Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
It was 25 years ago when the acquittal of three white L.A. police officers for the beating of Rodney King lit a powder keg under a city that was already ready to erupt. What some called a riot, others called a rebellion. Two and a half decades of rebuilding and renewal have yielded mixed results in this city.
Tonight I’m pleased to be joined by four leaders during those critical days in the years since, Congresswoman Karen Bass, former L.A. County D.A. Gil Garcetti, former L.A. Councilman Michael Woo and John Mack from the L.A. Urban League and the Police Commission.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. The L.A. rebellion 25 years later coming up right now.
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Tavis: It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since the Los Angeles that I know and love went up in flames after justice for Rodney King was not served. Tonight we are joined by four folk who were on the inside.
Congresswoman Karen Bass cofounded the Community Coalition in 1990 and eventually became the first African American female Speaker of the California Assembly. She now serves the 37th district in Congress. Gil Garcetti was elected L.A. County’s new D.A. just weeks after the verdict and oversaw one of the most pivotal eras in the department’s history.
Former L.A. City Councilman Michael Woo made a valiant run for the racially charged 1993 race for mayor. He’s now teaching the next generation with courses like Redesigning L.A. for Cal Poly in Pomona, as Dean of the College of Environmental Design, and our friend John Mack is the former President of the L.A. Urban League and the L.A. Police Commission. Good to have you all here.
John Mack: Thank you.
Karen Bass: Thank you.
Tavis: Does it seem like 25 years, John Mack?
Mack: No. You know, it’s actually incredible. I mean, the years have just jumped by. We were chatting about it a little earlier. It seems like it was maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago, but 25? But, of course, it still burns in my mind, the whole memory and the whole process it went through.
Of course, on the day of that verdict, a bunch of us, as you well know, had gathered over at the First AME Church to await the verdict. After seeing that videotape, it was hard for us to believe that that jury was going to make the decision it made, but they did. And, of course, we know the results.
Tavis: Councilwoman Bass, there are a lot of people who will look at this anniversary tomorrow and go back to that singular and indeed pivotal moment in this country and, for that matter, in the nation’s history. Yet there was so much happening in this city prior to that that one has to go back beyond that week or that day or that year or even five years to get a sense of the powder keg that Los Angeles was. Yes or no?
Bass: Absolutely. I think that’s right. And I think that it’s really important not to view it from just the simplistic fashion of the verdict. Because if you look at what happened over those three days of the civil unrest and you look at who participated in the looting, you saw that it was really to me what I call the rainbow revolt.
It happened all over the city. It wasn’t just in South L.A. Every type of person was involved and I think it showed a lot of the socio and economic distress that the city was under, period.
Tavis: Gil Garcetti, you were running for office during this time. What do you recall about running for office in the midst of this tension where we were awaiting this verdict?
Gil Garcetti: I remember when the riot started, and I’m driving back from a campaign event and we’re hearing what’s going on at Florence and Normandie. I said, “Florence and Normandie? That’s Art’s Chili Dog. This is my neighborhood. This is where I grew up.”
Well, the police are gonna be responding soon, quickly. And the news reports continued to come and there wasn’t any police response. So where the hell is LAPD? They can’t ignore this. This can get out of hand very quickly. That was the tension that I personally felt that LAPD was not doing the job that we expected them to do.
Tavis: Mike Woo, what do you recall about that unrest that existed between the Asian community and the African American community?
Michael Woo: Well, there was a lot of tension going on between Korean Americans and African Americans specifically. And I remember going to meetings and events in the community where the rage that African Americans felt about being dispossessed.
Not owning places like stores in the community came out very loudly and yet, from the point of view of the immigrants, they felt they were being unfairly targeted. So this was brewing for a long time.
And, of course, the shooting of Latasha Harlins, other incidents took place, but the Rodney King incident and the condoning of police misconduct was what, for me as a member of the City Council, really opened my eyes and made me realize that people have to speak up and make a difference.
Tavis: John Mack, you were here in 1965, yes?
Mack: No, I was not.
Tavis: You were not in L.A.?
Mack: I had not come to…
Tavis: You’re not from the L.A. — I asked that because I didn’t know exactly when you came. But I asked that because Gil was a youngster, just a kid.
Garcetti: I was here, but very young.
Tavis: Yeah, you were very young. And, Karen, you were here as well. I was raising that only because I didn’t know when you came. I wanted to get a sense of what we see in retrospect or what we recall about the distinct differences between what happened when this city burned in ’65 and what happened when it burned 25 years ago.
Garcetti: I’ll give you my perspective of it.
Tavis: Sure, sure.
Garcetti: In the first incident in 1965, there was…
Tavis: The Watts riots, we’re talking about.
