six days.
A mostly African-American crowd of hundreds of people gathered there on Saturday, to mark the anniversary with a march from the intersection where the violence broke out when a crowd attacked a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, an incident that was broadcast on national television.
Marching to the sound of African, Native American and Korean drum crews, the crowd chanted the word “resilient,” flanked by a parade of “low-rider” customized cars.
Keshia Sexton, an organizer at Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust who joined the march, lived in the Compton area during the riots, when she was only 7. She remembers having to get home before the curfew officials imposed to quell the unrest.
“I was terrified as a young person,” she said. “But I want to be clear: I wasn’t terrified of my community, those were my neighbors. I was scared of the police.”
At a separate commemoration on Saturday at a prominent South Los Angeles church, members of the city’s African-American and Korean-American communities came together in a gesture of reconciliation. Korean-American-owned businesses were particularly targeted by rioters in 1992, ransacked at a disproportionately high rate.
Current and former city officials point to changes they say have reduced strains between police and the community. But blight still mars South Los Angeles, where many residents struggle to find work and earn enough to live on, and many in Los Angeles think that riots are not just a thing of the past.
The last quarter-century has brought sweeping changes to the way the Los Angeles Police Department operates, according to current and former city officials, reducing some of the mistrust many residents feel toward law enforcement.
Bernard Parks, the city’s police chief from 1997 to 2002 and later a city councilman, said one of the most important changes he made was taking away the power of supervisors to quash misconduct complaints against officers.
“I found the greatest complaint people had about the system wasn’t necessarily the outcome but that they weren’t necessarily able to make a complaint,” Parks said in a phone interview.
More broadly, Mayor Eric Garcetti and other current officials credit federal oversight imposed on the Los Angeles Police Department in 2001 with helping to reform it.
Garcetti called the 1992 unrest “one of the most painful moments in the history of Los Angeles,” saying in a statement on Saturday the anniversary is “about both how far L.A. has come and how far we have to go.”
In an indication of strained relations, there have been a number of Los Angeles police shootings in the last two years, culminating in protests at police commission meetings.
“The police department has definitely changed. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I credit a lot of the changes to the community and those activists who have picked up the mantle from the activists in 1992,” said Jasmyne Cannick, a writer and commentator who has been a high-profile critic of the LAPD.
Many residents are worried about a recurrence of rioting, especially after the destructive unrest that broke out in Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri; and other U.S. cities after police killings over the past three years.
Nearly 60 percent of Los Angeles residents think another riot is likely in the next five years, according to a survey released this week by Loyola Marymount University. It was the first time in 20 years researchers found an increase in the share of residents who gave that answer.
Henry Keith Watson, 53, who took part in the beating of Denny, the truck driver, and was later convicted of misdemeanor assault, is among those who see the city as still dealing with the same problems as in 1992.
“What do you think has changed?” Watson said in an interview at his house in South Los Angeles. “Please tell me.”
Additional reporting by Ben Gruber in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler, Frank McGurty and Matthew Lewis