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UNDERSTANDING THE RIOTS--SIX MONTHS LATER : Touched by Fire / A Legacy of Pain and Hope : ESSAY : Reflections on Our Future

November 19, 1992|BOB BAKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many Californians, the riots were more than a momentary blip on the screen--they were a flash point for lasting and fundamental changes in their lives. The devastation left a legacy of broken dreams for many, awakened a sense of social justice in some, unleashed anger and hatred in others, and rekindled a spirit of hope among others. Six months after the riots, Times reporters visited some of the people and places touched by the extraordinary events of last spring and on these pages we tell their stories.

Figured it out yet? Figured out why the riots happened? Figured out what they said about our town, our society, our economic system? Figured out how to change it? Figured out what you're going to do? Figured out how to explain it to your kids?

Me neither.

My problem is I'm still heartbroken. The anarchy I saw and smelled in the riot zone left me in a state of depression that only now is beginning to lift. Most people don't see their hometowns die until after they move. This was happening in front of me, not on TV but in my face. Confronted by such concentrated evil and vengeance, I wanted only to run away and hide, and for many months I figuratively did. I was a reporter in name only. I dreaded leaving the office.

So now, attempting to grapple with the real world, I feel something of a failure admitting that I can't fashion a concise explanation for the riots or a prescription about where we should go from here. Whenever I turn on the radio or TV, or read my newspaper commentaries, I'm surrounded by people who \o7 seem \f7 to have figured it out. Most of them insist that the riots be viewed through a single prism: It's all about racism. Or: It's all about welfare. Or: It's all about Proposition 13. Or: It's all about immigration. Or: It's all about jobs.

Here's what I think: It's all about life.

We've been living our lives too fast.

That's what screwed things up in the first place.

We make up our minds, personally and in the ballot booth, without enough reflection. We want answers and solutions \o7 now\f7 . We want property taxes lowered \o7 now\f7 . We condemn ourselves to a society of substandard social services with nary a thought to the day of judgment and then, when the day comes, we demand analysis \o7 now\f7 --even though the social earthquake just hit, the ground is still shaking and nobody has yet invented a seismograph to measure the cause or the scope of what the hell happened. Having gulped down instant analysis, we demand instant change. We expect Peter Ueberroth to fix it in six months.

It took a long time to dig our way into this mess. It will take just as long to dig out. The notion that "change" has to, or could, come quickly is our short-attention-span culture at its most pernicious.

Forget about change. You won't see change on the way up any more readily than you saw it on the way down, as we variously reveled and suffered through a decade and a half of calculated trickle-down societal cancer. Tell me: Did you see the Oscar Mayer plant in Vernon shut down two years ago and watch a couple of hundred working-class Latinos lose the kind of industrial jobs that let them put their families in decent apartments? Did you see the black janitors of downtown Los Angeles gradually eliminated during the 1980s in favor of Latino immigrants willing to work for a dollar an hour less? Did you notice a decade ago that Los Angeles was already the nation's leader in gang killings? It won't be any easier to notice positive change.

Forget about change. Be the best citizen you can be, one day at a time. Stop writing checks to the earnest young people from worldwide do-gooder groups who come to your door at night. Send your money to that realm of good people trying to repair L.A. Drive your kids down to 5th and Main and show them the people living on the street and make more of it than a single-minded rant against drugs. Explain that some of those people are there because society deals a hard hand, and that those strong or lucky enough to survive have an obligation to the weak.

Talk about all this. Talk about it no matter how awkward it sounds. Maybe you'll stumble onto something, a phrase or a metaphor; maybe you'll help us invent a new vocabulary to make sense of the forces that separate us and set us at each other's throats.

The failure of words is, for me, one of the most humbling experiences of post-riot Los Angeles. I work in a newsroom populated by some of the brightest, most well-meaning human beings in town. You'd think we would have been able to intelligently dissect the twisted slices of race and class that were fused together in April's explosion.

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