Garcetti: The Watts riots. There was an immediate police response, a brutal police response. Now fast forward to the riots that took place after Rodney King, there wasn’t any LAPD response. That was the main thing that bothered me. The tensions in the community were always there.
I mean, I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood, went to school at 68th and Figueroa, so I kind of knew the area. I knew the people who lived there. I knew the tension that existed not just between the Black and the Asian community, but between LAPD and the Black community.
Tavis: Speaking of tension, Congresswoman Bass, you certainly recall this. We all do. As most of you know, I worked for Tom Bradley when he was the mayor of this city and the tension between Tom Bradley and Daryl Gates, the police chief at that time, could not have been heightened.
Bass: Right, absolutely. I think that’s right. And Daryl Gates and his legacy, I mean, it was really awful. It’s funny if you think about it today because we see police shootings on video and cell phone cameras, you know, unfortunately rather routinely. But to me, I saw the police lack of response as Daryl Gates punishing the community. I mean, he was off at a fundraiser…
Garcetti: That’s right.
Bass: And I happened to be right at Florence and Normandie when it happened, not evening knowing. I drove into the intersection at the time when people were beginning to throw bricks into cars. Had no idea, looked up in the sky and saw all these helicopters, thought they were police helicopters. They were news helicopters.
Mack: And I actually agree with Karen. I mean, I think it was a deliberate act on Daryl Gates’s part not to respond to that incident in contrast, you know, to the 1965 event. Tavis, I moved here in 1969, but as I reflect upon what happened in 1965 as opposed to what happened in response to the jury verdict and the King beating and you look at other incidents around it too, the thing that triggers these incidents is always a confrontation between the police and the community based upon years.
And I agree with Karen. We have to be careful not to be overly simplistic. But no doubt about it, as I see it, it was like a volcano that had been building and building. The obvious LAPD acting like an operation force in our community and, quite frankly, the majority community sort of turning their heads.
The videotape highlighted that, in my opinion, but beyond that, you had other issues. Jobs, education, no supermarkets. All of these things just sort of came, but the spark seems to always be that tension between the…
Tavis: Tell me, John Mack, how did it get so bad? I ask that because L.A. did have a black mayor for 20 years in Tom Bradley. Tom Bradley had been a high-ranking police officer. There were members of color on the L.A. City Council who had some authority and some clout, some control.
So how did LAPD get so out of control? Why were they treating people of color, certainly Black people, so punitively and pejoratively?
Mack: Well, I think one reason, Daryl Gates had civil service protection.
Mack: Going back, William Parker who cleaned up the old corruption. The city charter was changed so that he was untouchable. He operated like a J. Edgar Hoover at the local level. He could thumb his nose at Tom Bradley. He could thumb his nose at, you know, all the D.A.s.
So it seemed to me that was one of the important issues here. Because you’re right. I mean, there was a real dysfunction between Daryl Gates and Mayor Bradley. But, frankly, Gates could just basically thumb his nose.
Tavis: So he could thumb his nose at Tom Bradley. Indeed he did, Mike Woo. But how could he thumb his nose at the City Council? He did in fact serve at their pleasure.
Woo: Well, Tavis, I have some very vivid memories of what it was like during the days after the violence broke out. I remember going down to the Emergency Operation Center underneath City Hall East and realizing the technology was really out of date.
And there were people putting Post-It notes on monitor screens because there wasn’t the technology in the city to know what was going on. But it’s not just the technology that was out of date, but the politics. The political structure was basically out of touch with the reality of what was going on out there in the city.
In other words, even though the diversity of L.A. was growing, even though there were some minority voices who were better represented on the City Council, but that didn’t change the basic power relationship.
The fact that the police department was a separate political force, that the chief of police was not under the control of the mayor and that politics as usual in L.A. back in the 1990s could go on and ignore the kind of tensions that were burning below the surface.
Tavis: What do we recall, Gil Garcetti, about the way the white community in L.A. saw this, what their expectations were of what this verdict would have been?
Garcetti: I think you raised the most interesting issue there because I don’t see it so much as LAPD versus anyone. I see it as a justice issue. You and I talked about this once before, that in the Black community, they view justice in terms is it Black justice or is it white justice? Because those two are not always the same.
Here, I think the outrage was not directed right at LAPD. It was directed at the justice system that this system permitted these culpable officers to be acquitted. There was outrage and an outrage comes from generations, not just who’s alive right now today, but the outrage that the justice system will treat a Black person differently than they would a white person.
If you had reversed this, had it been four Black officers and a white victim, what would have happened there? Any doubt there would have been guilty verdicts? I don’t have any doubt…
Tavis: But why, Congresswoman, does it have to be — to Gil’s point, why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t Black folk have been disappointed in the police department and the broader system of jurisprudence?
