Religious leaders, community activists pray for South-Central, tell their stories and ponder community’s future.

Saundra Bryant was the next-to-last speaker at one of the myriad events this spring commemorating the 1992 Civil Unrest — or riots or rebellion — that for six days and nights tore apart the social fabric of the City of the Angels, claiming at least 63 lives and injuring some 2,000 others, while destroying 1,100 buildings with estimates of costs ranging up to $1 billion.

Bryant — who was born and raised in South L.A. and for 28 years has worked at the grass-roots community organization “All Peoples Community Center” — had only about 10 minutes to tell her compelling story at the April 27 ecumenical happening held in St. Patrick Church and hosted by South Central LAMP (Los Angeles Ministry Project).

The Tidings sat down after with the Licensed Clinical Social Worker to share her vivid memories of those dark SoCal days as well as to harvest her still-on-the-scene insights about the state of South Los Angeles today and what the future might hold for the much-maligned inner-city community.

At 56, she is old enough to still remember the civil unrest of 1965. “In the ’92 riots, I was an adult, so it was very different,” she pointed out. “I was in my 30s, living and working here.” 

In fact, her normal route home from All Peoples Community Center went right through the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues. But that evening was her bowling night, so she took a different way because she was in a hurry. So it was  the next day driving to work when the executive director was overwhelmed by all the scorched buildings and utter destruction wherever she looked. 

“But our center wasn’t harmed at all then or after,” she recalled. “I think people knew that we were there to serve the community. And people knew that families were coming there to get food or whatever kind of assistance they needed. So, no, we never worried about any kind of looting or anything happening to our building, even though we could see some of the looting out our windows and could hear the fire trucks and police sirens.”

Bryant blames the lack of police response as a “big factor” in letting the growing angry crowd get out of hand. But she says people in South L.A. were upset and frustrated not only over the acquittal of all four police officers of assault and three of the four of using excessive force against Rodney King.

They were also beaten down yet enraged over being stuck in intergenerational poverty, living in vermin-infested rental apartments and dilapidated homes, and then having to travel miles for fresh and decently priced groceries at supermarkets Southland suburbanites took for granted.  

“Because it wasn’t just blacks,” she said. “It was people from all ethnicities that were involved in the looting and the rioting. And it was all over the city, with a high percentage of Hispanics, too. [More than a third of those killed were Hispanics, along with half of all those arrested.] What that says to me is it was not just about Rodney King. It was about people being just frustrated and feeling like they didn’t have any other options.”

Concerns outnumber positives The veteran social worker and community activist believes there have been some positive changes in the past two decades, especially during the last four or five years, in parts of South Los Angeles like on Central Avenue. She points out how new businesses, grocery stores and even affordable housing has sprung up along the urban corridor, which in better days was the west coast home of fabled rhythm and blues and jazz nightclubs like the Dunbar Hotel, featuring the likes of Lionel Hampton and Charlie Parker. 

Police relations with the community at some locales such as the nearby Newton Station have also significantly improved. She thinks senior lead officers now have a better rapport with the community as opposed to the former occupied-army approach. But she also added, “Work still needs to be done. We’re not where we need to be.” 

And other current concerns, sadly, outnumbered the positives.

First of all, she brings up the City Council’s elimination of the Community Redevelopment Agency earlier this year. The CRA, which employed almost 200 people, was vital for densely populated neighborhoods that her center serves with their severe lack of decent-yet-affordable housing. Another sore spot is the recent issue of “redistricting.” She says the drawing up of new City Council boundaries basically made her ninth district the poorest in the city.

Local public schools have also been “very slow” in changing for the better, according to Bryant, while many underfunded charter school buildings stand unused. Two decades after LA Unified schools were recognized as being among the nation’s worst public schools, barely half of all students graduate from high school.

And then there’s the priority issue of job creation stressed by “Rebuild LA,” another highly touted agency headed by former baseball commissioner and Olympic organizer Peter Ueberroth, which ran out of gas, and funds, after the Northridge earthquake in January of 1994. 

Moreover, although in recent years the Los Angeles Police Department has proudly reported drastic drops in major crimes, she points out that in her little 1.9-square miles South L.A. world there are still 16 different gangs ever ready to violently defend their block-by-block turf.

And when it comes to Angelenos feeling safer these days, which was recently a critical finding in a survey by Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles, she simply doesn’t “buy it,” at least for the struggling families she encounters daily at All Peoples Community Center. For them, safety — as in going to the park with their children — is still a big issue. Better to keep kids inside, away from the stray-but-often-deadly automatic weapons’ barrage of bullets from gangbangers.  

So all these seemingly intractable political, economic and social negatives begged one horrendous query — Can it happen again?

