August 20, 2019

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.