Bass: Well, I mean, I don’t think it’s either/or. Black community had a huge problem, especially with Gates. If you remember, Daryl Gates was the police chief who said that Black folks had different veins in their neck and that, when you put them in a chokehold, we die quicker because we weren’t normal. As I recall, I don’t believe that the City Council had the power until we changed the city charter.
So he functioned on his own and I also remember him — I don’t know if this was in your time, Mike, but letting some people on the City Council know that he had information about them. So I really thought it was both. But I do think it’s a difference to say what started the violence and then what made it last over those few days. Because it wasn’t all about Black folks. There were Latinos, there were white folks.
Everybody participated and, if you look back at the tapes and you saw what people were looting, people were taking diapers, they were taking groceries. I mean, all of it was awful, but I think that it is wrong just to look at what the catalyst was and to think that that was the same thing over the three days. It evolved.
Tavis: What do we make — when I say served at the pleasure of the City Council, I only meant that City Council had oversight over Daryl Gates. Even if he thumbed his nose at them, they ultimately — we elect the City Council. We don’t elect the police chief. So somebody ought to have control over the police chief.
And you’re right. I totally concur that we did change the charter after that. Now there’s more control. No doubt about that. What do we make, though, 25 years later, John Mack, of the fact that Tom Bradley, again, my beloved boss at the time, caught hell quite frankly for the city not being prepared.
We could argue, as you have already, that Daryl Gates deliberately — the police chief did not go to the communities to punish South Central and other parts of the city. Okay, I take that. But what of the fact that the city wasn’t ready, that we just somehow didn’t plan for the fact that this might happen if these cops were found not guilty?
Mack: Well, you know, Tavis, this speaks to, I think, one of the many tragedies and it gets back to that relationship, unfortunately, the dysfunctional relationship. You know how much I loved Tom Bradley, just as you did. But the fact that you have a mayor of a city and a police chief not even talking, I mean, that was really irresponsible leadership, I would have to say with all due respect.
Tavis: Sure, sure.
Mack: So I think that, to a large extent, contributed toward the failure that both Gil and Karen have talked about of LAPD and the chief responding. If there had been some level of constructive communication, I like to think that there would have been a different response. As far as I’m concerned, Gates was arrogant, he was racist. No question about that.
But because of a combination of the dysfunctional relationship on the one hand and, at that time, the construction of the charter, those two things, in my opinion, led toward that regrettable situation in which, frankly, LAPD didn’t respond the way it should have responded.
Tavis: Let me go back to something you said earlier, Congresswoman. I wonder whether or not we see 25 years later what happened in L.A. as a precursor to all these other incidents that you referenced earlier that we see almost daily? Was L.A. a precursor or was there something different about what happened in L.A. 25 years ago?
Bass: Well, you know, I mean, I do think it was a precursor, but mainly from the point of view of technology. Because you know that — and I hate to say this, but when that videotape surfaced, we were almost happy because it was like finally, finally, they can’t say it doesn’t happen.
So now, you know, I think it’s the same situation in the sense that these incidences have happened all the time around the country, but they were never proven.
And as a matter of fact, a lot of times when you might have an officer-involved shooting, what would happen is the same story was told. Well, the officer was threatened and they tried to go after my gun, and there was nothing you could ever say. But now with the cell phone camera, the documentation becomes different. I do have to say, though, the outcome doesn’t seem to be much different.
Mack: If I could just jump in quickly on that point. You’re absolutely right because, over the years, I can recall when I would have people come to the Urban League complaining about the mistreatment that they were receiving, especially young African American males.
Same thing was happening to leaders of other organizations, the NAACP, CLC, etc. and Daryl Gates would get on his soap box and say those Black leaders just want to get on television. You know, there is not a problem and, unfortunately, the majority population, you know, was buying into that. But the videotape, that’s why we said thank God for the videotape because I think that played a key role and began to mold public opinion.
Tavis: Mike Woo, we did end up with a Black police chief. After we got past the Daryl Gates era, we ended up with a Black police chief in L.A., a couple, quite frankly. But in that racially tinged mayoral race that I referenced earlier introducing you, you couldn’t quite make it happen. To what extent in retrospect do you think that your campaign was impacted by the feelings that were still lingering in this city?
Woo: Well, it’s hard to think back 25 years, Tavis, but I think there was a lot of racial tension in the air that continued after 1992 that affected the citywide elections. I couldn’t really see it coming, but I think that there were a lot of lessons that came out of that period in the early 90s about race relations and the relationship between political leadership and a police department that’s still — they’re very strong, have a lot of insight for what’s going on in L.A. today.
