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A mixed legacy for post-riot community activism

Groups like Rebuild L.A. aimed to provide jobs and services to underserved neighborhoods. Some have endured over the last two decades; others failed. Those involved say it proved a formidable challenge.

May 05, 2012|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) was a founder of the nonprofit Community Coalition, which had been working for two years before the riots to close liquor stores in South Los Angeles. Bass herself used the capital she had built in the community to become the first black female speaker of the California Assembly.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) was a founder of the nonprofit Community… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

They had names like Rebuild L.A., Community Coalition, the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance. Their goals were nearly identical: provide new jobs and services to an underserved community. Improve neighborhoods. Build better relationships.

The aftermath of the 1992 riots was a galvanizing moment for community activism, spawning groups formed out of City Hall, churches and local nonprofits.

Some have endured over the last two decades, shifting their priorities as the city changed. Others failed. Academics, politicians and those involved in the community efforts say reshaping the landscape of racial tension, poverty and joblessness proved a formidable challenge. These efforts also were hampered by a severe economic crisis.

"One difference between those who survived is vision," said Anthony Thigpenn, who formed the grass-roots group Agenda, which became Strategic Concepts in Organizing & Policy Education, or SCOPE. "You have to be able to deliver something over time. You are not going to eliminate poverty in South Los Angeles. But you have to have goals."

Rebuild L.A., perhaps the best known, was a nonprofit formed by then-Mayor Tom Bradley and headed by former baseball commissioner and Olympics organizer Peter Ueberroth. It was intended to tap the resources of the public and private sectors to flood South Los Angeles with jobs and services. It quickly received pledges of $500 million in corporate commitments.

The five-year project left a checkered legacy.

Rebuild L.A. had a top-down approach and was guilty of promising far more than it could deliver, said Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., a professor of public policy and political science at UCLA. The city's demographic and geographic scale was a challenge, as was the group's fractured governing structure of city and county elected officials, he said.

"I do appreciate the impulse that civic leaders got together to try to do something," Gilliam said. "They were up against a big challenge, and it's easy in hindsight to say they should have picked a different model.... While it's not fair to lay it all at their doorstep, it was called Rebuild L.A. and it didn't rebuild L.A."

SCOPE's office on Florence Avenue is only a few blocks from the riot's flash point at Florence and Normandie. There has been no major transformation of the surrounding streets, which are still dominated by mini-markets, auto body shops, storefront churches and vacant lots.

"It's not the case that there has been no change," Thigpenn said. "There are hundreds, if not thousands, of poor residents we've helped, but that is what, 2% or 3% of our community? The problem is scale."

The group has had successes, including forging an agreement with DreamWorks SKG to fund a job-training and placement program for those underrepresented in the entertainment industry.

And a registration and education campaign has resulted in a 20% increase in voter participation in South Los Angeles in the last decade. The area has been in transition — once solidly black and now largely Latino. SCOPE's membership reflects the area's diversity, and it has attracted young people like lead organizer Manuel Hernandez, 28, who at age 17 began canvassing neighborhoods for the group.

Hernandez himself has a vivid recollection of April 29, 1992. As a youngster in Lynwood, he followed a crowd through a hole that had been smashed through the wall of a linen store, grabbing soaps, lotions and towels — all without a clue what it was all about.

"I'm still learning what led up to the civil unrest, about the decades of neglect, the waves of foreclosures, the crack epidemic, the liquor stores opening up," he said.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) was a founder of the nonprofit Community Coalition, which had been working for two years before the riots to close liquor stores in South Los Angeles. She quickly realized that the group would have to shift its focus to keep those stores from reopening. Since 1992, the group has helped close hundreds of liquor stores, motels and other so-called nuisance businesses, led neighborhood improvement efforts for local parks and schools and mounted a successful drive to maintain black political representation in South Los Angeles during redistricting.

Bass herself used the capital she had built in the community to become the first black female speaker of the California Assembly. She was elected last year to Congress.

Her group and others have built solid foundations in the areas they serve, developing more sophisticated, targeted strategies, she said.

"Back then, there were no boards of directors and no solid funding base, but in the last 20 years these organizations have matured and are really permanent," Bass said.

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