“We’re supposed to be recovering from a recession, but if you live in Los Angeles the recovery is very, very slow,” Bryant said. “You have a city that’s broke, a state that’s broke, a school district that’s broke. So you’re eliminating all these social programs and you’re pushing people to the point where, what are they going to do?

“I mean, that’s my sense of the situation,” she mused. “Unless we’re able to turn it around, we are building that foundation that could spark another unrest.” After a moment, she continued in a more upbeat but not-too-convincing tone, “I wish I didn’t feel that way, and I hope I’m wrong.” 

Defining images of riot For those Angelenos of a certain age, two images remain ever buried in their memory banks. 

The first is the grainy camcorder video shot by a curious neighbor from his apartment. It shows a black man first crawling then lying on a street in the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles. With raised arms, he is trying desperately, and mostly unsuccessfully, to ward off repeated blows from four white and one Latino LAPD officers. For more than a minute, Rodney King was tasered, kicked in the head and beaten repeatedly with hard blows from batons. Only then was the African American swarmed and cuffed, according to the police department’s official procedure. 

The other image, shot from a TV station’s news helicopter, came on Wednesday, April 29, 1992, during the late afternoon after a Simi Valley jury acquitted all four officers of assault and three of the four of using excessive force. After two dozen LAPD officers, who had confronted a growing crowd of blacks at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues in South Los Angeles retreated, Reginald Denny had the misfortune of stopping his big rig hauling mixed concrete at the intersection. 

The 33-year-old white truck driver was dragged from the cab of his 18-wheeler and beaten severely by a mob of black residents seeking revenge for the verdicts. The surrealistic key scene of violence and mayhem happened when a gang member named “Football” Monroe Williams reared back and threw a cinderblock, striking him in the temple. The direct blow, which was shown live by local television stations, looked like it had surely killed the driver. He did, in fact, suffer a near-fatal seizure and was driven to a hospital by a local African American Good Samaritan in Denny’s own rig. The best-known victim of the riots survived, although his speech and ability to walk were permanently damaged. 

‘Celebrate the moment’At the April 27 “A Prayer for South Central: Telling Our Story and Creating the Next Chapter” event, religious leaders and community activists shared their personal narratives about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and its long-lasting aftermath that still lingers in the Southland. 

“The significance of this gathering is to celebrate the moment and look around at one another and be with another,” said Msgr. Timothy Dyer, pastor of St. Patrick Church. “That’s what’s special and wonderful about this happening here in South-Central Los Angeles. We do have a wonderful setting to remember an historical event in our city, because right next to us is Central Avenue.”

In fact, just across the busy street is the concrete block, fortress-like Newton Area Police Station. 

Sister Mary Genino spoke about how her congregation, Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, came together in the wake of the civil unrest with seven other congregations of sisters to form South Central LAMP. The group’s first task was to find out the core needs of South L.A.’s impoverished residents. By conducting a survey, two major issues soon became apparent: the lack of parent education plus English programs for Latino immigrants who were becoming, year by year, a bigger part of the community.

Today LAMP on East 48th Street sponsors parenting classes and three-level ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for adults. Children’s services include early childhood education, preschool and school-age enrichment programs along with learning activities for parents and children together. In addition, family advocacy and support services provide case management, home visits and community resource referrals.

“We want to partner with those groups who promote social justice, who are committed to systemic change and who have the energy to enable the voiceless to act on their own development,” stressed Sister Genino.

Pastor W. Edward Jenkins of Victory Baptist Church also on 48th Street acknowledged how it was really difficult for a Baptist preacher to limit his remarks on any topic to 10 minutes, but promised to give it his best shot. After the chuckles died down from the 100-plus people in St. Patrick Church on this Friday morning, he said one person he knew who survived the 1992 riots still blamed Rodney King, while others he talked to took umbrage with looters and still other Angelenos faulted the police and their then-military mindset. 

“No doubt, there was enough anger to go around,” he observed, then noted how many people had asked him: “Why would people destroy their own community, their own neighborhoods? Why didn’t they go to Beverly Hills?” He said his answer was always the same: “The problems weren’t in Beverly Hills. They were in South-Central.”

During the last 20 years, and especially the last 10, Rev. Jenkins said positive strides had definitely been made by local religious leaders, politicians and community activists, working together across cultures to build a better community.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen tremendous growth,” he said before cautioning that entrenched poverty was still a hallmark of South Los Angeles and pointing out, “Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million, which was to go for his future. Unfortunately, today Rodney King is broken and broke. 

“Our community in South-Central should learn from Rodney King,” the pastor stressed. “Poverty is still a fact of life here. If we don’t wake up and become more proactive as relates to community, we will once again have a community that is just not broke but also broken.”   

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