Reflections on the 1992 civil unrest: Examining the Jewish response

The civil unrest in Los Angeles 25 years ago, sparked by the beating of Rodney King, represented a landmark moment not only for the city as a whole but also for the Jewish community.  The riots that followed reshaped the city’s political discourse, shifting the traditional focus from a Black-white (Jewish) conversation to multiracial and culturally diverse discussions. The Jewish community was centrally involved in these conversations and the actions that would follow.

King was arrested by Los Angeles police officers on March 3, 1991, after leading police on a high-speed chase. (King had been convicted of robbery in 1989, sent to prison, and was out on parole.) During the course of his apprehension, he was kicked, hit multiple times and tased by the four officers at the scene. A videotape of King’s arrest led to charges against the officers.

Thirteen months later, after seven days of deliberation in a Simi Valley courthouse, the jury acquitted the arresting officers of assault and of using excessive force. That evening, Rabbi Laura Geller, then the director of the American Jewish Congress’ Pacific Southwest Region, and I were asked by then-Mayor Tom Bradley’s office if we would join him and hundreds of community leaders at the First African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, west of downtown. The goal was an attempt to “keep a lid on things.”

Yet, even before our arrival at the church, the city was convulsing with the start of riots that peaked over the next two days. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed, and the deployment of the California Army National Guard enabled law enforcement to gain control over the situation.

By the end, there were 55 deaths, at least 2,000 injured, 11,000 arrested, $1 billion in property damage, 1,100 buildings destroyed and 3,800 fires.

Much of the property destroyed involved Korean-owned businesses in South Central Los Angeles. Some 3,500 stores and businesses owned by Korean merchants were attacked and nearly every building in Koreatown was damaged. As a result of the violence, tens of thousands of city residents lost their livelihoods. For Korean Americans, and Asian Americans more generally, the riots represented a shattering of their “American dream” and “brought focus to their tenuous hold on economic mobility and social inclusion in a society fraught by racial and ethnic tension,” according to historian Shelley Lee.

In the aftermath of the riots, the Jewish community became a central resource and contact point for many of L.A.’s major ethnic and racial groups.

Rabbis joined their colleagues in the African-American, Latino and Asian communities, fostering an exchange of pulpits and congregational visits. Community relations agencies sought to expand their connections and contacts with key civic officials from within each of the city’s urban communities.

Working with leaders from Jewish social service, philanthropic and community relations organizations, Korean leaders set out to achieve their goals of rebuilding their community, which included the creation of the Koreatown Youth + Community Center, the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance and the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium. Korean officials looked to other ethnic and racial groups, including the Jewish community, to better understand the tools and resources necessary for political organizing.

Organizational connections emerged with other Asian-American communities and Latino groups. The civil unrest created a political consciousness among ethnic communities in how they perceived their roles in relation to the general culture.  The Jewish community was seen as politically “connected” and socially “organized,” equipped to meet the needs of its own constituencies.

The late Rabbi Harvey Fields served as both chair of the Interreligious Council of Southern California and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Relations Committee. In response to the riots, he helped form the Interfaith Coalition to Heal L.A.  Two months after the riots, he joined Rev. Cecil L. Murray of the First AME Church to plan “Hands Across L.A.,” which brought together 15,000 Angelenos from a spectrum of ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds to join along a 10-mile stretch of Western Avenue for a demonstration of racial solidarity. 

Fields was instrumental in creating the Los Angeles African American/Jewish Leadership Connection, involving key clergy committed to strengthening relations between the two communities.

Bradley established Rebuild L.A., asking Peter Ueberroth to be its first chair, with a number of prominent Jews serving on its board. Rebuild L.A. continued its work for five years before it was dissolved amid questions over how much new investment it actually drew to South Central Los Angeles.

In the aftermath of the King beating, the city established the Christopher Commission, named for its chairman Warren Christopher, a prominent L.A. lawyer who later served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. Its final report called for a police commission, which led to Mayor Richard Riordan appointing five people, including Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the regional director of the American Jewish Committee at the time, to serve on a newly created police commission.

Greenebaum was elected the commission’s first president and, in an interview at the time, cited three areas of concern: increasing the size of the police department; implementing the commission’s remaining recommendations; and addressing problems of police morale by working with the city government’s key stakeholders to “reinstate strong support for the city’s police officers.”

