Driving back from work at TRW, an aerospace company in Redondo Beach, on April 29, 1992, Anderson Shaw couldn’t believe what he was seeing, smelling. Thick black-gray smoke on both sides of the 410 Freeway. And when he got home to Baldwin Hills, looking down below was the Fedco broken into. Looters were coming out of the department store carrying chairs, couches, even beds. His son was watching all this going on like it was some TV game show.

Still, the current director of the African American Catholic Center for Evangelization didn’t quite understand what was happening. “I felt the anguish and anger everybody else felt,” he said. “It was the police on one side, the people on the other. But I just did not think it could erupt the way it did. I just didn’t think we could go back to where we’d been with the ’65 riots.”

Have times changed? 

In a multiyear study begun 20 years ago, Loyola Marymount University’s Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles found 76 percent of more than 2,400 respondents in 2017 believe racial and ethnic relations among Angelenos is good. This more than doubles the 37 percent back in 1997, the first year of the survey after the devastating L.A. riots in 1992.

But the good news about race relations was severely tampered by another finding. Almost 6 out of 10 people in Los Angeles also believe another riot is likely to happen in the next five years.

And for young people, ages 18 to 29 — who have only seen images of the six-day urban uprising that ultimately claimed 63 lives, destroyed more than 1,000 buildings and did $1billion in damage — 7 out of 10 think another riot is likely on the near horizon.

Brianne Gilbert — the associate director of LMU’s center who helped carry out the latest study in January and February — was surprised by these dark findings today. Why? Because results from similar surveys conducted every five years since 1997 showed a steady drop in the percentage of Angelenos who expect another riot. From 65 percent in 1997 to 55 percent in 2002, to 52 percent in 2007, to 47 percent in 2012 and then jumping to 58 percent this year.

“When we got the results of the survey, a research associate said to me, ‘You did something wrong.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he was like, ‘You know, the downward trend we’ve been seeing. So this must be wrong. It must be reverse coded or something.’ I said we don’t make mistakes like that. But we went back to the very first time we had the data set to do some checking. And, low and behold, it was not a mistake. It was completely accurate.

“But with the downward trend and then to see a bump like that was quite significant for us.”

On the other hand, however, Gilbert wasn’t really surprised. Before the Los Angeles riots in 1992, there were the Watts Riots in 1965 after an African-American motorist was arrested for suspicion of drunk driving. Thirty-four people died, with 3,438 arrested during Aug. 11-16, almost three decades before.

“Not that there’s a formula for when something like this happens, but I think there’s a sense that it hasn’t happened in a long time, but it could,” she said. “The conditions are right. The economic inequality. There’s still stark differences among Angelenos. And the reality is some really poor areas in South L.A. haven’t changed.

“What does that mean for people who live there that things haven’t changed that much, or there hasn’t been any change? And specifically with the younger generation. In a lot of ways, they have the most to gain when times are good. But they have the most to lose, too.”

After a moment, she went on in a different voice: “I would love to say that things are just getting better and better here and across the United States. But we know from national data everything is not just rosy and peachy for some people in America.”

Breaking down stats

Researchers at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles also broke down their 2017 findings about race relations and the question if another riot is just around the corner. Eighty-four percent of Angelenos with a graduate degree thought racial and ethnic groups were getting along good, better than they were in 1992. With people holding a college degree, the figure was 82 percent, and that dropped to 72 percent for those with a high school diploma or less.

Concerning another riot happening, 51 percent with a college degree believed it was likely, while 63 percent having only a high school degree agreed. By race, the figures were 46 percent for Asian Americans, 51 percent for whites, and 65 percent for both Latinos and African Americans.

And by religion, 59 percent of Catholics and Jews believed another riot was likely to happen in five years. For Protestants, the figure was slightly higher at 62 percent and lower at 51 percent for agnostics and atheists.

But aren’t the two major findings — that racial relations have improved, while more people believe another riot will soon happen in Los Angeles — contradictory?

At first, Gilbert thought they were. But the more she mulled it over, she realized there are many more ways people at the margins of society can become frustrated and angry. So although racial and ethnic groups are getting along better, there can also be widening income disparities as well as major social and cultural differences.

There was also a correlation with social class. The higher the class (by self-reporting), the less likely people thought a riot was likely to happen.

Summing up, the researcher has mixed feelings herself.

“I think a part of me is always surprised when somebody thinks a riot is likely,” said Gilbert. “But I think if I truly ask myself, that’s another matter. So do I think it’s likely? No. But would I totally be surprised if something happened again? Again, no. I hope I am wrong about that.”

‘Even worse’ for some

“Well, I think in South-Central people can, by and large, be able to approach the police and get some kind of response,” Shaw told me. “I think the Rodney King thing just isolated the community from law enforcement. But I think they’ve gone a long ways since. Just having the police commission with some people of color on it is a big change.”

Shaw also recalled how bad the relationship was between Korean merchants and the African American community, especially after the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. The store owner received a sentence of just 400 hours of community service. That was about a year before four LAPD officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King almost to death after a high-speed chase.

“So I think there’s been some positive changes,” he said. “But I think I would also agree that the economics haven’t changed. In fact, things might have gotten even worse for some people. And one thing’s for sure. The middle class is vanishing. I mean, in the whole country, either you’re rich or poor.

“You see the despair and hopelessness. In many ways, it seems to be unnoticed. The government is beginning to cut back on those areas of assistance, like Food Stamps, that they were giving to people with economic problems. And then you see the riots in Ferguson and other places around the country. So things are pretty shaky right now. There’s hardly no support coming from anywhere right now, even from the Church."

“So I guess it could happen here again,” Shaw said. “I don’t know what the flash point would be. I don’t know if it would even be along racial lines. In the last riot, I remember there were a lot of other folks, Latinos, who participated in the looting. So if there was another flash point...”