On the 25th Anniversary of L.A. Unrest, 'FORWARD LA' Turns to the Arts for Answers

LA Riots - Getty - H 2017
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USC's Annette Kim speaks at two-day event featuring an array of panel discussions uniting artists, academics and diverse community voices.

Some call it a riot, others a rebellion, but everyone can agree that Los Angeles experienced a major period of unrest in April 1992. Twenty-five years later, the city is still trying to make sense of it with numerous events and marches, including USC's FORWARD LA: Race, Arts, and Inclusive Placemaking after the 1992 Civil Unrest at the downtown Radisson Hotel. It features panel discussions and confabs bringing together artists, community organizers, activists, political figures and academics like associate professor Annette Kim of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, April 27 through 28.

The simple narrative is that African-American communities reacted with looting and violence when LAPD officers Sgt. Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind were acquitted for the beating of Rodney King. After footage from bystander George Holliday was broadcast around the world showing them brandishing nightsticks on King's prone body, most observers were left with little doubt as to the officers' guilt. With the decision coming on the heels of the controversial shooting of African-American teen Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner, the mob raged through Koreatown. In the end, 55 died, more than 2,000 were injured, and the city suffered $1 billion in property loss. But the full truth behind the series of events is more complicated. 

"I think it was truncated and biased to these easy canned narratives of interracial conflict," Kim tells The Hollywood Reporter of media coverage of the unrest. "The narratives that seem to get played were the black race movement theme, like Watts again, and then other stories about black versus Korean. Latinos were second-highest victims of violence during that period. Where's their narrative?"

One panel, "Demographic Change – 1992 to 2017," explored population shifts like the one that followed the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965, in which immigrants from Latin-American and Asian countries began pouring into Los Angeles. “Which Way, South LA: Making the Future in South Los Angeles” examined a neighborhood that has been historically plagued by incarceration and lack of opportunity, now facing additional issues like gentrification.

On Friday, Kim will participate in "ART SPACES in the City," a look at how art can engage the public. Panelist Dewey Tafoya, artist-in-residence at Self-help Graphics in Boyle Heights, has witnessed firsthand activists protesting the spread of artist studios and galleries as harbingers of gentrification that could eventually displace longtime residents.

But art is hardly the problem, says Kim. "That's really key to the dynamism of L.A., and you have such diverse communities," she says, noting the sprawling network of neighborhood organizations that has sprung up in the years following the unrest. "The percentage of people in fine art, music, fashion, film, writers, we're off the charts. There's a critical mass of creative people. Those cheap strip malls are really key cause they're low-value, low entryway into entrepreneurships. Dumbbell apartment buildings, they don't look great, but they give you space to do stuff."

Kim was a kid growing up in Orange County at the time of the unrest. After studying architecture and studio art at Wellesley College, she shifted to urban planning and public policy at Harvard where she received her MA, then earned her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. A native of Southern California, she remains optimistic about the growth and changes in the region over the past 25 years, despite what she considers backsliding in Washington.

"I was overly hopeful our nation had evolved more than it has. With something like Trump, people who before felt like they couldn't raise their racist views, now feel emboldened," she says. "I think culture is key. It's cultural work that needs to happen. You can make laws, but people won't follow them unless they believe they're just."