What has changed since these events of 25 years ago? Latinos have emerged as the city’s dominant ethnic community. In turn, African-Americans have seen their political power diminish as the Black population has moved to other communities within and beyond Southern California. The Korean community has evolved into a more consolidated community, with a growing list of social service organizations and community leaders.

The level of Jewish civic involvement within the inner city has shifted, from connections with urban leaders, civic organizations and religious institutions to more “ceremonial” sets of relationships with high-profile officials and politicians.

At the same time, a period during which the Jewish community leaders served as “connectors” to other civic groups and individuals has ended, and with it, valuable personal relationships and organizational connections.

As the community’s public advocacy institutions have diminished their presence from the local scene, a new generation of Jewish political elites and rabbinic figures has emerged to represent the community’s interests.

STEVEN WINDMUELLER is professor emeritus at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. From 1985-95, he was director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

From Rodney King to a transformed L.A.

On March 3, 1991, a video camera recorded four Los Angeles police officers beating an African-American man, Rodney King. Civil disorder struck the city on April 29, 1992, after a jury in Simi Valley chose not to convict any of the officers involved.

On June 2, only a few weeks after the violence subsided, the city’s voters approved Proposition F, an unprecedented change in the governance and oversight of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) that would have seemed inconceivable only a year before.

In that one year, a sea change occurred in the city’s democratic institutions. And the Los Angeles Jewish community played an important role in those historic events.

For more than four decades, the LAPD had prevented civilian authority from holding it accountable for police misconduct in minority communities. After the appointment of Chief William Parker in 1950, the LAPD intimidated and overshadowed elected officials, who feared the chief’s secret intelligence files and were reluctant to challenge the department’s carefully burnished public image. The police chief was more visible and more powerful than the mayor.

It was not until Tom Bradley, an African-American retired LAPD officer, joined the city council in 1963 that any credible counter-force developed. Bradley constructed a historic coalition of African-Americans, Latinos and liberal Jews to fight for police reform. During his 10 years on the council, and then in his record 20 years as mayor, Bradley and his allies fought to bring the department under civilian control. The core of the movement was in the African-American community, where decades of police abuse had built a political resistance of great duration. But coalition partners helped mightily.

With the help of councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky, whose Fifth District contained the largest share of Jews in Los Angeles, important changes were made, including the elimination of intelligence gathering on prominent public officials and well-known Angelenos. Yaroslavsky earned the enmity of Chief Daryl Gates, who disparaged “Zev and his Marxist friends.”

Despite some important victories, Bradley could not shake the city charter, which featured, among other provisions, extending the chief civil service protection. Nor could Bradley easily counter the political power of the police. Los Angeles was a whiter, less liberal city than it is today, and the police enjoyed strong support outside the African-American and white liberal communities.

As Bradley’s mayoralty drifted near the end of its fifth term, he struggled with declining popularity and a weakening of his Black-Jewish coalition. It seemed that the department would survive its greatest challenge and that its special role above democracy’s reach would continue. The Bradley regime seemed on its last legs.

The video of the beating of Rodney King, who reportedly was speeding and then led police on a high-speed chase (at the time, he was on parole for a robbery conviction), changed everything. Bradley called on Gates, who had consistently fought Bradley’s push for oversight since he took over as chief in 1978, to resign. Gates refused. Bradley’s appointed police commission placed Gates on leave. The city council overturned the commission’s decision and restored Gates to office.

Bradley appointed the Christopher Commission (named for its chairman, Warren Christopher), which issued a dramatic report blasting the department’s behavior, called for fundamental reform and demanded that Gates resign. In a dramatic change, the council overcame its own sorry history of caving in and voted to put most of the commission’s recommendations on the June ballot as Prop F. If the voters approved, the chief’s civil service protection would be gone, and the chief would be limited to two five-year terms. Gates’ popularity plummeted and support for reform grew. His disapproval was particularly high among African-Americans and Jews. The frayed liberal coalition was coming together for one more big battle.

With the stunning “not guilty” verdicts on April 29, civil disorder erupted. Just weeks before the climactic June vote that would decide the fate of Los Angeles democracy, rage and violence spread.  Gates was derelict in his duties, abandoning police headquarters to attend a Brentwood cocktail fundraiser against Prop F., an action that shocked Police Commission President Stanley Sheinbaum, who confronted Gates in the parking lot.

Even in a polarized and frightened city, though, voters embraced police reform. The searing visual impact of the King tape, the obvious insubordination and reckless leadership of Gates, and the prestige of the Christopher Commission made the case. Gates had few handholds to grasp. After the civil disorder, his disapproval rating reached a staggering 81 percent. 

