Spring 2010

4/29: Revisiting the Legacy of Civil Unrest in Los Angeles Eighteen Years Later


Written by: Lisa Ranghelli

Date: May 11, 2010

For all Americans, the tragic date of September 11, 2001, is etched indelibly in our brains. “9/11” is the shorthand that needs no further explanation and has become part of our national vocabulary. For the residents of Los Angeles, an earlier tragedy is embedded in their psyches: that of “4/29.”

On April 29, 1992, four white officers in the Los Angeles Police Department were acquitted in the videotaped beating of African American Rodney King. The verdict was the straw that broke the camel’s back for low-income communities of color in the city, unleashing their anger and despair in three days of civil disturbances that resulted in 55 deaths, 2,300 persons injured and 1,100 buildings destroyed.[i] This disastrous event, watched by millions of Americans on television, brought national attention to the poverty, racial tensions and inequities in Los Angeles.

Yet, many people on the ground knew that the situation was dire even before the unrest.

“They feared there would be riots,” said Torie Osborn, former head of the Liberty Hill Foundation, which had organized a conference of 100 community organizers six months prior to the verdict. “There was so much despair in the communities – the crack epidemic, the loss of jobs, the destruction of affordable housing, homelessness, the fact that there were hundreds of liquor stores in their communities and no supermarkets. They articulated at that conference the deep racial and class divisions that would soon explode onto the streets.”[ii]

Another description of that period noted that while many organizations were working to combat these problems, they did not work together very often and didn’t have the power to create systemic change. “When you added up all the efforts to improve the lives of low-income Angelinos in 1992, the whole was substantially less than the sum of its parts.”[iii]

Today, on the eighteenth anniversary of 4/29, the situation is quite different. As the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s (NCRP) new report on advocacy and organizing in Los Angeles County demonstrates, there now are many powerful organizations working in collaboration across race, ethnicity, class, religion, culture and gender identity. And they are achieving impressive policy impacts in areas such as affordable housing, environmental justice, job training, wages, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights and education reform. Many of these accomplishments cannot be monetized, but for those that could be, we found a return on investment of $91 for each dollar invested in 15 organizations for their efforts. So what happened in the intervening years?

While the rest of the country moved on, philanthropic and civic leaders in Los Angeles looked for new strategies to heal their communities physically and emotionally. Several of the organizations we featured in Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing and Civic Engagement in Los Angeles County were directly affected by or emerged in response to 4/29.

Community Coalition was founded in 1990 to deal with substance abuse issues in South Los Angeles. Just before the civil unrest, its leaders had met with then-mayor Tom Bradley to address the overabundance of liquor stores in their community. Resident surveys had determined that the liquor outlets were magnets for the crack epidemic, prostitution and related violence. During the riots, residents burned and looted as many as 200 of the 728 liquor stores in the area. After 4/29, the organization launched the “Campaign to Rebuild South Central L.A. without Liquor Stores.” According to Community Coalition, its campaign prevented the rebuilding of 150 alcohol retailers and helped spur the conversion of 44 liquor stores to neighborhood-oriented businesses and services.[iv] Because Korean immigrants ran many of these liquor stores, Community Coalition had the challenge of taking a stand in a way that wouldn’t scapegoat the Korean businesspeople. The organization’s members reached out to leaders in the Korean community to try to build bridges. They wanted to make clear that the campaign was about public safety, public health and quality of life, not about one racial group targeting another. One Korean American student, Joanne Kim, was so inspired by this vision that she joined the staff of Community Coalition in 1996 and today is the organization’s chief operating officer.[v]

The organization continues to organize successfully on public safety and quality of life concerns today, and has worked in coalitions to effectively tackle education, foster care and other critical issues facing South Los Angeles. The organization still takes great pains to avoid racial conflict, as in 2009, when it raised concerns about Century Market, a Korean-owned liquor store.

One organization that Community Coalition has maintained strong relations with is Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance. KIWA was founded in 1992 “from the ashes” of the civil unrest, which is called “Sa-I-Gu” in Korean. Koreatown, which is north of South Los Angeles and west of downtown, also was devastated by the uprising. KIWA wanted to address what its leaders saw as rampant worker exploitation in the Koreatown neighborhood. This was a tricky undertaking since it meant organizing Korean workers against Korean employers, and also bringing together Korean, Mexican and Central American workers to fight together for better working conditions.

KIWA’s first victory related directly to the civil disturbance. A group of conservative businessmen had established the Korean American Relief Fund to aid businesses that were looted or burned, and they refused to provide any relief money to affected workers. KIWA organized 45 displaced Korean and Latino workers to demand the extension of relief to employees. Eventually, the workers won more than $100,000 in relief funds.