I don’t think we’re on the verge of any kind of riot, but I think, as others could point out, it doesn’t take that much to ignite a riot. And the same kind of violence that’s taking place in other cities, I think potentially could happen in L.A. again if there was the same combination of ingredients that we had in the early 90s.
Garcetti: But for the fact that we had a chief come here, Bill Bratton, who I think changed the culture of LAPD, not only hired more minorities, but many women, put women in higher command positions, started working with the community.
He said, all right, we’re here to help. Let’s talk. It’s the first time that had ever been done. Instead of the arms folded, I’m the boss, no one can touch me. Be it Daryl Gates or a person in blue, that changed dramatically.
It’s not perfect. LAPD, no law enforcement agency, is really the ideal agency right now because there’s still so much work to be done. Because there’s so many kids and others who either drop out of school, don’t have jobs. It’s the poverty issue.
Tavis: And yet, Congresswoman Bass, I could fill the studio if I’d wanted to with residents of the city who still feel 25 years later that, on a number of different fronts, not the least of which would be civilian control of the police department, community-based policing, I could do this all day. There are many people who still feel that we haven’t made the progress that we ought to have made 25 years later.
Bass: Right. I mean, I think that’s correct. I do think that things have changed, but I do think that there’s a lot further to go. I agree with you completely in terms of the culture change, but I do think that there’s some great examples that need to be implemented in communities that would even resolve the tension all the more.
But I do have to mention one thing. Mike Woo got the majority of the African American vote, and I think that’s really important because, when we look back at 25 years, to cast it as African American versus Asians and then, two minutes later, you get the majority of the Black vote, says something.
Tavis: Well, I think many people saw Mike Woo — I certainly did. I speak for myself — who saw Mike Woo as the sort of heir apparent. I mean, of the persons we had on the ballot at that time, many people saw Mike Woo as the heir apparent to Tom Bradley. Did you see the potential you had as mayor to extend the work of Tom Bradley?
Woo: Well, I have to say that when I was a teenager back in the 60s when L.A. and other cities were having riots, part of what inspired me to go into politics was thinking about people like Tom Bradley who could represent more than one ethnic group and who could represent a diverse city. So that was part of what inspired me back in the 60s. I felt lucky to be able to be in a position to try to aspire to that again.
Tavis: I was always fascinated, John Mack, by the fact that Tom Bradley, as you all know, was mayor for 20 years, ran six times, of course, but won five times, five consecutive times. Never happened before, will never happen in this city ever again. But what’s amazing for me was that every time he ran, every four years, the number of Black people living in the city proper went down.
He kept winning for 20 years, but Black folk were leaving the city little by little. What do we make of the fact now that, 25 years later, largely owing to economics, not necessarily crime, the number of Black folk in this city isn’t anywhere near where it was 25 years ago? Is that heartbreaking to you that Black people are leaving Los Angeles?
Bass: Well, I mean, in a way, it is. But I also think that Black folks now are more dispersed. That’s one thing is that we’re living all over the city, not just in one area. And it is because, you know, a lot of people who have left and have moved to the Inland Empire or north have done so because of the cost of housing.
But I think it also speaks to because a lot of people then say that it’d be hard for Black folks to get elected. I think that we all know now, especially from watching the presidency, that Black folks don’t only have to represent communities that are majority African American.
Tavis: 15 seconds apiece. John Mack, what did we learn, if anything?
Mack: I think we learned that injustice anywhere is bad. We didn’t get a chance to say a lot about it, but I would have to say that institutionally LAPD has changed, but that does not negate the fact that individual acts of racism and brutality still occur.
Tavis: What’d we learn, Mike Woo?
Woo: Burning down a city is easy. Rebuilding a city is hard.
Tavis: What’d we learn, Gil Garcetti?
Garcetti: That whatever law enforcement is involved has to be working in the community and, when there is something like this, they must respond.
Tavis: Congresswoman, what’d we learn?
Bass: Well, we learned that the community needed to have a lot of community-based organizations. So I think a lot of positive has occurred. If South L.A. was going to be redeveloped, it was going to take people inside of South L.A., not from outside.
Tavis: Could it happen again?
Bass: Yes. I do believe it could happen again. And I most certainly hope that it doesn’t, but I do believe that it can and especially with the current administration we have in Washington with an Attorney General like Sessions who says he’s going to pull back on consent decrees.
With the message of hardcore law and order, I do think that we’re poised to see this happen again. I don’t necessarily know about in L.A., but it certainly could.
Tavis: 25 years later, the conversation continues in this city and, for that matter, in cities all across the country about the relationship or lack thereof between citizens and cops. Thank you all for being here, and thank you for being there 25 years ago.
Bass: Thank you.
Garcetti: You’re welcome.
Tavis: I appreciate all of you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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