Dozens of students leaped back in time to 1992 on Wednesday to explore how Los Angeles erupted in riots under severe racial and economic stress.
USC Student Affairs’ Project ReMiX presentation of LA Explodes examined the underlying causes leading up to the ’92 riots through a video and panel offering first-person perspectives.
Rachel Shannon, a rookie Los Angeles Police Department officer when the riots broke out, recalled her response to then-Chief Daryl Gates’ orders for officers to stay off the streets. The riots broke out when LAPD officers were acquitted for the beating of Rodney King, which was videotaped and widely broadcast.
“I wasn’t afraid,” said Shannon, now an officer with Beverly Hills Police Department. “We could hear screaming, we could hear gunshots and I remember hearing many of us asking, ‘How come we can’t go?’”
The riots lasted less than a week, but when the dust settled, more than 50 people had died, more than 4,000 were injured and the estimated overall property damage was $1 billion.
“I couldn’t understand it,” Shannon told the students. “People were destroying their city, destroying their communities.”
The post-panel discussion gave students an opportunity to analyze modern urban race relations, today’s economic woes and whether Los Angeles is in imminent danger of erupting into another violent protest.
“[Many] USC students weren’t born when the L.A. riots took place,” said Sumun Pendakur, assistant director of Asian Pacific American Student Services. “It’s so important for students to learn and address the economic impact and realize how many lives were lost and property that was destroyed.”
Pendakur said the general assumption is that the ’92 riots came from black-Korean conflict, but that economic injustice and racial inequality spurred the conflict.
“Race and economics go hand-in-hand,” Pendakur said. “It’s about access to resources, who controls resources and this country’s 400-year history of racial and economic injustice.”
Amanda Smith, a third-year USC law student, said economic inequality threatens Los Angeles’ social stability even though racial tensions between minority races have relaxed since 1992.
“Unemployment is rising. and it’s highest among minorities,” Smith said. “It’s important to address this and other issues so we make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.”
The Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, APASS and El Centro Chicano founded Project ReMiX in 2008 to address multi-racial issues in USC and in the surrounding urban communities.
About 14 percent or about 2,400 current undergraduates check more than one ethnicity box when applying to USC, according to Pendakur.
Though Pendakur said conditions have dramatically improved for multi-racial students since 1992, work still needs to be done.
“Diversity is a strength but can also be a challenge when services are unavailable and resources are unequal,” Pendakur said. “Multi-racial students face a particular set of challenges in our society.”
Minhee Ji, a freshman majoring in East Asian studies and international relations, said she has never encountered racism living in Los Angeles.
“I personally have not faced discrimination or any big challenges in America,” Ji said. “I’m comfortable. There are lots of Asians here and people understand you better.”
Pendakur said diversity in Los Angeles and at USC is a key strength, but it can also present challenges.
“USC has great structural diversity, but we need instructional diversity,” Pendakur said. “It’s the job of the classrooms and programs like these to encourage students to interact with people of different backgrounds so we can understand different cultures.”