Civil Rights

The Fire Next Time

By Jim Smith

Christine Burrill’s stunning exhibit of photo collages of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising has an impact and immediacy that few other art forms can convey.

Three of the large collages were printed on brushed aluminum sheets by the Social and Public Arts Resource Center’s (SPARC) founder and artistic director Judy Baca. The effect gives an appropriately industrial feel to scenes of devastation and repression. The show, entitled Uprising Los Angeles: A Walk Through the Civil Unrest of 1992, continues at SPARC (old Venice jail) through June 8.

Twenty years ago, Los Angeles exploded in anger. Poor people of every nationality took out their frustration at nearby stores and shopping centers. Many took the opportunity to claim goods and food out of stores that they could not normally afford to patronize.

Others were more political. The Los Angeles Times, seen as a defender of the establishment, was one of the first targets. The ground floor of the Times building was trashed. Parker Center, the Los Angeles Police Department’s headquarters, was under siege. The dismissal of charges against four LAPD officers who had been videotaped beating African-American Rodney King by a nearly all white jury was the final straw for many in South Central and Midtown Los Angeles.

As the uprising, which began on April 28, gathered momentum, it spread throughout the area, from Long Beach to Venice. There was little property damage in Venice, compared to other pockets of poverty around L.A. A store was burned on Lincoln Blvd., but it was later determined that it was torched by its owner to collect the insurance money.

In all, there were 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damages to 3,100 businesses and nearly $1 billion in financial losses. Sympathy uprisings occurred in other cities, including San Francisco, Las Vegas and Atlanta. Venice, and other parts of the city, hosted 4,000 California National Guard troops. Ocean Front Walk was closed down with bayonets. Since many of the Guard troops came from the “war” zone, many turned out to be not sufficiently tough enough to put down the civil disturbance. A further 4,500 military troops, mainly Marines, were deployed to restore order. In addition, 1,000 federal officers, including FBI, arrived on the scene.

In the face of tens of thousands of determined rebels, it was not enough. The uprising finally petered out as people returned to earning a living and the increasingly difficult task of finding food. In the aftermath of the uprising, a half-hearted effort was made to reconstruct the damaged businesses and increase economic activity in the poorest neighborhoods. A public-private organization called Rebuild LA was created and Peter Ueberroth was named to lead it. He had recently made a success of the first privatized Olympics, held in Los Angeles in 1984. However, his entrepreneurship didn’t work this time. Rebuild LA quickly faded into oblivion.

Today, much of Los Angeles is still in the throes of poverty, higher education is even farther out of reach than it was in 1992, and unemployment reaches 20 percent in some neighborhoods.

On the other hand, the LAPD has become militarized, with high-tech weapons (soon to include drones) and many officers who have experience in urban warfare in Fallujah, Baghdad and Kandahar. Even so, a random, unscientific poll around Venice reveals that many people think it’s just a matter of time until the next uprising. I asked one San Juan Avenue resident at the art opening when he thought the next uprising might occur, he answered, “When Zimmerman goes free.” (George Zimmerman is the alleged killer of Black teenager Trayvon Martin).

More of Christine Burrill’s work may be seen at    

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