On June 2, Prop F. passed with 62 percent of the vote, drawing large majorities from African-Americans, white liberals, especially Jews, and Latinos. It was the most startling and important achievement in Los Angeles democracy in a half-century. The Eighth District, in the heart of the Black community, and the Jewish Fifth District cast overwhelming vote margins for Prop F, accounting for the largest share of the winning totals.

The LAPD we know today, more diverse and with a much more positive relationship in the community than in years past, and with police chiefs who no longer stand astride the local political system like political bosses, grew from that dramatic and shocking year, and from the ashes of the civil disorder. It was a far closer call than we might imagine. Reform has not brought miracles, but it has opened the door both to democratic accountability for the police and a far more popular department. 

Without the shocking events that pulled Los Angeles into the depths of polarization, a thoroughly unpopular chief and an interracial coalition that rose from the floor one more time, true reform might never have come.

This issue is, of course, very much alive today, especially after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he will review all consent decrees between the Department of Justice and local governments and their police departments. 

Now, more than ever, local governments from California to Ferguson, Mo., to Miami and beyond will have to depend on their own democratic institutions to bring about change. Fortunately, there are numerous police departments and chiefs who do not want to return to the days before police reform and civilian accountability. The struggle that Los Angeles faced and surmounted shows that only persistence over time and the building of a strong coalitions will meet the task.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of Cal State Los Angeles’ Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, is the author of  “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles” (Princeton University Press, 1993).

Los Angeles riots commemoration events


Actor, playwright and social critic Anna Deavere Smith offers a rare glimpse into the violent upheaval of the L.A. Riots. In addition to performing excerpts from her Tony-nominated one-woman play, “Twilight: Los Angeles,” Smith discusses the artistic process of looking at a critical issue from multiple perspectives as a way to open up dialogue. Presented by Facing History and Ourselves and The Allstate Foundation. Wed. 7-9 p.m. Free. Robert F. Kennedy Community High School, Cocoanut Grove Theater, 701 S. Catalina St., Los Angeles. (213) 202-2811.


Florence and Normandie became known as the flashpoint of the L.A. Riots. Join the discussion about the causes and impacts of the civil unrest as well as the solutions. Attendees will be divided into small discussion groups, facilitated by representatives of the L.A. City Attorney’s Dispute Resolution Program. Organized by Avis Ridley-Thomas, director of UCLA’s Institute for Non-Violence in Los Angeles. Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) co-sponsors. Fri. 8:30 a.m. (registration and continental breakfast). 9 a.m.-11:30 a.m. Free. FAME Renaissance, 1968 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 346-3246.

L.A. artist Maggie Hazen memorializes the L.A. Riots with a mixed-media sculptural installation that evokes the plaster casts used to mend broken bones and the memory of the white ashes that remained. “Civil Space: A Transformative Memory of the 1992 Civil Unrest” features 2,000 individually crafted plaster vessels filled with basic food ingredients on a modular platform that resembles the topography of the riot-damaged area. Presented by The Museum of Tolerance, the Korean Churches for Community Development and SAIGU. Exhibition runs through May 13. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Monday-Friday), 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. (Sunday). Included with museum admission: $15.50 (adults), $12.50 (seniors), $11.50 (students with ID and children ages 5-18). Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 553-8403.


L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joins California Assembly Speaker John Pérez, Eddie Lee, who heads White House outreach to the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s assistant secretary John Trasvina to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots with community and faith leaders. A unity march to Los Angeles Trade-Tech and vigil follows. Sponsored by SAIGU (Korean for April 29), an initiative of Korean Churches for Community Development. Seating for this event will be limited to 5,000, and priority will be given to community, faith and government partners. Sun. 3:30-6:30 p.m. Free (RSVP required). Former Grand Olympic Auditorium, 1801 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 985-1500.

Community panel on the L.A. Riots

On April 29, 1992, the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, an African-American man, triggered riots in Los Angeles that resulted in more than 50 dead, thousands injured and some $1 billion in property damage.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, The Jewish Journal invited to our offices nine prominent L.A.-based civil rights activists. We asked them to reflect as a group on two questions: Are we better off than we were 20 years ago? Could what happened in 1992 happen again here?

The result was an often-heated 90-minute conversation that vividly demonstrated the passions that the riots and the issues they raised still evoke in this city.

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