From that early victory, KIWA has gone on to win millions of dollars in increased wages for restaurant workers and more recently for supermarket workers. Today, the organization is viewed nationally as a model of multiethnic organizing. But back then, taking the step to be multiracial created a backlash. “We were organizing for the rights of all workers in Koreatown. The Korean American business owners attempted to present us as anti-Korean, claiming that KIWA was a ‘traitor to our race,’ asking ‘how can you organize Latinos against your own people?’” recalled executive director Danny Park. “But we were never anti-Korean – we are just anti-exploitation.”

When KIWA was getting attacked by the Korean business community and newspapers, the organization put out the message that bringing justice to Koreatown is the best way to serve the Korean community: “Stepping up to address injustices to all our neighbors and coworkers is the way to avoid more civil disturbances like in 1992.” KIWA’s insistent message finally took hold. According to Park, on every anniversary of the 1992 unrest, the community asks itself how it is doing in terms of community race relations.

Today, KIWA still harkens back to the lessons of Sa-I-Gu. On April 29, 2009, KIWA sponsored a film and discussion event that featured two short movies about the unrest and a dialogue with Marqueece Harris-Dawson of Community Coalition. Seven months later, KIWA’s director Danny Park was honored at Community Coalition’s annual gala dinner.

Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE) is another group featured in our Los Angeles research whose roots can be found in the aftermath of 4/29. Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives (AGENDA) was a membership organization formed in South Los Angeles in 1993. After the social unrest, AGENDA’s leaders were determined to undertake a new approach that would engage low-income communities of color in reshaping the economic and political landscape. AGENDA quickly realized that to change policies and systems it would need to work in coalition with others throughout the region; it helped form the Los Angeles Metropolitan Alliance, which secured a landmark agreement for jobs and training from the film company DreamWorks. The organization grew in scale and added other strategies, including research, training and voter engagement, now all housed under SCOPE. Jobs and career ladders continued to be a primary focus: SCOPE catalyzed the creation of a Health Care Career Ladder Training Program in 2002, and last year a SCOPE-led coalition that included Community Coalition won a green jobs ordinance to train low-income residents to retrofit city buildings to be more energy efficient.

Along the way, SCOPE decided that winning jobs programs would not be enough to have long-term impact, so it embarked on an ambitious nonpartisan voter engagement program to create a more accountable political structure. Through voter engagement, SCOPE also has extended its reach to the state and national level, playing central roles in the California Alliance and the Pushback Network.

All three of these organizations have evolved into sophisticated, powerful forces for change that work effectively in coalitions and build bridges across race, geography and other historical barriers. And they all have received steady, long-term support from the Liberty Hill Foundation.

Liberty Hill took a hard look at its grantmaking approach after 4/29. Its leaders realized that just providing a few years’ worth of seed money to new organizations and then moving on was not effective. It didn’t allow those groups to build the capacity they needed to be successful. Having community activists alongside donors on its funding board helped the foundation use it strategic planning process to completely redesign its program. As described in Change Philanthropy, Liberty Hill created the Fund for a New Los Angeles in 1993 with newly donated funds so that it could give larger grants (in the range of $35,000) for longer periods to a set of anchor organizations rooted in low-income communities. In turn, these anchors could provide leadership and support to other nascent groups. Most of the organizations featured in our Los Angeles study were anchor organizations of the Fund for a New Los Angeles, demonstrating the success of Liberty Hill’s strategy. Collectively, these groups have helped reweave the social fabric of the region, reshape its politics and retool its economy.

Could 4/29 happen again today? South Los Angeles still faces many challenges, including lack of jobs and economic development and the continued presence of nuisance businesses and gang violence. Michele Prichard, who was Liberty Hill’s executive director from 1989–1997, noted, “While it is certainly possible that 4/29 could happen again, especially in this Great Recession which is exacerbating unresolved racial inequalities, there would be a different response this time. These organizations have matured and expanded their depth and reach into communities of color, along with building strong alliances with each other.” She concluded, “That social infrastructure would undoubtedly make a positive difference in voicing and responding to community needs much more rapidly and meaningfully than before. And that would be a huge difference.”

Lisa Ranghelli is director of the Grantmaking for Community Impact Project (GCIP), and has authored/co-authored the report series Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: Impact of Advocacy, Organizing and Civic Engagement.

[i] Thelma Gutierrez, Charles Feldman and Anne McDermott, “Los Angeles riot still echoes a decade later,” CNN, April 29, 2002,

[ii] Alicia Epstein Korten, “Change Philanthropy: Candid Stories of Foundations Maximizing Results through Social Justice” (San Francisco, CA: Center for Community Change, Jossey-Bass, 2009).

[iii] Lee Winkelman, “Integrated Voter Engagement: A Proven Model to Increase Civic Engagement; Case Study of SCOPE” (Funders Committee for Civic Participation, 2009).

[iv] Meredith Minkler et al., “Promoting Healthy Public Policy though Community-Based Participatory Research: Ten Case Studies.” University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health and PolicyLink, Undated.

[v] Angela Chung, “Agent of Change,” KoreAm, April 2009.